The drugs and lingering pain pacified me enough to just eat my damn food and go to bed. Babylon insisted on doing some of the cooking - I guessed this was why the Rangers didn't shoot at her when she was on base - and we got served the resulting dish. It was a sauce with chunks of everything served with flatbread, and the smell of the spices made my eyes water from sheer concentration. It was incredibly spicy, but it still tasted really good, and I was really hungry, so even though my mouth was on fire, I happily chowed down. Rainbow fanned his mouth regularly and took big swigs of water in between bites. Ivy and Babylon called him a wimp while they scarfed down their wraps.
Most other needs sated, I planted my face in the couch at the next opportunity and slept soundly. I was even asleep early enough that when I was woken up at stupid in the morning for our adventure to meet raiders in the desert (this already sounds sensible), I wasn't a flesh-eating zombie. We were keeping our sortie on the down-low, so we convened on the helipad, and Ivy went into the mess hall to pick up a breakfast to go. Babylon went ahead to meditate or whatever the fuck. This left me and Rainbow waiting. He was going unarmoured for this trip, wearing fatigues and a bomber jacket with some extra tactical pouches and a few Ranger patches. It was probably to fit another cooling thingy under it.
"Where'd you get that thing?" I asked, so we weren't standing in silence like a pair of mugs.
"Oh. Off a downed Enclave scout." He turned, lifting up a big scorch mark low down on the side.
I snorted. "Hah. Steel Raiders." He couldn't help but smile. I continued. "Are you cross with me?"
"You've been all short with me since the other night. Granted, I was one jolly chuckle away from kicking your teeth in, but it can't be that easy to wind you up, can it?"
"Oh? Oh! It's..." He shook his head at the ground, then looked at me. "It's just been a heavy couple of days. Also two nights ago was a perfect storm. The Caballero Centre and your..."
I nodded. "The thing where I barged in not more than an hour after you'd had a shag."
He snorted. He was trying not to laugh, but he couldn't help it. "Well, I was trying to be delicate but yes, you could just whip it out there..."
"Hey, I wasn't the one whipping it out."
That broke him. He couldn't hold it in any longer. He burst into peals of laughter. After one or two failures to recompose himself, he scooped me up in a crushing bear hug. "Come 'ere, you."
Remember the part where I mentioned that he was fucking built? "Ow. Ow. Safeword! Ow!"
"Every time you talk, it's a little bit of home I've missed." He hadn't let me go, but at least he'd stopped turning my skull into diamonds.
"Holy fuck Rainbow, stop being a massive dweeb." I kneaded the side of my face because I caught myself threatening to smile, and I couldn't have that. This also meant I accidentally punched myself in the face when he squeezed me again.
"Listen. Don't worry about a thing. I could never stay mad at you."
"You're a daft ol' prick, eh?"
Never had I been more relieved to see Ivy and Babylon in my life. We ate some quick kind-of sandwiches, and then got moving. The sky was pink and orange, stars were still visible, and the air had a refreshing chill in it. I almost didn't mind being up so early, since it was actually comfortable enough to move in. Ivy and Babylon were wrapped up in robes (Ivy wasn't taking the Scribe outfit on the road, she was wearing something much more like her mum) and trying not to shiver, and even Rainbow was looking a little chilly, but I took my jacket off and tied it around my waist. This was fucking great.
At some point, we all stopped, Ivy marked a point on my map, and told me to go swing by Isotope City to grab Sam, and we'd meet up there when I was done. I should be there by noon, I was told, and we'd spend peak heat in that settlement. Simple enough plan. I just had to make sure my good pal Winch wasn't going to use me for target practice.
I approached the gate this time on foot, knowing the numpties on duty. Didn't want to give them any ideas. This was really boring, because now that the novelty of the atom sign outside had worn off, all I had to entertain me along the way was keeping an eye out for the big hole in the car park where Caliber nearly turned me into goo, and this was a really big car park.
The gate, predictably, was closed. Nobody had seen me approach, evidently, because I reached the gate unmolested. I waited to see what was happening. It was earlier today than when I arrived the other day, so maybe the night watch was sleeping and waiting for the next shift to arrive. I tapped a couple of times on the gate. I heard scrambling to the window. A veritable shrubbery of hair popped out.
Winchester twitched. "You can go find a nest of scorpions and climb right in."
