The walk back to the canteen took the edge off my latest tantrum. It was like I was fighting for control of my reactions with a dormant after-image of my tweenaged self who was super-resentful about being abandoned. When I'd calmed down and Rainbow was off ladling out some more soup, I watched him and pondered. All things being equal, I should be shitting myself inside out after every conversation I have with Rainbow, like I am with Gadget, but... I'm not. I hate to say it, but I've actually grown rather fond of the cheery bugger. He might be a complete doofus, but when it really counts, he's been there for me. He at least knows that he hurt me, and feels bad about it. More than I can say for the bargain-basement Starswirl downstairs. I was really struggling to force my brain around the logic of the Manehattan Project without tensing up the foreleg resting on the table so much that my knuckle cracked.
"You doing okay sport?"
"What?" Sam broke my train of increasingly maddening thought. I became quite aware of how scrunched my forehead was, and the salt shaker I'd knocked over by shaking the table.
"I've seen bear traps less ready to snap than you."
I took a breath. "I'm fine. I'm calm."
"You are not fine, Atom," Rainbow called, a bowl of soup balanced on each wing. He slid both of them to the table, one towards me with a little bit of spillage. A strong whiff of the savoury scent at least got me to the point where I wasn't hearing my blood pressure. "Any longer down there and I feel like you might have done something you'd regret."
I huffed. "Regret. There's a funny word."
"Shhhh. Eat first."
I glared at him, but he was probably right. He had that face on him that made it really difficult to stay angry. I supped the soup and tried not to think.
"So, Sam," Rainbow said. "Things going well with Tube Alloys?" His grimace told me that he knew the answer already.
"It's... a little weird. You know I didn't really have a childhood, right?"
"Oh yeah..." That got the same distant gaze from me and Rainbow.
"I just woke up on the table one day all like, hey, check me out, I'm the talking toaster. But I do remember being less..." Sam paused, scratching the vents on his chin. "The last time I was here, I was definitely less curious. More suggestible."
I swallowed a mouthful of soup. "Lemme guess. You didn't exactly learn to swear down here."
Sam did the best squint he could with his articulated eyebrow-blocks. "Swear? Have you heard the mouth on that guy?" And there was soup in my nose. "But you're on the right track. I might have been made in Los Arabos, but Isotope City was where I learned how to live. I'm not sure Tubes realises what he did with me. Without getting into the philosophical bullshit, I... I feel. Or at least, I think I feel. Sure feels like I feel. But he's still treating me like a datebook with a wrench."
"I think..." Rainbow looked at me, and I looked at him. I think we both had the same thought. "I think it'll just take some time for him to come around. He hasn't seen you for a long time. He's still thinking of you as... what was it, Find-It?"
"Yeah, rainbow farts over here got into a big wobbly over me not being a dependent helpless filly the other day, and that was basically the same thing."
"Atom!" Rainbow chuckled.
Sam had a little chuckle to himself, but one that ended with a defeated sigh. "He probably didn't consider you a non-person at any point though, did he?"
"Kinda funny how the paranoid maniacs living in a baseball stadium treat me with more dignity than the guy claiming to be my dad. There's being talked down to like I'm a shifty-lookin' charity case, and there's being talked down to like I'm a fuckin' voice-activated dishwasher." Rainbow gave him that sad smile, the same one he gave me when he was first telling me about Gadget leaving. "Maybe he will really get to know me one of these days. For now, I'm... I'm glad at least someone down here gets my name right."
I had a little twist in my stomach at that point. The realisation hit me that this little incursion was unlikely to end well. One of these things had to happen. One or more of us around this table was going to leave, or at least try to. Given how arduous the journey is, I couldn't see Rainbow staying down here, even if he went out and brought Ivy here. She'd want to stay in contact with the rest of her family, and that probably wouldn't sit well with these secretive plonkers. I was definitely out of here at the next possible opportunity. Also debatable how likely Sam was to stay. I hadn't excluded the possibility that they'd try to kill us for leaving, depends how set on secrecy they were. Mind you, they had a good reason to worry about me, a few drinks and I might send a tipoff out of spite.
The alternative was that we stay down here for the forseeable future, which was probably going to end with me bashing Gadget's head in with a lead pipe. Smarmy cunt.
Rainbow patted Sam on the back. "We'll figure it out. We just got here."
"If you say so." Sam paused. I chewed some lumps of potato. Rainbow nodded, silently. Sam got up. "Now, I'm kinda reaching the limit of how much I can stall, so I should probably get back to work." I waved, and Rainbow muttered some kind of farewell, as Sam shuffled out of the kitchen, leaving us and our soup in the quiet.
My chewing slowed, and I stared into the soup. The situation weighed on me, and I was starting to find it difficult to eat. I budged my chair closer to Rainbow, and leaned into his side. He leaned back into me, but fortunately not in the way that would lead to me being flattened.
