Five minutes isn't a lot of time. Rainbow looked like he knew what he was looking for - he found a big pile of energy weapons and dumped them on the floor of the atrium to sort through. He'd made his choices and was sifting through ammunition before I'd even picked something up. I've never used a battle saddle - not properly anyway. The rifles were no good to me. Eventually I grabbed a couple of pistols that I'd probably forget I had, everything that looked like a grenade, and a big pile of energy cells. Might as well put Jaffa's 'wings of life' to work.
While I'd been sorting through that gear, Rainbow had vanished somewhere. He returned with a saddlebag under his battle saddle, a worn book sticking out of it, and Nineveh's cloak in his mouth. He tossed the cloak to me. I wasn't sure what to do with it, but hell, why not. I threw it over my back, made sure my wings could open under it, and we were ready.
I had a moment's' anxious hesitation before jumping off the top of the mountain - y'know, the rational, reasonable response that normal people who don't fly have. I don’t think I’ve attempted a flight of this length before, and certainly not without some kind of powered assistance. I had a stumble, which kicked a few pebbles down the mountainside. Y’know that thing where you’re watching something fall a really long way, and it doesn’t hit you how far down it is until you notice how long it takes to fall? I was getting that. Great reassurance when I was about to throw myself off the same cliff. Rainbow seemed comfortable enough with it, but he'd been topside longer than me. I told myself something along the lines of ‘fuck it’, and jumped, breaking into an immediate glide. All I had to do was glide. I rode in his draft until I could get alongside him.
The flight was quiet. The rush of wind made talking difficult (not to mention being throat-scaldingly hot), so we concentrated on the journey and the destination. We passed over valleys and weaved around peaks, retracing part of the route we took to the quarry. I had the idea to stop and check around where I saved Peregrine to try and recover my goggles, but then I'd be walking the rest of the way, so no dice.
This flying is fucking handy, I should pick it up properly some time. Twenty minutes and we were out of the Death Caps and on the approach to San Cimarron, maybe thirty. The size of San Cimarron was never apparent to me until I could get a look at it from above. Equestrian cities, particularly out in San Palomino where there's all the open space in the world, have a sprawl to them. From above, I could see that Fort Mercer wasn't an isolated little saloon and water tower, it used to be part of the suburbs of northern SC. There was nothing left of most of the houses, but the discolouration of eroded foundations, powdered roads and long-dried up gardens showed off a distinct grid pattern from above. Maybe San Cimarron did take a hit in the war, just too far north to hit the main population centre, but too far south to hit Los Arabos. Maybe the northern suburbs were never finished. Ruins will tell you a lot, but they won't tell you everything.
I was surprised with how well I was coping. My wings ached, but manageably. The expedient progress kept me motivated, and the bird's-eye view of the city kept me distracted. Rainbow was firmly in the zone. He probably had a mission prep routine, the professional bastard. I was just here going 'ooh that's interesting' to pass the time. We were coming up on 45 minutes in the air when I spotted Isotope City. I pointed it out, and Rainbow nodded to me. We wouldn't be far away now. We'd lost quite a bit of altitude too - we'd been high above the north of the city, and we were barely able to sail over the tops of the crumbling towers of downtown, but by the time we were passing over Route 66, I was able to spot individual caravans and wild animals milling about. A lot of them were looking up, and I didn't blame them. The clouds had gotten thicker while we were in flight. Still no fireworks from the direction of Roswhinny.
The Caballero Centre passed by. I nearly didn't recognise it coming from the north. We couldn't be more than five minutes out. We were either going to have to drop into the base from above, or we'd land short of it and have to walk the rest of the way. I nearly broke my glide when water splattered in my face. Nothing major, just a droplet that happened to hit me in the eye. (So this is what I should have used my goggles for.) Some more specks of drizzle landed on my glasses, and I felt them on my hooves and wings. The air thickened as we dropped, and with the clouds trapping the heat from the day, it felt like there was no fresh air to breathe.
"If they shoot at us, don't return fire!" Rainbow yelled.
"What? Why would they shoot at us?" He gave me a glare. "What? I mean, I don't have any guns out anyway!"
He shook his head, and pitched down. I followed suit to keep up with him. I could see Roswhinny approaching - fast. Bollocks, now I have to figure out the whole landing part, and he was trying to go faster? Brave boy.
I hadn't thought about being shot at. Wasn't this kind of entry exactly what Turing Test warned me not to do when I arrived? When we got close enough to make out the guns, I could see they weren't raised. I didn't know whether to be reassured that they weren't going to try and shoot us down, or alarmed that they weren't paying attention. I don't suppose Spaceman was on lookout duty today, was he?
We'd dipped in time to level off and lose some speed on our approach to the base. We came at it from the front. A hundred yards out, and no response.
"Don't shoot!" Rainbow yelled, pre-emptively. No shooting occurred as we passed between the towers over the gate, and we dropped into the courtyard. Rainbow landed with a clumsy but successful transition to running. I, however, landed by tripping over my front legs and planting my face on the tarmac. At least we'd slowed down a bit beforehand.
