Fallout: Equestria - Make Love Not War

by hahatimeforponies

First published

Atom Smasher goes on an excellent adventure in San Palomino with the brother she didn't know she had to find the Dad she forgot everything about. Also, strange things happen in the desert.

NOTE: Duck and Cover is not required reading for this story.

Atom Smasher is a special kind of pony. She lies, she cheats, she steals, she stockpiles explosives and relishes their liberal application, and she's one of the good guys. She earned the praise of the locals after becoming the accidental hero of the wastes around her home, but once the day is saved, being the hero is boring. She needs a new adventure.

One day, a letter arrives, inviting her to join her brother in San Palomino on a search for their missing dad.

She doesn't remember having a brother.

It is, however, just what the doctor ordered. Now, if only this desert wasn't so damn hot...


A more serious look at Atom Smasher from Duck and Cover. Also being written at a less breakneck pace. Original by Kkat, cover art by me! Editing by IsiahJacobs.

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So, let me tell you something about deserts. They are decidedly not my natural habitat. I, one Atom Smasher, am a featherbrain raised in the cold damp dark of the Manechester hinterland (or, a hole in the ground beneath it, anyway). It's usually wet, it's usually miserable, everyone complains about it, but it wouldn't be home without it.

But dammit, I am not taking this leather jacket off. My bags are too full and it looks too good. It's probably going to kill me in this heat, but if you can't go out looking fucking stellar, what can you do?

I don't remember much before I passed out. It was daylight anyway. Probably not even bloody noon. I'd given up on the flying because I suck at it, and I was making myself more hot and bothered trying to get some lift, which left me tottering along boiling tarmac roads on the way between bumblefuck nowhere and the arse end of diddly-squat. Somewhere in the middle of questioning the life choices that led me up to this point, I lost strength in my legs and planted my face in the dirt. This was it. Some part of me giggled at the idea that someone was eventually going to come across my sun-baked bones and some freakin' sweet duds.

Obviously that didn't happen. Oops, spoilers! I can't have died if I'm talking to you now, eh? So while you stew on how I got out of that sweaty mess, let's take a detour into how I got into it.

Back home, I earned a bit of a reputation for myself. The Saint from the Stable, they called me. Not that I was indulging in much in the way of saintly behaviour, mind you. There was this entire region of ponies so desperate for a hero that they latched on to anyone that looked like they had a plan (I didn't.) Truth be told, my thing is that I make explosives and get into fights. I was amusing myself, and lots of really nasty types happened to be in the way. It didn’t take me long to catch on, and I ran with it. If I limited my mischief to these particular douchebags, other people gave me free stuff with a reasonable chance they wouldn't shoot me in the back at an opportune time. Everything was great, until something terrible happened.

I got bored.

The region started getting, like, civilised. Trade resumed. Raiders decided to stop raiding. Public transport sprang up, and five minutes later so did complaints about it being late. I tried a number of things to stay entertained when street violence went out of vogue. I started a band, but it turns out that my singing is pretty pants, guitar strings are shockingly hard to find in the wasteland, and while I can hold a rhythm, I didn't fancy being the drummer in my own band, so I left it. Seriously though, every ruined music shop that I tried had been plundered for everything intact, and I know that the intact stuff was there because there are guitar-shaped gaps in the 200-year-old grime. Some bastard went and took them all and I'm gonna cave his skull in with 'em when I find him.

Sorry, I'm still really cut up about the band falling apart. My next option was becoming a supervillain, but just as I was lying on my couch trying to come up with a cool name, that's when the letter that would give me heatstroke arrived. Don't ask me how the letter knew where I lived. Maybe someone had started up a post office, or it was a chain of couriers, I don't fucking know. All I know is that one day a letter turned up addressed to me. Let me remember it as best I can:

Dear Atom Smasher,

Hey! It's been a really long time - long enough that I don't know if you remember much of me. But boy, I remember you. I'm your brother. I'm a long way from home right now. I've been looking for Dad for a while, and... well, I'm still looking. It's been pretty tough. I'm not giving up though!

I heard about some crazy things going on back home, and when I pried more into it I started hearing descriptions of a pony that sounded an awful lot like you. I couldn't believe you'd made it out of the Stable! So I thought hey, why not shoot a letter off? If this gets to you, great! If it doesn't because you're still in the Stable and it's someone else raising hell, or... other reasons, then I'm only down a piece of paper and twenty minutes.

Long story short, I'd love for you to join me! I'm all the way in San Cimarron, San Palomino. In Equestria! It's okay if you don't want to or you can't, though it'd be nice if you'd write me back.

Excited to hear from you!

Rainbow Code

The first thing I did was scrunch this up and throw it in the corner. I don't have a brother. Clearly this was a scam. A suspiciously personalised scam.

I picked it back up and unfolded it, and read it again. I don't remember my Dad either. Or Mum for that matter. In fact prior to a point in my pre-teen years, my memory plain isn't there. I must have had parents at some point - I hardly popped out of the ground one day - and they weren't there in the Stable, and I don't know what happened to them... so maybe there was some truth to the letter?

Nah. Couldn't be. Back into the bin it went.

For about thirty seconds. Now the corner of the letter was stained with old teabags, so I had to make my mind up. I read it through a third time, fixating on the location. That's when it hit me! I yelped and muttered under my breath that I needed to fix the shelf over the bin, that's the third time this week it's fallen. Then after that I had a brainwave - Equestria. It'd be something to do. I'd be shuffling out of this leaky shack in Colton and be on the road again. I hadn’t even internalised that this adventure was probably going to be more interesting than trying to take over the world, and I was already looking for a sturdy saddlebag, raiding jars of caps and trying to figure out how to get to Equestria.

Months passed. I had a miserable and expensive sea journey to Equestria, followed by a trip through some places so backwards I’m not sure they’re even aware the world ended. I'd been growing my hair out for the band, but I let it get really long while travelling. I started collecting junk that I liked the look of, or confused people. The only weapon I had was a toy raygun that may have made a sound at some point in the distant past, but the battery was long gone now. I can't remember where I found the leather jacket. I just woke up with it and a hangover one afternoon in New Oreins. Maybe some charming stranger was trying to get my attention by being gentlemanly. Sucker.

Which brings me to passing out on a road in the desert. Have I mentioned that Equestria is fucking huge? The Shetlands are sensibly proportioned to the size of a continental carry-on bag. Equestria has these huge empty swathes in the southern end of it that I had to fucking walk through to get to San Cimarron. Big empty fields of dust for hundreds of miles. That's San Palomino. A great big plate of fucking nothing. Southeastern Equestria had the same permanent cloud cover problems as back home, but this dust bowl did something to piss off the sun. There's not even a wisp to climb on and ride like a mall amusement or hide under. Just sun, sand, sky, and what's left of a freeway. I fucking hate it.


I woke up feeling like death. My head pounded, my sense of balance wasn't co-operating, I couldn't see clearly, and the backs of my legs were on fire. My jacket was gone. I've had worse, I'll be honest, but I still wanted to down half a pint of rum and return to blissful oblivion, and being in a cold, dark room when my last memories were of being amused that I'd found Route 66 filled me with enough concern to check it out. Getting up felt like peeling myself off of flypaper. I'm pretty sure it sounded like it too.

"Easy! Take it easy. You're in bad shape," someone said.

"Fuck off." I swatted a hoof in the general direction of the sound. I was rewarded with a yelp. He laughed it off.

"Don't say I didn't warn you."

I sat up. My head felt like there was water in it, sloshing around and making me sway in a circle. After a few seconds of this, I returned to lying on my belly. Every part of me still felt hot, despite the chill of this... whatever the fuck this place was. A second later I sprang up.

"Hang on a second. Hold the fucking phone."

"Holding!" His cheeriness was winding me up already.

"What's a bloody Manc doing in the desert?" For those of you appreciating my glorious life story through the medium of text, this is the part where I twig that this ninny has the exact same accent as me, and one I haven't heard out of anyone other than me for months.

"I could ask the same of yourself!" He chuckled.

I twisted around. I might as well have been rolling in sandpaper, but I had to get a look. My vision had cleared enough to spot the lantern on the floor, and start identifying things in the room. A counter was dimly outlined in the distance. Tall stools lined up around it, some of them with stuffing torn out of their seats. Glasses and plates and pieces thereof had been swept to the side of the room, and on the other, tables were flanked by seats in the same sad ochre as the bar stools that had once been cherry red. Standing over the lantern was this dude. The pale cream coat didn't jump out at me as much as the other colours. His nose blocked a lot of the light from reaching his face, but enough still reached to frame the red, yellow and green of his big floppy fringe, and catch the blue in his eyes. I noticed these colours in order, and my brain made the leap.

"... Rainbow Code?"

He grinned. "The penny drops!" He chuckled and stepped back, letting the lantern light cover him rather than frame him.

Then something I don't quite understand came over me. It wasn't that this insane long-lost-brother theory (or elaborate scam) had turned out to be at least halfway accurate. That doesn't explain what I did. It's safe to say that the gut reaction I had to seeing Rainbow's face put suspicions of deception out of my mind afterwards. Maybe it unlocked some memories on a subconscious level. If my earliest memory is having an extremely miserable breakfast by myself at age nine, then that meant Rainbow had to have been gone by then already. Actually, maybe that's why I did what I did. Not in such a logical process, of course. That's just me trying to retrace mental steps after the fact. At the time it was all hunch. I might have connected the two events and remembered the emotion I intended to feel, but couldn't express with him not there. Now that his mug was in front of me, an eleven year old gesture could spill out.

I got up and strangled him.

Well, I tried anyway. I was still feverish from the heatstroke earlier, and my ass had so much sunburn on it I might as well have been sitting on nettles. My murder attempt amounted to clumsily massaging his neck and trying not to cry. The physical pain catalysed the tears, and I crumpled to the ground in a blubbering mess. I didn't even cry when my dog died, and Snowy was the best thing to ever happen to me. It's not something I thought I was capable of.

"Are... are you okay, Atom?"

It took me a moment to stop shuddering enough to reply. "You're a fucking cunt," I hissed, through gritted teeth and wet nose.

"Should I take that as a no, or..."

"You're a piece of shit and I hate you."

He blinked and looked around. "I'll... I'll give you some space."

"Go for a fucking walk in space without a helmet you assclown!" I shouted after him. He left the lantern, and then the room. I lay there clutching my stomach for minutes after that. The blood pounding in my ears made it hard to listen for anything. All I could hear over it was my own sniffling, echoed back at me. On my own, I crawled back to the bedroll, and sleep claimed me again.


Again, I've slept worse, but this was pretty bad. The part of the diner where he'd left me was shaded, but the morning sun streamed in through the open windows, bouncing off glasses and draught taps behind the counter to fling an annoying glare at me. Between the assorted remaining pains, the thinness of the bed and the growing light problem, there was no way I was getting any more sleep. I felt a lot better than I did in the middle of the night. A nearby empty vial with a fat pink cross on it explained that. The back of my legs where I was sunburned still felt tender, and I had a headache, but I could stand up at least. I kicked over one of the bottles of water he'd left me. Behind it was my stuff. Goggles, jacket, bags, raygun, all of it. Considerate little bastard.

I left it to explore the diner and walk off some of the stiffness. The place had been plundered long ago. All of the doors in the kitchen had been torn off already, and the oven had a skeleton hanging out of it. A machine mounted to the wall had a load of dents in the metal front. A cat with a fishbowl on its head and a shit-eating grin was drawn on the peeling sticker. According to it, this was Satellite Sam's Special Delivery Station, and the instructions on the mechanism had worn off. There were a pair of slots and a button, rather like a vending machine. Based on the shape of the dents, some bonehead had probably tried to get at the contents with their skull.

My stomach didn't like moving, so I went back to the water bottles to shut it up. A pair of knocks behind me grabbed my attention. Rainbow Code stood looking through the hole where the window used to be. His eyes shifted from side to side, and he was biting on a grin. He shoved the door open.

"Ring ring," he said in place of the absent bell. I frowned. He stepped inside and leaned over a seat. "You're looking a lot better than last night."

"You came back." My thoughts at this point simply weren’t. My id wasn't trying to feed him his own hindlegs, but I was still processing the reality of his existence.

"Of course. I wanted to see if you were quite sure about some of the things you said to me." He breathed a chuckle.

"You're an insufferable git based on the five minutes you've been talking to me." I chugged more water.

"Look, I... I don't blame you for hating me. I abandoned you in the Stable, and I'm sorry. I had my reasons for leaving, but I didn't stop to think them through..."

I leapt on one of his pensive pauses. "I don't remember shit."

He blinked. "You don't?"

"Yeah. I forgot you existed. I haven't a fucking clue why I went apeshit last night. So please stop grovelling, you moptop. As far as I know this is an extremely roundabout grifting operation."

He crossed both forelegs on the top of the seat. "Let me get this straight. You travelled thousands of miles, on an extremely expensive, time-consuming and dangerous journey, all but abandoning the life you had, to meet the brother you forgot you had, while not even being sure he is who he says he is?"

I thought for a second. "Yeah. S'about the size of it."

"Don't get me wrong, I'm absolutely overjoyed to see my baby sister, but why are you here?"

"I was bored." I couldn't keep myself from grinning proudly. This seemed to break him for a good ten, fifteen seconds. "But hey, family reunion it is!"

"You're... definitely something, Atom." He laughed again. Was he ever not laughing in one way or another? It was kind of annoying.

I started picking up my shit in the corner. "So tell me about this Dad-quest business. I'm here, I have nothing better to do, so I might as well follow this - what is this thing in my jacket."

"Oh! I took the liberty of-"

"Are you trying to make me a suicide bomber?"

He made a face that was halfway between convulsing with shock and spluttering out a laugh, and doubled over until he'd coughed up an organ or two. "Sweet Celestia, Atom!" A terrible thought crossed my mind. He wasn't a missionary, was he? If I'd come all that way just to be asked if I'd heard the Good News (trademarked, careful now) then I'd have to suffocate myself in that bedroll. "No, it's, uh. I had a spare personal cooling unit. Your jacket is kinda heavy, but you also seem to quite like it, so rather than have you go out and be a little baked potato again, I fitted the cooling unit into it. It's designed for power armour, but it does fine in jackets. It was so that... even if you didn't want to see me again, I could still keep you safe out here."

I stared at the jacket for a few seconds. His smile had softened from jovial to tender. "That is unbearably sweet. Stop it, or I'm making you find a dentist for me too." He broke out chuckling again. When I tried the jacket on, it was heavier, but it also wasn't stifling me like it was yesterday. This incessant niceness was really getting on my nerves. "Now. The Dad thing. You're going to have to tell me everything, because like I said, I don't remember the dude in the slightest."

"Right." He inhaled. "Our father is a pegasus named Gadget. He's a Dashite. He never-"

"Explain Dashite for me."

Rainbow cleared his throat. "Back before the war..."

"Simply, man."

He made a disappointed noise. "Enclave traitors get branded with the cutie mark of Rainbow Dash and left to die on the surface."

"Okay. Continue."

He cleared his throat again. "He never talked much about his old life, but I do know that he used to be a scientist for the Enclave, here in Equestria. He got branded and expelled after his research got him interested in trying to help the surface. Some time after that, he went into hiding."

I looked down from adjusting my goggles. "In a Stable on another continent?"

"The old man must have been really spooked. He got settled in, and... that's where he met Mom and had us."

"And this is obviously not the end of the story."

"Not long after you were born, Mom died. He... was never the same after that. He and I fought a lot, since I was a bratty teenager then, and you..." He laughed a sad laugh. "You were always looking for attention in between it all."

"War never changes, eh?"

"Then he just... up and left one day, when I was nineteen. I think he thought twenty-five years in hiding was enough, and that I could look after you. I, uh..."

"You both fucked that one up pretty hard there!"

He looked at the floor with closed eyes that mourned, but a smile and an amused huff regardless. "Yes, I did fuck that up." He shook his head and looked up again. "So I tracked him here, to San Palomino. The trail went cold, but I have a feeling he's still here.” Somewhere towards the end of this sentence, his weight broke some of the rotting timber he was leaning on, and he lurched forward, catching himself with the seat. He stepped back before he broke anything else. Have I mentioned that he’s built like a tank? I didn’t notice he was a pegasus until he flapped his wings backing up here. He’s easily half a head taller than me and like, not only has someone been feeding him out here, he’s been putting it to good use too. Big fucker, and all muscle. “I have some more detailed information back at base. Uhm… shall we?"

"Might as well, I mean this shitty diner on the road to nowhere isn't doing us many favours." Raygun suitably adjusted, I breezed past the counter to Satellite Sam's Special Delivery station. I flicked a token off one of the tables - it was next to a small plate, with some small bones in the seat - and ferried it into the slot on the machine.

"Atom, what are you doing?"

By some miracle, it sprang to life, giving some awful mechanical grinding sounds before spitting out a little plastic box with the space cat on it. I caught it, and the lid sprang off with the impact. I tipped the box over, and out slid a plastic-wrapped pair of round-lensed glasses with a swirly pattern painted on. 'HYPNOGOGGLES' read the paper in the packet. "Sweet!"

"Are you starting a collection?" Rainbow tilted his head as he watched me rip the bag open.

"Starting?" I shoved the glasses on, arms held in the strap on my goggles. They were on the tight side, but they'd bend to fit over time. "I'm having trouble controlling it."

He shrugged as he turned to leave. "I guess I can't criticise."

I hurried after him. I had to notice that he looked a bit unprepared for the wastes. "Rainbow, where's your shit? Do you live five minutes from here, or..."

"Oh! I slept on the roof to keep watch. Just a sec." He crouched, then jumped on the roof with a single wingbeat. He had that same sloppy wobble that I had when flying, but not as noticeable.

I paced while I waited, and boy did I have to wait. There were some clangs and clicks and whirrs coming from above. In fact, lots of them. "What the balls fuck do you have up there that's taking you so long?"

"Might want to stand back?"

"Holy shit, what are you carrying?"

"Heads up!" A few seconds later I was about fifteen feet away, having scrambled and fallen over to get away from the ton of steel disembarking from the roof. I had to duck from the wave of dust it sent out. When it cleared, there was the stupid bugger, standing proud as a damn rooster in a set of power armour. I’ll bet he had one of those spells that slows down time lined up too so he can let his goofy grin and stupid fringe dramatically appear from the dust, followed by scuffed steel boxes and tubes and hydraulics. He looked like the head of a Ken doll stuck on the body of a Transformer. He didn't believe in helmets, evidently, but it had all the other trimmings - articulated limbs, wing slots, laser battle saddle, and... oh no.

"Uh... riddle me this, Rainbow old chap me old man."

"Yes?"

"Are you a Steep Rover?"

He furrowed his brow. "Do you mean Steel Ranger?"

"That's what I said. Stew Rider."

He looked side to side. "Right... Yes, I am. Paladin Rainbow Code, at your service."

I scratched my chin and pulled some faces. "This is going to be interesting!"

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"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?"

"It's... complicated."

"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."

"Oh no."

"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!"

Paranoid

View Online

I jumped, and my clumsy wings ferried me up to one of the scaffolds where I could get a better look at Little Boy's face. The cockpit was set in its neck, flanked by huge shoulder armour buttresses and criss-crossed with reinforcements for the mucky glass. I couldn't make out anything inside - too dark.

"He doesn't look very lively."

"Have you tried finding enough rocket fuel to lift a building-sized robot? It ain't easy. All the hydraulics move like they should, and the matrices worked fine after being given a little love, but that's all on spark battery juice.That ain't gonna get him off the ground."

I swung to the scaffold below to inspect some of the rockets. "No MWT caches of hydrazine hanging around?"

"What?" Ivy said.

Rainbow piped up. "Maybe enough to lift a bottle rocket."

"Kerosene?"

"The vertibuck crowd would skin us if we took their supplies for a vanity project."

"Hydrogen?"

"We can barely scrape together enough water to keep the base drinking."

"Have you tried detonating balefire eggs behind him?"

Rainbow blinked. "Uhm. He still has legs, doesn't he?"

I slid down one of Little Boy's legs like a fireman pole, and kicked off his foot to jump over the terminal and land next to the two of them again. Ivy had a moment of intense panic as she moved her coffee out of my way again, trying not to spill it.

"Honestly we're just stalling for time. Like a good IT pony I've been making excuses to keep working on him, but Elder Saguaro wants him butchered for parts if we can't get him flying."

"Wow. What a dick."

Ivy sighed and rested her forelegs on the terminal, looking up at the robot. "It'd be such a shame to see my baby put down."

I ignored her. "Okay, so. Recap. The Scrooge Ringers and the Enclave are sitting in their bases squabbling over lost technology while slowly leaking their gear into the general population. Where does the Dadquest fit into this?"

I heard a thunk of Ivy's forehead hitting the terminal. "Steel Rangers."

"Yes, Spice Racks."

She grabbed me by the shoulders. "Steel Rangers. Say the words."

"Scrub Ratifiers."

"Are you defective or something?"

"Look, I'm saying Spread Reddit, I don't know what you're getting so irate about." By this point, my face could hardly be described as straight. Were all scribes this easy to drive round the twist? She glared at me and my decaying self-control. Then I felt that phantom, static-electricity-like pressure and tingle that comes with magic, right on the bridge of my nose. "Are you attempting to mutilate me? I feel like that's probably going to get you in trouble."

"It ain't you I'm mutilating."

I went cross-eyed. Ivy disappeared into blurry double-vision, but I got a clear (and uncomfortable) view of my hypnoglasses slowly twisting in the grip of her magic. My eyes went wide around the same time her frown turned into a smirk. "Okay, okay, Steel Ranger! It's Steel Ranger, I got it, just don't break my shit!"

The magic vanished, with my glasses mostly intact, save for some creased paint on the bridge. "Now. You were saying?" She fluttered her eyelids at me like absolutely nothing had happened.

I looked at Rainbow. He quickly looked away and started whistling, but he couldn't hide the smirk on the side of his mouth. I huffed. "I've half a mind to fuck off now. But since I don't have anything better to do, I'll say it again. How does my missing Dad fit into this?"

"We'll..." He hid behind a hoof until he was done chuckling, the smarmy bastard. "We'll have to go back to our quarters to get our personal notes for that. You'll be sleeping on our couch, and you can't be seen in the mess anyway, so we might as well bring you there. I'll be bringing back your dinner."

"You have your own quarters? No rows of bunks or anything like that?"

Rainbow laughed again, then talked quietly. "Not only am I a Paladin, and not only am I married to someone on base, and not only am I one of Star Paladin Turing Test's favourites, I'm also married to his daughter."

"Oh." I looked at Ivy, then back at him. "So basically you're taking full advantage of classic piece of shit nepotism?" No wonder Pickle Pep or whatever didn't like him.

He looked around pensively, then shrugged and nodded. Ivy slapped my shoulder with the back of a hoof. "Hey, if it weren't for favours from Daddy, you'd be camping out in a Satellite Sam's."

"Yeah, alright." They started towards the way out. "Show me to my four-poster couch."

"And you can still be camping out there if you ain't careful."

"Okay! Yeesh." Fucking highly strung scribes.


My latest attempt to get another ride on Rainbow's back was met with a suspiciously-timed offer from Ivy to attach saddle spikes to his armour. I was so going to put dog shit in the feet of that thing or something. It was suggested for stealth purposes that I put on a spare scribe robe or an initiate jumpsuit or something. I rejected this suggestion and proved that chutzpah would suffice by imitating Pringle Popper's accent and scaring the shit out of some grunt with a drill sergeant routine. They told me not to do that again, or at least not to do it in my civvies.

Rainbow stepped on a pedestal on the short wall opposite the door, popped the switch, and his armour released him. Their quarters were this cramped L-shaped room, though that might have just been three ponies plus a foot mech standing in a room that was probably fit for one with all the crap they had in it. One end of the L had a couch in it, and the other was taken up entirely by a messy double bed. The corner of the two long walls had an antique TV in it, flanked to the left by a stereo unit and a rack of guitars, violins, and instruments I wouldn't even be able to name, and to the right by a cork board plastered with photographs, maps, scraps of paper and strings wound around pins.

Then I had another one of those flashback realisations. He was in the middle of saying something when I flung him against the wall next to his power armour and pinned him. "It was you, wasn't it?" I'll be honest, he was probably humouring me, and could throw me off any time he liked.

"What?"

"You're the fucker that raided all the music shops, aren’t you?"

"The... music shops?"

"I went to start a band and every goddamn String Shack and Rock Ranch in the Greater Manechester area had been picked clean! There wasn't even a fucking kazoo! And guess who went around digging up musical shite ten years ago?"

"Oh! Heheh. Oh..."

Ivy lightly pushed me back a bit. "Pardon me." Both me and Rainbow mumbled something, and I shuffled back to let her pass so she could leave the room. Once she was past, I resumed holding him to the wall.

"Do you have any idea what a prat I made of myself getting a bunch of ex-raiders together only to not have anything to show them?"

He raised his eyebrows. "I can fathom a guess."

The door slid open again, and Ivy nudged me again. "Hot coffee, coming through!" More mumbling, I leaned back, she pushed past, and I got back to nearly-throttling my brother.

"Look, Atom, I'm not sure why you're more vividly and particularly angry about me vicariously scuppering your band before it could start than deliberately abandoning you, and I definitely don't know what you want me to do about it."

I shoved him again and let go. All I succeeded in doing was throwing myself off him. I pouted for a few seconds, then turned around and started pulling one of the guitars off the rack. "I'll take one of these for a start." It didn't feel like coming off the rack, and Ivy lifted the strap that was caught on one of the pegs.

"Do you uh... know how to play the guitar?"

"Sure I do." I swung it around in front of me, sitting down with the neck resting in one forehoof and the body on the ground. I stared at it for a few seconds. It couldn't be that hard. I mean, I was gonna play one of these in the band, after all.

I'll be honest, the sound that followed was worse than me peeling my sunburned ass off the bedroll back in that diner. Ivy was doing her best not to laugh. Rainbow looked like he wanted to cry. Ivy smiled, and lifted the guitar from me and put it back on the rack. "How about we just... hold on to this for you for now, and we get back to the finding your Dad thing?"

"I'm not a child."

The smile remained. "Then stop acting like one, sugar."

"Moving swiftly along." Rainbow rubbed his face a whole lot. "Let's get to storytime, shall we?"

"One second." I threw myself at the couch. "Okay, I'm good." This way, I could fall asleep if I needed to.

He cleared his throat and started pointing to bits of his scrap board. "Thirty-five years ago, there was an incident somewhere in the hills northwest of San Cimarron. Los Arabos is somewhere out here. Enclave raptors and troopers were spotted amassing, and the Rangers rushed some vertibucks to the scene to check it out. The whole thing was a mess. Nothing was recovered, and the top level of the facility was blown out. It wasn't us, and the Enclave were as surprised as the Rangers were, so it must have been someone inside. Based on the timing, the location, the fact that the Enclave were out in force, and the fact that his trail went cold here, we're confident that Gadget was one of the ones inside, and that that's where he went back to."

"Hold up. Something doesn't compute." I rubbed the back of my hoof on my mouth. "You've been here for ten years. Accounting for however long it took you to get Turbo Taz's trust..." Ivy whacked me on the back of the head with my own raygun. "Look, sometimes I'm just bad with names, okay?"

"Sure." Ivy didn't believe me. (I didn't believe me either.)

"Anyway, even with however long it took you to get this information, surely the Rangers would know where Los Arabos is now because they got there before, and you could just like... go there."

"Whoever blew the top level was trying super hard to hide the facility, and they weren't stupid about it. There's a paranoid level of detail involved. They were using some magnetic or force weapon to expel fallen troopers and rangers from the facility before they brought down the roof. No suits of armour left behind, no transponders to follow back to the facility."

"You weren't kidding about paranoid."

"Not only that, but the explosion completely removed all surface traces of the facility. It's like it was never there."

"Except for the big smoking scar in the side of the mountain."

"Heh. Remember when I said 'paranoid'?"

I paused and frowned. "Yeah?"

"They'd gone to the trouble of blowing the sides out of like, twelve other mountains out there."

"Oh for fuck's sake."

"One of those craters has Los Arabos underneath. The others are just holes in the ground. Without precise coordinates - which the Rangers never had, it being a scramble operation - digging it up would be pot luck, and even worse, after thirty-five years of sandblasting, you'd have trouble even finding the holes without bringing a geologist."

"Why didn't they start digging the next day?"

Ivy answered. "They don't call them hills the Death Caps for nothing. Ranger foot missions to the area covered by the former Death Caps National Park have a 65% casualty rate from environmental hazards alone. Loose gravel, high winds, steep cliffs and fragile ledges, all baked in desert sun. You don't go up there unless you know damn well what you're doing, have three or more backup plans, and an up-to-date will."

"Well shit. Someone really was trying not to be found."

"This all just adds to my suspicion that Dad was down there, because when I think 'paranoid', I think 'Dashite'."

I scratched my chin. "Explains the extreme measures in hiding."

"Exactly. But if that's where he was, then that means that there's another way in, because he obviously got out."

"Unless he blew that way behind him."

He chuckled. "We can live in hope."

I inhaled deep to process this. "So there's an underground science lab that the Rangers raided and then lost entirely, but you're think that Dad was there and tried to go back there, and that he was obsessively hiding something. That about the long and short of it?" Rainbow looked like he was doing some remembering, and then nodded. "So that leaves you with a dead end."

"Not quite. I'll spare you the long-winded details of it..."

"This was the short version?"

"Haha." He gave me a venomous smirk. "We started tracking things that might lead back to Los Arabos in some way. One of the most promising ones we've found in a while is a mechanic who lives in Isotope City, in downtown San Cimarron."

"That sounds like just the safest place in the world, doesn't it?"

"It's a baseball stadium. The San Cimarronians had a sense of humour and called their local team the Isotopes," he said. I snorted. "But what's interesting about this mechanic is that he is, in fact, a robot."

"A... robot?"

Ivy floated a photograph over to me. It was a bit blurry and silhouetted, but those eyes were definitely glowing. "One of a kind, passes for sentient as far as we can tell. This ain't no house-trained vacuum cleaner. The city treat him as one of their own. If he ain't one of your Dad's, then he's gotta be a late pre-war prototype. Either way, he's definitely from Los Arabos."

"And just to throw it on the pile, you get one guess how long he's been in Isotope City."

I tossed the photo back, and Ivy caught it. "I'm gonna hazard about thirty-five years." Rainbow touched his nose.

"The problem is that like Little Boy, Elder Saguaro wants to take him apart and see how he works, and they know this in Isotope City, so Steel Rangers are distinctly not welcome there."

"From what I've heard about him, I'm surprised Isotope City isn't another hole in the ground by now."

"Turing Test won't allow it. If Saguaro takes the City by force, he tears the San Palomino Rangers in two."

I cackled. "Nepotism and insubordination? You guys are gonna fall apart in a light breeze." Ivy grimaced and shrugged, that kind of ‘it’s a fair cop’ shrug. "So your lead to Los Arabos is a robot who you can't even get close to without getting shot at, and you want me..." I pointed in no particular direction with a hoof. "... to go and talk to him because I'm not a S..." I paused and looked at Ivy. She glared at me, and I stifled a giggle. "A Steel Ranger... right?"

"Got it in one, Atom."

"Good, because that was a lot of concentrating and I don't feel like doing it anymore." I twisted around on the couch so I was sitting upside down. "Now I'm hungry and uncooperative."

"Uncooperative?"

"You told me to stop acting like a child, so I can't be cranky. I have to be something else."

Ivy scoffed. "There is gonna be a betting pool for how long it is before you're sleeping under an overpass."


They didn't leave me unsupervised in their room. Ivy went to collect more food than might actually fit in her body while Rainbow made sure I didn't make a mess. I got up a couple of times to get a better look at his collection, and he had a seizure every time I got closer than a foot from touching it. On the third pass he dove between me and the rack.

"Look, why don't I just give you the tour?"

"And listen to you some more? What do you want from me, man."

"Well I'm sure as shit not leaving you unattended with my pride and joy, so unless you're going to sit on the couch and do nothing..."

I flopped to the ground and rolled over. "Fiiiiiiiiiine."

He nudged each of the hanging instruments to check which one he was looking at, then went 'oooh' and pulled a case out from under the stereo. He opened it, and lifted out a violin. I've seen infants carried more carelessly than the way he cradled this thing. "This is one of my favourites. What's great about these things is less the instruments themselves, but the stories behind them." I yawned. He didn't notice. "I found this maybe... three weeks after I joined the Rangers. One of my first patrols. I was taking a break to do some collecting. I stumbled across this shack, that I thought was recently abandoned. So, I started poking around in the shelves and stuff for supplies. There was a trunk that contained only some blankets, and this violin. Almost perfectly preserved - no major damage, no rot, a couple of scratches on the edges of the body and some wear on the strings, but otherwise a pristine pre-war standard violin. And of course, this was around the time that the little old mare who lived in the shack hit me over the head with a cooking pot."

I frowned and rolled right way up again. "You stole a violin from some old bitch?"

He kicked me lightly. "I didn't steal it, and she wasn't a bitch." His glare was probably one of the sharpest I'd had all afternoon, and I'd been getting a lot of glares. "I apologised - let's be honest, a tiny septuagenarian about Ivy's size isn't gonna knock me down, even without power armour - put it back, and told her I was interested in music. She agreed to play for me for a while, and then I had to go. But then, the next time I had some time off, I came back to see her again." I made a vomiting gesture with a hoof. He was off in his own sentimental world. "She was grateful for the honest company, and I enjoyed the music. I started bringing her sheet music, spare strings, tuning equipment, stuff like that. I was even putting together some recording equipment for her. But then..." He paused, but remained oblivious to me scratching behind my ear. Fucking itchy glasses. "Then she died."

"You killed an old mare for her violin, got it."

I got another kick. "She died of old age because she was old. She was in good health for her age out in the wastes, but time just caught up to her a few years ago. She left me everything that I'd brought her, plus the violin, and it's stayed safe in here ever since. The last sound this thing made was the last song she played me."

"You are a fucking sap, Rainbow."

He snickered, then sighed. "I won't deny that."


The tour was mercifully cut short by the arrival of food. Ivy pulled a spice rack out of the footlocker and drowned the sad canteen trays with four different kinds of flakes. The resulting semi-artisanal mash was weird, but I can only guess the Rangers' home-grown produce was sleep-inducing by itself, so weird was better. She said something about stuffing some of her mom's cooking in my face, and Rainbow nodded and made some noises muffled by his dinner being eaten in three bites.

My fucked up sleep worked against me come nightfall, since I couldn't engage in whatever counted as nightlife on the base. Ivy had to go do some scribe thing on a late shift, and Rainbow was going to sleep early for an early watch, which left me wide awake in the middle of the fucking night on a base crawling with guards who had every reason to shoot me on sight. Normally I'd be out the door and up to no good as soon as captain doofus was asleep, but I found myself struggling with this feeling that I didn't quite know what to make of. Self-preservation instinct? Familial honour? Guilt? That was a new one. Maybe the flashback in the diner had damaged my disinhibition (if it's dis-in-hibition, then shouldn't they cancel out and it just be hibition?), because on some gut level I felt bad about ditching him to go cause havoc. I still wanted to liberate his teeth from his jaw, but that was all I wanted to do. I didn't want to break his stupid prized violin. I didn't want to plant a cherry bomb in the stereo and wait for him to accidentally fuck up his whole collection. I didn't want to take a vertibuck for a joyride and let him take the blame. I wanted to want those things, but something bordering on the physical wasn't going to let me.

I was getting astonishingly cut up about this. I got up from the couch and walked to the door and back like, twelve times. I kicked the couch a whole bunch, and went up to the stereo and opened the case and closed the case and put it back and kicked the couch some more. Rainbow somehow remained asleep the entire time. The boy must have been worn out from all that talking, or he just sleeps like a corpse.

I wanted to scream, but even more, for some reason I wanted to keep my voice down so I wouldn't wake the fucker up. I got my subconscious to compromise and let me scream into the the couch while punching the back of my own head through a cushion. I threw the cushion across the room when I was done, and it made a loud bang as it knocked their conspiracy board against the wall - some loose fitting or something. Despite myself I hurried over and made sure nothing had come off. I made some more grunts and snarls and threw the cushion at the floor. Holy shit, was this how most people lived? Feeling attached to people fucking sucked.

The room was down to just safety lighting, so I couldn't do much, but I definitely wasn't going to sleep like this, so I carefully lifted my guitar off the rack and took it over to the couch. It was electric, so it wasn't going to make much noise unplugged. Fringeface continued his coma while I started figuring out some melodies by ear and memory. And thank fuck he did too, this shit was harder than it looked.

At some point I must have dozed off, because I woke up on my side and shivering. I was still wearing my jacket, which probably explained the cold - big load of use a personal fridge is in desert nights - and my glasses were askew. I ditched both of them (the room was actually warmer) and went to look for my guitar. It wasn't on the floor next to me, it was on the rack. I looked around the corner, and some time while I was out, Ivy had come back. Their alarm clock was duct taped to the wall next to their bed. I had to contort to get a look, but it said it was 4:34 AM. With any luck, Rainbow would be up and able to let me out at five, but I hadn't been paying attention, so I had to prepare to amuse myself for hours yet. Fucking arse crackers.

I went to take a closer look at the TV. One of the safety lights was actually behind it, so I could see that it was plugged in. I felt around for buttons, and kept pressing them until the TV made a high-pitched whine and static filled the glass square at the front. Loud audio static followed, which covered up my panicked 'shit shit shit' as I fumbled around for the volume knob. Once I had it down, I looked over my shoulder. The wolfhound and the cocker spaniel were still dead to the world. Whew.

I tilted the screen down a bit to use the light to get a look at what else there was to play with. I doubted I was going to find much of a signal, but surely he wouldn't have the thing set up if there wasn't anything to play on it. A box in the cabinet below the TV had toploading slot and another set of buttons, a bit like a tape deck, but jumbo sized. Maybe better Stables than mine were supposed to have things like this. I didn't feel like endangering the connections by touching anything else in the cabinet, so I shimmied over to the stereo and started opening doors in the unit. Most of them were records. The central part had the records that were being fed into the record changer. The one on the far side of the TV had some rows of chunky boxes. I nudged one out. The paper sleeve had some spaceships and some serious-looking dudes with rayguns and stuff. When I tipped it to the side, the box appeared to be super chunky tape. A square peg for a square hole.

Out of the corner of my eye there was some stirring. I ignored it and brought the tape over to the machine. Sure enough, it was the right size and shape for it, and when I pushed down on the lid gently with the tape loaded in, it clicked shut without needing to be forced. I wasn't reflective enough to properly see the buttons, so I squinted and started pressing some. The left-most one made a loud mechanical whirring, followed briefly by a click. The second did nothing, except for apparently making the lights turn on.

"Mother of Celestia, Atom, what are you doing?" I blinked and looked over my shoulder. Rainbow was sitting up in bed, looking like he'd seen a ghost. I'm gonna guess Ivy was still out cold.

"Relax, I know what I'm doing." I didn't, but I pressed the third button without breaking eye contact. The static on the screen went dark, and the noise vanished, leaving only the arcanoelectric whine of the screen, and the slow whirr of the playing tape. A few seconds later, a Ministry of Morale piracy warning came up.

He squinted, then crawled out of bed. "What are you watching?"

"Dunno. First tape I found." I shuffled back from the screen and sat on my front.

Rainbow turned the volume up just enough that it was audible, without risking waking Ivy. "Space... the final frontier." the TV said, with white dots floating about. What appeared to definitely be a model of a space ship swung across the screen. It started flying around with models of planets, as majestically as models on strings could manage. "These are the voyages of the starship Harmony. Its five year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life, and new civilisations."

"What a ponce."

Rainbow thumped me as he sat down a couple of feet away. "Shh."

"To boldly go where no one has gone before!"

A bunch of spaceships whizzed around, the opening credits rolled through, and then stuff started happening. They encountered this planet that was emitting some energy signal or something that they'd been asked to check out, they did some scans, and then some dude with what looked like a bin bag on his head or something came up on the screen, made some noises, and then they started falling around the set. The engineer shouted about how they were having some nonsense problem with the engines, and then more dudes with bin bags marched on to the bridge and started punching people. The captain fucking socked one of them in the face, and then some pointy-eared dude just calmly went up to the other one and like, touched his neck, and then he fell over. They seemed as confused as I was at this point, then screen-bag-head laughed and went away. The next scene was them teleporting down to the planet's surface, which... all the budget must have gone on the bridge, because I could see the paint streaks on the polystyrene rocks, even on this grainy-ass picture quality.

Then there was a flash and a click that definitely did not come from the TV. In a blink I remembered that the world outside the screen existed, and looked over. Rainbow looked like he'd had a similar startle. Ivy was sitting at the end of the bed floating a camera and chewing on a grin from here to the moon.

"Like foals on a Saturday morning."

"I'm gonna fucking scoop your teeth out with that flash, you fucking-" In the space of a second, I'd gone from sitting in front of the TV to having my charge towards the bed halted by a wall of prickly, glowing air pressing on my front.

Ivy fell back giggling, and Rainbow tugged my tail to get me to sit again. "Come on. You should get moving before the day heats up."

I glared at Ivy, then stuck my tongue out, and returned to my stuff.


Breakfast happened while the base was still quiet, so I got to see the mess hall. It was dirty and looked like it would be cramped with a base full of Rangers in here, and I don't blame anyone for preferring to bring their food to their rooms. Ivy was more interested in the bag of stuff she'd brought than the food.

"Okay, so. I did what I could to requisition you some computer solutions to help you around San Cimarron."

"Not just giving me a tourist map and sending me on my way?"

"Whyever would I leave you out to dry like that? Nah. You're gonna need the works out there. Unfortunately, I couldn't get you a pipbuck. Those things are practically under embargo. But if you can deal with a rough and ready solution, I've got a present for you."

"I look like I've tumbled through a jumble sale. I think I can handle rough and ready."

She opened the bag and spilled a pile of tech-looking parts on to the table. "I have no idea what this thing is. It might be a pipbuck prototype, it might be a school project, I really don't know." She sorted the largest thing from the pile. She wasn't kidding about rough and ready - there was a screen without proper casing duct taped to a cartridge slot, with a circuit board and some bracing in between. All of them were connected by fat cable ribbons. She had some machined metal strips with a few holes in them and a tube of glue, and she was gluing them around the exposed circuit boards as she talked. "It can just about run pipbuck firmware, so to make it run at an acceptable speed I've had to simplify it a whole bunch. There's just a map, a transponder, date and time functions and a jailbroken Stable-Tec bus interface."

"I see." I caught about half of what she was saying.

"You're just going to have to remember what you're carrying and where you need to go yourself, find your own radio, and I trust you'll be able to know when you've broken your legs without technical assistance, hm?"

"I think I'll manage."

She rolled out like, four feet of duct tape, cut it and folded it and stuck it to itself in some convoluted way, and then stuck one end to one side of the device. She grabbed my left front leg and put it where a pipbuck would go, then muttered 'shit' and flipped it around, and stuck it to one side of a suitcase clasp. The other side was already on the device, and it clipped tight. "If it comes off, just stick it in your bag. It ain't Stable-Tec construction, but the internals should still take a few knocks."

"There's rough and ready, and then there's 'held together with duct tape and prayer'."

"I can tape it straight to your hoof if you like."

I waved my other hoof dismissively. "Just saying!" She jerked me forward, and taped something else with a chunky wire hanging out of it to the upper leg of my jacket. She plugged the wire into the device, slotted a laser pistol cartridge into the upper leg thingy, and then held down some hidden button on the device. The screen sprang to life, blinking and whirring through its bootup routine. "Of course it needs an external battery pack."

"This is what has me thinking 'school project'." The rest of the bag was cartridges. "Let's see... office software, not gonna need that... if I give you Asteroids you're just going to get distracted."

"Damn."

"This one's some kind of digital textbook, that's no use... y'know what, none of these are any use to you, but the slot might be. Y'never know."

"I might find more games."

Ivy dropped her face into a hoof. "Get out of here."

"You're going to have to make your own way, since you can't be seen with us," Rainbow said. "In fact it's probably a good idea to travel indirectly while you're at it. Sun-up should be in the next half hour, so make use of the morning cool and try and get far enough away to come at Isotope City from a funny angle.

I double-checked the clasps and tape by shaking it. Seemed firm. "Look, knowing me, I'm going to meander over there so indirectly that the angle I come at the place from is going to be the least of my concerns."

Ivy sighed, grabbed my leg again, and pushed in a bunch of things on it. When I was able to get a look at it again, the data tab just read FIND THE ROBOT. She patted the screen. "Just in case you forget."

Space Oddity

View Online

The high as fuck guard wasn't on the gate when I left, so I headed in the general direction of downtown San Cimarron without hanging around. I know they told me not to go straight there, but I didn't feel like having to navigate this dump when it started getting really hot. I couldn't really bolt without shaking the toaster on my arm loose anyway, so the reasons to beeline outweighed those not to.

The walk gave me some time to think. My mind immediately turned to shower thoughts about the area. How many ponies were living in the San Cimarron area? Surely a desert settlement would have serious challenges with water, particularly considering that in a post-balefire landscape, there wouldn't be many living cacti. The Rangers probably had stuff like condensers and the tools for drilling down to the water table, the Enclave could have clouds shipped in or something, and Los Arabos had the ability to strip hydrogen and oxygen straight from rocks or something for all I knew. But the local settlements would have some real problems.

After a half-built housing project, the shell of a community college, another U-235, and an ostentatious glass-roofed shopping mall that looked like it was in decline even before the world ended, my thoughts had ended up on, like, how pretty much any music you can think of can be improved by the addition of a brass section. Don't ask me how I got there from plumbing logistics, I haven't a fucking clue. Point is, this is the part where I started... what is it. Humming? Scatting? That thing where you're making noises along to a tune, but it's definitely not singing. That thing. I started being really loud, and the slapback of that echoing around whatever shitty single-storey commercial block I was in stunned me to attention.

I stanced wide and looked around. The noise faded back to nothing. Not even a gust of wind or a creak of crappy old buildings. I checked my map. This thing had no fancy EFS or SATS to play with, which is just as well because I'd probably get distracted queuing up pokes on Rainbow or something - I was reorienting myself because I'd been walking on autopilot for a while. The sun was still low enough to be casting significant shadows, and I'd veered a little off course, but I was still closer to Isotope City than Roswhinny. This was when I noticed how quiet everything was. I mean, the wasteland's always quiet. When most of everything is dead, there isn't a lot to make noise. But without paying any attention, I'd walked the guts of ten miles in one piece. No raiders, no wild animals, not even traders. Then the thought occurred to me that if there was anything vicious living out here, it probably only came out at night. That wasn't an encouraging thought.

I rejoined Route 66 about a mile out from Isotope City - close enough to see puffs of smoke and the top of some cast iron loop over the roof of some edge-of-town warehouse - and followed the signs for Isotopes Park. (Brilliantly creative naming.) Somewhere around the exit for the park, the big metal loop came into view.

It was a fucking atom.

I jumped on the roof of some wreck and squinted. Nearly identical to the one on my ass - three ellipses and a ball in the centre. There were baseballs in place of electrons, and the letters "SC" in the centre, but it was still close enough that I rolled off the autowagon laughing. I poked around on the discount Pipbuck for a camera, but couldn't find one. Of all the logos, they had that. This sun-baked, crumbling ruin of a city was fucking calling to me. I glided off the overpass to the edge of the parking lot and pranced the rest of the way, eyes set on the big iron atom the whole time.

This thing was fucking massive. I was about thirty paces out from it, looking up at it in awe, when the ground next to me grew a fresh pothole. A glowing green, hot enough to liquefy some of the nearby asphalt, pothole. I jerked to the right and readjusted my glasses. I wasn't panicked. In fact I sighed. This was not unusual for Equestrians.

"Oy!" I called out. "What d'you think you're doing?" I paced, not coming any closer. If they didn't feel like talking, then I'd have no time to dodge, and I didn't feel like counting on my luck enough for another jet of plasma to inconvenience San Cimarron motorists more than me.

A few seconds later, some shaky voice with an accent steeped in the local flavour called back. "Defending our town!"

I sat and rubbed my face. "Do I look like a bloody raider?" I started scanning the walls for like, a ten gallon hat, or a moustache or something. Eventually I spotted some glowing green in a broken window above a big fat metal gate. The probably untrained operator of this magical energy firearm was obscured by the strong shadow of the late morning sun.

He paused again. "A little."

I sighed and muttered to myself. "Ask a stupid question..."

"J-just... just go away or... or I'll shoot!"

"Listen, mate." I stood up again and started walking. "I'm tired, I'm thirsty, I'm not from around here..."

"I mean it!" The little bar of green swayed around wildly. "Stop! Please?"

I parked myself in front of the gate and sat again, looking up at the window with the gun pointing out of it. "Just let me in?"

"I don't... have to, I... oh, gosh..."

I chuckled. "Look, your mum isn't here. You can swear all the fuck you like."

"Don't you start talking about my momma!" This just made me laugh even more.

The barrel of the plasma rifle disappeared into the window, and there was some scuffle. I only heard one side of the conversation, and it wasn't the side of whatever chicken-shit sentry I'd just been talking to. It was far too, like, assertive, and... gravelly. In fact I think I raised a hoof to shield my face from stray pebbles coming from his throat.

"Who in the sweet hell are you talking to, Caliber?" A pause. "You good-for-nothing pansy-ass waste o' skin, get out of the way!" Following this, a sweeping brush popped out of the window. Sorry, correction: it was a pony. He glared at me with deep-set eyes, hidden under some serious eyebrows. Like, I had a hunch where all the missing wildlife was - in this guy's face hair.

I smiled and turned my shielding hoof into a wave. "Hi!"

"What do you want?"

"A map to Blackbeard's treasure, what does it look like?"

He... wrinkled. That's about the right word to describe the thing that he did with his face. "Wise-ass, huh?"

"Oh, speaking of ass!" You can already tell this is going in a fantastic direction. "Did you know! My ass is on your stadium?" I stood up and turned to the side, grinning like the kid who's just learned to tie their shoelaces.

Then I heard his gun cocking. Somewhere in that forest of a head of his there was a horn, which was now directing the business end of a hunting rifle at me.. "You got 'til five to give me a damn good reason not to blow your head off, birdie." Oh yeah. Of all the wings presently in the San Cimarron metropolitan area, the number not belonging to the Enclave was in the single digits, and two of them were on my back.

"Well that escalated quickly!"

"One."

"You sure we can't just have a friendly chat about this?"

"Two." He sounded... bored. Like, did this happen often? If so, the Enclave were fucking retarded.

"Well, I guess this would be your idea of a friendly chat, wouldn't it, since you haven't just shot me already..."

"Three..."

"Uhhh..." I started looking for something that wasn't legging it. I squinted at him. Let's see... leather shoulder pad, roughed-up face but a little saggy... the number 51 on his collar...

"Four."

Wait, that's it! "You're a stable pony! I came out of one those things too!"

He paused. He was definitely thinking about it. "You're pulling my leg." Well, he hadn't shot me.

I chuckled. "I uh... I threw away the pyjamas because it was kind of a 'mug me' target. My original Pipbuck is in some Steel Ranger lockup in Jockeysonville."

"A likely story."

I scratched my chin. "That does leave me kinda stuffed, doesn't it?" I muttered.

"I ain't never heard of no birdies cooped up in those cages." Thank you for throwing me a bone. It's like you want me to get in or something.

"You haven't seen my flying!" I saw his eyebrow go up because of the amount of hair that went up with it. "I am a shitty flyer. There's no room in a stable to learn how so I only started like, last year."

He snorted. "Well then. Impress me."

Fuck. I was actually going to have to try and fly. "You're gonna make me embarrass myself, aren't you?" Wouldn't be proper security if he didn't.

He waved his gun. "I can still put you out of your misery if you like."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." I rolled my eyes, crouched, and jumped. I flapped my wings a little too late, and came straight back down. "Shit." On the second attempt I caught some lift and needed to tilt forward a bit to stay airborne, then I leaned back because he was pointing his gun at me. I got a hover going, and it was really hard work. I was listing very slightly to the left and struggling to maintain altitude, but it was a hover. Did you know that I wasn't kidding about being thirsty? I wasn't expecting a workout at gunpoint. "Hhhhhh," I panted. "Happy now?"

I could just about make out the wrinkled smirk somewhere under the woods of his upper lip. "I ain't never seen a stable pony fly, but I bet it'd look something like that."

I let myself drop and proceeded to vacuum up all the air in the parking lot. "Fuck, that took it out of me." That's what I get for not using my wings for a week. While catching my breath, I didn't hear the order to raise part of the gate. I shook myself off and ambled inside.

The foyer, to use a generous term, of the city had a grate blocking the stairs into the stadium proper. The staircases to the upper stands had been demolished, so that the only way to proceed was through this grate. A minute or two later, the living tumbleweed appeared on the far side and opened it. When I approached, he stopped me - gun still floating around - and undid the strap on my bags. I sighed.

"I packed my bags myself, I'm flying domestically, and there are no bottles of liquid larger than three ounces in my carry-on luggage."

He stopped searching me for a moment. "Sure got a mouth on you, don't you?"

"Hey, you're the o-"

"Keep it shut."

I huffed. "Well aren't you a blast?"

He finished with my right bag and moved to my left. He lifted out my raygun. "The heck is this?"

"My trusty sidearm. Alien construction." I think I actually caught a glimpse of his eyes, he looked so alarmed. "Vaporises hellhounds at a hundred paces. Careful, magic might destabilise it!" He dropped the fucking thing like it was diseased. "I'm fucking with you. It's a toy."

Oh dear, that sour look on his face. "You can have it back when you leave."

I scoffed. "Fine."

Once he was satisfied with his rummage, he closed the grate behind me and started walking. I followed. "Alright. Name's Winchester. I'm the sheriff here."

"Can I call you Chester, or just Winnie? Or how about like, Winch? Sounds like a heist nickname."

"If you call me anything but Sheriff again, I'm going to start reminding you what 'Winchester' means." He conspicuously did a thing with his gun. I don't know what the thing he did was but it made a clicking noise.

"Man, you've got this hospitality thing down pat, y'know?"

Winchester nudged me with the butt of his rifle. "Listen, missy. My patience with you ran out somewhere around the time I started lookin' atcha. Y'can spend your caps in town and stay out of the heat, but I want you gone by sundown. And if I hear a peep about you, consider yourself out on your ass."

"What happened to the other two strikes?" I grinned open-mouthed, and a rimshot played in my head. He'd probably heard that one a billion times.

"It's been a long time since anyone's played baseball in this here diamond. You're lucky to have even one chance. Now skedaddle." He turned to get back to his post, leaving me at the entrance to the city proper, overlooking the field.

Now here was some classic wasteland construction. Corrugated iron, girders, and tarps had been hauled into the stands and piled up on top of each other to make some kind of shanty residences. Laundry hung off ropes strung between them, and foals chased each other around the narrow metal sheets bridging some of the higher shacks. The field had been converted into a town square, with more shacks all facing some hovel in the middle. The far edges of the field were ploughed, and some sad-looking crops stuck out of the ground. Ponies milled about with big hats on, and more ponies slumped in the shade of awnings with crude fans blowing. I saw an awful lot of Stable jumpsuits, and the more I looked, the more I saw old Stable fittings - enough that I already had some questions I wanted to ask. I hurried into town to get some shade.

The central building was an open-plan seating area with a bar near the middle. The sandpaper-faced cowboys swinging on their chairs gave me a brief glance, and returned to smoking. A filly jumped on the table after spotting my wings and squealed, "Look mama, it's a pegasoosus! Pegeesoo. Pegoose. Pegajesus. Papajegus!" Her mother, saggy-faced and covered in dirt-stains, grabbed her off the table and carried her off with their breakfast in a hurry. The kid waved after me. "Bye, Mrs. Peggysauce!"

I slided towards the bar and occupied a stool. I tapped my glasses forward, looking at the raisin of a bartender. What was it about this place that made all these ponies so rough-looking? "Water and repairs. Preferably in that order." I did my best to neutralise my accent.

"Caps?" she grunted.

"Oh yeah, those things." After an awkwardly long root in my bags, I found that Winchester had not robbed me. He'd rearranged everything, but it was still all there. I spilled out a dozen or so.

She squinted at them. "How much water are you lookin' for? You couldn't dunk a mouse in twelve caps' worth."

"Are you telling me that in all of the Stable-Tec merchandise you've got lying around, you don't have a water talisman?"

"Course we do. And that has to serve the whole town plus crops, in this sun. So you gotta make it worth our while sappin' our supply. Thirty caps."

I grumbled and dumped out the dough. "This fucking desert."

She smirked as she slid the caps into a drawer and turned to a keg behind the bar. "Ain't that the truth." She returned with a scuffed plastic bottle with the top cut off. Even their glasses were improvised. I started chugging right away. It was warm, and there was something metallic in the taste, but I didn't care that much. "Go around the back, out the corner, and the repair shop is the one with the big shutter. Look for the space cat. Y'can't miss it."

"Space wh-... okay, sure." I know I was already a long way from home, but something was particularly weird with ponies from San Cimarron. This place was screwing with me as much as I tried to screw with it.

The alley she directed me to was partly shaded by netting and tarps bridging the two buildings either side. A sign hung out of one of the shacks, with a flickering spotlight on it: Satellite Sam. Oh. Space cat. Right. Even if the sign was originally inside the stadium - which was doubtful unless this diner chain was seriously aggressively franchised - why it was being used for a repair shop remained beyond me. I plodded up to the open shutter behind it, with the flickering neon 'open' sign hanging from the gutter above, nearly washed out by the sunlight. The smell of engine grease and ozone bowled me over. My daylight-adjusted eyes took time to find things in the dim of the shack.

"Need something?" The voice made me jump. I thought it was a radio talking to me. All I could see from the direction was a circle of yellow light with horizontal grating that might have been the tuning dial, and the voice was this smooth tenor, in a neutral, broadcast Equestrian accent, filtered through the tinny quality of a small radio speaker.

Naturally, all I could do at this point was forget how to talk. "Bwah?"

"Did you come in here looking for something, or are you just going to rearrange all my tin cans?"

The light moved, accompanied by the thudding clang of solid metal on concrete. When I realised what I was looking at, I lifted my novelty glasses out of the way and squinted. "Whoa."

"Yeah, get the staring out of your system. New in town, eh?" The light was an eye in a metal face, on a metal pony body. The other eye was a camera lens and some loose wiring sticking out of a recess that had a matching eye at one point. Pistons filled in for muscles on skeletal legs, a bent antenna stuck out behind him, boxes with electrical hazard warnings and vacuum tubes stuck out of a metal plate chest, corrugated rubber tubes shielded his neck and a few joints, and an unmoving snout had vents along the chin. Where a mouth should have been, there was a hatch, which didn't move when he talked. The cherry on top was a U-235 trucker hat, with a hole in it, and an antenna poking through the hole.

At some point in my vacant staring, he lifted a leg and waved it in front of my face. "Yoohoo? Ground control to Major Horse? I'm actually on the job here."

I shook myself back to earth and replaced my glasses. "Right! Yeah. Uhm..." I scratched the back of my head trying to think of reasons to waste this toaster's time. The tug of a bit of duct tape on my mane gave me one. "Just a quick thing! My computer thing here."

I lifted a leg to show off the franken-wristwatch. He looked down, and one of his eyes made a whirr. "That is the shittiest Pipbuck I have ever seen."

I snorted. "I know, right? The strap on it kinda... never was, but the duct tape is annoying. Think you can whack a proper belt on to it?"

"I might have one lying around." He turned over to one of the junk-covered tables. He swept a Steel Ranger helmet off of a toolbox to look inside it.

"You're losing your head," I chortled.

"I've got spares. The better question is, have you got caps?"

"Lemme see if I have anything left over after the right mugging that was getting a bloody glass of water in this pit."

He chuckled. "Heh. Meatbag problems. Don't let the sheriff hear you talking like that."

"Yeah, he's a barrel of laughs, inn't he?" I turfed out twenty-five caps. He looked over his shoulder and shrugged.