"Where is it that we belong?" I blurted out, staring at nothing in particular.
There was a pensive pause from him. "What do you mean?"
"Like, if I'm to go home after this, where am I going? Where are you going?"
"Well... whatever I do, I'd have to talk to Ivy. Because I'm going nowhere without her, and she's going nowhere without me."
"Yeah but like, home for her is San Cimarron. Whatever happens, that's where she's going to want to be. I... don't know. I don't have any special attachment to Stable 512. I can't say I particularly cared about anyone I knew in Manechester. Los Arabos, Roswhinny... all of these places, I feel like I'm just passing through."
"Yeah, I... I get that feeling. I've been here for ten years and it still feels like I'm on a road trip with my wife sometimes. I wonder if that's how she feels too. Hell, her mum's home moves around, and half the Rangers give her shit for being half 'tribal'. I wouldn't be surprised if she asks herself this question sometimes."
"And Sam. I'm pretty sure he didn't plan to be working in Isotope City all these years, and now 'home' isn't all it's cracked up to be."
"If I were to be reductive, I could make the case that we belong in the clouds, but it's pretty clear the clouds don't want us."
"The clouds can piss off. All they've got is rain and laser death beams."
Rainbow broke into a giggle. "So we'll put that in the 'maybe' pile then?"
We passed the rest of the day quietly, staying out of everyone else's way. I found out where Rainbow had gotten washed, and indulged in the delights of some sweet, sweet indoor plumbing. I'm pretty sure that before I went in, my mane was holding a shape from all the dust caked into it while we were walking around in the storm. I took the opportunity to stand under hot running water and not think. Afterwards, I went back to the couch in the atrium to sleep for a bit. (What's a schedule?) Rainbow stayed with me reading whatever was lying around - ancient magazines that hadn't been cleared out, Trinity's notes left around the place, that sort of thing. Eventually he left me in peace when it became apparent that I wasn't muttering murderous intentions in my sleep.
When I woke up I was really confused about the time. The lights were still in daytime mode. The shitbuck was dead. I decided to get that in order first, and changed the spark cells for two of the batteries. Not that this was much help, because the clock had reset. While I was at it, I changed the battery in my spear, and since there were only three left, I took them out and discarded the box. I started tidying my shit. It had been scattered around the couch overnight, so I packed it all into my bags. I went rooting around for some duct tape, and true to the workplace of an engineer, it didn't take me long to find some. With it, I fashioned a sling for the spear. Until now it had been tucked between my saddlebags and my back. I wasted the whole roll doing it, but I did it. I wondered if Jericho was already making himself a new spear. Poor guy. I shot down his call-response and I took his toy. I should catch up with him later, this thing's already saved my arse.
It was around the time that I was looking for survival supplies to steal so I could bail that I got intercepted by Tube Alloys.
"There y'are lassie! C'mon. We've been looking for you."
I lazily closed the pantry. "Oh boy. What did I do."
"There's whisky involved."
Tubey limped to a meeting room that had been repurposed as a lounge. Some nicer furniture had been plundered from the offices of long-dead executives to decorate the larger room, along with some of the waiting room couches. We had a full house - Trinity stood to one side with a clipboard, apparently filling up the wait with some more work, Sam had fixed the gas fire by the wall just before I walked in, and was stamping on his hat to put out the lick of flame that had caught on it, Rainbow and Gadget talked on one of the couches... and they sent the dude with a walking stick out to fetch me? Guys, come on.
Tube coughed. "I believe we're all here?" The fact that our visit doubled the population of the lab was kind of sad.
"Ah, yes!" Gadget stood up with a wince. My urge to kick him in the face had gone down since this morning, but I still couldn't say I was happy to be in the room with him. "Please, Atom, have a seat." I took another look around the room, and decided to have his seat. It was warm and I was next to Rainbow. He understood.
I leaned in. "What's all this about?" He shrugged.
"My friends," Gadget started, standing by the fire. "We're here this bittersweet evening, both to celebrate, and commemorate. The last twenty-four hours have seen both the arrival of our long lost offspring..." He cast a glance at us. I was pouting like a teenager who didn't want to be here, and I imagine if Sam could frown, he would be. "... and the tragic passing of our long-time friend and colleague Fizzle. On our lives, a door is closed, and hopefully, another opened. So, tonight I'd like to toast the memory of our dear friend, and raise a glass to a brighter future. After all, that's... that's why we're here. Alloys, if you'd be so kind..."
I leaned over to Rainbow again. "Oh, are they doing a wake?"
"Good, I could use a drink." Rainbow gave me a look like he'd appreciate one too.