"Don't worry my duders, I saw you coming when you were over the freeway!" Was that Spaceman? What was his name. Fuck. "Good to see you in one piece. Two pieces? Wh... I gotta go think about that..."
When I got up, Rainbow was already running. I groaned, peeled myself off the ground, and started after him. Ponies had begun to fill the courtyard, looking up at the sky. A few of them were perplexed at the rain. More of them looked steam-cooked from the humidity. Rainbow shoved the gawping initiates out of the way, and I scurried along in his wake.
"Where's Turing Test?" He called out. The gormless goons just looked at each other, baffled.
Ivy pushed her way out of the crowd. "Rainbow? Sugar?"
"Ivy!" At least him stopping to pick her up, swing her around and kiss her gave me a chance to catch up with him.
"Of course I am, love." It was good to see him smile, after everything that's happened today. Shit, it's only lunchtime too.
"Back so soon?"
"It's a long story."
She was immediately as worried as he was. "Where's Sam? What happened with Gadget?"
"Also part of that story. Where's your Dad?"
"Probably in his office, why?"
"Enclave attack. Looking at the state of the weather we've got maybe ten minutes to prepare."
She went white. She gibbered for a moment, then inhaled sharply. "I'll pass it on, you clear the courtyard."
He nodded, they kissed again, and Ivy scampered into the terminal building.
"Attention!" He called. Most of the crowd stopped whispering among themselves and stood up straight. The scribes just leaned in in a concerned fashion. "In sixty to ninety seconds the base alarm will go off to signal an imminent attack by Enclave forces of an unknown size. This is not a drill. All scribes report to the Quartermaster's office and await orders." The crowd began to thin. "Lancers, ready all Vertibucks and await instructions from the flight tower. Knight Night Light?"
"Yeah, dude?" Spaceman called back. Knight Night Light? Really?
"Tell the Quartermaster to start staffing up the flight tower."
Stomp. Stomp. "Now hold up a minute." Prickly Pear cleared a path just by her presence.
Rainbow scoffed. "We don't have time for this."
"You've got some nerve waltzing on to this base and barkin' out orders like you're in charge after strolling out of here with a box of our top tech."
"Crusader, you will await your orders."
"Oh yeah? You know something I don't? Who gave you the right to-"
An ear-splitting, sputtering, synthetic wail rang out in the courtyard. The smirk slid from Prickly Pear's face. "You will await your orders, Crusader."
"Yes, sir." Nobody was laughing now. Well, maybe I was laughing a little.
The speakers crackled, cutting through the descending pitch of the siren. "Red alert. All combat personnel report to your assembly stations. This is not a drill," a voice droned. In seconds, the base thundered with power armoured hooves making their way to where they were supposed to be. Prickly Pear had vanished. The crowd that was here had dispersed.
"What can I do you for?" She dodged a pair of rushing Lancers hauling a barrel towards one of the Vertibucks. She was shielding her eyes - not from the sun, but the rain that had picked up from drizzle to downpour in the last minute. It was like standing under a crap shower. Vaguely chilly water coming at you in a dribble. Man, Trashcan was getting soaked.
Rainbow tossed her one of his rifles. She caught it with expert ease. "Take the foals to the bottom of the lab."
She swung the thing around and hitched it to her side - had she been just wearing an unloaded battle saddle? "Sure thing. See you on the other side."
"There are foals on the base?" What am I saying. Of course there were.
"Atom, you..." He stared at me for a moment. He breathed deep and bit his lips.
"Can you hurry up and think of something? We're getting wet."
"You can look after yourself, can't you? Just... be helpful."
"I need to go armour up, make yourself useful!" Without any further instruction, he hurried off to the quarters, leaving me on a rainy tarmac surrounded by busy Steel Rangers getting ready to shoot down a lot of pegasi. What a lovely day out.
I made use of the cloak to hide my wings, and found some shelter from the rain. I got a couple of sneers as Rangers passed me, but with my dishevelled, road-weary appearance and the feather cloak and spear on my back, I imagine it was more that they thought I was a tribal than a pegasus. This was acceptable. They wouldn't be trying to shoot me - much.
I took refuge under the balcony of the terminal building, but I didn't even have time to shake myself off before the rain started really picking up. The cloak was waterproof - a nice touch. A stream was developing at my hooves as water ran off from the tarmac. Who knows what state the drains in this place were? Massive puddles formed in minutes, making the dude hurrying from a vertibuck back to the hangar drench the two scribes pushing a gun on wheels the other way as he hurried past. Water dripped from the fringes of the handful of ponies wheeling some giant metal wireframe structure out of a hangar. The pounding of droplets on the surface water reached an intensity that produced a mist at knee-level, and the falling water reduced the visibility of the gate to a silhouette. The whole year's debt of rain, all at once.
