"I have so many questions about this revelation." I really did.
"We've got some time. Roswhinny is most of a day's walk from here." Rainbow Code started walking at some weird angle to the road, probably beelining to the place.
"How the sweet shit did they let you into the Steam Roofers?" He laughed. He laughed! Fucking hell. "Aren't they supposed to be those assholes in power armour that keep to themselves and occasionally take whatever shiny gizmos anyone happens to dig out of the dirt?"
"Complicated? You're a fucking impossibility! See these?" I grabbed one of his wings and waved it around. He winced.
He fluttered the wing I grabbed and tucked it back down, feathers unruffled in both literal and figurative senses. "How about I start from when I left the Stable, then? The step-by-step is probably the best way to understand it."
I looked around. Satellite Sam's was only about a hundred paces behind us. The sun was still low, but it was already getting hot. I sighed and climbed on his back, one hind leg over each side and using my front legs to steady myself. The metal was actually cool to the touch - either that cooling system had some serious oomph, or he was keeping this thing in the shade until he got into it. "Fine. This is gonna be one long-ass day."
Let me give you my biases on Steel Rangers before I go into Rainbow's autobiography. I'm aware you get two kinds: power-armoured raiders, and the salvation army. Both of them will take your best toys and both of them are assholes about it, it's just that the second kind has been told to pretend to care about you. There isn't, like, a formal distinction, so it's basically pot luck as to which one you'll get. Back in Manechester, there was a chapter that was mostly the second kind. They were a bit shit in a lot of ways, because they only really had their crumbling power armour and a few vertibucks from the EQAF overseas base at Warreington, but bless 'em, they tried. I think when they realised there wasn't actually that much tech to plunder in the grim north they stopped trying and just kinda farted around with nothing to do, vaguely pretending to be good guys.
Then, when I landed in Equestria, I got frisked by a couple of the local technofascists playing border patrol, and lost most of what I'd brought with me. My Stable was unfinished, so I've never owned a working Pipbuck, but I did have a toy with a sticker on it that looked like one, and a Nerf gun that was great for annoying ponies with, but they took both of them and told me I was lucky I wasn't getting a cavity search. I get the feeling that when they see a Stable jumpsuit they start slobbering all over the inside of their helmets. That blue piece of shit ended up in the ocean soon after that. Ever since then I've kept an eye on my pockets around these bastards.
"After I left the Stable, I-"
"Leaving your darling baby sister behind," I cut in.
"You're not gonna leave that alone, are you?"
I rested one foreleg on top of his head. Between the neck armour and the fact that he was built like a brick shithouse, it was a solid armrest. "I think I'm entitled to dwell on that a bit," I chirped.
"Sure," he sighed. "I didn't have many leads to go on, or any idea where I was going, so I wandered a lot. I picked up a scavenging habit. I pulled out a lot of stuff that other ponies were turning over because it wasn't of immediate survival value - things like records, paintings, stuff like that. It made ponies smile, so they liked having me around, and helped me with food and information. I used to hoard music in the Stable, so I guess my tastes paid off on the outside. You probably had a lot of that stuff hanging around after I was gone, actually!"
"I think it just got nicked over time."
"Oh." He looked at the ground for a couple of seconds, then shook his head. "Anyway, I ended up scavenging for caps for a few months to pay for a trip to Equestria, and the skill stayed useful when I got here. When the trail went cold in San Cimarron, that's when I attracted the attention of the Rangers."
"By the time I arrived I was digging up all kinds of stuff, and Star Paladin Turing Test was just like, yeah. I want this guy on our team."
I frowned. "Just like that?"
"Hey, I was surprised too. I'd met plenty of Rangers along the way who were not very nice at all, but the ones in San Cimarron are pretty laid back. Well... a lot of them are. I think the desert sun makes it too tiring to get worked up about much. You can see the connection though, yeah? If I turn my attention from the stray ends of culture to lost technology, they've got a valuable sniffer. Add that I'm a fantastic shot and built like Big Macintosh, and it just makes sense."
"You're a good shot? I can't imagine you bringing yourself to swat a fly."
