"You're doing what?" As you can tell, Ivy was thrilled about our plan. She was sorting through stuff recovered from the lab. Rainbow did his best to grin and not say anything. At my insistence, of course.
"I mean, it's not complicated. You do the same thing you did to Rainbow's armour to two of these other armours, preferably ones that fit us, then we sneak into Big Top and spring Gadget."
"This is insane."
"So you're saying we should leave him to his fate? Do you know what Valerie did to those scientists?"
Rainbow's grin slipped. "Valkyrie, Atom."
"Those nerds are dust now, Ivy. Dust."
Ivy bit her lips. "I'm not saying leave him there, I'm just saying there has to be a better way."
"Like what? Storming the gates? Mobilising the Rangers? The vertibucks are all scrap metal, so we'd be walking, and then what's the plan for the cliffs? Implore them to let their hair down?"
She had that scrunched up expression where she wanted to bite my head off, but I could tell she knew I was right and there was no time to be petty right now. "And what's your backup plan?"
"Well I've made it this far without one, haven't I?"
Rainbow sighed. Ivy backed down from locking horns with me and, and she rubbed his nose until he stopped kicking the floor. "Okay. Okay. We've got the resources here, you've got the cojones. I'll do my best to crack these armours. If I'm lucky I should be able to just scrub 'em and you'll be ready to go in half an hour. I'll see what I can do to cover you from here. But if you..." I lurched forward, grabbed by a sparkly grip on my jacket. My footing went from under me, and I found myself staring up at Ivy Bells. I didn't know it was possible to be looking up at her. "If you don't bring back my husband in mint condition, you're gonna beg the Enclave to burn you alive when you hear about what I'll do to you."
I chuckled. It was a little nervous. "Right. Sure. Okay. Got it."
She dropped me, and I bumped my jaw in the dirt. Well that was nice. "Now go wash up and whatever. Maybe I can find some suits that someone hit with some AX. It'll be a hack job but they'll work." Nevada, intrigued by my being on the floor, ran over to me and jumped on my head. "And find someone else to watch the mutt while you're out!"
I peeled the cracking duct tape from around my jacket, first removing the battery pack, then the patented ShitBuck. "Well, it was fun while it lasted." With all the chaos around the base, we were packing our personal effects into a box well away from the supplies.
Rainbow, in the middle of changing the bandages on his head, gulped. "You don't... wait, you think we're going to..."
I flung one of the batteries at him, and it bopped him on the nose. "I was talking about this computer thing. With all the water it's a coaster now." I tossed it on the floor. "Not bad for a science fair project, all things considered."
My brother, the poor boy, was still far too wound up about this to breathe out. Nevada scampered over to him and sat at his hooves. He sat. Well, it's more like I made him sit by pushing down on his back.
"Okay, look." I picked up Nevada and held him up to his face. Nevada happily sniffed and licked Rainbow's muzzle until he scrunched it. He was trying not to smile, but I spotted it. "I can't make any promises about how this is going to go. But under the circumstances, were you ever going to do anything else?"
He bit his lips and made eye contact with Nevada, to avoid making it with me. He sighed. "Then why are you coming with me?"
"Because if I don't, you're going to knock on the front door and ask politely for them to hand him over. I know you well enough by now." He grimaced. "Time and a place for scoundrels like me, y'know?"
He panted like he was out of breath. "You don't... you can just..." I put Nevada down, and hugged him.
"We just had this conversation, like, fifteen minutes ago. You're panicking. Calm down, you huge goof." I kept hugging him until I couldn't feel his blood pressure from touching his ears. Nevada got the same idea, and flopped against one hoof. (I think he fell asleep too.) I got bored before this happened, and started trying to use my wings to take off my jacket. I wasn't very successful. "How long have you had panic attacks?"
"Since I left the Stable." His teeth chattered. "The first year was... the first year was really bad. Nearly died a few times."
"That sounds like more than a panic attack."
"Camping in hostile territory. Hard to keep watch." He chuckled breathily.