Tube Alloys came back with a huge bottle floating ahead of him, along with a stack of glasses and... was that ice? Where did he find ice? "One of the special occasion bottles, Gadge." Did they have these giant bottles of scotch stockpiled down here? Come to think of it, they might be homebrewing as well, if they're producing food. Mr. Tuber (I cannot say his name with a straight face) set about pouring out glasses and passing them around. Just gave me a literal half-pint of scotch. I mean, if you say so... I'm starting to figure out why the Manehattan Project isn't going so well.
"To Fizzle!" Gadget raised his glass. There was a half-hearted raising around the room. I didn't bother, because I was trying not to spill the whisky. "And the future!" He drank, and this gesture was echoed heartily. I winced as my throat burned. Maybe I took too hearty a swig. I was going to ask if they had any rum, but I wasn't about to be picky with helpings this generous.
"Iff'n you wouldn't mind, I'd like to say a couple of words, Gadget me man?" I think Tube Alloys' glass had been depleted even more than mine from that first sip. Gadget bowed, and stood aside. "Fizzle was... he was like a hyperactive nephew to me. I think he was actually a year older than me but Celestia on a bike, he was always on the go. We did a fair load of work together, and... well you know how it all went. I'd be trying to get him to slow down, follow the method, me leg can't keep up..." He made a show of limping about on his bum leg. "But somehow he made it work. I'd fuck off to bed and he'd have the stamina to work through the night and whatever mixture, whatever process, it'd be waiting for me in the morning. Along with him tuckered out on top of an irreplaceable machine, but yknow, the price of progress. If any of us were gonna burn out first it would be this intense motherfucker. So rest in peace, you non-stop bastard."
There was some uncertain applause, mostly because I'm not sure Trinity and Gadget knew how to react, but were being polite. "Trinity, would you like to say anything?"
"Oh, uhm..." She at least had the clipboard set to one side. "Okay, I'll..." She cleared her throat, took a ginger sip of the drink that had been given to her, set it aside, and then climbed to the front of the room. Tube Alloys found himself an armchair and got comfortable next to the bottle. "Fizzle's knowledge of contaminated soil composition was invaluable to the project. I hate to be so... direct, but I can't, I can't understate that. His particular expertise has formed a cornerstone of the project's work, as much as any of our contributions. But where it's easy to credit Gadget as the director, or me as the architect, or Alloys as the builder, or Oak Ridge as the facilities director, Fizzle's contribution was purely knowledge, but essential knowledge. We, as scientists, see further because we stand on the shoulders of giants, and today, Fizzle's are the shoulders we stand on." She paused and nodded awkwardly, prompting the golf clap from around the room. I heard a sniffle, and I thought it was her as she went back to her seat, but no, it was Rainbow getting all misty-eyed next to me. Oh for the love of...
"Thank you, Trinity," Gadget said. He took a breath in, and another drink. He was drinking as fast as I was, damn. "So, I want to say a few things too. On the topic of scientists... we are all lucky in our upbringings, that we had the opportunity to pursue a life of learning. I in the Enclave, Trinity in Tenpony, Alloys in the Stable." So we're spectators then? I guess we don't count because we're not scientists. "Fizzle wasn't so lucky. Fizzle was born a slave, and worked in the reclaimed industries of Fillydelphia. It was his own dedication to curiosity and the fortunate sympathy of his masters that got him elevated to the pseudo-freedom of working in their research teams, trying to revitalise their polluted soils." Slavers have research teams? "But he didn't stay there. I never had to convince him to leave. He left of his own conscience, to better Equestria for its own sake, not for the sake of slave-owning warlords. We just ran into him at the right time. But it's in this that he teaches us an... important lesson." He coughed, and drank again. "We have tasked ourselves with an altruistic mission. We consider ourselves to be doing good. Just like improving soils in Fillydelphia is without a doubt a good thing to do. But it does not excuse the practice of slavery - something which Fizzle knew, which is why he got out of there. Nor should our good work excuse us of our mistakes."
Then he looked at me, suddenly sombre. Not at the general direction of the couch, he looked right at my face. His gaze lingered on me long enough for me to notice, but not so long that the room's attention would turn to me. "He also wanted to return to Fillydelphia some day, to come back for those that he left behind. Unfortunately, that will never come to pass now, but we can learn from him. His life teaches us to be our better selves, and that when we can't live up to that, we have a responsibility to make it right." He cast another quick glance at me, and then raised his glass to the room. "Thank you."
Again, there was mild applause. Only so much noise six ponies can make in a room. I took another drink and swilled it for a bit to slow my thoughts. Why is it that whenever this man tries to reach out to me my brain twists itself in knots and ceases to function? Maybe if I keep drinking things will become clearer.