He chuckled. "Look, Atom, I'm related to you. Are you really that surprised that I've got gravity's rainbow on my butt?"
"Yes. Yes I am."
"I should tell you about my cutie mark story! That's a funny one."
"Woah there tiger, don't burn yourself out, we've got a long way to go. If you put out too much hot air, you'll deflate." I got a snort out of him. "Get back to how you ended up in the Stein Risers. Didn't the pegasus thing give them some pause? I know I've had a lot of funny looks since I got here."
"Oh yeah. There's still a whole bunch of Rangers that have a problem with me, but it's not a new disagreement. Elder Saguaro really doesn't like Turing Test taking in 'tribals', but the chapter is small enough that he can't just tell us all to hit the road without crippling the Rangers' presence in the area."
This was great. The tsundere rangers and the steel hardasses were butting heads in San Cimarron, my brother was the poster boy for the conflict, and he was just about to throw me in the middle. I'm not sure if he was naive or just wilfully idealistic. "Do you have popcorn on the base?"
He stared into the distance and blinked. "Maybe, I'm not sure. Why do you ask?"
Safely behind his head, I grinned to keep from laughing. "Just a random yearning. Carry on."
I'm surprised he was happy to carry me for as long as he did. I put up with him telling me about his gear and all kinds of shit if it meant I got a free ride. I tuned out after a while. The parts of the metal that I wasn’t keeping shaded with my body heated up over the course of the day, so I ended up keeping as still as I could to avoid mild burns. Before long, the combination of these had me napping. At some point he noticed, and turned on the radio. In my half-asleep daze, I started kicking gently along to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
"Like it?" he murmured back to me.
I was just about awake enough to respond. "Choke on a dick," I said, still kicking.
He chuckled. "It's from my record collection. I have it set to play through and broadcast over FM radio so everyone can enj-"
"Shh." I bopped him on the nose. "No really. Stuff a penis in your throat and suffocate."
"Alright cranky! You get back to your nap." At this point I knew there was no way he could be an Equestrian pretending to be my brother. If he was, he'd be upset by now.
Some time later I stirred when the increasingly warm sun on my back vanished, and I woke up the rest of the way when the stupid bastard dumped me off his back and on to some ragged bedroll.
"What the fuck y'think you're doing y- huh?" After rubbing my eyes and swinging wildly, I got a look of where we were. I was in a fucked-up building, not unlike the diner, but with smaller windows, and outside the doorless doorway I could see gas pumps under a gazebo. A vertical sign beyond that read U-235. "Needed to stop for a fill-up?"
He chuckled. "It'll be noon soon. It's a good idea not to travel during peak heat. Otherwise you end up passed out from heatstroke on route 66." He stuck out his tongue.
"You smarmy git." While I stretched and got up, he bopped a button and his power armour released him. "So what do you do instead?"
"You can poke around the place if you like, but most ponies just go for a nap. Too hot to do much else. A siesta, they call it."
"Well my options are that and talk to you, so I think I'll happily go back to sleep." I was making exaggerated sleeping sounds before he could add anything.
I would later awake on the counter, only to fall off it while waking up. He's not thick, I'll give him that.
For the second leg of the journey to Roswhinny, I walked. He threw me off when I tried to board him again, first stating that if I went on his back for the first half, he got to go on mine for the second. (I told him to fuck right off.) Then he said that since I'd basically been sleeping on and off for about 24 hours at this point, I should get to walking for a change, to which he would not take any counterargument. So miserably, I trudged along behind him all the way there.
The base looked in good nick, all things considered. Some of the hangars looked a little sandblasted, and the runways were being let crumble in favour of the helipads, but the local School Radicals were doing a good job of avoiding raider chic on base. Even the post-war walls to turn an airbase into a fort were regular in shape and height, which is a fucking breath of fresh air. Like, I get that you can't exactly go to trade school these days, but the art of the straight line just seems to have been lost in modern construction.
When Rainbow approached the gate, the two ground guards wobbled to attention and gave lazy salutes. I stuck close behind him to make clear that I was here with him.
"At ease, fellas."