"Ooooh right. Yeah, that'd do it." I patted him on the back a few times. "You need a drink? I've got some water."
"N-no I'm..." He gasped deep and wheezed out a couple of times. "Okay. I'm good."
"You better?" I backed up.
He nodded slowly. "I'll be fine. I think."
"Okay, good. The other kids are gonna make fun of me if they see me being affectionate." That interrupted his deep breaths with a chuckle. Damn this stupid boy and my inability to not care about him.
Ivy's preparations went better than expected. She'd estimated half an hour to an hour, and we had suits of Enclave Power armour in twenty minutes. It turns out when it doesn't have to play nice with Ranger hardware, all you really need to do is get it operational. She spent a little time giving us a private communications channel to each other. The insides were wet and smelled terrible, but they'd do. There was no real room for storage, so all we had to work with was the armour and weapons. That and, y'know, sheer chutzpah.
We spent the same amount of time again trying to get accustomed to powered flight, a little ways outside the base to avoid spooking anyone. Let me tell you, I had some memories of my first five minutes out of the stable. Only this time when I fucked up the timing and hit the dirt, it was dry and hard, and if I landed on my face, I'd get crushed. After the second failed hover, I practiced with my helmet on. Our miserable display was not filling our crack support team with confidence.
Full Moon had agreed to give us sniping support if things got hairy, with Night Light spotting. They'd advance as much as they could on foot while we were in the air, which was estimated at around twenty to twenty-five minutes. Jericho and Babylon went over approaches and local intelligence with us based on their previous travels in the area. Sam and Ivy gave the armour a final inspection, and Crumble, bless her, had made sandwiches for us. Since the sun was starting to get low - wow, this had all been one day - we set off without much fanfare. Before leaving, Rainbow and Ivy shared a kiss, and tried not to get too sentimental. I was surprised by how un-dramatic it was. But then, they probably did this every week.
The practice time had helped a lot. We were still wobbly in the air, but we were able to get lift. Once we hit a certain altitude, the helmet's display sprung to life around me. A compass, some landmarks, a gyro horizon, and even an EFS! So we'd know right away whether we were going to get microwaved on sight.
"Whose suits are we wearing?" Rainbow said after the systems popped on. I had difficulty remembering which direction he was for a moment, because it was coming over the radio in my ear.
"Don't think too hard about it. Just remember what my lies are and keep me consistent."
"I..." He sighed. "Okay! Following your lead here."
"On second thought, don't say anything."
There was a hissing in my ear. "Probably for the best."
The minutes seemed to drag as we approached Big Top. With all the riveting pace of me with a hangover, it took up more and more horizon. We followed by eye the flightpath that had been laid out for us. Takeoffs left Big Top going southbound, and landings arrived from the north, so coming from east-south-east, we'd have some time to circle the place and get an idea of the layout. Nobody had any idea what it looked like from above - it was a mountain top. Nobody could get up there to take a look. So other than the observation of flight patterns, we had no idea where we were going.
We took a high path to get a good look at the layout of the base on our approach. The plateau had been paved over almost entirely, with a clearance border of natural rock around the edges. About half of it was taken up with landing strips and helipads, with skytanks lined up around the edges. There were several empty spaces. Beyond that were the buildings of the base, arrays of hangars and warehouses pressed up together. Hasty, spartan constructions, but from decades ago. Blinking lights directed traffic around. It looked pretty sleepy from up here.
"Where do we start?"
"Play along. Get a feel for the place." I spotted, somewhat unusually, a pair of figures at the east lip of the mesa, beyond where the air strip stopped. There was nobody else that far out, and they certainly didn't look like scouts. Hmmm. I tore my eyes off it to refocus on how we were going to land. "Follow me. Look soldiery."
"Uhh..." Rainbow chuckled, at least.