The sky lit up for a split second, and the air tore itself apart with the sound of thunder, far too close for comfort. Before I'd even finished ducking, there was a second bang - not from the sky, but from the vertibuck nearest to me turning into a ball of fire, high-speed metal shards, and roast horse. A wave of heat hit my back as flaming shrapnel embedded itself in the wall behind me. I looked up, and the crew with the metal frame were looking even more panicked, and had a couple of extra hands helping them.
A few seconds later, another flash of lightning struck one of the towers on the perimeter. There were a couple of licks of flame in its wake, but the rain smothered them before they could take hold. Then another one, hitting a scribe running across the tarmac, and leaving him skidding to a sopping wet stop. The next flash hit the frame.
It was bottom-heavy, so the crew hadn't had much trouble getting it upright, and they'd backed off from it as soon as it was up. The following lightning strike hit it, and so did the next one. Ohhhh. The lancer crew who'd lent a hand went back to picking through the debris of the exploded vertibuck for survivors, and the hangar crew went inside to fetch another lightning rod. I tucked my glasses into my bag, pulled down my goggles at long last, and made my way to the hangar to help.
The lightning picked up in earnest. One or two strikes on the base might be naturally occurring. One every couple of seconds was shelling. The one lightning rod was doing a good job of keeping the lightning off the hangar, but other parts of the base were still taking a battering. The rain was too heavy for any fires to be sustained, but the lightning was sure as hell trying.
"Orright lads, gimme a job."
The hangar crew looked at me like I had two heads. "Who the fuck are you?"
It occurred to me that I didn't have a good answer for that. "Are you going to say no to an extra pair of hooves?"
A door opened. Knight Lemon Puff, fully armoured save a helmet, went wide-eyed when she spotted me. She didn't hug me, that would kill me, but she did zip over to me with lightness I wasn't expecting from power armour. "Atom Smasher, You're okay! Is Rainbow Code back too?"
"Yeah, he's gearing up, we were actually coming with the news."
"Oh, that's terrible! I mean, it's great that you're here, but with the circumstances..."
"Yeah, yeah, you're on the level, now get out of the fuckin' way!" the foreman barked, shoving me and Lemon Puff aside so they could get the next lightning rod set up.
"Hey, pigeon!" Another crewman yelled. Was the cloak not working, or did they just infer from the mention of Rainbow Code? "If you want to do something useful, get the little rods set up on the towers! They were down for maintenance!"
I looked on one of the workbenches. Three or four long steel rods with wires hanging out of them. Maintenance on... lightning rods? Whatever. I scooped them up into my bag, and a pair of welding goggles and some ear protectors for good measure. "You heard him, I've got work to do. I'll catch up later." Without waiting for a response, I hurried out the hangar. "Try not to die out there!"
"I won't! I mean... will? I'll do the trying, not the..."
I threw the welding goggles on immediately. The lightning was striking the base with enough intensity that everyone except the lightning rod crew were taking shelter, and there was enough falloff from the flashes that the goggles weren't a blindfold. Another vertibuck had been hit while I was inside. It hadn't exploded, but it was on its side and one of the rotors looked badly burned. There were only two remaining, both of them crowding under the one operational lightning rod. There was no way they were getting off the ground under this fire.
I scanned the rooftops, picked a tower and started flying. It occurred to me as I was climbing up the back of the flight tower and looking for the wire to plug this thing in that they probably intended for this to be a suicide mission. Pricks. I mean, I was still going to try, but if I died, I was totally blaming them.
My ears rang when another bolt struck the roof, feet away from me, even with the ear covers. The startle winded me, and the after-image of the flash made it difficult to see where I was going. My eyes didn't know whether to adjust to the brightness of the lightning or the dim darkness of the overcast daytime in between. I really don't recommend climbing on a roof in the middle of a lightning storm.
I fumbled with the plug for a bit, dropped the first rod, called it a fucking prick, then tried again with the second rod. The plug was upside down, so I spun it around and tried again, but I couldn't see it very well because of the welding goggles, and it turns out it was the right way up the first time, I just needed to wiggle it a bit, lightning struck again and I dropped the rod but the plug kept it from falling so I just had to pull it back up and attach it before I got hit with my hooves on it, oh, it was just a mess. By this point the second rod on the tarmac had been set up, and most of the lightning was being diverted to these three rods.
I slid down to a lower roof and tossed the other rods on the ground. If they wanted them plugged in, they could do it themselves. By now I was soaked, cloak or no cloak. When I swung under the overhang beneath the flight control tower, water dripped from my mane, down my back, from my tail... A couple of the nearby knights and lancers jumped in fright when I swooped down. A dozen Rangers were huddled under here, all of them green as grass judging by the way they fumbled with ammunition and bunched up together. Many of them shivered. I hadn’t noticed the air going from stiflingly muggy to pleasantly cool while I was futzing around with the lightning rods, and I couldn’t be sure if it was just being wet, but I was feeling a real chill, and clearly it wasn’t just me. Someone wearing a pilot's helmet, blackened on one side, was nursing burns and staring at the horizon. I didn't know what to do, so I stayed out of their way and double-checked my gear.