"Take a seat, this should be quick." I pulled a stool out from under a table straining with the weight of half a suit of Enclave power armour on it. I pulled the battery cable out of the computer unit and tugged on the duct tape strap until it came off. With the caps stashed, he turned back to me. "Hey, birdie."

I frowned and looked at him. "What?"

"Surprise!" Mid-word, his mouth hatch opened, and a grabbing arm shot out. In an impressive display of composure, I screamed and toppled the stool, grabbing the table behind me to steady myself. This sent the computer flying, which he caught in his stupid go-go-gadget mouth arm. "Hahaa. Every time." The fact that his voice had nothing to do with his mouth really bugged me when it was super-obvious like this.

"Fucking shit fuck, I'm paying you, don't do that!"

"C'mon, I'm just playing around."

"Yeah, yeah." I huffed, blew my fringe out of my face and pouted. He set to work.

"You got a name?"

"What?"

"I asked if you have a name. Are you always this articulate?"

I had to laugh. "I'm being wound up by an overgrown jackhammer. I'm Atom Smasher, who the hell are you?"

"You couldn't guess? It's right outside the door."

"No it's n-" I went cross-eyed. It couldn't be. "Satellite... Sam?"

"Satellite F. Sam is my full name."

I gawped. "Really? Fucking really? You took the name from the stupid diner mascot?"

"There's a story there, but it'll take longer than the ten minutes it'll take me weld a buckle to this casing."

I pulled up a second stool and lay across them. "Indulge me. I don't have anywhere to be."

"But I have better things to do than share my life story with strangers."

"Blehhhh. You're no fun."

"Scaring the crap out of you was pretty fun."

"Fucking bite me," I chuckled.

Minutes passed quietly. I reoriented myself to a proper sitting position, which was quite an effort from the lazy sprawl I had been in. I tried to lift the arm of the armour next to me and wave it around like a puppet, but it was too heavy. "Hey Sam."

"Yes?"

"Have you considered DJing? You've got a good voice for it."

Sam took to the tone immediately. Whoever wrote his voice synthesiser was a genius. "You're listening to K-I-S-C, Isotope City's very own Kiss FM. Last time I tried that, I poked the poor girl's eye out, and she didn't take kindly to the suggestion that we looked like a pair now. Coming up we've got the top 40, consisting of!" He paused, then turned to me. "You gonna find me a record collection?"

I swivelled in my stool from cackling. "Okay, okay. Fair point." He resumed working. It looked pretty finished. "So how's a cherrypicker like you end up in a stadium like this?"

"You're gonna end up calling me everything in the kitchen and garage before you're out the door, aren't you?" I just chuckled. "Maybe later. Your rental of my time up. Here's your shitty Pipbuck." He stomped over - since he probably wasn't able to do anything but stomp - and dropped the unit in my lap. I started fastening it on. The new strap was clearly half a seatbelt, but it did the trick.

"Ah, c'mon. It's not every day you meet someone like you." The cringe of what I'd just said hit me right after it came out of my mouth.

He ushered me off the stool by pushing it out from under me and proceeded straight to nudging me towards the door. I nearly dropped the thing before it was secure. "I'm sure one of these days you're bound to meet that lucky robot, honey." As soon as I was stumbling into the street, the shutters started rolling down. "What's that thing all the cowboys say... mm! Happy trails!" The bang and rattle of the shutters closing echoed around the street. The neon sign switched from 'open' to 'closed for siesta'.

"It's fucking half ten, you daft rustbucket!" No answer. I silently wondered if you could be racist to a robot.

I huffed, plugged the power cable back into the unit, and ran the thing through its boot sequence. There had to be another way through without playing all my cards. To busy myself, I kicked some junk in the street as I paced. A resonant thunk caught my attention when a can hit something. By now I was convinced they must have dragged a whole fucking diner in here, because I’d just bounced a can off another one of Satellite Sam’s (the space cat, not the robot) Special Delivery Stations. The paint had been almost totally scrubbed off this one (with just half the mascot and his shit-eating grin visible in the corner), and there were aggressive scuffs and scorch marks all over it. By the looks of it, Sam was having trouble getting to his own mail.

I kicked the thing. Solid as ever. What the shit did they make these things from, and why did a diner chain need military grade protection for their kids’ meal toys? I poked around in the diner-related junk next to it. Sure enough, one of the crappy plastic tokens was sticking out of some loose stitching in the seat of a tall chair. Some kid probably hid it there to come back to and never did. Mine now, fucker.

In went the token, bang and whirr went the machine, and out popped a plastic box with the stupid moggy on it. Inside was a plastic bag - hooray for unnecessary double-wrapping - containing some box thing and a label. The label read ASTRO-COMMS UNIT, with instructions below: ‘stick it in your tape receiver to get out-of-this-world transmissions!’ Woah there, Sam. Getting a little technical for the little ones. On closer inspection, the ‘astro-comms unit’ appeared to be a radio built for a data tape slot, with a big unwieldy antenna on top that was bound to flail around while running. Isn’t that just the most convenient thing.

I whacked it in, powered it up, and scrolled through the frequencies. The sound I was getting was absolutely shit - frankly I was surprised there were any speakers in this thing at all - but it was functional. The strongest signal was music, probably Rainbow’s record changer. Vocal harmonies, snappy beat, strumming guitars… oh, what was their name. That one surf rock band with like twelve number ones with the same title.

Never mind. Time to hit the town.

I Get Around

View Online

With the Beach Boppers or whatever the fuck their name was serenading me, I strolled around town looking for ideas. I passed by the bar and took a seat to weigh my options. I swung on my chair and looked over at the bartender.

“Hey. Who do I talk to about getting like, a history of the town?” I turned and leaned on my hooves on the table. “I’m curious.”

The bartender spat something brown into a bucket. “With those feathers, you’d be lucky to get a warning shot.”

I furrowed my brow. “Right.” Ol’ Winnie setting an example, I see.

“You seem quick on the uptake. So let me tell you this.” Apparently this was so important that she spat again and leaned over the bar at me. “Forget about nosing around. I know your type. I see ‘em every now and then. You’re too clever for your own good. You’ve already figured out half of what you wanna know, and you’re gonna start looking for leverage to get the rest. You’ve also stopped listening to me already.”

“Sorry, what?” I couldn’t resist.

She banged the glass she was cleaning on the table. “Don’t try it. The sheriff picks guards like brain damage is a job requirement, so they ain’t even gonna think once before making paté outta you.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.”

“No you won’t.” I smiled. She sighed and found another glass to clean. “They never do.”

Well, with a reception like that, I’d definitely have to find some weak spots to pry. I started wandering around town with my detective glasses on. They were swirly cheap hypnoglasses that were identical to the pair I was already wearing. In fact, they were the pair I was already wearing.

The Stable equipment everywhere permitted an educated guess about the origin of the town. Somewhere in the vicinity had to be Stable 51, from which, at some point in Winchester’s lifetime, the founding population of the town emerged. I had no idea what weird attempt at social betterment had gone on down there, but it had obviously succeeded, in as far as there were ponies around to build a town with. Judging by how everyone I’d talked to was behaving, maybe the experiment was abject, crippling paranoia. Either that or they picked up pretty quickly that being in possession of a Stable full of pre-war gear in a city with two techno-fascist paramilitary groups hanging around was a bit of a hazard. Tough to call.

I could break into whatever Sam called a house, but I have to give him some credit. If he didn’t hear me right away, he’d probably figure it out pretty quickly. He was already suspicious of me, so the risks there were a bit much. Most of the other locals didn’t even seem interested in eye contact, and I doubted eavesdropping would net me anything convenient. Except for the yardbrushes in stetsons at the bar, who, judging by the looks they were giving me, would feed me any old rubbish if I’d just ride the cowboy. I was looking for information, but not that badly.

I needed some point of entry. Anything that could feed me another scrap. The guards all looked like their vocabulary didn’t stretch further than their gun barrels, so while anything they did have might be easy to trick out of them, I doubt they remembered what they had for breakfast, let alone events 35 years ago.

There was one exception. Caliber, for all his timidity, at least seemed to be paying his brain bill. He also appeared to have all the willpower of a rabbit with self-esteem issues. There was something to work with there. I just needed to get to him - assuming he was still keeping an eye on the front gate, with Winchester in earshot. Which meant getting Winchester away from Caliber, which meant a distraction.

Fortunately, I know a thing or two about distractions.

Based on our interaction at the gate, I guessed that Winchester didn't trust the boy to do anything right. So in the event of, say, some problematic event in town, he would rather sort it out himself rather than send Caliber.

A bar fight was right out. If the bar was on fire, these bristlesacks would just call it a good run and raise a toast to smoke inhalation. Actually setting the bar on fire would kill my chances of getting any kind of information from anyone, along with killing half the city. Anything else fatal - bombs, murders, y'know - would have similar consequences. Then I leaned against a shack by second base to think, and it gave a loud creak. I got off it and quickly found somewhere else to think, because I could hear the owner of the hut I’d just bent scrambling to the door to yell at me.

Of course. These idiots wouldn’t know structural engineering if it came up and abducted them. They probably had regular problems with building collapses. If something were to fall over, or at least sound like it, then Winchester would definitely come running. The stands looked like a sneeze could knock them over. Some of them, apparently, were so unstable that they hadn't even built precarious three-storey shacks on them. Everyone probably knew those stands were condemned but didn't want to risk demolishing them themselves. Inhabited or not, though, they'd still make a shitload of noise coming down.

I backtracked along Sam's dusty alleyway and went around the back of the shanties on the field. A guard stood in front of one of the dugouts, with the door boarded up. I squinted and turned off my radio. Between his helmet and his desire to stay in the shade of the dugout, I figured if I flew to the lowest seats in the stands and bolted for the exit, he wouldn't see me.

I touched down quietly, but the sprinting echoed throughout the structure of the stands. I threw myself at the floor and stopped as soon as I was in cover. The next thing I heard was the clueless hick making some slack-jawed noise of query. Seconds passed. I held my breath. If word got to Winchester that I was up to shenanigans he would have no second thoughts about chasing me out with a gun like I'd slept with his wife. He might not have had time to tell all the guards what to look for though. I was looking into the exit, so the only way I'd know if I'd been caught was at best some yelling, at worst a bullet in the ass from some yokel who thinks I'm with the local storm troopers.

I heard him breathing through his mouth, probably no more than four feet away from me. "Dumb ol' bleachers. Things are a damn deathtrap." Stomping ensued, starting loud and getting quieter. I was afraid the stands would collapse there and then.

Whew. I crawled until I'd moved from metal stairs to concrete floor. Sunlight got in through cracks and crevices in the seating, and made beams in the dust. It was actually pretty cold down here. I had a quick scan for any drinks that might have been down here, but found nothing. If it weren't in danger of collapsing, the dugout would be a good place to have the bar.

I made sure to check out the whole place before anything else. If they traced bringing down a condemned stand to me they'd be annoyed, but I could argue it was an accident. Who knows, maybe Sam would put in a good word for me. If I succeeded in making a big hole in their perimeter wall, then my best bet would be to use it and not come back.

The internal access door to the locker rooms was in two pieces, so I could look over the still-locked lower half to see the top, with a dessicated 'no entry' sign on it. The door to the outside let in a couple of rays of light through the gaps in the boards. It was so dark in here that if the guard was looking right at me, he wouldn't see me. The lockers themselves were ripped out long ago, and all that was on the floor was scrap and rubbish and a couple of bones. Nothing of value here.

The end of the concourse that led to the next stand was boarded up too, presumably to keep ponies from wandering in here from stands that were safe enough to inhabit. It didn't take me long to find the lockers. Contents evicted, they'd been welded together and bolted over the fire exits. That gave me my next idea. I ran along the concourse, checking the walls for fire extinguishers. Two wall-mounted clamps were canister-less, but the next two were still there. The panels next to the empty clamps said they were water fire extinguishers. Thirsty town.

One of the remaining canisters was relieved of its contents already, by way of a rusted hole in the top. The other had a dent, but appeared to otherwise be intact. I took it off, hooked the handle in one hoof, leaned back, and slowly pushed the plunger.

Nothing happened.

I held it down and frowned. It spluttered. Brown sludge trickled out of the nozzle. "Well shit. Aren't you the most-" Then the rest came out. After ejecting a spray of mud, foam started going everywhere. The fright caused me to fumble it, stopping the flow, but tossing it into the air. I fell on my ass and scooted back.

Ever get those moments where everything seems to go in slow motion, like the universe wants you to get a good look at exactly how everything is about to go pear shaped? That fire extinguisher took an eternity to come down. It landed on the valve, at an angle, breaking off the valve entirely. Now basically a rocket, it shot up towards the stands, where it hit a support beam in the middle and wrenched. like, all of the bolts out. The beam tumbled from its wedge between the stands and the dugout, and kicked up a cloud of dust when it made a hole in the concrete on the concourse. The fire extinguisher came out of the exchange considerably worse for wear, and after blowing all of its remaining foam all over the dugout, it ricocheted to the ground next to me looking like a bent tin can. The now unsupported beams groaned, drawing my attention up. A shower of dust fell from the ceiling. I gulped and started running. I needed to find an outhouse, quick.

With the guards and much of the town distracted by the structural crumbling sounds, I had an easy time slipping out the way I came. Ponies were being herded out of the more precarious structures and into open spaces. Not everyone was responding yet. The patrons of the bar seemed particularly unperturbed by these developments, and nobody saw me duck into the adjoining latrine and shut the door behind me.

I quickly wished that this wasn’t my alibi, because toilets without running water are not pleasant places. I mean, I should have seen this coming. They probably recycle their own piss, they're that stingy with water. It was just a bucket. A bucket covered in stains with rotting sides, and a number of stains around the back of the place from ponies who were too sloshed to even shit in a bucket correctly. Some poor bastard had the job of emptying this thing. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to commit to staying in here until I could deliver my punchline.

I cracked the door open and took a breath (never has tobacco smoke and wood rot smelled so sweet) and held it. When I started seeing stars, the whole shed shook from vibrations in the floor, and the crash of the stand falling in on itself echoed around the stadium. I sighed in relief. Then remembered why I was holding my breath. No longer able to take it, I let the door fly open.

"Wow what did I eat? That felt like an earthquake, damn." Nobody was humouring my joke. I doubt it was helped by how green my face was.

"You!" Oh boy, here comes bristleface. "What did you do?" He knocked someone clean over on his way to me.

"Uhm. A number two?" I wiped my hooves in the sand. "Actually I'm not sure I did anything, that place could put you off a heart attack."

He stared at me. I did my best to look like I had a football in my ass. "I'm watchin' you, you flyin' snake." He started stepping away towards the stand. I kept up the most constipated face I could, until he was jogging towards the collapse. Then, I made haste towards the front gate.

The second floor concourse had been converted into a watch post, with an office made out of a beer stand. A scrawny thing with a helmet too big for his narrow head, swivelling on his horn, and a combat coat he was swimming in, sat looking out the broken window at... nothing. I don't know how he kept up his staring, I had to squint every time I was outside. Maybe he was trying to go blind so the old fart would give up on him. His plasma rifle rested against the wall. He didn't notice me climbing the stairs, or walking up behind him, or sitting next to him.

"Whatcha lookin at?"

He squealed. I looked over to see him somehow fumbling the rifle about with magic. "S-s-s-stop!"

"Mate, I'm already sitting next to you. If I was gonna mug you, you'd already have a knife in your back. Cool it, okay?" He looked a little offended, but put down his rifle.

"W-what are you doing here?"

"I came up to hang out. Our conversation earlier was cut short, you might have noticed." He smiled and huffed weakly. "You don't exactly look comfortable up here. Something about the stammering and jumpiness." He didn't say anything, and shot me a wary look. "What's up with that?"

"I... I don't want to be a guard, okay? I don't like..." He hesitated.

"... guns?"

"Oh, I love guns!" His eyes lit up. Oh boy, I'm in that part of Equestria. He pulled up the rifle and cracked it in half. The muzzle powered down. So did my brain a few seconds later, because I will admit that I am not boned up on energy weapon mechanics. "Take a look at this thing. Started life as two halves of a sunburst rifle when we found it. Pa shot down one of them birdies and it dropped it, so when we found it the crystal was in a million pieces and the chassis was cracked all around the radiators and the barrel had to be completely ditched, but I was able to rip out some of the spark apparatus and the rebreather from the birdie's armour and improvise an ioniser, and then rewired the capacitor in the rifle to be a magnetic chamber, and presto! Plasma pistol. So then to get a new barrel..."

"Absolutely enthralling, Cal. Can I call you Cal?"

He blushed and put his gun back together. "I g-guess..."

"I get it. You like guns. So what's the problem?"

"Well... Pa figured that if I was old enough to fix a gun, I was old enough to use one, and..." He shivered. "I get... scared... easily..." He trailed off. Well gee willickers, who would have guessed it?

"So you'll happily reassemble the things all day, but a combat situation sends you running?" He nodded and wiped his nose. "Surely you'd be more use helping out Sam or something, right?"

"Pa says guard duty'll put hairs on my chin." I looked under his face. There was some scruff there, but only about as much as Rainbow grows in a day. The difference being that Rainbow can trim it roughly and look like a beatnik with his messy mop. Caliber's scruff just makes him look mangy. Seems the whiskers skipped a generation.

"That's a dumb reason. I want to talk about something else." I looked behind me. Fascinating as Cal's life story is, I was here on a job. "Do you know where Sam came from?"

"Sam? The robot?"

"Yeah."

"Dunno. He was here before I was born."

"Hm." Figures.

"He don't talk about it much. He keeps to himself and fixes things. I don't know if he... likes me very much. When I was small he used to let me play with the scrap in his workshop, until one day I made a musket out of spare parts and shot his eye out on accident. I got my cutie mark, but he didn't let me play there anymore."

I snorted. "That was you? Fucking hell."

"I don't see much of him, except when he goes out with some guards on scavenging missions. I think they're going to the Cabellero Center tonight." This is also why he shouldn't be on guard duty.

"Caballero Centre?"

"Old mall in south SC. Scouts said it looked pretty undisturbed."

I heard steps echoing from the bottom of one of the staircases and turned. "It's been swell, Cal, but I gotta split. You keep a good lookout, eh?" See, now I sounded shady as fuck, but I had a lead now. All I had to do was make it out of here with my alien blaster, and without Winchester hanging my head on his wall.

"Oh? Oh..." Poor thing actually sounded disappointed. Then again, with the charming gent he's got for a dad, he probably doesn't get many people who talk to him without yelling. I scooped up my toy from his desk, quickly checked which staircase was echoing the loudest, and synchronised my footsteps down the other one. Butter smooth. Sorta.


I picked through my caps back at the bar to see what I had to work with. I'd done all I could here and it wasn't even lunchtime. Not only that, but I was really starting to feel the heat. Bless him, but I'm pretty sure that Rainbow's personal cooling thingy wasn't meant to work by itself. So, I did the only sensible thing that someone can do when they've got five or six hours to kill and it's pushing 90. I started drinking.

The beer was warm and tasted terrible, but then I was used to that in Equestria by now, and at least it was cheaper than the water here. The bartender didn't seem receptive to conversation, and I wouldn't understand the tumbleweeds in ten gallon hats if I tried, so I swung on my chair and napped and people-watched. As with all drinking sessions, it started off kinda slow and boring, and then evolved into dancing to the radio in my seat with a table full of bottles. Winchester gave me a glare when he passed later on, but I just waved and kept on slurring through words to 'I Get Around' that I didn't know. The raisin behind the bar didn't seem bothered by my self-contained rowdiness, probably because my caps were slowly being drained in her direction.

I fell asleep at some point during the hottest part of the day, and got woken up by a rifle butt in my shoulder. Now, nine beers in the middle of the day is less than conducive to mental function at the best of times, but add the heat and my lack of water to this, and I wanted him to shoot me. I can't tell you what the fuck he was saying to me because I don't remember figuring it out in the first place. The sun was about to dip low enough to hit me in the eyes (not helping) so I guessed peak heat had passed and I was being told to get lost. I wasn't terribly impressed, but I figured walking around in the desert in the evening would be slightly less hostile than Winchester's guest reception.

It's fifty-fifty as to whether I was right about that. I had to check my map every five or ten minutes, because with the two halves of my brain attempting to undergo a divorce, I didn't have a fucking clue where I was going. I'd forgotten all the landmarks from my journey there, and everything looked different with the sun on the other side anyway. I hadn't even cleared the car park before I turned the radio off, because centuries-old pop-rock coming from a tinny-ass speaker might as well have been battery acid pouring into my ears with this headache. By the time I got to the highway, I was ready to accept the embrace of death that awaited me when I would inevitably barf and collapse downtown.

Obviously, that didn't happen (way to rehash the intro, Atom). Somewhere south of the suburbs, I saw a pony on the road. The first one I'd seen outside since getting to this dump. Normally my thought process goes like this: if they're traders, go fuck with them. If they're raiders, blend in. If they've got power armour, usually not worth fucking with. I couldn't tell what I was looking at here, because flowing brown cloaks and shit don't give a lot away. However, the thing about the wasteland is that ponies who need much persuading before they'll kill you are few and far between. So I didn't really have much to lose by seeing what was up.

"I..." I paused. Talking felt like eating light bulbs. "I don't suppose you've got a headache cure with you, mate? A .44 calibre one, perhaps?"

The stranger laughed. "Had fun today, child?" I will admit, her voice turned me on. Deep and husky and purring but still quite obviously feminine. Probably quite a bit older than me, but that didn't stop me from tingling every time she talked. I spotted a horn and a couple of beaded braids sticking out of the hood of her cloak, and she had a big stick across her back with a bunch of stuff tied to it.

"Could say that." She didn't stop, but she was heading south, so I followed her.

A gourd floated in front of me. "Drink." My eyes took fifteen seconds to actually focus on the thing.

There were a few things it could be, I thought. It was either some magical cure, more booze, or poison so my corpse could be looted with a minimum of effort. Or like, any other number of weird things being handed out by a stranger, but of the most likely possibilities, none of them seemed like particularly losing situations. So, I sat and chugged, and holy fuck, it was like liquid candy, gloriously chilled. She had to tug the thing away from me.

"How do you feel, young one?"

I waited for it to settle before answering. "Less inclined to find a semi-automatic to play Stalliongrad Roulette with, wow. The hell was in that?"

She tucked the gourd under her cloak and started walking again. "Nothing more than the nectar of life." I followed.

"Um. Sounds expensive."

"Sometimes it is. What is rare is valuable."

"Sometimes? A magical flat cola potion is only sometimes expensive?" She snorted and chuckled, looking ahead. "You're having me on, aren't you?" She continued to giggle. "It's just Sparkle Cola, innit?"

"You must have been thirsty."

See, now I felt like a right mug. "It's just fucking water. Nectar of- goddamit."

"Sometimes expensive, such as in a desert."

I sighed and brought up my map to check where I was supposed to be going again. "Right. Thanks, I guess. I'm gonna be on my..." She'd turned to look at me. There was so much hair going on that I could only see one eye under her hood. I looked around and got my bearings. "... way..." I sighed again. "Man, I am not sharp today..."

She tilted her head and smiled. "Where are you headed? I suspect we are going in the same direction."

"Uhh." I scanned the map. "Caballero Centre."

"Indeed you aren't sharp today. Either because you're going the wrong way, or you take me for a fool."

I rubbed my eyes. "Fuck." Then I found myself with two small forelegs and a load of cloth around me, and the smell of cinnamon and pepper in my face. Why the fuck was she hugging me?

"Do not be bashful, child. It is just me, you, and the road. We may travel for a time, and then we may never walk the same road again. Your words to me will be as the wind. So, shall we?" With one foreleg around me, she waved the other out in front of us.

I blinked, and looked at her, and then at the road, then back at her. "Lady, I don't know how the fuck you haven't been stabbed for your shoes yet, but sure. You sound like someone who'd at least make sure I don't drown on dry land if I pass out."

She chuckled and started walking. "Wonderful."

A few minutes passed in silence. Fucking finally. Maybe my headache was creeping back in now with the placebo bubble burst.

"I suppose... I suppose there may be a reason."

"What?"

"A reason why, as you said, my trust in strangers has not been punished." Oh great. She's talking about herself. "I am of the Eagle tribe. We roam San Palomino, living off what we find, defending ourselves where we must. We are free as the eagles we aspire to be. But... the settled ponies see us as a pest. The Rangers and the Stable ponies do not let me close to them, usually. They see me dressed in the jewels of the desert and call me raider."

"Huh."

"Hm?"

I paused. Fucksake, I was having another moment. Why can't this hole let me be an irreverent asshole in peace? "I know that feeling." She looked at me with a smile and a kinda 'continue' eyebrow quirk. "The fact that I dress like a street punk notwithstanding, I mean, the spiky hair and leathers has been enough to get me shot at in the past, even like, earlier today." I was already feeling like a massive goofball for actually indulging in a feelings conversation, but hell, a bit of embarrassment is a fair price for some travel insurance. I was still forcing mumbled words out of my mouth though. "You're... you're the first person today besides my brother and his wife who hasn't treated me like I might eat your babies if you let me out of your sight, because of these." I frowned and gave my wings a flutter. "I mean, I don't even notice it most of the time. People being at least a little bit afraid of me is just standard procedure. And then someone like you or him comes along, and it's... like putting down a weight I didn't know I was carrying, y'know?"

She flashed a grin. "See? We already have something to talk about."

"Shit." Dammit, I was laughing.

"But whereas I trust everyone because I have nothing to lose, you trust no-one because you think you have nothing to gain?"

I went cross-eyed. Little on the nose there, weird travelling hippie? "Well... yeah. If nobody's ever gonna think of me as more than a loose cannon with violent tendencies, then I might as well have fun with it, y'know?"

"Have you asked everyone?"

"What?"

"Have you asked everyone you will ever meet if that is what they think of you?"

"That's a retarded question."

"So you have not?"

"Of course I fucking haven't, what are you getting at?"

"So there could be someone willing to see more of you than meets the eye?"

I sighed. "Listen, when you find someone, let me know, because I'm not wasting my time-"

"Hello!" She stopped and turned to me, and I bumped into her. "If what you say is true, then this conversation could not have happened!"

I paced back the logical steps. "I'm pretty sure that was some kind of deductive bait."

She patted me on the shoulder. "The world is cruel, more so to its black sheep. But pay kindness unto cruelty, and at the very least, to someone, the world gets a little better."

I crumpled to the ground and rubbed my face in the dirt. "Eeeeuuughh." She didn't seem particularly concerned. "If this hangover doesn't kill me, your sappiness will."

She kicked me and laughed. "Get up!" I did. Eventually.

I let some time pass, and so did she. The sun disappeared over the horizon while we were walking, leaving a pink glow around the western skies. She slowed down to watch, and I plodded along behind her, just grateful for the reduced light. Then she stopped, and I bumped into the back of her.

“Look!” She slid out that stick and pointed it somewhere at the sky.

“Listen, if we’ve got a hostile coming up we might as well break out the white flags, because I’m in neither the condition nor the equipment to fight a radscorpion right now.”

“Open your eyes!” She bopped me on the head with the stick. “The stars are coming.”

I stared. “Is this… news to you?”

“It might be news to you, Stable pony from the cloudy lands!”

I looked at her. “How did you...”

“Tell me. When you were small and you looked up, what did you see?”

I rubbed my eyes. Mother of fuck, how far was it to Roswhinny? “Ceiling tiles I guess?”

“And when you first looked up at night outside, what did you see then?”

“I don’t remember. A roof? Clouds, probably? Look, I know what stars are.”

“But do you know the stars?” She grabbed my face with magic and pointed my head at the eastern sky. More stars were coming out by the minute. “Watch!” At this point I was running out of energy to argue, so I humoured her.

I have to admit, she had a point.

I squinted at first, trying to find stars as they appeared. A thing that I was still having trouble accounting for, even after months in Equestria, was how much quicker the sun rises and sets this far south. Back in Manechester, in summer the sun will start setting at nine and not be done until eleven. Here, I can start looking in my bags, and by the time I’ve found what I’m looking for it’s already dark. Once the pink had faded from the sky, more stars than I could keep track of started appearing. There were the big bright ones that had been around since before the sun was gone, and the smaller ones in between them, and then the smaller ones in between those, and then I looked up and saw more of them, and there was the Milky Way getting brighter by the minute but it was already brighter than I’d ever seen it and I started following it up and then I fell on my back.

She laughed and threw herself on her back next to me.

“Woah.”

“Now, you know the stars.”

We watched them silently for a while.

“There it is,” I said.

“What did you find?”

“I think that’s the Plough. I don’t really know. Some crusty sailor dude back home told me about it for navigating. He was a bit shit at it though.” I pointed at it. Four stars in a square, with three behind it as the handle.

“Ah! The Great Bear.”

“What?”

“That is one of the names the ponies of the old world had for that same collection of stars.” I squinted at it for a moment, It didn’t make sense until I found the head and legs of the bear in the stars around it. “The stars at its feet were called the Leaps of the Gazelle by other ponies of the old world. My father did not see the bear. He looked at the bear’s nose and legs and the stars in front of it and saw a pilgrim, forelegs outstretched in praise. Others in my tribe saw a phoenix instead.”

At this point, I was cross-eyed. “Where are you going with this?”

She pointed her stick in the sky and moved it as she talked. “That star, is connected to that one, somehow. And that one, to that one. A different way. And that star, to that one, all across the sky. I know you have just arrived in the desert, child, but you are not alone in the sky. You are connected to another star, that is connected to another, and another. To the next pony you meet. To the pony who served you those drinks that are making you miserable now. To me.” She smiled.

“You are gonna fill my head with this free spirit bollocks before I get where I’m going, aren’t you?”

She burst out laughing. Ponies here seemed to come in two varieties: the ones that scowl at everything, and the ones that find everything hilarious. Wasn’t sure what to make of it. “Then shall we go?” She thumped my side and got up.

It turned out she was going the same way as me for much further than I thought, because I was still walking with her when we reached Roswhinny. I turned to her fifty yards out from the gate. "Well! Mad banter as this has been, this is my stop. Maybe I'll see you around if you go this way regularly?"

She smiled that knowing, cheeky smile at me. The same one she used earlier with the water gourd thing. Immediately I got suspicious. "Perhaps. Perhaps we will be walking the same road again very soon."

"What the fuck is it now."

She giggled. "Nothing! Nothing I have said is incorrect."

I had one eyebrow a foot higher than the other, then turned to go inside. A couple of bangs on the gate, a minute's wait before the space captain who was on yesterday recognises me, and I strolled inside. The gate wound down, and I looked about the place, trying to remember how to find my way back to Rainbow & Ivy's quarters in the dark.

Then I turned around, and the hippie raider lady was standing there looking like she'd successfully blamed a fart on the dog.

"What the arse hell are you doing in here?"

"Very soon!" she chuckled, before prancing off somewhere else in the base. I was, frankly, too exhausted, thirsty, and burdened with this fucking headache to follow her antics.


I barged through Rainbow and Ivy’s door, rolled on the couch, and let out the groan of the dying. Then I realised I had to get up to take my jacket and bags off. I contemplated not bothering because eeeegh.

"Atom! You're back." I let my head roll to the side to look at Rainbow poking his head around the corner of the L of the room. He looked even more of a mess than normal. That made two of us.

"Thanks in no small part to my requests for euthanasia on the way being denied."

He smiled, and ducked behind the wall again. "Just a sec." And then I died. Or, looked like it.

Then I had a thought. It wasn't hard to put together. He was in bed at 8pm, looking like he'd been through a wind tunnel, while I wasn't there...

I got up and went over to their bed for a look. Called it. He'd gotten back into bed and was spooning with Ivy. There was this moment before they noticed me, where he was whispering and nipping at her and stuff.

"Holy shit guys, I've been here for all of a day and you're already coordinating your fuck sessions around when I'm not in?"

Rainbow looked like his shower had run cold. Ivy flailed like a panicking cat, and then skipped grabbing something and went straight to giving me a telekinetic punch on the nose.

I must have been out for a couple of minutes because the next thing I remember was waking up flat on my back with Rainbow standing over my side. "Still in one piece?"

"This isn't even the worst wake-up experience I've had today."

He kicked me in the side. "C'mon, get up. What do you have for me?"

"Oh yeah, I was doing a thing." I rolled over, got up, threw off my bags and jacket, and plopped down on the couch again. "So funny thing about the robot. They call him Satellite Sam."

"Are you really still trying to screw us around? Ivy wants your head mounted on the wall as it is."

"I'm not kidding, that's what he goes by. I mean, it's obviously a cover name."

"Okay. That makes sense."

The door opened, and Ivy stepped through, brushing her teeth and carrying a bottle of water and a glass. She glared at me as she passed. I smiled and waved. She ignored me and climbed on Rainbow's back. He didn't even lean. "Hey, that's my seat!"

Ivy took a swig of water and spat into the glass, then rested her chin on the top of his head and hugged around his neck. "No, it's mine." Okay, she had a point.

"Whatever. I was just saying that the robot you sent me to check out is called Satellite Sam." Ivy's brow rose. "Pseudonym. He's a bit of a character."

"I see."

"He wasn't keen to spill any important details and got jumpy and dodged the subject, so no joy. I might be able to weasel them out with like, a few weeks to work with, buuuut..."

Ivy put her hoof on her forehead. "What did you do..."

"I don't think the sheriff likes me."

"What did you do, Atom."

"I didn't actually do anything, I seem to automatically trigger his irritation centres or something."

She raised a hoof and then stopped. "That does actually sound pretty likely."

"So sustained visits to Isotope City, not going to go spectacularly. I did, however, find out another thing." Rainbow gave an 'I'm listening' head tilt. "Sam is out of Isotope City tonight, scavenging."

He scratched his chin. "Probably not worth pursuing... he'd have guards with him, and I’d guess they’re already out there, and we'd have to get ready..."

I sprawled out on the couch. "I'm certainly not inclined to go traipsing out to the Cabellero Centre after a day like today. Man, I am hungry after all that walking. What's for dinner?"

When I looked over again, Rainbow and Ivy were looking at each other pensively. "Did you say, Caballero Centre?" he asked.

"Yeah. I'm guessing the pizza delivery is closed, so I don’t think it’s worth calling."

"Ivy, wasn't the Caballero Centre where Heather Grass' squad..."

Ivy's face went white. She hopped off and shoved him towards his power armour with a force I wasn't aware could come from that small of a frame. "You need to go. Like, now." Magic rolled me off the couch and on to my feet, and then dropped my jacket and bags on me.

"Uuuuugh. Really?"

Rainbow butt's armour did the thing where it folded around him. Ivy slid a locker out from under the couch, making me stumble away from it. She floated out a battle saddle and a helmet. She kissed him. "Come home safe, sugar."

"I will." The helmet dropped over his head with a hiss and a click. The door swung open, and off he went. The door remained open, and then I found myself being slid towards the door.

"Hey! What are you doing, I just want to sleep!" There was no answer, only the door shutting behind me. Rainbow was waiting for me down the corridor. I grumbled and followed. "Okay, what the fuck is up with the Caballero Centre that I'm not even allowed to sleep off the rest of this hangover?"

"Why are you hung over?" I was hearing more of his voice coming through a tinny speaker in his helmet than his actual talking.

"I spent the hottest part of the day at the bar in Isotope City."

He sighed. "That's your fault." We exited the barracks and entered the courtyard. "There's a manticore nest in the Caballero Centre. We lost a scouting party in there six months ago."

"Oh. Yeah, that's a hair in the soup alright."

The Lion Sleeps Tonight

View Online

I hate running. I mean, it's probably obvious at this point that I'm a lot lazier than is maybe good for me. Even at the best of times I will take every possible opportunity to dawdle, hitch rides and float on minimum effort. But since Rainbow was a one-man motorcade, there was no way we were flying to the Caballero Centre, and taking one of the vertibucks for personal business wasn't on the cards, brisk jog it was.

Well. For Rainbow it was a brisk jog. For me it was like fat camp. Every time I stopped with a stitch in my side, he yelled at me until I started moving again. This was not the unflappable doofus I'd been dealing with for the last two days. I didn't like this Rainbow Code. He was acting like a Steel Ranger.

At least I recognised the route this time - it was the same way I'd gone this morning. He slowed down when we approached the baroque old mall. This was good, because ponies jogging in power armour are deafening, and I still had a headache. He stopped across the street from the facade. The glass front and ceiling running down the spine of the building had all been blown out leaving a rusting skeletal frame. By now it was night, and even outside was pretty dark with only the stars for light, so inside was almost completely in shadow. The heat of the day was also rapidly dissipating, so my sweat actually found cold air to evaporate to.

I flopped on to the ground next to Rainbow. He looked down at me and snorted. "That'll burn the drink off you." I made an incoherent noise of discomfort and objection in between panting. "Stick close to me. I've got the EFS and the lamp, unless you've got something else in that bag of tricks."

"Why did you need to bring me along anyway? It sounds like I'd get in the way."

"You will. But it's safer with you here and not back at Roswhinny."

I chuckled. "Oh because, if you leave me with Ivy she'd kill me."

"It's more that she'd kill me."

"Well aren't you nice to your sister." I reluctantly got up and stretched my aching legs. Rainbow started walking towards the building, doing his best to avoid generating peals of thunder with each step. I crept along behind and to the side so I could see where he was shining his lamp. The light ran over a pedestal in the middle of the aisle while he was sweeping. "Hey. Bring that light over here." I bounced up to where it was, and the light followed.

It was a map of the mall. It was faded from exposure, but still vaguely readable. "I never figured you for a target shopper, Atom."

"You tend not to hang about when the security are flying lion monsters."

"Fair."

"Now, if I were a mystery robot and a bunch of hicks scavenging in an old shopping centre, where would I look..."

"Hardware, non-perishable foods, and in this part of the world, gun shops."

I squinted at the map as I ran my hoof over the glass trying to read it. "Of course there's a Satellite Sam's in here. I wouldn't be surprised if there was one across the street from another one at this rate."

"I think there is, downtown somewhere."

"There's an outdoors shop halfway down the length of the place, on the right. If there's a working torch in there, then I can start snooping ahead of you without alerting the entire postcode."

"And if that's where the main nest is?"

"Then we do something else, you ninny."

As we proceeded, I stayed beside him, and we moved slowly, listening out for any movements, heavy breathing, or gunfire. The floors and columns bore scratchmarks, and Rainbow had to be careful not to crush bones as he walked. A collapsed bridge linking one side of the upper level to the other diverted us to the stairwell nearby to look for a way around before attempting to climb over. The stairs had also collapsed, but we did pass by some toilets. Which reminded me.

I stepped over the broken door to the ladies' room. "Rainbow, do me a favour, close your eyes and point that lamp at the mirrors so I can see what I'm doing. I need to take a leak."

"Atom..."

"Do you want me hobbling away from a manticore, or running?"

"Fine."

I really did need to pee. Even all the heat and running couldn't get through all the water from that beer. When I'd taken care of that, I had a quick poke around for anything I could steal. There was a cigarette machine I didn't feel like jimmying open, a first aid box with bandages, and in one of the stalls, I spotted a glimmer. On closer inspection (I held up my shitty PipBuck screen to it to get more light on it) it was a tiny skeleton, clutching a stuffed bear. There wasn't much to identify the kid besides a dirty plastic headband on the floor. But damn, this bear was in pretty good shape, considering it had spent two centuries in the bog. One of the eyes was hanging out by the wire holding the bead in, and I don't know if brown was its original colour, but it wasn't ripped, had plenty of stuffing, and no signs of mould or any other ick. I shook the dust off it and stuffed it in my bag.

I practically strutted out of the bathroom. "Check it out! I got a new mascot."

"What? You took that from in there?"

"It wasn't in the loo itself, or anything. It was on some skeleton."

He paused. "Oh." I started back to the main mall, but he turned around. Without light to help me, I had to stop and wait for him. He'd gone into the bathroom (rude) and found the stall with the skeleton. He bowed his head and muttered, while moving the bones about. "Deep peace of the quiet earth to you. Deep peace of the flowing air to you. Deep peace of the shining stars to you. Luna's song of the silver moon to you. Celestia carry you in eternal light."

"Rainbow, are you... praying?"

He stood up and breathed for a moment before turning to me again. "The dead have no need for worldly possessions. This is no reason to be ungrateful."

I did my best to stifle my laugh. "Are you gonna go and give all those other skeletons in the atrium a funeral too?" He sighed, staring at me. "What?"

"Let's talk about this another time. We're on the clock." He hung his head as he passed me. I started thinking about names for this bear.

Since there was no conveniently caved in wall, we started climbing over the collapsed bridge. He pointed his lamp to the ceiling and I flew on to the rubble to survey it. There were a few bits of collapsed roof concrete, and a statue in the middle of this rotunda had broken off its pedestal and lay in pieces in the dried fountain. I scanned for anything large and furry. "Man, this would be a hell of a time for some night-vision goggles or something. Why didn't you grab some on your way out?"

"Are you kidding me?" He took his sweet time slowly shifting his weight from step to step to minimise the noise of tiles being crushed. "Requisitioning one of those things is a nightmare."

"There. The camping shop."

"You run ahead, I'll keep the light on you."

I glided across the rotunda to the far side. Outdoor And More had definitely seen better days. The shattered windows left 'closing down sale' posters hanging or lying flat. I couldn't investigate much with Rainbow still climbing down the rubble pile, so I wheeled through the rack of sunglasses and started trying some on.

He stopped at the doorway. I'm not sure he could even fit inside. "Really, Atom? It's pitch black and you're making it darker?"

"They're not for in here, you daft bugger." I slipped a pair of aviators into my bag. "Right. Torches, torches..."

"Be quick, we still haven't seen any sign of Sam. I'm not sure if we're late or early."

I wasn't listening, I was just prancing around the shop looking for useful things. Next to the counter was a wall-mounted rack of pegs. Near the top was a peg with elasticated straps and little boxes hanging off them. Curious, I took one down and looked for a button. Nothing. I tossed it and tried another, also to no avail, but the third one shone a big fuckoff white light in my eyes, and then I couldn't see for a minute. "Found one. Ow."

"Great, now let's move." He turned his light away from me. I wasn't sure what you were supposed to do with this light, so I wrapped the strap around my hoof and pointed it where I wanted to look. it was awkward since it was loose, and the light flopped everywhere. I had a quick scout around the place for anything else potentially useful. I stopped at a glass case with several unfolded multitools. Like, I'd come across some fold-out knives with a screwdriver and a pliers in them before, but this was just a metal octopus. I had no idea what half of these tools were even for. "Atom? Please hurry."

"Yeah, yeah." One of these things would be handy, but not the ridiculous ones. Maybe there was a miniature one somewhere? I passed a rack of spark batteries. A couple were corroded and hollow, but most were intact, save for dust on the packaging. I was impressed by the array of standards that there were.

"Atom, I think it'd be a really good idea if you stopped being in the shop in the next ten seconds."

I sighed. The hoof lamp was getting annoying so I put it around my neck instead. The light still wasn't pointing in front of me, but at least it wasn't pointing at the ground. I walked out of the shop. "What the fuck is the probl-" As soon as I drew level with Rainbow, I started seeing what he was seeing. On the upper level of the mall was something very large, prowling on the far side of the rotunda, and looking right at us. The light from his lamp reflected in the back of two narrow slits where eyes should be. Two long tusks, one of them chipped, framed a huge snout. A collar of crimson hair ringed its head. Its nose, tusks and mouth were all smeared red. It licked its lips.

It jumped. Rainbow fired. Eight beams of red arced across the rotunda. It roared in pain as the lasers hit a wing, and it crashed to the ground by the fountain. We'd already started running by this time.

"Okay. New plan, follow the bloodstains."

"What? Atom, that'll lead us right to the manticores!"

"And Sam's scouting party."

"Sam's dead scouting party?"

"But why would they eat a robot?"

"... ahhh."

We heard the manticore we'd shot down getting up again. "There!" I pointed to a big red trail leading to a puddle in the doorway of a supermarket. Near the doorway, some construction lamps had been set up near a generator. If that wasn't leading us the right way, I don't know what else would.

We slid to a stop near the checkouts. "Fly up on the aisles to keep a lookout. They're less manoeuvrable than I am, but if I run into- Atom."

"What?"

"That's a head torch. It goes on your forehead."

"Ohhh." I pulled it up to snap below my goggles. The light was now directly in front of me and followed my head as I looked around. That made way more sense. "Man, my face is getting crowded." The thumping of a heavy set of legs on crushed marble from outside got louder.

"Go!" He ran away into the aisles. I jumped, flapped once, and was on top of them. I kicked over a two-hundred-year-old cup of coffee that had been left up here. It was completely dry by now, but it was still baffling. Why would you put this up here? "Atom, if you get distracted, so help me Celestia..." Am I really that predictable? Damn.

Rainbow was somewhere in the middle of the place when the manticore arrived. It seemed to have trouble with the doorway, and had to crawl before reaching the higher ceiling. It sniffed the air. I glided from aisle to aisle, staying relatively close to Rainbow. The manticore started pacing down the aisles. It could definitely see me, but I think it didn't fancy its chances of successfully leaping over the shelves to get to me. "It's just stalking us."

"I'm picking up three more hostiles on EFS, two upstairs. I think they're herding us."

"Where's the other one?"

"Northwest."

"I don't have a compass, Rainbow!" The manticore kept itself directly between me and the way we came in. I gave the exit a look. Shuttered.

"You were in that camping shop long enough!"

"Just tell me the aisle!"

"The aisle that I can't see?"

I started looking around. At the exit end of the place - the north end, I suppose - and at the back wall, by the pets and cleaning supplies section, was another big furball. No mane on this one. "Never mind. Found it." I flew from one row of aisles to the other, over Rainbow. He slowed down, and started looking both ways. "So, any bright ideas?"

"I'm picking up a friendly, south-southwest."

"So, at those collapsed shelves by the bread counter?"

"How sturdy are these shelves?"

I planted all four hooves and threw my weight from side to side. The shelf wobbled with me. "About as sturdy as a homework excuse."

"Well, there goes any tight spaces advantage I had." The manticore by the exit end started prowling towards us along the back wall.

"I've got an idea."

"Oh no."

I jumped along a couple of shelves. "See this one I'm standing on? I want you to ram it as hard as you can."

"What?"

"Not yet."

He paused. I watched the manticore approach, flapping its tiny wings and bashing the dairy shelf beside it with its tail. "Ooh. I get it."

"Wait for it." It was utterly unafraid of me. It knew that I wasn't running away, so it was calmly padding over to us. It was close enough to smell. Rancid gore, sickly mange, and a faint aroma of dung. It snorted as it reached my shelf. "Now."

The shelf escaped from under me, with the crash of eight hundred pounds of turbo-charged metal colliding into it. This was my cue to fly back across the central aisle. The manticore roared as the shelf pinned it against the the back wall. Rainbow backed up and planted. The other manticore had broken into a run. I looked at it, and when it found itself in the spotlight, it scrambled to a stop, and turned around to try another way. The pinned one roared again, swinging one of its front paws, knocking the shelf aside like a cardboard box, and crushing the next one over in the process.

All this did was open the way for Rainbow to open fire. The supermarket lit up in pink and red. It howled in pain, and scrambled away along the back wall. The lasers turned some cereal boxes into goo, before the last shot clipped its tail, and it was away. His lasers powered down in time for me to hear soft crunching to my left, getting louder. I looked over. So that's where the other one went.

"Incoming!"

Rainbow jumped forward. He was slow, and got a punch in the butt, but with the daddy manticore charging down the aisle towards him, it could have been a lot worse. The impact sent him spinning into the already collapsed shelves. "I'm okay!"

The manticore slid to a stop, eventually colliding with the bargain bin and sending some cheap garden furniture flying. I hopped along the aisles to approach it from the side. Distract it so Rainbow could recover maybe? I dunno. Adrenaline isn't always conducive to tactical decisions, especially when you're me. It took a swing at me when I got close. I was too quick for it (which is good, because that paw was the same size as me), but it did give the shelf a bang. It leaned over, and I had to jump to the next one over, but it only swayed. The wine bottles on the top shelf fell off and crashed to the floor. A crying shame, but it brought the centre of gravity lower. I'd be back for this aisle later.

Rainbow stepped out of the wreckage and planted again. This time, no stare-down, just firing as soon as he was in position. Or at least, for five shots, four of which hit the 18-packs of toilet roll at the far end of the room and set them on fire. After that, the rig on his back made a bunch of sparking and clicking noises. "Oh, buggery." The manticore charged again, but this time he was better prepared, and ducked down one of the aisles towards the checkouts.

"Where's the other one gone?"

He paused. "Upstairs."

"What?"

"It's moving with one of the others."

I thought about this for a moment. "Maybe they're a family unit? Getting the babies away from danger?"

"I'll take it if it means we've only got one to deal with, because I'm empty."

"You didn't check your ammo before you left?"

"We were in a hurry!"

I sighed and scanned the aisles. "What does it take?"

"Atom, you're not gonna find microspark cells in an EZ-Mart."

I wasn't looking at the gun aisle. "Keep bullfighting, I'll be back."

First order of business: pull down the burning TP. A rickety place like this is not a good place for a fire. Next: electronics. I started taking down packets of batteries and comparing them in size of the cells in the power pack for my ShitBuck (registered trademark). AA seemed to match, so I scooped up some boxes of them, and the next sizes up and down.

Rainbow ducked in between some shelves again, returning to the centre aisle. The manticore spotted me and continued towards me, so I did the same. I was much closer to the north wall, so it ploughed into a stray trolley and bodied a wall of stationery. I scrambled over to Rainbow. "Hold still." I thumped the ammo box, and the chain of spent cells flopped out. The AA's were closest in size, so I ripped open two twelve-packs and loaded them in.

"I'll have you know that this is a very rare eight-barelled chain laser, and if you break it I'm going to have to explain to Turing Test that the scruffy troublemaker I let on the base turned an expensive MEW into a box of slag by loading consumer batteries into it."

"If I break your toy, you're going to have bigger problems than that." I folded the chain back up, slammed the lid down, and tapped his back. The manticore rounded on the central aisle again, panting and padding slowly towards us.

"I've got an error."

"Is that bad?"

"It might still fire, but I don't have a count. Don't worry, this happens all the time with knock-off ammunition."

"How often do you use knock-off ammunition?"

"Never, you twit."

It charged. I ducked. He fired. It was yellow, but it fired. A spray of the shots hit the thing in the face, across the bridge of its nose and in one of its eyes. It roared in pain and stopped its charge. Rainbow paused, then fired again, hitting its already injured wing a few times. At this, it’d had enough, and scrambled away. I flew up on the aisles to see where it was going. There was a metallic screech as it charged the shutters blocking the exit, and I can only guess, pulled it off its rollers entirely.

I dropped to the ground beside Rainbow. "All clear?"

He panted. "All hostiles are leaving EFS range."

"So how did two of those things take out a whole squad?"

"My guess is..." He pulled off his helmet and sat it behind his head, between his wings. His lamp went out, leaving only my head torch to see by. His mane was all matted to his face. "They were on a standard patrol. They probably stomped in like they owned the place. Manties got the drop on 'em and they couldn't use their big guns that close."

"Right." The silence was nice after all that. I thumped his ammo box. The batteries were singed and smoking, and I smelled something that was probably some kind of toxic chemical, but the mechanism looked unharmed. I shook them out before they had a chance to melt something.

"That was... actually pretty clever, Atom. I'll have to bring some of those back and see what the scribes can make of it."

"You're damn right, it was. Now let's find that robot." If you could hear a frown, that's what I heard from him.

The shelves by the bread counter showed signs of previous combat. A shelf was on its side, and two more shelves had been thrown into the bakery, making a complete mess of the whole area. He stopped in front of the downed shelf and crouched to try and see under it. "Hello? Who's down there?"

There was a pause. Then that radio-filtered voice I'd heard earlier called back. "Oh don't worry about me, I'm just peachy. You should try this some time, it's like a heavy massage. Really works out the tension."

Rainbow looked at me. I giggled. "Are you hurt?"

"My pride is hurt."

He sighed. "Don't go anywhere, I'll have you out in a sec."

"Did you just tell me not to go anywhere?"

Rainbow stood at one of the long sides of the shelf, wedged his front hooves under it, and lifted. With the power armour, it was trivial. The shelf couldn't have been terribly heavy with its contents liberated, and he could probably lift the empty shelf by himself without armour, but with, it was like flipping a rug. He lifted with enough force to flip it over completely, so it crashed down on its other wide face.

Sam knocked some dessicated baguettes away and pushed himself up. "Let's see, antenna correctly bent, servos... a little squeaky, hat..." He put a metal hoof on his head and nudged his cap. "Check. Everything ship shape. So, who should I be thanking for..." I looked over to Rainbow without thinking, lighting him up. Sam squealed.

Rainbow looked down and remembered what he was wearing. "I can explain!"

"Well would you just look at the time! I've got to feed my oven and I left the cat on. I’d better be on my w-"

I reached out and stopped him. "Wait! It's not what you think."

His one grated eye lit up brighter than normal - enough to see me with. "Atom Smasher! I should have known you were with the local thugs, asking all those questions."

"If you’d just hear us out..."

"The hell with that, I'm getting out of here before more of you pricks show up." He shoved me off and started walking as fast as his hydraulic legs would carry him. I looked at Rainbow and shrugged.

"Does the name Gadget mean anything to you?" he called out.

Sam stopped. The room was silent. "What was that name?"

"Gadget."

Sam waited, like he realised he'd already said too much. He turned, and took a step back towards us. "Now why have you come to me with a name like that."

Rainbow smiled. "We're his kids."

"What?"

I held the lamp and let Rainbow do the talking. "You've met my sister, Atom Smasher.” I waved, because at this point that was all I had the energy to do. “I'm Rainbow Code. Gadget is our dad, and... we're looking for him."

Sam stepped closer to get a better look at us. Then he laughed. "Holy crap, the cranky bastard has been busy! You've totally got his face." He zipped right up to Rainbow. "Grease that hair back and grow out some scruff and it would be spooky. And you!" He leaned over to me. "I should have known those big green eyes from somewhere. Haha! Man, this is surreal." Rainbow chuckled and sighed with relief. "Riddle me this, though. How did the son of a free bird like him end up with... eugh. The Rangers?"

"Well..." He shrugged. "It just kinda happened. I followed his trail to San Cimarron about... nine, ten years ago, and got picked up. I was good at shooting and finding, and needed food and water, so, it worked out."

"Ten years ago? How did you manage to not swing around Isotope City before you got headhunted? We'd be way ahead by now." Rainbow snorted and shrugged again. "Unless you've got your old man's luck too. Pray you don't." I laughed. He turned to the exit again. "Walk with me. I imagine you’re none too eager to end up as cat chow, and one shelf falling on me is quite enough for one day.”

We followed, Rainbow first. I kept a look and a listen out. Following Sam led us out the way his party came in. There was no sign of them. I yawned while Rainbow kept up the questions. “So, Gadget. What was your last contact with him? Do you know where to find him?”

“Listen, kiddos, I'm afraid you've seen your old man more recently than I have. After shit went down in the hills, everyone split and I ain't seen a thing since."

"Oh."

"I know it's not what you want to hear, but I'm as lost on the whole thing as you are."

"But he came back, right? I followed him all the way to SC, and then the trail vanished."

Sam looked at Rainbow's power armour. "That thing isn't recording, is it?"

We got outside the doors of the mall, so that we were at least out of the darkest shadows. Rainbow pushed the button to open his armour, and stepped out of it. "Does this make you feel better?"

"A little." I yanked the power cord out of my computer thing. He nodded at me. "Did he ever talk about the Manehattan Project?"

I looked at Rainbow. I continued to be the passenger in this conversation. "If that was his science work, then not by that name. Never said much about it either. He didn't even say he was going, he just... left one day."

"Wow, did he?" He looked at me. "You musta been..."

I was staring into space, and I took a moment to notice I was being talked to. "I don't even remember the guy. I was, what… nine?"

Sam sighed and looked at the floor. "Always running from something, Gadget. Anyway. The plan was that after things went south that the whole project would be iced for twenty-five years. Wait for the heat to die down, then have a reunion, see if we could get things running again. I don't know how things went for anyone else, but I hit a snag."

"What was that?"

"I couldn't remember how to find the damn place."

"What?"

Sam seemed amused. "Who would have thought, eh? I'm a technological marvel. I have such a perfect replica of the equine brain that I'm even shit at directions. I'm sure if I wandered around in the Death Caps long enough I'd find the place, but then so would everyone else. Hell, your boss would probably settle for finding me, technicolour. Winchester might be an asshole, but Isotope City is the safest harbour a bot could ask for."

I was fizzling out again, and I leaned against Rainbow’s armour. He sighed. "So we're back at square one."

Sam scratched his chin. I didn't know robots could do that meaningfully. "Maybe not exactly. If you can find a way to get me in the general area without being followed, I can put together the rest. Dig?"

"It's a start. We can think about it more at... somewhere safer than this. Atom can go find you when we make a move." When I heard my name I looked up. Only then did I notice that I’d let my head drop. I nodded… somewhere.

Sam chuckled. "I'll do my best to keep Winchester from ventilating you next time you're around. Now let's scram before the furballs work up the courage for round two."

"Anyone else from your party still here?"

"Two of 'em are cat food and the third one shit a brick and booked it at the first sign of trouble. It's sad, but it's not the first time a scouting trip has gone awry."

"Any one you walk away from, eh?"

“Life in the wasteland.”

“So what can you tell me about the Manehattan Project? Not technical details, I…” Rainbow chuckled nervously. “I know you still don’t fully trust me. I just want to know what my dad was trying to do.” I wobbled a bit, and stepped away a bit to find somewhere more stable. Unfortunately, even two centuries later, the anti-hobo construction features of capitalist architecture were still effective, and the best place to lie down was on an empty bit of pavement.

“I’m surprised he kept you so in the dark. It was his baby. His pride and joy. The same work that got him tossed off that comfy cloud o’ his.”

“If there’s one thing I know about him it’s that he was absolutely paranoid.”

Sam paused. “This is true.” In this pause, I yawned and rolled partly on my side to get another look at the stars. Scenery tips from travelling hippies: not that bad.

“I would guess that for the sake of the project he kept it to himself.”

Sam laughed. “If you didn’t look so much like him, I’d be halfway home by now. Listen, next time, okay? I don’t want to play my whole hand at once. Maybe you can guess what it was, if you’ve really got his feathers. There’s not many things that would make a man tear down his whole life and start over.” He looked at me, then back at Rainbow. “And doing it more than once needs a little crazy on the side.”

This is the last thing I remember clearly. I curled up on my belly again and tried to keep my eyes open, but they were feeling pretty damn heavy at this point. My legs hummed from their hardest workout in weeks, and every muscle was happy to stop responding to inputs. Rainbow and Sam’s conversation blurred into noise, and before long, I was out altogether.

Let The Sunshine In

View Online

I woke up somewhere else entirely. It was soft and I was tired enough that I didn't care much about the change in scenery. Some time in my extended half-awake state, it went from being dark to being light, and I just grumbled and turned over and buried my face in a cushion. It gave me a face full of a pretty odd old fabric smell, but I paid it no mind, and just went back to sleep.

Some time later I started getting that existentially uncomfortable feeling you get when you're sleeping for a long ass time, and nobody comes to wake you up, and you clearly don't need to sleep any more but you've stayed down for a few hours more than you needed to anyway, and you start getting so intimately familiar with what you're sleeping on that it becomes impossible to keep sleeping comfortably, and you just get up because staying in bed any longer is actually a tiny hell. If this description sounds weirdly specific it's because it happened pretty regularly in the stable, and again after I settled down back in Manechester. I'd forgotten what it was like, from being on the road for months. Usually it's a sign that on some deep level, I'm bored. This morning, it was probably just because I'd been left alone to sleep on Rainbow and Ivy's couch for fuck knows how long. I rolled away from where I'd buried my face so I could get up and start doing something. Then I noticed a pretty major problem.