There was a group of troopers coming in from the north, so I fell in behind them and followed their lead. Now for the hard part. There was a hangar opening in the side of the mountain, going to a basement level of the base. That part we knew about. Now I knew how far we had to go. After the mesa took so long to look like more than someone making a mistake drawing the horizon, the hangar doors came up on us all too quick. One by one, the troopers dropped to the concrete floor and skidded to a stop. Shit, how far back was I supposed to be? How do I do this? I did my best to copy their movements, and... it was alright? I didn't breathe for the entire landing, but I did find myself losing momentum steadily to the ground, while still keeping my balance, like the troopers in front. Once my speed had dropped off enough, I broke into a run.
Then Rainbow rear-ended me, because he doesn't know what a safe-braking distance is. I got shunted forward and landed on my front, and then Rainbow panicked and tripped over me, throwing himself on the floor to the side of me in a mild mercy. The hangar crew did not look impressed.
I scrambled to my hooves and gave Rainbow a kick in the side on the ground. The loud clank was satisfying.
"Soldier, what is your malfunction?" barked someone with an orange jacket, walking towards us.
I cleared my throat and pulled my best broadcast Equestrian accent. "Shitbits here has a concussion and rear-ended me."
"I can see that, private..." I'm a private? Shit. Should have looked at these things before we left. "Neither of you contacted flight control. You're lucky you were tailgating that squadron, or we'd have closed the doors on you."
"Radio troubles, ma'am. We were hit by AX fire at the engagement a few hours ago, just managed to get away while the dirtmunchers were licking their wounds." I could hear Rainbow make an uncomfortable throat noise on the private channel.
The marshal squinted at her clipboard and pouted. She made a couple of thoughtful noises and flipped through some pages. Then, she nodded and pulled a scanner from his jacket. She touched it to the breast of my armour, and it beeped. "Alright. Report to medical, your COs will come around when they give you the all clear." He did the same to Rainbow when he got up. "You're no longer MIA. Good to see we're still getting stragglers. Welcome home, troopers."
I was struck with an uncomfortable thought. We had not assumed the roles of generic troopers. We were impersonating specific ponies, and others would be expecting us to know things. Shit. "Thank you, ma'am." I gave a non-committal almost salute, not sure if it was the appropriate time for it. The marshal saluted back, Rainbow did as well, and we carried on our merry way.
Once we were out of the hangar, we had no intention of going to medical. Not that we knew where it was. I wasn't even sure if we were supposed to be going around in armour in the basement levels, it was really cramped. I went up the first stairs I could find. Rainbow, true to his word, followed me closely.
"Do you know where you're going?"
"It's a start."
The stairs clattered under the impact of metal hooves that maybe weren't supposed to be on them. I was banking on there not being an officer or someone who'd recognise our insignia coming down the other way. I didn't tell this to Rainbow of course. Last thing we needed was another panic attack. The door slid open and we found ourselves in a mess hall.
The clock on my HUD made it 17:12. It made sense that the place was pretty quiet. A radio played quietly from somewhere, and the appliances from the kitchen hummed. Certainly not enough noise to hide the rattling of the grated floor under our hooves.
"I tell you, it was this close to my head. I'm lucky to be alive!"
"Eat your damn carrots, Icy."
"You're not appreciating me, Beaufort! One of these days some groundpounder's gonna turn me into dust and then you'll be sorry!"
Beaufort - one of the two ponies sitting at a table by the far door - sighed, then dropped his head into his tray. Icy, now without an attentive audience, picked up his fork, and promptly fumbled it. It bounced off the table, and on to the floor. "Shit, not again!"
"Did you lose another one because you're a drama queen?"
"I lost another one because this base's design is terrible."
I looked down. It was kind of hard to see while keeping moving, and with the darkness underneath, but the floor underneath the grating was covered in lost cutlery. Really? Did they not think this part out? This seems like a pretty glaring design flaw. And also kind of gross. All those lost knives and forks had food on them when they went down there, and they certainly hadn't bothered to pick them up. Unless that's just the cutlery dropped today, in which case the Enclave are hilariously clumsy eaters. I wonder if anyone's dropped their keys down there.