The generous glass was a big help with this quest. After the speeches, everyone started up conversations. Rainbow checked if I was okay and then leaned over to talk science things with Trinity, and Tube Alloys hobbled over to me to talk about whisky. I got a vague creepy-old-man vibe from him, because he probably hasn't seen a 21-year-old mare in decades, but right now, any conversation was good conversation, and booze was a fine enough topic to drink to.
Pretty soon, the room had devolved into that kind of loudness where two conversations are happening at once and you have to shout to be heard. A record player turned up at some point to smooth out the quiet parts. Tube Alloys regularly returned to his jumbo bottle of 230-year-old scotch to pour out eight glasses and pass them around, ensuring the shindig was well-lubricated at all times. Drinks and conversation blurred together. Sam slipped out at some point while me, Rainbow and the Tubeman talked about what it would take to make a satellite out of the main body of the project by strapping rockets on to the bottom of it. Rainbow diverted the topic there as a cover for me nearly spilling the beans about the Little Boy. A song came on the record that Rainbow recognised, and then he started singing along, spilling a load of his drink on me as he started swaying around. I punched his side, he laughed, and he threw a hoof a round me and kept singing. Knowing I was defeated, I chugged the rest of my drink and sang along too.
At some point, I turned around and Trinity had left. She didn't seem like the type to get trashed anyway, so I took her half-finished drink. I threw myself on a couch with two drinks (my shirt now had whisky fragrance) and found myself sitting face to face with Gadget. Rainbow was off sweeping up a broken glass and fixing crooked paintings and shit. The boy tidies when he's sloshed. Imagine that.
"Oh," Gadget said. I'd probably smell the whisky off him if I wasn't already habituated to the smell from the amount of it that was on me. At this point I was buzzed enough that I was swigging without even feeling the burn.
"Hey you." I grimaced.
"How." He had to pause for a moment. Wind, I imagined. "How are you, Atom."
"Y'know, punching you in the face was really therapeutic." I didn't mean to say that, but there it is.
"Was it now?" He seemed... genuinely intrigued.
"Yeah," I said after a moment.
He swayed. "Would it help if you did it again?"
"Am I slurring? I'm so sorry, I'm trying my best..."
"No, I heard you, you daft bat, I'm trying to compre... comprehend what you said." I scratched my eyebrow for a moment. "Did you just offer to let me punch you again?"
"Look, I know I did a shit thing..." He leaned over me, uncomfortably. "And if I can't tell you how sorry I am because I suck at words then you might as well wail on me until you feel better, right?"
This was an objectively bad idea. "Yeah okay. Go on."
He sat forward on the couch, and mercifully away from me. "Hang on, let me put down my... put down my... my..." He put down his drink, and then stretched both hooves out to the sides. "Okay. Come at me."
I took a sip of my drink, and then realised I'd have to put both drinks down to do this. I got one on the floor, and realised I was tipping the other on my leg so I sat up. Boy, I was starting to get a little queasy. Then I noticed something. "Hang on, your glasses."
"What about my glasses?"
"You gonna take those off? Or do you want me to break those too?"
"It's fine. They'll be fine."
"They will not be fine, how are you gonna replace those? Is Trimblblnbf-whatever-the-fuck an optician too?"
"Are you gonna do it or not?"
"Whatcha dooooin?" Rainbow appeared over the back of the couch, peeking over his hooves like a puppy.
"Da...dget wants me to punch him."
"That's not what I said!"
"She fuckin' lamped you proper last time, you sure you want her to do it again?"
Gadget's head tilted back and his hooves dropped. "Why did I bring this up..."
I put my other drink down at last. "Okay. I'm doing it. I'm doing it." I reared back, leaned back, and then swung-
"Atom your drink!" Rainbow yelled. Already in motion, I tried looking his way, my hoof met empty air, and I fell over on Gadget's lap. I scrambled back upright, and Rainbow giggled to himself. "Good job, ya lush!"
"Lush? Fucking come back you!" He ran away, and I jumped over the back of the couch to chase him.
"Rainbow, be nice to your sister," I think I heard him mumble as I was on my way out of the room, before presumably toppling on the couch and passing out.
It didn't take me long to catch up to him, because he lost the run of his back half going around the corner of a corridor and knocked himself over by the wall. I pounced on him and... just kinda hung out of his neck while he stood up. Here was me trying to pull out of him like a scratching cat and having basically no effect. He found this hilarious.
Once we were out of breath for different reasons, I stopped trying to destroy him, and he stopped treating it like a rodeo. "Rainbow, I think... I think it might be time to go to bed."
I got comfortable, and he didn't complain. He was well able for it at the best of times, and he probably didn't even feel my weight now. "Take me home, steed."
"Hang on, I'll ask directions to the waste disposal..." I hit him on the side of the head. "Ow!"
"Telling your sister she belongs in the trash. How very dare you."
"Ooh, that was a real wallop..."