I felt like I was trying to walk with plaster casts on.

There was nothing immediately wrong with me. My legs appeared intact. My jacket had been removed and folded on top of my bags on the floor at the end of the couch, along with my wrist computer, glasses and head torch, but otherwise I was as I'd been when I fell asleep. Fucker must have carried me back and put me to bed while I was out. How infuriatingly nice of him.

No, I was fine. Nothing had been done to me. I was just stiff as all hell from all that running around last night. This isn't like when I was nineteen and had an assload of restless energy to burn off chasing raiders and shit. Since settling down I'd gotten lazy, and yesterday was the biggest workout I'd had in maybe a year. Taking a step felt like I had to file an application form to my legs so they'd start moving. It wasn't painful, as long as I did my best to walk without bending anything.

Swinging my legs around like a puppet, I started looking for signs of life. Rainbow’s bed was empty, and made up neatly. The clock read ten. I wasn't sure what time I'd fallen asleep, but it can't have been more than a few hours after sunset, so there was a strong chance I'd been asleep for the guts of twelve hours. No wonder I felt like ass. I needed some water, stat.

I strapped on my computer and headed out. They'd left what looked like an initiate's jumpsuit hanging on the door, presumably to aid in my navigating the base without arousing suspicion, that I soundly disregarded. If Packet Pie or whatever had a problem with my quest for basic sustenance she could go to the Caballero Centre.

The hallways were quiet. I had to wonder what the fuck the Steel Rangers did all day. Ivy was probably off doing scribe things, I guessed Turbo Task was in his office... making paper planes? Playing sudoku? I remember the Rangers back home being pretty invested in local rebuilding work, but they had shit resources, so after I did most of the work on the raider problem, they farted around getting cats out of trees and helping old people with their shopping and other filly scout nonsense like that. These guys here actually had stuff to recover and build on, but it was always too hot to do anything in the day, and their relationship with the Enclave was more cold war than open conflict, so I'd yet to see what effect they were having, if any.

The scribes servicing the vertibucks paid me no mind as I crossed the courtyard. I'd yet to see one in use, so I guessed they were also employing Ivy's tactic of "make up problems to fix so you don't have to do any real work". I waddled to the mess hall as fast as my rigid legs would carry me.

The mess hall was as dead as the rest of the place. The counter was shuttered save for one window. A greasy pony in a hair net sat behind it, with her face in the path of a fan. She looked bored until she noticed me. "You!" I jumped. "I've been fixin' to have a word with you."

"It wasn't me!"

She sighed. "You're that outsider that Rainbow Code dragged in the other day. I'm surprised I hadn't made your acquaintance sooner."

"Oh. So I'm not about to be thrown out?"

"What?" She laughed. "Nah. Maybe you hadn't noticed, but the mess is pretty dull most of the time. Get over here, I ain't rightly met you yet." I hesitated, then came closer. I noticed, over the counter, that her front left leg terminated at the knee. Her neck was covered in scars. "Name's Crumble. Stepped on a landmine 'bout eight years back and I've been keepin' every mouth on this base fed ever since."

Oh boy. Life stories. "You sure looked bored when I came in."

"Oh, sure, it's quiet now. But three times a day, this barn is the busiest place in town. I'm happier now than when I was out adventuring. I'd say I'm the only pony who gets to see everyone in Roswhinny regularly. Not only that, I get to cook for 'em." She stared into space. "There ain't much a square meal won't help. When someone comes in here having a bad day, they tuck in, and feel even a little better... well, it lifts your heart."

Fucking hell, all I wanted was a bottle of water. No wonder Rainbow was so insufferable, he was surrounded by sappiness like this every day. "Okay, you must be astonishingly bored."

"Hush." She chuckled. "You're a new face and I'm excited. You ain't had breakfast yet, have you?"

"No, I just w-"

"Here, let me fix you up something." Crumble immediately hobbled to some machines on the far wall that looked like grills and toasters. "I just took the breakfast trays off the heat, but it's a little while before lunch, so I got time."

"Water. Just give me some water."

"I'm gettin' there! Hold on to your hogs." Damn. Her accent wasn't as strong as Ivy's, but Crumble's down-home game was definitely on point. "So what has you here? You sound an awful lot like Rainbow Code. You from his neck of the woods?"

I sighed. Withholding my precious water until I made nice with the lunchlady was some kind of crime. "I'm his sister. Atom Smasher."

"Oh! Well ain't that something. He never said you were coming!"

"I imagine he wasn't expecting me to have a warm welcome."

"Oh, psh." She waved her stump in what I'm guessing was a dismissive gesture. "You're just another part of the family."

"Then can you help a sister out and get me some damn water?"

"It's comin'!" She turned a slice of something and turned her attention to a drum with a tap. I guess she must have been used to it, but I couldn't help but be impressed at how dexterously she managed to serve things up with only the one leg to work with. At least get her a wheel, or something. A bottle slid on to the counter in front of me. "Now, don't go nowhere now that you've got what you came for. Sit down and humour me."

"Yeesh, okay!" I scooped up the bottle and chugged. Sweet, sweet nectar of life. Crumble slid a few steaming things on to a plate, then on to a tray, then slid the tray on to her back. I was busy drowning myself. She nudged open the half-door to cross the counter, then hobbled to the nearest table and sat with it. I dared not abandon her. I'd bet she could chase me down and force-feed me when I was having a good day, and maybe with only two legs. I was also kinda hungry, so I figured I might as well.

"What are you, part fish? Slow down!"

"You leave my heritage out of this!" I smirked and began scarfing down the food. There was like, a toasted potato thing, some reconstituted pre-war preserved omelette that had been revitalised with a couple of fresh ingredients, and some kind of beans in a sauce. I got lost in the food. I'd forgotten that I hadn't eaten since yesterday morning. When I ran out of food, I emerged from my feeding trance, with Crumble beaming at me across the table.

"Didn't touch the sides, did it?"

"More?" I squeaked.

She slapped her knee laughing. "Negative, soldier. We ain't got formal rationing, but someone has to keep track of supplies, and that's me. You're already being fed out of the seconds pool, and that comes from rangers skipping meals, calling in sick, or worse. Don't push your luck, kid."

"You'd be surprised how much I can, and do."

The doors swung open and banged on the wall. "There you are!" Ivy strode over. "Crumble, are you fattening up my sister-in-law?" Hearing that out loud was weird.

Crumble turned in her chair. "Damn! Caught in the act again."

I wiped my mouth of bits of grease and egg. "You're not brandishing something sharp and-or heavy at me. What have you done with Ivy Bells?"

Ivy rolled her eyes. "Atom, come on before someone sees you out here."

"Never mind." I downed the rest of the water and stood up.

Crumble tapped my shoulder as I passed. "Don't be a stranger!"

"Right."

Ivy waved and smiled as she began her return path. "We'll see you at lunch!"

Outisde, Ivy started leading me back to the room. I was still waddling along, but I definitely felt better than earlier. "What's going on? Why can't I find anyone?"

"Because you're wandering around mid-morning, you big dummy. Some of us are working."

"Gee, thanks."

"Rainbow's just back from patrol, he's in debrief. We wanted to go over what you found together when you woke up."

I wasn't terribly focussed on that part. "You're being pretty damn cordial and cooperative, considering the last time I saw you, you'd just decked me. I'm amazed I woke up with both my eyes."

She burst out laughing. "Atom!" She continued giggling for a moment, then stopped. We were in one of the cooler inner hallways. "Atom, I... I feel like we got off on the wrong hoof. Rainbow is so excited to have you back in his life, and it'd break his heart if we didn't get along."

I looked up in thought. "Y'know, you're right. Apology accepted."

She frowned and thumped me. "I ain't apologising, featherbrain." I mouthed 'that's racist'. She ignored me. "I just... want to make the effort. But I want you to meet me in the middle. Can you do that? Please?"

Why do people keep trying to make me have feelings? Ugh. I grimaced and huffed and hesitated. "Yeah, okay."

"Thank you."

I stared at the floor. "Can we stop standing in this hallway now?" Ivy made a noise like she'd genuinely forgotten that we were on the way to somewhere, and we started moving again.

Instead of leading me back to their quarters, Ivy brought me to Turing Test's office. "What are we doing here?"

Ivy smirked as she pushed through the door. "I can't be told to get back to work if I'm in Daddy's office."

"The last scribe I knew wasn't nearly as adept at petty craftiness as you. Maybe there is hope," I chuckled.

I followed her inside. She made a shushing gesture at a pile of dishrags or something to the left of the desk, then bounded up to the desk and hit behind it. I saw Turing Test’s cap over the top of the chair. The old coats and canvas or whatever it was looked up. Hang on. That was a stick, with some small gourds and dried berries and rocks tied to it, and...

"Ah! The thirsty traveller. Our roads meet once more." She turned and smiled.

"What the fuuuuck."

Turing Test spun his chair around and set his book on his desk. Maybe it wasn't as warm today, because he was just going for fatigues. "Atom! What brings you to my office, darl-" He was cut off by a lilac and lemon blur jumping at him from the side. He screamed, his chair span around, and when it returned the right way, Ivy flopped off the side of it and back on to her hooves. The hippie giggled.

"Hi Daddy!"

Turing Test looked like he was having a heart attack. When he caught his breath, he grinned, and grabbed Ivy around the neck. "C'mere, my little wildcat!" There was a bit of a play struggle, some noogies were involved, and then they remembered that they were supposed to be professional adults, and brushed themselves off.

"I'm still fucking asleep, aren't I?" Ivy pinched me. "Ow."

"Atom, this is my dad, Star Paladin Turing Test, and my mom, Babylon."

I blinked. "Wait, you're... what?" Babylon just grinned. "You fucking knew, didn't you? You gave me that whole stars spiel because you heard my accent and knew who I fucking was!"

Ivy frowned, looked at me, then at her, then at me again. "You've met?"

"Your friend walked the same road as me last night. It was enlightening."

"The only way this pairing could get any more unlikely is if one of you was actually a hellhound or something. I have got to hear this story."

Babylon and Turing Test looked at each other for a moment, and then they both burst out laughing. Ivy caught some of the giggles too. "Well, if I'm a cocker spaniel..."

"What?"

"Don't worry."

"See, I made this joke the other day, wh-" Ivy forcibly closed my mouth by way of cheating unicorn powers.

Turing Test seemed to think nothing of it. "Well, that's a story for another day. What are y'all in here for?"

"Last night, we made a big break in the hunt for Rainbow's dad! I just thought you might want to stay current. He should be over any minute now, and we'll talk out what happened. But we might not have caught the lead without Atom's help!"

I heard my name and looked up. My attention had already started wandering. "What?"

"She's got the same resourceful genes as her brother."

"I see." Turing Test quirked a brow as he looked at me. I didn't like that look one bit.

"You can stop that train of thought right the fuck now. Just jam on the brakes and bail out, because there's no way you're getting me in Ranger armour."

He laughed. "A shame. Might have been fun to watch Crusader Prickly Pear try and break you in. We could have started a betting pool on whether she'd have an anyeurism before she put some discipline in you."

"I'm sure."

There was a knock on the door. "Come in." The door nudged open, and a tan nose followed by a rasta mop of hair poked in. "Ah! You're expected, Paladin Rainbow Code."

He chuckled nervously and the rest of him stumbled in. He looked like he'd been washed, but in a hurry. He stood to attention. "Sir."

"Oh, close the door and relax, boy."

Rainbow formally stood at ease to make himself feel better, then quietly shut the door. Ivy gave him a nuzzle. "So. Baby. Let's talk about last night. What happened?"

"Well, thanks to Atom's reconnaissance in Isotope City, we got word that the robot - alias Satellite Sam - was going to be scouting in the Caballero Centre." One of Turing Test's eyebrows went up at the name, and the other followed at the place. "That was our thought. We had no casualties extracting him - obviously - but the ponies he went in with were already dead or routed."

"I found a teddy bear! I'm still thinking of names. My first instinct is 'Trashcan' but I feel like I can do better. But at the same time it's sticking, so..."

There was this pause while everyone stared at me, and then Rainbow continued. Nobody validates me, and then they wonder why I act out. "Intel from Sam himself is limited, because while he did react positively to the mention of the name 'Gadget', he doesn't exactly trust me yet, so he wasn't eager to spill everything he knows. On top of that, there was another hitch..." Rainbow grimaced.

I smirked. "He forgot where Los Arabos is."

"What?" Turing Test and Ivy said at the same time. Rainbow nodded.

I continued. "It wasn't a complete bust, though. He said he'd recognise landmarks if he saw them, but he doesn't exactly fancy a stroll in the Death Caps."

"I'm not sure how this helps us."

"It's easy. You just have to find a way to take him around the really treacherous mountains until he starts seeing things he knows, and also it can't be Rangers with him because he'll freak out and cheese it."

Turing Test blinked at me. "You have an interesting definition of easy."

Around this time, Babylon started scratching her chin. "Perhaps I may be of assistance."

I squinted. "I'm setting my comprehension centres to 'parable'."

"Ahead of you is a dangerous road. What you need are travelling companions. Guides."

"Oh, you're being completely literal. Okay."

"My tribe may be persuaded to escort you through the mountains."

Realisation dawned on Ivy. "Of course! They know the area better than anyone, and they're not Rangers! Are you sure they'll help?"

Babylon looked at Turing Test with a smile, and ran a hoof over his shoulder. "I think we can work something out."

He sighed. "The things I do for you kids..."

"I am returning to the tribe tomorrow at first light. Join me, and you may make your case."

Rainbow turned to me again. "Atom, you'll need to break off from us and swing by Isotope City to grab Sam. We'll need tomorrow free, at least..."

Turing Test scribbled some big crosses on something that looked like a spreadsheet and tossed it over his shoulder. "One of these days, Saguaro's gonna hang my head on his wall." Ivy scooted around the desk again, threw her forelegs around him and squeezed. This made him smile.

"We'll make it up later?" Rainbow's pleading grin was pretty terrible.

"Yeah, yeah. Go stay out of trouble."

"Yes, sir."

He lead me out of his office. Ivy ran over and hugged Babylon - I can see where she got her size from - and then followed us out.

"So, now what?"

"Well, Ivy, I'm guessing you have to go back to work..."

She nuzzled him as she went past and continued down the hallway. "See you later, sugar!"

He smiled, and then looked at me again. "... and we stay out of trouble."

"I gave that a try once..." He sighed and rubbed his face. "Yeah that one's pretty predictable, isn't it? I'm tired, fuck off."


The hottest part of the day is not conducive to trouble. I inhaled another bottle of water at some point, but didn't feel like even more sleep, so I had to go and find some way to entertain myself without boiling my brain. My first idea was to watch some of Rainbow's tape collection, but he was trying to sleep, so he told me to lie down or get out. He was particularly annoyed the second time I tried, and physically removed me from the room. Wandering outside the base seemed like death, so I started looking for cool places to hang out.

The scribe-hole had the benefit of being partially underground, but it also had lots of rare and experimental things, and when Ivy'd had enough of shooing me away from them, she gave me a ball and cup toy and shoved me in the corner. Feeling rather patronised, I spent a few minutes setting up a stealth approach so that I could drop the cup on her horn and have the ball smack her in the nose. While she did admit that she deserved it, she nonetheless told me to go hang out with Babylon or something. I took the hint and went somewhere else.

I was going to be sharing a road with... hang on did I just say that? Fuck. I'm picking up her weird nomad hippie crap. I was going to be walking with her for a few hours round trip the next day, so I didn't feel like exposing myself to that kind of no-holds-barred openness for any longer than I absolutely had to. Similarly, I had no doubt Crumble would sit me down and indoctrinate me into the Steel Ranger family some more at dinner, so if I could minimise that, that'd be great too. I couldn't find Parsley Patch anywhere around the place, so I couldn't even find a reliable clock to wind up. Unless...

I kept walking around the place until I found Elder Saguaro's office. It was on the first floor of the building overlooking the helipad, adjoining that bit with the massive floor-to-ceiling windows. It also made the concourse a greenhouse, so just being here was unpleasant. The door was open. It was an old flight controller's office by the looks of it. Someone was standing there in power armour, facing away from me, but I'll get to that. He'd made it less of a home than Turing Test. There were no paintings, no plants (you'd think he'd have a cactus or something), just dusty old blinds on the windows to keep the lighting dim and moody, and a lamp over a large desk. Prickly bastard probably ate steel shavings for breakfast. I had a guess that this was the office that people went to when they weren't behaving.

The owner of the power armour heard me and turned. "What are you doing here, chicken?" Well hi there, Prickly Pear, nice to see you too.

"I'm just looking to chill out and I'm really feeling the prejudice right now?"

She set down a photo frame. I caught a glimpse of three figures, but not enough to identify. "Then maybe you should have thought twice about coming here, tribal!"

"You sound stressed. Are you stressed?"

She pulled a face like she was passing a kidney stone, then inhaled deep, and exhaled. Did this place have a shrink, or did the medical team cover anger management therapy? "In the interests of keeping the peace, I suggest you get lost before Elder Saguaro catches you here. And before I lose my patience for peace."

I chuckled. "Slurs, threats of violence, why don't you just make a pseudoscientific judgement of my inferiority to round out the racism trilogy, eh?" Her eyebrows tensed, and made a noise like she was cracking knuckles. I got the picture. "Alright, alright, I was never here." I was already coming up with ways to mess with her as I left.

I heard steps after exiting the door. Unsure of the direction, I flew up to the rafters and found a perch in the support beams to hide. (I say ‘flew’, but it was more like stiff jump into an aerial flail that eventually got me up there.) The glare from the sun coming in the huge windows made it difficult to see up here, and earth ponies never look up anyway.

A moment later the sound of steps became clearer. One set was notably unbalanced.

"I tell you, that girl is gonna crack one day if she don't find an outlet. I worry about her." Around the bend came Crumble, walking alongside a worn-out, rolled up carpet. I've seen some battered faces, but none as scarred by time as this one. He had eyebrows to rival Winchester's, and so many wrinkles that I just wanted to iron his face. Not as an intent of violence, I just think it'd be satisfying to smooth it all out.

He stopped, and threw out one leg to stop Crumble too. "I smell chicken." He started looking around. I wasn't worried. While he was scanning around, he drew the front of his robe to the side with a hoof, and I spotted a fancy-ass laser pistol holstered in there. Now I was worried. I froze and held my breath. I needed to wipe my nose too, but a prune with a gun and a penchant for shooting anything with wings was a bit higher on the agenda.

Crumble thumped him on the side. "Don't be ridiculous. You're probably having a flashback. C'mon." The old dude grumbled, checked behind him one last time, and resumed walking. They entered the office, and I scooted closer to listen in.

"Aunt Crumble!" That was Prickly Pear's voice saying that. Those two were related? Fuck. But then, everyone was probably related on this base.

"Hey, sugar pie." I couldn't not hear the smile in her voice. "All set?"

"Pressed 'em myself."

The old dude sighed. "I'm sure she'll love 'em." I had a guess that he was Saguaro.

Crumble returned to the door. "Shall we? It ain't getting any cooler out." Quietly, the three of them left the office and set off down the hallway. Crumble stayed back to close the door. Prickly Pear thundered on ahead, with Saguaro keeping up very well. The old man could really move. Before following them, Crumble threw her head back and looked me dead in the eye. She smiled and winked, and looked at me for just long enough catch my jaw drop. Then, she hobbled away to rejoin the group.

I waited for the steps to fade before dropping to the ground. All the heat in the room gathered in the rafters, so I was mildly roasted. From the sounds of it, they were going to be leaving the base. They could go and get blasted by the daystar without me. There was still plenty of daylight left, and I needed to make it go away. I had one more idea.


It was a gamble, but it paid off. I made my stealthy way up to the walls through an old flight control tower. The windows had been knocked out and it was being used as a bastion in the ramparts. Sprawling over an old control desk overlooking the outside, with a combat helmet over his eyes, was the spaceman on the door from the first day. There didn't seem to be anyone else around. A battery radio was playing something kinda jazzy. I drifted on to the console, sat down nearby and poked his helmet.

"Looking a little baked there, mate. Wouldn't want you passing out in the sun."

"What?" He sat up and looked around. I could smell something off him.

"I got whisked away before I got a chance to hang out." He rubbed his eyes and gave me a look like I had two heads. "Wow, you are out of it."

He started laughing, and kept laughing for a minute or so. Maybe I wasn't going to get anything out of him. "You didn't hear nothin', but I've got a supply." He grinned and nudged me. His teeth were... okay, most ponies in the wasteland have mediocre teeth at best. Most settlements are lucky to have a doctor, let alone a dentist. But this guy was doing pretty bad for a Ranger.

"Supply of what? Dunno if you've noticed, but I'm not exactly local."

"The moon juice, duh! The space milk. The nebula nectar." Since this guy isn't being forthcoming with a name (which is a good thing, I'm already having trouble remembering all these fucksticks), I'm just going to keep calling him Spaceman. "You gotta try some!" He started digging in his pack.

"The last time someone started using hyperbolic names for a liquid before shoving it in my face it turned out to be water. This had better be good."

He pulled out his canteen. "It's watered down to make it last, but it's real star stuff in there."

Let's be real. I didn't have anything better to do. I poured it into my mouth rather than swigging, but was still generous with it. It had water and I wasn't about to turn that down.

There was a taste in there that was somewhere between sour and bitter, like unsweetened coffee with a dash of lemon, with a mild amount of spice to it. It was like someone was trying to imitate the flavour of alcohol without really understanding what it tasted like. I was expecting nausea, but despite the taste, it went down pretty easy. The water probably helped quite a lot, but it did little to mask it. "Blimey, that's not something you drink for the taste, is it?"

He chuckled, took a swig himself, and then tucked it away again. "Just wait for it!"

I sat there for a good five minutes or so, looking around while he rolled on his back and burbled for a bit. I was basically covering for him. "Are you just drinking your own watered-down piss? I'm not feeling anything."

"Wait for it..." he whispered into the air, while he wiggled his hooves in front of him. I was now really curious as to how Spaceman here got into his job. Probably the screw-up son of some important Paladin or something.

After another couple of minutes, I figured that I was just risking being caught somewhere I wasn't supposed to be. "Right, I'm going." I stood up and oh dear. My balance departed me, and I rolled down the console, depositing me on my hooves on the floor. "Woah."

"There it is!" he chuckled.

"What the..." I was still a little stiff from earlier, but mostly, the ground just felt like it was fifty feet away. I looked at the control console and could have sworn I'd seen a face in the buttons. Fascinated, I pushed a lever forward. It didn't do anything, but it did make sound like a slide whistle. I didn't think it was supposed to. I pressed a few buttons. A dead flight control station was not supposed to be a soundboard, but here it was, producing soundbites and honks and bell noises. I giggled.

Spaceman tugged on my leg. "You gotta sit down, man, watch it go by!"

Amenable to the suggestion, I swung away from the panel, tottered over to the wall, swung around again, and parked my butt on the ground. My back continued to the floor. The rush of blood to the head gave me another dizzy hit. Good thing I was already on the ground. "I see what your strategy is with the floor thing." I stared at the ceiling tiles. A number of them were missing. I squinted, closed one eye, and put a hoof up. I lined it up with one of the spaces where a missing tile was, and moved it to the side. The hole slid with it, and where it was, a new tile had appeared. "Woah, what..."

"I could do this for hours."

I nudged the space back. "What is even happening..." I giggled again, and started batting empty tiles back and forth across the ceiling. I gathered them all in a corner, and then I blinked, and they'd all returned to where they were. Like herding fucking cats, these ceiling tiles. Frustrated, I thrust my hoof up, and one of the tiles popped out and fell to the ground. I covered my face and rolled to the side.

Seconds passed, and I felt nothing. When my heart stopped racing, I opened my eyes, rolled back, and the ceiling was as it was when I found it.

"You feeling it now?"

"What was this stuff called again?"


My next clear memory was some time around sunset. I didn’t remember where I was. My goggles had found their way to a coat hanger, and I was sprawling on a broken desk with half of my face in a pool of my own saliva. A bunch of shit from the desk was on the floor, I still wasn’t entirely clear of mind, but I was functioning enough to be aware that this position wasn’t a great one to be found in by the steel patrol.

I grabbed the goggles and wiggled them down my face until they stayed on. This took three attempts. The first two times, there wasn’t enough purchase, and the elastic of the headband snapped the damn things across the room. The third time I just went ‘fuck it’ and put them on over my eyes. A load of my mane was caught in them, and I could only see out of one eye as a result. My tongue felt like it had been out in the sun all day and I was about hungry enough to start eating the table.

I stumbled out of the building - still as stiff as this morning - and didn’t recognise which one it was. I was beyond caring who saw me. I tottered around buildings until I started seeing things I recognised, and could find my way back to the room.

“Howdy, Atom! You’re… looking a little rougher than this morning.” I squinted and pivoted my head around to see who was talking. Crumble was standing with a giant pile of scrap and smiling at me. The scrap started emitting smoke.

Oh hang on, my mistake. Steam started spewing from Prickly Pear’s ears. It was sunset, I was having trouble picking things out.

“You… you!” Prickly Pear made a face like she was self-administering heart surgery. I, frankly, was not having any of it. “You disgrace this base with y-” As I walked past, I shoved my hoof in her face. Not a punch, just a forceful impediment to talking. It stopped her talking, and left her jaw hanging when it left. I heard Crumble giggling as I carried on.

I bumped into Rainbow and Ivy on my way back to the room. They were going the other way.

“Atom! We were just about to get dinner. You…” Rainbow tilted his head. Ivy started giggling.

“Are you okay?”

“Don’t judge me.”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

View Online

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.

"What?"

"The jacket."

"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?"

"What?"

"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.

"You again!"

"Sup, Winnie?"

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?"

"N-no?"

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."

"What's those?"

"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…”

“Uh.”

“... 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?"

"What?"

"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?”

“She-”

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!"

"Or what?"

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.

"They're gone!"

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."

Blackbird

View Online

We pegged it out of Fort Mercer without delay. The camp was a couple of hours' walk to the north, they said. There was still a lot of ambient heat, and I was really suffering for most of the walk, but near the end of it, the sun was setting. I know I've mentioned that if you blink you miss it, but that fucking fireball could not go down quick enough. I threw my head back when I noticed the sky getting kind of orange and kept walking until someone nudged me to ask if I was awake. This took three attempts and a concerned "are you alright Atom" before it was finally dusk when I opened my eyes.

With the sun gone, there was a brighter light on the horizon. I took in the environment for probably the first time in hours. The Death Caps looked a lot bigger than how they did from Fort Mercer, and based on the valley we were travelling along, we'd reached the foothills of them. A few columns of sandstone stuck out from the desert, and there were a couple of things that I couldn't tell whether they were skulls, or stones with convenient shadows. The light in the distance was the vaguely orangey-yellow colour of fire, and far off enough that all I saw was a couple of bright dots (even with my glasses lifted).

I wasn't keeping track of time as we approached. The slope of the path lifted, and for a short time, the far-off light disappeared behind the hill. This left us with the stars and a crescent moon for light. Babylon caught me looking up at the stars absently and gave me a nudge, and probably a smile that I couldn't see. I grumbled.

When the light returned to vision, it was clearly three or four fires, all nearby. One of them was a primary campfire, and it was bright enough to see the outline of some nearby tents. As we got closer, two of them seemed to be raised up on sticks or something. A quick glance around informed me that we'd left the valley floor, and this camp was on some kind of mesa.

"Hold!” Some voice ahead called. I could see the outline of a pony, partly silhouetted against the campfire behind him, but not much else. We stopped, first Babylon and Ivy, then Rainbow, then Sam and I bumped into them.

"Getting kinda spooky out here, ain't it?" Sam said. Rainbow shushed him.

"Whose are the wings that beat before me?"

"Those of the eagle, proud and free," Ivy called back.

The voice laughed. "Ivy Bells! Get over here, little sparrow." One by one, we started moving again.

"Hey Jaffa!" She ran up to him and seemed to thump her shoulder into him, and he did the same. Jaffa was nearly twice Ivy's size, so she bounced.

"It has been too long! Get inside, your uncle misses you." Ivy scampered ahead, kicking up a little cloud of dust. Babylon nudged past me. "The wandering star returns."

"Safe travels to you, Jaffa." Isn't that something people normally say as a farewell? Man, Babylon is weird.

"Who joins you?" He brandished something at us. It must have gotten dark quick, because I could not see what the fuck he was pointing at us.

"My daughter's fellow traveller..." Just stop it Babylon please talk like a normal person.

Rainbow waved. "'Lo."

"... his sister, and a friend. The three of them seek a... favour."

Jaffa made a curious noise, and returned his long pointy thing to his side. "He is the Ranger, yes?"

"Correct."

"Are they, too, Rangers?"

Sam and I immediately burst out laughing. "Not on your nelly!"

Jaffa reared his head back and gave us a blink, then looked at Babylon. Rainbow had his head in a hoof. Babylon giggled. "The steel stallion, Satellite Sam, is of the earth. His words are quick, but he has a bigger heart than many a pony of flesh and blood. And Atom Smasher..." She looked right at me with a grin. C'mon, just knock it off? Please? "... is as free as the wind."

"If... you say so. You know the way. No trouble, no problem."

"Sounds like the normal drill." I micro-saluted him, and moved to proceed. He stopped me with what I now saw was a very sharp spear with the barrel of a sunburst rifle taped to it. Looking along it, the rest of it was there too.

"I suggest that if you seek favour, free bird, that you mind your words."

I hesitated. I knew how to blend in with raiders, sure. Or... was it only the 'raiders' at home that I was naturally kin with? That I could hurl the right mixture of incoherent threat at to pass as one of their own? I got the feeling that these guys wouldn't just cock back and laugh if I boxed one of them on the nose and sat back down. "Right. Sure. I'll give it a go."

Jaffa gave me one last stare down, before lifting his laser... spear? And letting me pass. Rainbow and Sam got no such grilling. Babylon led us past the two torches that marked the entrance to the camp, and past the campfire. Much of the tribe was sitting nearby, using its light to carve deadwood, repair tools, or eat with family and friends. Most of the tents were open. Some ponies seemed to be sleeping outside. Someone was sitting on a box with the Steel Ranger logo on it, inspecting a drum and some pipes.

Babylon led us to the largest tent and nudged her way in. A couple of lanterns hung inside. Over her shoulder, I saw that Ivy was wrestling with another pony only a little smaller than her off to the side. A much older stallion draped in furs, with a close-cropped mane apart from a long, tightly braided ponytail, watched with amusement as a unicorn mare around his age circled the fray, trying to find an opening to separate them.

Babylon laughed. "Ellasar, you haven't seen your cousin for months and this is how you greet her?"

Ivy lifted the smaller pony off her effortlessly, and floated her, still flailing, to the side. "C'mon Ellie, I got business to do!"

"Aww!" She seemed like a teenager at the oldest.

"How about a rematch when we're done, huh?"

"I'll show you!" They did the same shoulder bump thing that Ivy did earlier with Jaffa, and Ellasar ran out of the tent past us. She made an 'ooo' face when she noticed us, and promptly tripped over. Distracted again, she carried on to wherever she was going.

Babylon motioned us inside, and crossed the tent. The stallion stood. "Brother!"

They embraced, in a motion that seemed rather like the same thing that Ivy was doing, but less high-impact. "The wisest of us all. How was your journey?" There wasn't anything particularly special about his voice, it was just a slightly hoarse baritone.

"Enlightening! I have new friends to show you." He looked over at us, and then his eyes widened with a smile.

"Ah! Come, sit and know us better." He gestured with open forelegs as he sat. The floor was carpeted, with a couple of cushions around. Rainbow made his way to Ivy, and they nuzzled before sitting together. Mercifully, Babylon left me and Sam ample room to form a circle without being uncomfortably close, or sticking our arses out the door. The other mare, now no longer officiating a judo match, sat down next to the dude and wiped her face.

Before I sat down I had a quick look around the group. "Just so we're clear in advance, nobody have any plans to open fire, right?"

Rainbow almost looked offended. "... what?"

"Last time I was in a situation like this, someone panicked and tried to incinerate a local lord and I missed out on a sweet job opportunity. She was a scribe, by the way, so I'm keeping an eye on you." I made some hoof gestures at Ivy.

"Why would I- he's my un... Atom, sit down." She practically pushed me to the floor. Stupid cheating unicorns.

Furs McGee was quite tickled by this. "You've made some entertaining friends, Babylon!"

"I do weddings, birthdays..." Sam quipped. This got a snort out of the tribe mare.

The dude thumped his front a couple of times when his chortling caught some phlegm, and once he'd recovered he sighed, beaming. "Greetings. I am Jericho, chief of the Eagle Tribe, and this is my wife, Peregrine. May the wind be ever at your back." I ran a few scenarios in my head. I'm no expert on flying, but I'm not entirely sure that having a tailwind is actually helpful for flying. What a really ground-pounder saying.

"I'm Atom Smasher, and this is my air conditioning unit." I put a hoof on Sam.

He threw it off. "I'll condition your unit in a minute. Satellite Sam! This is my face, by the way."

"Now that we have been introduced, we can commence the ceremonial gutting of the bird." A rusty lawnmower blade floated from the back of the tent towards me.

I leaned back, and my wings ruffled. "Uhh..."

The blade lowered, and returned to the junk in the corner. Jericho chuckled. "Relax, I'm fucking with you."

"People who brandish grungy machetes at me are usually not doing so in jest." Rainbow and Ivy gave each other a knowing look and a smirk.

"Shall we move along, children?" I could hear Babylon's smile.

"To business, yes!" Jericho thumped the carpet.

"Make with the plot, Rainbow man." He gave me a baffled look before making with the plot.

"Do you remember how I ended up in San Cimarron, Jericho?"

Jericho squinted. "Refresh my memory."

"My dad left me in the Stable, and I came looking for him and..."

"Ah yes! The scientist who fell from the clouds. Broken magpie."

"Well! Things have been happening." Rainbow wiggled where he sat. He was really excited about this, damn. Had he done nothing for ten years except collect music, look for dad, shoot things and marry someone half his size? "This..." He gestured to me. "Is my sister. She got here this week and we've been busy. She managed to get us in touch with Sam here, who might be able to get us the rest of the way there."

Jericho raised an eyebrow. "I see."

Sam produced some kind of mechanical noise. "Well, we've come this far and I still have all my servos, so I'm mildly cooperative."

"And I'm guessing that you haven't come here to simply share your good news?"

I smirked. "Sharp as a tack, this one."

Rainbow rubbed his chin. "We have... a plan. It's a little out there, but it's the best we've got."

"Go on."

"We need to find the Los Arabos facility, somewhere underground in the Death Caps. Sam knows where it is - sort of. But there's a catch."

"There are..." Sam sounded like the wind had come out of his sails. "There are a lot of people who want to find Los Arabos, most of them for the worst reasons. It is... imperative. Essential. Absolutely mandatory, that nobody follows us there." Jericho made a noise. Sam pointed at Rainbow. "The only reason I'm trusting this happy bastard is because he kinda looks like his dad."

"Interesting. So where is it?"

"It's uh..." Sam scratched the back of his head. Could robots itch? This was going to bother me. "There's a back exit to the facility, from the lower levels. Through an old quarry. It's miles away from it. I don't know where it is, coordinates-wise."

Jericho scratched his nose and looked at Babylon. "Do you think it's..."

"... the Cave of Screams?" she said.

I snorted. "Well that sounds pleasant! Let's just head right over."

Jericho glowered at me. "Our tribe has avoided the Cave of Screams for generations. It is an unholy place. When you sit outside, the voices of the damned - the millions who perished in fire - call out to be saved. You ask for passage to the underworld, Sam."

"It can't be that bad, can it? I mean, I'm pretty sure if I walked out of there thirty-five years ago, it's not the Gate of Cronus."

Jericho paused, looking at the floor. "Maybe. But I would not take the wisdom of our ancestors for foolishness. Underworld or not, they left it alone for a reason." He hesitated again, taking a deep breath. "We can bring you there, but we will not follow you inside. That is your risk to take."

Rainbow smiled and nodded calmly. "Thank you, Jericho."

"We will need help, however."

I leaned over to Rainbow. "Saw that one coming."

"To take you through the Death Caps is a treacherous challenge at the best of times. We'll need water and rations." I spotted Ivy taking out a little notepad and scribbling this down.

"Are you embezzling Ranger supplies?" I asked.

Rainbow elbowed me. "Shh."

"To arrive quietly will require extra measures. We'll have to travel at night, so we'll need night vision goggles."

Ivy froze. "Uh... how many night vision goggles?"

Jericho counted in the air for a second. "Eight. Eight pairs."

She turned white as she wrote this down. "Eight. Right! Heheh."

Jericho chuckled. "We'll bring them back, don't worry. Everything else we should be able to handle ourselves."

Rainbow nodded, and Ivy tucked her pen and pad away. "Alright! Is there anything else?"

"There is... one more thing." Jericho turned to Ivy. "Little sparrow." She looked up. "Can I have a word?" Ivy blinked, like she was surprised by this, and nodded. "The rest of you may enjoy the company of the tribe as we eat together. I'm sure you could all use it. Well, uh..." His eyes lingered on Sam.

"I joked about eating something weird before and I got taken seriously, so I'm not about to ask to be served sauteed batteries, okay?"

Jericho laughed. "Very well!"

We all filed out of the tent, leaving Jericho and Ivy inside. It had gotten colder while we were inside, or at least I only noticed the cold now that we'd had a chance to rest. Peregrine went over and nudged Babylon in the side as they went over to the fire, and they started talking. A bunch of kids came up to Sam and started poking and gawping at him, and he seemed happy to entertain them with his extendo-tongue thing. Rainbow had the same idea I had, which was to hang back and try not to look like we're eavesdropping while listening through the canvas.

Jericho sounded sombre. "When I said that we will not follow into the cave, that includes you."

"What?"

"I will not have one of my flock risk damnation on a flight of whimsy. These outsiders may chance their hooves if they like, but not you."

"That's ridiculous! 'These outsiders?' You mean my husband? My sister in-law?"

"Ivy, you're important to me."

"What, as a walking aid dispenser?"

Jericho sighed. "That's not what I'm saying, listen to me."

"My husband has spent a decade working towards this and you want me to abandon him at the last because of some superstition?"

"Ivy, you are of the tribe. It will distress the others to see you cross into a place we consider profane."

"You can't tell me what to do!"

When I heard the stomping of little hooves I backed away from the entrance a bit, as did Rainbow. The flaps flew apart, Ivy fumed as she left. Rainbow stepped over to her when she stopped, puffing at the ground.

"Love, are you..."

"Gimme a minute, hon." She turned away from him, and trudged to the edge of the camp, behind the tents. Babylon breezed past us to follow her. I, because I had nothing better to do than invade the privacy of others, did my best impression of looking at the stars while conveniently being close enough to hear them.

It was darker back there, and I could only see their black outlines framed by the off-black sky, coming together.

"Little sparrow... what did Jericho say to upset you?"

Ivy made some kind of throat noise, and I saw a load of steam rise. "He wants me to stay behind when Rainbow goes into the quarry. With his stupid... dang... ugh!"

"Hush..." They went quiet for a while. "I thought this might happen. His thinking does not sit well with yours. His is the road of tradition, and yours the road of reason, and rarely they meet. But let's see where they do, hmm?" Babylon said. Ivy grumbled into her side. "You are skeptical of his judgement, yes?" There was a silent moment. I guessed that she nodded. "But many of the tribe would not be, correct?"

"He said this. It's dumb."

"Put their reasoning out of your mind. Consider their conclusion. Imagine, how it would seem to their eyes, you passing into the pit of death."

"Surely if I went in and came out later, completely fine, which I would be, because this superstition is idiotic, they'd open their eyes?"

"Worry about that later. In the moment - would they not despair?"

"I guess..."

"He is thinking about the morale of the tribe, you see. Maybe when your friends return, they will see their error, but until they do, you must work with them, not against them," Babylon said. Ivy responded with another mumble. "Also, I admire your fervour, little sparrow, but it is not Turing Test you are seeking. This is Rainbow's and Atom's journey. Perhaps it is the way of the road that you must rejoin them later."

Ivy sighed. "Maybe you're right... I mean... I still hate it. I want to be in there. But you have a point." They went quiet again and swayed softly. "Thanks, mom."

"Any time you need to rest your wings, you can fall on me, little sparrow."

I listened for another minute or two, but they’d stopped talking, so I got bored and went to see what they were cooking up around the fire. As soon as I got into the fire's orbit, I got pulled over and presented with a clay bowl. "Free bird! There you are." Jaffa was the one grabbing me. "Come, eat!"

In the half-light, I couldn't see what was going on. I was pushed around until I was sitting on my belly with a bowl of something spicy-smelling in front of me. All around me were members of the tribe, in various states of dining. "Atom, was it?" I vaguely recognised the face addressing me from the far side of the fire as Peregrine's. Her voice struck me as odd. Her accent seemed a bit more drawly than everyone else's, except maybe Ivy. "You're the stranger, share us a tale."

"What? Tell a story? Nahhh."

"But you must!" Jaffa thumped me on the back.

Peregrine grinned. "Think of it as the price of the meal."

I looked around. Rainbow, sitting on a Ranger crate opposite me refilling his canteen from a keg, shrugged. Sam was trying his best to keep his footing while a foal tirelessly swung on the top of his head, and another batted at his antenna-tail. "Please distract these screaming fartballs."

I sighed and made a show of rolling my eyes. "Fiiiiiine, lemme see what I can think of. How about... here's one." If I went through all of my adventures back home, we'd be here all night, so I had to narrow it down. "Let me tell you about the story of Snowy."

A quiet settled in. Fuck, people were paying attention to me. Rainbow was paying particularly close attention. Peregrine jumped on the pause where I noticed this. "Go on."

"So. Have any of you seen a coal puppy?"

The kid pulling Sam's tail jumped up on the back of his neck, and clambered over the one on top of his head. "Puppy!" This pushed Sam's hat forward over his face.

"This is a less than ideal distraction, Atom."

I got a curious raised eyebrow from Rainbow, but blank looks and shaking heads from everyone else. "A coal puppy is like a dog, but bigger, and smarter. Much bigger. Like, three times my height, or more, and black as night. And they can talk! Sort of. They lived in the mines, near where I grew up, far, far away from here. Most of them are mean, pony-eating monsters, with the teeth and claws and flaming eyes to match." I made a growling gesture in the direction of Sam, and the two kids who had become transfixed squealed and rolled off him, giggling. Sam quickly found somewhere else to be.

"Except one. I was travelling with a Ranger scribe, and a dude calling himself a Regurgitator. Regininator. Something. I just called him a Garbageman, because he told me he took out the trash. The scribe's brother had dropped off the radar near the mines, and we followed him in. The place was run by this big and nasty guy whose name completely escapes me at the minute. It was a big steel mill on top of a coal pit - hundreds of slaves, toiling away over crucibles of molten steel all day. We snuck in, and made our way to the bottom looking for this guy. And that's where we found Snowy."

"We were hiding from the guards in a cave, and we up and ran into the biggest, friendliest dog you've ever seen. He told us where to find our man, and thumped his leg on the ground when I scratched his chin and called him a good boy. Just a completely harmless puppy. Poor thing was probably the runt of the litter down there. Little wonder that when we were done, he followed us out."

The kids were now perched on the backs of some of the tribesponies. "What happened to the brother?"

"He didn't make it. The scribe got so angry at this that she tore the whole place apart. Shredded the whole steelworks at the hinges. In an afternoon, the entire slaving operation was over." The foals made some 'wow cool' noises. "After that, Snowy came with me everywhere! Remember how big I said the coal puppies were? I could ride on Snowy. It was great, because I was just out of the stable and I hated walking."

Jaffa laughed. "You came from a stable? Ha!"

"Yeah, yeah, someone's already made the birdcage joke. Anyway. This was all good for a while, until..." I paused. Not because I wanted to add any dramatic effect, but I was struggling to swallow. "... he died."

"Awww..." the foals said together.

"We were scouting out an airfield, to look for some artillery. Some old coot was holed up inside, with mines and a sniper rifle. In the scuffle, he threw a grenade out, and Snowy caught it, because bless the daft bugger he thought it was a ball."

Jaffa put a hoof on my back. "A loyal companion."

I gazed into the flames for a long, pensive second, before meeting his hoof and nodding to him with glistening eyes. "To the end."

Peregrine stood up, and lifted a gourd. A bunch of the others with bottles and flasks lifted theirs. "Then tonight, we drink; to Snowy!"

"To Snowy!" they chanted. Were they really toasting my dead dog? Holy shit.

Somewhere during my story, Jericho had emerged and was helping himself to the stew. I spotted Ivy and Babylon returning from behind the tents. Rainbow spotted this too, and got up to meet her. She surprised him by meeting him with a kiss straight away. Eugh.

"Ivy, what happened?"

Ivy inhaled and sighed. "Jericho doesn't want me going with you into the quarry."

"What? Why?"

"Superstitions. But... we're the ones who need a favour from him, so..."

"Right..." Rainbow deflated.

"I hate it too, but we gotta be pragmatic, sugar." She kissed him again. "And after all, he's your dad. And you'll have Atom there."

I heard my name and perked up with a mouthful of stew. "Huh?"

"Besides, if all goes to plan we can get acquainted afterwards, hm?"

"O-of course! Yeah." They kissed again, and proceeded to the pot. I found somewhere else to sit in a hurry, a bit further out from the campfire, lest I be asked for another story. Rainbow, after getting his food, followed me over. He sat next to me and took a second to remember what words were. "Atom, you tamed a coal puppy?"

"Like I said, probably a runt."

"Still, those things are some right beasts!"

"You'd be surprised what can happen when you ask questions first and shoot later."

He scrunched his nose and paused. "Are you telling porkies?"

"Nahh! Of course not. Mostly. Sometimes the tall tales are more believable than some of the shit I have gotten up to. I did have a coal puppy called Snowy, though."

He snorted. "Of course you would call a coal puppy 'Snowy'." We went quiet for a minute, while he stuffed some food into his face. “You’ve gotten me curious now, though,” he said through a mouthful of some kind of spicy vegetable. “What did you actually do back home? I’d really like to know. It must have been some upset to get word as far as here.”

“Oh, y’know. The usual hero stuff. Finding the people who society at large has agreed to scapegoat as the source of all their ills, and then murdering them in the head.”

It made him chuckle at least. “You don’t look like a killer to me. Not with that teddy bear and a pair of kid-size hypnoglasses.” He rubbed the top of my head with a hoof, and I flailed around, failing to stop him before my goggles slipped forward.

“That only means nobody expects it. Let’s see…” I turned one leg up and rested my chin on my hoof while I tried to remember. “Most of it would be Enclave, Scolts or raiders…

Rainbow looked surprised that I was actually starting to list my kills, then leaned in and grimaced. “Atom, watch the R-word…”

“Yeah, yeah, though I’m not sure they were really Enclave? They did the whole armour, wings and evil thing but they seemed like a very local deal. Could the Enclave here in Equestria take out an intellectual property suit on them? Actually they’d need to be alive for them to do that, which they’re not, because I killed most of them. One of them with a golf club! But everyone pretty much agreed they were unrepentant dicks, so that was okay, right?”

Rainbow dropped his spoon. “Uhh… most of them seems like a slightly disproportionate reaction maybe?”

“Oh, and what would you have had me do, arrest a bunch of maniacs in power armour?” I waved dismissively. “The Scolts were actually the ones who were gonna offer me a job, before fucking Shooting Stars panicked and tried to vapourise their queen. After that they were all trying to decapitate me on sight, so it was kinda them or me. Stupid scribes, they ruin everything.”

“R-right…”

Ivy heard this snippet out of context, and bonked me on the head with the nearby flask. “I’ll ruin you if you don’t watch your mouth,” she called from the far side of the fire. Most of the gathered company laughed.

I glared and carried on. “And then there were these dudes doing the murder football league with prisoners. Surely you must have met those guys on your way out, right?”

When I looked up, his breathing was shallow. “Yes, I… I remember them…”

“You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks that’s an acceptable way to run a civilisation, so I put a stop to most of that.”

He swallowed. “Dare I ask how?”

“Stand collapse seemed to take care of most of them. The rest got caught in the crossfire when the Scolts and the off-brand Enclave decided to invade Manechester at the same time.”

“So, killing all of them?”

“Hmm. Yeah, just about!”

By now he was heaving. “Oh boy.”

“And besides that there was… oh yeah! The gryphon mercenaries, in the Liverpole.”

“Gryphons… in the Liverpole?”

“You remember the Liverpole, right? With Tribute on the radio? Actually she must have been like, ten when you were over there. Like someone else, eh?” I dug him in the side with a hoof. He stared blankly at me. “Whatever. Bunch of them had forced their way in, apparently on my advice. All I told them was to be creative in solving their problems, but they took that to mean evicting the existing inhabitants with bullets, so when I came back that way I killed all of them. Admittedly that one was kind of in anger, because Snowy had just died. But they were still a kind of undesirable. And then there were lots of little random ones, like the dude at the airfield who killed Snowy, the… actually I think the slavers were all Shooting Stars, along with a bunch of the slaves, because like I said, scribes ruin everything. Then did I kill anyone in Colton? The merchants went down to raiders, I know that… though there was the annoying kid, he was a real drag… hey, you’ve gone all quiet on me.”

Rainbow stared with his mouth hanging open the slightest bit. His gaze slid off me over the course of a few seconds, and he remembered that he was supposed to be breathing. He took a big gulp of air in and stood up. “I need… a moment.”

And then, I asked a retarded question. With a tilt of the head, I blurted out the most oblivious statement anyone in this situation could have possibly asked. All trace of the social intelligence needed to connect Rainbow Code’s current state with what I’d said departed me, leaving me instead with the band-aid query of, “Are you okay?”

For my efforts, I was rewarded with the sourest glower I have ever seen on that boy’s face, directed right at me, made all the more severe by the sideways light of the fire. In that moment, my heart dropped like it had turned to lead. I felt like I was falling just from his look. His voice had ice in it. “What do you think?” I looked aside in thought, and when I looked again, he’d run off behind the tents. He’d left his dinner, mostly uneaten. I caught Ivy looking behind herself, and followed her eyeline to a bulky, winged silhouette charting a wobbly course into the sky, barely visible from this side of the fire.

“What’s with him?” Jaffa and Babylon looked like they shared her mild concern. Nobody else appeared to have noticed.

“He’s probably got gas or something, I dunno.” They shrugged, and returned to their conversation. I looked down into the remains of my food. My chest felt… tight, like a rope had been tied between my lungs and my stomach, and someone had just pulled on it. The outer corners of my eyes felt like they were tensing up, and I didn’t feel like eating anymore.

This was new.

Sympathy for the Devil

View Online

Nobody looked like they were in a hurry to go anywhere, so I didn't stress packing up. Sam informed me that Winchester's threat to bring him back by sundown was probably a load of shit, and that there wouldn't be an issue as long as he got back in one piece. I was starting to like Winchester. If he took a bath he'd be a belligerent teddy bear.

Nah, that didn't really concern me. Ivy and Babylon turned in after dinner so we could be ready to leave at dawn, and I found myself floating around the edges of the camp, watching the skies. The rest of the tribe entertained each other with stories and music around the fire. Melodies and lyrics I'm sure I'd heard on Rainbow's fake radio station carried out to where I sat. I didn't like feeling like this. I mean, sure, after all the walking today I was ready to throw myself at the first soft thing I could find and conk out, but at the same time, I felt like I couldn't. I felt like my heart was trying to climb out of my mouth and fly away and even though my reactions were dulled and my eyes were sore from staying open, my head kept spinning with... worry, I guess? And it kept me awake.

Sam bumped me on the shoulder. I returned to awareness of my surroundings with a bleary shudder. "You all there birdie? You seem... not you."

"Oh." I stared at him blankly for a moment. "I was just..."

"Keeping an eye out for your brother?"

I paused again. I couldn't even muster the energy to come up with a lie. "Yeah."

"What happened? He seemed pretty stompy and huffy in his hurry to skedaddle."

"Sam... have you ever killed anyone?"

He made a mechanical noise that might be equated to furrowing eyebrows. Or maybe it was just a random noise, I don't fucking know. "Not that I know of. I mean, maybe if you really stretch some cases of faulty equipment you could blame some accidents on me, but that might be more Winchester's policy of recruiting imbeciles as guards. Why?"

"Okay, new question. When is it acceptable to kill?"

"Man, this got abstract quick. Uhh... self-defence, threat to innocents... maybe some penal and greater good cases could be argued but those are really sketchy and the most common case is going to be the first two. How about the meaning of life for 200 next?"

I chuckled at least. "Well, what would... what would you think... I mean, how would it affect..."

"Who did you kill, Atom?" Sam sounded less apprehensive than I expected. He sounded more like I was confessing to peeing in the sink or something.

"I..." I laughed again, nervously. "A few. Soldiers, mostly. And rai... bandits."

"Soldiers and bandits, eh? Bit of a hero, are we?" He nudged me in the shoulder.

"Right..."

"Is that all Rainbow Code is upset about? Man, he's a weird one. And being a Ranger Paladin he's definitely got a few notches on his barrel. I'd have thought he'd be proud of you." I just kicked the sand and stared at my hooves. "I dunno. Maybe he really does have gas. He'll be back. Go get some sleep or you're gonna hate yourself tomorrow."

"Yeah. I'll... right." I turned around towards the camp to look for an empty tent or something. I turned again after a couple of steps, and Sam had already gone.

At some point exhaustion must have overwhelmed my anxiety and let me sleep, because the next thing I remembered was being dragged across the ground by Ivy in her magic. Having my ass sanded was definitely enough to get me wide awake in a hurry, even though my eyes were heavy and my balance had yet to remember how to work. The first thing I did after standing up was overshoot equilibrium and fall over the other side.

It was still dark out, and cold enough to see my breath. Counting the rising steam trails let me find Ivy, Babylon, another sentry guard, and Rainbow Code. Seeing him unwound one of the twisted ropes in my chest but pulled another tight. (Sam didn't have breath to show in the cold, but I could see his eye light.) Babylon had stoked last night’s fire to reheat some stew for breakfast, but it was already dying down again.

"C'mon Atom, we gotta go, or we're gonna be spending peak heat in Fort Mercer again!"

I made a noise comparable to the one a manticore makes when it dies, and stumbled over to grab some breakfast. Rainbow looked at me when I flopped at the fire and gave me a stern nod of acknowledgement, then went back to organising something in a bag. He looked as tired as I felt, but was bearing it far better.

After nearly falling asleep in the bowl twice, I got up and went around behind a rock at the edge of the camp to take care of one last piece of morning business before the others left without me.

Or, that was my plan until Babylon ambushed me and started talking. "Free bird, might I pester you for some knowledge?"

"Mother of shitballs I'm trying to go for a wee, could your knowledge wait one bloody minute?"

She chuckled. "My apologies!"

"Do you think this is fucking funny?"

"Quickly. Would you happen to know where your brother went last night?"

I fumed. "No, I have no idea where the stupid cunt went, now will you piss off?"

She bit her mouth like she was trying not to laugh. "As you wish. I will... piss off." Another snort escaped. I glared at her until she was safely back at the camp.

When I returned to the light of the fire, we started moving immediately. I didn't even get a chance to stop walking, we were going straight away. The sky was paling in the east, and the pace Rainbow was keeping in front was way too fast for my liking. His size meant that a brisk stroll for him was a power-walk for Sam, an awkward near run for me, and Ivy and Babylon were practically jogging. We weren't even out of the valley before Ivy had to tug him on the tail and get him to slow down.

After that the walk was quiet. The walking was always quiet, since we had to keep an eye out and nobody wanted to exhaust any spare topics of conversation in case of extreme boredom, but this walk was a silent march. Rainbow didn't look back at me, and he barely looked at Ivy when she ran ahead to try and get through to him. We couldn't really stop and speculate on why he was trying so hard to keep up the cold shoulder act without him hearing either, so on we walked.

The plan was to take quick rest stops across the morning and power through to Roswhinny before peak heat. We called into Fort Mercer on the way to refill on water. Madeira seemed happy to see us at first, but Rainbow's mood was infectious. We emerged from the saloon in time to see another duel winding up, and Rainbow just walked obliviously through the middle of it, causing the blustering talk to stop on the spot. I gave the stunned cowboys a shrug as our convoy hurried after him.

The group split up at the edges of urban San Cimarron. Sam led me back the way we came, into the service tunnels, while Rainbow, Ivy and Babylon continued to an overpass that would take them to the bypass road. Ivy was the one who had to say 'we'll see you back at the base', and Rainbow barely gave me a glance as they went.

Once Sam and I were down a flight of stairs and out of earshot, I screamed and kicked a rusty railing hard enough to snap it in half. Five hours of frustration escaped all at once.

Sam backed up. "Uh. If you're gonna blow some steam, can you warn me first so I can get out of the way?"

"I have no idea what I'm specifically upset about but I'm absolutely furious!" I tore a crumbling fusebox or something off the wall and punted it down the stairs. It spent the next minute clattering and ringing and echoing around the tunnels.

"Thanks for the clarification, I wasn't quite sure."

The impacts had left one of my hooves stinging, which forced me to calm down. "Stupid moptop bastard won't even..."

"Hey, don't look at me, I barely know you and Ranger Technicolor. I am not qualified to solve your family issues."

"Fucking..." I spent a moment huffing and rubbing my forehead. I genuinely had no idea what came over me. I wanted to strangle Rainbow just so I could tip his head over and pour out what was inside, because it seemed like that was the only way to figure out what he was thinking.

"Just get it together, okay? This is gonna be one ugly reunion, man..." Sam shook his head and carried on down the stairs. I sighed, weakly kicked the railing again, and followed him. It had been at least a few days since I'd seriously thought about packing up and getting back on the road to see where it would take me, and right now following the overpass after Isotope City and trucking west on route 66 sounded real tempting.

Once I'd simmered off, I asked Sam about the aliens again. Anything that'd distract me. He seemed happy enough to bitch about stupid people, which was entertaining at least. He talked about how every time a scouting party would leave the city, they'd find something that they'd add to their wall of evidence in the guard house. This included everything from Ministry of Image pamphlets denying the existence of extra-terrestrials, to decaying stuffed octopus toys, to pictures of a Satellite Sam's downtown that had neon buttresses in the shape of a flying saucer, to posters that said 'I want to believe'. It'd be cute if they weren't clutching their recovered plasma rifles and sweating while they collected all this crap, so Sam just left them to it.

The day was starting to get real hot when we resurfaced. It wasn't yet midday, but at this rate it'd be really heavy going when I got back to Roswhinny. Or, maybe I'd just gotten used to the cool underground. Either way, I was hot and uncomfortable and we hurried along to Isotope City. Because we were approaching from a different direction than the way I'd come previously, we were out of the line of sight of the lookout over the door. This seemed like a security oversight, since if this were the only vantage point from which people could shoot at us as we approached, all a raiding party would have to do would be to approach from the north, until a crackling orange beam of energy turned a weed nearby into ash. I jumped. Sam was unfazed.

"Hey, blockhead! You could hurt yourself with aim like that!" He leaned over to me. "I'm pretty sure he's called Cinderblock because he had one dropped on his head at some point."

At least the lasers let up, and we could approach the walls. When we came around to the gate, Sam pounded on it with a hoof. There was a scrambling, like someone had fallen off their chair, and then the living tumbleweed himself popped his head out of the broken window.

"Satellite Fucking Sam? Tarnation, I just sent out a search party an hour ago!"

Realisation dawned on me. "So that's what the F stands for! Ahhh."

"And you!" Winchester's rifle floated out of the window, levelled at me and made a noise. "We had a deal, and you're eighteen hours overdue."

"Hey!" Sam shoved in front of me. "I'm here and in one piece. That's the important thing, right?"

"Get out of the way, tincan," Winchester grunted. Since I was on five hours sleep and exhausted from latent family drama and walking, I just blinked down the barrel of the gun like a gormless idiot.

"We were only getting to our destination after dark. It wasn't actually possible to meet your conditions."

"That means you went too far."