The corridor on the other side was much wider, and there were lifts. They were probably for bringing cargo up and down, but I'm sure we could hitch a ride. I hit one of the buttons. The little dial said it was in Basement 3, and that this was Basement 2. The other one was already above us and going up. I stood back and watched. It took its sweet time, let me tell you.
"Did you see all the forks they've dropped in there?" I chuckled.
"No," Rainbow said. "Did you see the crying pony?"
"What? No, I must have missed that one."
"An officer, second table on the right as we came in. Eating alone. Just sat down with their food, I think."
I sighed. "Rainbow, we don't have time..."
"I know, I know... it's... never mind. I'm being dumb ol' me again."
"Focus on the mission."
The bell rang, and the doors slid open. A giant pallet of loose armour parts greeted us, many of them blackened and twisted. An engineer pushed down on a lever, and its wheels started moving it. We backed up out of the way, and it turned left. The second engineer looked at Rainbow with a grin.
"Ey! Windy! You made it back. Heard it got real hairy out there." Rainbow froze up and fumbled the hoof bump he was getting. I heard an 'uhhh' from him. Fuck.
I piped up. "He's got a concussion. Pretty woozy. I'm keeping an eye on him."
The engineer looked at me blankly for a moment then nodded, frowning a little. "Is he gonna be okay?"
"Probably. Just needs his rest. We should be moving."
He bought it. "Okay, man. Take it easy, eh? Maybe you'll make it to the next poker night." Rainbow just nodded and sort-of-waved, and the giant pallet of armour parts finally got out of our way.
The doors closed, and I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding. "Fuuuck. This is a lot less bullshitting and a lot more luck than I was expecting."
"Atom, we're... I feel awful."
"Keep it together, man." The floor shuddered and the shaft let out a metallic groan as the lift sprung into life, and I suddenly felt heavier.
"That guy thinks his friend is alive. They checked us in... there are gonna be squadmates looking for their dead friends. Families."
I closed my eyes and sighed. The lift slowed, much sooner than our stop. Basement 1, it said. "Rainbow, we're rubbing shoulders with ponies who were trying to kill us like four hours ago. Can you turn off your sympathy valve for five minutes?"
"That engineer didn't ask for this!"
Rainbow made an irritated noise as the doors opened. A pair of... officers? Ponies in suits? I couldn't tell. Rainbow's the military pony, not me. Two ponies in suits entered the lift, and we stepped to the side to make room for them. One of them had a clipboard, the other had a prominent bird lapel pin, and both of them had some very full saddlebags. The doors slid shut, and everything got heavy again.
"I don't know if I can keep doing this, Reverend." the one with the clipboard said.
The Chaplain sighed. "Duty calls, solemn as it is."
"I mean..." The other guy sniffed. "Telling one family their mama or their papa isn't coming home is tough. But this..." He flipped through pages. "This is absurd. Door after door of just... I can't take this."
The Chaplain quietly pulled the other pony into a hug, and I heard the guy start weeping into her shoulder. Her voice was trembling too. "It is..." She sighed and paused, looking for the words. "... unprecedented in our lifetimes, certainly. We must be strong for those who cannot be."
"What are we even doing in this fucking desert?"
Ding. Our stop. Saying nothing, we left them to their unhappy business.
"You see what I mean?" Rainbow didn't sound okay.
I hesitated, getting my bearings. I could see windows, and I started walking confidently towards any door that bore sunshine. "Yeah. Okay." I didn't sound okay either.
The shadows were starting to get long, and with the sun behind us, everything looked a little orange. The city sat on the horizon, like a pile of broken toys. Roswhinny, uncomfortably, stood out too, still trailing a few wisps of smoke in places. The landing pads were quiet. I saw officers refuelling skytanks and cooks servicing engines. Teenagers traipsed around in overalls too big for them pulling crates on trolleys. Nobody laughed.
"Where are we going?" Rainbow said. I walked quickly, towards the only two people on the airstrip who weren't doing two ponies' jobs.
"I think I've found them."
Rainbow was silent for a moment. "You're just going to walk up to them? What's your plan?"