"Dude, if we take it any easier we'll be asleep on the job, sir!" One of them slurred. He fixed his askew combat helmet, and it promptly resumed being askew. I was pretty sure he couldn't actually see out of the visor.
Rainbow groaned. "If Crusader Prickly Pear comes through here and sees you on watch in this state, you're gonna be scrubbing the landing pads with a toothbrush. C'mon, try and look at least a little professional?" He wasn't barking at them, he was passing them a note in class. He was politely requesting that they shape up before the real hardasses see. What the hell kind of operation were they running here?
"Yeah, okay. I gotcha. Be the guard. I got this." The gate started drawing up, and Rainbow patted the guard on the shoulder. He didn't look entirely happy, but he'd settle for that.
I hung back a little after he went inside to lean in next to this blazed fucker. "Hey uh, where are you getting supplied from?" He tipped his helmet up. I gave him a sly grin and an eyebrow wiggle over my hypnoglasses. "You sound like you know where to get the good stuff."
"Atom? You coming?"
I sighed and hurried along. "I'll be back later for you!" I flicked my tail to brush his face as I passed. I don't know if he had any idea what was going on.
The base was quiet and lazy. I don't blame them, it was still hotter than Satan's armpits out. Patrols kept to the shade, and the scribes servicing the vertibucks sipped drinks on the noses of the things. There was some chatter in the distance, and someone else was listening to my doofus brother's improvised radio station, creating an annoying desynchronised chorus effect. The smell of benzene and whatever was wafting off that guard pony hung in the air. These weren't like any Steam Repeaters I'd ever seen.
"You!" someone barked. I looked around. Somewhere in the thunder that followed I could have sworn I heard the tarmac cracking under the weight of whatever steel elephant was charging in our direction. I jumped to the side as this bull of a mare approached, and she skidded to a halt between me and Rainbow. She huffed, and her sweaty green mane spiked up like horns. I don't think she was aware. "Civilian! What are you doing in here?"
I bit down on my snickering. "Olé!"
"Do you think trespassing on Steel Ranger property is a joke, tribal?"
Rainbow cleared his throat. "Stand down, Crusader."
She backed up, still keeping a keen eye on me. "Rainbow Code, what is this tribal doing on base?"
He stepped in between me and the toro. "That's Sir to you, and this civilian is my sister. She's here on my request and under my protection. Is there a problem, Crusader?"
She stared at me with her face so screwed up I wasn't even sure she could see out of the scrunch of muscles around her eyes. I grinned and waved. She gave another nasal huff, and turned to him. "My problem, sir..." I didn't know it was possible to deliver that much contempt in one syllable. I was impressed. "... is the dilution of this proud organisation's integrity with all of these outsiders just waltzing on to the base. Outsiders like this punk. Like you. And that animal you call a mother-in-la-"
"Crusader Prickly Pear you will stand down." Damn, the boy could really project his voice when he wanted to. It echoed around the courtyard, repeating into silence. She shut up after that. Her glare didn't change at all, but she stopped talking. The fact that she had to crane her neck up significantly to look him in the eye nearly broke my straight face. He continued in a whisper. "Now, you'll go back to your post, and we'll be on our way. Is that clear?"
She drew out her pause until she could see him moving his jaw to repeat himself. "Crystal... sir."
"As you were, Crusader."
I waited until the thudding of steel obliterating concrete was distant enough to hear the radio again before letting out the giggle fit I'd been holding in. "You guys are a scream. C'mon, I wanna see what kinda snack bar you guys have in this place."
To my dismay, the first stop was not anywhere I could acquire intermission drinks, but straight to some dude's office. I figured that he'd get out of the power armour before going inside, but I guess they don't care about how hilariously awkward it is for a knight to brace so a superior officer can get past when both of them are wearing miniature gundams. After a number of power armour traffic jams, we reached the office of Star Paladin Turing Test, himself in another one of these things. Maybe they're all just wearing them for the air conditioning. What do their energy bills look like? Holy shit.
Rainbow shoved me through the door and piloted me to a seat in front of the desk. Turing Test wasn't even sitting behind it, he was off looking at something on the shelf. He was as surprised to see me as I was to see him. He nearly jumped out of his goofy little skullcap when he saw me.