"Hey, I'm not gonna bum around and aggravate you today. Well..." I was probably going to aggravate him, but who tries to extract favours from someone by threatening annoyance? "I'm just swinging by to pick someone up, and I'll be out of your hair." I snorted at my own choice of words.
"Go pick someone else up then. Scram."
Did you forget your gun, mate? I don't feel threatened at all. "You should know him. Satellite Sam. He's expecting me! Ask him yourself."
He frowned and paused like he didn't understand. "What?"
Who writes your dialogue, Winch? They're a hack. "Yeah, remember when he turned up two days ago sans the boneheads you sent with him? Go ask him."
He squinted. He waited for like, a good ten seconds or so before sighing and looking inside. "Caliber!"
The sounds of frantic scurrying ensued. "Yes, Pa?"
"Make sure the pigeon doesn't go anywhere."
Caliber made a grunt like he'd been thumped on the shoulder. A moment later he popped his head out, plasma rifle quivering.
"Hey, Cal! What's going on?"
"Oh! It's-it's-it's-it's-it's you!"
I looked over my glasses expectantly. Then I realised something. "Hang on, I never told you my name, did I?"
I jumped, flapped a couple of times, and planted myself next to the window, holding myself to it with one hoof. Putting some weight on it, I could actually hover comfortably. Caliber responded to this by flinging his plasma rifle out the window and falling over. Fortunately, I was close enough to snag it in a wing and retrieve it. "Careful now." He took his time getting up. He took the rifle from me, but had to put it down because it was shaking so much. "Hey. Relax."
"You scared me, is all."
"That doesn't seem to take much." I looked past him to the stairs. He stared at the floor. "Your dad is an arsehole, holy shit."
He continued gazing at his hooves. "Yeah... yeah."
"Hm. I was expecting at least a 'hey'."
"I don't blame him for bein' mean though. Not after what happened to Ma."
I leaned my chin on my hoof. "What happened?"
"T-those. When I was little. They took her. Pa promised to never let it happen again."
"Y'know. The aliens."
"Aliens?" He looked at me like I had two heads. In fairness, I was doing the same to him.
"You... don't know about the invasion?"
"Are you talking about the war?"
"Caliber! Get away from that thing, you don't know where it's been." A phantom force shoved me away from the window. Even Winchester's magic was prickly. Caliber scrambled back to his post a short distance away.
"I probably washed more recently than you, mate."
"Your story checks out. But you're still not getting in." He grabbed me again by the collar, and pulled me in. "But you mark my words, birdie. If Satellite Sam doesn't come back by sundown, you can consider yourself roasted."
"I should start keeping a list of bird terms people have used on me." He shook me. "I mean, right! Got it. Back for his bedtime."
"Now get lost before I change my mind." You talk a tough game for such a softie, Winnie.
I dropped to the ground, and a couple of minutes later, the gate wound up most of the way. The stomping of metal on concrete heralded Sam's approach. He ducked his head to get under the gate, adjusted his hat, and nodded to me.
"Okay, let's go, budgie."
"Oh, for fuck's sake, I just had a go at Winchester for that!"
"Hey, if you're gonna call me a waffle iron or whatever, then I'll take what I can get."
"Yeah, okay. It's a fair cop."
We started walking in the direction of roughly north. "So what doom are you taking me to?"
I waited until we'd gone around the side of the stadium from the gate. "One second. Why did..." I stifled a chuckle. "Why was I told about the 'aliens' while I was chatting with Caliber a moment ago?"
"Oh, that! Oh boy. I'm sure you've noticed that everyone in town is a few outfield players short of a major league team, right?"
"It's hard to miss."
"Well! Everyone in Isotope City is descended from the same stable. Everyone."
"Stable 51, right? There's Stable-Tec shit all over the place."
"Bingo. It's a mile west or so. Here's the funny part. I dug into some of the records, and the orders for Stable 51 were that residents were told that they were taking shelter from, not total war with the zebras, but from an alien invasion."
"Seriously? You're having me on."
"Absolute truth. They're all complete fruitcakes. They think I'm a discarded alien service bot. They're not entirely convinced the Enclave aren't aliens either."
"This explains a lot." I rubbed my face and tried not to laugh so hard they'd hear me inside. "Of course it'd be fucking aliens. I've been told San Cimarron is drowning in paranoid nonsense."