The lightning eased up from once every few seconds to a couple of stray bolts, and then nothing. I tossed the goggles and the earmuffs. Thunder still echoed in my ears, and my eyes still scanned the horizon for flashes that weren't there. There was just the hiss of rain pounding the helipads. The vertibucks started their engines again. The artillery and flak crews emerged from hiding to resume setting up their guns. I looked up at the sky, and so did everyone around me.
"Incoming!" came a call from somewhere. I heard machine guns spinning up. The recruits behind me got up and started getting into their positions. With the lightning over, the fireworks could begin.
By the time I spotted the vanguard, they'd already breached the clouds and opened fire. Streaks of red and orange light peppered the courtyard as they swooped over in a strafe run. The anti-air guns pounded and flashed, but no hits. I made tracks to get out of the way before I got caught in laser fire. I think one of them must have spotted me and my excellent camouflage of a hazard orange face and radioactive green mane, and peeled off to gun me down. Most of the first strafe run went from hitting the courtyard to the flight tower, shattering its windows, but I took at least one hit in the back. I wouldn't have known, but for the fact that one spot of the cloak was really warm, and there was a burn mark on a nearby crate. Waterproof and energy-reflective? Now you're just spoiling me, Nineveh.
The boom of long guns called my attention back to the battle. All fire from the ground was concentrated on the clouds. Why weren't they firing before? Limited ammunition? Whatever. One of the vertibucks tried to take off, but was quickly grounded by a shot to the rotor axle. It was only a few feet off the ground, so not much damage done. The remaining lancer crew abandoned their efforts and went to find some small arms they could use.
Another round of lightning hit the base, giving the gunners pause. They were firing blind for a moment - a moment the attackers used to send in another strafe run, this one targeting the artillery. Behind them, heavy troopers came in to land. A fuel barrel exploded near one of the machine gun positions, tossing the gun upside down and sending the crew scattering. I double-checked my grenades and advanced from my hiding spot near the control tower to a barricade in front of the lab. I was kneeling in running water. Fucking ick.
I scanned the landing pad where the troopers touched down. I could probably lob an AX grenade that far, make 'em easy pickings. Each one of them was this fountain of glowing green goo, sailing past me to the rabble behind me and their paltry return fire. Where the fuck was everyone? I twisted, and there was a boom overhead. My first instinct was to panic-throw and duck, but it wasn't more lightning - it was a skytank experiencing a high-velocity, missile-shaped technical problem. It dropped out of the sky like a stone, right on top of the first row of troopers, and causing other three to scarper. There's that Ranger firepower. Meanwhile, my little grenade went off with a useless little blue crackle next to this flaming wreck, hitting nobody. Nobody alive anyway.
I turned and followed the smoke to see where it had come from. A squad was riding out of the the terminal building, each one of them with at least two weapons that weighed more than me mounted on them. A rotating set of barrels fired glowing red streaks across the courtyard and at the second skytank. Another two missiles streaked past, one of them battering the gate, the other sailing out of the base, hitting nothing. Well, they can't all be winners.
I retreated to the hangar. Some scribes were doing something with some technical-looking gear. Now that the big guns were out, the Enclave stepped up their game. With all the fire concentrated on the skytank, none of the heavy unit were paying attention to the troopers descending from the clouds from all angles. The scribes pointed and gasped as a strafe run came from the far corner of the base and crossed over, passing to the left of the hangar. Of course - there was no way to funnel them down any which way.
I started running, doing my best to stay out of crossfire. I chucked another grenade in the direction of the troopers to try and cover me, I didn't check what kind. The air was hot and greasy from being pierced with energy fire, and everywhere smelled like this cocktail of ozone, benzene and burning meat. A strafe run hit another barrel of fuel, this one a bit nearer me than I'd have liked, tossing me into a pile of sandbags. Rude. I was winded, lying in a puddle, and then one of the bags fell on my back. As you can see, my participation in this battle is going swimmingly.
While I was heaving the sandbag off me, I had a front row seat to the main Ranger force storming on to the landing pad, all guns roaring. Rockets streaked across the courtyard at any landed troopers, and beams of every colour strobed the sky, looking for a scout to shoot down. I spotted a few of them without helmets - Rainbow was one of them, and right behind him was Lemon Puff. She was wearing a helmet, but she was also wearing a wide-brim hat on the helmet, which is how I knew it was her. Turing Test was another, heaving this monstrosity of a battle saddle with four weapons on it, the madman. Grenades thunked and thick rounds pounded out them. Every one of these crazy bastards were equipped to murder everything in their general forward direction.
I got hit with a wave of water as a scout crash landed in front of me. A couple of scribes hopped over him and into cover positions, and not far behind them was a scoop of ice cream that had been dropped under the sofa, masquerading as a pony and operating a suit of power armour. Sorry, I meant Elder Saguaro.