"Oh! Rainbow, what do you need? Who's this?"
He smiled and closed the door behind us. "Sir, this is my sister, Atom Smasher. She's just arrived in San Cimarron."
Turing Test beamed. Now there was the two of them at this unflappable paladin bullshit. "Ah! Welcome to Roswhinny, ma'am. I hope San Palomino is treating you well!" And he had an accent too. Egh. At least it wasn't an overpowering one. You'd think I'd have gotten used to every drawl southern Equestria had to offer by now, but no.
"Please tell me that colour vomit over here got heatstroke in his first week here too."
Both of them froze. I saw the smirk creeping around Turing's little beard thingy. I heard Rainbow pulling a face with a shocking amount of eyebrow in it. Turing put his book on his desk and sat down. That poor chair. "That's... classified personnel information." Despite himself, he chuckled. "What brings you to Equestria?"
"I invited her, sir! She caused quite a fuss back home, and thought she might be interested in helping me with my personal missions."
I shrugged. "I ran out of things to do at home."
"I see." Turing looked down his nose at his desk for a moment. "And is she going to add anything to further your objectives?"
"I have something in mind."
"And you're aware that as a civilian she can't stay on the base or make use of our resources?"
"Of course, sir."
"And that if she is caught in restricted areas or moving around unaccompanied blah blah blah just keep it on the down low, will you?"
I blinked. "Just like that?"
"Look, uh... Atom, was it? I don't care about you being here. Paladin Rainbow Code is one of my most trusted officers. If there was a bullet heading my way I wouldn't doubt for a second that he'd catch it with his teeth if he had to. If he says you're okay, then you're okay in my books." I rubbed my mouth with a hoof and grinned behind it. What an absolute mug. Well, it was Rainbow that was the mug, because he's the one that's bringing me to a Sven Richards base having only really known me for a day. But this could be one impressive row of dominoes. "That doesn't mean everyone will appreciate you being here."
"She's already met Crusader Prickly Pear, sir."
Turing chuckled. "Jumping in the deep end, I see. So you see what I mean. Celestia help you if Elder Saguaro catches you on base. Just be a nice guest and everything will be fine, darlin'."
"Right. Shenanigans to a minimum. Got it."
"Wonderful. Oh, and try not to use them wings on base. It might be tempting to get around the gate, but if the sentries see a flying pegasus, they're just gonna think 'Enclave'. Just save yourself the risk."
I quirked a brow. "You have an Enclave problem around here? I haven't seen a cloud in the sky."
"Rainbow, would you like to fill her in?"
"I've wasted enough of your time, sir. I'll take her to Scribe Ivy Bells for the situation report."
Turing hooted in mock offence. "You're no waste of my time, boy. But capital idea nonetheless! Dismissed."
Rainbow smiled, nodded, and turned to the door. I gave the room one last look for anything that might make an amusing senior prank if it were to go missing, then followed.
Rainbow walked briskly at first, expecting me to keep up. After the second time he had to stop because I was dawdling and looking around, he took to walking behind me in the corridors so he could force the pace. He declined my suggestion that I ride on his back again. We left through a different door from the one we came in, crossed the corner of the quad to one of the hangars used as part of the perimeter wall, and descended some stairs to a double doors marked "silo". Beyond that, some security doors had been butchered, and a newer sign pointing to the next stairs read "laboratory".
These stairs led to a descending frame of catwalks, going around a tower in the middle of the silo of pipes and scaffolding. Or at least they looked like pipes, it was hard to tell because they didn't look like they had a meaningful function being in the centre of the room. On the silo floor, some scribes milled around bopping keyboards, juggling clipboards, or just appreciating the refuge from the daystar. Rainbow slowed up towards the bottom, trying to keep his noise level down. Now, this was a complete fucking waste of time, because manoeuvring a car with feet down a rickety steel web is like having a bullfight in a music shop, but bless his heart for trying.
He had one hoof on concrete when whoever he was trying to sneak up on vaulted the railing and tackled him from behind. He yelped. This scribe, a unicorn who was about the size of a large dog, swung around his front without pulling him over, and regained her footing on the other side of him. Then they both started giggling.