"Oh. Sorry." I slumped over him, and rubbed where I'd hit him. "Is that helping?"
"Not really." I stopped. "Bet you woulda knocked one of Dad's teeth out, though."
"I mean, if you could hit him at all."
"Don't make me hit you again!"
"You'd have to not miss first." I kicked him in the side, not as hard this time. "Okay, I deserved that one," he said, kinda winded.
I woke up feeling like there was a blob of lava in my head that I couldn't get out. The overall situation wasn't as bad waking up after the adventures with the star juice or whatever, like, I wasn't waking up in my own vomit or bleeding or anything, but fuck me, the headache was the worst I've had all week. Maybe I'd be in better shape if I had drank enough to barf last night. The only light in the room was the lights from the hall through the door, and even that was a strain on my eyes.
The door pounded a couple of times. Just amputate my head now, please. "Gerrup, ye reprobates!"
Rainbow made a noise like a zombie. I hadn't realised he was sleeping on the floor nearby.
"What-" At least that's what I tried to say, it was more like a gargle. I cleared my throat. Everything seemed to affect the headache. "What the fuck do you want?"
"We're about to take the breakfast off the heat."
"Oh, bollocks." I rubbed my face and rolled off the couch.
"Mistakes were made..." groaned Rainbow.
Opening the door was going to be painful no matter what, so like ripping off a plaster, we got it over with. I tried my goggles. They didn't help. Rainbow just hid behind his fringe.
Gadget passed us on the way to the kitchen. "Morning, kids!" Who gave him the right to be this chipper this early? Was he not hung over at all? I gave him a solid thump in the chest as we passed. Rainbow didn't stop me. He went down winded, and then fell on his side, probably more from the surprise than the actual impact of my lazy throw of a hoof. I got him in the end.
We ate wordlessly, stuffing lukewarm oatmeal and coffee into our faces until we felt a little less undead. In a sounder state of mind, I might have been marvelling at the fact that they even had coffee down here. Do you know how specific the growing conditions for coffee are? I've never had coffee topside that wasn't preserved pre-war stuff. They must have had access to a seed bank too. But no, here I was taking a miracle of agricultural science and detoxification technology and pouring it into my face with a certain 'work, damn you' frustration. Large glasses of water appeared on the table with a sheet of painkillers. Dunno who put them there, but someone understood.
I hadn't noticed that I'd fallen asleep again on the table. I got a nudge in the side and noticed my nose being crushed. "What?"
"Your work schedule for the day, Atom." Trinity slid a clipboard in front of me.
"Work schedule?" I looked at it like I'd been served a turd sandwich. Rainbow was looking at a similar clipboard with a pout.
"If you two are going to be staying down here for any length of time we'll need to produce more food, which means we need to hook up some of the reserve hydroponics. Normally that'd be my domain, but I've got a scale test today and you two seem intelligent enough."
"I'm sorry, my brain is on strike today. I cannot the science thing." I shoved the clipboard off the table like a cat.
Trinity looked over her glasses at me. "Well that's your fault, isn't it?" The clipboard floated back up to exactly where it had been. "Find-It is going to be helping you. It's not too hard, it's mostly connecting pipes and circuits in the basement."
"Ugh, fine. Do we have to do it now though?"
"Well, with how much you're eating..." Both of us looked at Rainbow. He looked clueless. "We'll have to begin rationing from this lunchtime to maintain our surplus ratio, so I suggest you get a move on."
Rainbow sighed. "Let's just get it done, Atom."
The basement was uncomfortably, stiflingly hot. Not a great place to be nursing a hangover. All noisy engines and shrieking pipes. At least when we got done, the upper levels would feel quiet. Sam met us at the entrance to hydroponics, and led us down. Rainbow did most of the heavy lifting and pushing, and I had to crawl into the small spaces to connect wires and tighten screws, while Sam operated the computer systems to bring it all online. I know there's a certain like, earning our keep here, but literally Trinity could have done it all with her cheater unicorn magic in a fraction of the time, by herself, without anyone getting covered in grease. It's just more efficient. 'Intelligent enough' to what, operate a screwdriver? I was gonna clock every fucker in this hole before long, and Gadget again for good measure.
Sam wasn't really up for much talking, which was fine. He kept the geeks upstairs posted about our progress over an intercom box by the wall. I think Rainbow and I wanted nothing to do with conversation. I was even grateful for the dark of the crawlspaces. Though, not so fun when I got stuck for twenty minutes because Rainbow pushed a thing in when he wasn't supposed to and they had to figure out how to back it up. Did I mention it was fuckin' hot and humid down there?
We started on the third big connector pipe, when there was a reverberating shudder through the floor. The whole place shook. The surprise made me drop the screwdriver down the grating. I heard something metal bend, and everyone got showered in dust.