I had no idea how anyone was targeting anything in this mess. Wings of Enclave troopers swarmed in the air over the base, doing their best to dodge the disco party happening at them, and those that failed tumbled into squads of Rangers firing in more or less random directions, hoping to hit something and not knowing where the shot that would finish them would come from. Saguaro fired over Turing Test's shoulder, and he turned and fired into the sky behind him. They moved with a practiced harmony, perfectly covering each other's blind spots from strafing fire to give them time to pump out missiles and sprays of plasma.
I finally got the sandbag off me enough to wriggle free. My chest felt awful, like I'd maybe cracked a rib or something, but I couldn't stop for that now. I scrambled from barricade to barricade, looking for Rainbow. Across the courtyard, the hangar caught fire. The sky cracked open again. My lightning response was a well-trained duck for cover at this point, but the falloff from the flash was... red? I looked up, and a skytank was going down in flames. It came down in the middle of the landing pad, tearing up the tarmac and forcing several squads to separate. I saw Turing Test dive towards my side of the crash, and Saguaro disappear behind the other side of it.
"The fuck was that?" I heard Rainbow yell from very close by. Turns out, he was the pile of metal I'd ducked under. One of his guns was reduced to slag, but his pretty-boy face was wet and little more.
"Oh, there you are!"
"Atom? Get to cover! What..."
The red beam streaked across the sky again, and two unfortunate troopers who'd been lined up with it became four half-troopers.
"You guys don't have any guns like that, do you?"
"No, that's... what direction is that coming from?"
A third shot forced a wing of scouts to abort their strafe run. "West, which would be..."
He fired off a spray with his remaining gun. "See if you can get to the lookout tower. The least we can do is get Night Light out alive."
The air crackled, and in between the magical energy rainbow going in every direction, there was a blue flash on the landing pad. "What was that?"
"That sounded like an anti-matrix blast."
"Shit. Shit shit shit." Another one went off near one of the artillery positions. An armoured Ranger went down, and the crew scrambled to pull him to safety. A scribe fumbled with some equipment. Plasma fire turned one of the crew to green paste, delaying their efforts. "Fall back!" Rainbow cried out. Turing Test was already backing up, firing grenades off to cover the retreat.
Another two pulses of crackling blue light went off, closer this time. A Ranger a few feet in front of Turing Test went down in front of him. He frowned, fired off another salvo, and dropped his battle saddle. The weapons crunched together under their own weight. Clumsily, he lifted the fallen Ranger to a standing position, then scooped him up on to his back to retreat with him. Another blast went off harmlessly on the roof.
Troopers started making landfall by the gate again. I made myself useful putting my spear's laser fire to work, covering the stragglers from behind my barricade. It didn't last long, so I broke out the pistols - quicker than reloading. In the lull, someone passed over my head, and I nearly shot them. The ground made a crunch when Rainbow landed, and advanced to put himself between the advancing Troopers and some of the stranded Rangers.
"What are you doing? Get lost, featherbrain!" One of them screamed. I knew the voice, but it took me a moment to find the face - Prickly Pear, lying with her face pressed in a puddle. Some more covering fire sailed overhead, forcing the troopers to find their own cover, and keeping the aerial troops on their toes.
A handful more Rangers breezed past me. One of them took a couple of bolts to the side while he was pulling down a barricade into a more useful position, but all it did was singe his armour. The further Rangers got lifted, while scribes set about rebooting the nearer ones.
Rainbow ducked, then stood to return fire. "Negative, Crusader."
"Why do you care?"
She got a splash in the face from Ivy sliding in the surface water up to her side. "Hold still. What am I saying, that's the problem." Ivy pulled a box from her saddlebag, and hooked it up to a panel in Prickly Pear's armour.
"Leave me here. Go."
"I don't need your 'tude, Missy."
"I'd rather die in glory than owe my life to a pair of tribals!"
Then Prickly Pear got the back of a hoof to her face. That looked so satisfying.
"Glory? Do you think there's glory in drowning in a puddle? Do you wanna go out getting stepped on by a trooper who's not looking where he's going?"
"Not to alarm you, ladies, but can you move it along?" Rainbow called back, in between reloading and shooting down a scout advancing from behind the building.
"If you think I'm gonna leave my first friend for the vultures, you've got another thing coming!" Turns out one more tap was all the rebooting needed, and the armour made a little hum as it sprang back to life. "Now get up!"
Rainbow backed up from the barricade, turning more of his fire skyward. I fell back to the terminal building, with Ivy close behind. Prickly Pear seemed like she was still stunned from the slap, and just vacantly pawed around on the ground. Eventually Rainbow had to kick her and shout "Move!" to get her to scramble inside.
Inside the terminal lobby was deeply unpleasant. The excess heat and smoke from everyone's weapons choked the air, and the moisture got everywhere. It was like having a huddle in a boiler room. The bulk of the two dozen armoured ponies turned an open concourse into an exercise in trying not to be crushed for me, the scribes, and the occasional stray lancer. Two of them pushed the old reception desk up against the door we came in. Scribes were busy rebooting power armour, and knights passed ammunition around and exchanged weapons. The sound of laser fire from outside had died down, but engines still roared overhead, and distant Enclave chatter and the thump of armoured hooves touching down still kept us on edge, barely audible over the rain on the tin roof.