"Hon, you know trying to get the drop on me in that thing ain't never gonna work."
"Doesn't stop me from trying, love!" They made some kind of sickeningly cute mumbling noise, probably rubbing noses. I jumped on Rainbow's back - he was three steps in front of me and blocking the way - and down to the ground to get a better look. Lilac coat, scruffy short blonde mane, with a purple headband in there somewhere. I tilted my head. She noticed me.
"Who's the tagalong, sugar?" Now she was smiling too. At least it was a little cheeky. All this vanilla cheer was gonna make me sick.
Rainbow swallowed and grinned. "Ivy, this is my sister, Atom Smasher! She's just arrived in San Cimarron. Atom, this is Scribe Ivy Bells, she's..." He chuckled bashfully. "She's my wife."
Ivy threw herself at me and shook my hoof. "Well welcome to Saaan Cimarron, Atom! Mighty pleased to make your acquaintance."
Now, there was one thing on my mind at this point. Ivy Bells is a very short pony. In fact, I’m sure there are probably some overfed housecats in the same weight class as her. My neck was getting a workout looking up and down between both of their faces. "Rainbow, did uh... anyone tell you that ephebophilia isn't okay?"
Ivy slapped me. "Excuse you, missy, I have twenty-damn-seven years on this shit-green earth!"
I straightened my glasses and tried the other logic route. "So... is it like trying to fit a tree trunk in a catflap with you guys?" They blinked at me. I started trying to gesture with my hooves. "Am I the only one picturing like, a wolfhound and a cocker spaniel?"
Rainbow did that thing where his face couldn't make up its mind whether to choke or laugh. Ivy's jaw dropped. "Rainbow, where did you find this scamp? She's got a mouth like a commode!" He stammered a non-answer. Ivy thumped me in the side. "You've got the same sense of humour as your brother used to have before I tamed that bull."
I looked at him. "I'm having trouble seeing it. He's too goofy and, like, harmless."
"Get a couple of whiskeys into him and the family resemblance comes right out."
By now Rainbow's face was bright red, he was laughing silently, and had his face buried in a hoof. "When you're quite done, sweetie, I was bringing Atom down here for a reason."
"Well, why didn't you say so!"
"You were too busy giving me a bollocking is why."
"Oh, hush." She bopped him on the nose. He play-pouted, and she snickered, and she leaned in - or should I say, leaned up - to pop a kiss on him.
"Oh, get a room!"
They both giggled. "Ivy, I was going to have you give Atom the lay of the land. Local tensions, context, and stuff." He glanced at me. “Abridged version, if you can.”
She jumped with excitement. "Storytime! Let''s go!" She scurried off to a terminal set into a console, next to the big column of pipes in the middle of the room. She ran like a scrambling cat. She tapped away while we caught up. A map popped up above the terminal.
"What's the map for?"
"I just like having a map up so I can point to stuff." Ivy cleared her throat. "Before the war, San Cimarron was a big hub of research in the Equestrian war effort. Being on the far side of the world from anywhere, they could test their meanest projects without hurting anyone - or more importantly, without the zebras knowing. All of the Ministries had offices out here. Arcane Sciences, Wartime Technology, Peace and Awesome operated out of an underground facility at Los Arabos. Which is..." She pressed a button, and a question mark appeared on the map. "Somewhere! It's a secret lab, and the location's just disappeared from records."
"Have you tried lost dog posters?" Can I just take a moment to ask which pleb came up with 'Ministry of Awesome'? I mean holy shit. I know I have some childish tendencies, but that's a name come up with by a ten year old.
"Hush and let me finish." The question mark disappeared, and crosshairs came up over a big urban centre in the middle of the map. "The Ministries of Image and Morale had offices in San Cimarron to try and keep a lid on the fireworks. Aliens, was their angle. Smart double bluff, really! Feed the tinfoil hat basket cases with a play and counterplay of moles in conspiracy theory groups and suspiciously specific public denials published with MAS letterheads, and everyone goes barking up the wrong tree."