"I hadn't thought this far ahead."
"Atom, you're going to be the end of me."
"We've still got a half mile of runway to think about it."
"Or we could stop walking and look busy! Just saying."
"If we shoot, he's dead, and we're probably dead too. The whole base will start firing on us. Last resort."
Rainbow laughed desperately. "Excellent! Good to know we have a back up plan where everyone dies."
"We could run and swoop in, but he's probably tied down. Can't see clear enough from here. If we can grab him and run, we'd be able to make tracks with covering fire."
"This is silly."
"We can't get Full Moon to laser Valkyrie from here, can we?"
"This is extremely silly. Atom, please stop walking."
"If we can get a distraction going maybe it'll pull her attention away. But this place is so dead we'd be caught immediately..."
"Distraction! Distraction sounds good. I'll peel off and push a skytank over or something, shall I? No?"
"Could always try and blag it but she knows us already..."
"Atom, I really don't like this."
We were beyond all the vehicles, and besides the two figures, there were only a couple of guards wandering around this far out. We were close enough now to make out some details. One of the figures was definitely Valkyrie, looking out over the city. The other was a chair - probably Gadget. Either Gadget or a decoy. If I were being sensible, I should have given the base a more thorough search first, get some intelligence. Having Mister Moptop in tow wasn't helping me any. Still, he was following me.
I stopped walking. Not by choice - the armour stopped moving. The HUD was fine, and I still had power... I was just stuck standing, like I'd been hit with an AX blast.
"Rainbow? What's going on?"
"Brave! I'll have to give you that." Valkyrie turned around. She was only 20 feet away. "And smarter than I gave you credit for. You got all the way here without tipping anyone off. Fine work."
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see some of the guards approaching. I couldn't even turn my head for proper look - the whole suit was locked up. Shit. I had Rainbow's hyperventilating broadcast right into my ear. The chair turned around. As I had suspected, Gadget was sitting in it, taped to it around the hooves and waist. To say he looked pained would be underselling it. Dude was probably having the worst day of his life, and it wouldn't end.
The guards came up behind me and Rainbow, and with a click and a twist, removed our helmets. At least now I could look all around me. Still stuck in place though. Gadget grimaced. If I had to guess, I'd say he would have preferred we'd left him. At least with the helmet off, Rainbow could breathe.
Valkyrie prowled around the chair. "Ain't that a sight to see, eh, Gada? Two strong, intelligent, capable children of yours, in Grand Pegasus Enclave armour. Home. Think of the things they could achieve. Wouldn't you be proud?"
"How did you figure us out?" I barked.
"Please. I've been waiting for you all afternoon. When I saw two troopers arriving from the direction of the Ranger base, I knew the next two ponies to bother me were going to be you. You did plan for this, right?"
Rainbow gave me a little glare. I pouted. "How many random marshals did you stop and do your spiel on before we got here?"
Valkyrie snorted. "Always have an answer, don't you, Atom?" Gadget mouthed 'three' at me. I snirked. "With a mouth like that, you could be a high councillor."
"And with a mouth like yours you could be a sewage pipe, but we can all dream, can't we?"
Rainbow had the unenviable job of trying not to laugh and scream at the same time. Valkyrie allowed herself a chuckle. "Well, your other options are this laser pistol, or the four sunfire rifles my bodyguards are carrying, or if you're feeling extravagant, there are the mounted cannons on the skytanks. Stand a little bit away from me if you go for that one, won't you?"
"How do you sleep?" Rainbow got over his choking, spluttering panic, and followed me down the entirely unwise path of antagonising our captor. "You just put half your own troops to the sword for... what, trying to give my dad an aneurysm? To toy with us?"
"Excuse me? I think you'll find I fired nothing at any Enclave troops. Rather, it was you and your buddies down in the dirt who were putting them down."
"They didn't have to fight!"
"Wave after wave of troopers cut down, families torn in half, all by the fire from your guns. Tell me, Rainbow, if you have such a bleeding heart for my personnel, why didn't you think about that when you were turning them into ash yourself?"