Turing Test scratched his chin. "Alright, somebody give me a status."
"The AX blasts knocked out the comms, Sir. I think everyone's been pushed into the buildings, but that's an estimate," one of the scribes said.
"Hangar's on fire. Perimeter, lab, flight tower, all out of contact," Rainbow added.
"No contact from Elder Saguaro either. He could be in another building, or he could be MIA."
Prickly Pear snorted. Turing Test pulled his cap off and scratched behind his ears. "Where are the foals."
"I asked Crumble to take them to the lab, Sir," Rainbow said.
"We'll take the tunnels there, stand guard, try not to attract attention, wait for more squads to report in."
"I uh..." Ivy hesitated. "I don't think the tunnels are an option. Everything from the Quartermaster's office on is under four feet of water and it's still rising."
He hissed. "Options, options..."
"Don't mind me thinking out loud here," I said. "I'm guessing from the flooding that the Quartermaster's office is on a basement level, yeah?"
"Yeah," Rainbow said.
"And if that's flooded, then..."
"Oh no." He rubbed his forehead with a hoof.
"Shit." Turing Test kicked a wall, and it left a big, cracked hole. "Okay, we need to get someone to the lab to check on them, maybe clear a way out. Atom Smasher, you're disposable, hop to it."
"You ain't got power armour and you ain't got the tools to reboot one. Far as I can tell all you've got is a civilian pistol, a fancy watch and a pointy stick. Now are you going to sit here and waste my time, or go prove me wrong?"
"Well, I don't know if 'proving you wrong' is what you really mean to say in that sentence..."
Rainbow couldn't stand to watch anymore, and nudged me in the direction of the corridor. "Atom, just... just go. Just go."
"Okay, okay!" I fixed my cloak after the nudging. "And what are you gonna do?"
Somebody arrived with a replacement battle saddle for Turing Test. "Hold our ground. Hope they don't level the terminal. Sell our lives dearly. Buy you and Crumble some time."
I looked around at the Rangers. Most of them were looking at me. Rainbow looked... sad. Not like, crying, or disappointed, more... sorry. He looked right at me, with the same look that he gave me the day we met in the Satellite Sam's on Route 66, and when I woke up in Wormwood after my trouble with the star stuff. He looked at me knowing that he may never do so again, and tried to tell me he was sorry.
"Now go on. Get."
I nodded to Turing Test as I was turning to leave, and shot Rainbow a smile. A little, 'don't worry, I got this' smile. Then, I headed for the lab.
All of the internal corridors were splattered with moisture. Mud trailed through doorways, puddles formed where there was nowhere for them to drain, and rain from the upper floors, pouring in the broken windows, turned the stairs going up into a little waterfall. Down the stairs was the basement level, as expected, filling with water by the minute. I paused. Then I went up the stairs.
It was the corridor outside Saguaro's office. The entire floor to ceiling window had been shattered, making it a minefield of broken glass. I fluttered over to the office door, blown off its hinges. The office inside was a mess - not that there was much to make a mess of in the first place. From here I could see the Enclave force regrouping in the courtyard. A couple of them were going around to the Rangers we couldn’t get to and putting them down as they waited for the rest of the forces to show up.
I slipped off both bandoliers. I'd only get one attempt before they noticed me. I twisted the last couple of AX grenades, pulled the pins on the rest, scooped up both belts in a hoof and lobbed them towards the line. They tangled with each other in flight, bounced on a barricade, and bopped an officer on the head. The AX grenades went off first, stunning a couple of nearby troopers, which I took as my cue to leave. Six or seven dull booms rang out, followed by some panicked laser fire. Maybe that stalled them, maybe it just made them angry. Either way, it's a few more arseholes in power armour I don't have to worry about.
I scrambled down the stairs, slipping on the last step for a hard landing, and down again to the basement. Y'know, thinking about this, someone with power armour would have made short work of this job. They've got an internal air supply, don't they? As long as they can climb up afterwards they're fine. I had to paddle past the Quartermaster's office, shove the drowned bodies of the Quartermaster and a couple of scribes out of the way and dive to get through a couple of doors.
Luck and vague mental geography got me to the lab. I went from swimming to wading at one point where some stairs rose to a semi-basement level. I passed the door to the outside, where surface water was still trickling in. I chanced a glance across the courtyard, but one of the wrecked vertibucks was in the way. I saw energy fire exchanged in bursts in the distance.
Crumble must have closed the blast door behind her on the way in, so I had to spent a minute twisting a gnarly old wheel to get it open. I had immediate regrets when the water in the corridor started emptying out into the lab - shit. It swept the door forward and carried me with it. I only got as far as the grating on the catwalks, but the water carried on to add to the flooding below.
Water poured in from everywhere. Ventilation shafts, doors to catwalks that were no longer there, cracks in the ceiling... It had only been what, the guts of an hour, if that? I didn't chance diving into the water, I couldn't tell how deep it was or what kind of high tech lego I'd step on. Instead I scrambled down the steps and waded in. I was quickly up to my neck, so swimming it was.