Sam sighed. Could robots sigh? Maybe he learned it at some point specifically to express exasperation. "Look. She's already bought repairs off me, saved me from manticores and escorted me all the way to the hills and back safely. I think we can at least not put her down over being a little late back. Shit happens, y'know?"

"Are you really gonna trust this pigeon not to be playing the long game?"

"Winchester!" Even he jumped from the level of bark Sam put out. "Pull your head out of your ass for ten seconds will you? Do I have to go up there and slap you like your dad?" Winchester snorted, and lowered the rifle. "If it weren't for this pigeon I'd still be lying under a shelf in an EZ-Mart counting breadloaves until I went completely off the rails. So drop the tough guy act, will you? You're not impressing anyone."

Winchester hesitated for a long time, looking mostly at his gun. The only sounds I could hear were the gentle wind and the distant, muffled ruckus of the town going about its business. Parts of the remaining glass cast a glare from the sun, and I could feel my ass slowly baking, and my forelegs and neck roasting in the extremities of the jacket. At least my chest was nice and cool. Because of...

"Fine." The gun retreated inside. "If you trust her, then I'll at least give her the courtesy of not blowing her brains out when I see her." He retreated back into the window, and the gate screamed into life. It lifted just below head height before stopping, wobbling for a few seconds after it stopped. "Now git, before I change my mind."

Sam turned to me. "That's the best you're gonna get out of a hardass like him. When you're ready for the big one, you know where to call. And try to kiss and make up?" He patted me on the shoulder and ducked under the gate.

"Right."

The gate closed and Winchester had returned to sleeping on the job before I kicked my brain into gear to leave. The encounter tumbled in my head. Life used to be so simple. I made things difficult for bad guys by way of strategic ordinance, and had fun doing it. Then when that got dull I wandered from bar to bar, charming favours out of strangers and avoiding any kind of real work. Now I had my brother looking at me like shit on a shoe, and a robot standing in front of a gun for me, and me trying to decide my value to the world as if taking the aggregate of these mental images would somehow yield a quantifiable result. I huffed and grunted as I walked, since I had nobody to hide these frustrations from, but none of it was break-a-lamppost-with-my-face maddening. And it was going to be a long-ass walk back to Roswhinny.

Midday passed while I was walking. I was starting to figure out the route, and I was recognising more landmarks from repeated journeys. I located the dry riverbed - now more of a ditch in the wilderness than anything else. I was starting to think that south San Cimarron was the quiet side of town. When we were downtown, we came across traders and travellers. Here, I guessed ponies were giving the Rangers a wide berth. Begs the question of how Rainbow fartface ended up with them in the first place. Must have been scavenging in all these derelict houses or something. I contemplated, briefly, wandering into the Caballero Centre, walking up to one of the manticores and slapping it in the face, just so it would do me the favour of relieving me of this inner conflict.

I found something intriguing on the road. In the remains of some one-horse town, where the main road south from San Cimarron met what at one point was a bridge over the river (it was now just four rusty poles and a pile of rubble), someone had turned a couple of autowagons on their sides in the middle of the road, and sprayed a green atom with three orange orbits on it. At first I thought this was some weirdo expressing their fandom of the centuries-dead San Cimarron Isotopes, but then I noticed the colours. That was very definitely the thing on my butt. Someone was trying to get my attention. There were arrows either side of it too, pointing to U-235 by the side of the road. I bit, if only because I needed to get some shade and drink some water. It was already going to be peak heat by the time I was in Roswhinny.

I took my time looking around once I was under the canopy. There was the possibility that it was a coincidence. While I poked around the pumps I tried to think of who could possibly be looking for me. Everyone I could think of that had gotten a good enough look at me to remember my cutie mark was in Roswhinny, Isotope City or way out in the Death Caps, and of those, most of them I'd seen recently enough that if they had something to say to me, they'd have said it earlier today, and of those left, cornering me somewhere in the mess hall seemed more sensible than this backwards-arse scheme. There was nothing out of the ordinary or interesting by the pumps, so cautiously, I stepped into the shop adjacent.

My eyes took some time to adjust to the darkness inside. One shelf had been pushed parallel to the door, so I had to walk around it to see inside. At the back of the room, sitting at the counter and using it as a desk, with the only lamp on in the room, was a pony in black. Her mane and coat were a kind of pale that caused a glare from the lamp. As my eyes adjusted, I made out the half-lit outlines of three other ponies, standing watch, and the glow of multiple energy weapons, holstered or saddle-mounted. The other ponies had helmets on that obscured their eyes with the visors. The pony at the desk looked up with a wrinkled smile and age-weary eyes. "Ah! There you are."

"What?"

"I've been expecting you, Atom Smasher."

I already had the willies. "So I'm guessing you're the vandal from the street out there?"

"I knew you'd be a sharp one." She stood up from the desk, and I got a better look at her uniform. Gold buttons, diagonal-shape thing down the front... and she had wings. In fact, now that I was looking for it, all of them had wings. "Allow-"

"Just, before you move on, I have to ask what you would have done if I was an oblivious moron and walked right past your not-subtle-at-all signpost?"

She actually seemed kind of tickled by this. "We'd have figured something out. But enough about that, I think it's high time we were introduced, hmm?"

"You already appear to have figured out my name, because I guess the Enclave has spies everywhere or something?"

"Colonel Valkyrie, Big Top Enclave. Pleasure to meet you." She extended a hoof in greeting. I stared at it. "Not a hoof-shake kinda gal?"

I was clearly already in the shit and in no mood for it today. "What do you want?"

"Something the matter, Atom? I've heard you're quite personable. This is something of a shock!" She had that half-smile where it was obvious she wasn't surprised at all.

"Look, I'm having a bad day, okay? You picked a bad time to have the spooks roll up and abduct me for ransom or whatever nefarious thing it is you're planning to do.

"Oh, we want nothing of the sort! Nothing against your own volition, honey."

"Why are you calling me honey that's really weird," I muttered through gritted teeth, as she swept a wing over my back and guided me into walking with her.

"See, I'm not sure what you've heard about the Grand Pegasus Enclave and what it is we do, but really what it is, is that we're looking out for each other. Simple, right? It's a tough ol' world for pegasi. I'm sure you've seen a bit of that, haven't you?"

Every time I'd been called some kind of bird diminutive in the last five days played in my head at once. "Yeah. I see what you mean."

"And hey, it's not like you chose to be born down in the mud."

"That's a meaningless assertion, but I guess it's true?"

Valkyrie chuckled. "We just want to look out for our big, wide family. Even the little ducklings down here."

"Is that why you brand your traitors and leave them for dead? That seems rather un-familial to me."

"The family metaphor only goes so far, okay? But it's still generally true. You've got a connection to the Enclave, and we want to reach out to you, Atom."

"Okay, hold up here." I threw her wing off and scrambled back a few steps. "Where the hell are you getting all this?"

She laughed again. Oh, so she's one of those. I kinda wanted Winchester back because he matched my mood more. "Relax! That's an inference. It's just probability that you, a pegasus on the ground, are descended from a pegasus who once lived in the Enclave. However, there is one other thing."

"Which of my brother's instruments am I going to have to destroy to find the bug?"

"So paranoid!" Valkyrie shook her head. "All pegasi are part of the Enclave's extended family. This is a metaphor. You are part of my family. This is literal."

My brain fizzed. "What?"

"Did you think that your poppa just fell out of the sky? He had family too! Like me."

"So you're like, my grandma or something?"

She snorted and laughed like she'd just been winded. "Stars above, do I look that tired today?" She had to clear her throat and cough for a bit. "I think we have more in common than you realise, Atom. Gadget was my brother." I went wide eyed and looked at a blank wall to think, with my hoof raised in a 'hang on' kind of way. "That makes me your aunt."

"No, that's not where I'm stumbling you dipstick, what I'm trying to get my head around is the fact that you must have been tailing me since I got here in order to find this out, along with a number of other ponies, and this is supposed to comfort me?"

"Hey, you know the situation, we've got eyes in the sky anyway. Might as well use them for some humanitarian purposes as well as intelligence, right? But enough about that. Let me show you what we can offer you." She nodded towards the door just ahead, and stepped through it. I looked around. A fourth soldiery-type, wearing power armour, had stepped in front of the door I entered through. The other three, now that their commanding officer was out of sight, looked considerably more at ease. I shrugged, seeing little other immediate option, and followed Valkyrie through the door.

This room was the repair shop part of the place. The shutter had been pulled down, and two more troopers stood guard by it. Valkyrie stood by a tool cabinet with some stuff on it. I squinted. "Are you offering me... wagon parts?"

Valkyrie lifted something, and what I thought was a collection of gubbins and duct tape was actually a clean, ironed jacket. "This is an Enclave Officer uniform, first lieutenant. This uniform and the position it implies are yours, should you choose to accept this offer." She dropped the tone, nudged me and gave me a wink. "We'll consider the trek you had to get here boot camp. Upon accepting the offer of this position you will have your choice of assignment. Off the top of my head, I'm sure engineers, artillery, and R&D would all love to have you. After six months of service at Big Top, you will be permitted to apply for residence at any Enclave settlement and under terms of non-disclosure vis-a-vis surface activities, you shall be considered a full citizen of the Grand Pegasus Enclave, right where you belong."

I went cross-eyed. "Woah, what?"

"Take your time." I ran through it all in my head again. Officer position... residence and citizenship. My crazy estranged aunt had dropped out of the sky and offered to take me away. Everything that had gotten her to this point was utterly creepy, and I had no reason to believe anything she said, from her claim to relation to the integrity of her offer to her association with the Enclave, but it did sound... simple. Unthinkable last week, or even yesterday, but today...

"So, what, I just, put on the uniform and fly away with you right now?"

"Well, I don't know if it'll fit you, our intelligence isn't that good, but we made our best guess."

I thought about Rainbow Code. Every look he'd given me in the last twelve hours was bitter enough to taste. Valkyrie lowered her head and tried to make eye contact with me while I was gazing absently at the floor. The more I looked at her the more I saw little bits of family resemblance. Maybe it was my brain finding patterns in noise, but if Rainbow looked as much like Gadget as Sam said, then I could definitely see them being related. The offer seemed to soothe every ache I had right now. Just take this whole week and pretend it never happened.

"Here." Valkyrie tossed something gold and shiny at me. I clumsily caught it against my front, then gingerly let it out on to my hoof to inspect it. "We'll give you some time to think about it. It's a big decision. But how about a keepsake anyway, hm?" It was a badge or emblem of some kind - a star on top of a circle, flanked by wings. I turned it over, and in between the two clips was the logo of the Enclave - an E circled by stars.

"Sure... time. Okay."

"You'll know where to find us." She bopped a button on the wall, and the shutters rolled up. "C'mon boys and girls, let's hit the road!" she shouted down the hall to the front of the shop. She unfurled her wings as she passed me on the way out. "See you soon, Atom!" She flashed me another wink, before swooping her wings and taking to the sky. One by one, all six troopers took off after her with varying degrees of running start, and took up a V-formation as they headed west. On the horizon I could see the lone mesa, so far away that it was like a pebble sticking out of the sand.

I looked over the badge again. It was heavy - might be solid gold. I banged it off the workbench a few times and shook it next to my ear. No rattle. Probably clean. I stared at it some more, then slid it into my bag.

Somebody to Love

View Online

I think I just sat down and passed out right there in the wagon bay. Peak heat had rolled on, I was still tired, and I needed to digest everything I'd just heard. I didn't care that I was sleeping on rough concrete in the open, I just needed sleep. I was even in such a spot that by the time the heat was passing, the sun was low enough to shine through the open garage door and onto my face to wake me up. Not a pleasant way to wake up, but well-timed.

My nap had helped with two of my problems, and I was now fit to carry on briskly to Roswhinny, but I was still left with the dilemma over Valkyrie's offer. I put it out of my head while I walked, concentrating on anything else, and I even had the presence of mind to tell Spaceman at the door that his helmet wasn't on straight. But as soon as I was inside, the first thing I did was go straight for the mess hall (presently empty, it being too late for lunch but too early for dinner), find a quiet corner, pull Trashcan out of my bag, and sit him across a table from me.

"Alright Trashcan, what do I do?"

The grubby teddy bear stared at me, then flopped to the side.

"Oh, fucking..." I leaned over, picked him up, then squished him forward so that his stuffing would stay folded where it was. He slowly sprung back over the course of about ten seconds, then appeared to have settled. "Right, where was I..."

Trashcan didn't help me.

"Oh yeah. The thing with the offer. What do you think?"

The bastard was stonewalling me.

"I mean, you've been with me the whole time, you should know what's been going on, right? You saw the looks colour vomit was giving me."

Nothing.

"I mean, these are some big questions and I hate them and I just want them to go away and that's part of the question and that's what's so infuriati-"

"Atom, are you trying to get advice from a teddy bear?"

I yelped and spun on the bench. "Cripes, Crumble, what the hell?"

"Did you really think I couldn't hear you?" She smiled and ruffled the top of my head. She sat next to me (not on her stump side) and scooted up close. She smelled like hash browns and sweat. "Now, while we're here, why don't you level with me what's got your tailfeathers in a tangle, hmm?"

I huffed and sprawled out on the table in front of me. "It's nothing, really."

"Are you always this bad at lying?"

I shot up. My honour had been insulted. "No!"

Crumble giggled, and nudged me in the side. "C'mon. Lemme help you out."

Fuck. I'd showed some of my hand. "Uuuugh. Fine."

She patted me on the back. "That's it."

"What do you do, when..." I hummed while I filtered direct references out. "Is there ever an easy way out?"

"That's pretty abstract."

"Like. Say you've gone and fucked something up. Does there come a point where there's no point even trying to fix it?"

"Is this a mechanical problem or a people problem? Because those have very different answers.

"Uhh... people."

"In a few cases. Usually takes more than a week to get that far though."

I stared across the table at Trashcan. He flopped to the side. Dammit, Crumble. "And what about when you suddenly get an out?"

Crumble paused, then stood up. "Gimme a second, darling." She used my back to help herself get up, which winded me. I just stayed sprawled on the table, and nudged Trashcan back into a roughly upright position again.

She returned a few moments later, and dropped a sideplate with a couple of fried balls on them. "What's this?"

"They're hushpuppies. Try one."

I frowned, sniffed one, then popped it in my mouth. It wasn't like, sudden explosion of delicious, but it was still surprisingly tasty. I helped myself to another one. "Wow, that's pretty good," I mumbled, though it probably sounded more like 'hrrf, hrgn hfnghf ghff'.

"Deep-fried cornbread. Ol' family recipe. Momma used to say they were magic, because if you looked away from 'em they'd disappear."

"What?" Or rather, 'whff', I said through a mouthful of the things. I looked down, and the plate was empty save for a few crumbs. I had a brief look of 'where the fuck did they go' before touching my face and realising where they went. How did she always seem to know when I was hungry?

"Atom, I don't know what escape plan just landed in your lap, but when it comes to people things, for any given decision, you gotta think about how that affects everyone, and running away is the balefire option. Not something to take lightly."

"I don't know if you've noticed, but running away doesn't seem to stick with my family."

She looked up, thought about it, then chuckled. "Is that a sign of something, then?" She looked at me. I looked at Trashcan. Trashcan fell over. "Your brother's looking for you. And you didn't hear it from me, but I suggest you sneak a shower, you smell like a cowboy's asshole on a three week cattle drive."

I squinted. "Oh, thanks."


I hadn't noticed it until it had been pointed out to me, but now that I was thinking about it, it quickly rose up my priority list. I changed course to head straight to the showers and nick a wash while nobody was looking. I had no idea how washing was rationed, since presumably they wanted to limit water use, but I had needs, dammit. It was an open shower, and I had to shove my clothes and bags in a little pile in the corner because everyone who used these things regularly presumably had somewhere to leave their shit before washing. I didn't want to touch the manky old soap bar that was there, and it was cold and more of a dribble, and probably not the cleanest water on the base, but I didn't care. My thoughts, mercifully, drowned in the white noise of the water. My fur and feathers were a couple of shades brighter afterwards. After a doggy-shake, I stole a towel to dry the rest of it off, and discarded it in the middle of the floor. Surgical.

I paced a bit in the sun with my wings out to make sure I was properly dry before heading inside. I was starting to get the feeling that I could do with proper sunglasses. I was almost back to 'bouncy' before the dark hallway leading to Rainbow's quarters reminded me that I was in the doghouse. I hesitated at the door. This let me hear something I doubt I would have otherwise - music. Not the old radio music, but actual instruments being played. It was too clear to be the radio. There was an acoustic guitar and a tambourine at least. I sat by the door and waited some. The melody and chords repeated themselves, with varying flourishes every other bar. Six or seven bars in, the guitar played a really bad bum note, and there was a thud and the reverberation on the strings.

"Oh, bollocks, I fucked that one up." That was Rainbow's voice.

The tambourine stopped. "Hey relax, sugar." There was another little bop of the thing, and then a moment of quiet. "You wanna start again?"

I took my chance to open the door. I'd be waiting all day otherwise. Rainbow sat at the end of the bed with a guitar, and Ivy was standing in front of him, like they'd just been nose to nose before they'd turned their heads to look at me. I grinned nervously. "Surprise!"

Rainbow nodded flatly. "Atom."

"What took you so long?" Ivy went and bopped me on the head on with her tambourine.

"Uh. Bit of a hold-up at Isotope City. Ended up having to wait out the heat in a gas station."

"Right. Shall we?" Rainbow hopped off the bed, stepping around Ivy to put the guitar away on the rack. He didn't wait to step past me and out of the room. Even Ivy seemed taken aback by how curt he was. She looked at me. I grimaced and shrugged. She set the tambourine to the side, and we followed him out. We walked to Turing Test’s office in silence. Ivy caught up to him a couple of times and tried to nuzzle him in the side, but the most acknowledgement she got was the occasional wing-ruffle. I could tell from her face he wasn’t doing wonders to ease her qualms about drawing heavily from the bank of Dad.

Babylon was not in the office when we arrived. Rainbow stood to attention and awaited the command to stand at ease. Ivy had no such stiffness, and ran right up to the chair to headbutt Turing Test in the side. I just leaned on the back wall like the delinquent I am, apparently.

“There you are, darlin’! I’ve been hankering to see you ever since your mother called in.”

“We were just kicking back while we waited for Atom, daddy. We’re pretty beat after the trip!”

Hearing my name drew a curious look from me, but then I went back to paying semi-attention.

Turing Test blinked at Rainbow for a moment. “At ease, soldier.”

“Sir.”

“I heard your little sortie went well, on the whole!”

This at least provided me and Rainbow with something to agree on today, as we both glanced at each other with that look that says ‘don’t mention the war’. Ivy, luckily, was happy to do the talking for us.

“We’ve got the tribe’s agreement. We have a good bead on the location and they’re willing to take us there, with… some assistance.”

Turing Test rolled his eyes, sighed, and pulled a heavy, dog-eared ledger out of his desk, that seemed to be as much bookmark as it was page. “What’s the damage, darlin’?”

“In addition to the standard care package, they need, uh… eight pairs of night-vision goggles.”

The poor old bastard looked like he had a heart attack. Hooves flailing around, dazed expression, sweating, paling… the works. He eventually slammed one down on the desk. “They want what?

“Satellite Sam insisted on only the most secure operation possible, which means we gotta make a night crossing. And you know the Death Caps. We can’t cut corners.”

“Of course. It’s just…” He wiped his brow. He was panting. “I’ll see what favours I can call in. Give me a couple days. You might have to fix up one or two pairs yourself to round them out. Paladin, you can bet your feathered ass that I’m gonna work you to the bone when this little adventure is over.”

Rainbow nodded. “I was fully prepared for that eventuality.” Crikey man, lighten up.

Turing Test made some notes in the ledger, then shoved it to the side. “Leave it with me. You can consider your normal duties resumed until I have the supplies.”

“Yes sir!” Rainbow and Ivy called out at the same time.

“Ivy, you can run along. You two,” He gestured in the general direction of me and Rainbow. “I want to have a quick word with you.”

Ivy looked at Rainbow with some raised eyebrows, then gave Turing a hug. “I’ll see you later, daddy.”

He grinned as he pulled her close. “Love you, wildcat.” Ivy made a little mock roar and play-clawed his face, then giggled and bounced to the door, rubbing along Rainbow’s side as she went. The door swung closed with an echoing thud, and the warmth evaporated from Turing Test’s face. “Now, do you want to tell me what’s going on with you two?”

Rainbow was not prepared for this. “What?” I looked up.

“Don’t think I haven’t noticed you two doing everything you can to avoid eye contact.”

“Oh…” Rainbow and I said at the same time.

“I’m not exactly a counsellor, but I can tell when something ain’t right, and if you two are falling out, doing it right when I’m about to break every rule of supply allocation in the book for you as a favour ain’t the sweetest turn of events.”

“Well…”

Turing Test shook his head. “Like I said, not a counsellor. I’m not looking for the story. Whatever it is, work it out.”

Rainbow looked at me again. It was the same kind of disgusted look he gave me back at the camp, but less raw, and more cool and detached. “I’m not sure if that’s possible.” I’ve been told that I actually looked genuinely hurt in this moment. I just remember trying not to have a reaction.

Turing shifted in his seat and stroked his little beardy chin thing. “I’ve got an idea. It’s a slightly unconventional one. Are you willing to hear me out?”

Rainbow’s look lingered on me, and softened as it did so. His gaze slid to the floor, then he looked up at the desk. “Alright.”

Turing Test looked at me trying to return to cucumber-cool. It took me a second to realise he wanted both of us to agree. “Oh. Sure.”

“Now, understand that this is not an order, so much as it is a request. Rainbow Code, you are not obliged to follow this request, and Atom Smasher… well, I can’t make you do anything anyway, but I’m not placing Ranger trust in you or anything. With me so far?” Two noises of assent. “There’s a little place out of town, in the desert. It’s off the main roads. Rainbow, you might have heard a couple of tales of it, so the explanation is mostly for you, Atom. There’s a little settlement called Wormwood, built on an oasis, and it’s something of a neutral ground in the area. Everyone is welcome as long as they don’t cause any trouble.” Rainbow made an ‘oh’ face. “I’d like if the two of you took tomorrow night off to wander up there and spend some time catching up and clearing the air. Wormwood has an effect on ponies. This kinda stuff just tends to all shake loose up there. So if you think there’s anything worth saving between you, I suggest you give it a shot. What do you say?”

Rainbow looked at me again, blankly. He looked at me long enough that I got a little knot in my stomach just looking back at him. “Okay. It’s worth a shot.”

I sighed relief. “Yeah, might as well. Kills some time waiting for the goggles.”

Turing Test nodded, sat back in his chair and pulled a spreadsheet over from the side. “Paladin Rainbow Code, I’ll put you on the morning patrol and you can get going once it’s cool enough. Atom, hold up a moment and I'll mark it on your map, and… try not to antagonise Crusader Prickly Pear while you’re waiting, will you?”

I broke out into giggles. “Fine, fine.”

“Alright. You have your instructions, you are dismissed.”

Rainbow stood to attention, saluted, then promptly left the room. I fluttered up to Turing's desk and leaned on it with my shitbuck (registered trademark) leg forward. “So, if you’ll indulge me a curiosity…”

He paused his leaning over it and looked over the rims of his glasses. “The answer is probably no.”

I couldn’t keep a smirk from creeping over my face. “What’s your story with Wormwood? You seem to know the place well.”

He leaned back, like he really wasn’t expecting that. “Oh! Well uh…” He chuckled nervously. “Remember when you asked how I met Babylon?”

“Oh, this is already interesting.”

“I was a young knight. My squad had a night off and one of them had good word that this place was around, and they had uh… techniques to relax.”

“I’m guessing you’re not talking about yoga.”

“The reason Wormwood has its special status in the San Cimarron area is because it is the sole producer of a concoction they call star stuff.” So that’s Spaceman’s ‘supply’. “You get a little cup of it when they welcome you, and lead you in a sort of ceremony. After that, you’re free to wander around the camp and get social. Most ponies have their own booze with them. You can have more star stuff if you like, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Anyway, I…” He chuckled. “You tend to forget who you’re talking to when you get there. Some ponies keep their uniforms on, many leave them at the door or just come al fresco, but either way, we forget they’re there most of the time. So, when I got there, I got talking to this mare. She was… wild.” He swung back in his chair, and stared into space. “She blew my mind. She had such a different perspective on life that I found riveting, and it made my little by-the-book Ranger heart go all a-flutter. One thing led to another, and we…”

“Ooh, matron.”

He raised an eyebrow and smirked. “… shared a tent.”

“Only a tent?”

“But the best part was in the morning. We had to get going of course, because we only had the night to spend. When we were recovering our discarded clothes, we noticed what those clothes were, and realised we’d just been sleeping with the enemy.”

“Oh?”

“See, this was back during the height of nomad-hunting. Everyone was making it their business to curb tribal activities in the area, including the Rangers. Just going by outfits alone, I should have shot her on sight as a threat to the peace. But the other thing we were struck by, was that we saw each other… bare. Without anything to say that I was a Ranger or that she was a ‘raider’. We didn’t even say anything. We just climbed back into bed for a few more minutes. But that wasn't the end of it. We saw each other again and started using our influence to defuse the situation, and here we are now. There's still old grudges hanging around, but it's a lot calmer these days. We've been sowing the seeds of peace for a long time.”

“So, you made love, not war?”

Turing Test burst out into a brief belly laugh. “That’s one way of putting it!” He coughed as he caught his breath. “Now, listen darlin’. If all that can happen from my shenanigans off-duty, then the magic of Wormwood is bound to do something for you and your brother. I don’t know what’s gotten into you two, but…”

“I’ll let you know when I find out.”

“I’m sure it’ll sort itself out.” He opened the desk drawer and pushed the ledger back into it. “Now. You might have nothing to do, but I sure as hell do, so show me your computer alread-" He stopped when he finally got a closer look at it. "What the hell is this?"

"The finest junk Ivy could find!"


I avoided Rainbow as best I could for the rest of the day. This wasn't hard, since he seemed to be avoiding me too. I hung out on the roof of the terminal building for a while, and mused on Valkyrie's offer some more. Even now, it lingered at the back of my mind every time I felt the weight of the badge I was still hiding. This was after I'd taken it to the scribe hole and run it over the strongest magnet I could find while nobody was looking.

When we caught up again at dinner, Rainbow was at least putting up with me. We didn't make much conversation, and he even managed to avoid turning into an apocalyptic-level grump every time he looked at me. It kept me quiet though. Why wasn't he telling anyone else what was getting him down? Did he not think it'd matter to them? Had he been asked about it? I just didn't get what the hell was going on in that boy's head.

Rainbow retired early for his morning patrols, and Ivy had a late shift, so I tried to see if there was some booze I could indulge in to make an evening disappear. Crumble said that any alcohol that ended up on site was under private provision and not her responsibility, since being intoxicated on duty was grounds for reprimand. She told me to come back to her when it was a really special occasion, and then she'd break out her own 200-year-old Sweet Apple Acres brandy.

I gave up on this endeavour and resorted to wandering around the base until I was sleepy. I found myself sitting on the Little Boy and poking at some of its fuel lines and hydraulics, and watching the scribes go about their business. Ivy, coffee floating ahead of her, spotted me as she was passing the terminal, because of course she did.

"Atom, get down from there before you break something, will you?"

"It's not like he works, is it?" I slid down the Little Boy's front and leg, firefighter style. Ivy frowned, then shook her head.

"Hey, I meant to ask you, Atom, did..." She looked at the floor and set her coffee down. "Is something up with you and Rainbow? I'm trying to get to the bottom of this mood he's been in since last night, and he ain't saying nothing."

I huffed. "I was wondering how long it'd take you to notice. Your dad picked up on it right away."

"I suspected you might have had something to do with it ever since you said he had gas, but you're a tricky customer to find." She nudged me in the side with a hoof. Steady on, girl.

"He's been... he's been pretty chilly ever since I filled him in on what I got up to back home. Seemed to take exception to it."

Ivy leaned an elbow on the terminal. "And what was that?"

"Well... I was kind of a peacemaker." My smirkingly ironic use of 'hero' was losing its humour for me. "There wasn't really much law to uphold, so I just went around killing the bad people. That's when he really got upset."

Ivy furrowed her eyebrows. I gulped and started thinking about which Big Top division I'd like to try. Then she opened her mouth. "Is that it? Are you sure?"

"What?" I gulped down the wrong way and had to splutter for a bit. "I mean, yes! That was it."

"Oh, he is so innocent. You can take the boy out of the stable, but you can't take the stable out of the boy." She shook her head and took a sip of coffee. "It's part of why I love him though. That big ol' heart of his."

"Bleeeuugh."

"It don't make him bad people." She thumped me in the shoulder. "You probably just shocked him is all. Besides, you could stand to learn some of that from him."

I looked at the floor. 'Shock' is probably among the weaker words I'd use to describe that look he gave me. "Right." Ivy picked her mug off the terminal along with a clipboard and went back to her rounds.

"Mind you, he could probably do with learning a couple things from you before he hurts himself, too." By the time I'd processed what she'd muttered she was gone.

When I woke up the next morning, Rainbow was already gone, and Ivy was heading out. I was again left with my head spinning over which one was more likely to have a civil conversation with me right now. After a swing around the cafeteria after the breakfast rush, I decided to bury myself in Rainbow's videos to make the day disappear. The tapes were in wildly varying states of repair, from a near-pristine copy of some western that bore astonishing resemblance to the ridiculous scenes in the streets of Fort Mercer, to some home-taping of live news coverage of something boring, to a recording of a music festival that was so badly damaged and warped that I took it out of the machine for fear of it coming off the spools and getting tangled up in the machine. I could work this thing, but probably not repair it. Highly variable quality of recording and entertainment value notwithstanding, it was at least diverting enough to efficiently spin the clock hands.

I must have fallen asleep in front of Star-whatever at some point because that was what was playing when a hoof like a tree trunk shook me awake. "You ready to go, Atom?"

"What?" I rubbed my eyes and yawned. My mouth felt like glue.

"It's coming up on five. Are you coming to Wormwood or not?"

He was being short with me, but he was at least talking to me. Progress! "Right! Yeah. Lemme just..."

"And do stay out of my collection when I'm not here." He glared at me as he turned off the telly and ejected the tape.

"Not gonna rewind it?" I rolled off the couch and dug around for my jacket.

"I try not to put them through so much wear in one day."

"Oh."

He was packing light, and waited in the door for me while I scooped up my bags and staggered after him. I wasn't expecting a very talkative journey.

House of the Rising Sun

View Online

The stupid bastard said nothing for four hours. I was getting bored of this. Like, I was already absolutely sick of the stonewalling (dare I say I wanted the cheery dope back instead of this morose motherfucker?) but by now I was just getting drained with this. I was out the other side of emotionally exhausted and into just done with this shit. I swear I must have passed out walking at one point. The walk to Wormwood wasn't much distraction either. It was just straight northwest, taking us past some creepy old industrial estate and a fat load of nothing.

Have I mentioned how weirdly laid out Equestrian urban centres seem to be? I mean, I'm probably the weird one with the Manechester background, but large parts of Equestria feel like they'd been barely settled even before the war. Maybe I'm just in the wrong parts of the country (my route to San Cimarron took me through the wild parts of the south, largely avoiding most places that might reasonably be considered a city), and obviously there must be parts that have the ancient street plan with industrial infrastructure laid on, but all I'd found before San Cimarron, with the exception of one particularly festive location in the swamp (that's a story for another time), had been backwater collections of huts like Fort Mercer, newly settled towns built out of scrap, and stretches of highway with some retail units adjacent that had the gall to call themselves names like "Acacia City". You go two blocks from the main road and suddenly you're in bumblefuck nowhere.

You see what you do to me Rainbow? I'm rambling about the nuances of urban planning again.

Anyway. Journey to Wormwood was unbearably dull. There was like, a few dead prickly-ass trees and some rocks and that was it. We got there and I was about ready to scoop out my eyeballs for the sake of stimulation. If this was where all the star stuff was coming from then I was bracing myself to commence tripping balls. The place wasn't unlike the Eagle Tribe's camp, but with a few more permanent structures, like larger tents, a watchtower, and more electrical lighting. Torches and a central campfire still provided most of the lighting. Dusk had passed on our approach to the place, which was turning out to be almost as dramatically lit as the approach to the Eagle Tribe camp, but instead of being at the top of a wind-carved valley, it was the only feature on the land for miles around, and featured a few of what might be considered to be living trees. Little hard to tell.

Rainbow opened his stupid mouth for the first time in hours. "Do we just... what, do we just go up and say hello?"

I scoffed and rolled my eyes. "Oh, let me." I pushed past him, which was completely unnecessary since we were still a hundred paces out and there was years of space in every direction.

I sauntered up to the camp until I was in the light of it. I noticed the tents, fences, lights and other junk they'd dragged to this location formed a ring. Not a very large ring, but definitely defensible encirclement of the camp. Sprawled on an armchair - where the fuck did they find that and how did they get it here? - was a pony who I guessed was a door guard of some kind. He had some baggy poncho-scarf thing and an assload of beads, and thick, braided hair that flopped over his face and must have made it impossible to see, but he was sitting next to a very large rifle with a lot of glowy bits and wires hanging out of it, so I was not inclined to take the piss.

"Hey mate, what's going on?" I leaned on the arm of his recliner.

"Yo, dude! About time you got here." He had a voice like a rock star. Which is to say, he sounded like his throat had seen years of booze and more drugs than I could name.

"About time?"

"You and your friend there have been takin' it easy for miles. You two holding up okay?"

I hesitated a moment longer than I intended, and I could see him pick up on that with a sliver of his yellowed teeth peeking through his grin. "We're fine, just heading over to check this place out."

"I getcha. I think we might have what you need." Spaceman this dude was not. Rainbow caught up and seemed to look over my shoulder. "There you bros are! Don't be shy." Rainbow shuffled awkwardly from behind me. Mother of fuck, boy, will you stop acting like the dorky kid at the school dance?

"Hello, we uh..."

"Is that a Ranger patch?" Rainbow almost flailed and fell over on the spot. The door guard broke into a chuckle. "Relax, dudeski. Everyone is welcome here. Gonna guess this is you two dudes' first time in Wormwood?"

We both nodded. Rainbow, being a dweeb, felt the need to explain us. "We're just visiting for a night if that's okay? I mean, I don't know if there's a cap fee or some kind of-"

The guard held up a hoof. "All you need to worry about, my friend, is the Silent Night."

"Silent Night?" He started saying it, then I said it, and he stuttered to a stop.

"Inside these walls, you're not Rangers."

"I'm not a Ranger outside the walls either, but go on."

He looked at me for a moment, then continued. "This is neutral turf. There is no fighting, no espionage, no judging here. We are all pilgrims to this celebration of the shared journey of ponykind through these tough times, y'dig?"

Rainbow nodded. "Got it. So yo-"

I cut in. "And what happens if someone does start fighting?"

"If I can pick you out at three miles in dusk, I'm pretty sure I can shoot those glasses off your face from the gate."

I blinked. "Where'd you learn to shoot like that?"

"Bit of this and that." He grabbed his rifle, suddenly, and had it cocked, aiming at some imaginary target to the side, and making a high-pitched whine within half a second. It made both of us jump. He lowered it, smiled, and gently sat it down. "Legend is the Dreamer family can see the night as bright as day. I like to think I live up to it. Say." He turned to Rainbow and sat forward. "You might know my baby brother, Nightlight. Found his way into the Rangers. Said he wanted to broaden his horizons. I dunno if he's on to anything, but he seems to be having fun."

I didn't know the name, but I had a pretty good idea who he was talking about, and based on Rainbow looking at me with the same realisation-slash-alarm I was looking at him with, I'm pretty sure I was right.

"Anywhoosits, no sense leaving you two duders out in the cold any longer, right? C'mon in. Name's Full Moon. If you wanna dump your stuff, just toss it anywhere, I'll make sure nobody leaves with something they're not supposed to. First thing you're gonna want to do is talk to Lullaby over by the still, she'll get you situated. It's quiet tonight, so you'll have lots of space to yourselves if that's what you're lookin' for. Alright?"

I missed my beat because I wasn't expecting to have to respond there. Rainbow started walking. "I think we get the idea." I lingered a moment before hurrying to follow.

"Alright, you guys have a good one!"

I'd heard some distant music outside the camp, and we passed the twanging guitar-thing it was coming from on the way through. The oasis itself was nothing like what I'd been picturing. Instead of a verge of palm trees and shrubs around a lake, there was just a well and some sad-looking wildflowers nearby. All the cultivation appeared to be under some tarps on sticks to the side. Some trader was on his back on a make-shift bench, waving at the sky, and someone unclothed was singing off-key to herself while threading beads. Rainbow looked like he'd gotten lost for a moment. I spotted a twisting bundle of banged-up pipes and stuff, including a big copper sphere, with someone in a welding mask hunched over a glowing, bubbling bowl. I scooted around Rainbow to nudge her on the shoulder. She stepped back and lifted the welding mask, and she was wearing a gas mask underneath, which she then lowered. Under the masks she had a face like a moth-bitten old rug. "Hwah?"

"Are you Lullaby?"

She made that 'oh' face of realisation. "Oh, well how do you do, missy? Did Moony let you in?" I heard a groan from the direction of the door.

"He gave us the impression that if we were here otherwise, we'd be roast ducks by now."

She blinked and looked around. "Oh, there's two of you?"

Rainbow waved. He was standing right next to me. "Uh, hi!"

"You didn't see this big fucker here?"

"Oh, don't mind me, my eyesight's just going." She tapped the welding mask. "Here's a free tip, kiddos, don't get this stuff in your eyes."

I looked at the bubbling liquid. It had a green tint to it. I looked up with a squint. "'This stuff' being?"

Her face exploded with glee, and she threw the welding mask across the camp. It broke a pot, and while someone in one of the tents seemed kind of bothered, Lullaby certainly wasn't. "Good golly, I've got some things to show you! Take a seat, dears, I'll be with you in a second."

Rainbow went ahead to the larger fire and found a cushion to sit on. He looked very stiff, and I was tempted to ask if he was actually having some kind of digestive problem. I dawdled to watch Lullaby scoop up two gourds off the ground in her hooves, tap them on the pipes, and one after the other, hold each under a protruding pipe under a large upturned ceramic bottle, and press a plunger. Whatever came out steamed in the evening air, and spilled liberally into the dirt as she fumbled with the gourds.

"Now, what's your relation, strangers? I'm sorry, I didn't catch your names! Trading partners? Lovers?" She'd started the second question by the time I'd opened my mouth, and the third by the time Rainbow opened his.

I burst out laughing. Rainbow choked to death. "Celestia, no! She's my... my sister, Atom Smasher."

Lullaby gave me a squinting smile as I fell back off the bench giggling. I had to straighten my goggles on climbing up again. "Y'look more like a gut buster to me!"

I snorted. "He's Rainbow Code."

"Good to meetchas! Now get up Atom Smooshie, I've got something for you two. And I might have some prunes for you," she said, nudging Rainbow. I exploded again. It went completely over his head.

"You're so uptight, even the blind think you look constipated."

He sighed and grabbed the gourd off Lullaby. I took mine. Lullaby held each of our gourd hooves to stop us from chugging straight away. "Careful now!"

"Oh, is there some ritual for this stuff?"

"No, it's hot."

"Oh."

"Also, yes." Lullaby pulled both of us closer. "You only drink star stuff when you're looking at the stars."

Rainbow looked straight up and motioned out drinking from an imaginary gourd with his free hoof. "That seems kind of messy."

"Okay, listen to me. Breathe deep." We did. "Breathe out." We did. "Bottle to mouth." Likewise. "And... up!" Slowly but firmly, she lifted the ends of the gourds, tilting them back until we were looking straight up at the sky, and something very hot and bitter flowed into my mouth. She let go, and after the first gulp went down, the instinct to wretch and pull the bottle away took over. This was much stronger than the glorified piss the Spaceman gave me. I felt a hoof on my chin, and it nudged my balance backwards. "Keep looking up, sweet ones."

Rainbow didn't sound happy. "Ugh, that was... what was in that? It tasted like bile, wow..."

"Shhh." She didn't need to keep holding my head up. "Tell me, do you see any shooting stars?" I knew exactly what was going on, and listening to Rainbow's reaction was going to be amazing. At least I thought that was going to be the case, because I was still getting bowled over by looking at the night sky sober. Rainbow was at least used to that part. So we both had the same slack-jawed "woah" when the milky way started to sparkle, and a couple of stars began to twinkle and dance and streak in and out of existence. Lullaby chuckled. "Sweet dreams, children." She took the time to set the gourds down while we were staring, and she must have went back to her business.

We lost track of time staring at the sky. At some point I ended up on my back. I tried moving the stars around with my hooves, but they were more fickle than ceiling tiles. When I stuck my hoof in them, it felt tingly, like licking a spark battery but not on my tongue. They swirled, like they were reflected in water, and the milky way parted and swished like a cloud. The moon looked pointy in its crescent state, so I didn't feel like giving it a poke.

"I'm... what... where... what?" I heard Rainbow say. It took me a moment to process that it was him, and another to get up and stagger over to him to pull his head down from the sky before he got lost in it.

"It's okay! You're still here."

"I'm not okay. I'm compromised. I need first aid. Wait, I'm the first aid. Can I give myself first aid?"

I slapped my forehead. My hoof felt like it continued all the way through, a feeling which made me lose my balance and grab him by the front. "We're still in Wormwood. Just relax, will you? We're safe here."

"Right... safe..."

I pawed around for the discarded gourds, and took another swig from one. It was still as hot and sour, but having a dose already in my system made it feel like I was swallowing a lemon whole. Just a different kind of unpleasant, really.

"Are you my sister?"

"What?" I slumped back against the bench, like, lying on the floor and using the bench to prop my head up, because that's sensible.

"You must be someone else. I'm so sorry."

I squinted. The whole world turned into a pancake and I had to stop that. "Rainbow Code, what the fuck are you talking about?"

He grabbed a cushion and flopped forward. "You can go home, I've dragged you out here for nothing."

"What kind of lightweight are you?" I completely failed to get up and give him a shove.

"How do they make pillows that dance?" He was holding a completely stationary cushion in front of his face.

I sighed. "Yeah, fuck you. You would be the kind of miserable puritan to not hold a drink, wouldn't you?" He didn't answer me. I took another clumsy bite of magic lemon, threw it away and crawled over to him. "Why won't you answer me?"

"You're still here?"

"Yes, I'm still fucking here!"

"Why?" he yelled. I'd never heard him yell close up before. He looked more afraid than angry.

"I don't know!"

We stared at each other for like, a minute, panting. Slowly, he looked down his nose, and his face went pale. "I think I'm going to be sick."

I shoved him away from me. He tumbled in the dust a bit, and managed to keep running from the light for a few steps, before falling to the side. I stopped paying attention after that.

Well, this was a bust. I figured at this point I might as well get completely fucked up, just because it was the most interesting thing to do. The sky was dripping, and I couldn't be sure if the stars were falling, or if it was raining, or if it was raining and taking the stars with it. After a whole load of effort, I managed to get on my hooves, and start poking around the camp for things. The fire danced with a hypnotising swirl that had me trip over the trader and not even break my gaze on it until my face was in the dirt again. Getting up again seemed to take an eternity. "Woah, I didn't see you there, I'm sorry, I didn't see anything, I didn't..."

Gravity went sideways, then I found myself upright. "It's all good, sister!" he said in a heavy drawl, then pulled me in and started chewing on my nose. I think he might have been trying to kiss me.

I pushed him back. "Please don't do that."

"You got it!" At this, he fell backwards to his original position of rearranging the cosmos. I wiped my face. Did I just say 'please' and 'sorry' on reflex? If I got any more wasted I'd be a model citizen.

I got an idea. I looked around. The distant music seemed to carry colours on the air. "Hey, man, mind if I borrow some water?" I was already making for his pack before he answered.

"Sure thing!" He wasn't even looking at me.

I flopped on my front next to the roped up pack and pulled it open, and then I fell inside. Up and down disappeared in a dark tunnel that smelled like dust and chili. I navigated by feel alone. The music from outside echoed as I poked my way past giant cans of rations and loose rounds the side of my body. My epic quest dragged on, and I was breathing spicy sand instead of air. Finally, I felt my prize - glass bottle with a screw top. I braced myself, placed both hooves on it, and yanked as hard as I could. I kicked and flailed and screamed, and eventually, I was launched from the dark hole of the bag into the night, flying miles into the air, only to land back at the camp, next to the bag, surrounded by a mess of bean tins, bullets, and a bottle of whiskey.

Once I'd stopped swimming in the ability to see, I grabbed the bottle, screwed the top off, and chugged greedily. It felt like eating fire. When I pulled the bottle away, my breath burned a hole in the sky. Not to be ungrateful, I fumbled around for the cap and screwed it back on to the bottle. I didn't want all of his whiskey to fly away without him.

I stumbled back to the bench I'd been hanging out at before to get some more star stuff. The fire didn't seem to like me looking at it as I passed, and I didn't make eye contact. The mare's singing stung my ears. I don’t know when the wind picked up but it had risen to a deafening shriek, with the sound of distant thumping and clanging carried on it. I needed a bit of quiet time.

All of my shit had fallen out of my upturned bags, so I had to pick through it to find the gourds. When I went to take a swig, it punched me in the snout. I yelped and threw the gourd away. So stunned I was that I put a hoof to my face. When it came away, it was drizzled with deep red. I took a deep breath. It smelled like a stainless steel knife. After a brief itch inside my nose, my head exploded entirely. I returned to awareness a mere moment later, lying on the ground. The only evidence of my fatality was a tiny black splatter in the dirt, barely glinting red in the firelight. The closer I looked, the more it seemed to hate me, so I stopped looking at it.

By now I was panting through my mouth. I could feel my tongue being eroded by the sand, but I didn’t have another choice. Pretty soon I could feel parts of my throat escaping with each rasping exhale. I looked again at my stuff. There was a small bear cub nibbling some landmines. I didn't remember carrying any landmines, but there were a lot of them. I tilted my head and leaned closer, then the bear turned to me, snarling with a gaping hole for one eye, brandishing a weapon at me that crackled with blue sparks. My whole body was itched with radiation exposure. My ears began to click and my legs blotched and flayed themselves right in front of me. I squealed and shimmied back as fast as I could before tripping on my jacket.

As I fell on my back, my jacket felt like it was tightening around me, pressing burning irons into my sides. It choked my vision. I screamed breathlessly, but there was no air to scream with. My throat had already melted away. I had to get rid of this jacket before it trapped me. I writhed and flailed and pulled at it for hours, finally throwing away the leather tomb. A wing came with it.

It was only now that I realised that it was my armour. Free from it, the absolute zero of the infinite black above gripped me and began to fill my veins with ice, crystal by excruciating crystal. Before my eyes leaked out of my sockets, I looked up. Burning spears of light hurtled towards me. The milky way was their trail of smoke as they crossed the heavens to extinguish all life from the universe, with the thorned moon as their general, and now they were coming for me. I was done screaming, because nobody could help me now. I turned to the ground to hide, to dig my way back to the stable with my feeble hooves, to beg for mercy that wouldn't come.


The next thing I remember was waking up, somehow, not quite over the fear that the entire universe and everything in it was summoning the fire of eternity to destroy me. The stars were certainly there, but they were still swaying and swerving and glaring at me. Don’t ask me how I knew it, but the longer I lay there on my back, looking up at the sky, the more I got the feeling that I was somewhere I shouldn’t be. I wanted to get up and go, but my legs had other plans.

My heart was pounding in my ears. I couldn’t hear anything else. Well, I heard other things occasionally. But most of what I heard was the droning thump at a racing pace. At least I thought that was a heartbeat. If it was, and it was mine, it was frighteningly fast and irregular and my awareness of this was not helping with that. Neither was trying to concentrate on the stars, now leaving trails as my breathing moved my head around. The sticky taste and smell and crusty texture of vomit inside and outside of my head right now made everything disgusting.

A string of words fought their way through the pounding. “... whiskey? Booze and star stuff don’t mix, you big dummy!” I think it was Lullaby, but I can’t be sure. I just remember the word ‘dummy’ attaching itself to my heartbeat and repeating in my ear, growing in volume until all I heard was the chorus of my own stupidity.

I blacked out again for a little while. It might have only been a couple of seconds. The chant of ‘dummy dummy dummy DUMMY DUMMY DUMMY’ made it just a little bit hard to keep time. I tried to get up again. No dice. I sighed. Or, that’s what I wanted to do, I couldn’t control the pace of my breathing. My voice wasn’t responding either. Not even an incoherent groan. The more I tried to call for help, the more the rush of air in my limp throat drowned out everything else. I stopped trying after a while because it was even more unbearable than the sound of my exploding heart.

Let me tell you, the moment when you try to call for help because your body is completely non-functional, as embarrassing as it is, and you actually physically can’t, is a moment of nauseous dread I didn’t think existed.

“... trying to rope me into this?”

“She came here with you!”

That was Rainbow. He was arguing with someone. Maybe Full Moon. Little bit hard to tell, because I was still in the grip of some mad cardiac dysfunction. I only caught bits of the conversation. The edges of my vision began to blur again.

“... wants to fuck herself up and OD in some hole in the desert, that’s her business. She’s got her life. She doesn’t need me.” Gee, thanks. Some paladin you are. I heard a smack. It wasn’t my ears, it was something going on outside of my narrowing cone of vision. There was a long pause.

“Will you quit being a legendary dumbass already?”

“The… you hit me. What about…”

“If you’re going to cry about your selfish issues you can get the fuck out of my village and out of the way. If not, shut up and help me.

Silence. Well. Not silence. Head-splitting thumping and angry points of light. But thumping uninterrupted by words for a bit.

“Okay.” Rainbow’s voice was shaky.

Noises ensued. I only noticed how much peripheral vision I’d lost when Rainbow and Full Moon appeared either side of me, and I could barely make out their faces.

“Can you prepare a needle?” There was a pause while Rainbow stared at me open-mouthed. I honestly had no idea how to read it. Awe at how fucked up I was? Still high himself? Full Moon grabbed him and shook him. “Focus!”

“Yes! Yes. Four years field medic. Gimme.”

A box flew over me from one to the other. For a brief second I freaked out and thought it was going to land on my immobile face, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at me. After this I zoned out for a bit. They exchanged some medical-sounding words about like, veins, hyperthermia, stabilising, stuff like that. I was starting to drift, and droning jargon was a push towards sleep.

“Can you get it together? You’re shaking all over the place.”

“I’m sorry, I…” Rainbow sniffled. It definitely sounded like he was trying extremely hard not to cry.

“Listen, you hold the light, I’ll do the needle.” They had a light? Fuck. I couldn’t see a thing by now.

“Right. Sure.”

After this point words blurred together. They’d been fuzzy and muffled for a minute already, and even the thumping was fading. Soon, it all swirled away, leaving me in the dark quiet.


I woke up in bits and pieces, with one uncomfortable part of my perception following another sluggishly. First was the rough ground creating a painful bend in my back. Next was the spinning in my head, followed by distant twanging. My face felt crusty, on the cheeks and nose. I stirred to try and move to a better position, and noticed the blanket on me. I heard a sound that took me a minute to realise was words. "She's waking up!" There were other words too far away to recognise. "Give us a bit, okay?"

"Wha... what?" I opened my eyes. I was lying on my side. It was still night, and we were still outside. Nearby at my eye level was a small fire - mercifully content to keep to itself - and a big tan haunch with a multicoloured arc on it. I looked up to see the face the leg belonged to, looking at me with streaked cheeks and a trembling smile.

"Atom?"

When I shifted to lie on my front, I noticed that my stomach felt like it was full of cactus needles and didn't like me moving. My forehooves were wrapped in bandages. There was also some other soft lump underneath me. "Rainbow? What happened?"

Several parts of me erupted in pain when he scooped me up and hugged me. "You're okay!"

"Ow. Ow. Still really hurting here."

"Sorry! Sorry." He set me down again, and I was happy enough to lean on his side. I felt around for the soft lump I'd been lying on. It was Trashcan. I duly pulled him close and squeezed him. "You... had a bad reaction to the star stuff. I was really worried." He sniffed and wiped his nose.

"You... you were?" I looked up. My face started feeling tight again. He nodded. I smiled and slumped against him. I tried to say something else but I just chuckled, and then I felt a trickle on my face. Oh no. Here we go. It started with that, and before I knew it my face was buried in his side to hide my hideous sobbing. Rainbow had a hoof around my back, and I could hear him struggling to control himself too. I caught myself before too long, but my face was already wet and my voice was all wobbly.

"You're important to me." He squeezed. "And I didn't realise how much until I thought I was about to lose you again." He held me and we swayed gently for a little while. "I've... been a bit of a selfish dick, Atom."

“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”

He chuckled. "I realised something in the last few hours. I'd been... still trying to imagine you as I left you. That's why I got so upset the other night. The idea of my baby sister going out and surviving in the big bad wasteland broke my brain."

I lingered on this thought. "Who knew that when you leave someone alone for ten, twelve years, they grow up a bit?" I smirked and poked him.

He laughed, but when he was done he stared at the ground. "Yeah..."

I leaned my head back on him, and tried to pull the blanket further up around me. I was really cold. Wasn't I not supposed to be able to feel cold? Fuck. "Listen. You're not gonna hear me say this a lot, but I'm already bawling into your shoulder, so I might as well." I tried to lean back further so I was actually looking at his face. "Whatever the fuck just happened with the space drugs was the scariest thing that's ever happened to me. I've never felt so helpless in my life."

"Not even nearly dying from heatstroke on the highway?"

"Not even close." I nudged him. "Waking up and actually having someone looking out for me is... it means a lot." I swallowed. Fuck, I was starting to choke up again. He squeezed me, and I chuckled to get rid of the tears.

"Wasteland warrior or not, you're still gonna be the baby I promised to look after."

I let him hug me for a moment. "Well that went well."

He broke into chortles. "Oh, give it a rest, I just nursed you out of a bad trip."

I rolled my eyes with a smile. "Fiiine."

By now I was half-sitting up, lying on my back with my head on Rainbow's lap. Trashcan was on my front, and I pulled him up to look at him. "I put him there while you were sleeping. You clung on to him for dear life."

I stared the bear up and down. "Dude's seen some good service."

"Hmm?"

"The skeleton I took him off back at the Caballero Centre. You don't find the remains of kids unless something awful happened." Rainbow made a pensive noise. "She must have run scared into the loos. Got separated or something. All she had to comfort her was this bear."

"That's uncharacteristically empathetic of you, Atom."

"Funnily enough, I can relate to the plight of a scared and lonely child."

"Oh."

We went quiet. The tears had stemmed, and the mood had chilled.

I leaned back and broke the silence. "I was propositioned by someone on the way back from Isotope City yesterday."

"Oh?"

"Bunch of Enclave spooks. One called Colonel Valkyrie claimed to be my aunt. Offered to take me away and set me for life."

"You too?"

I squinted. "What do you mean, you too?"

"I got the same offer, years ago. I don't know if it happens to all the pegasi down here, or she just singled me out. I still have the badge she gave me."

"I was very tempted to take it." He went quiet. I paused. "I didn't. But I didn't rule it out either."

"You... you must have been really tempted."

I chuckled. "This was after you'd cold shouldered me all the way back from the mountains, so yeah, I was just about ready to leave town."

"I wouldn't have blamed you. I've been a horrible brother."

I snorted. "No, you've been a well-intentioned idiot. Just fix the idiot part and everything should be fine."

He huffed with a smile. "You're so much like mum it's unbelievable."

"Am I? I wouldn't know."

"Tough as nails, sharp as a tack, cheeky streak a mile wide."

"Does that mean you got dad's idealistic moron genes?"

He burst out laughing. "Probably." He sighed. "I do miss her. She taught me how to shoot. Got my cutie mark that way."

"You got your butt stamp from operating a firearm and you got huffy at me for being a bit heavy-handed?"

"Well, A. It wasn't in like, a firing range, I got it from chasing off a bully with a toy gun, and B. I thought we'd established that I was a moron?"

"Hang on, a toy gun? Like, yellow plastic, shot foam darts?"

"That's... yeah, that's the one!"

"I loved that thing! I found some explosive darts for it and used it as my sidearm for ages!"

"... explosive darts?"

"Yeah! It's somewhere in a Ranger lockup back east. We should go get it!"

Rainbow shook his head. "I think you need some more rest."

"Oh, fine."

We went quiet again for a while. I yawned. I picked up Trashcan again.

"When did you get religious, Rainbow?"

"What?"

"You were saying those prayers back at the Caballero Centre. Like, for the little girl who gave me Trashcan."

He ruffled my hair. "I... wouldn't quite call it religion. A little bit of faith maybe. A few of the Rangers hold on to some old prayer books, some medallions, stuff like that. Break 'em out when things get tough. I like to keep a few rites on the top of my head for like, honouring the dead." He smiled weakly. "Celestia knows, there's plenty of them."

"Interesting."

"Have you ever had something you believed in, Atom?" I just stared at him. "... stupid question."

"Never really thought about it. I guess that's what makes it intriguing to me."

"I can teach you a simple one if you're interested."

"I'm not that curious, you goof." I nudged him lightly. "But it's kinda nice what you're doing. Remembering ponies who don't have anyone else to remember them. You've got your ways, I've got mine." I held Trashcan close. Rainbow put his foreleg over mine and squeezed me.

"That we do."

With A Little Help From My Friends

View Online

Right. Sappy part is out of the way. Let's get the fuck on with it.

Given that it was the middle of the night and we were both exhausted from a horrible drug experience, we conked out pretty quick. Rainbow got a bedroll and I, because I was still covered in 'orrible, got some grubby blankets and had to sleep where Full Moon could see me in case I had a seizure. I didn't, in case you hadn't noticed. I'd just washed the day before, now I needed another one. At least Rainbow moved his bedroll near mine.

I woke up with the sunrise, feeling awful. I was cold, all I could smell was vomit, my head felt like it was in a vice, and every bone and joint needed a good spray of motor oil. Rainbow was still out cold. I felt too gross to keep sleeping, so I got up for a bit. The camp was at its sleepiest. Full Moon gave me a lazy nod from his armchair. I felt like he wasn't going to be the sharpest shot right now. "Where's the..." I croaked through the shredded remains of my throat. He pointed around the side of the outer perimeter. All I needed.

I took a piss that felt like acid and hurried back into the camp. I used some of my drinking water to wash the blood and puke off my face, and rather than feeling fresh and awake, I actually felt comfortable enough to sleep again. So that's what I did.

I woke up mid-morning to Rainbow kicking me in the ribs. He meant it as gentle nudging, but my skeleton felt like glass right now, so everything was going to be endless pain anyway. I got by with grunting, and somehow negotiated my way to riding on his back while he carried my bags. Trashcan's head stuck out the top so I could sort of hold him while we went. Lullaby gave Rainbow a whole list of instructions, and a small bag of something that he shoved into my bags. After I had a quick root around to make sure nothing was left behind, and checked that my shitty wrist computer was still functioning (it was, albeit scuffed up from me firing my jacket into the air in a panic), we got going. And I fell asleep again. At least the sun was good for keeping me warm.

Rainbow woke me up as we were approaching Roswhinny. I could see airfield road signs, and my arse was starting to burn in the sun. My computer thing told me it had passed midday, and having my face in Rainbow's sweaty crest (ew) informed me that we were indeed travelling in peak heat. Mercifully this did not last long, at least to my perception. I drifted in and out. Roswhinny got closer, then suddenly we were being waved through the gate, then crossing the quad. By now I was wide awake, just in time for the oh-so satisfying feeling of shade on my butt for the first time in hours.

We entered the mess hall. The lunch rush had passed, so the place was even more of a mess than normal. Catering staff I didn't recognise milled around, wiping down tables and collecting abandoned plates, and some stragglers were finishing their food in a hurry. Rainbow found a quiet table and slid me off his back. I crumpled over the table, and he set my bags down next to me. I may have been conscious, but I certainly wasn't in the mood for any moving.