"Oh yeah. The confirmation bias is ironclad with these people."
"Aliens. I can't handle this. Holy shit."
"Anyway. Where are you abducting me to?"
I broke out in giggles. "We've got some contacts in one of the tribes. We're gonna meet up with Rainbow Code in..." I stopped to check my map. "Fort Mercer."
"Oh." There was that tone in his voice. Y'know that one where they know something that you don't, and it seems to be a pretty big something? That one.
"Is there something I should know about Fort Mercer?"
He lifted a hoof in thought, then thought better of it. "It should be fine. You guys seem like you can handle yourselves."
A mile or so north of Isotope City, while we were under an overpass, Sam tapped me on the shoulder and ducked inside a service door.
“Are you stopping for a piss?”
Sam held the door open for me. “Smart money’s on the service tunnels for staying cool. It makes no difference to me, I’ll stay operational up to cooking temperatures.”
I looked at the road ahead of us. The tarmac was shimmering already. “And that’ll take us where we’re going?”
“Not all the way. It will, however, take us around some of the more zealous settlement guards.”
“But they’re the fun ones!”
“Just shut up and get in the hole, buzzard.”
I tilted my head forward, glasses going down my nose. “Manual control override, initiate self-destruct sequence.”
Sam stood bolt upright. “Self-destruct initiated. Detonating in five… four…”
“... three… two…”
“Fuck fuck!” I hate to admit it, but I had a moment of panic, and bolted for a dead wagon to hide behind.
“... one… pchhhhewww.” I waited a couple of seconds for safety, then poked my head out. The fucking bucket of bolts was chortling away to himself in the doorway. “I offer you some shade and you try to kill me? You’re some piece of work, Atom.”
“I knew you weren’t going to actually blow up.”
“Somewhere between ‘two’ and ‘one’ you didn’t seem so sure.”
“Yeah, fuck you.”
“C’mon, buzzard. Hole.” With a huff that scrunched my nose up, I complied, glaring at him the whole way.
The tunnels gave me an excuse to dig out that headtorch again, but Sam led the way regardless. I figured traffic mustn’t have been heavy, since with Sam’s thundering steps on centuries-old metal grating, every living thing in the whole tunnel network probably knew we were coming. The air was stale, and I started sneezing pretty quickly, which was actually a relief, because before I started sneezing, I was getting an awful smell of mildew and oil. I mean, not being able to smell may have been some kind of hazard, but so was leaving this morning, so what the fuck ever, y’know?
The tunnels ran alongside sewers and storm drains. I wasn’t quite sure why San Cimarron needed storm drains (there certainly wasn’t an abundance of rain), but there were enough of them that we spent quite a long time heading along the service tunnels for them. I saw signs on some of the drains we climbed over that pointed to ‘river’. I had no idea San Cimarron had a river. I checked my map, and lo and behold, there one was. I’d even crossed it a number of times already between Roswhinny and other places, so I guessed it was dry.
The tunnels came up in the northern end of downtown. By some miracle we’d made progress in the right direction, which Sam attributed to following a schematic map of the San Cimarron tunnels, and I attributed to witchcraft. It was the first time I'd been downtown. Lots of crumbling adobe, lots of cracked, sunbaked streets. We spotted one or two traders, but didn't bother them, because they were far away and we weren't looking to buy anyway. Sam got kind of jumpy when we passed a group of ponies with leathers and greased manes, taking shade in an old malt bar with its front wall blown out. I thought they looked too lazy to mug us, so I gave them a pistol-hoof. Most of them took no notice. One returned the gesture and went back to throwing switchblades at a dartboard. Maybe my jacket was a sufficient disguise, or maybe it was already too hot for shenanigans, especially with leather involved. They got me, and I got them.
Fort Mercer was a short way beyond the city limits on the north side of town. The terrain sloped up north of the city, then flattened out, which made a lot of the city below disappear when we looked back. It made the settlement feel like it was the only thing for miles around. The Death Caps loomed in the distance. With the slog up the hill and the sun now high in the sky, I was ready to find some shade and expire in it.
The town itself was kind of a dump. Two roads (if these dust trails could even be called roads) crossed between a handful of wooden buildings. There was a water tower and a well, and some carts, and signs hanging out of the buildings, and one building with a big veranda had 'SALOON' emblazoned on the front above the first floor windows, in that old-timey lettering. If the image you've been building in your head is conjuring anything, then you know the kind I mean.