"Crumble?" I called out. The room echoed, but no response. I listened out for troopers - nothing. Too busy fighting in the courtyard, probably. The occasional boom reverberated through the ground, rattling the catwalks, and the sound of rushing water made listening out hard. I kept moving. "Crumble!" I should have paid more attention the last time I was down here. What would work well as a safe room?
A yelp caught my attention. It didn't sound like Crumble, or a pony at all. I looked around for the source. Splashing, rattling, all blended into the background cacophony, but that yelp was distinctive. Some more whimpering helped me locate the source - a little ventilated box bobbing along in the water, and slowly sinking. I dove for it and lifted it up, water draining from the vents and a seam around the middle, and took a look through the grate in the end. There to meet me was a tiny black wiggling nose, a pair of tiny, curious eyes, and a soggy black coat.
"Who left you in here?"
The puppy stuck its nose through the grate of the pet carrier and licked my nose. I smiled, earnestly, for the first time today.
"Okay, listen, I'm busy, but I'll be back for you, alright?" I set the carrier down on a console. The water was already high enough that it was making the carrier float a little bit, so I opened it. This miniscule black labrador puppy stepped out and immediately shook its coat off, giving me a good spraying, and then barked cheerfully at me. "Stay? Stay." It ran up and down the console, kicking and splashing, and busied itself barking at the waterfalls.
"Atom Smasher?" The call was coming from the vault at the end of a corridor adjoining the main well of the lab, half-submerged. It was dark, save for some emergency lighting down one side, under the waterline. I hurried over - for certain measures of 'hurry'. I got sprayed with splashback from the waterfall I'd made coming in. The water level was rising, and it wasn't entirely my fault.
"Crumble, are you in there?" I investigated the door. I had no idea how it works.
"Happier than a pig in a pile o' muck to hear a friendly voice, Atom."
"Crumble, who's that?" a shivering voice said.
"She's a friend, sweetie."
"Crumble, I'm scared," another sniffled.
"C'mere, darlin'. We're gonna be okay."
"How many do you have in there?" I asked.
"Fourteen, plus myself." Fourteen? How big was that thing?
"What's the water level like in there?"
"The swimmin's a little deep for the young 'uns, but we got ourselves a crew of natural-born seaponies in here, don't we kids?" There was some half-hearted cheering from the foals. "We could do without the shower though." Shower... there must be a flooded vent emptying into the vault.
"Alright, how do I get you out of there?"
"What's the lab look like?"
"Uh." I squinted. "Wet? A tip? I'm the only one in here though."
She sighed with relief and coughed. "I think somethin's gummed up the hinges. I opened the spell matrix lock in here but she ain't budgin'. The manual operation is on the other side. You wanna see if you can do somethin' about that?"
I had to paddle from one side of the door to the other to figure out which side was the hinge, and then paddle back to look for the handle. It was already underwater, so I had to reach in and lift it, which pushed me to the bottom. The water was at the point where in doing this, I had to tilt my head right back and was barely able to keep my nose above water. With unreasonable effort, I got the handle cranked up, and I could put my hooves against the wall to try pulling at it. I could see narrow side of the door pulled out a little bit, but I couldn't get any more than an inch of it out.
"Getting nowhere with the handle," I wheezed. Staying afloat and trying to catch my breath at the same time was some hard work.
"Take a look at the hinges. Sounds like a jam."
"Is everyone dead? I bet everyone's dead," one of the kids said.
"Hush your mouth, Marmalade!" Crumble snapped. Another one started crying. "Now look what you've done! Marmalade, get over here and take a turn holding lil' Sparky up. And don't you dare let her sit in that water! No slacking, mister!"
"Fine..." Probably a teenager. Little shit.
"C'mere, honey." The crying got muffled, presumably my Crumble's shoulder. "Shhhh. Everything's gonna be fine, Seashell. Atom's gonna get us out of here, we're gonna get all dried off, and I'm gonna cook us all up a nice hot dinner. How does that sound?"
"Will momma be there?"
"... Yeah. I'm sure she'll be there."
I pulled down my goggles (they're... actually useful for once?) and dove to inspect the hinges under the waterline. At least underwater I didn't have to listen to screaming children. The water was thick with mud from the surface, and oil and other dirt from the lab. Between this and the half-light, I had to get my face right up into the hinge to see what was happening with it, and even then I had to feel around. I thought I felt something kinda square in between the round hinges. Worth a nudge, at least. I came up for air.
"I think I've found something!"
"Have you? Great!"
"I'm gonna try and zap it."
"Hurry, Atom. Please." I went for my pistols, and felt nothing. Just a soaked-through Trashcan (oh, bollocks) and my other junk. I must have left them upstairs. My spear was still here, but I specifically remember not reloading it. Egh. The pointy bit would have to do.