I must have spaced out, because the next thing I remember was Rainbow sitting beside me and nudging me awake. On stirring and looking around, I noticed Crumble sitting on the other side of me with a smile.

"Hey champ."

"Oh right. Food things. Those are things."

"I'll bet you're hankering for something to chow down on! Rainbow Code here tells me you ain't had anything to eat since yesterday."

I turned a little green. "I... sort of? I feel like I'd murder a sandwich but then immediately barf it back up."

Crumble bopped her hoof on the table and laughed out loud. "I think I know what to do. And what are you having, soldier?" She leaned back.

"I don't suppose I could get yesterday's dinner, today's breakfast and today's lunch all together, could I?" He grinned. Crumble scowled at him like he'd been caught in the cookie jar. "Please?" The smile on this fucker.

"I'll see what I can do. Can't have you wasting away now, can we?" Crumble gave him a light punch in the shoulder, then rose and returned to the kitchen.

I turned to him. "You're a cheeky bastard, aren't you?"

"You didn't lick it off the stones, Atom."

I snorted, and went back to trying to find the most comfortable balance between sprawling forward on the table and not crunching up my aching stomach.

The smell of food was getting to me. Crumble came back with a plate of the whole lunch menu, and Rainbow set about devouring as much of it as his big stupid mouth would allow in. If I stayed still long enough, my organs stopped complaining and I could allow myself to feel hungry, but then the process of getting up to consider asking for a potato or something would inevitably return me to the misery of a digestive system filing for divorce.

"And for you..." Crumble gently pulled me back into a vaguely upright position with her stump, then set a handled bowl in front of me. Something soup-like steamed from it. "It ain't quite the ol' family stew. But it should help you get back on your feet."

"Is that the..." Rainbow muffled through a mouthful of corn. Crumble nodded.

I stared at it while I readjusted to my position. It smelled good, at least. In an interesting kinda way. There was a kick to the scent that cleared my nose. I wasn't sure if it'd taste as good, though.

"Just give it a few sips, Atom. You need something in you."

I gave her a queasy look, then stared at it some more, stuck my hooves in the handles and gave it the most decent swig you could give a bowl of soup that looked like it'd give me a second degree burn. I held it afterwards and squinted. I swallowed it pretty quickly. It was... almost minty. It was like bean soup with an aroma of antiseptic, and not entirely in a bad way. My throat felt numb, and as it went down, the rebellion in my chest started to die down. I looked back at her with the baffled glare that communicated what my mouth was presently too numb to do.

She shrugged at me. "Rainbow gave me some herbs. Said he'd been told to give 'em to you to help with your uh... current condition."

When I looked at him I'd caught him in the process of wiping some gravy off his chin. He swallowed whatever potato thing was in his mouth and coughed. "I didn't know if that was for all at once or spread out, Lullaby didn't say."

"Is it helping though?"

I went to clear my throat, and it was incredibly painful, but the nausea was calming down. "A little bit," I croaked, barely above a whisper. I took another sip, and found myself willing and able to slurp it down.

"We'll have some real food into you in no time." I got the feeling that Crumble really wanted to thump me on the back, but knew better.

Three or four sips into this anaesthetic soup, with Crumble waiting patiently while Rainbow and I made up for lost time on the feeding front, the canteen doors behind us burst open and some tiny hooves stomped in. I got enough of a start from it that I gripped the bowl and made it spill over the bench and my hoof.

"Oh, piss," I muttered. Crumble wasn't terribly happy about me shaking off soup in her general direction. Twisting was still making my insides complain, so I only turned as much as I needed to see what the fuss was about.

"Yeah, that was real smart, mutt. Now you have to come back this way and look at my stupid face again." That was Prickly Pear, jeering from outside. She was out of her armour, but boy, she didn't need it to look like a fucking tower of a pony. She looked like she could probably beat Rainbow in a hoof-wrestle without much challenge. Ivy Bells had stopped a few paces from the door and had a scrunched up red face. I don't think she'd seen us. "That was some dramatic exit. You sure showed me!" With the way she was coiled up, I could picture her turning around and yapping like an angry terrier, and bouncing along as she did it.

Ivy whipped around and snarled. "You'll take anything you can get, won't you? You spend all day so furious that one of these days you're going to pop an artery so high pressure it's gonna kill some poor son of a bitch, and the best you can do is durr, you went the wrong way? How in the heavens is someone as damn meat-headed as you a tenth-generation ranger?"

"I'm angry? I'm angry? You're the one who looks like you're about to go savage!" To be fair, if looks could kill, Prickly Pear would be the new red paint on the corridor.

"Oh, anyone would get impatient when you're insinuating they're a fucking barbarian every few minutes." Ivy had returned to the corridor, presumably to go the way she'd meant to go in the first place. "I didn't lose you, did I? Do you need me to spell out some of those words for you? I-N-..."

"You keep calling me dumb, but if you're so smart, why do you keep going back to the same point?"

"Because you keep pushing it in my face with things like that glorified 'I-know-you-are-but-what-am-I'!"

"Well if the shoe fits..."

Ivy made a painful throat noise. "This is going in circles. I have better things to do." She turned to leave.

"And you didn't for the last 20 minutes?" Prickly Pear called after her. There was no answer. She snorted, and turned to go the other way.

The mess had gone silent, and nobody had noticed until the argument broke off. After a few seconds of looking uneasily at each other, the catering staff went back to cleaning up. Both Rainbow Code and Crumble looked exhausted. And then I asked the stupid question.

"What was all that about?"

The two of them gave each other that 'oh boy' look.

"Y'see Atom, that uh..." Crumble scratched behind her head. That's not sanitary! "That ain't their first quarrel. Not by a long shot."

"The short version is that I happened," Rainbow said before sticking a whole baked potato into his mouth.

"Back when they were little fillies, Ivy and Pear used to be the best of friends. They used to play at being grown-up rangers on patrol all the time. It was adorable. Pear was too young to understand any of Saguaro's pure-blood hogwash, and y'gotta remember that he only puts up with Ivy because Turing Test is old ranger stock. They go way back. Their daddies were in the first expedition out here, and they can follow their roots all the way back to the war."

"If these feelings are so strong, I'm starting to wonder why any outsiders get in here at all."

Crumble shrugged. "Numbers and diplomacy. Made sense when they were setting up to take any help they could get. It was a real mess. There's still some bad blood with some of the settlements downtown, so we try to keep our distance."

"Weren't we talking about Ivy and..."

"Oh! Yes. Sorry." She chuckled. "You got me distracted. Yeah. When they were small, they were inseparable. But then poor ol' Prickly Pear's world caves in. First, this handsome stranger wanders in and sweeps Ivy off her little hooves..." Crumble had an excellent way of making Rainbow look like he'd been caught. This time he was trying to look innocent while spooning noodles into his mouth. "... and being a teenager and bitter about your best friend spending all her time with someone else ain't exactly a good time. And then, her mama - my sister - is KIA. Same landmine that did this." She waved her stump. "That's when she got real sour."

"If I hadn't already been initiated by then, I'd be out on my arse," Rainbow said from around some beans. "Like, you've seen the attitude Pear takes with me? Saguaro really has it out for me. I literally hide behind Turing Test and hope for the best."

"It's a real shame. I always thought Saguaro was a grumpy old prick, but Pear used to be so... happy. But then life gave her lemons, and she's been drinking that lemon juice ever since. She's got a rep now. She can't make friends. She scares ponies. All she's got are me and her daddy, and you know what he's like. Filling her head with this purity crap." She huffed. "Joke's on him, I know for a fact my poppop was a tribal from Baltimare."

"This place is a madhouse."

Crumble snorted. "You're telling me!"


I was gingerly finishing my soup around the same time Rainbow was clearing his third plate. He looked quite happy with himself, and so did Crumble. I gave walking a go, and it was achey and slow, but manageable. Man, I'd let myself get real soft these last couple of years. I might have gained weight too, but the journey to San Cimarron probably burned some of that off. I should really be taking better care of myself.

Rainbow escorted me back to his room. I immediately thumped onto the couch, and my back felt like it caught fire.

"Are you... sure you're comfortable there? You don't look comfortable."

My response was muffled into the old upholstery.

"Come on. I'll give you the bed for today."

I picked my head out from the cushions. "What?"

"I'm not using it during the day, and I'm pretty sure you could do with some real rest. Your back must really be at you after a week on the sofa."

"Has it been a week? Blimey."

"Yeah!" He helped me up, and I tottered over to the bed.

A thought occurred to me as I planted my face in the foot of the bed. "Is this uh... clean?" I looked at him with a quirk of an eyebrow. He stared blankly at a moment before realisation dawned on that goofy innocent mug of his.

"Oh, bugger off! That was days ago. Surely you've slept on ickier things than this."

"That's not helping the case much, Rainbow."

He snorted. "You could sleep on top of the blanket if it's bothering you that much. It's probably a bit warm underneath it anyway."

I giggled and nudged him. "Fiiiiine." I didn't care that much. I definitely have slept on far more disgusting things than my brother's bed that he uses for things besides sleeping in from time to time. I winced when I climbed up, and again when I flopped down. "Why does this keep happening?"

"Why does what keep happening?"

"You finding somewhere for me to sleep while I'm in agony."

He gave that great big sarcastic shrug. "It can't possibly have anything to do with your gung-ho attitude to everything." He was met with a jacket to the face. He chuckled, then hung it up, along with his own. "I'll be back soon with some water. If you get bored, I think Ivy left the tapes she found somewhere in the collection here."

"Good to know." I was busy finding a position to lie in that wasn't making spaghetti out of my spine. The bed smelled surprisingly fresh. Did they have cleaning spells here? Maybe a dry cleaner? That'd be nice.

"I'm going to go let Turing Test know we're in one piece..."

"That's easy for you to say."

"... and check in with Ivy. You rest up, okay?"

"If you could do me the favour of taking that big laser cannon of yours to my head, that'd really help me out."

He snorted. "Waste of ammunition, I'm afraid."

"Then could you at least throw the radio on?" He stopped in the doorway and hesitated, smiling a little. "Are you just going to stand there?"

"Sorry! Sure." He flicked a button on the table with his collection stuff on it, and the quiet, slightly fuzzy music started playing. Something kind of pop-rock with a swing to the beat, not too loud in the background... I could fall asleep to this.

"Excellent." I turned to the side and didn't see him leave.


Time blurred. I nodded off, but woke up shortly after, with sleep not being terribly forthcoming. It was long enough that Rainbow had come back and left some water bottles on the bed, but short enough that they were still cold. I helped myself to a hearty heap of hydration, and shimmied off the bed. My joints were still creaky, but not as bad as earlier. No idea what was in that soup.

It didn't take long to find the games. I grabbed my jacket and carried it to the bed, leaving the shitty computer thing connected to the sleeve. I should really come up with a name for this thing, shouldn't I? Every time I have to refer to it I end up with some minor verbose digression about how awful it looks.

I found to my dismay that Asteroids appeared to need a button or two more on it than this glorified microwave display had, and gave me a warning about unlicensed Stable-Tec products when I inserted the tape. It let me play the game, then I discovered the half-functional control scheme when I found myself utterly unable, after several attempts, to do some basic things the game was asking of me. 2/10, not recommended.

One of the other two tapes I found were a game called Pipfall, which flatly refused to open, and informed me that a log of this breach of Equestrian intellectual property law had been made, to be reviewed by an officer of the Ministry of Morale at a later date. I set that one aside. If they wanted to come for that, I'd certainly like to see it. The third tape was some office note-taking software that also appeared to be only semi-functional on this device. The radio I'd gotten from the dispenser outside Sam's workshop was still the best use I had for this slot.

I gave up on these and did some busywork to pass time. I counted the caps I had left (166), discovered a token hiding among them for a Satellite Sam's Special Delivery Station (trademarked, careful now), investigated the battery compartment of my blaster and found it jammed shut (probably a corroded battery), and surveyed Trashcan for a popped seam I might be able to work some stuffing into (there wasn't one). Throughout this my head swam every time I moved, and random spikes of pain popped up from time to time. I might lift a hoof the same way I had four times already and suddenly feel like a knitting needle had been shoved into my hock for a second. Let me tell you, this experience was increasingly putting me off drugs. Even the idea of booze was making me queasy.

I threw myself back on the bed at some point with Trashcan, and this time sleep stuck. I'd forgotten what it was like to sleep in a real bed. Like, I joked about the hygiene of their bed, but this was the best sleep I'd had in ages. When I woke up later, Rainbow and Ivy were back and putting away all the stuff I'd left strewn around earlier. They apologised for waking me, and then Rainbow kept me awake by talking to me while Ivy went to get something. I don't remember much of the conversation, but I learned later I was about as articulate as a hibernating bear. Ivy came back with a bowl of soup, and Rainbow left to go on patrol or something.

The smell of the soup roused me from my stupor. I felt rotten waking up, but with a big mouthful of the hearty soup, semi-forced on me by Ivy (I imagine she was holding the bowl because she didn’t want soup all over her bed), I didn't want to drown myself in it.

“How are you holding up?”

I stared into space for a sec before realising I was being talked to. “What?”

Ivy chuckled. “That says a lot.”

I glared. “Oi.”

“What in the wide world of Equestria did you get up to that left you in such a state?”

“Rainbow hadn’t told you?”

“Oh, you know how he gets sometimes. Boy emotions and contrarianism.”

I snorted. “Sounds about right. Kinda why we went to Wormwood in the first place.”

“That was where you went?”

“It was Turing Test’s idea.”

Ivy sighed and grimaced. “Of course it was.”

“I mean, it did the trick, didn’t it? All I had to do was take drugs and have a seizure. Simple!”

What?

“Rainbow Farts wimped out and barfed after like two minutes. Like, I do not believe he’s capable of holding any kind of booze.”

“Slightly different stuff you’re talking about here.”

I waved it off. “Anyway. Yeah, I found my way into some whiskey while I was there and had a bad reaction, and he had a change of heart when he saw me choking on my own vomit.” Ivy made exactly the kind of face you’d expect from that information.

“I’m surprised you’re as functional as you are right now.”

“You and me both.”

“That makes sense though. All he told me was that sometimes you don’t realise what you have until it’s about to slip away.”

“Of course he said that, the sentimental bastard.”

Ivy sighed and shoved some more soup at me.


The next like... day is all fuzzy. My recollection fades in and fades out. In hindsight, I'm surprised I remembered anything prior to this clearly. Maybe there was something that was only working its way out of my system then. I remember watching something on the TV, more soup, hobbling to the bathroom as fast as I could, sneaking another shower and then not bothering to dry off before getting water all over the bed. Where did Rainbow and Ivy sleep in this time? I have no idea.

What I do remember is springing upright in the bed at some point, with my head feeling like a shaken up cola bottle, my legs desperate to shake themselves out, and my worst complaint being that I was fucking starving. I yawned one of those yawns where you yell really loudly on the way out.

"Having fun, Atom?"

I jumped like a startled cat. "Fuck!" Rainbow and Ivy, looking pretty ragged, were poring over the cork board. "When did you get in here?"

"We've been here for twenty minutes."

I rubbed my face. "What time is it? Have you considered windows?"

Rainbow chuckled. "I'm not sure they'd take kindly to drilling through the thick-arse concrete walls down here for that."

"2050 hours."

"Shite. Have I been asleep all day?"

"On and off." I rubbed my head again. Rainbow came up to the end of the bed and sat. "You feeling any better, though? That's the important thing."

"Yes, actually. Like, shouldn't I still be wanting to die?" My stomach gave a loud rumble. "Also if you leave me alone in here I will eat the tables."

Ivy looked over Rainbow's shoulder. "So can we have our bed back now?"

Shit. I've been rumbled. I turned my neck and winced, and made some noises of pain. "Ack! Ahhh..." I flopped onto my back and rubbed my head into the bed. "Joints are still at me. Ow ow ow."

I didn't see Ivy's face but I imagine she was not impressed. "Well, looks like you're a long-term infirmary case. We'll be repossessing your computer device and caps while you're incapacitated. Wouldn't want resources going to waste, would we?"

Out of the corner of her eye, I spotted the glow of her magic around my jacket. I couldn't stop myself. I sat bolt upright. "Get the fuck away from my-" I had a split second to read their faces. Ivy had a self-satisfied smirk, and Rainbow was doing his best to avert his eyes while still watching. "-uaagghh!" I rubbed my neck gingerly to try and sell the point.

"Get up." Ivy straight-up lifted me off the bed, and my ruse was thoroughly punctured when I landed on all four hooves.

"Bollocks. Can I at least get something to eat? I'm fucking dying here." I realised what I was saying. "In the hyperbolic sense, not the... the other..."

"Go. Run!" Rainbow pointed. "The mess closes at nine."

"What? Shit!" And I was off.

Crumble was quite happy to shove a big plate of fried everything at me when I arrived, because what wasn't eaten was going to be wasted, and I was quite happy to eat it. After two days on a nearly-empty stomach, I had some cramping going on from inhaling a meal in the five minutes I was given before they turfed everyone out for the night, but that was better than being on the edge of vomiting for hours at a time. I had a good long stretch when I got out, and everything needed popping (it was quite satisfying). I immediately regretted such a big feed straight away, because I was dying to jump around. What the fuck was in that stuff Lullaby gave to Rainbow? Does this shit happen often? I felt amazing. I wanted to do flying backflips just because I could. (Except I couldn't, because of the food.)

I got back to the room and happily threw myself at the sofa on auto-pilot. I made a big satisfied 'aahhhh' sound. Then I got dragged up by the back of my undershirt to an upright sitting position, and I made a 'hglkg' sound.

I scoffed. "What did I do."

The two of them were still at the cork board. "Nothing, we just need your attention."

"Did you think we were looking at this thing for fun?"

I blinked. "Yeah." Ivy picked up one of the cushions and bopped me on the side of the head with it

Rainbow was doing quite a good job of keeping a relatively serious face on. Then I realised it was because he was almost hyperventilating. "Turing Test got back to us with the supplies earlier today. Now that you're fit, we've updated him, and we're heading for the camp at 0400."

"Wh- four in the morning? What?"

"We're planning out logistics for the day, and you're going to have to make one more run to Isotope City."

"Oh boy!"

The two of them looked at each other with concern. "What did you do?"

I chuckled. "Nothing! I'm absolutely best buddies with the sheriff at this point."

Ivy sighed. "I guess this is strictly speaking the last time you'll have to go there, so if you have to burn some bridges..."

"Has nobody considered like, giving Sam a radio or something this entire time? It would make life so much easier. Not even like, a little pager? Something we can beep when we're on the motorway outside the car park instead of having me brave a cadre of drooling monkeys with sunburst rifles to ask an angry tumbleweed if maybe Sam can come out to play today?"

"Well, if we thought this might have been an issue..."

"And you guys are planning this next operation. Amazing!" I had a bit of a giggle on the couch.

Ivy glared at me. "Well if you think you're so smart, what do you think we should do?"

"Oh, at this point there's not much to be done. I mean, at this point I know my way around. It's possible that Sam will want to slip out quietly for this too, so if I can get in without arousing the suspicions of captain yardbrush, that'll be ideal. Should be a similar deal to last time. Meet up in Fort Mercer?"

Rainbow huffed and talked quickly. Ivy rubbed his shoulder with a hoof. "I'm afraid you're going to have to make your own way up. To minimise confrontations, our squad will be travelling plainclothes and avoiding settlements. Us, Turing Test, Babylon, plus Knights Lemon Puff and Ocean Breeze."

"They sound really threatening."

"Atom, if we could stay on-"

"So you're being escorted by a biscuit and a scent of carpet freshener?"

I genuinely thought Rainbow was a nudge away from having a panic attack. He looked at the ceiling and sighed. Ivy pulled his nose down and kissed him. She muttered some stuff to him and he nodded. To my confusion, she climbed on his back and rested one foreleg on the top of his head. His breathing slowed. Ivy took over the talking.

"I'll just mark it on your map, Atom. We want to be at the camp by noon, so you can go by Fort Mercer if you like, but don't hang around. You and this dork..." She touched Rainbow's nose lightly, and he flinched. "... are gonna need to catch some sleep tomorrow afternoon for the night hike. Speaking of sleep..."

I squinted. "Oh, bugger, you're going to be going to bed now? Fuck, I've already been asleep for like, two days! I'm gonna be all fucked up."

Ivy dismounted, and started doing something to the bed I couldn't see from the couch. "Whatever you're doing, just make it quiet, okay?"

I huffed. "This is gonna be pants."

All Along The Watchtower

View Online

Rainbow Code ended up having that panic attack in the night. I was poking around with my ShitBuck Advance™, trying to find some way to rejig the inputs around so I could play one of the games, when he started whimpering from the bed and trying unsuccessfully to wake Ivy up. When I poked my head around, he was sweating, pale, and looked like a smacked arse. He responded to my question of 'are you okay' by pushing past me and bolting for the door. Mildly concerned, I followed him to the bathroom and heard him blowing chunks from outside. When he was done, I could hear him breathing, but he'd locked himself in and didn't answer when I told the stupid fuck to get up. As you can tell, this quest to Los Arabos is off to a fantastic start.

Ivy had evidently been woken up by this and poked her head out the door when I returned. When I explained, she looked worried, and carried on past me. I hadn't known Rainbow to have problems like this, but then I'd only really known him a week. I trusted Ivy to know what she was doing, and went back to fiddling with the game. I curled up for a nap soon after.

I was woken up a short time later by the two of them, looking still tired but more composed. Rainbow was sporting that same jacket from a downed Enclaver and Ivy was in the same tribal robes as the other day. My shit was already together, so I just had to grab my jacket and go. We stopped over in the mess for breakfast and to coordinate. I could smell that Babylon was already cooking before I saw it. Turing Test, along with Lefty Pop and Okey-Dokes or whatever, were double-checking payloads. Those two looked exactly like I expected them to - yellow and blue - but I nearly didn't recognise Turing Test. I thought a bunch of traders had wandered on base and got really confused for a second.

The two knights spotted us immediately, and offered salutes for Rainbow Code as we approached. He rolled his eyes and waved them off. Turing Test gave us a friendly nod and a "g'morning", and then beckoned Rainbow and Ivy over to talk about convoy specifics. This left me to be accosted by...

"Howdy, stranger!" Limbo Puppy was way too loud for this hour. She grabbed my hoof and shook it with enough force to knock her wide-brimmed hat down the back of her neck. "I'm Knight Lemon Puff, pleased to make your acquaintance!" Ocean's Eleven, by the look on her face, was just as unprepared for this as I was, but took it in good humour.

"Knight Ocean Breeze, at your service. You must be Atom Smasher."

I shook out my hoof as soon as Lemon Puff let go. Fucking ow. "What gave it away? Was it the Bohr diagram?"

"Rainbow's told us so much about you!" Lemon Puff is a fucking morning pony, fucking dammit to hell.

"Oh, balls."

Ocean Breeze giggled. "Paladin Rainbow Code is our squad officer. We were quite happy to volunteer for this. We understand he's been keeping your presence on-base relatively secret?"

"It's not gonna be a secret for much longer the way she's going about it."

"Aaah! I'm just excited! You're the second pegasus pony I've ever met!"

I squinted. "Don't you guys skirmish with Enclave squads on a semi-regular basis?"

Lemon Puff had to think about that. "Okay, apart from them." Ocean Breeze rolled her eyes.

While I was on a roll of logic, something else occurred to me. "Also, riddle me this. How does a pony called 'Ocean Breeze' end up so far inland?"

She chuckled. "He said you were sharp. I grew up down south, by the coast. Houfston chapter."

"And what else has he been saying about me?" At this point I noticed that Lemon Puff was no longer in front of me, but to my left, hunkered down and flicking my feathers with a hoof. I bapped her on the nose with my pinion. "Hey, stop that."

"Come and get it!" came the call from over my shoulder. Babylon slid a large steaming pot off her back, next to a small tower of bowls. Breakfast had Rainbow and Lemon Puff's immediate attention.

"He said that you've had a hard life. But that you have a good heart."

I scowled. "A good heart? Fuck off. Am I really going soft?"

She smiled. "He also said you'd never admit it." I groaned. Of course he's fucking got my number.


We hurried through breakfast. Some spicy lentil and bean thingy. It was actually really good! Or maybe I was still hungry from yesterday. It's a shame I have no idea how to cook anything more complex than a bowl of cereal, because I'd love to have more of this stuff.

When we got going it was still dark. Rainbow and Lemon were pulling the wagons with stuff on them. Turing Test was spending more time watching the box with the night-vision goggles than the road, and he tripped on cracks in the road more than once. We split up about half an hour from Roswhinny. It was just me splitting off from the group, so I could speed up quite a bit. By the time Isotope City came into view, the horizon was getting the first pink shades of sunrise. The light helped with finding it, but it meant that I was running short on time to get in on the quiet.

The guards had a couple of searchlights deployed, but it was easy to evade them. I glided from the overpass to the walls, taking lazy swooping arcs around the light beams, visible in the traces of dust whipping around. After a quick wing-ruffle, I pressed back against the wall and slunk along it. There was the sneaky way in, through the window, but that'd probably take me past an amoeba with a battle saddle. If I wanted to get in, I'd need to find another way.

I briefly considered the aerial approach, but if it was light enough for me to pick out the giant fucking metal atom on the horizon, then it would definitely be light enough for anyone taking advantage of the early morning cool to spot a suspicious silhouette on the roof.

With some quick mental geometry, I worked out which corner of the stadium the collapsed stand was in. It had been a few days, so I doubted they were done salvaging, and they probably hadn't started work for the day either. The emergency exits were still boarded up, and probably under a pile of rubble too, but the windows higher up were broken. I took a few steps back and ran at the wall, jumped, and beat my wings to keep speed up while running. It was more like wing-assisted climbing. One of these days I'll put the time into learning to fly properly, but for now I'll settle for taking advantage of them in the laziest possible way.

I scanned the rubble from my perch on the window. They'd erected some warning tape, and I had a full view of the city. This stand had really caved in a whole load of shit underneath it, hadn't it? I hopped out and glided to the back streets beyond the tape. Sam's workshop was just around the corner, and locked up as I expected it to be. I saw a light on in an upstairs window. I knew I'd been saving up my hover juice for something. I made sure to get my weight on the windowsill so I could hover and tap on the glass. I couldn't see in through the net curtains. Also, Sam has fucking net curtains. Who the fuck has net curtains these days? Moreover, how are they not completely stained with dirt and motor oil?

I heard Sam make a startled noise. I imagine he wasn't expecting a bang on his window at the crack of dawn. Then I heard some stomping and grumbling, and then the curtains parted. I had been preparing a friendly wave and grin, but then it was my turn to throw myself away from the window in fright when Sam's headless body pulled the window up.

"Don't you know some of us are trying to get some sleep?" The voice came from somewhere inside the room. I drifted back to the window and poked my head inside. His head was in an end table behind a book, and he looked at me with those articulated eyebrows. He fucking had to have put those on himself. There was a bed, minus mattress, with a generator on it, and wires trailed from it to some machines to the head.

"I thought you didn't sleep?" I squinted.

"Have you tried explaining diagnostics to a guy who thinks flying saucers are going to drop from the sky at any minute?"

"This is a point." I hopped through the window and over the headless doorsman. No good being spotted hanging out of a building. The remains of smoke-stained wallpaper covered the walls, the bed had a small, well-kept rug beside it, and a couple of paintings of ponies long dead hung around the walls. This in between dirty intrusions from the workshop downstairs, like a pile of small arms components in the corner, some tires, and a couple of gas canisters. Where necessities of space ended and where Sam's weird taste in decoration began was a mystery. "So, hate to come at you at short notice, but we're on the move. We've got to hoosh."

"To what now?" I'm honestly surprised I hadn't lost more people here with my vernacular.

"We've got the goggles Jericho wanted. Rainbow's on his way to their camp with them right now. Ideally we want to get there by noon."

"You weren't kidding about short notice, were you? I'll just leave a sign on the door telling everyone I've gone fishin', shall I?"

"I had suggested giving you a pager we could use to contact you, but it was already last night by the time I had that idea."

"Oh, whatever." The body stomped around me to the end table, picked up the head, disconnected some cables, and then screwed it on. "Psh. Catching me in a compromising position like this. I will get back at you for this."

I wasn't sure if grimacing or giggling was winning out when he threatened me while his head was turned backwards. "Bugging you at retarded-AM wasn't my idea."

"Alright, we're going to want to slip out quietly. How did you get in?"

"Broken window over the collapsed stand."

"I'll just use my jump jets then, of course."

"You have jump jets?"

Sam bopped me on the head. "No, you damn duck! How did you plan on getting me out of here?"

I rubbed the bump. Metal hooves hurt, man. "I was gonna figure that out when it came up."

"Well it's come up, genius."

"Piss." I kicked the floor and scrunched my face up, trying to think.

"It's not like we can just walk out the front door."

I had a brainwave. "Do you know who's on the main gate right now?"

He squinted the eyebrow things at me. "Probably Caliber, poor bastard's dad has him on all the early shifts, why?"

"Do you have any toys hanging around you could live without?"

He stared at me for a second. Then the eyebrows went up. "Ohhh."


I slipped up the steps quickly and quietly. I hurried through the light of the lamps, and took the time to soften my steps in the shade. When I reached the "office", I took a look around. The early morning watch was a skeleton crew. Sitting opposite me was the gangly silhouette, with the glowing green rifle at his side, and the oversized helmet hanging lopsided. By the glow of my terrible frankenwatch, I located the gate controls and pulled on a lever. I was briefly worried that the noise of the gate would attract a lot more attention than we wanted, but Sam was already in position with his bags, so I wasn't too worried.

Caliber jumped in fright and looked around. First he peeked out of the broken window that served as his station, then he thought to look at the controls, finding me, leaning on the wall.

"Y-y-y-you!"

I approached him and put a hoof to his mouth before he could raise his weapon. "Shhh. You didn't see anything, okay?" From off my back, I swung something rifle-shaped, wrapped in an old potato sack. When I pushed it at his front, he looked down, and spotted the coils of a broken lightning rifle, experimental Enclave model, recovered from a failed field test six years back. I could tell he'd spotted it by the way his jaw hit the floor and his eyes went saucer-wide. I took my opportunity to slip past him and get on the window verge. "Oh, and do shut that thing behind us, won't you?"

He nearly dropped his fucking bribe in his scramble to turn around and stammer out a reply. He eventually managed a "Y-y-whdj-wh-y-yessum!" I looked down, and Sam was tapping a hoof on the asphalt.

I leaned back inside. "The name's Atom Smasher, by the way." Before he could scamper away, I swooped in and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Just a little peck. Enough that he went cross-eyed and lost strength in his legs, but not enough for me to taste gun oil. While he babbled and fell over, I hopped out the window and hurried ahead of Sam. Time to leg it.

The early start helped a lot with making time, as did travelling the same route a second time. We stopped in Fort Mercer for a breather and for me to get some water, and most of the ponies there were still having breakfast. We were making good time, and I decided that since it was going, an extra ration couldn't hurt. It was a nice enough little town, when the cowboys were all still asleep and hung over. I could tell Madeira wasn't looking forward to lunchtime.

We had a slight delay on the way to the camp, because I got a little lost. Can you blame me? Once you're into the foothills it's all identical-looking wind-carved rocks and hills. I was also dead on my feet last time, so it's just as well Sam was able to find something that passed for a landmark and get us back on track. I was really starting to sweat by the time we made it there.

The camp had been extended with a long canvas canopy that obscured some of other tents. The south-facing side - the side nearest us - was pulled down to the ground. I had my eyes on that as I came close enough to smell cooking, when a pole across my chest stopped me. I looked left, and there was a crystal and a blade taped and wired around the end of a shaft. I looked the other way, and a stern-looking tribespony. Oh, right.

"Whose are the wings that beat before me?" Jaffa called.

"Blah blah eagle free can you just let me go? My brother's already in there."

Jaffa slumped. He looked positively wounded. "I... I know it's only a formality, but have you no spirit, free bird?"

I sighed. Really? Was his job as guard that vital to his self-esteem? Was this just a thing that he liked doing and everyone else played along with it? He looked like a fucking kicked puppy. I rolled my eyes. "Those of the eagle, proud and free, are you happy now?"

He lowered the spear, but he still had a bit of a pout. "Better."

At this point Ivy had heard me, and had popped her head around from the canopy to see what was going on. She spotted the faces, and took the opportunity to give Jaffa a hug. "What are you doing to poor Jaffa, Atom?"

Sam stepped past me to check out the canopy. "I'll just go find somewhere to set up my dock, shall I?"

"Nothing! I just wasn't expecting to be pass-phrased. Or for it to hurt his feelings."

"Oh, leave him alone." She squeezed him again, and then escorted me to the canopy. It was cool underneath - not as chilled as it might have been in the basement she and Rainbow lived in, but a welcome respite from the blazing sun. A few bedrolls were set up, with Lemon Puff already passed out, and Ocean Breeze chiding anyone who would listen about how this is nothing and the humidity down the coast will really boil you alive. Turing Test was double-checking the cargo before handing it off to Rainbow, who was ferrying stuff around the camp.

Ivy steered me to the shaded back of the canopy, and looked around for a moment. "Okay, listen for a second..."

"Who died?"

She scoffed. "Hush your mouth before you sidetrack me."

"Before?"

This earned me a thump. "There's... a thing I wanted to warn you about. It's a little thing, don't worry too much. I mentioned it to Rainbow earlier. When you get to the quarry, the tribe might... do a thing. I don't want you to get freaked out or anything."

"I thought they were the ones scared of this place."

"There's a good chance they might perform funeral rites for you as you go in. There's lots of chanting and it can be a bit creepy, especially if you're not expecting it."

I squinted. "Aren't we supposed to be stealthy about this whole operation?"

"Jericho's not an idiot. They won't be loud. It just might be kinda eerie, and you won't know what's going on."

"Okay, I guess? Where's lunch? I'd murder a good sarnie." Ivy threw her hooves up in that kinda 'whatever' way and left. That must have been all she wanted to tell me.

After I spent a few minutes complaining to anyone I could find about lunch, I encountered the tribe doing something about it. I wasn't sure what digging a hole was going to do, until I spotted them pulling a sack out of the ground. I also didn't know why the food was down there until I was informed that it's part of a recipe. Presses it and keeps it cold, Ivy told me. Given that the water was lukewarm sitting out in the heat, I will say that these spiced veggie ball things being served cold were appreciated. We hurried through lunch with a view to getting some sleep now and sorting out the plan of attack later. I'd been up basically since yesterday evening, so I was quite happy to keep my fridge jacket on and zonk out for a few hours.

I stirred awake at some point, and by the look of the horizon, it was around dusk. I rolled over in my bed roll and saw that I was the last one to wake. All the other bedrolls were empty. Turing Test was, as he had been ever since I arrived, anxiously checking the box with the goggles. Lemon Puff had found one of my stray feathers, and was examining it with way too much interest. Most of the tribe were nowhere to be seen - I gathered that only those not coming with us were up and about. Someone was tending to the fire, and whatever was in the pot smelled good. I yawned and stretched and scratched my neck. After scanning the horizon a second time, I spotted a goofy mop watching the first stars come out. So that's where he's gone.

I plodded up to the bank at the edge of the camp that Rainbow was sitting at the top of. He heard me coming and looked back. He had not slept well at all.

I nudged him in the shoulder. "What's eating you?"

"That obvious?"

"You had a panic attack last night and right now you look like you've been punched in the face. You sure you're gonna be in shape for this?"

He took a deep breath and sighed and looked up at the sky again. "Once we're moving I should be fine. It's when I get to stop and think about it, I..." He chuckled, then looked at me. "I've been on Dad's trail for eleven years, and in a matter of hours there's a good chance we're gonna find out what happened to him. This is... this is my life's work, paying off. Tonight."

I squinted. "I've been in town a week, and I put the lid on a decade's work? Am I just outrageously lucky, or was getting in touch with Sam that much of a sticking point?"

He chuckled. "We'd been trying to get in touch with Sam for a couple of years. They're fucking batty in that stadium. They shot at me when I came up out of uniform, they shot at Ivy, they shot at Babylon, they shot down a drone..."

"They shot at me too. I just started talking when they did."

"Really now? I'm pretty sure I tried that and they shot again."

"Ah. You must have encountered one of the meatheads. I got lucky and the sheriff's wimp of a son was on the door. Gave me an in."

He chuckled. "Someone in this family had to get all the luck."

"Hey." Ivy came up the other side of him, floating a couple of bowls with her. She passed one to Rainbow and one to me. "Drink up. It'll keep you going."

I took a sniff and confirmed that it was the same stuff that was cooking when I woke up. I took a sip to discover a delicious, salty, slightly spicy, just all-round tasty broth. I was apparently so visibly overwhelmed that it got a giggle out of Ivy. I glared. "What?"

"Nothing! It's good you like it. We're sending you a couple of spare canteens with some. We don't know what it's gonna be like down there."

I shrugged. "Makes sense. I've done fucking no planning for this, I'm entirely following you guys here."

Rainbow smiled. "Seems to have worked so far. We bring the plan, you bring the luck."

"That's a pretty polite way of saying I make it up as I go along."

He chuckled, and I took a long drink of the soup. Ivy leaned into him and he whispered something to her, and I took my cue to give 'em some space. The camp was getting more active. I'm guessing the smell of food got more ponies up - that's one effective wakeup call. Lemon Puff and Ocean Breeze were busy dismantling the canopy we'd slept under, while Turing Test and Jericho did something with a crate. This looked the most interesting, so I listened from a distance.

"... and I know you don't have much choice in the wind but try to avoid getting sand in them? The scribes think I'm taking these for a routine field test, and my hogs are cooked if these come back with so much as a scratch on them." I craned my neck around to get a look at the goggles for the first time. They were bulky-ass things that strained the definition of 'goggles'. I spotted a three-point strap, bit like my head torch, and a big block on the back of it, opposite the goggles part. Was that a counterweight? Were they really that heavy? Cripes.

"Turing, calm down. Would I have asked for this equipment if I knew nothing about it?"

Turing Test pulled a face, then rubbed it. "I'm really sticking my ass out for this, I'm just jumpy."

"You're sticking your ass out?" Jericho laughed. "Friend, you're not walking into the Death Caps at night."

Turing Test blew his cheeks out, and the two of them shared a miserable chuckle. "Jerry, why do we do this to ourselves?"

Jericho looked up, then around. Turing Test leaned over to see where he was looking, and then so did I. They were looking at Rainbow and Ivy, silhouetted by the twilight. "I think we both know."

Turing's face softened, and he grinned. "My little wildcat."

"She makes brothers of us."

"Ha. That she does, friend."

By the time they were locking hooves and trying to have a manly hug, I figured the sentimentality was getting a bit too much for me, and I got to finding somewhere else to be. Before the night was out, I was sure I'd be getting more than enough of that shit from Rainbow.

Of course, I found myself hanging out with Lemon Puff and Ocean Breeze again.

"So what are you and beardydad doing when we piss off into the mountains?"

Lemon Puff burst out in a giggle and dropped the tent pole she was holding. I got a snigger out of Ocean Breeze too. "Just going back to Roswhinny. Don't you have preparations to do?"

"Everyone else was having a moment, so I came to get away. Say, has anyone seen Sam around? He's been quiet."

"Who?"

"Satellite Sam. The smartass robot with the trucker hat."

"Uhh..." Lemon Puff looked at Ocean Breeze. She looked back at her too. "...glowing eye plate, head comes off?"

I squinted. "What did you do?"

Lemon Puff bit her lip, and Ocean Breeze grimaced, and started patting her face. "Lemon, which box did you put the power armour in?"

"Uhh..."

I tipped my glasses forward. "Ah, you didn't?"

Lemon pointed at a crate slightly down the hill, where their packed supplies were being kept together by the wagon. Ocean inhaled. "Could you unpack it, please?"

She jogged over to the crate, brushed the canvas off the top of it, and hurriedly started pulling latches. I followed, and when the lid came off, the three of us peered inside. Lo and behold, there was Sam in the loaf position, half buried under some bedrolls, with his head separated and leaning against the side of the box.

"Oh, for fuck's sake."

"As you can see, Atom, my reservations about Steel Rangers are completely justified."

"Get him out of there, you idiots."

They both nodded a 'yes ma'am', and got to work. I stepped back and rubbed my face, while Sam swore at the two of them.

Something yodelled at me. I jumped. The general direction of attention was at Jaffa, standing by the fire, next to Jericho. Since this looked like a briefing of some description, I ran back to the crate and took Sam's head out so he could watch.

"Just the expedition, please," Jericho said. A number of the ponies who'd come over drifted away, leaving me, Sam's head, Rainbow, Ivy (hiding from Jericho behind Rainbow), plus Jericho, Peregrine, Jaffa, and a couple of ponies I didn't know. "Now, before we get going, I feel I need to make a round of introductions. To the tribe - coming with us tonight are our friends; Rainbow Code, Atom Smasher, and Satellite S... where is the robot?"

"Down here. I'm having an out-of-body experience."

"... Satellite Sam. Our journey tonight is to reunite them with their kin. With the gracious assistance provided by our friend Turing Test, we travel for the Cave of Screams." I heard a couple of gasps, and whispers circulated. "We shall take them that far and no further!" he said, louder. "Ours is not to judge their path. Tonight we are their guides, and we shall see what comes of it in the morning." He turned to the general direction of me and Rainbow. "Now, to introduce us. You know me, and I believe you've met Peregrine and Jaffa..." Peregrine waved, and Jaffa thumped his front. "Also accompanying us are two of our finest scouts - Nineveh and Uruk." The two strangers waved and nodded at us, one after the other.

I squinted and looked around. I had a suspicion from this. Babylon, Jericho, Jaffa, Nineveh, Uruk, Elasah, and... Peregrine. One of these names is not like the others. I sat on it for now.

"We gear up, and then we leave at our guests' convenience. This way."

"Oh, don't worry about me," Sam said. "Just put me down and I'll roll after you guys. It'll be fine." I sighed and took him back to the crate. The two morons had finished unpacking his body, and he was soon enough in one piece. He found his own bags in the crate, gave them a glare, and then followed me back to the main group.

I snorted. "Wow, you really mustn't have had your head screwed on not to notice them packing you up." He thumped me on the side.

"Only I can make headless puns about me."

Jericho was handing out goggle sets to everyone. Turing Test, nearby, chewed on his hoof while Babylon stood beside him, rubbing his back and whispering reassurances in his ear. When I got my hooves on a set, it wasn't quite as heavy as I'd expected, but I still imagined that my neck would be sore by the time we got to the quarry.

"You ever used one of these before?" Jericho asked me. I shook my head. "Might feel a little weird."

I shrugged. Couldn't imagine why. Sam came up next to me. "What are these, the night-vision sets you were looking for?" Jericho held one towards Sam. "You're kidding, right? I can see light frequencies you've never heard of. You didn't seriously get one of these for me, did you?"

Jericho looked down, blinking. He scratched his nose and looked like he was having one of those 'wow I really didn't think that through' moments. "Jaffa! We've got a set for you." What?

Jaffa, perched on a nearby crate, thrust his spear to the sky. "I have the eyes of a puma. I have no need for your mechanical eyes."

The goggles floated over and bopped him on the head. "It would be a shame if we were halfway up a mountain and your puma eyes turned out to be inadequate, wouldn't it?"

I sat back and sighed. What the absolute balls fuck am I doing.

Gimme Shelter

View Online

Once I'd recovered from my moment of exasperation, and Jericho had convinced Jaffa to take the damn goggles already, I set about donning my own pair. I put the front half on first, and then slid the rear unit on. Through the lenses I could see the same dusty hills and dirty tents as before. I swung my head around, and my vision was no different, with the exception of removing my peripheral vision entirely.

"Hey, are these working? I don't see anything different."

I turned my head and saw Jericho stepping up to me. "You have to turn it on, free bird." I felt my head get grabbed, something click, and then it felt like someone had poured cold water down my neck.

"Aaaah!"

"There it is."

Lights started appearing around the edges of my vision, and I felt my peripheral vision start to return. Then, my forward cone of sight lit up like daytime, only tinted strongly blue. "What just happened?"

"The goggles deliver the images right into your head. You don't see the way - you feel."

"Weird."

"Jericho..." I swung my head, and it was Turing Test talking. At least I think it was him. "How do you know so much about these things? No offence, but..."

Jericho chuckled. "Do you think the Rangers are the only ones keeping an eye out for treasures of the lost world?"

Turing frowned, then shrugged. Seemed good enough for him. I didn't really care.

I spent the last few minutes before leaving getting used to the goggles. I heard Rainbow and Ivy sharing a moment of some kind, and Jericho talking to Turing Test and Babylon some more, but I didn't particularly care. Something was doing light balancing, because when I looked at the fire I wasn't absolutely blinded by the light. It was entirely white, but it was more like looking at a sheet of paper than the sun. Sam asked me if I was having fun after staring at his glowing eye for a good forty seconds. This was gonna be weird.

We departed with little fanfare. Rainbow asked me to turn off my wristamajig, which was fine, I wasn't going to go trying to play Asteroids while also walking. Sam was able to turn off the light in his eye and still see, which I found mildly confusing. Jericho, Peregrine and Nineveh took the lead, and Jaffa and Uruk brought up the rear, putting us in the middle. I was pretty sure we could handle ourselves, but we didn't know where we were going, so that was that.

I had expected this to be another one of those drawn-out walks over featureless scrub where my mind wanders, I walk around basically dead on my feet, and I ramble to you about any old other topic. However, this was not one of those walks, because all of those scary tales about how dangerous these mountains are were not nearly as hyperbolic as I thought.

It started out gentle. I was starting to do the zoning out thing when it turned out that nobody was particularly talkative. Rainbow, when I got a good look at him, was breathing way harder than you'd think from the pace we were going. That boy was going to have a heart attack by the time we got there, I swear. After maybe a half hour of walking, the ground got a lot rougher and pitched down. I tripped over a rock, which prompted me to get a better look around me; the hills had gotten a lot steeper, and much taller peaks loomed very close. In the weird blue light of the goggles, I saw the mountains more outlined by the stars than from their own light. Closer pillars of wind-worn stone looked like flat cutouts in front of it. Two peaks either side of us created something of a canyon, and we were descending right down the middle of it.

The bottom was all gravel and loose stones that slid readily over each other. I tripped on a skull embedded in the stones and bumped into Rainbow, shaking him out of his anxious trance. Damn, spotting things on the ground with these goggles was hard. Up ahead the gravel bed was interrupted by a ridge, running sideways across the gorge. I couldn't see what was going on, but a hoof on Rainbow's front stopped him, and then me.

"Hold up," Peregrine said. Nineveh ran ahead to investigate. Now that we'd stopped, I started to notice the chill creeping into the air. It had only been dark for an hour. Was there any way to turn off my jacket fridge? Couldn't quite tell.

Nineveh returned. He was probably close enough to shout, but I guess we were taking the maximum stealth thing seriously. "Rockslide. Some time in the last few weeks."

"Is there a way up?"

"Steep, it is. But we should conquer it with our help from above."

Nineveh looked at me and Rainbow. Then Peregrine looked at us, then half the party was. I scowled. "What, you want a lift from us? Good fucking luck, I can barely lift myself off the ground. Did you miss the stable-born part or something? Don't you have a better plan?"

They didn't have a better plan.

Rainbow and I took turns helping one pony after another over the rocks. Rainbow, bless him, was doing a lot better than I was. A lift from me was more like giving them a little extra airtime jumping from one foothold to another, where a lift from him was actually a proper airlift to the top of the rocks and then down the other side. After like, the second trip over Rainbow was carrying two ponies over for every one I was. Jericho, Peregrine, Jaffa, Uruk, Nineveh...

"Don't mind me, I'll stand here. It's fine. I'll be fine," Sam called from the bottom.

"Wh... what?" I looked up from lying on my back on the top of the rocks gasping for air. Uruk gave up on waiting for me to recover and jumped down the rest of the way like a mountain goat. Smarmy bastard probably could have climbed up himself.

"I didn't pick up jump jets by osmosis when I was in that crate."

"Rainbow you do it, I'm fucking paggered."

He landed next to me. "You think I can lift that half-ton of junk by myself? Get up." He kicked me in the side. He probably meant it gently, but it didn't feel gentle.

"Just do what I..." I gulped down some more air. Sweat rolled off me. "Just do what I did. Help him climb."

Rainbow might have been squinting, I couldn't see behind the goggles. He hopped down, ushered Sam to the rockface, got behind him and started pushing. Not what I had in mind, but not a bad idea. I dropped down to meet Sam at the first hoofhold, grabbed his head and twisted.

"Hey hey hey hey! What are you-"

"Lightening the load." I smirked, took his bags with mine and flew over the rocks with his head. I left his head at the top so he could see where he was jumping.

"If I crush your brother because I get mixed up about which way I'm jumping, I'm blaming you."

I sighed. "Fine..." I figured I might as well help. Rainbow tried to push against the ground where possible, so I got my hooves around Sam's front hooves and pulled as hard as my little wings would carry me. Which wasn't very hard, but it was something. After much huffing and puffing, Sam was able to get a hoof on the apex of the rubble, and pull himself over. With both of us pushing him, it ended up flinging him over, and he tumbled down the far side. When Rainbow and I realised what was happening, we both scrambled to get a look over the edge, straightening our goggles on the way.

"What's happening? Is it a paradox? You can show me a paradox, y'know. I won't explode."

The torso skidded to a halt in the sand, with a number of new scrapes in the metal. Uruk's cape was caught under it, but other than that nobody seemed to have been hit by a flying half-ton of robot. We seemed to notice this at the same time, based on Rainbow sighing with relief at the same time as me. Jaffa started swearing something at us, but I was too exhausted to listen.

Rainbow patted me on the back a couple of times. "Chin up, Atom. Only an indeterminate length of time hiking in dangerous mountains to go."

"Piss off."


Have I ever mentioned how much I hate hiking? Like, it's one thing walking on roads. It's long and tedious, but it's at least relatively easy. You're on paths meant for walking, and you're definitely going somewhere. Even if it's a shitty little diner at the side of the road where you meet your long lost brother, you're going towards something. Fresh out of the stable it was the worst thing ever because I had to get my body around the idea that I might have to walk further than a few hundred feet to get something, and I got that kick up the arse again coming to Equestria because of how fucking big the place is. But you adjust, because it's a thing you have to do. I could probably be putting my back into learning how to fly better, but y'know, I'm lazy, bugger off.

But no, when you're hiking suddenly everything is terrible. Not merely a drain you put up with, it becomes an affront to your very being. The hill is always too steep, your bags are always too heavy, you've always gone through your water way too quickly, and the weather is always against you. Back home it was always rain and more rain, or the aftermath of rain making everything a horrible slog through cold mud and puddles. But tonight the chill was setting in right quick, not helped by the sweat of exertion rolling off me. Rainbow had packed a scarf, and all the tribe had cloaks to beat the band. I, however, had only my leather jacket and my natural pegasus resistance to cold to keep me going. I'd be fine, just really fucking uncomfortable. To make things worse, every time we went up the side of a hill we got fucking sandblasted by high winds. The winds got worse the longer we were out, and seemed to be carrying more dust each time.

But that's not the worst thing about hiking. The worst thing is how you're always the one who's struggling. Everyone else is happy enough fucking power-walking up sheer cliffs and you're there gasping for mercy. Every fucking time. I cannot remember a single "hike" where I haven't been nursing a stitch to keep up with fucking filly scouts and the two old mares who go for a quick 40 mile stroll in the moors every Sunday morning. And then when I have the audacity to ask to slow down, suddenly I'm the bad guy? Like, what is it about the activity of walking up mountains that turns everyone into marching arseholes? Why do I get a sneer of contempt because I haven't magically been invigorated by the activity of wandering through nowhere for the hell of it?

If I can thank the wind for one thing, it forced everyone to slow down. I mean, I could feel it getting into all the cracks in the goggles, so it was only a matter of time before these things were fucked, and the dust content drastically reduced visibility, but if I pulled the rag that constituted my shirt over my nose I could catch my breath. Incidentally, it really needed a wash.

Our path wound up the side of a mountain. It narrowed, so we had to move single file. Word passed down the line that Nineveh knew where he was going, and it's not like I was in a position to question it, so I took it on faith that the path wouldn't narrow to nothing and leave us stuck up a cliff like a cat up a tree. The dusty air meant that when I looked down the cliff to our right, I couldn’t see the bottom. The billowing cloaks in front of me were my main way of knowing I was still following the leader, even if they did mean I needed to keep a short distance or get dirty cloth whipped in my face.

A gust of wind from behind us sent Rainbow stumbling into the back of me. This got me to squat, so I didn't get blown right off my hooves, but then the front carried forward. Through the howl of the wind I heard a scream. Even with the dust impeding the goggles, I spotted the outline of someone a couple of spots ahead of me losing her footing. I lurched. She caught the ledge briefly, but the wind catching in her cloak, all that was about to do was make her swing around and launch into the canyon. Oh, what the hell.

I jumped from the cliff like a dive into water, opening my wings and letting them catch the wind before I got too far down. I had a split second to adjust my course, before bodyslamming her and holding on for dear life. My goggles got knocked off by the impact, or at least they got knocked askew, leaving me guessing. This was not a fantastically well-advised plan.

I tried my best to get some altitude and get back on the path, but I couldn't see where I was going at all. The pony I'd caught wasn't exactly in a position to direct me either - not that she had any idea what was happening. She was screaming and flailing and making it difficult to hold on to her. I rode the wind to where my sense of direction thought the path was, but I found nothing. Oh boy. This was about the time I decided that a gentle landing anywhere was better than trying to find the trail again and hitting a cliff at speed, or dropping on to jagged rocks.

A different current of wind buffeted us. It must have come from the other side of the mountain. I held on to her but I'm pretty sure that this is where I lost my goggles. We got turned end over end, and I found myself riding the turbulence where the two currents met. I hadn't a clue how fast we were falling. I could have been lifting us more and I wouldn't have known.

That was, until my hooves clipped sand and sent us tumbling over the ground. We had more lateral velocity than vertical, so it hurt, but nothing broke. Wherever we'd landed had something of a wind shadow to it, so when all my shit fell out of my bags in the roll, it wasn't all immediately lost to the desert.

I patted my head. The goggles were gone. Fuck. I patted my bags. They were a lot lighter than a moment ago. Through pawing around the ground I was able to locate Trashcan (thank fuck), the alien blaster, a few caps, and the spare tapes. My glasses were still safe at the bottom of the bag, though a little bent.

In the course of searching for my stuff, I put my hooves on the pony I'd caught.

"Ow!" she yelped.

"Y'alright, mate?"

"What happened? Am I alive?"

"Peregrine?"

"Is that... Atom Smasher? What happened?"

I felt around for the shitty Pipbuck to get some light to see by. The screen flickered a bit, but it booted up. Peregrine was sitting up, and her cloak had been pulled over her head. I helped it off her. Her goggles were sideways. "The wind must have blown you off, and I don't think anyone else saw you. Or at least, they couldn't do anything about it."

She spent a moment catching her breath, clutching her chest. "Thank... thank you, Atom..." Then she grabbed me and hugged me. I forgot that this was a thing that happens in the hero business. "You saved my life."

I awkwardly peeled her off once she'd decided she'd had enough hug. "Just seemed neighbourly, y'know. Casualties are less than ideal." She didn't let go of my shoulders. Dammit.

"Owls and eagles smile upon you, free bird."

"Can... can birds smile?"

Peregrine broke into a giggle. "It's a tribe saying, dummy. I'm just really grateful, Atom."

"Yeah, no worries I guess. You gonna fix those goggles?"

She (might have, hard to tell) squinted, and twisted them to face the right way, and pulled them over her eyes. "Agh." She pulled them up again almost immediately. "I think they took a knock in the fall, it's flickering and the image is all screwy."

"Well I lost mine, so you're still one up on me."

She pulled on the overhead strap to let it sit around her neck. "Better it than us. Keep that light on, they should be looking for us."

I sighed and started stretching and dusting myself off. I had a couple of scrapes on my legs, but my jacket was fine, which was more important. Tough ol' thing. "So we kill time?"

"I wouldn't worry, we'll be fine if we have to make our own way back. I know what I'm doing."

"Are you still in one piece, is the thing?"

"Well..." She grunted as she flexed, I guessed. "Bruised, and twisted a fetlock, but as long as we're not running from any manticores, we'll be fine."

"Well that's encouraging." I heard her sit, and figured I might as well do the same. I might find a couple of my caps in the dirt. I felt around for the canteen I'd been given. Some mystery soup would really hit the spot about now. However, it felt rather light when I located it, and twisting the top off revealed it to be nearly empty. "Ah, bollocks."

"What's wrong?"

I moved the PipBuck screen over it, and found the canteen had a massive gouge in it. "Canteen's punctured. Take a look."

"Wow! Atom, that... that was some rock. If you weren't carrying that, that thing would have gone into you like a bullet.

"Yeesh."

"Remember what I said about those birds?"

I chuckled. "Yeah, yeah." We settled for a bit. I pouted, because I wanted soup now and Peregrine wasn't carrying any. The wind howled past the rock peaks above. "Can I ask something?"

"What's up?"

"You weren't born in the Eagle Tribe, were you?"

She was quiet for a moment. "Nothing gets past you, eh?"

"Only when I get sloppy."

"I've been travelling with the tribe for a long time, but some of the settled habits never go away, do they?"

"Not to pry. Just satisfying some curiosity." Hmm. Curiouser and curiouser.

We waited in the mostly-dark. The wind died off over the next twenty minutes from sandblasting to creepy-sounding breeze. Peregrine looked around with her knackered goggles every few minutes to see if she could spot the others. They must have spotted us first, because the first indication I got that we'd been found was being pounced from behind by a bear.

Sorry, my idiot brother sneaking up on us, picking me up and hugging me in the dark.

"Atom! You're alright!"

I only stopped flailing when I heard the voice. "You fucking plank what are you doing?"

"Well nice to see you too, Atom." He dropped me.

"You could have said something before picking me up by surprise while we're out here in the dark?"

"In fairness, Rainbow Code, I was about to knife you," Peregrine said.

"Peregrine?" He... he was wearing the goggles. How did he not realise she was there?

"Still kickin', thanks to Atom."

"My love!" I heard scurrying from a nearby dirt bank. I can only guess it was Jericho that raced past us to pick up Peregrine and swing her around. They were probably kissing or something disgustingly affectionate or something.

Rainbow put a hoof around me and sighed. "I'm proud of you, Atom."

"Oh, piss off."

"No, you sit down and take some credit. You took a risk and saved a life. If you were in my squad, that'd be medal material."

"I lost my goggles and Peregrine's are fucked."

I heard him cringe, but my luck was not to last. "Tech can be found and fixed. Ponies are harder to replace. Turing Test can come up with something."

I was never going to hear the end of this, was I?

I shut up and pouted while everyone got all the 'wow you caught someone you're so cool' out of their systems. Sam, mercifully, didn't seem that bothered. That actually made me feel a little guilty for being so aloof about it all. Was this... modesty? Shouldn't I be trying to ride the wave? Holy fuck, caring is confusing business.

We took the opportunity to regroup a bit, tend our scrapes, drink some water. We hadn't been blown too far off course, but we had to continue with the aid of some ropes. I was tethered to Rainbow and Peregrine was tethered to Jericho for navigation. This was awkward as fuck and I had to spend the rest of the walk looking at the ground to make sure I wasn't about to trip on something I couldn't see, and being pulled along by a party that was walking too fast. Eventually Rainbow capitulated to my whining and let me ride on his back for the last hour of the trip.

Once I was in this position I was finally able to get a proper look around. I was sans-goggles, but I could still see the outlines of things in the starlight. It must have been coming up on midnight. There was no moon out, and my lips were all chapped from the dry chill in the air. It was the kind of cold where I’d see my breath and the breath of everyone travelling with us if we weren’t all walking in the dark. Instead I saw peaks and mesas outlined by the light of stars, muddied by distant dust.