We stopped ahead of the crossroads. There was nobody around, not even in the shade, except for two mugs in the middle of the street, fifteen yards away from each other. I could have sworn they were identical. Wide-brim hats, ragged poncho-scarf things, spurred boots... then I got hit in the face with a drawl.
"You got one more chance, Tumble. Turn on them heels of yours and hit the road."
The other one sneered. "If you're gonna put a bullet in me, put it between my eyes, not in the back of my head."
One of them lowered his hat, then the other one swung one leg in a circle, lifting his poncho to the side, revealing a holstered revolver. One of the towers revealed itself to be a bell tower by ringing.
I leaned over to Sam, and talked under cover of the bell. "What are these prats doing?"
"Have you got the time?"
"The time, budgie. Do you have it?"
I frowned. The two stetsons stood there, while a roll of tumbleweed drifted past. I lifted my shitty Pipbuck and looked at it. "Just gone twelve."
"Aha! Thought so. Step back and give it a moment." He took a step back, and I quirked a brow.
"What the piss is going on?"
I stared some more. The bell went quiet, and I looked up in time to see two streaks of glowing colour cross in my field of vision, one orange, one purple. An instant later, both of them collapsed to the ground, grunting and groaning, smoking guns on the ground. They'd winged each other. A head popped out from behind a hay bale across the street.
"All clear!" he yelled. The echo was still ringing when ponies poured out of every hiding place I could see - behind boxes, upper floor windows, inside barrels... and they went back to their business. Someone in a doctor's coat went up to the dudes on the ground, shaked her head like a disappointed parent, and started applying bandages and potions.
Sam walked past me, and by the time I noticed, I had to jog to catch up. I tried to ask him what the absolute flying fuck had just happened, but all I could get my face to do was blink and shake and say "... What?"
He didn't even look back, but he had a chuckle in his tone. "It's high noon in Fort Mercer. This is what they do here." My brain gave up trying to process this, and I tottered after him into the saloon.
The place looked like a nicer version of the bar in Isotope City - gruff-looking guys tucked away in the corner smoking and nursing a late morning stiffener, lazy fans doing very little to alleviate the baking heat, and a bartender doing her best to make a collection of broken and scuffed glasses look presentable. One of the cowboys dropped his cigar when he spotted Sam, and after staring for a moment, looked at his drink. Rainbow, Ivy and Babylon sat around a table to the side with a drink each. Babylon spotted us and waved us over. I claimed a chair and sat backwards on it, while Sam was happy to stand.
“You make it oka-”
I closed Rainbow’s mouth with my hooves. “What the fuck is this place?”
He chuckled nervously. “Geographically convenient?”
Sam made a sound like he was clearing his throat. How nice of that sound to be part of his speech libraries for sarcastic effect. “If you’re going to keep staring, miss, I may have to charge.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry, I… oh, shucks…” Ivy hid behind her hooves.
“Ivy, this is Satellite Sam. Sam, this is my wife Ivy Bells, and her mum, Babylon.”
Babylon waved. “May the road rise to meet you, Sam.” Ivy continued hiding and blushing.
Sam tilted his head like he was trying to see around Ivy’s impenetrable defences, then gave up. “What’s with her?”
I cut Rainbow off. “She probably got a ladyboner watching you come in.”
“Atom!” Ivy slapped me with a coaster.
“I just can’t keep the girls off me, can I? And here I thought I needed a hairpiece.”
“What I think Atom was trying to say,” Rainbow cut in, before I had the chance to make things even worse. “...was that as a computer engineer, Ivy might be interested in taking a closer look at you.”
Sam looked at Rainbow, then at Ivy. “If this has all been some elaborate ploy to get me out and disassemble me, I’m going to be really pissed off. I mean, I’ll be dead, but really pissed off about it.”
“Oh, mercy, no!” Ivy took to flailing. “That would be barbaric. But I bet I could learn a lot from an inspection, no more thorough than a standard medical!”
“Here? This is quite the first date.”
Ivy snorted and averted her gaze. “I didn’t mean now, if that’s something you’re worried about.”
“I’m fucking with you. You can pull on my dipstick anytime.”