"It wasn't me!" I immediately yelled.
Sam looked at the ceiling. "That doesn't sound like a plumbing fault..." He went to the intercom again. "Trinity, come in, what was that?" Silence. Three seconds of listening to dust settle, and Rainbow shake himself off. "Control room, anyone there?"
Rainbow frowned. "Maybe some comm lines are severed?"
"We'd be in the dark if they were."
A burst of static. Trinity sounded... well she wasn't calm, let's put it that way. "We've got a situation upstairs, execute Procedure Obsidian, I repeat execute Procedure Obsi-" With another puff of static, the transmission ended.
Sam bolted from his terminal and towards the exit. Rainbow pondered a brief moment, then followed. And what was I gonna do, sit around in a hot, dank tunnel and wait for them?
"Sam, what's Procedure Obsidian?"
"It's an emergency response code." Sam talking normally while sprinting at full tilt up a flight of stairs would never entirely sit right with me. "Procedure Wendover means there's problematic geological activity. Procedure Monticello means the reactor's overheating and the facility could blow. Procedure Alsos means the project is in danger of destroying itself."
"He didn't fuckin' ask about those, bolt-breath, what's Procedure Obsidian?"
Sam paused. "Facility under attack. Something tells me it's not a coincidence." He cast a look back at us. We couldn't read much into the look, but the tone said it all. "Sensible money is on escaping out the back, into the quarry, but that abandons the project. I'm rendezvousing with the rest of the team. You two can... do whatever I guess."
Rainbow snorted. "I've been trying to find Gadget for eleven years, the hell am I buggering off now!"
They looked at me, briefly, while stopping at a keycard door. I was a flight of steps behind them, out of breath and scrambling up after them. "My... my stuff is in the atrium." They shrugged, opened the door, and we stampeded on.
As we climbed the floors, there was the occasional thundering from the upper levels. Nothing quite as bad as before, but still not noises a science facility should be making. We ascended the curved stairway to the atrium, and there was a crunch as Sam hit the door. Bulletproof glass. Rainbow piled into the back of him, and I was far enough behind that I could stop in plenty of time and peer underneath them.
The atrium was a mess. I couldn't see past the mezzanine from the door, but I could see daylight pouring in, and rubble and dust strewn around the floor. This explains a few things. I could hear the engine of something roaring from somewhere above - I didn't know the atrium was that close to the surface. Half a dozen hulking, black, pointy-armoured ponies stood around, with glowing sunburst rifles primed and covering every way in. They ruffled their wings and swung their scorpion tails around, waiting for instruction. Bollocks. Enclave.
"Ah! There you are." I knew that voice... I started looking for other figures. One of the troopers had Trinity pinned under a hoof, and Tube Alloys pinned under a rifle. Gadget's fidgeting and flailing caught my attention, and behind that, a blonde-maned officer with a shit-eating grin. "Hold this for me, will you?" Colonel Valkyrie shoved Gadget at one of the troopers, who promptly shoved him to the ground.
"Sam, where are the locks?" Rainbow yelled, banging on the door.
"It's computerised, the panel's on the other side!"
"Can we jimmy it open?"
"Maybe, Atom, do you have the tools?"
"I dropped the screwdriver in the blast!"
"Fuck's sake I'll see what I can do. Give me whatever you have left."
"Don't worry, you can see fine from there, can't you?" Valkyrie smirked as she approached the door. Rainbow looked at her with all the fury that befits being dragged through this shit with a hangover.
"Leave them alone, I'm the one you want!" Gadget yelled.
"Quiet, you." She pointed a gun-thing at him. Rainbow threw himself at the door when she appeared to fire, but I could see from my vantage point that it was a taser. She spun it and returned it to her belt. She chuckled. "Nearly used the laser there, that would have been awkward. All the theatrics for nothing."
"Why are you here? How are you here?" Rainbow yelled. He pounded on the glass, but all he did was make his hooves sore.
"I must give you three some credit, you managed to give my scouts the slip for a while. The last they saw of you was in that camp in the foothills. Probably set the plans back about 24 hours. But what's a measly day, after thirty-five years?" The bottom fell out of my stomach. Were they watching us the whole time?
"But how did you find this place?"
"Oh, please. Did you really think we lost the coordinates to a location as important as this?" Rainbow grimaced. Valkyrie snorted. "You're kidding. You're kidding, right? Is that what the Rangers did?" Rainbow puffed his cheeks, and Valkyrie burst out laughing. "Can you believe this? The Steel Rangers forgot where the lab is! Oh, this is a scream!" She slid over to Gadget and hooked her hoof around his neck, pulling him up from the floor. "I knew the mudponies were clueless, but that clueless?" After another cackle, she tossed him back to the ground and thumped her front. "It's only lunchtime and today just gets better and better. No, I was waiting for the perfect moment. We'd have done this years ago if you hadn't rolled into town, and let me know about you, in the back. I see you there." She had to lean over to point at me.