Having me on his back seemed to be helping Rainbow anyway, he seemed a lot calmer than when we set out. That or the incident on the side of the mountain had brought him back to earth a bit. One or the other. The ongoing darkness was kinda doing the opposite for me though. I strained my eyes looking for any kind of reference point to anchor the faint stars, jagged horizon and cold, sandy wind that was my entire perception right now, and even the wind was losing its power. This time a few nights ago I was cowering from the stars while my heart exploded, and even now, being left alone with them didn’t sit well with me.

A dull orange glow came up on the horizon at some point. I wouldn’t be able to pick out exactly when. It was obviously too early for sunrise, and as I kept my eyes on it, it became clear that the glow was pretty faint, and it’d take us a while to get there yet. Balls. At least having it there let me look at the stars without clutching Rainbow’s neck.

Rainbow stumbled hard, and it knocked me to the side. I was unable to recover, and I fell off him. My yelp got everyone to stop, for a second, at least.

"Atom! Are you okay? I’m sorry, I must have tripped on something, I…"

I pawed around for his side and used that to help me back up. "Yes, I’m fine, it’s fine. What the fuck did you hit?"

"There’s some big rock here, or..."

I felt around for it. "It’s metal. Kinda loose, let me just..."

Before I could fiddle much with it, Sam pushed in between us. "Metal you say? Let me take a look at this." I couldn’t see what he did, but it heard like he pulled it right out of the ground without much trouble. Immediately afterwards, there was a clatter on the ground. "Oh."

"What is it?"

"It’s a power armour helmet. And there was a skull inside."

Rainbow said "oh" after a moment’s pause.

"There’s a couple of these nearby, actually. I can see like, four from where we’re standing, and there’s been two dozen of them along the way. Bottom of a gulley here, crushed under some rocks there."

I looked at Rainbow. Or at least I think I did, I couldn’t be sure. "Uh…"

"Wow," he said.

Sam tossed the helmet aside and started walking again. "Now how about we get moving before we join ‘em?"

There was no argument from us. I hopped on Rainbow’s back again, and as carefully as he could manage, we hurried briskly on while he muttered stuff under his breath.

I could see the quarry ahead of us by the dim and flickering lights marking its perimeter. One of them lit up a battered sign that had all of the paint scoured and bleached off by the elements. I pushed up from his head to get a better look at the pit, and then he shoved me off because that was annoying.

"Ringing any bells, Sam?" he said.

"It's a clock tower at high noon in my head, let me tell you."

I dusted myself off and readjusted my glasses. "Something's keeping this place powered."

"Yeah, it's always been like that. Old systems left running when the place was abandoned."

On the approach, some of the tribe ponies started whispering among themselves. I started keeping an ear out for those screams they were talking about. Maybe it was the wind, but I couldn't hear much. They came to a stop before the perimeter lights, prompting us to stop with them. Jericho turned to Rainbow and pulled his goggles up.

"This far, albatross, and no further."

I snickered. "What did he just call you?" Rainbow ignored me and pulled his own goggles off, and turned them over to Jericho.

"Your service is greatly appreciated, Jericho."

He didn't seem too pleased. He stepped closer. "If you make a widow of my niece with this folly, all the stars in heaven will never forgive you."

He grimaced. "Right. Got it. No worries."

Jericho kept his glare on him before returning to the rest of the group. He nodded to them, and a few of them rummaged in their bags. Peregrine, Jaffa and Nineveh broke off and approached us in a line. "Wings of life carry you," Jericho called out. His voice reverberated off the walls of the quarry, creating a faint chorus. Nineveh pulled a feather cloak off his back, and threw it over Sam, then peeled off to return to the group. Sam was...

"Do I look cold?"

"Wings of life nourish you."

Peregrine pulled a gourd off from around her neck and put it on Rainbow Code. He gave her that 'I won't say no but I'm really confused look'. Peregrine looked... apologetic. "Just relax," she whispered, before hurrying along. Ohhhh.

"Wings of life protect you." When Jericho said this, Jaffa stepped up to me with his laser spear thing, and gave it to me. He had such a serious pout on his face. Thanks I guess? I don't know what to do with this thing, and he didn't seem pleased about parting with it either. He returned to the others too. "The cave is at the bottom of the pit. This is where our roads diverge. You may leave when ready."

I looked at Rainbow and Sam. This was the creepy funeral we were warned about? Lame. I shrugged, Sam raised one of his eyebrow... things, and Rainbow, after a moment of pensive shoegazing, nodded towards the quarry and started walking. We followed.

The quarry had these walkways partially hewn out of the rock, taking us down level by level to the tunnel at the bottom. The ground lights cast these long shadows in the rock face, and inside was utterly black from here. We'd only got one level down when there was this noise coming from the top. It was Jericho, and he was... singing. Some kind of monotone, with words I couldn't make out. When I looked back, everyone who'd accompanied us was standing next to the perimeter lights, lit from below by them in that creepy I-have-a-torch-under-my-face kind of way.

Then they shrieked... sort of. My guess it was to imitate a bird call, but it was more of a synchronised shout at a high pitch. Then they did it a second time. And a third, following Jericho's warbling.

"That's fine. This is... this is fine. Just a little something to set the mood, y'know. This is fine."

White Rabbit

View Online

"This is completely a rational and reasonable thing to do. Wandering into an indeterminate length of abandoned tunnels in complete darkness. What could possibly go wrong?"

"Atom, are you... scared?"

"Don't be fucking stupid."

I was shitting bricks.

Now that we had a ceiling, we could break out all the lights. I had my head torch, and Sam just set his eyes to beam. It was only going to do us so much good, since even that much light had to disperse somewhere in front of us. Close enough that there was always, at some point ahead, a shadow where the cave twisted out of our vision.

The sound of the screaming tribe ponies outside echoed away into nothing. They stopped, probably, and went to find somewhere more sensible to be. This left us in near silence. The tail end of the storm we'd passed through made the mouth of the tunnel howl like blowing on a giant bottle. Sam's servos whirred and his steps thudded as he walked. Then, a long, low groan echoed up the cave. We all stopped. It carried on for twenty, thirty seconds, before stammering to a halt.

"What was that?" I whispered.

"Remember when you mentioned that something was keeping the lights on?" It sounded really weird when Sam could talk quietly, with the tone of a normal voice, like he'd turned down his volume dial.

"Yeah."

"I doubt the lights are the only things that are still on."

"Absolutely and completely logical. This is the best idea."

Rainbow nudged me in the side. "Come on. Let's not hang about." I had no argument there.

Mercifully, some lights were still on deeper in the tunnels. I wasn't entirely sure what function these tunnels served, the outside of the quarry looked open-cast, but what do I know about mineral extraction? Not all the bulbs worked, and the ones near the exit were definitely busted, but there were periodic lights on the support beams. Most of them were lazy and flickering, a few created a pool of light around them, and some sparked occasionally.

Our tunnel joined a wider one with a cart track, after a load of twisting and a general downward slope for maybe fifteen minutes. Following the tracks with our lights, we saw a small cave-in, or at least a pile of rubble, where a couple of carts had derailed and been buried. I thought San Cimarron was never hit - maybe it took some conventional bombing? Who knows.

There was a skeleton sticking out of the rubble, fragments of pelvis and spine indistinguishable from the dust of the rest of the rocks. I scooped up the mining helmet on the skull. A couple of taps on the cart to shake the dust off, and it seemed to spring it into life, too.

"Want a light?" I pointed the light at Rainbow, and he was doing that glare at me when I'm misbehaving. "It's not doing him any good anymore."

"Yeah, alright." He huffed, and took the helmet. Then he bowed his head and murmured. "Deep peace of the quiet earth to you..."

"I think this poor lad's got enough deep peace of the quiet earth for one lifetime, mate."

Rainbow utterly lost his straight face. "Atom!"

"When you're ready, kids." Sam was up on the concrete floor to the side of the tunnel, by a door. Rainbow finished up his prayer quickly, and we followed.

We stepped into a room lined with machines. Drills and hammers littered the floor. The wreckage of a fallen catwalk was strewn across the room, along with a sizeable amount of rubble, making the long end of the room impassable. A big square machine blocked off part of that end of the room, and more than that, it hummed. It made a constant soft buzz, to match the dim orange lights around half of the thing, some of them flashing.

Then the entire room rattled with a horrible, grinding, mechanical growl. I jumped, and then vibrated along the floor in the general direction of away from the loud. Rainbow winced, and Sam... well, you know. It stopped after a few seconds. My ears rang, and when I was rubbing them, it made another spit, just to make me flinch again.

"The fuck was that?"

"It's jammed."

"What?"

Sam took a couple of steps towards the rubble. "It's a rock crusher, and it's jammed."

"Are you sure you want to go near that thing? I don't think it's the most stable."

Sam ignored Rainbow's warning, and walked right up to the machine and pulled on one of those big mechanical switches. Most of the lights on it went out, and the buzzing stopped. More than that, all the other lights nearby got a little brighter. "Cave of screams, my ass."

"That's it?"

"Makes some sense, don't it? If you could hear this old thing from up top on a quiet night, it'd give anyone the spooks ‘bout this place."

Rainbow frowned. "I'd be inclined to give Jericho a little more credit."

We walked through to the next few rooms - a locker room, a break room and an office. The door from the office back to the tunnels was locked. Sam gently nudged me and Rainbow away from the door. "Allow me." We shrugged, and started poking around the place for anything worth taking with us.

The terminal behind the desk was completely dead, and the safe below had already been plundered. I'd sat down now, so I slumped over the desk and poked at the desk toys. Then I noticed something. It sounded like Sam was walking, sort of - I heard the whir of motors, and the clank of mechanical parts, but I was looking right at him, picking the lock on the door. It couldn't be the computer either.

"Sam, hold still a sec."

"What?" He obliged me anyway. The sound of him working a lockpick was negligible. Still, the sounds of robotic movement continued. It faded slowly.

"Do you hear that?"

He paused. "Must be more mining machinery."

I waited more, and it faded more. "It's moving."

Sam looked up briefly, made a 'hm' kind of sound, and got back to work.

Rainbow returned from the locker room with the spoils of a medical box, and that slightly sad look that told me he found something sentimental in the lockers and got all mopey about it. He also managed to locate a couple of snacks in the break room that were still edible, and tossed a bag of crisps and a bottle of Sparkle Cola at me. The crisps were definitely stale, but I wouldn't say no to a little more fuel in the tank. I had to re-cap the bottle when Sam got the door open, and we moved on with haste.

The amount of wiring and mechanical support structure in the tunnel increased this side of the little waystation we'd been through. There was a junction in the tracks, and then two tracks side by side. We stepped lightly. Sam was doing his level best to keep from making loud banging noises every time his metal legs hit the metal tracks, but it was a bit of a wasted effort. The batteries in Rainbow's mining helmet appeared to be on the way out, and pretty soon the rotting safety lights were doing a better job of lighting the way, so he tossed it.

With a hollow bang, it bounced off some piece of crushed machinery. This briefly sparked some life into it, and two square lights lit up with a synthetic growl, that lifted, changed tone, then dropped again. We all jumped and faced it. Rainbow may have yelped like a kicked puppy. We backed away slowly. I picked up a rock to test it, but Rainbow nudged my hoof down and shook his head. And we'd have to come back this way?

The tracks reached a dead end in what might have been part of a natural cave. A few of the walkways higher up had been hewn out of the rock, and there were some ceiling lights high above. There were more conveyor belts and some stray machinery things, and multiple passages at the other end, two on the ground, two on an upper level. This cave was easily the widest space we'd been in so far.

"I'm starting to remember some of the... some of the way..." Sam looked around. He counted something out, then jumped at an access ladder on the wall. The rungs completely gave way, and all he succeeded in doing was headbutting the wall.

"Do you still remember, or..."

"I'm fine, genius," he snapped. "Throw the second big switch on the upper level there, if you're so smart."

I sighed, and complied. I guess I did have the wings, after all. I hesitated when I heard another one of those distant mechanical growls. I shook it off, and threw the switch. The faster we were through here, the better. I flinched back when a low-pitched, buzzing siren sounded, and a spinning light flashed at the end of the hallway. Once, twice... some pipes further down let out some steam. A third time, and something mechanical went thud.

"Somebody threw one of the flood doors on the way to the lab. No telling when. Come on."

Sam started towards one of the lower floor doors. I dropped down to follow behind Rainbow.

Then something else mechanical went thud. We all stopped moving.

"I don't remember there being a second flood door..." Sam said, after a very long pause. I didn't think it was quite the same noise as the door.

"Then let's not hang about to find out what it was, shall we?"

We carried on to the flood door, not even twenty feet from the junction we'd just been in. It was a great big metal door, almost like a Stable door, only large and square, and with several slices on telescopic pistons that moved it along its track to seal the tunnel. As soon as Sam crossed the track, something lit up ahead. We froze again.

"Plea-plea-plea-plea-please identify yoeurwswulf, thus uz... a..." came the garbled command from a bucket of rust half-trapped under rubble.

Rainbow clutched his chest. "Oh, it's just a Protectipony."

Then the Protectipony's head got caved in by a giant metal claw. The claw burst from higher up in the rubble, and in trying to find purchase on the other side, landed on the Protectipony and crushed it like a tin can.

Sam started running, in the way we had been heading. Past the wall claw thing. "This way!"

"That way?" Rainbow and I were slowly backing up.

Sam skidded to a halt when he noticed we weren't following. "Yes this way, before it digs itself out!"

We looked at each other with a mutual grimace, and then belted it after him. Another load of rocks and dust exploded behind us, with the now-unobstructed buzz of something that sounded like a saw. A saw designed for rocks. With a warped, semi-functional synthetic voice, speakers muffled behind dirt, it called out after us: "Mineral vei-ei-ei-ei- detected. Comme... -traction process." I chanced a look over my shoulders, then wished I didn't. It had knackered all the safety lights around it digging itself out, and it was far away enough that my head torch couldn't shine enough light on it to see it properly. So all I saw were two square yellow lights, emerging from the earth. Fucking hell.

"What is that thing?" Rainbow gasped. Through a metal doorway, then hard right, along the corridor.

"Mining robot. Probably not the only one nearby." Something that sounded like an engine revving echoed from the tunnels, and the buzzing and frazzled statements of intent to mine us for all of our gems got louder a lot faster than I'd have liked. The corridor shook, and all the lights along it flickered, when the bot slammed into the doorway we'd come through.

It stopped in place for a minute, half-lodged in the doorway. Its square lamps were partly obscured, and I only really saw the silhouette of it in the lights behind it. It was like a digger had just ploughed into the door, sending metal debris everywhere. A heavy duty scoop arm pierced the opposite wall, and a circular saw blade hummed as it tried to start a few times, having been forced to stop by the door. We stepped back slowly.

"Minera-ra-rals deliverrrrrrd. Resumin-ing rou-CHKKK-ute."

It seemed to be having a tough time dislodging itself from the wall, but we weren't inclined to help it.

"They're programmed to leave the infrastructure alone."

"Usually." I chuckled, because what else could I do with my heart in my mouth?

We got to the next door, not far along, and barred it shut. At a guess, we were in the reactor facility. Lots of pipes, lots of hazard signs, lots of consoles, not many crushing-looking things.

Rainbow gave Sam a nudge. "'Cave of screams my ass', eh?"

"Okay, yeah. I see where they get it."

I threw myself at the floor. "I need a minute." Rainbow patted me on the head. I grumbled. "Get me my coke." A moment later my bottle appeared in front of me, and I busied myself with that.

Rainbow paced and kicked the floor while he caught his breath. "Sam. You... you knew about those things?"

"I didn't think they-"

"Why didn't you tell us?"

"I didn't think they'd be a problem!" Sam barked. Or at least, that was his tone, his volume seemed pretty fixed. "They're unpredictable little bastards."

I spluttered on my drink. "Little?"

"Most days they're just buckets of rust. Some days they want to mine the iron from your blood. Today was not our day."

I could see the mist from Rainbow's snorting and huffing in the air. Was it really that cold in here? I hadn't noticed. "Well, we're here now. How much further have we got to go?"

"Uhh. It's gotta be a few floors up at least. Where are we, the reactor level? Lemme see..." Sam bopped the side of his head. His eyes went full-beam, overpowering the dim safety lights of the room. Further down the room in the shadows, a skeleton wearing a lab coat hung from a steel cable noose, tied around a support beam above an overturned chair. Rainbow gasped, and began muttering. Sam kept panning his lights around, and found an informational map on the wall. "Alright, we're in the upper levels, administration has a wall knocked through to some of the natural caves that run to the bottom of the lab, and to get there... Oh, you're gonna love this."

Rainbow... I don't think he was capable of words at this point. He had that little micro-grimace someone gets when they're doing their best to keep a polite straight face while underneath they're about to fucking explode. Given this, I responded. "I'm sure it'll be fucking magical."

"We have to pass through the robot depot."

"What'd I tell you?"

Rainbow sighed through his nose, making a long hiss. "What's the layout like?"

"It's like a big loading bay. Opens out onto tunnels on either end, where the bots come in for service. Stairs up from here are on one side, admin's on the other."

"So we have to cross it one way or another."

"Yep."

"And if we get spotted sneaking around, we're buggered."

"Probably."

"And if the door on the other side is locked, we're buggered."

"Not sure why it would be, but I haven't been this way in thirty-five years, so who knows?"

He sighed. The cogs turned audibly in his head. Now that my ears weren't pounding, I could think. "I don't suppose anyone's got any anti-matrix grenades on them?"

"Those would have been handy," Rainbow said.

Sam dipped his headlights to look at us, and squinted with his articulated eyebrow thing. "I don't know why you're looking at me, why would I have any of those? Do you keep vials of anthrax in your bags?" Rainbow and I just looked at each other. "Didn't think so. C'mon, we'll figure something out."

"Well, it's worked so far..."

We shuffled to the stairwell and climbed. They sagged in a lot of places. I wasn't sure if it was rust or fire, or even both, but it made for a treacherous climb. It wasn't so bad for me and Rainbow, we could flap over any particularly wonky bits. Sam, however, kept us going real slow. It was only two floors up and we were easily fifteen minutes on the stairs. The last staircase didn't double back, and the door at the top was broken off. Through it was a corridor with windows on one side, and a door broken off at the end. Beyond that was part of the depot, with a parked robot sitting there. We stayed low and inched into the corridor. We waited. The robot we could see stayed dead. Slowly, we peeked over our cover.

"Well that's new," Sam said.

"I'm guessing it wasn't like that last time you were here?"

"Nope."

The opposite wall of the depot, where admin was, had suffered a collapse. Two floors of offices atop two floors of what looked like repair labs were visible in cross section - this place was tall - with bits of floor and wall and support structure strewn across the depot. A broken 'world's best dad' mug that had even made its way across the depot floor, close enough to read. Sticking out of the pile of rubble nearest the wall was a huge toothed scoop on an articulated arm.

"I thought they were programmed to leave the infrastructure alone."

"They're also programmed not to treat ponies like mineral veins, but that got kinda lost along the way, didn't it?"

We scanned the place for more robots. The bay doors to our right were closed, but to the left they were all the way up. Bright-arse lamps flanked the doors on the outside, showing us the bare rock of the tunnels. There was a crane system on the ceiling, marked by some warning lights on the hook hanging in mid air. A couple of passenger carts and tool carts lay abandoned around the depot, but no other robots. Not that we could see.

I squinted. "Think we could climb the rubble to the top?"

"That's a risky climb at the best of times, and if that thing wakes up, we're pizza."

"What if. What if," I started.

"Oh no." Oh ye of little faith, Rainbow.

"Sam's the only one that needs to do any climbing. We, however, can cheat. That crane still has power. If Sam can hold on to the hook, we can lift him most of the way."

"Or!" Rainbow turned to me, with a hoof raised and waving around. "Flash of inspiration here. Stop me if this is too off-the-wall here. We take the stairs like sensible ponies."

"You mean those stairs over there? That stairwell that's caved in?"

"Oh is it? Bollocks."

We sat and stared at the debris some more.

"I'd be willing to give the crane plan a shot," Sam said. "I mean, if I fall, it's probably going to be the floor that's worse for wear."

I stood up. "That's two out of three. I'll get the crane going, you guys sit tight!"

"Two out of- Atom, that's not how-"

I was already walking to the door. I stopped and turned to Rainbow, shushing him down and pointing at the robot. He bit on his lip and huffed, and I carried on.

I got a running start and jumped from the rubble, flapping a couple of times to catch some air and fly up to the catwalks above. It was a messy landing but I scrambled over the guardrail. I had a guess that the box with the windows was the control room for the crane, so that's where I went. The door was locked. I looked around. Then I had a brainwave. I pulled the spear off my back. Laser spear, huh? Let's see how much protection the wings of life are gonna give me.

I jammed the point in the crack in the door by the handle, and... fumbled along it for controls. I hadn't actually given this thing much inspection until now, and doing it in half-light made that difficult. I felt around for something that felt like it moved on a hinge, and then everything went red for a moment. I yelped, dropped the spear, and jumped back in fright. The pew of laser fire echoed through the depot.

"I'm okay!" I called after it. Because I was, save for being momentarily stunned by the flash. When my vision readjusted, I found the spear still lodged in the door, the area around it blackened and smoking. It took a firm tug to pull it out, but the door opened with it, so that was a success. The console inside still had lights on in it. Double-whammy. Now I just had to get the crane moving. How hard could that be?

The first thing I did was start pressing buttons and pulling levers until something moved. Except for the big emergency stop one, that would cause more problems than it solved. Nothing seemed to be moving, so I looked some more. I found a twisty-switch under the panel, and gave it a twist. A red light turned on, and when I squinted to see what the label said, I noticed it said "live". Well that'd do it.

I quickly found the three levers that did the work. Forward and backward along the depot, along the length of the crane, and up and down. Simple enough to lower the hook to the ground by the rubble. I looked around for an intercom or a tannoy or something. I found something that looked like a grate and pushed the button next to it, but when I said stuff into it, it appeared to be dead. I settled for leaning out the door and shouting down, "All aboard!"

"Atom, didn't you have a go at me a moment ago about making noise?"

"Crane express is leaving the station, please keep your hooves on the cable at all times."

I think I heard Sam ask Rainbow if I was up past my bedtime or something. I think I also heard some rattling and a mechanical hum from somewhere, which I assumed to be the crane. Sam climbed on, and I got back to the controls. I was careful with lifting him, up as high as the crane would go, and then over towards the hole in the wall. Rainbow was doing his best to hover after him.

"I appreciate the concern, technicolor, but you don't want to be under me if I fall." That seemed to shake him off. The crane stopped, and Sam was left swinging. He looked to be leaning into the swing for a jump. Brave robot. Something buzzed, louder than before. I started to get nervous, and set the spear beside the console. "Lower me! I need more swing," Sam called out. I did, and watched from the window. He was nearly to the point of clearing the gap to the top floor of the offices. "Hey, bangs, if you wanna help, mind giving me a push?"

Rainbow, on the floor, squinted. "Did you just call me 'bangs'?" Sam didn't answer. Confused, Rainbow fluttered up, and at the top of the backswing, pushed.

There was a thump behind me. I froze. There was a loud scream of tearing metal, and a low buzz. Slowly, I reached for the spear. I heard a more distant thump, and Rainbow cheering. I looked over to see the hook swinging Sam-less.

Then, sparks filled my vision. A saw tore through the wall behind me, by the door. Shit. That door was the only way out of this control box, and it was already compromised. I backed up on to the console, and bumped against the glass of the window. The only intentional way out...

I grabbed the spear and pointed it at the window. I pulled the trigger. Nothing. Oh for fuck's sake. It must have a power cell that's drained. Which makes sense when you think about it. Power cells... I could just smash the glass, but I don't know if a puny borderline couch potato like me would be able to muster the strength, even with a sharp implement. Thump. Crash. A bunch of ceiling tiles came down behind me as part of the wall bent from, I would guess, being bashed by the scoop arm. Think, Atom, think!

I dug a hoof into my bags. Bits, Trashcan, toy raygun, a paper box of some weighty metal cylinders, some scraps of paper... I yanked out the box. The AA spark batteries from the Caballero Centre! I hadn't lost them in the storm! The low light made it tricky, but I tore open the end of the box. One spilled on to the floor, but I caught the next one and stuffed the box back into the bag. I set it on the console next to some light so I wouldn't lose it, and tried to find where the cells were on the spear. Another thump and a crash made me fumble the spear a bit, as the toothed scoop burst through the wall.

"Yeah, wait your fuckin' turn, mate!" I yelled. I pushed some lever and the spear ejected the spring-loaded cell, bopping me on the forehead. I indulged in a grumble of 'ow fuck', and got to shoving the new battery in and locking it in place. Okay, take two. I turned, and pointed the spear at the window. Rainbow was on the other side, trying to kick the window through and not having much luck. I gestured for him to get out of the way and he backed up, panting. Poor boy was having a flight workout.

I fired. The bolt was orange, and turned the window where it hit into a big glob of glowing molten glass. The rest of the window, however, exploded like a windshield, throwing glass chips all over the depot below. I didn't need to be told to throw on my bags and scramble over the console to get out. I must have kicked a lever on my way out, because the crane had started heading our way. Pumped with adrenaline, swooping around the depot was easy. Around the moving crane and up to where Sam was waiting for us.

"What happened? What was that noise?"

I hit the ground, tucked the spear away and kept running. Rainbow followed suit. "There's a bot on this level and it's cutting through the walls, keep moving!"

Sam followed. "On this level? How?" We sprinted through the offices. Muddy tracks in the carpet, piles of trashed desks, big holes in the wall... Sam "This way!"

"The..." Rainbow gasped. "The tracks?"

"Maybe there's a way up through the caves?" I offered.

"You'd better hope not, because that's gonna make life pretty difficult."

We slowed up a bit once we were beyond the light of the offices. The tunnel narrowed, and then widened out again. Gone was the safety lighting - we were back to my head torch and Sam's eyes for guidance. The air had a bit of a damp smell to it up here. When we slowed, we could hear running water in the distance - and the sound of engines and mechanical thudding.

"These arches used to be narrower," Sam muttered.

"Well when you've got a bunch of robots designed for digging in rock..."

Sam sighed. We crested a ridge in a narrow, and behind was a huge cavern that twisted up and down. Our lamps caught the occasional pile of rusting metal, and in the distance we spotted the two square yellow lights of a robot on some lower level of the cave, disappearing behind stalagmites and then reappearing as it trundled along. But best of all, there was a dim white light at the other end of the cavern, coming from a bend in the cave, not more than a hundred yards away.

"There it is!" Sam yelled. "We can sprint it. Just go."

And we did. We weaved around jagged rocks, and one or two dead robots that gave us a fright when we realised what they were. Sam led, I brought up the rear. The noise of the active robot below made me feel like I was going to keel over from heart failure before we got there. Each obstacle felt like a mountain. The light felt like it was getting dimmer as we approached, even though that was entirely my imagination. A stitch burned in my side. I certainly wasn't feeling cold anymore.

We slowed up at the bend. I clutched my side and coughed as I caught my breath. The dank air was terrible for this. We shuffled in convoy into the light. Two great floodlights hurt my dark-adjusted eyes, and left long shadows on rocks and piles of scrap. Before us was a massive metal wall that blocked off the entirety of this arm of the cave. Two storeys high, easily twenty, thirty yards across.

Then, something near the door made a synthetic squeal. Something visceral made me tense up and duck. Sam, similarly, backed up a couple of steps. Rainbow was so spooked by this sound that he dove behind some scrap. Only a moment later did my conscious mind catch up and place the sound as a laser turret being charged up.

Only, nothing happened.

"Keycard detected," a synthetic voice called out. "Welcome back, Find-It."

The squeal died off. Turrets must have powered down. "Well those are new," Sam said. "Doesn't entirely surprise me though." He gave the scrap that Rainbow was hiding behind a kick. Rainbow flinched and backed up, before shaking himself off. I took a closer look, and found those two square lamps, in between rusted saw blades and hydraulics.

"Fih..." I gasped.

"Finally, I know." Sam sauntered up to the wall and pushed some buttons. The wall hissed and released some steam, then a section near the bottom parted like a door.

"N..." Fuck it. I was too winded. I'd ask about 'Find-It' later.

Sam led us inside. I dawdled, and then I felt myself being lifted from underneath. After a brief scramble for stability, I realised Rainbow was lifting me on to his back. I tolerated this while I caught my breath.

Sam closed the door behind us. The interior was on safety lighting, or at least night-time lighting. I checked the lump of scrap circuits on my foreleg. It was definitely still the middle of the night. Inside was... clean. Not spotless, but a lived-in clean, like a Stable. Still kind of grimy, like there were only so many cleaning supplies to go around, but someone was definitely cleaning it. A few crates lay scattered.

"We're in the sub-basement," Sam said. "Nothing down here except buffer. And turrets." I looked up. Little dots and bars of red light in the dark corners. "Let's keep going."

Somewhere on the stairs, I slid backwards off Rainbow's back. I'd recovered enough to walk by myself. The stairs wound up to a mezzanine, closer to the lights. The grating of the floor rattled as we stepped. Sam pressed his hoof to a pad by the door, and it slid open sluggishly. Another blast door by the looks of it. It took us up a flight of stairs to the basement - I would guess, if this was the sub-basement - a large hall with loads of consoles and pipes and other stuff, and more doors.

"Oh, this takes me back," Sam sighed. "I bet I'm not even gonna recognise the project when I see it."

"The project?" Rainbow and I said, accidentally, at the same time.

Sam chuckled. "I'll let your old man do the talking if he's awake. C'mon. Down the hall, then up again."

I glanced at the signs on the walls as we passed. The newer ones were pretty clearly hoof-written. Hydroponics, water extraction, purification chamber. Or at least I think that's what they said, the writing was rather sloppy. Some of the old, worn signs for things like reactors and testing ranges were still hanging. The stairway at the end split in two and parted, taking two curved paths upwards. Near the top, the walls turned to bare rock, with a doorframe placed in it leading to an atrium.

"Welcome to Los Arabos, kids." It was a giant, near-circular room with two curving staircases around the sides, leading to a balcony near the top. The wall we'd emerged from was all solid rock, save for a vehicle-sized doorframe, blocked up with rubble. A worn seal on the floor had some official-looking wartime Equestria symbology, and the words 'Los Arabos National Laboratory - Victory Through Progress" around the outside. More doors led to more places. The lights were dim. Until they weren't.

"Who's down there?" A voice called from the balcony. Rainbow and I squinted, then looked at each other. That was an oddly familiar accent. "What fuckin' time do you call this, Gadg?"

"Try again," Sam called back.

A face appeared over the balcony. Dark blue, little round glasses, grey mane that went every which way, and a pout that turned into a wrinkled grin. "Find-It? Well stick me bollocks in a vice."

Sam went... almost limp, then thumped his front. "That's a name I haven't heard in years."

"Well no wonder we couldn't find you, lad!" The blue wrinkled fuzzy face hobbled to one of the staircases and started descending. He had a walking stick that made a bang each time it hit the stairs. He was also wearing a bathrobe and slippers. "What have you been calling yourself? And what the fuck is that hat?"

Sam - Find-It? I'm gonna keep calling him Sam because that's how I know him and it's a better name anyway - chuckled. "You're not gonna believe me."

Dressing gown paused a few steps from the bottom, near enough that he could be heard with almost a whisper. "Try me."

"Sa-"

"Who are they?" There was another voice on the balcony. A unicorn mare sounded rather less happy to see us.

"I should have started with that. These..." Sam stepped between me and Rainbow. "Are Rainbow Code and Atom Smasher. Gadget's son and daughter, come all the way across the sea looking for him. Ain’t that sweet?"

Captain pyjamas' face lit up again. "I thought there was something familiar about the look of you two!" He stepped down to get a closer look at us. The unicorn on the balcony started down the stairs too. She had a lab coat on, and a clipboard floated after her. Was she still working at this hour? "My goodness. Gadget's pining has been unbearable. Thought we'd never hear the end of it."

I squinted. "Galloway, right?"

"As through and through as you are Mancunian, lassie." He poked me with his walking stick. I laughed.

Rainbow lightly stomped a hoof. "That's what it was. I've been here too long."

"And you! Both of ye sound like I'd cut ye and you'd bleed canal water. I feel like I'm about to be mugged."

Rainbow burst into giggles. I scoffed, then started laughing anyway. "Oh, piss off!" I spotted Sam and the unicorn exchanging a confused glance. "Sorry, I just wasn't expecting to run into a Shetlander in here of all places. Continue?"

Sam rubbed his nose. "This is Trinity, lead botanist..." The unicorn nodded sheepishly. "...and Tube Alloys, mechanical engineer, part time roboticist, and you could say, my dad."

Tube spun his walking stick with a kick. "Evening. Well, morning technically."

"I see where you get the mouth from."

"Now, Findie." Tube Alloys turned to Sam. "You were saying?"

"Right. Uh..." He chuckled, and took his hat off. His antenna sprung like a doorstopper. "I've been hanging out in Isotope City under the name Satellite Sam."

"You didn't even make it further than San Cimarron? How are you still in one piece?"

"Because the Isotopians are paranoid maniacs who think the Steel Rangers are secret government forces coming to mount a coverup and they shoot at them on sight?"

Tube Alloys squinted, went to respond, then failed to. Rainbow cleared his throat. "If you don't mind me asking, where..."

"Ah yes! Ye'll be wanting to find your Paw. Ehhh..." He looked over at Trinity. "Do you want to tell 'em or should I?" My stomach sank. That wasn't a feeling I was expecting, or one I wanted. Rainbow, however, turned fucking white.

"Gadget... went out a number of days ago, into the quarry. He went to look for Fizzle, our chemist, who went to survey the quarry for materials two weeks ago. Routine annual stuff. Except Fizzle didn't come back."

"Gadget volunteered, since he'd be the most nimble. I'd have done it myself, but me gammy leg would have made me as useful out there as a teapot made out of shite."

"The flood doors..." Sam muttered. "There's so many routes in there, we could have easily missed them."

The colour returned to Rainbow's face. "We have to go back."

"Laddie, you just got here, take a breather."

Sam put a hoof on Rainbow. "He’s right. You need rest, we've been on the go since the camp. You've got to be hungry."

Dammit, now that he mentioned it, I was feeling it. "He's got a point. We'll just be easier to catch. Also, I'm fucking starving."

"Okay, fine. We'll take half an hour, an hour. Eat something, drink something. But I don't want to waste time."

Tube nodded, solemnly, and turned to one of the doors on this floor. "I'll put the kettle on."

Rainbow sighed, and sat. I leaned into him, and he leaned back.

"Are you sure you'll be able for it?" Trinity asked.

I smiled. "Are you kidding? We grew up in a Stable. We were made for this."

Sam snorted. I must compliment Tube Alloys on the range of vocalisations he gave Sam. "Says you."

"Might actually be better if you stayed here, Sam, I don't know if that crane is still operational after that bot clobbered the controls. On that note..." I turned to Trinity. "Do you have any anti-matrix grenades?"

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Sam stayed behind for our journey back into the quarry. He got antsy after I mentioned the anti-matrix grenades, and declared that he'd just slow us down and that he'd better do some catching up around the lab. Now, there wasn't really much catching up being done while we stopped to rest? Trinity milled about checking things on her clipboard (she probably was still working), Tube Alloys - should I call him Tube, or Alloys? What a peculiar name. Anyway, he kept dozing off, probably because we'd woken him up in the dead of night. Rainbow went for a power nap, which left me and my still buggered up sleep schedule without much in the way of a conversation partner while I chowed down on some low-flavour hydroponically grown sandwiches. I managed to extract a vague direction to look in for some supplies for going back into the tunnels with, but most of what I got from Mr. Alloys, if that is his real name, was mockery about the Shitbuck (patent pending).

When I came back from a raid of the store cupboards with a bandolier of what I thought were anti-matrix grenades, as many weird looking rifles as I could carry and a couple of other science-looking things, Trinity squealed and took half of them off me, babbling about damage and untrained handling. Which left us with, when we stepped out of the big heavy doors, three little twisty-canisters that were actually anti-matrix grenades, which I kept on the bandolier, and two magical energy rifles, which Tube Alloys fitted to a battle saddle for Rainbow. He was also able to supply us with a stealth buck each, which I was just floored by, and a freshly-minted keycard each so we could get back in. He told us not to pop the stealth bucks until we were in real trouble, because they could only last so long - mine probably longer than Rainbow's. The door shut behind us with a loud, echoing mechanical clang, and we were alone in the caves again.

For a moment, the two of us looked at each other with that blank, vaguely uncertain stare that says, what the fuck are we doing?

Now that we weren't panicking, we took it slow in the caverns. When we heard one of the bots on the move, we listened out and kept our distance. Rainbow was into mission mode and not really up for chatting while we worked, and this time I was inclined to agree. Took us maybe double the time to get back to the offices, but by the time we did our ears were adjusted. Passing through the widened hole, all we heard was our steps, the rattle of our gear, and only the distant growl and clatter of automated excavators pottering about. If there's one thing that can be said for having to avoid giant malfunctioning mining robots, it's that subtlety does not come naturally to them.

The one that chased me out of the control box had evidently tried to follow us through the office, meeting little success. Must have been rotten wood - I remember seeing the floors bow and bounce under Rainbow's steps and especially Sam's, but there was a big fuckoff hole in the floor by the big fuckoff hole in the wall, both of them approximately square. When I leaned over to take a look, there was a smoking pile of steel at the bottom of three similar holes in the floors below, impaled on some rebar and sparking in a couple of places. One less thing to worry about.

We retraced our steps back to the flood doors. We stopped to examine the gouges in the metal wall where the first bot lunged at us. It had pierced right through the far wall to the crawl space behind, and left a gouge in the wall at the back. We didn't hang about too long, since we were going to be funnelled through the passage to the flood doors. The Protectipony was fucking dust now. I think I found all of a hoof intact from it.

The flood doors themselves were still open on the route we went. We slowed down once we were in the room with the switches. And just as well, because there, idling in the way we came in earlier, was one of the mining robots. Possibly the same one that chased us into the corridor. It was just... sitting there. The motors were on, but it hadn't noticed us. I looked at Rainbow. He gestured to the upper level, and we did our awkward jump-fly thing to get up. Some elevation on the thing couldn't hurt. We scooted back into cover in a hurry. A support strut for the cave would have to do.

"Right. Dad must have gone through one of these doors."

I looked at each of them in turn. "But they're all shut. We're guessing."

"We'd better start guessing, then."

"What, like, just go and start throwing switches?"

"You got a better idea? A sniffer dog, perhaps?"

I glared at the stupid bugger.

"Oh. Yeah, that was below the belt."

I gave him a whack on the shoulder and got up. "I'll try this one up here." I stepped lightly towards the pair of switches, one of which I'd thrown earlier. The bloody thing was taller than I was. I looked at the idling robot, and then back at him. "Get ready to run," I whispered, as loud as could be considered a whisper. I gave the switch another once over, and put a hoof to the top. Deep breath.

It didn't budge. I started with a light touch, because the more I could control it the better, but I wasn't getting anywhere. I put both hooves on the top and tried to hang out of it. It didn't budge. Not a peep from the idlebot. I shrugged at Rainbow. He grimaced. I glided over the gap to try the switches on the other side. I think he had a fit, but was determined to keep it quiet.

I tried the switch on the left, and got a creak out of the hinge. Damn, these things were rusty. Determined not to let this one get the better of me, I jumped and hovered until I was pivoting on the lever, then dropped, putting all my weight onto the switch. The hinge gave, and I bodyslammed the floor. The hollow metal floor. With all of my body. Like a giant snare drum.

An awful synthetic scream erupted from the robot. It was like its voice modulator was picking up a phone call from Tartarus. It sluggishly turned to where I was, because as soon as it made that noise I bolted back to Rainbow. I caught a glimpse of the door on the lower left rumbling open, and when I skidded to a stop and looked back, the robot was in the middle of trying to execute a three-point turn. I say trying, because the hallway wasn't quite wide enough, and three points was turning into dozens, each time banging on the metal walls on each side.

"I think it's stuck," I shouted, to be heard over the cacophony of hollow metal and robotic screeching.

"Let's go!" Rainbow stood up and pulled me along. We dropped to the lower level to head through the door that had just opened. That was our plan up until square yellow headlights rounded the bend in the tunnel, we looked at each other for a split second, and both of us mumbled something to the effect of 'the other door' that we couldn't really hear over all the noise. We both awkward-wobble-flew to the upper level and jumped at the last switch at the same time. I backed up when Rainbow reached over me, because I didn't want to get caught in the hinge or something. It was another tough switch, but it cranked down in fits and starts, shaving rust out from the mechanism as it went. By the time it was down, the square yellow headlights had arrived.

The first one ploughed full speed into the one trying to turn around. At least it got the screaming to stop. The second one stopped with a skid on the floor, and turned its upper half to face us. It garbled something out of its voicebox, then took a swing at us with its scoop. It reared back for a good three seconds - plenty of time for us to scarper. I pulled one of the grenades out.

"Not yet!" Rainbow yelled. My ears were still ringing too. "Save it for the way back, we don't know what's ahead."

The upper left door only opened part of the way. One of the pistons was badly bent and wouldn't retract, which was somehow jamming up the whole mechanism, but the gap it left in the middle was easily wide enough for us one at a time.

We emerged at another one of the cart rails, this one longer and straighter. The lights got dimmer the further away they were, and a couple of side tunnels were in complete darkness. I wasn't sure that this part of the complex was designed for ponies to be in at all. A couple of rooms with windows overlooked the tracks with no visible way to get in.

"How big is this place..." Rainbow muttered.

"It can't be that big, they didn't send us off with food. I mean, it took us what, an hour getting in from the outside? Maybe a bit less? We can just right-hoof-rule it and we should cover most of it pretty quickly."

Rainbow went to raise an objection, but just sighed, and started walking. "What I'd do for an EFS about now..."

The tunnel was long. It was long and largely featureless, and I got bored in a matter of seconds. "Man, this is the holiday from hell, innit? It's five million degrees out in the daytime, we've been chased by manticores and rogue robots, we've traipsed all around the desert multiple times, I nearly died from an overdose, can we get our money back? I'm sure this is worth a refund."

"Atom, you..." Rainbow screwed up his face a bit and then started chuckling. "What?"

"Bugger, that's right, I never got travel insurance. You always think you don't need it until you do."

He looked at me silently for a bit, with a kind of mouth half-open smile. "I think you'd have voided the T's and C's with the drugs."

"Oh, that's where they draw the line? Not voluntarily wandering into deathtraps like the Caballero Centre?"

"Or here."

"Ah, but the killbots weren't advertised here. S'false advertising. They can get done for that."

He giggled again. "It were in the fine print that we couldn't be arsed reading."

"Yeah, well they shouldn't hide shit like that in the fine print, should they? It's highly pertinent information." Now I was losing my straight face.

He gave me a shoulder nudge, while still trying to control his grin. "Shush, we're supposed to be moving on the quiet."

After a few minutes of walking, ambient mechanical noises picked up again. The sound of a motor and some quiet metallic thumping echoed along the tunnels. We were sure it was one of the robots, so we proceeded quietly.

We encountered a stop for the mine carts. A junction in the tracks fanned out to five parallel tracks, some with carts resting on them, and most importantly, access walkways to the rooms adjoining the tunnel. A crane had collapsed over the tracks, but the ceiling was dark, so I couldn't see where things were being loaded and unloaded. And sitting to one side, gently bumping at a wall every few seconds, was a sad-looking solitary mining bot. Its saw blade was bent and wouldn't spin, and the scoop arm rested on the floor lifelessly. It looked like the tracks were the only things still going, propelling it up the gentle incline to ram the shutters on one of the rooms at the floor level of the tunnel.

We watched for a full minute from a safe distance. It didn't notice us, and didn't do anything else besides give a low groan from its voicebox. It sounded like a toy with dying batteries.

"Put it out of its misery, will you?"

Rainbow squinted at me. "Keep a grenade at the ready in case this goes tits up."

I nodded, and he lined up the rifles. With a chomp of the bit, two streaks of pink lit up the cave and struck the robot's left track. The track broke, and it lost traction over the next two rams, causing it to turn and skid down the ramp at the rate of molasses. At the bottom, its momentum caused it to go up on one track, and seconds later, tip over. It clattered on its side, its own scoop arm puncturing the hull on the side, and its engine went dead, followed by the grumbling from the voice box and the dim, flickering headlights.

I put the grenade away, and hopped forward to give it a little kick. Rainbow nearly had a seizure. When the robot remained dead, I jumped on it, turned and shrugged. He sighed and rubbed his front.

"Alloys? Is that you?" some muffled voice said. Both Rainbow and I flinched and looked at each other. It definitely didn't sound like a robot.

I looked around. "Where did..." Rainbow pointed at the shutters the robot had been trying to ram. We approached with hurried caution. I wasn't quite sure what to say.

"No, but he sent us," Rainbow said after a pause.

Silence. "Who... is the robot dead?"

I was nearest the pile of scrap, and I gave it a kick. "Looks pretty dead to me."

"Who's there?" The voice was strained, but soft. I couldn't quite place the accent. It was a bit like the local Palominian with a lick of Shetland, sort of like Rainbow's when he was talking to Ivy, but with the ratios reversed, but even then I'm probably not getting it quite right.

Rainbow smiled. "You wouldn't believe us if we told you." He looked back at me with a wide-eyed grin.

"Where have I heard that voice before..."

"A long way away, let me tell you."

There was another pause. Then the shutter lifted a couple of inches. Then it got stuck, with the motor humming but the shutter not moving. I could see a load of junk piled up in the doorway.

"Oh, buggery, just a second..."

There was a crash, and I spotted some chairs toppling from the barricade, along with a table being pulled away. The shutter continued up without issue. It crawled up for a long time. I watched three beige legs come into view (the fourth presumably on the switch), tattered, dirty, oil-stained blue overalls with the sleeves rolled up - but only the front half, revealing an ugly burn on his flank, and a pair of wings with shabby feathers. My heart leapt into my mouth. Holy shit. This was the guy.

A face beaten by age and worry came into view. Bent, square glasses, and a messy mane of green hair, unkempt and matched with bushy eyebrows and a shock of green on his chin. And behind all that, a pair of earnest, fearful emerald eyes. My eyes, if you put them in the head of an anxious leather bag.

From this point I was frozen. It was like my brain had finally matched the face I was looking at to a face in my distant memory that I'd failed to completely scrub out, and it was now spinning the wheel on how to react.

His gaze darted between us. He took a step towards Rainbow. Well, more of a limp. I spotted some bandages on one of his legs, with bit of a red stain. "Is... is that you? Rainbow Code?"

Rainbow grinned. "Hey Dad."

Gadget stood looking up at Rainbow. He was comically shorter than him. I'd say the old man was probably about my height. "Rai- and..." He chuckled once, a sort of breathy exhale around a slight smile. "And..." He pointed at me. Rainbow nodded. "You came all the way here?"

"Took ten years."

Gadget threw his legs around Rainbow and laughed. Heartily at first, then hesitantly. Then he groaned, then he sounded like he was still kind of laughing, but I could see tears starting to stream down his face. When Rainbow decided to stop crushing the poor guy, he certainly didn't look overjoyed.

"You shouldn't have come."

Rainbow, who was kind of tearing up himself, blinked, and his grin broke. "What?"

"You... had a life. You were safe. You don't understand the danger you're in now."

Rainbow chuckled. "What, killer robots and a hostile mountain range? Dad, I've been stomping around San Cimarron for the guts of a decade at this point, I-"

The more Gadget continued, the more desperately worried he looked. "No, it's... I gave you a chance to escape. I'm a wanted man. Some really powerful forces want to see me suffer and I thought I'd given you the chance to get out of the blast radius. I..." He rubbed his head in his hooves. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do but I couldn't live with myself if I dragged you back in, and now..." He wiped a hoof on his cheek. "It was all for nothing."

Rainbow frowned, and looked like he was thinking, while Gadget just kinda sobbed. Then, Rainbow grabbed him by the shoulders and lifted him back up. "Dad. You literally named me after Rainbow Dash. What did you think was going to happen?" Gadget sniffled. "I mean yes, following you here was basically an objectively stupid thing to do. But look at us. Being raised by ponies as idealistic as you and as stubborn as Mum was, did you really think we'd willingly rot away in stable 512 for the rest of our lives?"

Gadget actually smiled. Weakly, but he smiled, and pushed himself to his hooves again. "Your mother... you're right. If she were still around when I left, she would have come after me herself." The two of them wistfully gazed at the ground. "Don't get me wrong, I'm overjoyed to see you again. I feel like I'm a sharp fright away from a panic attack, but seeing you two all grown up..." He hugged Rainbow again.

"It's good to see you too, Dad." They had a proper hug this time, without crying. Then Gadget broke off, and approached me, and my body went into fight-or-flight mode.

"And Atom Smasher... my little baby girl. Last time I saw you, you were only up to my shoulder..."

He reached out to hug me.

And I punched him.

Just, hoof right across the face. Pow. Nearly broke his glasses.

He stumbled from the shock, nearly falling over. "What the fuck did you think you were doing, you plonker?" Rainbow's jaw hit the floor. Gadget stood there and gingerly rubbed his cheek. "You abandoned a nine-year-old filly. You had a small child who you left to fend for herself." Gadget looked at me like a rabbit in the headlights, and then at Rainbow, who now looked like the puppy who'd been caught shitting in your slippers. "And don't tell me you expected moptop McGee over there to look after me because that moody teen was out the door after you the next fuckin' day! I thought scientists were supposed to be smart, but no, it seems like the men in this family got all the stupid genes."

He straightened his glasses a bit. "I... suppose I deserved that."

"Yes, you fucking did."

Rainbow shrugged. "She tried to strangle me. This is actually kind of restrained."

"What did you think would fucking happen, though? You fuck off to Equestria to go farting around in the desert and abandon your daughter to do it, of course I'm gonna be right pissed off! But at least you had a plan B, didn't you? It was a bloody stupid plan B, but it were at least a plan B, weren't it? You," I pointed at Rainbow. He winced. "You just went and cleared out without a second thought!"

He sighed. "It's a fair cop."

"The pair of you, honestly." I turned to pace and fume for a bit. I let myself simmer for a bit. "I'd forgotten about both of you. Three years ago I was still living the stable. Six months ago I had a house near Manechester. The only reason I'm standing here up to me tits in fucking killer robots and shitty desert yokels is because this plank sent me a letter and I took a chance. I didn't even know if it were fuckin' real until I got here. I was just gonna have meself a road trip and go home, but now I'm standing in some abandoned mine, I've just punched me Dad and now I'm shouting about it." I clutched my hair and huffed. "I don't know where I'm going with this."

"Would you like to get back to the lab, Atom?" Rainbow asked, in almost a whisper.

I made a frustrated growl. "Yes technically that is a good idea but also aaaaargh!" I kicked the robot again. I dented it, but also hurt my hoof. Bugger it all. This was around the time that I noticed Gadget was on the floor. I sauntered over and nudged him. "Y'alright, mate?"

He stirred and looked up. He seemed confused. "What?"

"I didn't break anything important when I hit you, did I?"

He hesitated. "I thought you were going to kill me."

I frowned. "What? No, that's stupid." Never mind that I've definitely killed for much pettier reasons in the past. "I mean, I'm angry at the both of you but I've still been going around with that blockhead for the last week, and I'm still here, inn't I? Get up."

I did more yanking him up by the scruff of his collar than taking his hoof and pulling him up that way. "Even after... after all those things you said?"

I sighed. Oh fuck, now I was going to have to be genuine or something. "Look. I'll say to you what I said to him. You're an idealistic moron. You mean well. You really do. I'm sure that somewhere in that lab is something well worth your time. You just don't think about what you're doing before you do it. So just, I dunno, do think about it?" Don't laugh. I know. Me, of all ponies, telling someone to consider consequences. Look, I'm not responsible for a child. "You can't fix the past, but you can learn from it."

He sighed, nodded, and laughed nervously. "Right."

"Okay. Right. That's my quota of emotional sincerity for the day. Let's get the fuck out of here. I'm surprised my yelling hasn't attracted more of these rustbuckets. Speaking of!" I plodded back to the downed robot. "Y'know this thing was on its last legs? Colour barf over there zapped its tracks and it fell over and that's what did it in."

Rainbow sort-of winced at 'colour barf'. "Just as well, a barricade of wooden furniture wouldn't do much to stop it if it was firing on all cylinders."

Gadget chuckled. "Once in a while my luck does hold up. I was already injured, so I couldn't do much, and even with its saws disabled it could still run over me if I got in the way." He held out his bandaged leg. "I've been holed up in this break room for a couple of days waiting for it to go away, but it seemed pretty persistent."

"Oh, and uhm..." Rainbow rubbed his mouth. "We were told you went to look for Fizzle?

"Oh, yes..." Gadget's already perpetually sad face dropped even more. "Fizzle... Fizzle didn't make it. I found what's left of him in the excavator bypass between the mining levels and the service bay. I got cut off and had to retreat through the reactor levels, threw the flood doors, then got chased here. Poor guy..."

"I'm sorry..." Rainbow approached him and put a hoof on his back. He probably did this a lot.

"Well, let's not join him, shall we?"

Rainbow nodded solemnly. I saw him muttering those prayers as soon as Gadget wasn't looking. I'm fucking on to you, you spiritual fuck.


Gadget opted to fly when we started moving again. He hovered effortlessly and seemed confused at our baffled stares. It made sense to him with his injured leg, but it took him a minute to remember that we, the stable pegasi, had the flying capabilities of chickens. So he just floated along behind us so we could stick together.

When we returned to the flood doors and the confluence of paths, the racket of a mining robot traffic jam in a tiny metal corridor was still ongoing. We looked through the gap in the half-open flood door.

I turned to Rainbow, and picked one of the AX grenades off of the bandolier. “How effective are these things? It’s been a while since I’ve used one.”

“You’ve used them before?”

“First time I used one I didn’t know what it was and chucked it at a bunch of loopers with spears.”

He cringed. “Everyone does that. Everyone.” He rubbed his face. “It depends how much of the system is spell matrix. They sound like they’ve got conventional engines, so it might only stop them long enough to reboot…”

“Kids?” We paused. Gadget wasn’t with us braced by the doors. He was a hundred yards away with his head sticking out of the window of one of the rooms overlooking the tracks. We looked at each other.

“What are you doing up there?”

“What are you two doing down there? You weren’t going to go through the flood doors, were you?” We paused again. Motherfuck. “Come on. There’s a safer way through maintenance access. Did you think that they’d have ‘flood doors’ without there also being a way around them?”

“I thought you were stuck out here.”

He did that one-hoof almost-shrug you do when you’re leaning over something. “I knew the way back but I still needed help.”

I snorted. We got up and left the excavator pile-up behind. We entered through one of the broken windows, about five yards above the tracks. “That would have been a crap way to go out. Drinking your own piss and starving to death in an ancient break room because you were too weak to fight off a rogue robot that was probably going to give up the ghost shortly after you did.”

He smirked. “Then it’s a good thing you found me. Come on, this should take us straight to the offices.”

“Oh, so they gave us these for nothing?” I held up the stealth bucks.

Gadget stopped and stared at them like I was holding the map to Blackbeak’s treasure. I shook them a bit. “I don’t know whether I’m more alarmed that they gave you stealth bucks at all, or only two.”

Now I was staring at them. “Y’know, that’s a good point.”

“Save ‘em. They could be useful later.”

I tucked them in my bags again and scowled “Why do they even have flood doors in a quarry in the desert anyway? You’re not exactly trudging through water up there.”

“Flash floods,” the two lads said at the same time.

“It’s like the sky pays back all the rain it’s owed since the last time,” Rainbow continued. “Too unpredictable to plan for, too rare to account for when you’re stretched thin.”

Gadget looked at nothing. “That’s… that’s one way of putting it.”

The maintenance tunnels were cramped to say the least. Gadget had to lead the way and didn’t have room to hover, so he limped along ahead of us. It was slow.

“Maybe while I can’t turn around isn’t the wisest time to ask this question, but…” Gadget coughed. “I have to wonder how you found me. I… it doesn’t fill me with confidence, after going to all this trouble to not be found.”

“Well…” Oh boy, here we go. That’s the ‘well’ of a maths nerd who is just itching to show you all the workings on his homework. “The Manechester leg was cake. As I found out, a pegasus in a stable jumpsuit sticks out of a crowd, so figuring out you’d taken a boat to Equestria was easy. The hardest part of that was survival and working up the caps for the trip over.”

Gadget sighed. “If you were raised in the clouds, you could probably have flown it. The Shetlands aren’t that far from the mainland. They were a province of Equestria before the war.”

“What?” I squinted. “Nah. That can’t be. I was on the boat over for fuckin’ weeks.”

“That’s because of the route they take. The most direct route would be into Fillydelphia, which…” He chuckled. “You don’t want to go to Fillydelphia. Let’s leave it at that. So they go all the way south to Jockeysonville. Lets them charge more too.”

“Anyway…” Yeah, yeah, Rainbow, present your sodding research paper already. “The trail was harder to follow when I got to Equestria, not least because of the headstart you had on me, but then I found my way to San Cimarron, where I hit a dead end. And around that point I… found myself recruited into the Steel Rangers.”

Gadget jumped in shock and banged one foreleg on a pipe. He yelled in pain and hopped about. The corridor was still a bit too narrow to turn around in, but he hopped forward to a junction ahead where he could turn around, clutch his hoof and show us exactly how much colour had drained from his face. “S-steel…” His breathing raced.

Only then did Rainbow realise what he’d just said. “Oh! Shit, I. They didn’t come with us! They don’t know we’re here. They’re not all bad! I mean, some of them are pretty bad, Elder Saguaro is kind of a dick, but my father in-law is a nice guy! He’s trying to get the Rangers to do more cha-”

Gadget grabbed him by the shoulders, eyes wild. I couldn’t tell if he was angry, terrified, or just having a seizure. “You married into them?

“I…” Rainbow looked at me. I shrugged. You walked into that one, mate. “Yes, kind of, a little. Listen, it’s really…”

“Do you know what the Steel Rangers have tried to do to me? To this project? Do you know how hard we had to work to hide this place from their grubby little hooves?”

Rainbow put his hooves on Gadget’s, trying to gently get him to stop shaking him. I was impressed that this injured, starving, crazy old scientist was having such success in overpowering a professional soldier nearly twice his weight. “Yes, I do know. I know because it left me at a dead end for ten years.”

Gadget huffed a few times, and slowly released his grip. He closed his eyes and breathed deep. “You’re still my son, and I love you. But I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am.” Rainbow made a face like those words were bullets in his belly.

I couldn’t take it any longer. “Okay, I’ve had enough of you idiots doing this.” I wedged myself in between them, which in these corridors was some work. “You, settle down.” I physically pushed Gadget on the top of his head. “And you should have led with Sam so he didn’t get the wrong idea?”

“What?” both of them said.

I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “The way we found this place was by getting in touch with Find-It, currently going under the name Satellite Sam.” Gadget perked at the mention of Find-It. “Turns out he lost his way back and was chilling out in Isotope City. Y’know, the baseball stadium full of nutters? He was specifically hiding from the Steel Rangers because he knew they’d take him apart if they got a hold of him in a dark alley.” Rainbow opened his mouth. I stopped him. “I know you and your buddies didn’t, but Pickle Park’s crowd were fuckin’ salivating over him. Hell, even Ivy was looking at him like a twelve-inch sub a couple of times.”

Gadget frowned. “And how did…”

“Sam was not happy to see this muppet, certainly.” I bapped Rainbow’s front. “But then he name-dropped you and that got his attention. It’s only because I’m not a Ranger, a fact that I keep having to remind everyone of, that we were able to get in contact at all. But, with a bit of help from the Eagle Tribe through Rainbow’s wife, we were able to find the quarry with no Rangers in tow.”

“Wait, I thought you…”

Rainbow looked at the floor. “Yes and no, it’s complicated… she’s… half? Her dad’s a Ranger and her mum’s from the tribe.” He exhaled through a little smile. “For a long time she was the only Ranger who wanted to be around me.”