"They-" He faltered. I winced. "You're the base commander, they attacked under your orders!"
"Which is it then? Are they the tragic victims of my ignorance, or just worthless cannon fodder? Are the Rangers really the moral guardians you want to be, or are they mere animals looking for something to kill?" She smiled. "Think about that one, will you?"
I spotted something over Valkyrie's shoulder. It was white, flying through the air, and coming this way from Roswhinny. Okay. Cool. Keep her talking. Got it.
"So is this what your game is now? Press gang us into the Enclave in front of Gadget to mess with him?"
"You might have noticed that a few positions opened up recently."
I broke into laughter. "You are fucking slime, holy shit."
She took the bait. Rainbow watched, speechless, and Gadget just looked like he was constipated. "As if your sense of humour is any better, Atom?"
"At least I don't joke about my own pre-meditated murders committed in the course of a family feud. Probably because I haven't done any of those. But still! Bit of gravitas, please." The white thing was still on course. I tried not to linger on it.
"Gravitas?" She burst into cackling. "You dress like you tumbled through a thrift store and you swear like a sailor. Don't give me lip about gravitas, honey." I snorted and pouted. It was exaggerated to keep her in flow. "But I... I could polish the rough out of you. A haircut, a clean uniform... very smart."
"You're not gonna be one of those weird parent-figures who tries to make their kids look like mini-versions of themselves, are you?"
She snirked. "Really! Give it a think." She looked at her watch. "Try not to take too long, I want to beat the canteen rush."
"Uhhh..." One of the guards said.
"Canteen rush?" I cut him off. "There's like, nobody here! You sent them all to delay us! So if you get stuck in line for your boring cloud apple stew or whatever, it's your own fault."
She clutched the chair and laughed. "Okay. Okay, you've got me there."
By now I could hear it coming, and Rainbow must have seen it too, because he was staring. "Uh, Colonel, there's a..."
She raised a hoof to shush him. "What's that noise?" The guard pointed forward. It dropped below the horizon of the mesa just as Valkyrie turned around. She looked left and right, confused. As she turned to look back at us, the Little Boy crested the mesa, and the surge of wind from it rising blasted us. Valkyrie, taken by surprise, was knocked to the ground and rolled on to her back, looking up at it. The guards scrambled backwards, weapons raised. Gadget's chair was knocked forward towards us, spinning. We... went nowhere.
The Little Boy parked his legs on the edge of the mesa. Valkyrie did not need any further hints to get away from it, and immediately scrambled to her hooves and took off. She did not get very far, however, because with a swipe, the Little Boy snatched her out of the air with his hand. A couple of troopers fired some shots, and all they succeeded in doing was leaving black marks on the hull. The claws closed around Valkyrie, until she was no longer making any progress climbing out.
"Alright, nobody move!" The speakers bellowed. The shots ceased.
"Ivy?" Rainbow and I said.
"Any more funny business and the Colonel gets squished like a grape, you hear?"
"What in the flaming hell."
Valkyrie was too stunned to yell anything coherently. The cockpit popped open, and there was Ivy, out of her scribe robes, slipping out of the pockets for her legs and sitting sideways across it. It didn't look terribly comfortable, but it did look confident. She grinned. "Now. What seems to be the problem with y'all?"
I tried to start talking, but I couldn't. I just grinned. Rainbow stared, and Gadget spun in the chair and waited for his suffering to end. Valkyrie, however. "When I get down from here I'm going to have so many cannons fired at you they'll be able to see you go up in flames from space!"
"I think you mean if you get down, blondie," Ivy quipped. Using her magic to operate the controls, she tightened the claws a smidge, and hit the 'arm missiles' button. I know this because the robot yelled 'MISSILES ARMED' in its low robotic voice.
"If you kill me, you're going to have every trooper in the base on you. You'll all be cinders in seconds."
"And what, if I let you go, you won't? A likely story."
Valkyrie sighed. "Well. This is awkward. Who's gonna shoot first?"