Rainbow chuckled. "I've found some funny stuff wandering around, let me tell you."
"Anyway, the concentration of research and its leftovers are what attracted the Rangers to the area - but it also attracted the Enclave. Their presence here is strictly military. The desert climate boils off their cloud cover lickety-split, so they've set up shop on Big Top mesa." Another crosshairs appeared in the plains to the west, with an E circled by stars. A third appeared to the south with that sword-gear-apple thing the Rastafarians use for a logo. "Because both Big Top and Roswhinny are out in the open, nobody can make any big moves without the other knowing about it."
"So you're in a stalemate with the Enclave."
"Sort of. There are lots of small skirmishes over objectives. Real miniature cold war stuff. But then this has had an... interesting side effect."
"Interesting is a fun word in these situations."
"This creates a technology treadmill. Say three Rangers and three Enclave troopers go out for the same objective. One of each is killed in action, and one side is forced to retreat. The other takes the objective. Quite often the objective will be some heavy duty experimental weapon, or something else that's super bulky. If they take it, they can't carry back their comrade in power armour, they're just too heavy - so they have to leave 'em behind with their gear. We try our best to recover equipment, but more often than not, all we find is a naked body."
"Which means some wastelander has just made off with two lasers and a four-legged tank."
"Bingo. Now imagine this situation for about thirty years. Everyone in San Cimarron has a magical energy weapon of some kind. They're literally falling out of the sky. Farmers have shotgun weddings with laser battle saddles. Settlements have tesla turrets on their walls. Even the most down-on-their-luck bandits are packing plasma. Shootouts are like discos out there."
I giggled like a child. "Now this I have to see!"
"But! We have made use of this. For one thing, it's how Rainbow got his armour."
"Oh?" I turned, inspecting his shell more closely.
"Being a pegasus in the Steel Rangers presents a unique engineering challenge. Steel Ranger armour sets have regenerative talismans to self-repair when you provide them with scrap metal. This is great - until you need to make accommodations. The damn things were only designed with earth ponies in mind, so they don't have holes for wings and horns. But then if you try to cut 'em out, the holes fix themselves. Fortunately for Rainbow here, all we needed to do was shoot down a set for him."
I'd glazed over at this point. "Fascinating."
"We mounted some heavier plates on the front and legs, gave him a Ranger helmet to replace that spooky lookin' Enclave one, and took that nasty stinger off, and presto - pegasus in Ranger armour. The Enclave set needed to be jailbroken to play nice with the Stable-Tec spell matrix, but I..." Ivy conspicuously inspected a hoof, and dusted it on her robes. "I was up to the challenge."
Rainbow paced up and down like he was modelling the thing. "The extra weight makes it tricky to fly in, but being Stable-born, flying was never my strong point. I'm sure you'd know that, Atom?" Flashbacks of sliding around on a muddy hill outside the Stable ran through my mind. I grimaced. "The face says it all."
I scoffed. "Yeah, yeah, shut it!" I sat on the table the terminal was on. Ivy levitated her coffee out of the way in a hurry. "So where's all the sweet loot? You'd think the scribe hole would be full fancy shit."
Rainbow and Ivy looked at each other and smiled. "I'm surprised you didn't see it when you came in," he said.
I frowned. "See what?"
"Look behind you," Ivy said.
"What, at the, uh... the pipes?" I craned my neck around anyway.
"Look closer." I squinted and dipped my glasses. The pipes at the bottom were much thicker than the ones at the top, and had little buttresses near the bottom. The floor was stained black, like something had been burning on it. Further up there was a big fat hydraulically articulated hinge... hang on. That's not something you have in a pipe. I carried on up. They really were some fat-ass hinges, and now that I think about it, there were only two 'pipes' at the bottom. They joined into a central body about halfway up the room. Then two more 'pipes' started out of nowhere. They hung from a frame even further up - further than I could see from the angle I was looking at - but they terminated at the bottom in claws, with a hole in the middle. Somewhere around this point I connected the dots.
"Holy fuck that's a giant robot."
I could hear Ivy's grin. "Atom, meet the Little Boy!"