I dove again, dragging the spear tip down the hinge. It bumped against the roundy bits of the hinges, and then snagged on the blockage. A can? Maybe a cartridge or something? Could it really be that small? I jammed the spear tip into wherever a spear tip could be jammed into, and started trying to lever. I felt something give, but the blockage was still there, wedged in tight. Maybe if I pushed the door closed a bit...
I resurfaced, by which time the water had risen so much that I bumped my head on the ceiling in doing so. "Agh!"
"What's going on, Atom?"
"Still stuck in there. I'm gonna try closing the door a bit, maybe something got caught when you tried to open it the first time!"
"If you say so," Crumble replied. Her voice was starting to tremble. "Kids, I'm gonna go under the water to get to the controls. All y'all little 'uns climb on my back, okay? Give yourselves a rest from swimming."
"Am I a little 'un?"
"No, Marmalade, you're the biggest boy in here."
I took a deep breath, and dove again. I found the blockage quicker this time and immediately set about hammering at it. I heard a dull mechanical whine through the water. The door and the frame got slightly further apart, and this gave me the room to wedge the tip of the spear behind the offending article and pry it free. Evidently it was floating debris, since as soon as it was loose it smacked me in the face on its way to the surface. Was that a cup and ball toy? I followed it, and banged on the door for good measure.
I knew to put a hoof ahead of me this time. There was barely more than the height of my head in clearance - inside the vault must have been worse. "Try it now!"
"Crumble's still underwater!"
"Am I still in trouble for not keeping Sparky dry if there's not enough room?"
"I feel kinda dizzy..."
I sighed. One more dive, this time for the handle. Hind hooves on the wall, forehooves around the handle, pull. I really was the worst pony to send for this job. My wimpy forelegs shook as they tried to exert leverage. The metal groaned. I was struck with the terrifying thought that the handle might give before the door. My spine was on fire.
My chest burned, my shoulders burned, that possibly-cracked rib burned. I felt a little give. There was no other way around this, was there? No bluffing, no coin slot to slip a token into to crack open this Special Delivery Station. Just me, a fucking heavy door, and the remaining air in my lungs. I was doing this the Rainbow Code way. Something was gonna make me sooner or later.
The world swam. I turned upside down at some point. I didn't know when I got so light-headed. I kicked and flailed for the handle and the wall. I found nothing. I found the wrong wall and accidentally kicked myself further away into the water. Something hit me in my side. I couldn't even find the surface. I panicked and let go of the air I had, and took in water.
"Atom Smashy! Wake up!" Sound suddenly returned to clarity. I opened my eyes. My goggles were askew. I coughed and hacked until my throat stopped yelling at me. A foal about ten or eleven years old was treading water and shaking me. We were in the main well of the lab. A bemused teen with an orange mane was still holding a baby over his head. Crumble surfaced next to me, and another one of the foals thumped her back. She spat and spluttered, and even sneezed a couple of times. She looked as confused as me. Then she spotted me.
"Oh, thank Celestia!" She grabbed me in a crushing hug. "Atom, you're a saint."
"I..." A saint. Funny choice of words. "Don't... never mind that. We're not on dry land yet."
She patted my side. "Right you are. Two, four... ten... thirteen? Where's Seashell?"
A small filly surfaced between us, which was mildly alarming. What was very alarming was the fact that she had my spear in her teeth. She spat it out, and I took it. "You dropped this, Mrs. Apple Smasher!"
"Where'd you learn to swim like that?" I squinted. "In fact where did all of you learn to swim, you live in a desert!"
"My momma taught me!" Seashell squealed.
"You met Knight Ocean Breeze?" Crumble said. "I think she's in your brother's squad."
I got a bop on the nose. "Language!"
"Whatever. Stairs. Now."
The foals filed towards the stairs, with Crumble close behind, ushering them along. She finally took Sparky off of Marmalade so he'd stop grumbling. The puppy was quite happily paddling at this point, so it took me a moment to find the adorable little bastard again, but when I did I scooped it out of the water and on to my head. I was last on to the stairs.
"What's the situation upstairs like?"
I inhaled through my teeth. "Well, they sent me to see if there might be a way for you guys to escape, so... read into that what you will. It's been ten, fifteen minutes though."
"You wanna go up and check?"
"Hold this." I carefully lifted the puppy to Crumble. All of the kids (except Marmalade) went 'awwww' and started fawning over it. I squeezed past them and climbed the stairs to get a look out the doorway.
The terminal building had some massive chunks taken out of it, as did some of the adjacent buildings. The Enclave were retreating to the clouds, which were starting to disappear as the rain depleted them. I saw patches of blue in the sky, behind the smoke from the husks of the base. The rain had reduced to a light drizzle. Troopers covered their retreat with more laser fire, but more and more, the direction of fire was from the ground to the sky.
I watched for another ten, twenty minutes. Crumble came up beside me. The surviving skytanks pulled away, and the shots chasing them sailed overhead. There was only the sound of the trickle of the surface water flowing to rest. Nobody cheered.
"We... did it?"
Crumble sighed, and put her stump on my back. "We made it through today, Atom. That's the best we can do."