"I don't know if you've noticed this Val, but none of us can move," I said.
Ivy pouted and stroked her chin for a moment. "Y'know what, I'm gonna sit this out for a bit. You guys can talk it out."
Valkyrie groaned. "I have half a mind to have us all vapourised now."
"Okay, let's be reasonable, shall we? Maybe we can put this whole thing to bed." Rainbow chuckled nervously.
"If you let me down and let me torture my scumbag of a brother in peace, I'll let you all go without making tumbleweed out of you. How does that sound?"
Rainbow smiled at the floor. "Right. Right. I can see where reasonable is getting us."
I huffed, and thought.
"You know at this point, tumbleweed would be preferable," Gadget croaked.
"Nobody asked you, maggot!" Valkyrie tried to kick him. She was nine feet off the ground, and getting nowhere.
Ivy waggled the Little Boy's arm. "You know, I could end this discussion now and we can take our chances."
"Even if you get away, you won't be able to save all of them. They're pinned. And what, are you gonna have Gadget ride an office chair down the mountain?"
"What do you guys think, should I squish her? If it's all the same to you, I've heard enough out of her."
Gadget wrenched his eyes closed. Rainbow looked... not upset? Not confused, more like he was still kind of crushed by what Valkyrie said earlier. Valkyrie, however, was really starting to sweat. "Oh yeah, you're the real good guys here, aren't you? Just gonna casually crush a pony to death for a chance to make a break for it. How positively heroic of you."
Ivy rolled her eyes. "Oh, gimme a break. Come back to me when you're not turning my home into slag, bitch." Valkyrie actually looked stunned. "Anyone else wanna weigh in? Going once..."
"Stop!" I yelled. Everyone - Rainbow, Gadget, Ivy, Valkyrie - looked at me slightly agape. "Wait, wait, wait. Don't crush her. Okay." I tried to rub my forehead, but obviously had no success. "Listen. Val. Valkyrie. Valley."
She turned to Ivy. "Can you maybe go back to the squishing?"
"The reason you're here. You never stated it out loud, but I can read between the lines. Thirty-five years ago, plus or minus, Gadget was cast out. He was branded a Dashite and you had to live with the consequences. That's about the size of it, am I correct?"
She looked at me warily. Seconds passed. She had the sun in her eyes, so she was squinting. Eventually, she nodded. "Yes. He walked out with his bleeding heart and left me with a life of-"
I shook my head. "Save it. I heard the spiel the first time." She huffed. "How old were you?"
"How old were you?"
She waited again. It wasn't a thoughtful 'oh I can't remember' pause. It was a thoughtful 'should I comply' pause. "Nine." She said, a little sooner than I expected from her look. She looked at the floor. "I was nine."
"Hm. Funny that." I could see Gadget and Rainbow looking a little queasy. Ivy had her full attention on the conversation. "That's how old I was too." She opened her mouth, then closed it again. "I was nine when whiskers over there bounced to go back to dirt farming, and captain sentimental here ran out to find him. And there was me, in a stable by myself. Nine years old. So, those feelings? I know them. Y'know what I did the first time I saw both of these muppets again?"
I paused. Valkyrie was looking right at me with an intent stare. "I fucking wailed on both of them. I saw red, and y'know..." I made a punching sound effect with my mouth because I couldn't move my hoof. The two planks I was talking about nodded guiltily. I smirked and nodded to Rainbow. "I didn't get very far with him because I had horrible heatstroke at the time." That at least made him smile.
"Let me get this straight," Ivy cut in. She leaned over the cockpit to look at Gadget. "You bailed on your sister and your daughter?" Poor Gadget really would have taken the lasers if he had the option. He nodded with a pained grimace. "Wow!" Ivy chuckled with a hoof to her forehead, then sat back again. "Wow, you are a piece of shit. That was all I wanted to know, continue."
"Why are you helping them?" This is good. She's not trying to sass me. We're just having a nice chat, abandoned child to abandoned child. "They don't deserve it."