"You met them?" Gadget burbled.
Rainbow had a brief moment of hyperventilation. "Dad, it wasn't..."
"Don't worry your scruffy little head about them, Gadget. You trained 'em well. Rainbow Code nearly shot me, and Atom Smasher stonewalled me. But tomato, tomato, we're on plan B here."
"What do you want with him?"
"Yeesh, if you're so eager to get on with the main event, we might as well. Pull up one of his buddies."
"Sam, how's the door coming?"
"I can't... I need more leverage, I'm gonna break this dinky little thing!"
One of the troopers grabbed Trinity, and dragged her into the middle of the Atrium, right on top of the seal. "All the top brass in the Enclave have washed their hooves of you, Gadget. They don't care what you do. But I remember what you did. What you put me through. The shame. The isolation. I should be a General by now. I should have a big brother directing the New Cloudsdale Academy of Science. We should have been the start of a new dynasty of power in the Grand Pegasus Enclave. Alas, here we are, wrestling in the dirt like children. But the command of this little podunk outpost suits my purposes for now. Gadget, I'm not going to kill you. Not yet."
"She wasn't bluffing..." I whispered.
"No... just take me!" he yelled. His mouth sounded numb. By now, Trinity was streaming tears and muttering to herself. Rainbow was starting to panic, and I had to back up a bit to not be stepped on.
"I'm going to take every piece of your life, everything you've worked for, and burn it. One by one, until the smoke kills you. Until there's nothing..." She pulled her pistol out - the one that wasn't a taser - put it to the back of Trinity's head, and fired, without hesitation. In a grim instant, her whole head lit up bright red, and then burst into glowing embers. The chain reaction continued down her body, leaving only charred tail strands and the cooked bones of her hind hooves. "... but ash."
"Trin... Trinity... no!" Gadget tried to get up, only to be slammed back to the floor by a Trooper, bloodying his nose.
"Get your claws off me!" Tube Alloys yelled, before being tossed into the pile of ashes that used to be Trinity.
"Wh... no!" Sam spotted this, and panicked. He fumbled his work and dropped the lockpick he was trying to slide into the doorframe, and started ramming the door. It rattled loudly with each impact, but it held.
Tube refused to be face down when Valkyrie came for him, and he had to have a Trooper stand on his chest as he approached. He spat at her. It got on her lapel. "You're a petty wee hag. I hope you shit yourself to death, you fuckin' weapon."
"No!" Sam screamed.
"Okay, you obviously have nothing interesting to say, goodbye." And just like that, in the blink of an eye, there Tube Alloys wasn't.
The glass on the door cracked under Sam's battering. Rainbow had to get well out of the way. Then, the door opened. Sam kept his momentum up, and fell over. While he was scrambling to get back up and charge, Valkyrie twisted a canister, and... oh shit, I recognised that.
We stumbled into the Atrium after him. "Sam, wait!" He wasn't listening. The canister bounced underneath his feet, hit his stomach, flashed blue, and in a puff of anti-matrix energy, he was on the ground, sliding on his chin through the remains of Trinity and Tube Alloys, the lights in his eyes extinguished.
Rifles whined as they were trained on us. We staggered to a stop. Gadget sniffled. I could tell from his pained grimace that this is exactly the situation he was trying to avoid. In that moment I felt a trickle of guilt for giving him a hard time. But the more pertinent and overwhelming sensation was 'oh shit'.
"And then there were three. So, Gadget, what'll it be? Which one should I toast first?" Really? We're playing this game? Fuck. "Or should I trash your little science fair project first? Which one of your babies do you love the least?" He remained silent, even as he wept. Valkyrie tapped her chin. "You'd think this wouldn't come up, but evidently you thought so little of these two that you abandoned them to come back here. You're quite good at that, Gadget. Abandoning."
Think, Atom, think. I glanced at Rainbow. He looked at me, white-faced and hyperventilating. He was definitely out of ideas. Knowing him, he'd try to parley, but for that, Valkyrie would need to be reasonable, which, judging by the pile of scrap metal and two powdered scientists on the floor, was out of the question. Alternatively, he may brute-force the situation and try to go down swinging. A real last chance option, that one.
"Do hurry up and pick one, Gadget, I've got a four o'clock meeting with the quartermaster, he's going to be so cranky if I'm late." What have I got up my sleeve... fuck. All my stuff is upstairs on the mezzanine, I've just got this piece of shit knock-off Pipbuck...
I sighed, sat and started tapping away on it. "So sorry it had to come to this, but here we are." All of the rifles in the room were then pointed at me.