“A Ranger and a tribal…” Gadget scratched his beard. “That can’t be right. When we abandoned Los Arabos the Rangers were hunting the tribes. Are you sure?”

“Mate.” I picked the laser spear off my back. “Where’d you think I got this piece of junk?”

Gadget squinted at it, and gingerly stepped closer to take a look. “Fascinating… this is the core off a sunburst rifle. Is that… is that a AA battery?”

I giggled. “That part was my doing.”

He winced at the battery, then continued examining it. “It definitely looks like a tribal spear head… but this construction on the laser components is professional.” He stepped back and muttered. “Maybe they… maybe they are. If they’re working together, then…” Gadget rubbed his beard some more. Rainbow practiced his principal’s office guilty shuffle. “If Find-It trusts you, and the tribes trust you, and,” He briefly looked at me with a smirk. “A rambunctious child trusts you…”

Oy! Who you calling a fucking child, mate?”

“Then I trust you, son.”

Rainbow looked up, and slowly smiled. “I… really?”

They were about to hug again when I thumped Gadget in the shoulder. “I asked you a fucking question, you twat!” It was the leg he’d banged into the pipe, and he reeled from it. Rainbow burst into a laugh and put one of his big hooves on me to like, hold me down so I didn’t hit anything else.

“Let’s just keep moving, shall we?”

Mutters of ‘yeah alright’ started us on our way again.

As promised, the route snaked through parts of the reactor level, around the outside of the service garage, and up to the offices. We had stairs to climb, but without Sam with us, the fallen holes in the staircases were trivial. The rest of the way was a sprint in the dark. I held on to the grenades carefully, and did my best to fly above them, leading the way with my head torch. Like before, we only slowed down when we were entering the floodlights by the door. We flinched at the whine from the turrets, but didn't have the full-fledged dive-for-cover response we did earlier.

I dropped from the air, panting and rubbing my sides. That was a workout I wasn't expecting. Gadget was visibly in pain by now, limping to the door to swipe us in. We didn't even need the keycards, guh. Waste of plastic.

"What time is it?" he asked, leading us inside.

I pulled up the only watch in the world that was simultaneously more fully featured and less good than a regular watch. "Fucking hell, it's coming up on two in the morning."

"First priority is probably some sleep then."

"Dad, let me take a look at your leg when we get in. I'm guessing you have proper medical supplies?" Rainbow asked.

“It’s just a bruise, it’s nothing to worry about.”

Rainbow snorted. “No, not the leg that Atom hit.” I snickered. “The cut one at the back.”

"I'll be fine, son. Don't you worry."

I laughed. "Get a load of this guy. Telling the most sentimental sap in the universe not to worry."

"That gash looks pretty bad. You don't want to lose that leg, do you? I'm trained as a field medic. At least let me change the dressing before it gets infected."

"Ugh, fine." Gadget turned to me with a smirk. "Has he been like this all week?"

"Don't look at me, I'm not getting involved."

He rolled his eyes. "Okay. We rest and repair, and then tomorrow, I can show you why I'm here. My life's work." He looked up at nothing in particular, smiling as he stared into space. "The Manehattan Project."

Always Something There To Remind Me

View Online

The rest of the night kinda blurs in my memory. I think we went straight to bed, because fuck, we needed it. The last rest we had was back at the Eagle Tribe camp, and that was just a siesta. Except Sam, he was off looking for things that needed fixing or something. (What if he tries to fix something that's actually not broken, it's just some improvised fix in the science things down here?) They didn't have proper beds for us, because we'd invited ourselves around without calling ahead first. How rude of us. Instead I remember waking up on some couch in the atrium. Having slept on a couch in a room with no windows all week, that wasn't particularly surprising. What did surprise me was being woken up by being turfed off the couch.

I flailed like a caught fish. "What the fuck do you want Ivy holy shit I-"

"Ivy? Who's Ivy?"

I squinted, and pushed myself up. I was on the mezzanine of the atrium. I had a brief look for a window, but it was just the daytime lights. Either I was still waking up, or they were really damn bright. I looked around until the owner of the voice came into bleary focus. The workaholic nerd from last night was looking at me like a rabbit in the headlights. Trident? Trinket? I have to start writing names down. "Wait, this isn't... Right. Los Arabos."

After staring long and absent-mindedly enough that I might have actually fallen back asleep for a bit, she panicked. "Oh! Oh! I am so sorry, I forgot you were..."

Sluggish morning brain connected the dots eventually. "It was you that pulled me out of bed? Couch. Sleep thing." She hid behind her clipboard and nodded. "What the fuck? Why?" I think she realised she'd gone and fucked up now, because she trembled as she lifted a crumpled piece of paper from the couch, covered in inscrutable notes of some kind. I squinted, then rubbed my eyes. "What time is it."

"T-ten thirty-nine."

"Ugh." I contemplated breakfast or something. If the board was anything like the bed, we'd be eating whatever leftovers they weren't having for lunch. "Fuck it. I'm going back to sleep. Piss off."

Holding up her clipboard like a shield, in case I was gonna breathe fire on her or something, Trifecta or whatever her name is backpedalled away from me, and once she'd put a safe distance on me, turned and scampered out of the room. Without another thought, I keeled over into the couch face down, and got back to the important work of sleeping.

For about thirty seconds to a minute. Just long enough to start drifting off again, y'know? Then a big goofy laugh from downstairs disturbed me in that really uncomfortable way where I end up more tired than I was before I closed my eyes in the first place. Then there was loud resonant clanging as one or more ponies ascended the stairs. One of them had to be Rainbow. He's the source of like, sixty to seventy percent of the good cheer in San Cimarron, and probably of the weight on the stairs too. It rattled all the way up the mezzanine, through the frame of the couch, and right into my skull. Holy fuck, there was no way I was sleeping now.

As the banging and the conversation got louder, I felt around for nearby stuff. The spear... no, they weren't being that loud. Trashcan, I picked up and tucked next to me. When the thundering hoofsteps reached their crescendo, I finally found something suitable.

"... and can you imagine me - Big McHugeLarge - trying to hide behind this middle-aged desk jo-ow!" The noise stopped.

"Is... that a toy raygun?" I heard from Tube Alloys' brogue.

"Did we wake you up, Atom?" Rainbow called. Of course he was up bright and early, the active-lifestyle fuck. He even looked like he'd just washed.

"No, Trickle-Down did that like five minutes ago."

"Trickle-Down?" Gadget whispered.

"She's a bit slow with names."

I chucked the pack of batteries at them. "I heard that."

Some surprisingly light steps approached, and the batteries and the toy gun dropped with the rest of my stuff. I looked up, and Rainbow stood there, smiling gently and silhouetted by the lights. "Shall we get some breakfast? If we were back at the base I'd just let you sleep but this is kinda the main thoroughfare of the place. You don't really want to be sleeping in a hallway, do you?"

With a mumbling groan, I turned over to bury my face in the couch again. He was right. I knew he was right. But I'll be damned if I wasn't going down without a fight.

"You haven't tried this food, have you?" He was leaning closer now. "It's all fresh."

I squinted, though he couldn't see it. I turned back over. "What?"

He nodded. "C'mon. Let's get some food in you and clean you up, and then we'll get the tour."

I reluctantly shuffled myself off the couch and into autopilot. My first instinct was to gather my stuff and saddle up, but Rainbow nudged me along before I could get started.

I couldn't tell you where the kitchen was. I was following voices with my eyes closed most of the way. I remember being sat at a table, and suddenly having a nose full of the cooking smell. Y'know, the smell where something really tasty is on the heat nearby, and the aroma finds its way into everywhere. "Good, eh?" Rainbow nudged me. I hadn't noticed I was leaning towards the direction I thought it was coming from. "I could probably go for another bowl myself, actually."

"Two bowls, you say?" Over a nearby counter was a utilitarian kitchen, where Gadget ladled something from a big pot into some bowls. Brushed steel and bakelite surfaces made shiny by years of careful cleaning. The table I was at was a simple metal one, and I sat on a simple metal chair. The seating area had some stains on the floor that hadn't been entirely wiped away. I could see this place moonlighting as a laboratory - or at least they treated it like one. I was surprised we weren't going to be served in beakers.

Gadget was no Crumble. There were no deft feats of lifting bowls to the table on his wings or something. No, the boring old fart had a tray. Mind you, even if he was capable of plate-spinning, he might not be able for it, with the amount of bandages on his leg. Two bowls slid on to the table, and he sat across from us. What is it with people and watching me eat? "You're in luck today, Atom," he said. The soup didn't look like much, bits of leek and carrot and stuff bobbing in the broth, but it smelled heavenly. "This is your mother's recipe."

I got almost close enough to burn my tongue on it before the logical mind caught up. "Wait a second, Mum made this? I thought the Stable was all paste dispensers."

Gadget made that 'yeah I guess' face. "Well. I got it from her. It was her family's, she never used it. She had a big book that was all hoof-written recipes and photographs and scrapbooking. Priceless family heirloom."

"Is this the part where you tell us that you left it in the Stable for me to throw out?"

He chuckled. "My life isn't a complete tragedy, Atom. It's in my room." Rainbow was busy slurping down his seconds. Hungry boy. I took my first sip. Flavours I didn't know existed exploded on my tongue. It was like everything I'd been eating until now had been with cling film on my tongue. That made him smile like he hadn't smiled in years. "She... she was the only pony I told about my work. When I told her, she shared the book with me, and said that when I get around to it, I'll need something to do with it all."

"So... you're making food in here?"

"It's more than that, my dear." Being called that felt kinda weird. "But later. I can tell you got my night owl habits. You're not going to be really awake for another hour at least."

I pulled a face, and ate some more. Well, he's got my number. A few mouthfuls later, a thought occurred while I let the soup sit in my mouth for a moment. "What was she like?"

"Hm?"

"Mum. She died when I was really little, didn't she? I don't even have repressed memories."

Gadget sighed, and stared into space. "Where do I even start with Home Guard..."

"That was her name? Home Guard?"

He nodded. "She was part of Stable security. No nonsense."

"Well clearly we can't be related, because I'm all nonsense."

Rainbow swallowed half a potato. "'No-nonsense' isn't the first thing I'd use to describe Mum."

"When I first arrived in the Stable, she was the only one who'd talk to me. Everyone else was scared of the outsider."

"Have you seen your hair?"

He snorted. "Now imagine it after weeks of travelling. I... I mean, it sounds funny, but for a moment it was really tense. I was about to be turned away, but for her."

"Oh, you mean literally the first five minutes of entering the Stable?"

"Well. Yes and no. Everyone kept me at arm's length for a while. But she... she was willing to give me a chance. Even go the extra mile to protect me."

"And two kids later..." I got a round of chuckles.

"Well, it was more complicated than that, but basically yeah. I tried to offer my skills as a physician, but even with Home Guard vouching for me, they didn't trust me enough for that. So they put me to work in maintenance."

I glared into my soup. "Y'know, some things are starting to make sense."

"Like what?"

"Like how nobody gave me the time of day in the Stable. You'd think even with the pair of you sodding off there'd be some grandparents or a family friend to look after me, but no. Everyone treated me like the unwanted puppy they couldn't get rid of."

Gadget sighed. "Home Guard's family... didn't particularly approve of her consorting with me. They tolerated us while she was alive, but we did get more isolated after she died. If it weren't so dangerous up here, I'd have moved us all out of that place."

"Any semblance of remorse that I may have felt for blowing up the loos has just been crushed. Guilt-free, woo."

Both of them boggled at me. "You did what?"

"Oh, it was just some cherry bombs for a prank. It was structurally sound, but the plumbing was in tatters, so they had to make the boys' room unisex. Maybe if they hadn't alienated their repair guy they'd still have two sets of working bogs."

Rainbow snickered. Gadget rubbed his temple. "You definitely are your mother's daughter."

I squinted. "Really? Vandalism doesn't strike me as the kind of thing to expect from a rent-a-cop."

He rubbed his eyes, but he was still smirking. "Until Rainbow came along she was constantly one step away from losing her badge. Unfailingly compassionate, but... decidedly mischievous. Constant thorn in the side of the security higher-ups."

"Does that mean that if and when I poop out a baby I'm gonna become like him?" I thrust a hoof in Rainbow's direction, and it smooshed his cheek, causing him to splutter his soup.

"Not necessarily. Aside from the way that personality traits are probably more nurture than nature, having a child is just the kind of thing that tends to inspire a protective streak." I glared over my glasses at him. He shrank in his chair.

"Maybe it's just for the mother."

"How about!" Rainbow banged his bowl on the table after drinking the ends of it like it was a giant cup. "How about we start on that tour you were talking about? I'm dying to hear about this Manehattan Project business."

"What about the rest of my sou-" And I was yanked away. Well, I guess I'd been talking so much that the half that was still there was getting cold.

Gadget was happy for the distraction, and started walking towards the atrium. Or, I think that was where he was going, these twisting hallways and access corridors had my sense of navigation all screwed up. It's like it was just similar enough to the Stable that I was trying to follow my mental map of the Stable, even though it made no sense. "Now, where to start... the Manehattan Project. Should I..." he muttered some musings to himself. "Let's start from the beginning." Yeah, no shit. "It all started with the work that got me exiled from the Enclave."

I rolled my eyes. "Oh boy, storytime." Rainbow gave me a dig in the side.

"At the time I was an engineer in cloud seeding. I started..."

"Cloud what?" Rainbow looked as confused as I was.

Gadget chuckled. "Of course. Cloud seeding is the process the Enclave use to grow food in the clouds. A bit of magic, a bit of hydroponic technique... the results are a little bland, but it keeps the troops fed. Anyway. I saw a lot of the ground in my line of work, managing and preparing cloud banks for seeding. Intensive yields had a habit of eating through the clouds, which was a problem for keeping those banks productive. But the thing is, I kept seeing agriculture on the surface below. If you're at all familiar with the way the Enclave works, they have a bit of a... dogma about the surface. The party line is that it's too toxic and turbulent to resettle. That wasn't what I saw."

I made a conspicuous thinking face. Rainbow gave me another dig.

"It got me thinking about... cooperating. It felt wrong using all my expertise turning 65% yield efficiency into 66%, when I could see right below me some poor wretches starving while their crops die because they don't know about basic irrigation. One thing led to another, and... well, the Enclave decided that if I wanted to help the surface dwellers with their farming techniques so much, I could go join them and not come back."

"Blimey, you're just as much of a sentimental schmuck as captain rainbow pants here." Ow. If he kept doing that he was going to give me a bruise.

Gadget laughed. "For that, I am guilty as charged. I made it my business to do what I could to fix the wasteland. I lost my cutie marks for it, so I had nothing to lose." We entered not the atrium, but the room below it. It was the mirror image of it, like a big cavern with a flat concrete ceiling and descending spiral staircases around the sides, one of which he had started down. It may have been a silo at one point. There was a vaguely greasy feel to the air in here, and the pungent smells of mechanical fumes were thick. In the centre of the room was this column of... science things. All tubes and wires and stuff. I quickly looked for jets and rockets, but alas, it was not a Little-Boy-esque robot. Sam and Tube Alloys were working on something about halfway down with some open panels, some welding, and a lot of oil. Sam used his mouth grabber-y thing to doff his stupid little hat at us.

"I quickly found, as you may be aware, significant problems with wasteland agriculture. Balefire fallout, groundwater contamination, non-existent nutrient cycling, dead soil cultures... I'd need more than some best practices to get Equestria fed. And then - in a stroke of marvellous luck - I got a lead."

I snorted. "Knowing your luck, it's probably a bust, but go on." This time I dodged Rainbow's swing at me.

"You've met Trinity, haven't you?" We murmured and nodded. "I met her in a place called Tenpony Tower, in Manehattan. The place is an old hub for the Ministry of Arcane Sciences, and there are all kinds of wonders hidden there. But not for the average wastelander. These days it's a gated community. All snooty upper-crusts and the kind of ponies who act like the mild squalor they live in is any better than the abject squalor in the other Manehattan towns. All the fun stuff is kept under lock and key and never mentioned, but luckily for me, I had an in."

"My dear father!" I exclaimed and scoffed, clearly scandalised, and not at all mocking. "Do you mean to tell me that you were a scoundrel?"

"Don't think you got it all from your mother." He shot me a smirk. "Trinity gave up a lot to help me. She wasn't just a citizen of Tenpony, which is tough enough by itself, she was in the top secret society that runs the place. It's how she had access to the plans. Now she's as exiled from Tenpony as I am from the Enclave. How I convinced her that it was a good idea, I have yet to remember."

“Pretty ineffectual secret society if she’s been wandering around here for the last third of a century.”

"Plans for what?" Rainbow, always with the comments that are actually pertinent.

Gadget's smile grew wide, and he looked up at the tower of science in the middle of the room. "There were a lot of megaspells in development towards the end of the war. Someone in the Ministry was working on one as a contingency for the worst case scenario, one that would purge all the fallout and contaminants from the land. We only got the preparatory notes, but they were one hell of a blueprint. We came here, to the old Los Arabos labs, where the soils are some of the least contaminated in Equestria - even if they are the driest - to start work on our own version. One day, this megaspell might be able to clear all Equestria of radiation, taint, you name it. It's hope that we can rebuild Equestria. This is the Manehattan Project."

I let him have a moment of reverie. Just a moment, though. "It doesn't look like much."

"Well, we're... we're not exactly working with the industrial infrastructure of wartime Equestria here."

I paused again. "When's it gonna be done?"

He sighed and rubbed his forehead. "Look, I'd be lying if I told you the development was going well. You may have noticed the detour to a Stable on the other side of Equestria."

"Slightly."

"I'm sure your Ranger friends..." Gadget looked at Rainbow with a flash of venom that I wasn't expecting. "... have told you how much they'd like to crack Los Arabos open and suck out the juicy insides. The Enclave are no different. The..." He sighed again. "You two wouldn't even be here if it weren't for the day, thirty-five years ago, when both of them found it at the same time."

"So you abandoned the facility?" Rainbow said.

"The Rangers would have hoarded it. The Enclave would have destroyed it, and were out for my blood anyway. We had to make it seem like there was nothing left of the facility, and we put work on ice and went into hiding. A lot of the work went back to square one."

"Well you certainly went to some lengths to keep it hidden, the Rangers are still guessing. Most of the locals think the place is a ghost story."

"Let's hope it stays that way, hmm?" He shot Rainbow an icy stare, and Rainbow gulped. "The setup on the return was rough. There were five of us on the original project, six if you count Find-It, he was built down here. At first, only three of us came back. Oak Ridge was a local boy, one of the few ponies who knew the way into the facility. Instrumental in getting the place in working order, and in our getaway, but he never made it back. Tube Alloys ended up doing most of the restoration work. This would have slowed the project down, but for the fact that the other latecomer was me."

"Oh."

"Originally, we were supposed to reconvene after five years, at which time I was a little busy with an expecting wife."

Rainbow puffed his cheeks and winced. "Sorry about that."

"Really, I left it too late. If we'd left a couple of months earlier, you might have grown up here. But by the time I was ready to go, Home Guard was in no state to travel, and we weren't going to brave the wasteland with an infant. So we stayed. And then you," Gadget looked at me, "delayed us more. And then she died, and I wasn't going anywhere until you could take care of yourselves, and well... you know the rest." I opened my mouth to raise the fifteenth objection this morning.

"What yer paw is trying to say is that he left the three of us sitting on our arses for a couple of decades while he kept a roof over ye wee scunners' heads!" Tube Alloys called from a level below. Was this supposed to make me feel sorry for the old bastard? Whoopee, he wasn't going off to murder puppies or something when he abandoned me.

"And now, we're down to three again, now that we've lost Fizzle."

"What am I, steel shavings?" Sam yelled.

The resulting wave of muted snorts and chuckles all around at least got Gadget to smile, a little. "Okay, four. We've got a lot to figure out still. This is all a lot to process."

"No kidding," Rainbow muttered.

"I just... I hope that from what I've told you, you'll at least understand what I did. I don't know if you'll ever forgive me, particularly you, Atom. But maybe now you can see why."

Rainbow nodded a little to himself, but then noticed me staring up at the machinery. He looked at me, and then looked at the floor. My head buzzed with the twists and turns of the story. Part of me was looking for the nearest loose pipe to bash the miserable old prick’s head in with. Another part of me was actually impressed at the cause he'd managed to pull out of his hat. Maybe I really was as like Mum as Rainbow said, because I don't think I could be any less like this aging deserter hippie if I tried. She was probably this no-bullshit northern lass with an affinity for collecting pointless amusing nonsense. But then if she was this angel of compassion as well, then that would explain why I was sitting here frowning at the centrepiece of the Manehattan Project, instead of decorating it with his teeth.

He left me and my non-answer be. "It's probably a lot for you to think about too. I'll... I have work to get on with. You two are free to wander around as long as you don't touch anything."

Rainbow stepped almost between me and him. Subtly. Enough that I felt it, but the oblivious old coot didn't seem to. "Yeah, I think we'll go and sit on this for a bit. We'll catch you later, Dad." Being called that made Gadget crack a smile, that slowly slid off again the longer he looked at me, so he turned and carried on down the rest of the stairs before he lost it completely.

Once he was out of sight, Rainbow hugged me. He was trying his best to be gentle about it, bless him, but the lad's got to be pushing twice my weight. "How about we get some more soup, eh? You look like you're not done waking up yet."

"I think I hate him."

"What?"

"I think he's right, I'm not sure I can forgive him." My breathing quickened. I think I started to shake. "I mean, yeah, he's off trying to save the wasteland or whatever but at the end of the day he buggered off to go crawl into a hole in the desert and tinker with some stupid pile of metal crap!" I yelled, and kicked the nearest part of the machine to me, and a metal panel popped off with a clang that echoed around the cavern.

"Hey hey!" More clangs followed. Deep and heavy ones. Sam stormed up one of the staircases. "D'you mind not kicking this thing?"

Rainbow pulled me into his front until I stopped shaking. "Uhh..."

"So that's how the reunion's going."

Rainbow nodded and grimaced. "I think we're gonna go get something to eat."

"Do you mind if I..."

I frowned, and dug myself out of Rainbow's jacket. "How are you going to eat soup?"

"Look, can we just go?" he whispered. I keep meaning to applaud Tubey (does he mind if I call him Tubey?) on his voicebox work. Though knowing this place he might have just stolen it.

"Alright. Come on,” Rainbow said. I breathed deep a few times, before falling into convoy back up the stairs.

Bang Bang

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The walk back to the canteen took the edge off my latest tantrum. It was like I was fighting for control of my reactions with a dormant after-image of my tweenaged self who was super-resentful about being abandoned. When I'd calmed down and Rainbow was off ladling out some more soup, I watched him and pondered. All things being equal, I should be shitting myself inside out after every conversation I have with Rainbow, like I am with Gadget, but... I'm not. I hate to say it, but I've actually grown rather fond of the cheery bugger. He might be a complete doofus, but when it really counts, he's been there for me. He at least knows that he hurt me, and feels bad about it. More than I can say for the bargain-basement Starswirl downstairs. I was really struggling to force my brain around the logic of the Manehattan Project without tensing up the foreleg resting on the table so much that my knuckle cracked.

"You doing okay sport?"

"What?" Sam broke my train of increasingly maddening thought. I became quite aware of how scrunched my forehead was, and the salt shaker I'd knocked over by shaking the table.

"I've seen bear traps less ready to snap than you."

I took a breath. "I'm fine. I'm calm."

"You are not fine, Atom," Rainbow called, a bowl of soup balanced on each wing. He slid both of them to the table, one towards me with a little bit of spillage. A strong whiff of the savoury scent at least got me to the point where I wasn't hearing my blood pressure. "Any longer down there and I feel like you might have done something you'd regret."

I huffed. "Regret. There's a funny word."

"Shhhh. Eat first."

I glared at him, but he was probably right. He had that face on him that made it really difficult to stay angry. I supped the soup and tried not to think.

"So, Sam," Rainbow said. "Things going well with Tube Alloys?" His grimace told me that he knew the answer already.

"It's... a little weird. You know I didn't really have a childhood, right?"

"Oh yeah..." That got the same distant gaze from me and Rainbow.

"I just woke up on the table one day all like, hey, check me out, I'm the talking toaster. But I do remember being less..." Sam paused, scratching the vents on his chin. "The last time I was here, I was definitely less curious. More suggestible."

I swallowed a mouthful of soup. "Lemme guess. You didn't exactly learn to swear down here."

Sam did the best squint he could with his articulated eyebrow-blocks. "Swear? Have you heard the mouth on that guy?" And there was soup in my nose. "But you're on the right track. I might have been made in Los Arabos, but Isotope City was where I learned how to live. I'm not sure Tubes realises what he did with me. Without getting into the philosophical bullshit, I... I feel. Or at least, I think I feel. Sure feels like I feel. But he's still treating me like a datebook with a wrench."

"I think..." Rainbow looked at me, and I looked at him. I think we both had the same thought. "I think it'll just take some time for him to come around. He hasn't seen you for a long time. He's still thinking of you as... what was it, Find-It?"

"Yeah, rainbow farts over here got into a big wobbly over me not being a dependent helpless filly the other day, and that was basically the same thing."

"Atom!" Rainbow chuckled.

"What?"

Sam had a little chuckle to himself, but one that ended with a defeated sigh. "He probably didn't consider you a non-person at any point though, did he?"

"I guess."

"Kinda funny how the paranoid maniacs living in a baseball stadium treat me with more dignity than the guy claiming to be my dad. There's being talked down to like I'm a shifty-lookin' charity case, and there's being talked down to like I'm a fuckin' voice-activated dishwasher." Rainbow gave him that sad smile, the same one he gave me when he was first telling me about Gadget leaving. "Maybe he will really get to know me one of these days. For now, I'm... I'm glad at least someone down here gets my name right."

I had a little twist in my stomach at that point. The realisation hit me that this little incursion was unlikely to end well. One of these things had to happen. One or more of us around this table was going to leave, or at least try to. Given how arduous the journey is, I couldn't see Rainbow staying down here, even if he went out and brought Ivy here. She'd want to stay in contact with the rest of her family, and that probably wouldn't sit well with these secretive plonkers. I was definitely out of here at the next possible opportunity. Also debatable how likely Sam was to stay. I hadn't excluded the possibility that they'd try to kill us for leaving, depends how set on secrecy they were. Mind you, they had a good reason to worry about me, a few drinks and I might send a tipoff out of spite.

The alternative was that we stay down here for the forseeable future, which was probably going to end with me bashing Gadget's head in with a lead pipe. Smarmy cunt.

Rainbow patted Sam on the back. "We'll figure it out. We just got here."

"If you say so." Sam paused. I chewed some lumps of potato. Rainbow nodded, silently. Sam got up. "Now, I'm kinda reaching the limit of how much I can stall, so I should probably get back to work." I waved, and Rainbow muttered some kind of farewell, as Sam shuffled out of the kitchen, leaving us and our soup in the quiet.

My chewing slowed, and I stared into the soup. The situation weighed on me, and I was starting to find it difficult to eat. I budged my chair closer to Rainbow, and leaned into his side. He leaned back into me, but fortunately not in the way that would lead to me being flattened.

"Where is it that we belong?" I blurted out, staring at nothing in particular.

There was a pensive pause from him. "What do you mean?"

"Like, if I'm to go home after this, where am I going? Where are you going?"

"Well... whatever I do, I'd have to talk to Ivy. Because I'm going nowhere without her, and she's going nowhere without me."

"Yeah but like, home for her is San Cimarron. Whatever happens, that's where she's going to want to be. I... don't know. I don't have any special attachment to Stable 512. I can't say I particularly cared about anyone I knew in Manechester. Los Arabos, Roswhinny... all of these places, I feel like I'm just passing through."

"Yeah, I... I get that feeling. I've been here for ten years and it still feels like I'm on a road trip with my wife sometimes. I wonder if that's how she feels too. Hell, her mum's home moves around, and half the Rangers give her shit for being half 'tribal'. I wouldn't be surprised if she asks herself this question sometimes."

"And Sam. I'm pretty sure he didn't plan to be working in Isotope City all these years, and now 'home' isn't all it's cracked up to be."

"If I were to be reductive, I could make the case that we belong in the clouds, but it's pretty clear the clouds don't want us."

"The clouds can piss off. All they've got is rain and laser death beams."

Rainbow broke into a giggle. "So we'll put that in the 'maybe' pile then?"

We passed the rest of the day quietly, staying out of everyone else's way. I found out where Rainbow had gotten washed, and indulged in the delights of some sweet, sweet indoor plumbing. I'm pretty sure that before I went in, my mane was holding a shape from all the dust caked into it while we were walking around in the storm. I took the opportunity to stand under hot running water and not think. Afterwards, I went back to the couch in the atrium to sleep for a bit. (What's a schedule?) Rainbow stayed with me reading whatever was lying around - ancient magazines that hadn't been cleared out, Trinity's notes left around the place, that sort of thing. Eventually he left me in peace when it became apparent that I wasn't muttering murderous intentions in my sleep.

When I woke up I was really confused about the time. The lights were still in daytime mode. The shitbuck was dead. I decided to get that in order first, and changed the spark cells for two of the batteries. Not that this was much help, because the clock had reset. While I was at it, I changed the battery in my spear, and since there were only three left, I took them out and discarded the box. I started tidying my shit. It had been scattered around the couch overnight, so I packed it all into my bags. I went rooting around for some duct tape, and true to the workplace of an engineer, it didn't take me long to find some. With it, I fashioned a sling for the spear. Until now it had been tucked between my saddlebags and my back. I wasted the whole roll doing it, but I did it. I wondered if Jericho was already making himself a new spear. Poor guy. I shot down his call-response and I took his toy. I should catch up with him later, this thing's already saved my arse.

It was around the time that I was looking for survival supplies to steal so I could bail that I got intercepted by Tube Alloys.

"There y'are lassie! C'mon. We've been looking for you."

I lazily closed the pantry. "Oh boy. What did I do."

"There's whisky involved."

"Where."

Tubey limped to a meeting room that had been repurposed as a lounge. Some nicer furniture had been plundered from the offices of long-dead executives to decorate the larger room, along with some of the waiting room couches. We had a full house - Trinity stood to one side with a clipboard, apparently filling up the wait with some more work, Sam had fixed the gas fire by the wall just before I walked in, and was stamping on his hat to put out the lick of flame that had caught on it, Rainbow and Gadget talked on one of the couches... and they sent the dude with a walking stick out to fetch me? Guys, come on.

Tube coughed. "I believe we're all here?" The fact that our visit doubled the population of the lab was kind of sad.

"Ah, yes!" Gadget stood up with a wince. My urge to kick him in the face had gone down since this morning, but I still couldn't say I was happy to be in the room with him. "Please, Atom, have a seat." I took another look around the room, and decided to have his seat. It was warm and I was next to Rainbow. He understood.

I leaned in. "What's all this about?" He shrugged.

"My friends," Gadget started, standing by the fire. "We're here this bittersweet evening, both to celebrate, and commemorate. The last twenty-four hours have seen both the arrival of our long lost offspring..." He cast a glance at us. I was pouting like a teenager who didn't want to be here, and I imagine if Sam could frown, he would be. "... and the tragic passing of our long-time friend and colleague Fizzle. On our lives, a door is closed, and hopefully, another opened. So, tonight I'd like to toast the memory of our dear friend, and raise a glass to a brighter future. After all, that's... that's why we're here. Alloys, if you'd be so kind..."

I leaned over to Rainbow again. "Oh, are they doing a wake?"

"I guess."

"Good, I could use a drink." Rainbow gave me a look like he'd appreciate one too.

Tube Alloys came back with a huge bottle floating ahead of him, along with a stack of glasses and... was that ice? Where did he find ice? "One of the special occasion bottles, Gadge." Did they have these giant bottles of scotch stockpiled down here? Come to think of it, they might be homebrewing as well, if they're producing food. Mr. Tuber (I cannot say his name with a straight face) set about pouring out glasses and passing them around. Just gave me a literal half-pint of scotch. I mean, if you say so... I'm starting to figure out why the Manehattan Project isn't going so well.

"To Fizzle!" Gadget raised his glass. There was a half-hearted raising around the room. I didn't bother, because I was trying not to spill the whisky. "And the future!" He drank, and this gesture was echoed heartily. I winced as my throat burned. Maybe I took too hearty a swig. I was going to ask if they had any rum, but I wasn't about to be picky with helpings this generous.

"Iff'n you wouldn't mind, I'd like to say a couple of words, Gadget me man?" I think Tube Alloys' glass had been depleted even more than mine from that first sip. Gadget bowed, and stood aside. "Fizzle was... he was like a hyperactive nephew to me. I think he was actually a year older than me but Celestia on a bike, he was always on the go. We did a fair load of work together, and... well you know how it all went. I'd be trying to get him to slow down, follow the method, me leg can't keep up..." He made a show of limping about on his bum leg. "But somehow he made it work. I'd fuck off to bed and he'd have the stamina to work through the night and whatever mixture, whatever process, it'd be waiting for me in the morning. Along with him tuckered out on top of an irreplaceable machine, but yknow, the price of progress. If any of us were gonna burn out first it would be this intense motherfucker. So rest in peace, you non-stop bastard."

There was some uncertain applause, mostly because I'm not sure Trinity and Gadget knew how to react, but were being polite. "Trinity, would you like to say anything?"

"Oh, uhm..." She at least had the clipboard set to one side. "Okay, I'll..." She cleared her throat, took a ginger sip of the drink that had been given to her, set it aside, and then climbed to the front of the room. Tube Alloys found himself an armchair and got comfortable next to the bottle. "Fizzle's knowledge of contaminated soil composition was invaluable to the project. I hate to be so... direct, but I can't, I can't understate that. His particular expertise has formed a cornerstone of the project's work, as much as any of our contributions. But where it's easy to credit Gadget as the director, or me as the architect, or Alloys as the builder, or Oak Ridge as the facilities director, Fizzle's contribution was purely knowledge, but essential knowledge. We, as scientists, see further because we stand on the shoulders of giants, and today, Fizzle's are the shoulders we stand on." She paused and nodded awkwardly, prompting the golf clap from around the room. I heard a sniffle, and I thought it was her as she went back to her seat, but no, it was Rainbow getting all misty-eyed next to me. Oh for the love of...

"Thank you, Trinity," Gadget said. He took a breath in, and another drink. He was drinking as fast as I was, damn. "So, I want to say a few things too. On the topic of scientists... we are all lucky in our upbringings, that we had the opportunity to pursue a life of learning. I in the Enclave, Trinity in Tenpony, Alloys in the Stable." So we're spectators then? I guess we don't count because we're not scientists. "Fizzle wasn't so lucky. Fizzle was born a slave, and worked in the reclaimed industries of Fillydelphia. It was his own dedication to curiosity and the fortunate sympathy of his masters that got him elevated to the pseudo-freedom of working in their research teams, trying to revitalise their polluted soils." Slavers have research teams? "But he didn't stay there. I never had to convince him to leave. He left of his own conscience, to better Equestria for its own sake, not for the sake of slave-owning warlords. We just ran into him at the right time. But it's in this that he teaches us an... important lesson." He coughed, and drank again. "We have tasked ourselves with an altruistic mission. We consider ourselves to be doing good. Just like improving soils in Fillydelphia is without a doubt a good thing to do. But it does not excuse the practice of slavery - something which Fizzle knew, which is why he got out of there. Nor should our good work excuse us of our mistakes."

Then he looked at me, suddenly sombre. Not at the general direction of the couch, he looked right at my face. His gaze lingered on me long enough for me to notice, but not so long that the room's attention would turn to me. "He also wanted to return to Fillydelphia some day, to come back for those that he left behind. Unfortunately, that will never come to pass now, but we can learn from him. His life teaches us to be our better selves, and that when we can't live up to that, we have a responsibility to make it right." He cast another quick glance at me, and then raised his glass to the room. "Thank you."

Again, there was mild applause. Only so much noise six ponies can make in a room. I took another drink and swilled it for a bit to slow my thoughts. Why is it that whenever this man tries to reach out to me my brain twists itself in knots and ceases to function? Maybe if I keep drinking things will become clearer.

The generous glass was a big help with this quest. After the speeches, everyone started up conversations. Rainbow checked if I was okay and then leaned over to talk science things with Trinity, and Tube Alloys hobbled over to me to talk about whisky. I got a vague creepy-old-man vibe from him, because he probably hasn't seen a 21-year-old mare in decades, but right now, any conversation was good conversation, and booze was a fine enough topic to drink to.

Pretty soon, the room had devolved into that kind of loudness where two conversations are happening at once and you have to shout to be heard. A record player turned up at some point to smooth out the quiet parts. Tube Alloys regularly returned to his jumbo bottle of 230-year-old scotch to pour out eight glasses and pass them around, ensuring the shindig was well-lubricated at all times. Drinks and conversation blurred together. Sam slipped out at some point while me, Rainbow and the Tubeman talked about what it would take to make a satellite out of the main body of the project by strapping rockets on to the bottom of it. Rainbow diverted the topic there as a cover for me nearly spilling the beans about the Little Boy. A song came on the record that Rainbow recognised, and then he started singing along, spilling a load of his drink on me as he started swaying around. I punched his side, he laughed, and he threw a hoof a round me and kept singing. Knowing I was defeated, I chugged the rest of my drink and sang along too.

At some point, I turned around and Trinity had left. She didn't seem like the type to get trashed anyway, so I took her half-finished drink. I threw myself on a couch with two drinks (my shirt now had whisky fragrance) and found myself sitting face to face with Gadget. Rainbow was off sweeping up a broken glass and fixing crooked paintings and shit. The boy tidies when he's sloshed. Imagine that.

"Oh," Gadget said. I'd probably smell the whisky off him if I wasn't already habituated to the smell from the amount of it that was on me. At this point I was buzzed enough that I was swigging without even feeling the burn.

"Hey you." I grimaced.

"How." He had to pause for a moment. Wind, I imagined. "How are you, Atom."

"Y'know, punching you in the face was really therapeutic." I didn't mean to say that, but there it is.

"Was it now?" He seemed... genuinely intrigued.

"Yeah," I said after a moment.

He swayed. "Would it help if you did it again?"

"What?"

"Am I slurring? I'm so sorry, I'm trying my best..."

"No, I heard you, you daft bat, I'm trying to compre... comprehend what you said." I scratched my eyebrow for a moment. "Did you just offer to let me punch you again?"

"Look, I know I did a shit thing..." He leaned over me, uncomfortably. "And if I can't tell you how sorry I am because I suck at words then you might as well wail on me until you feel better, right?"

This was an objectively bad idea. "Yeah okay. Go on."

He sat forward on the couch, and mercifully away from me. "Hang on, let me put down my... put down my... my..." He put down his drink, and then stretched both hooves out to the sides. "Okay. Come at me."

I took a sip of my drink, and then realised I'd have to put both drinks down to do this. I got one on the floor, and realised I was tipping the other on my leg so I sat up. Boy, I was starting to get a little queasy. Then I noticed something. "Hang on, your glasses."

"What about my glasses?"

"You gonna take those off? Or do you want me to break those too?"

"It's fine. They'll be fine."

"They will not be fine, how are you gonna replace those? Is Trimblblnbf-whatever-the-fuck an optician too?"

"Are you gonna do it or not?"

"Whatcha dooooin?" Rainbow appeared over the back of the couch, peeking over his hooves like a puppy.

"Da...dget wants me to punch him."

"What?"

"That's not what I said!"

"She fuckin' lamped you proper last time, you sure you want her to do it again?"

Gadget's head tilted back and his hooves dropped. "Why did I bring this up..."

I put my other drink down at last. "Okay. I'm doing it. I'm doing it." I reared back, leaned back, and then swung-

"Atom your drink!" Rainbow yelled. Already in motion, I tried looking his way, my hoof met empty air, and I fell over on Gadget's lap. I scrambled back upright, and Rainbow giggled to himself. "Good job, ya lush!"

"Lush? Fucking come back you!" He ran away, and I jumped over the back of the couch to chase him.

"Rainbow, be nice to your sister," I think I heard him mumble as I was on my way out of the room, before presumably toppling on the couch and passing out.

It didn't take me long to catch up to him, because he lost the run of his back half going around the corner of a corridor and knocked himself over by the wall. I pounced on him and... just kinda hung out of his neck while he stood up. Here was me trying to pull out of him like a scratching cat and having basically no effect. He found this hilarious.

Once we were out of breath for different reasons, I stopped trying to destroy him, and he stopped treating it like a rodeo. "Rainbow, I think... I think it might be time to go to bed."

"Yeah, probably."

I got comfortable, and he didn't complain. He was well able for it at the best of times, and he probably didn't even feel my weight now. "Take me home, steed."

"Hang on, I'll ask directions to the waste disposal..." I hit him on the side of the head. "Ow!"

"Telling your sister she belongs in the trash. How very dare you."

"Ooh, that was a real wallop..."

"Oh. Sorry." I slumped over him, and rubbed where I'd hit him. "Is that helping?"

"Not really." I stopped. "Bet you woulda knocked one of Dad's teeth out, though."

"Yeah?"

"I mean, if you could hit him at all."

"Don't make me hit you again!"

"You'd have to not miss first." I kicked him in the side, not as hard this time. "Okay, I deserved that one," he said, kinda winded.


I woke up feeling like there was a blob of lava in my head that I couldn't get out. The overall situation wasn't as bad waking up after the adventures with the star juice or whatever, like, I wasn't waking up in my own vomit or bleeding or anything, but fuck me, the headache was the worst I've had all week. Maybe I'd be in better shape if I had drank enough to barf last night. The only light in the room was the lights from the hall through the door, and even that was a strain on my eyes.

The door pounded a couple of times. Just amputate my head now, please. "Gerrup, ye reprobates!"

Rainbow made a noise like a zombie. I hadn't realised he was sleeping on the floor nearby.

"What-" At least that's what I tried to say, it was more like a gargle. I cleared my throat. Everything seemed to affect the headache. "What the fuck do you want?"

"We're about to take the breakfast off the heat."

"Oh, bollocks." I rubbed my face and rolled off the couch.

"Mistakes were made..." groaned Rainbow.

Opening the door was going to be painful no matter what, so like ripping off a plaster, we got it over with. I tried my goggles. They didn't help. Rainbow just hid behind his fringe.

Gadget passed us on the way to the kitchen. "Morning, kids!" Who gave him the right to be this chipper this early? Was he not hung over at all? I gave him a solid thump in the chest as we passed. Rainbow didn't stop me. He went down winded, and then fell on his side, probably more from the surprise than the actual impact of my lazy throw of a hoof. I got him in the end.

We ate wordlessly, stuffing lukewarm oatmeal and coffee into our faces until we felt a little less undead. In a sounder state of mind, I might have been marvelling at the fact that they even had coffee down here. Do you know how specific the growing conditions for coffee are? I've never had coffee topside that wasn't preserved pre-war stuff. They must have had access to a seed bank too. But no, here I was taking a miracle of agricultural science and detoxification technology and pouring it into my face with a certain 'work, damn you' frustration. Large glasses of water appeared on the table with a sheet of painkillers. Dunno who put them there, but someone understood.

I hadn't noticed that I'd fallen asleep again on the table. I got a nudge in the side and noticed my nose being crushed. "What?"

"Your work schedule for the day, Atom." Trinity slid a clipboard in front of me.

"Work schedule?" I looked at it like I'd been served a turd sandwich. Rainbow was looking at a similar clipboard with a pout.

"If you two are going to be staying down here for any length of time we'll need to produce more food, which means we need to hook up some of the reserve hydroponics. Normally that'd be my domain, but I've got a scale test today and you two seem intelligent enough."

"I'm sorry, my brain is on strike today. I cannot the science thing." I shoved the clipboard off the table like a cat.

Trinity looked over her glasses at me. "Well that's your fault, isn't it?" The clipboard floated back up to exactly where it had been. "Find-It is going to be helping you. It's not too hard, it's mostly connecting pipes and circuits in the basement."

"Ugh, fine. Do we have to do it now though?"

"Well, with how much you're eating..." Both of us looked at Rainbow. He looked clueless. "We'll have to begin rationing from this lunchtime to maintain our surplus ratio, so I suggest you get a move on."

Rainbow sighed. "Let's just get it done, Atom."

The basement was uncomfortably, stiflingly hot. Not a great place to be nursing a hangover. All noisy engines and shrieking pipes. At least when we got done, the upper levels would feel quiet. Sam met us at the entrance to hydroponics, and led us down. Rainbow did most of the heavy lifting and pushing, and I had to crawl into the small spaces to connect wires and tighten screws, while Sam operated the computer systems to bring it all online. I know there's a certain like, earning our keep here, but literally Trinity could have done it all with her cheater unicorn magic in a fraction of the time, by herself, without anyone getting covered in grease. It's just more efficient. 'Intelligent enough' to what, operate a screwdriver? I was gonna clock every fucker in this hole before long, and Gadget again for good measure.

Sam wasn't really up for much talking, which was fine. He kept the geeks upstairs posted about our progress over an intercom box by the wall. I think Rainbow and I wanted nothing to do with conversation. I was even grateful for the dark of the crawlspaces. Though, not so fun when I got stuck for twenty minutes because Rainbow pushed a thing in when he wasn't supposed to and they had to figure out how to back it up. Did I mention it was fuckin' hot and humid down there?

We started on the third big connector pipe, when there was a reverberating shudder through the floor. The whole place shook. The surprise made me drop the screwdriver down the grating. I heard something metal bend, and everyone got showered in dust.

"It wasn't me!" I immediately yelled.

Sam looked at the ceiling. "That doesn't sound like a plumbing fault..." He went to the intercom again. "Trinity, come in, what was that?" Silence. Three seconds of listening to dust settle, and Rainbow shake himself off. "Control room, anyone there?"

Rainbow frowned. "Maybe some comm lines are severed?"

"We'd be in the dark if they were."

A burst of static. Trinity sounded... well she wasn't calm, let's put it that way. "We've got a situation upstairs, execute Procedure Obsidian, I repeat execute Procedure Obsi-" With another puff of static, the transmission ended.

Sam bolted from his terminal and towards the exit. Rainbow pondered a brief moment, then followed. And what was I gonna do, sit around in a hot, dank tunnel and wait for them?

"Sam, what's Procedure Obsidian?"

"It's an emergency response code." Sam talking normally while sprinting at full tilt up a flight of stairs would never entirely sit right with me. "Procedure Wendover means there's problematic geological activity. Procedure Monticello means the reactor's overheating and the facility could blow. Procedure Alsos means the project is in danger of destroying itself."

"He didn't fuckin' ask about those, bolt-breath, what's Procedure Obsidian?"

Sam paused. "Facility under attack. Something tells me it's not a coincidence." He cast a look back at us. We couldn't read much into the look, but the tone said it all. "Sensible money is on escaping out the back, into the quarry, but that abandons the project. I'm rendezvousing with the rest of the team. You two can... do whatever I guess."

Rainbow snorted. "I've been trying to find Gadget for eleven years, the hell am I buggering off now!"

They looked at me, briefly, while stopping at a keycard door. I was a flight of steps behind them, out of breath and scrambling up after them. "My... my stuff is in the atrium." They shrugged, opened the door, and we stampeded on.

As we climbed the floors, there was the occasional thundering from the upper levels. Nothing quite as bad as before, but still not noises a science facility should be making. We ascended the curved stairway to the atrium, and there was a crunch as Sam hit the door. Bulletproof glass. Rainbow piled into the back of him, and I was far enough behind that I could stop in plenty of time and peer underneath them.

The atrium was a mess. I couldn't see past the mezzanine from the door, but I could see daylight pouring in, and rubble and dust strewn around the floor. This explains a few things. I could hear the engine of something roaring from somewhere above - I didn't know the atrium was that close to the surface. Half a dozen hulking, black, pointy-armoured ponies stood around, with glowing sunburst rifles primed and covering every way in. They ruffled their wings and swung their scorpion tails around, waiting for instruction. Bollocks. Enclave.

"Ah! There you are." I knew that voice... I started looking for other figures. One of the troopers had Trinity pinned under a hoof, and Tube Alloys pinned under a rifle. Gadget's fidgeting and flailing caught my attention, and behind that, a blonde-maned officer with a shit-eating grin. "Hold this for me, will you?" Colonel Valkyrie shoved Gadget at one of the troopers, who promptly shoved him to the ground.

"Sam, where are the locks?" Rainbow yelled, banging on the door.

"It's computerised, the panel's on the other side!"

"Can we jimmy it open?"

"Maybe, Atom, do you have the tools?"

"I dropped the screwdriver in the blast!"

"Fuck's sake I'll see what I can do. Give me whatever you have left."

"Don't worry, you can see fine from there, can't you?" Valkyrie smirked as she approached the door. Rainbow looked at her with all the fury that befits being dragged through this shit with a hangover.

"Leave them alone, I'm the one you want!" Gadget yelled.

"Quiet, you." She pointed a gun-thing at him. Rainbow threw himself at the door when she appeared to fire, but I could see from my vantage point that it was a taser. She spun it and returned it to her belt. She chuckled. "Nearly used the laser there, that would have been awkward. All the theatrics for nothing."

"Why are you here? How are you here?" Rainbow yelled. He pounded on the glass, but all he did was make his hooves sore.

"I must give you three some credit, you managed to give my scouts the slip for a while. The last they saw of you was in that camp in the foothills. Probably set the plans back about 24 hours. But what's a measly day, after thirty-five years?" The bottom fell out of my stomach. Were they watching us the whole time?

"But how did you find this place?"

"Oh, please. Did you really think we lost the coordinates to a location as important as this?" Rainbow grimaced. Valkyrie snorted. "You're kidding. You're kidding, right? Is that what the Rangers did?" Rainbow puffed his cheeks, and Valkyrie burst out laughing. "Can you believe this? The Steel Rangers forgot where the lab is! Oh, this is a scream!" She slid over to Gadget and hooked her hoof around his neck, pulling him up from the floor. "I knew the mudponies were clueless, but that clueless?" After another cackle, she tossed him back to the ground and thumped her front. "It's only lunchtime and today just gets better and better. No, I was waiting for the perfect moment. We'd have done this years ago if you hadn't rolled into town, and let me know about you, in the back. I see you there." She had to lean over to point at me.

"You met them?" Gadget burbled.

Rainbow had a brief moment of hyperventilation. "Dad, it wasn't..."

"Don't worry your scruffy little head about them, Gadget. You trained 'em well. Rainbow Code nearly shot me, and Atom Smasher stonewalled me. But tomato, tomato, we're on plan B here."

"What do you want with him?"

"Yeesh, if you're so eager to get on with the main event, we might as well. Pull up one of his buddies."

"Sam, how's the door coming?"

"I can't... I need more leverage, I'm gonna break this dinky little thing!"

One of the troopers grabbed Trinity, and dragged her into the middle of the Atrium, right on top of the seal. "All the top brass in the Enclave have washed their hooves of you, Gadget. They don't care what you do. But I remember what you did. What you put me through. The shame. The isolation. I should be a General by now. I should have a big brother directing the New Cloudsdale Academy of Science. We should have been the start of a new dynasty of power in the Grand Pegasus Enclave. Alas, here we are, wrestling in the dirt like children. But the command of this little podunk outpost suits my purposes for now. Gadget, I'm not going to kill you. Not yet."

"She wasn't bluffing..." I whispered.

"No... just take me!" he yelled. His mouth sounded numb. By now, Trinity was streaming tears and muttering to herself. Rainbow was starting to panic, and I had to back up a bit to not be stepped on.

"I'm going to take every piece of your life, everything you've worked for, and burn it. One by one, until the smoke kills you. Until there's nothing..." She pulled her pistol out - the one that wasn't a taser - put it to the back of Trinity's head, and fired, without hesitation. In a grim instant, her whole head lit up bright red, and then burst into glowing embers. The chain reaction continued down her body, leaving only charred tail strands and the cooked bones of her hind hooves. "... but ash."

"Trin... Trinity... no!" Gadget tried to get up, only to be slammed back to the floor by a Trooper, bloodying his nose.

"Next."

"Get your claws off me!" Tube Alloys yelled, before being tossed into the pile of ashes that used to be Trinity.

"Wh... no!" Sam spotted this, and panicked. He fumbled his work and dropped the lockpick he was trying to slide into the doorframe, and started ramming the door. It rattled loudly with each impact, but it held.

Tube refused to be face down when Valkyrie came for him, and he had to have a Trooper stand on his chest as he approached. He spat at her. It got on her lapel. "You're a petty wee hag. I hope you shit yourself to death, you fuckin' weapon."

"No!" Sam screamed.

"Okay, you obviously have nothing interesting to say, goodbye." And just like that, in the blink of an eye, there Tube Alloys wasn't.

The glass on the door cracked under Sam's battering. Rainbow had to get well out of the way. Then, the door opened. Sam kept his momentum up, and fell over. While he was scrambling to get back up and charge, Valkyrie twisted a canister, and... oh shit, I recognised that.

We stumbled into the Atrium after him. "Sam, wait!" He wasn't listening. The canister bounced underneath his feet, hit his stomach, flashed blue, and in a puff of anti-matrix energy, he was on the ground, sliding on his chin through the remains of Trinity and Tube Alloys, the lights in his eyes extinguished.

Rifles whined as they were trained on us. We staggered to a stop. Gadget sniffled. I could tell from his pained grimace that this is exactly the situation he was trying to avoid. In that moment I felt a trickle of guilt for giving him a hard time. But the more pertinent and overwhelming sensation was 'oh shit'.

"And then there were three. So, Gadget, what'll it be? Which one should I toast first?" Really? We're playing this game? Fuck. "Or should I trash your little science fair project first? Which one of your babies do you love the least?" He remained silent, even as he wept. Valkyrie tapped her chin. "You'd think this wouldn't come up, but evidently you thought so little of these two that you abandoned them to come back here. You're quite good at that, Gadget. Abandoning."

Think, Atom, think. I glanced at Rainbow. He looked at me, white-faced and hyperventilating. He was definitely out of ideas. Knowing him, he'd try to parley, but for that, Valkyrie would need to be reasonable, which, judging by the pile of scrap metal and two powdered scientists on the floor, was out of the question. Alternatively, he may brute-force the situation and try to go down swinging. A real last chance option, that one.

"Do hurry up and pick one, Gadget, I've got a four o'clock meeting with the quartermaster, he's going to be so cranky if I'm late." What have I got up my sleeve... fuck. All my stuff is upstairs on the mezzanine, I've just got this piece of shit knock-off Pipbuck...

Aha.

I sighed, sat and started tapping away on it. "So sorry it had to come to this, but here we are." All of the rifles in the room were then pointed at me.

Valkyrie tilted her head curiously. "Come to what?"

"I had been waiting to see if this exchange was going to end without having to set off the self-destruct systems, but we're clearly past that point, aren't we?"

She frowned. "Shoot her."

"Abababa-" I held the computer hoof up with the other hovering over it. "Dead man's switch. Already armed. I wouldn't do that if I were you." Valkyrie didn't look impressed, but it gave the troopers enough of a spook to take their mouths off the triggers.

Valkyrie glared at her goons. "Oh come on, you don't really believe she's got that piece of junk wired up to the facility's systems? She can't have been here more than a day!"

"She's... a clever girl," Gadget croaked. Valkyrie kicked him.

"And how do you gain from blowing this place to kingdom come?"

I made a point to look like I wasn't taking my hoof off the imaginary button. "I can't really win here, but I can at least make it a draw. Any more itchy trigger hooves and I'm taking you down with me."

She snorted, looking at my wrist. I stared at her. This was refreshing, in a weird way. Just me, someone else with a gun, and a bare-faced, naked lie.

I furrowed my brow like I was cracking a knuckle. I didn't dare glance anywhere else. I imagined Rainbow was actually pissing himself. Valkyrie gave me that look where I didn't think she was really buying it, but she couldn't exclude the possibility. I refused to blink. I spotted a bead of sweat on her brow.

"Fuck it. We'll clear you up later. This just gives us more time to catch up, eh bro?" She leaned down and grabbed Gadget by the back of the neck. She pressed a button on her uniform. "Got room for a passenger up there?" A pause. "Good. Let's move."

One by one, the troopers took to the air, ascended through the hole, and boarded the skytank hovering above it. One of them slung Gadget on his back, and Valkyrie took off near the back of the pack.

"Oh, by the way..." she called back. "You might want to check on your little Ranger friends, looks like there's gonna be some fireworks over there. But don't worry about your papa, he's not going anywhere. See you later, kiddos!" The grin on her face throughout made me wish I had anything on me I could zap it right off with. She waved, hopped into the skytank, and they were off.

Rainbow let out a breath I think he'd been holding since the stairs. He tackled me with a hug that knocked the wind out of me. "Holy shit, Atom, I..."

"Lungs... ribs!"

He got all the squeezing out of his system and then put me down. He gulped for air and his eyes were getting misty. "I... that was one hell of a bluff."

"So I'm off the hook for that time in Fort Mercer?"

He didn't want to laugh, but he did. With all that had just happened, I think it was probably the best thing he could do. "Yeah. Okay."

I clapped my hooves together. "Right, we've got work to do. You... Rainbow?" I turned around and he'd gone somewhere. He came back with the two nearest containers he could find - a mug and a mail tray - and scooped up whatever ashes hadn't been blown away by the skytank taking off. "I don't..."

He put them on one of the tables under the mezzanine. "Just give me this one, we can come back for them later."

"Let's worry about the living before the dead, hm?" I got a distracted nod from him. "Speaking of... any idea if he's still in there?" I gave Sam a nudge. Still lifeless.

"No idea. Unfortunately, the one pony who would know is in the outbox over there."

I sighed, and patted the back of Sam's head. I nodded. "We'll come back for them later."

Rainbow looked up to the hole in the roof, and then I did. I squinted from the brightness, but then I frowned. "Are those... clouds?" We looked at each other, then we both flew up to take a look. The hole the Enclave had carved was right on the peak. If the upper levels had been blown out before, they'd either been rebuilt, or they must have moved huge parts of the mountain. At our backs was the quarry, a mile or two away and at the bottom of the hills. In front of us, some of the other nearby peaks got in the way, but between them and over the foothills was a clear view all the way down to the city, with the haze and shade of clouds making beyond that harder to make out. "It's fuckin' overcast. Of course. Why wouldn't it start raining when the really bad shit happens?"

"No, no, this isn't good..."

"Yeah, the Atrium's gonna get rained on, and the water's gonna get all the way down into the..."

"No, Atom, the cloud cover. The Enclave are covering their movements. That's what Valkyrie was saying, they're going to attack Roswhinny!"

"You're sure about that?"

"Valkyrie has been fucking with us from behind the scenes for decades. If she knew enough to solicit you, then she knows enough to target my family, and Celestia knows the Enclave brass would love to be rid of the Rangers. She's buying time to get back to Big Top with Gadget, but... we don't really have a choice. We need to get down there and warn them."

"Got a Vertibuck handy?" He waved his wings at me. "That's a fuck of a distance man, are you serious?"

"Have you got a better plan?"

I squinted at the horizon. I've probably flown that distance before, but not unassisted, and certainly not hung over. The alternative was walking for twelve hours - time we might not have. "Nah. Nothing."

"Alright. Five minutes. Grab anything you think you'll need, and prepare to go in hot."

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

View Online

Five minutes isn't a lot of time. Rainbow looked like he knew what he was looking for - he found a big pile of energy weapons and dumped them on the floor of the atrium to sort through. He'd made his choices and was sifting through ammunition before I'd even picked something up. I've never used a battle saddle - not properly anyway. The rifles were no good to me. Eventually I grabbed a couple of pistols that I'd probably forget I had, everything that looked like a grenade, and a big pile of energy cells. Might as well put Jaffa's 'wings of life' to work.

While I'd been sorting through that gear, Rainbow had vanished somewhere. He returned with a saddlebag under his battle saddle, a worn book sticking out of it, and Nineveh's cloak in his mouth. He tossed the cloak to me. I wasn't sure what to do with it, but hell, why not. I threw it over my back, made sure my wings could open under it, and we were ready.