"I mean, sure. They don't necessarily deserve another chance. It was maybe against my better judgement to trust them." Rainbow was starting to look really alarmed. Gadget didn't have the energy to. "More to the point, I don't know if I can convince you to give your brother another chance. But I gave mine one, and... I don't regret it. I don't for a second doubt that when this boy stepped out of those stable doors, he was not trying to hurt me. He did, and he's a complete fucking idiot. But idiots can be sorry. And this here is the sorriest idiot I know." At this point the poor boy was just baffled.
"That's cute, Atom, but I don't care about your brother, even if he has inherited his father's habits. Gadget destroyed my life, and he destroyed yours. Aren't you angry?"
"Oh yeah. I'm fucking livid. Being abandoned fucked me up. Even being horrifically violent - I understand. I completely understand. Me? I'm a terrible pony. I'm a bastard. Really. Do you know some of the petty reasons I've killed ponies for?" Everyone except Valkyrie looked really uncomfortable. "But here's the thing. Here's the thing I picked up on. It's never going to fix it. Like, what's your endgame here? You kill us, or somehow convince us to join the Enclave, and then eventually you're gonna kill Gadget, and then what? What's the point? You don't get your childhood back. All you've achieved is that you've spent decades of your life on a meticulous revenge plot that you could have gotten out of the way years ago, only to have it end on a wet fart when you kill an old man in a chair, and left a giant pile of bodies." Her eyes drifted to the floor again. I furrowed my brow. "Look at me. So what if you don't want Gadget in your life anymore. That's fair. It's probably illegal too. But this? Making war for revenge? You're wasting your time. You're not gonna make the pain go away like this. You're just shoving it on to everyone else."
She looked at the ground with a mild snarl, quietly. Nobody else dared cut the air. I noticed that Ivy was holding her breath, hoof on the control panel. Seconds passed. Sweat rolled down my face, and there was nothing I could do about it. Valkyrie glared at the floor as if expecting an answer from it. The claws didn’t exactly look comfortable, but she looked like the most uncomfortable pony in the world in that moment. The guards awaited their orders in baffled silence. Gadget had his head tipped back on the chair, waiting for this infinite second to end. Rainbow looked like the only thing keeping him from vomiting was the breath he wouldn’t let go, for fear it would be his last.
Valkyrie looked up. She opened her mouth and licked her top lip. She squinted into the sun. It would be at least ten minutes before the shadows of the hangars would reach us, and by then I think Rainbow would have fainted from forgetting to inhale.
"Release them," she said.
The guards hesitated. What they heard and what they expected to hear were so far divorced that they had to try again. "What?"
"I said release them!" she barked. The guards scrambled to hit the release buttons on our armour so we could climb out, and one of them cut the tape on Gadget's chair. Ivy, not quite believing her eyes, released the claw, and Valkyrie slipped out. Gadget had trouble walking - his leg was still injured, possibly infected - but he could hover, which would be good enough for the trip back. She started walking back to the base without looking at us. Then, she stopped. “I don’t know why I’m doing this. This is my life’s work.” She paused, long enough to put us on guard again. “And I’m letting it just… blow away in the wind.” I looked at Gadget. He looked older now than he’d ever been. “Maybe it’s just the word of one lost little girl to another.” When I looked up, she was looking over her shoulder at me with a smirk. In my mind, it lingered. In reality, it probably only lasted until she’d seen me notice. Then, it slipped from her face, and she started walking again.
Gadget fell forward, trying to walk. “Val, I…”
“Now get out of my sight before I think better of it,” she snarled.
We scooped up Gadget and tugged him towards the ledge before he got any more bright ideas. Ivy nodded silently, and closed up the cockpit. Exhausted and trembling, we took off back to Roswhinny, with the setting sun at our backs. The Little Boy shot ahead of our clumsy and injured gliding, leaving me, Rainbow and Gadget with a leisurely flight home.
"Where are we going?" Gadget croaked. It obviously hurt to talk, and he was trying yell over the wind.
"Home," Rainbow said.