Ivy hid behind her hooves again. “If you’re going to be like that, then I’m going to want privacy to look at you.”
I got up and gestured at the bar. “Shall I just…” I didn’t get much of an answer, so I hopped over to sort out some kind of drink. The bartender spotted me coming and slid over to me like she was on wheels.
"Welcome to Fort Mercer, stranger! Name's Madeira. Wet your whistle?"
"Just a beer. Uh... that... thing that happened outside a few minutes ago. Is that normal here? It seemed like standard operating procedure.”
“Oh, Tumbleweed and Rough Stuff?” She spat at the floor, then twirled a glass off the shelf to the taps. “We get all the good-for-nothings looking for caravan guard work up here. Half of ‘em are blow-ins from back east who get into the ‘cowboy spirit’. We’ve tried telling them to knock if off, but there’s always one that missed the message, and then it starts all over again.”
“So they duel in the street whenever nobody’s looking?”
“And the rest. You just keep your head down and they’ll keep their trouble to themselves.” She pushed over my drink with a weary smile.
“That sounds like a perfectly practical way to run a trading town.”
“Tell me about it.”
I returned to the table and stepped over Ivy, who was busy inspecting Sam's torso. He nearly made me spill my beer when he jerked to the side and said something tickled. Sure it did. Babylon pulled out a pack filled with wraps and we dug in. Sam quipped about being left out, then went over to Madeira and asked if they had any motor oil. When she actually served him some in a tin can, complete with a straw and a little umbrella, he then had to confess that he didn't actually drink motor oil, and she bitched him out for ruining a perfectly good straw and umbrella. We turned our corner of the room into a field base, and plotted the rest of the route. I'd expected Sam to be jumpier about the thought of getting help from raiders, but he seemed more nervous about the other side of Ivy's heritage.
The rest of them went into siesta mode a short time later, and the bar started filling up with ponies looking for shade. Sam thought it prudent to ask Madeira if there were any repair jobs he could be doing in the basement so he wasn't attracting so many stares, and she obliged him. I wasn't sleepy yet, so I had another drink. Somehow, I ended up talking to some old coot about mining in the area. He rambled a lot, but I caught some stuff about how he had a business partner who disappeared when they were surveying the Death Caps to try and reopen the pre-war, pre-national-park mines, and then he got all jittery and shook the table when he warned me about the machines that come out of the ground with their claws and their teeth. Then Sam appeared out of the door to the basement, and the old coot freaked out and scrambled out of the saloon. I was just grateful for the out.
I was building a pyramid out of glasses and bottles when a thump from across the room caught my attention. I peeked around the pyramid to get a better look. It was a hand of cards being slammed on the table. Most of the place was quiet because it was five million degrees outside, but the smoky corner on the far side was seeing some activity despite it. A small group of ponies in scruffy coats and shrouded in smoke were clustered around a table with some stacks of caps and cards. One of them swung a hoof, sending some cards flying and knocking over some of the cap stacks and a drink. The drink spilled over one of the others, who threw the table aside. Within the space of a second, two of the players had been thrown over the table (one of them into the crusty smokers in the corner), another had been knocked to the far wall, and one had had a glass broken over his head.
Things did not improve.
The fuss woke up the guys. Someone got punted from one side of the room to the other, and the shaking from the floorboards sent my glass tower tumbling, I scrambled to catch a couple of them, but most of them fell off the far side of the table from me, and most of those shattered. The tossed dude got up, shook some glass off his hat, then turned and got tackled from the side. Rainbow looked at me with his mouth open, but words not coming.
I threw my hooves up. "I didn't do shit."
Madeira didn't seem particularly bothered. She took a broom and waded into the melee, ducked to avoid a flying can, and started sweeping debris. I looked around the room. There seemed to be two kinds of ponies in the saloon right now: rugged ranger-looking types kicking the stuffing out of each other, and local residents not giving a fuck. One brawler, with a second on top of her covering her eyes, started barrelling my way. My table didn't have anything left on it, so I knocked it forward on to its side and used it as a shield, bracing myself against my seat at the wall. They thumped on the surface and then rolled to the side, and continued to roll out the door.
Ivy caught a bottle heading towards them and calmly floated it back to the bar. "What time is it?"
Rainbow looked for a wall clock. "Two PM."