Valkyrie tilted her head curiously. "Come to what?"
"I had been waiting to see if this exchange was going to end without having to set off the self-destruct systems, but we're clearly past that point, aren't we?"
She frowned. "Shoot her."
"Abababa-" I held the computer hoof up with the other hovering over it. "Dead man's switch. Already armed. I wouldn't do that if I were you." Valkyrie didn't look impressed, but it gave the troopers enough of a spook to take their mouths off the triggers.
Valkyrie glared at her goons. "Oh come on, you don't really believe she's got that piece of junk wired up to the facility's systems? She can't have been here more than a day!"
"She's... a clever girl," Gadget croaked. Valkyrie kicked him.
"And how do you gain from blowing this place to kingdom come?"
I made a point to look like I wasn't taking my hoof off the imaginary button. "I can't really win here, but I can at least make it a draw. Any more itchy trigger hooves and I'm taking you down with me."
She snorted, looking at my wrist. I stared at her. This was refreshing, in a weird way. Just me, someone else with a gun, and a bare-faced, naked lie.
I furrowed my brow like I was cracking a knuckle. I didn't dare glance anywhere else. I imagined Rainbow was actually pissing himself. Valkyrie gave me that look where I didn't think she was really buying it, but she couldn't exclude the possibility. I refused to blink. I spotted a bead of sweat on her brow.
"Fuck it. We'll clear you up later. This just gives us more time to catch up, eh bro?" She leaned down and grabbed Gadget by the back of the neck. She pressed a button on her uniform. "Got room for a passenger up there?" A pause. "Good. Let's move."
One by one, the troopers took to the air, ascended through the hole, and boarded the skytank hovering above it. One of them slung Gadget on his back, and Valkyrie took off near the back of the pack.
"Oh, by the way..." she called back. "You might want to check on your little Ranger friends, looks like there's gonna be some fireworks over there. But don't worry about your papa, he's not going anywhere. See you later, kiddos!" The grin on her face throughout made me wish I had anything on me I could zap it right off with. She waved, hopped into the skytank, and they were off.
Rainbow let out a breath I think he'd been holding since the stairs. He tackled me with a hug that knocked the wind out of me. "Holy shit, Atom, I..."
He got all the squeezing out of his system and then put me down. He gulped for air and his eyes were getting misty. "I... that was one hell of a bluff."
"So I'm off the hook for that time in Fort Mercer?"
He didn't want to laugh, but he did. With all that had just happened, I think it was probably the best thing he could do. "Yeah. Okay."
I clapped my hooves together. "Right, we've got work to do. You... Rainbow?" I turned around and he'd gone somewhere. He came back with the two nearest containers he could find - a mug and a mail tray - and scooped up whatever ashes hadn't been blown away by the skytank taking off. "I don't..."
He put them on one of the tables under the mezzanine. "Just give me this one, we can come back for them later."
"Let's worry about the living before the dead, hm?" I got a distracted nod from him. "Speaking of... any idea if he's still in there?" I gave Sam a nudge. Still lifeless.
"No idea. Unfortunately, the one pony who would know is in the outbox over there."
I sighed, and patted the back of Sam's head. I nodded. "We'll come back for them later."
Rainbow looked up to the hole in the roof, and then I did. I squinted from the brightness, but then I frowned. "Are those... clouds?" We looked at each other, then we both flew up to take a look. The hole the Enclave had carved was right on the peak. If the upper levels had been blown out before, they'd either been rebuilt, or they must have moved huge parts of the mountain. At our backs was the quarry, a mile or two away and at the bottom of the hills. In front of us, some of the other nearby peaks got in the way, but between them and over the foothills was a clear view all the way down to the city, with the haze and shade of clouds making beyond that harder to make out. "It's fuckin' overcast. Of course. Why wouldn't it start raining when the really bad shit happens?"
"No, no, this isn't good..."
"Yeah, the Atrium's gonna get rained on, and the water's gonna get all the way down into the..."
"No, Atom, the cloud cover. The Enclave are covering their movements. That's what Valkyrie was saying, they're going to attack Roswhinny!"
"You're sure about that?"
"Valkyrie has been fucking with us from behind the scenes for decades. If she knew enough to solicit you, then she knows enough to target my family, and Celestia knows the Enclave brass would love to be rid of the Rangers. She's buying time to get back to Big Top with Gadget, but... we don't really have a choice. We need to get down there and warn them."
"Got a Vertibuck handy?" He waved his wings at me. "That's a fuck of a distance man, are you serious?"
"Have you got a better plan?"
I squinted at the horizon. I've probably flown that distance before, but not unassisted, and certainly not hung over. The alternative was walking for twelve hours - time we might not have. "Nah. Nothing."
"Alright. Five minutes. Grab anything you think you'll need, and prepare to go in hot."