"Ugh. Gonna be a couple more hours before we can move."
One fighter, blood trickling down one side of his face, seemed to have had enough, and levitated out his gun. Madeira had also had enough, and grabbed the barrel with her teeth as she passed, bopped him on the nose with the handle, and threw it out the door. He dived after it, and three of the others followed him out, one obviously limping. Two combatants had blacked out, one by the bar and the other on a table. One more, hat ripped and black-eyed, returned to the seat where the cards were, picked up some of the caps, and found a bottle to drink from that had escaped use as a missile.
Sam reappeared from the basement again, to see nobody in the bar acting out of the ordinary. He looked at me.
"Why do people keep blaming me when things get bro..." I paused. "It wasn't me this time. Really."
The scuffle died out shortly afterwards, and Madeira told them to bugger off. She threw the other fighters shortly after, and commenced cleaning up. Somewhere after this I stopped paying attention, because I fell asleep.
Later, Ivy shook me awake. My neck had a cramp, because who knew that bar couches were uncomfortable for sleeping? It looked like waking me up was the last thing on the list to do, because the stuff was already packed up. Sam collected a small bag of caps from the bar and nodded to Madeira, and Rainbow was double-checking our bags. We were stepping outside with Babylon in the lead, when we all stopped at the door. Or rather, one by one we stopped, and I bumped into the back of Ivy. I tried to see over them, but I couldn't because Rainbow is so much fucking bigger than me.
He turned around. "We can wait another five minutes." The others murmured agreement, and went back to the bar. When I finally got a look over the swingy-door-things, I saw what else, but two of the fucking desperados facing off in the street. I swear, this place is some kind of theme park where they do this hourly.
"Oh, bugger this." I huffed, and stomped outside.
"Oh no, what is she doing..."
The two schmucks were doing their stare-down thing when I walked up and got in their way. "Stop it!"
They blinked and stared, desperately trying to figure out where this part came on their quick-draw flowchart. Eventually one of them grunted a "wh-what?"
"High noon is fucking over. Go inside or something."
The other one regained some composure by touching his hat. "Get out of the way, missy, we've got unfinished business."
I snorted, Prickly-Pear-style. "Don't you missy me, you twit, get off the road! Some of us have to use this thing!"
I twisted my shoulder, and the toy blaster's nose popped out of my pack. I glared at one, then the other. "Do you really want to mess with eight hundred thousand volts of concentrated astro-aluminite?" They looked at each other blankly. "This thing can cause five different types of cancer at two hundred paces. The aliens I took it from called it the gamma ray burst. It's the energy of a balefire bomb, condensed into a single ray."
"Aliens? Get out of here."
"Do you really wanna call my bluff? Are you sure you want a war crime at your feet?"
They stared at each other again, this time with a trace of unease. I heard heavy stomping behind me. I didn't look. I figured it was Sam peeking over the door to see what the fuck was happening. Assuming it was, it probably helped my case.
"Anywhere else in the world, punks like you would be putting lead in each other. But that's plasma in your pockets, ain't it? Why do you think that is?"
"I found it." That confident tone had gotten a lot shakier.
"And do you want to doubt that I might have found something so much better?" I squinted. One of them gulped. "Do you want to take that chance?"
They looked at me, then each other. I looked left, then right. One of them cast a glance at Sam in the doorway. The other one looked at his holster, then at my gun. They looked at each other again. Then, they turned and legged it. Once they'd disappeared around the corner of the saloon and the water tower, I looked over my shoulder.
Babylon looked impressed as they all filed out of the saloon. She practically had to push Ivy along because she was stunned. Rainbow glared, wide-eyed. Sam, looked... well, there was only one way he could look. He chuckled though. "Remind me never to play poker with you!"
"Atom, don't you ever do anything like that again! You could have been killed!"
"Please, Rainbow, I can handle myself. I've been doing it for, oh, ten, eleven years?" He opened his mouth again, but then sighed. "Yeah, okay, that was a low blow." He inhaled, then walked past me and ruffled my mane. "Ow, stoppit!"
"Just save the risky gambles for when there's more to gain than there is to lose, okay? That was my mistake."
I wanted to tell him to piss off, but he was looking right at me with that sort-of frown and big eyes. The sentimental fucker's softness is contagious. I huffed. "Yeah, okay."