I had a moment's' anxious hesitation before jumping off the top of the mountain - y'know, the rational, reasonable response that normal people who don't fly have. I don’t think I’ve attempted a flight of this length before, and certainly not without some kind of powered assistance. I had a stumble, which kicked a few pebbles down the mountainside. Y’know that thing where you’re watching something fall a really long way, and it doesn’t hit you how far down it is until you notice how long it takes to fall? I was getting that. Great reassurance when I was about to throw myself off the same cliff. Rainbow seemed comfortable enough with it, but he'd been topside longer than me. I told myself something along the lines of ‘fuck it’, and jumped, breaking into an immediate glide. All I had to do was glide. I rode in his draft until I could get alongside him.

The flight was quiet. The rush of wind made talking difficult (not to mention being throat-scaldingly hot), so we concentrated on the journey and the destination. We passed over valleys and weaved around peaks, retracing part of the route we took to the quarry. I had the idea to stop and check around where I saved Peregrine to try and recover my goggles, but then I'd be walking the rest of the way, so no dice.

This flying is fucking handy, I should pick it up properly some time. Twenty minutes and we were out of the Death Caps and on the approach to San Cimarron, maybe thirty. The size of San Cimarron was never apparent to me until I could get a look at it from above. Equestrian cities, particularly out in San Palomino where there's all the open space in the world, have a sprawl to them. From above, I could see that Fort Mercer wasn't an isolated little saloon and water tower, it used to be part of the suburbs of northern SC. There was nothing left of most of the houses, but the discolouration of eroded foundations, powdered roads and long-dried up gardens showed off a distinct grid pattern from above. Maybe San Cimarron did take a hit in the war, just too far north to hit the main population centre, but too far south to hit Los Arabos. Maybe the northern suburbs were never finished. Ruins will tell you a lot, but they won't tell you everything.

I was surprised with how well I was coping. My wings ached, but manageably. The expedient progress kept me motivated, and the bird's-eye view of the city kept me distracted. Rainbow was firmly in the zone. He probably had a mission prep routine, the professional bastard. I was just here going 'ooh that's interesting' to pass the time. We were coming up on 45 minutes in the air when I spotted Isotope City. I pointed it out, and Rainbow nodded to me. We wouldn't be far away now. We'd lost quite a bit of altitude too - we'd been high above the north of the city, and we were barely able to sail over the tops of the crumbling towers of downtown, but by the time we were passing over Route 66, I was able to spot individual caravans and wild animals milling about. A lot of them were looking up, and I didn't blame them. The clouds had gotten thicker while we were in flight. Still no fireworks from the direction of Roswhinny.

The Caballero Centre passed by. I nearly didn't recognise it coming from the north. We couldn't be more than five minutes out. We were either going to have to drop into the base from above, or we'd land short of it and have to walk the rest of the way. I nearly broke my glide when water splattered in my face. Nothing major, just a droplet that happened to hit me in the eye. (So this is what I should have used my goggles for.) Some more specks of drizzle landed on my glasses, and I felt them on my hooves and wings. The air thickened as we dropped, and with the clouds trapping the heat from the day, it felt like there was no fresh air to breathe.

"If they shoot at us, don't return fire!" Rainbow yelled.

"What? Why would they shoot at us?" He gave me a glare. "What? I mean, I don't have any guns out anyway!"

He shook his head, and pitched down. I followed suit to keep up with him. I could see Roswhinny approaching - fast. Bollocks, now I have to figure out the whole landing part, and he was trying to go faster? Brave boy.

I hadn't thought about being shot at. Wasn't this kind of entry exactly what Turing Test warned me not to do when I arrived? When we got close enough to make out the guns, I could see they weren't raised. I didn't know whether to be reassured that they weren't going to try and shoot us down, or alarmed that they weren't paying attention. I don't suppose Spaceman was on lookout duty today, was he?

We'd dipped in time to level off and lose some speed on our approach to the base. We came at it from the front. A hundred yards out, and no response.

"Don't shoot!" Rainbow yelled, pre-emptively. No shooting occurred as we passed between the towers over the gate, and we dropped into the courtyard. Rainbow landed with a clumsy but successful transition to running. I, however, landed by tripping over my front legs and planting my face on the tarmac. At least we'd slowed down a bit beforehand.

"Don't worry my duders, I saw you coming when you were over the freeway!" Was that Spaceman? What was his name. Fuck. "Good to see you in one piece. Two pieces? Wh... I gotta go think about that..."

When I got up, Rainbow was already running. I groaned, peeled myself off the ground, and started after him. Ponies had begun to fill the courtyard, looking up at the sky. A few of them were perplexed at the rain. More of them looked steam-cooked from the humidity. Rainbow shoved the gawping initiates out of the way, and I scurried along in his wake.

"Where's Turing Test?" He called out. The gormless goons just looked at each other, baffled.

Ivy pushed her way out of the crowd. "Rainbow? Sugar?"

"Ivy!" At least him stopping to pick her up, swing her around and kiss her gave me a chance to catch up with him.

"You're okay!"

"Of course I am, love." It was good to see him smile, after everything that's happened today. Shit, it's only lunchtime too.

"Back so soon?"

"It's a long story."

She was immediately as worried as he was. "Where's Sam? What happened with Gadget?"

"Also part of that story. Where's your Dad?"

"Probably in his office, why?"

"Enclave attack. Looking at the state of the weather we've got maybe ten minutes to prepare."

She went white. She gibbered for a moment, then inhaled sharply. "I'll pass it on, you clear the courtyard."

He nodded, they kissed again, and Ivy scampered into the terminal building.

"Attention!" He called. Most of the crowd stopped whispering among themselves and stood up straight. The scribes just leaned in in a concerned fashion. "In sixty to ninety seconds the base alarm will go off to signal an imminent attack by Enclave forces of an unknown size. This is not a drill. All scribes report to the Quartermaster's office and await orders." The crowd began to thin. "Lancers, ready all Vertibucks and await instructions from the flight tower. Knight Night Light?"

"Yeah, dude?" Spaceman called back. Knight Night Light? Really?

"Tell the Quartermaster to start staffing up the flight tower."

"On it!"

Stomp. Stomp. "Now hold up a minute." Prickly Pear cleared a path just by her presence.

Rainbow scoffed. "We don't have time for this."

"You've got some nerve waltzing on to this base and barkin' out orders like you're in charge after strolling out of here with a box of our top tech."

"Crusader, you will await your orders."

"Oh yeah? You know something I don't? Who gave you the right to-"

An ear-splitting, sputtering, synthetic wail rang out in the courtyard. The smirk slid from Prickly Pear's face. "You will await your orders, Crusader."

"Yes, sir." Nobody was laughing now. Well, maybe I was laughing a little.

The speakers crackled, cutting through the descending pitch of the siren. "Red alert. All combat personnel report to your assembly stations. This is not a drill," a voice droned. In seconds, the base thundered with power armoured hooves making their way to where they were supposed to be. Prickly Pear had vanished. The crowd that was here had dispersed.

"Crumble!"

"What can I do you for?" She dodged a pair of rushing Lancers hauling a barrel towards one of the Vertibucks. She was shielding her eyes - not from the sun, but the rain that had picked up from drizzle to downpour in the last minute. It was like standing under a crap shower. Vaguely chilly water coming at you in a dribble. Man, Trashcan was getting soaked.

Rainbow tossed her one of his rifles. She caught it with expert ease. "Take the foals to the bottom of the lab."

She swung the thing around and hitched it to her side - had she been just wearing an unloaded battle saddle? "Sure thing. See you on the other side."

"There are foals on the base?" What am I saying. Of course there were.

"Atom, you..." He stared at me for a moment. He breathed deep and bit his lips.

"Can you hurry up and think of something? We're getting wet."

"You can look after yourself, can't you? Just... be helpful."

"Helpful. Specific."

"I need to go armour up, make yourself useful!" Without any further instruction, he hurried off to the quarters, leaving me on a rainy tarmac surrounded by busy Steel Rangers getting ready to shoot down a lot of pegasi. What a lovely day out.

I made use of the cloak to hide my wings, and found some shelter from the rain. I got a couple of sneers as Rangers passed me, but with my dishevelled, road-weary appearance and the feather cloak and spear on my back, I imagine it was more that they thought I was a tribal than a pegasus. This was acceptable. They wouldn't be trying to shoot me - much.

I took refuge under the balcony of the terminal building, but I didn't even have time to shake myself off before the rain started really picking up. The cloak was waterproof - a nice touch. A stream was developing at my hooves as water ran off from the tarmac. Who knows what state the drains in this place were? Massive puddles formed in minutes, making the dude hurrying from a vertibuck back to the hangar drench the two scribes pushing a gun on wheels the other way as he hurried past. Water dripped from the fringes of the handful of ponies wheeling some giant metal wireframe structure out of a hangar. The pounding of droplets on the surface water reached an intensity that produced a mist at knee-level, and the falling water reduced the visibility of the gate to a silhouette. The whole year's debt of rain, all at once.

The sky lit up for a split second, and the air tore itself apart with the sound of thunder, far too close for comfort. Before I'd even finished ducking, there was a second bang - not from the sky, but from the vertibuck nearest to me turning into a ball of fire, high-speed metal shards, and roast horse. A wave of heat hit my back as flaming shrapnel embedded itself in the wall behind me. I looked up, and the crew with the metal frame were looking even more panicked, and had a couple of extra hands helping them.

A few seconds later, another flash of lightning struck one of the towers on the perimeter. There were a couple of licks of flame in its wake, but the rain smothered them before they could take hold. Then another one, hitting a scribe running across the tarmac, and leaving him skidding to a sopping wet stop. The next flash hit the frame.

It was bottom-heavy, so the crew hadn't had much trouble getting it upright, and they'd backed off from it as soon as it was up. The following lightning strike hit it, and so did the next one. Ohhhh. The lancer crew who'd lent a hand went back to picking through the debris of the exploded vertibuck for survivors, and the hangar crew went inside to fetch another lightning rod. I tucked my glasses into my bag, pulled down my goggles at long last, and made my way to the hangar to help.

The lightning picked up in earnest. One or two strikes on the base might be naturally occurring. One every couple of seconds was shelling. The one lightning rod was doing a good job of keeping the lightning off the hangar, but other parts of the base were still taking a battering. The rain was too heavy for any fires to be sustained, but the lightning was sure as hell trying.

"Orright lads, gimme a job."

The hangar crew looked at me like I had two heads. "Who the fuck are you?"

It occurred to me that I didn't have a good answer for that. "Are you going to say no to an extra pair of hooves?"

A door opened. Knight Lemon Puff, fully armoured save a helmet, went wide-eyed when she spotted me. She didn't hug me, that would kill me, but she did zip over to me with lightness I wasn't expecting from power armour. "Atom Smasher, You're okay! Is Rainbow Code back too?"

"Yeah, he's gearing up, we were actually coming with the news."

"Oh, that's terrible! I mean, it's great that you're here, but with the circumstances..."

"Yeah, yeah, you're on the level, now get out of the fuckin' way!" the foreman barked, shoving me and Lemon Puff aside so they could get the next lightning rod set up.

"Hey, pigeon!" Another crewman yelled. Was the cloak not working, or did they just infer from the mention of Rainbow Code? "If you want to do something useful, get the little rods set up on the towers! They were down for maintenance!"

I looked on one of the workbenches. Three or four long steel rods with wires hanging out of them. Maintenance on... lightning rods? Whatever. I scooped them up into my bag, and a pair of welding goggles and some ear protectors for good measure. "You heard him, I've got work to do. I'll catch up later." Without waiting for a response, I hurried out the hangar. "Try not to die out there!"

"I won't! I mean... will? I'll do the trying, not the..."

I threw the welding goggles on immediately. The lightning was striking the base with enough intensity that everyone except the lightning rod crew were taking shelter, and there was enough falloff from the flashes that the goggles weren't a blindfold. Another vertibuck had been hit while I was inside. It hadn't exploded, but it was on its side and one of the rotors looked badly burned. There were only two remaining, both of them crowding under the one operational lightning rod. There was no way they were getting off the ground under this fire.

I scanned the rooftops, picked a tower and started flying. It occurred to me as I was climbing up the back of the flight tower and looking for the wire to plug this thing in that they probably intended for this to be a suicide mission. Pricks. I mean, I was still going to try, but if I died, I was totally blaming them.

My ears rang when another bolt struck the roof, feet away from me, even with the ear covers. The startle winded me, and the after-image of the flash made it difficult to see where I was going. My eyes didn't know whether to adjust to the brightness of the lightning or the dim darkness of the overcast daytime in between. I really don't recommend climbing on a roof in the middle of a lightning storm.

I fumbled with the plug for a bit, dropped the first rod, called it a fucking prick, then tried again with the second rod. The plug was upside down, so I spun it around and tried again, but I couldn't see it very well because of the welding goggles, and it turns out it was the right way up the first time, I just needed to wiggle it a bit, lightning struck again and I dropped the rod but the plug kept it from falling so I just had to pull it back up and attach it before I got hit with my hooves on it, oh, it was just a mess. By this point the second rod on the tarmac had been set up, and most of the lightning was being diverted to these three rods.

I slid down to a lower roof and tossed the other rods on the ground. If they wanted them plugged in, they could do it themselves. By now I was soaked, cloak or no cloak. When I swung under the overhang beneath the flight control tower, water dripped from my mane, down my back, from my tail... A couple of the nearby knights and lancers jumped in fright when I swooped down. A dozen Rangers were huddled under here, all of them green as grass judging by the way they fumbled with ammunition and bunched up together. Many of them shivered. I hadn’t noticed the air going from stiflingly muggy to pleasantly cool while I was futzing around with the lightning rods, and I couldn’t be sure if it was just being wet, but I was feeling a real chill, and clearly it wasn’t just me. Someone wearing a pilot's helmet, blackened on one side, was nursing burns and staring at the horizon. I didn't know what to do, so I stayed out of their way and double-checked my gear.

The lightning eased up from once every few seconds to a couple of stray bolts, and then nothing. I tossed the goggles and the earmuffs. Thunder still echoed in my ears, and my eyes still scanned the horizon for flashes that weren't there. There was just the hiss of rain pounding the helipads. The vertibucks started their engines again. The artillery and flak crews emerged from hiding to resume setting up their guns. I looked up at the sky, and so did everyone around me.

"Incoming!" came a call from somewhere. I heard machine guns spinning up. The recruits behind me got up and started getting into their positions. With the lightning over, the fireworks could begin.

By the time I spotted the vanguard, they'd already breached the clouds and opened fire. Streaks of red and orange light peppered the courtyard as they swooped over in a strafe run. The anti-air guns pounded and flashed, but no hits. I made tracks to get out of the way before I got caught in laser fire. I think one of them must have spotted me and my excellent camouflage of a hazard orange face and radioactive green mane, and peeled off to gun me down. Most of the first strafe run went from hitting the courtyard to the flight tower, shattering its windows, but I took at least one hit in the back. I wouldn't have known, but for the fact that one spot of the cloak was really warm, and there was a burn mark on a nearby crate. Waterproof and energy-reflective? Now you're just spoiling me, Nineveh.

The boom of long guns called my attention back to the battle. All fire from the ground was concentrated on the clouds. Why weren't they firing before? Limited ammunition? Whatever. One of the vertibucks tried to take off, but was quickly grounded by a shot to the rotor axle. It was only a few feet off the ground, so not much damage done. The remaining lancer crew abandoned their efforts and went to find some small arms they could use.

Another round of lightning hit the base, giving the gunners pause. They were firing blind for a moment - a moment the attackers used to send in another strafe run, this one targeting the artillery. Behind them, heavy troopers came in to land. A fuel barrel exploded near one of the machine gun positions, tossing the gun upside down and sending the crew scattering. I double-checked my grenades and advanced from my hiding spot near the control tower to a barricade in front of the lab. I was kneeling in running water. Fucking ick.

I scanned the landing pad where the troopers touched down. I could probably lob an AX grenade that far, make 'em easy pickings. Each one of them was this fountain of glowing green goo, sailing past me to the rabble behind me and their paltry return fire. Where the fuck was everyone? I twisted, and there was a boom overhead. My first instinct was to panic-throw and duck, but it wasn't more lightning - it was a skytank experiencing a high-velocity, missile-shaped technical problem. It dropped out of the sky like a stone, right on top of the first row of troopers, and causing other three to scarper. There's that Ranger firepower. Meanwhile, my little grenade went off with a useless little blue crackle next to this flaming wreck, hitting nobody. Nobody alive anyway.

I turned and followed the smoke to see where it had come from. A squad was riding out of the the terminal building, each one of them with at least two weapons that weighed more than me mounted on them. A rotating set of barrels fired glowing red streaks across the courtyard and at the second skytank. Another two missiles streaked past, one of them battering the gate, the other sailing out of the base, hitting nothing. Well, they can't all be winners.

I retreated to the hangar. Some scribes were doing something with some technical-looking gear. Now that the big guns were out, the Enclave stepped up their game. With all the fire concentrated on the skytank, none of the heavy unit were paying attention to the troopers descending from the clouds from all angles. The scribes pointed and gasped as a strafe run came from the far corner of the base and crossed over, passing to the left of the hangar. Of course - there was no way to funnel them down any which way.

I started running, doing my best to stay out of crossfire. I chucked another grenade in the direction of the troopers to try and cover me, I didn't check what kind. The air was hot and greasy from being pierced with energy fire, and everywhere smelled like this cocktail of ozone, benzene and burning meat. A strafe run hit another barrel of fuel, this one a bit nearer me than I'd have liked, tossing me into a pile of sandbags. Rude. I was winded, lying in a puddle, and then one of the bags fell on my back. As you can see, my participation in this battle is going swimmingly.

While I was heaving the sandbag off me, I had a front row seat to the main Ranger force storming on to the landing pad, all guns roaring. Rockets streaked across the courtyard at any landed troopers, and beams of every colour strobed the sky, looking for a scout to shoot down. I spotted a few of them without helmets - Rainbow was one of them, and right behind him was Lemon Puff. She was wearing a helmet, but she was also wearing a wide-brim hat on the helmet, which is how I knew it was her. Turing Test was another, heaving this monstrosity of a battle saddle with four weapons on it, the madman. Grenades thunked and thick rounds pounded out them. Every one of these crazy bastards were equipped to murder everything in their general forward direction.

I got hit with a wave of water as a scout crash landed in front of me. A couple of scribes hopped over him and into cover positions, and not far behind them was a scoop of ice cream that had been dropped under the sofa, masquerading as a pony and operating a suit of power armour. Sorry, I meant Elder Saguaro.

I had no idea how anyone was targeting anything in this mess. Wings of Enclave troopers swarmed in the air over the base, doing their best to dodge the disco party happening at them, and those that failed tumbled into squads of Rangers firing in more or less random directions, hoping to hit something and not knowing where the shot that would finish them would come from. Saguaro fired over Turing Test's shoulder, and he turned and fired into the sky behind him. They moved with a practiced harmony, perfectly covering each other's blind spots from strafing fire to give them time to pump out missiles and sprays of plasma.

I finally got the sandbag off me enough to wriggle free. My chest felt awful, like I'd maybe cracked a rib or something, but I couldn't stop for that now. I scrambled from barricade to barricade, looking for Rainbow. Across the courtyard, the hangar caught fire. The sky cracked open again. My lightning response was a well-trained duck for cover at this point, but the falloff from the flash was... red? I looked up, and a skytank was going down in flames. It came down in the middle of the landing pad, tearing up the tarmac and forcing several squads to separate. I saw Turing Test dive towards my side of the crash, and Saguaro disappear behind the other side of it.

"The fuck was that?" I heard Rainbow yell from very close by. Turns out, he was the pile of metal I'd ducked under. One of his guns was reduced to slag, but his pretty-boy face was wet and little more.

"Oh, there you are!"

"Atom? Get to cover! What..."

The red beam streaked across the sky again, and two unfortunate troopers who'd been lined up with it became four half-troopers.

"You guys don't have any guns like that, do you?"

"No, that's... what direction is that coming from?"

A third shot forced a wing of scouts to abort their strafe run. "West, which would be..."

"Full Moon!"

"Holy shit."

He fired off a spray with his remaining gun. "See if you can get to the lookout tower. The least we can do is get Night Light out alive."

"Got it."

The air crackled, and in between the magical energy rainbow going in every direction, there was a blue flash on the landing pad. "What was that?"

"That sounded like an anti-matrix blast."

"Shit. Shit shit shit." Another one went off near one of the artillery positions. An armoured Ranger went down, and the crew scrambled to pull him to safety. A scribe fumbled with some equipment. Plasma fire turned one of the crew to green paste, delaying their efforts. "Fall back!" Rainbow cried out. Turing Test was already backing up, firing grenades off to cover the retreat.

Another two pulses of crackling blue light went off, closer this time. A Ranger a few feet in front of Turing Test went down in front of him. He frowned, fired off another salvo, and dropped his battle saddle. The weapons crunched together under their own weight. Clumsily, he lifted the fallen Ranger to a standing position, then scooped him up on to his back to retreat with him. Another blast went off harmlessly on the roof.

Troopers started making landfall by the gate again. I made myself useful putting my spear's laser fire to work, covering the stragglers from behind my barricade. It didn't last long, so I broke out the pistols - quicker than reloading. In the lull, someone passed over my head, and I nearly shot them. The ground made a crunch when Rainbow landed, and advanced to put himself between the advancing Troopers and some of the stranded Rangers.

"What are you doing? Get lost, featherbrain!" One of them screamed. I knew the voice, but it took me a moment to find the face - Prickly Pear, lying with her face pressed in a puddle. Some more covering fire sailed overhead, forcing the troopers to find their own cover, and keeping the aerial troops on their toes.

A handful more Rangers breezed past me. One of them took a couple of bolts to the side while he was pulling down a barricade into a more useful position, but all it did was singe his armour. The further Rangers got lifted, while scribes set about rebooting the nearer ones.

Rainbow ducked, then stood to return fire. "Negative, Crusader."

"Why do you care?"

She got a splash in the face from Ivy sliding in the surface water up to her side. "Hold still. What am I saying, that's the problem." Ivy pulled a box from her saddlebag, and hooked it up to a panel in Prickly Pear's armour.

"Leave me here. Go."

"I don't need your 'tude, Missy."

"I'd rather die in glory than owe my life to a pair of tribals!"

Then Prickly Pear got the back of a hoof to her face. That looked so satisfying.

"Glory? Do you think there's glory in drowning in a puddle? Do you wanna go out getting stepped on by a trooper who's not looking where he's going?"

"Not to alarm you, ladies, but can you move it along?" Rainbow called back, in between reloading and shooting down a scout advancing from behind the building.

"If you think I'm gonna leave my first friend for the vultures, you've got another thing coming!" Turns out one more tap was all the rebooting needed, and the armour made a little hum as it sprang back to life. "Now get up!"

Rainbow backed up from the barricade, turning more of his fire skyward. I fell back to the terminal building, with Ivy close behind. Prickly Pear seemed like she was still stunned from the slap, and just vacantly pawed around on the ground. Eventually Rainbow had to kick her and shout "Move!" to get her to scramble inside.

Inside the terminal lobby was deeply unpleasant. The excess heat and smoke from everyone's weapons choked the air, and the moisture got everywhere. It was like having a huddle in a boiler room. The bulk of the two dozen armoured ponies turned an open concourse into an exercise in trying not to be crushed for me, the scribes, and the occasional stray lancer. Two of them pushed the old reception desk up against the door we came in. Scribes were busy rebooting power armour, and knights passed ammunition around and exchanged weapons. The sound of laser fire from outside had died down, but engines still roared overhead, and distant Enclave chatter and the thump of armoured hooves touching down still kept us on edge, barely audible over the rain on the tin roof.

Turing Test scratched his chin. "Alright, somebody give me a status."

Pause.

"The AX blasts knocked out the comms, Sir. I think everyone's been pushed into the buildings, but that's an estimate," one of the scribes said.

"Hangar's on fire. Perimeter, lab, flight tower, all out of contact," Rainbow added.

"No contact from Elder Saguaro either. He could be in another building, or he could be MIA."

Prickly Pear snorted. Turing Test pulled his cap off and scratched behind his ears. "Where are the foals."

"I asked Crumble to take them to the lab, Sir," Rainbow said.

"We'll take the tunnels there, stand guard, try not to attract attention, wait for more squads to report in."

"I uh..." Ivy hesitated. "I don't think the tunnels are an option. Everything from the Quartermaster's office on is under four feet of water and it's still rising."

He hissed. "Options, options..."

"Don't mind me thinking out loud here," I said. "I'm guessing from the flooding that the Quartermaster's office is on a basement level, yeah?"

"Yeah," Rainbow said.

"And if that's flooded, then..."

"Oh no." He rubbed his forehead with a hoof.

"Shit." Turing Test kicked a wall, and it left a big, cracked hole. "Okay, we need to get someone to the lab to check on them, maybe clear a way out. Atom Smasher, you're disposable, hop to it."

"Disposable?"

"You ain't got power armour and you ain't got the tools to reboot one. Far as I can tell all you've got is a civilian pistol, a fancy watch and a pointy stick. Now are you going to sit here and waste my time, or go prove me wrong?"

"Well, I don't know if 'proving you wrong' is what you really mean to say in that sentence..."

Rainbow couldn't stand to watch anymore, and nudged me in the direction of the corridor. "Atom, just... just go. Just go."

"Okay, okay!" I fixed my cloak after the nudging. "And what are you gonna do?"

Somebody arrived with a replacement battle saddle for Turing Test. "Hold our ground. Hope they don't level the terminal. Sell our lives dearly. Buy you and Crumble some time."

I looked around at the Rangers. Most of them were looking at me. Rainbow looked... sad. Not like, crying, or disappointed, more... sorry. He looked right at me, with the same look that he gave me the day we met in the Satellite Sam's on Route 66, and when I woke up in Wormwood after my trouble with the star stuff. He looked at me knowing that he may never do so again, and tried to tell me he was sorry.

"Now go on. Get."

I nodded to Turing Test as I was turning to leave, and shot Rainbow a smile. A little, 'don't worry, I got this' smile. Then, I headed for the lab.

All of the internal corridors were splattered with moisture. Mud trailed through doorways, puddles formed where there was nowhere for them to drain, and rain from the upper floors, pouring in the broken windows, turned the stairs going up into a little waterfall. Down the stairs was the basement level, as expected, filling with water by the minute. I paused. Then I went up the stairs.

It was the corridor outside Saguaro's office. The entire floor to ceiling window had been shattered, making it a minefield of broken glass. I fluttered over to the office door, blown off its hinges. The office inside was a mess - not that there was much to make a mess of in the first place. From here I could see the Enclave force regrouping in the courtyard. A couple of them were going around to the Rangers we couldn’t get to and putting them down as they waited for the rest of the forces to show up.

I slipped off both bandoliers. I'd only get one attempt before they noticed me. I twisted the last couple of AX grenades, pulled the pins on the rest, scooped up both belts in a hoof and lobbed them towards the line. They tangled with each other in flight, bounced on a barricade, and bopped an officer on the head. The AX grenades went off first, stunning a couple of nearby troopers, which I took as my cue to leave. Six or seven dull booms rang out, followed by some panicked laser fire. Maybe that stalled them, maybe it just made them angry. Either way, it's a few more arseholes in power armour I don't have to worry about.

I scrambled down the stairs, slipping on the last step for a hard landing, and down again to the basement. Y'know, thinking about this, someone with power armour would have made short work of this job. They've got an internal air supply, don't they? As long as they can climb up afterwards they're fine. I had to paddle past the Quartermaster's office, shove the drowned bodies of the Quartermaster and a couple of scribes out of the way and dive to get through a couple of doors.

Luck and vague mental geography got me to the lab. I went from swimming to wading at one point where some stairs rose to a semi-basement level. I passed the door to the outside, where surface water was still trickling in. I chanced a glance across the courtyard, but one of the wrecked vertibucks was in the way. I saw energy fire exchanged in bursts in the distance.

Crumble must have closed the blast door behind her on the way in, so I had to spent a minute twisting a gnarly old wheel to get it open. I had immediate regrets when the water in the corridor started emptying out into the lab - shit. It swept the door forward and carried me with it. I only got as far as the grating on the catwalks, but the water carried on to add to the flooding below.

Water poured in from everywhere. Ventilation shafts, doors to catwalks that were no longer there, cracks in the ceiling... It had only been what, the guts of an hour, if that? I didn't chance diving into the water, I couldn't tell how deep it was or what kind of high tech lego I'd step on. Instead I scrambled down the steps and waded in. I was quickly up to my neck, so swimming it was.

"Crumble?" I called out. The room echoed, but no response. I listened out for troopers - nothing. Too busy fighting in the courtyard, probably. The occasional boom reverberated through the ground, rattling the catwalks, and the sound of rushing water made listening out hard. I kept moving. "Crumble!" I should have paid more attention the last time I was down here. What would work well as a safe room?

A yelp caught my attention. It didn't sound like Crumble, or a pony at all. I looked around for the source. Splashing, rattling, all blended into the background cacophony, but that yelp was distinctive. Some more whimpering helped me locate the source - a little ventilated box bobbing along in the water, and slowly sinking. I dove for it and lifted it up, water draining from the vents and a seam around the middle, and took a look through the grate in the end. There to meet me was a tiny black wiggling nose, a pair of tiny, curious eyes, and a soggy black coat.

"Who left you in here?"

The puppy stuck its nose through the grate of the pet carrier and licked my nose. I smiled, earnestly, for the first time today.

"Okay, listen, I'm busy, but I'll be back for you, alright?" I set the carrier down on a console. The water was already high enough that it was making the carrier float a little bit, so I opened it. This miniscule black labrador puppy stepped out and immediately shook its coat off, giving me a good spraying, and then barked cheerfully at me. "Stay? Stay." It ran up and down the console, kicking and splashing, and busied itself barking at the waterfalls.

"Atom Smasher?" The call was coming from the vault at the end of a corridor adjoining the main well of the lab, half-submerged. It was dark, save for some emergency lighting down one side, under the waterline. I hurried over - for certain measures of 'hurry'. I got sprayed with splashback from the waterfall I'd made coming in. The water level was rising, and it wasn't entirely my fault.

"Crumble, are you in there?" I investigated the door. I had no idea how it works.

"Happier than a pig in a pile o' muck to hear a friendly voice, Atom."

"Crumble, who's that?" a shivering voice said.

"She's a friend, sweetie."

"Crumble, I'm scared," another sniffled.

"C'mere, darlin'. We're gonna be okay."

"How many do you have in there?" I asked.

"Fourteen, plus myself." Fourteen? How big was that thing?

"What's the water level like in there?"

"The swimmin's a little deep for the young 'uns, but we got ourselves a crew of natural-born seaponies in here, don't we kids?" There was some half-hearted cheering from the foals. "We could do without the shower though." Shower... there must be a flooded vent emptying into the vault.

"Alright, how do I get you out of there?"

"What's the lab look like?"

"Uh." I squinted. "Wet? A tip? I'm the only one in here though."

She sighed with relief and coughed. "I think somethin's gummed up the hinges. I opened the spell matrix lock in here but she ain't budgin'. The manual operation is on the other side. You wanna see if you can do somethin' about that?"

I had to paddle from one side of the door to the other to figure out which side was the hinge, and then paddle back to look for the handle. It was already underwater, so I had to reach in and lift it, which pushed me to the bottom. The water was at the point where in doing this, I had to tilt my head right back and was barely able to keep my nose above water. With unreasonable effort, I got the handle cranked up, and I could put my hooves against the wall to try pulling at it. I could see narrow side of the door pulled out a little bit, but I couldn't get any more than an inch of it out.

"Getting nowhere with the handle," I wheezed. Staying afloat and trying to catch my breath at the same time was some hard work.

"Take a look at the hinges. Sounds like a jam."

"Is everyone dead? I bet everyone's dead," one of the kids said.

"Hush your mouth, Marmalade!" Crumble snapped. Another one started crying. "Now look what you've done! Marmalade, get over here and take a turn holding lil' Sparky up. And don't you dare let her sit in that water! No slacking, mister!"

"Fine..." Probably a teenager. Little shit.

"C'mere, honey." The crying got muffled, presumably my Crumble's shoulder. "Shhhh. Everything's gonna be fine, Seashell. Atom's gonna get us out of here, we're gonna get all dried off, and I'm gonna cook us all up a nice hot dinner. How does that sound?"

"Will momma be there?"

"... Yeah. I'm sure she'll be there."

I pulled down my goggles (they're... actually useful for once?) and dove to inspect the hinges under the waterline. At least underwater I didn't have to listen to screaming children. The water was thick with mud from the surface, and oil and other dirt from the lab. Between this and the half-light, I had to get my face right up into the hinge to see what was happening with it, and even then I had to feel around. I thought I felt something kinda square in between the round hinges. Worth a nudge, at least. I came up for air.

"I think I've found something!"

"Have you? Great!"

"I'm gonna try and zap it."

"Hurry, Atom. Please." I went for my pistols, and felt nothing. Just a soaked-through Trashcan (oh, bollocks) and my other junk. I must have left them upstairs. My spear was still here, but I specifically remember not reloading it. Egh. The pointy bit would have to do.

I dove again, dragging the spear tip down the hinge. It bumped against the roundy bits of the hinges, and then snagged on the blockage. A can? Maybe a cartridge or something? Could it really be that small? I jammed the spear tip into wherever a spear tip could be jammed into, and started trying to lever. I felt something give, but the blockage was still there, wedged in tight. Maybe if I pushed the door closed a bit...

I resurfaced, by which time the water had risen so much that I bumped my head on the ceiling in doing so. "Agh!"

"What's going on, Atom?"

"Still stuck in there. I'm gonna try closing the door a bit, maybe something got caught when you tried to open it the first time!"

"If you say so," Crumble replied. Her voice was starting to tremble. "Kids, I'm gonna go under the water to get to the controls. All y'all little 'uns climb on my back, okay? Give yourselves a rest from swimming."

"Am I a little 'un?"

"No, Marmalade, you're the biggest boy in here."

I took a deep breath, and dove again. I found the blockage quicker this time and immediately set about hammering at it. I heard a dull mechanical whine through the water. The door and the frame got slightly further apart, and this gave me the room to wedge the tip of the spear behind the offending article and pry it free. Evidently it was floating debris, since as soon as it was loose it smacked me in the face on its way to the surface. Was that a cup and ball toy? I followed it, and banged on the door for good measure.

I knew to put a hoof ahead of me this time. There was barely more than the height of my head in clearance - inside the vault must have been worse. "Try it now!"

"Crumble's still underwater!"

"Am I still in trouble for not keeping Sparky dry if there's not enough room?"

"I feel kinda dizzy..."

I sighed. One more dive, this time for the handle. Hind hooves on the wall, forehooves around the handle, pull. I really was the worst pony to send for this job. My wimpy forelegs shook as they tried to exert leverage. The metal groaned. I was struck with the terrifying thought that the handle might give before the door. My spine was on fire.

My chest burned, my shoulders burned, that possibly-cracked rib burned. I felt a little give. There was no other way around this, was there? No bluffing, no coin slot to slip a token into to crack open this Special Delivery Station. Just me, a fucking heavy door, and the remaining air in my lungs. I was doing this the Rainbow Code way. Something was gonna make me sooner or later.

The world swam. I turned upside down at some point. I didn't know when I got so light-headed. I kicked and flailed for the handle and the wall. I found nothing. I found the wrong wall and accidentally kicked myself further away into the water. Something hit me in my side. I couldn't even find the surface. I panicked and let go of the air I had, and took in water.

"Atom Smashy! Wake up!" Sound suddenly returned to clarity. I opened my eyes. My goggles were askew. I coughed and hacked until my throat stopped yelling at me. A foal about ten or eleven years old was treading water and shaking me. We were in the main well of the lab. A bemused teen with an orange mane was still holding a baby over his head. Crumble surfaced next to me, and another one of the foals thumped her back. She spat and spluttered, and even sneezed a couple of times. She looked as confused as me. Then she spotted me.

"Oh, thank Celestia!" She grabbed me in a crushing hug. "Atom, you're a saint."

"I..." A saint. Funny choice of words. "Don't... never mind that. We're not on dry land yet."

She patted my side. "Right you are. Two, four... ten... thirteen? Where's Seashell?"

A small filly surfaced between us, which was mildly alarming. What was very alarming was the fact that she had my spear in her teeth. She spat it out, and I took it. "You dropped this, Mrs. Apple Smasher!"

"Where'd you learn to swim like that?" I squinted. "In fact where did all of you learn to swim, you live in a desert!"

"My momma taught me!" Seashell squealed.

"You met Knight Ocean Breeze?" Crumble said. "I think she's in your brother's squad."

"Holy shit."

I got a bop on the nose. "Language!"

"Whatever. Stairs. Now."

The foals filed towards the stairs, with Crumble close behind, ushering them along. She finally took Sparky off of Marmalade so he'd stop grumbling. The puppy was quite happily paddling at this point, so it took me a moment to find the adorable little bastard again, but when I did I scooped it out of the water and on to my head. I was last on to the stairs.

"What's the situation upstairs like?"

I inhaled through my teeth. "Well, they sent me to see if there might be a way for you guys to escape, so... read into that what you will. It's been ten, fifteen minutes though."

"You wanna go up and check?"

"Hold this." I carefully lifted the puppy to Crumble. All of the kids (except Marmalade) went 'awwww' and started fawning over it. I squeezed past them and climbed the stairs to get a look out the doorway.

The terminal building had some massive chunks taken out of it, as did some of the adjacent buildings. The Enclave were retreating to the clouds, which were starting to disappear as the rain depleted them. I saw patches of blue in the sky, behind the smoke from the husks of the base. The rain had reduced to a light drizzle. Troopers covered their retreat with more laser fire, but more and more, the direction of fire was from the ground to the sky.

I watched for another ten, twenty minutes. Crumble came up beside me. The surviving skytanks pulled away, and the shots chasing them sailed overhead. There was only the sound of the trickle of the surface water flowing to rest. Nobody cheered.

"We... did it?"

Crumble sighed, and put her stump on my back. "We made it through today, Atom. That's the best we can do."

The Day The Music Died

View Online

I shivered. The clouds dispersed rapidly, but I was still soaked, and so was everyone else that I could see. The side of me facing the sun burned, and the parts in the shadows were freezing. Crumble had the kids wait on the stairs while I checked that the coast was clear. With sullen Rangers picking through debris and put fires out, I figured it was safe, and they formed a convoy. The puppy scampered ahead and nipped at my heels. Well hello to you too, mister. Crumble informed me that he was indeed a mister, and I scooped him up to put on my back, where he was quite happy.

Crumble steered clear of much of the wreckage. She looked for the remains of the mess hall, while trying to avoid the flooding and as much of the death as possible, but there was no avoiding all of it. I, on the other hand, beelined for the terminal building.

The odour of ozone had dissipated from the courtyard, and I was left gagging as the first bodies that went down started to smell, carried on the rising vapour from all over the tarmac as the sun cooked the surface water. It was getting to the hottest part of the day too, and it made every movement slow and sticky, and every breath was suffering. Some scribes went around with sheets and stretchers, taking corpses out of full suits of power armour and ferrying them to the gates. Everywhere I went, someone was sobbing in the distance.

The Enclave had gone to town on the terminal. Saguaro's office was just gone. Most of the ponies who had been inside were now milling around outside, removing armour, tending wounds. Turing Test barked orders at ponies running around. When he spotted me, he stomped towards me. "Atom! Report."

"What?"

"Report. Tell me what happened."

"Oh. Crumble and the foals are fine." He made a face like I’d removed the giant stick from his arse. "A bit soggy, and we nearly all drowned, but they're in one piece."

"That's... that's some good news, at least. You'll be looking for your brother, I assume?"

No, I'm just here with the mail. "Yeah."

"Down here," I heard a weak burble in his voice. He was lying in a blanket, out of armour. Ivy was busy wrapping some bandages around his stomach, and he had a bloody towel over the top of his face.

I stepped over some discarded weapons and stood over his head. "What did you do to yourself, you ninny?"

He burst out laughing. "Ow."

"Atom!" Ivy scowled.

I shrugged. "He laughed, I'm off the hook."

"I'm fine."

"This is an interesting definition of 'fine'."

He waved his hoof blindly in my direction, bapping me on the front. "Some of the first floor landed on my head on its way down. It's just a concussion. I'll be on my feet in no time."

"Sugar, I love you but you are not getting up any time soon. You get your rest, okay?"

He frowned. "Hang on, aren't I the one with the first aid training?"

"You're also a stallion, which means you don't know what's good for you."

I nudged his side. "She's got you there."

"Oh, fine." There was a tiny yap from behind my head, and the puppy climbed up the back of it to rest between my ears.

"Oi. Whatcha think you're doing, mate?"

"Who, me?" Rainbow asked.

"Oh, not you, I uh. I found someone here down in the lab." I scooped the puppy off my head and sat down, letting him nose around. He sniffed and licked all along Rainbow's hoof, getting a smile out of him. "He was in a pet carrier floating in the water. Poor thing could have drowned."

Rainbow lifted the towel and looked along his side. The puppy walked up and licked his nose, making him wince. "Funny th... ey, stoppit. Stop! Atom, can you..."

"Only because you have a concussion." I picked the puppy up and tucked him between my legs. "I dunno whose he is. Someone is probably going to be looking for him, or... well, if they're alive they'll be looking for him."

"Actually Atom, uh... he's yours."

I squinted. "What?"

"Or rather, I got him for you. He was meant to be a surprise."

"You got me a puppy? Where? When?" I picked him up and gave him a more careful look over. I was going to have to take care of this thing?

"The other day when you were sick after we came back from Wormwood. I was on patrol and we came across a farm where they were giving them away, and I thought... Y'know who'd like one of those?" He smiled, and I smiled. The stupid sentimental schmuck. "You told that story about... what was it... Snowy? And how attached to him you were, so I thought you might appreciate another dog. And then when I saw them, and I saw this little guy, I knew he was perfect."

The puppy leaned over to lick my nose again, and I let him. I couldn't stop smiling. "You are the sappiest sack of shit that ever lived, and I don't deserve you."

"Oh, shush."

"Of course, I had to put up with the little scamp doin' his business all over the lab while you were gone," Ivy said. "He's your problem now, and I ain't cleanin' up any more doggy doo."

Rainbow chuckled. He got a thump on the hind leg. "We ran out of time before..."

"We?" Ivy stopped bandaging.

"I ran out of time..." She resumed. "Before we had to go to Los Arabos. We were all busy, it was a whole thing. But he's yours now. Think of it as an overdue birthday present or something."

I couldn't help it. I hugged the puppy. He was so small and soft.

"Well, now you have to find a name for the little poop factory," Ivy quipped.

"What do you think, boy?" I said to the puppy. He tilted his head. I made a noise that only he could hear. Ivy rolled her eyes.

"I had an idea. You called the last one Snowy, yeah?"

I nodded. "Yeah."

"And he was a black dog?"

"Black as the ace of spades."

"How about Nevada? It's the Palominian for 'snowy'."

Ivy closed up the medical box and got up to tend to someone else. "You're both morons." No appreciation for irony, honestly.

I mulled it over for a bit, then lifted the puppy again. "How d'you like that? Nevada sound good to you?" I got a bark and a waggy tail. "Yeah? Yeah?" He started trying to sniff me again, and I let him down. "Yeah, that's good."

"He's probably hungry after all that excitement."

"Man, so am I now that I think about it, the last thing we ate was... fuck, it was all the way in Los Arabos."

Rainbow chuckled. "I don't know how you can be hungry with this pong hanging around, but one was gonna beat the other sooner or later. Go see what Crumble's up to."

"Sounds like a plan. C'mon you." I scooped Nevada up and tucked him into my saddlebags, where he happily leaned out the side. I gave him a glare and pointed. "No pooping in there. You hear me? No pooping, or you're walking." He licked my hoof. Close enough.

Prickly Pear pushed past me. I nearly didn't recognise her because she was out of armour. It wasn't even the normal 'stand aside, peasant' push, she was rushing to something. Murmurs circulated in a crowd that began to gather. Turing Test nudged his way through to the middle, where he and Prickly Pear watched a pair of Rangers set down a stretcher. The cloth was red in several places. A scribe followed with a stethoscope around his neck and a weary, anxious look on his face. Prickly Pear sat next to it and pulled back the cloth with a shaking hoof. It was Elder Saguaro, looking as baggy and decrepit as ever.

"I'm... I'm sorry, I've done all I can do. He's gone."

She stared at his lifeless face. I thought he looked kinda goofy, tongue floppin' out and all soggy fur, but that probably didn't occur to her as she clutched his hoof, like if she just hoped hard enough he'd wake up and shoot me.

"Where did he fall?" That was the softest I have ever heard her speak.

The scribe looked intensely uncomfortable. "We found him out in the open on the helipad. There was no ammunition left in his packs."

Turing Test gave a knowing smirk and shook his head. He looked at the floor, then at Saguaro. He put a hoof on Prickly Pear's back. They sat silently for a moment. "Do you want to, or should I?"

She waited to answer, before letting Saguaro's hoof down. "You do it. They like you."

He looked more hurt by that than she did, but he nodded. "Lemme think of something."

He sighed and took a few steps away. Mutters circled. Prickly Pear looked like she was going to shrivel up and turn into a bog body at any moment. Turing Test turned, and the crowd went silent again. He stepped in front of the stretcher and cleared his throat. "Brothers and sisters in steel. Today, our Elder, Saguaro, has fallen in the line of most honourable duty. Today, he, along with our fallen brethren have given themselves in glory so that we may continue our mission." The crowd gave some monosyllabic chant that I couldn't discern from a vague hoot. Turing paused. "Now, there ain't one of us who ain't feeling some kinda loss today. Comrades, colleagues, mentors. Parents. Children. Brothers and sisters, all. Today is... a devastating day for our family." Hearing absolute silence from a crowd like this compelled me to hold my breath. "But we are strong. We are steel. We will adapt and we will be reforged! Today, we honour the heroes we've lost. Tomorrow, we rebuild for our heroes yet to come."

"To Elder Saguaro!" Prickly Pear yelled, hoof in the air. She had the volume, but the poppet looked like she was expecting a rotten tomato in the face. Instead, she got three of those synchronised, unintelligible chants from the crowd, complete with hoof pumps from those that could. After that, Rangers started filtering away, and the scribe who had the bad news went back to his work. Turing Test put his hoof on Prickly Pear's back. She was shaking.

"We'll make an elder out of you yet, darlin'."

I moved on before she had time to start yelling at me. I was supposed to be getting some food.

Many of the base's buildings were rubble. The terminal building consisted of a traffic control tower surrounded by free standing walls. The corrugated roof of the hangar had caved inwards, and smoke still poured from it. The skyline of the opposite side of the courtyard was missing something that I couldn't quite place. Even the perimeter wall was in ruins. As such, I had to follow my nose to the mess hall. This mercifully led me away from the bodies.

The remains of the mess hall had been reconfigured into an open-air barbecue. The roof and two of the walls had been blown away entirely. The sun had burned the moisture off the surfaces, but there were still large puddles in the corners. What tables and chairs could be saved were lined up in what floor space wasn't covered with rubble. Crumble was trying to beat some life into the machine that toasts bread on a conveyor belt, while the hostess trolleys were happy to slowly turn the beans and potatoes to mush, and some camping supplies had been appropriated to keep a big pot of soup boiling.

I caught myself smiling at Crumble kicking the toaster. The kids were chattering to each other, and a few of the Rangers had found their way over. I took another look at the spear. It was bent now, though not too badly, and there were divots in the blade where I'd jammed it into the hinges. Two weeks ago, under the same circumstances, I'd be annoyed at my shit getting dinged. Now, looking at those dents gave me a little warm and fuzzy sense of accomplishment when I remember how they got there. Maybe this is why Rainbow is so damn jolly all the time. Nevada barked and started leaning further out of my bag. "Alright, keep your doggy pants on, you little shit." I tucked the spear away and walked up to the counter.

I cleared my throat and waited for Crumble to notice me. The toaster made a noise and shuddered into life, and then she spotted me. "Atom!"

"Got anything for a growing mutt?" I petted Nevada, and he got really excited.

Crumble grinned. "I can scramble some eggs for him, sure. And what about yourself?"

"Oh, I'm chewing the tables. I will eat anything you put in front of me."

"You got it. Take a seat. Oh, and..." She reached under the counter, and returned with a plastic bottle of lukewarm but clear water. "I know you're probably sick of looking at the stuff, but keep the wheels turning, okay?"

I couldn't help but chuckle. "Fine, yeesh."

I sat on an empty table at the end of the hall furthest the door. I let Nevada out to have a sniff around. He peed in a couple of places, though that was the least of the mess in this place. At least he wasn't doing it in my bags. A couple of minutes later, Crumble came over with a tray and set it down. She put a small plate of scrambled eggs on the floor, and Nevada got stuck in. She put a big plate of fried everything in front of me, and I did the same. Then, she sat down with me.

"This is gonna be the hardest part," she said, in almost a whisper.

"What?" I muffled.

"I'm gonna watch those kids at that table, and one by one, their folks are gonna pick 'em up. Except not all of 'em are getting picked up."

I stopped chewing. "Oh."

"I mean, it won't be the first time, and they won't be on their own. We'll all be here for 'em. But... it's still a darn tragedy, y'know?" I said nothing. "And in some ways... we're all sitting at that table today, waiting for someone to walk through that door."

I frowned. "Surely they'll be like, going around informing next of kin, right?"

Crumble sighed. "They'll try. But with all the fireworks that went on, they might not be able to account for everyone. I tell myself I'll be ready for the waterworks every time, but... it's still a knife in the gut when it happens." I'd stopped eating. Crumble nudged me. "Don't let me get you down, Atom, I just needed someone to listen. Besides, if it weren't for you, well... you know. Little blessings, hm?"

I paused. "Right."

She stood up when the now half-doors swung open, and another group of Rangers filed in. A scribe had a long paper list floating after her. "I should get back to work. Gonna be a busy couple of hours."

I stayed her with a hoof. Something was still on my mind. "If any of those kids is on their own, you will look after them, yeah?"

Crumble looked puzzled for a moment. I've never told her about me. Maybe Rainbow has. Maybe she's slapped him for it. I hope she has. The she nodded earnestly. "Of course." She put a hoof on my shoulder. I let her go, and got back to eating.

Nevada finished before me, and climbed up on the bench for attention and scraps. My appetite had gone, so I pushed the eggs off into his bowl. The doors opened again, and another cohort of Rangers arrived. I might have to move soon to make space. I spotted a straggler at the back, bandages over one eye, one hind leg in a splint. Someone else did too, when a little blue filly at the table squealed and ran over.

"Momma!"

Ocean Breeze winced as she took the full force of Seashell's tackle. They talked a bunch, and I was too far away to hear. Seashell pointed over towards me, and I spotted Ocean Breeze break into a smile. It looked like that smile hurt, but she couldn't help it. I waved limply.

Behind them, I saw Ivy leading Rainbow in. He walked slowly, and Ivy grimaced at him the whole time. He was determined to get his own lunch, doctor's orders be damned. Nevada finished the scraps and crawled into my lap. I rubbed his belly and he was a very good boy.

The three of them - four, with Seashell - grouped up and got their food together, and came over to sit down with me.

"Atom!" Ocean Breeze said. "I'm sure you're going to hear this a lot, but... I want to thank you."

"Oh yeah? What'd I do?"

She chuckled. "You know what you did. Thank you for bringing my little girl back to me."

"See? I am rubbing off on you," Rainbow quipped.

I snorted in his direction. "Then it goes both ways, 'cause that's a brag and a half."

He laughed. "I guess I got the raw deal, then."

"At least you're still ticking up there."

"True, true."

"Ponies don't tick," Seashell said at the first moment of quiet she could find. Ocean Breeze grinned and bounced her on her lap.

"It's an expression, honey."

"I don't like expressions. They smell." She fidgeted and pouted.

The doors banged, and one of them lost a chunk. Prickly Pear made her way to the counter. "Ooh, look out," I said. "Here comes trouble."

Ivy looked over her shoulder, and then scoffed. "Oh, leave her alone, she's having a rough day." I opened my mouth to argue, and Rainbow touched my foreleg and shook his head.

Prickly Pear sat at the counter and talked to Crumble. Nobody came in for a bit, so they were undisturbed. I felt a bump on my knees, and heard clapping under the table. Ocean Breeze was also looking down quizzically.

"Seashell, what are you doing?"

"Come here puppy! Puppy come here!"

I sighed and lifted him up. "His name is Nevada." He was getting really excited with all these faces at the table. I let him jump to the floor and start sniffing around.

Seashell wriggled out onto the floor and got to petting. "Hi puppy!" In one ear and out the other.

Shaking my head, I sat up. Upon sitting up, there was a mean pair of eyes looking at me from near the next table over. Prickly Pear was… looking this way? I was starting to get the impression that her face was stuck like that. It was too late to look away too, she must have known I was looking at her looking at me. She inhaled. I braced myself at the table.

Then she nodded, set her food down at her table, and sat down with her back to us. I looked at Rainbow, who looked as baffled as I was. I could see Crumble at the counter shaking her head and smiling.

“What’s up with you two?” Ivy asked.

“Nothing, sweetie,” Rainbow said. He grinned to try and sell it like the amateur liar he is. Ivy raised her brow.

I nudged him. “I’m sure we’ll talk about it later.” Ivy seemed to buy that one.

Nobody came to sit with Prickly Pear for the next five or ten minutes we were there, while we talked about where we were during the battle. Apparently lots of ponies had shit fall on their heads. Maybe they shouldn’t have been going around without helmets so much. Nobody was sure where Lemon Puff had gotten to - I was apparently the last of us to see her. I kept looking over at Prickly Pear every now and then. At some point I think she was just sitting there, having finished her food. I don’t think she had anywhere to be.

Rainbow stretched. “Cripes, it’s fuckin’ hot out here. I think I’m gonna find some shade. Sounds like it’d be good for the ol’ noggin.”

Ivy smirked. “You just want an excuse to go poking around at things.”

He chuckled. “I don’t know why I even try.”

She used magic to tug his head forward a little bit so she could look at the top, then let him go. He swayed, then recovered. "Don't go pushin' yourself now, sugar."

"I'll be fine."

“I’ve been finished my food for like twenty minutes now and some shade sounds really nice actually? So I think I’ll go with you, if you don’t mind.” I scooted along the bench after him. He shrugged and nodded. "C'mon, Nevada!" Nevada perked up when he spotted me coming over.

Seashell managed to pet him one more time before he escaped, and I scooped him up into my bag. "Aww... Momma, can we get a puppy? Please please please please please?" I heard Ocean Breeze groan as we left.

On the way out, Rainbow paused behind Prickly Pear and lifted a hoof. After a hesitant moment, he shook his head and carried on.


"If there's something they don't want when they're done, can I have it?"

We had ventured into the lab, and were carefully picking our way down the stairs to the water level. Water was still draining into it, so it wasn't done rising, but some of the mud was starting to settle at least. A few brave scribes were swimming around, trying to rescue anything that wasn't nailed down.

"Sweet Celestia..."

"I'm sure they can fix it up, it'll be fine. Actually, it'll give the scribes work, right?"

Rainbow glared at me. "Hang on, aren't I supposed to be the upbeat one?"

"I have a puppy. I don't think I'm capable of being in a bad mood." Nevada barked. I caught Rainbow smiling.

"Yeah. Alright."

We stood on the lowest step above the water. Trickling echoed around the lab.

"But yeah, you're right, all these machines are fucking banjaxed."

He splashed some water with a hoof. "Some of it's probably salvageable. I mean, it's all been bodged together from scrap and spare parts anyway. But this water might actually kill it all if we don't do something about it."

"Is there nowhere for..." I thought about that for a second. "Shit, this is the lowest basement level, isn't it? There's nowhere for the water to go."

He nodded. "By the time it evaporates, we'll have rust, mould, there's already mud getting caked in... Any bright ideas?"

"Drink it? You're always short of water out here."

"It's filthy. Plus, to filter it we'd need to get it out of here first."

"Reverse the flow of the ventilation?"

"The AC's never worked, and it's definitely not working now. Also, it would probably fuck it up."

I scratched my chin. "So if we can't drink it, and we can't pump it out..." I thought back. The Little Boy was still here, up to his knees in water. I climbed the stairs until I was up to cockpit level, took my saddlebags off, and hopped over. I started poking around for the way into the cockpit.

"Atom, what are you doing?"

"Pushing buttons that I don't know what they do." Rainbow made an annoyed noise. The cockpit unlatched, and opened with a slow, hydraulic hiss. "Aha!"

"Please don't break the only tech on base that's not water damaged."

I slipped into the seat. It was an easy fit. Not much room for the hindlegs, and really not designed with wings in mind, but it did fine for poking around. Ivy said the matrices were fine, so I should be able to get the systems up and running by...

"Agh!" It made a mechanical noise. Something moved, and then went back to where it was. I think Rainbow peed a little. The scribes in the water stared. "I'm okay!" And importantly for my purposes, the systems were on. Dials and lit switches sprang to life. At a guess, you had to be a unicorn to pilot this thing, since there were holsters for forelegs to either side of me, and a load of buttons in the middle, which you'd be unable to reach while swinging the arms. Good thing that wasn't what I was trying to do.

Let's see, fuel, fuel... "Is there a manual in the glove box?" I shouted.

"Atom, please, stop pissing about."

I inspected the buttons near the fuel gauge. Dump fuel, no... pump fuel... because there's no way you'll confuse those! Emergency water transf-aha.

"I've got it."

I poked my head out. Rainbow stood leaning over the guard rail, frowning. "Got what?"

"I'm making some educated guesses here, but I think the Little Boy here can electrolyse its onboard water for some extra fuel. If we can get the water from the floor to the body..."

His face lit up. "... the Little Boy will turn into fuel, that's... brilliant! It'll need a lot of juice to process this much water, and I don't know if it can take all of it, and... and, and, it'll probably need some filtration? But it's a damn sight easier than a bucket line! Somebody get... fuck it, I'll grab Ivy, she knows that thing better than anyone, I'll be right back!"

I put my hooves up on the sorta dashboard. You've done it again, Atom.

"Missiles armed, ready to fire," a robotic voice said in the cockpit. The same voice yelled on a loudspeaker outside. "BETTER WIPED THAN STRIPED!" I scrambled to take my hooves off the dash. Fuck. You've done it again, Atom.


After Ivy had eaten my face off for nearly loosing surface to air missiles inside the laboratory, and then grudgingly admitted that my suspicions were correct and gathering a few scribes to cobble together something for it, Rainbow and I went to check out the quarters. The first job was finding them. Remember when I said I thought the skyline was missing something? One of the buildings that had come down the hardest was the quarters. One of the squads had retreated into it, and rather than try and breach it, it seems the Enclave tried to bring it down. It used to be three floors high, and was now a little under one. One and a bit in some places. Some power armoured rangers and unicorn scribes were busy picking through the rubble, and making a good job of it. I overheard whispers that there weren't too many casualties in this building because the squads got out before it came down completely, but they were combing through it anyway to be safe.

I followed Rainbow. He followed an odd path, which I didn't understand until I realised he was trying to trace where the corridors were. He climbed up some chunks of concrete wall, then hopped to another couple of peaks, and looked down.

"It's... it should be here," he said.

"What?"

"My room."

"Oh."

He hopped around a depression in the rubble, and shoved his hooves under a slab to lift it. I was expecting him to completely wreck himself trying to lift a big chunk of concrete, but it turns out it was dry wall, and he tossed it away easily, and showered himself in dust while he was at it. He stood over what was the corridor, looking over what was the corridor wall into the room. On his side of the floor, all of the guitars had been smashed into the record cabinet, and from what I could tell, most of them had been snapped in the neck too. Rainbow went white.

"I don't think we needed to come over here to know that this was going to happen."

"Where is it?" He dove into the wreckage hole and kicked the broken body of a guitar across the floor.

"Oh hey, that's my one. Nobody playing it now, I guess," I chuckled.

Rainbow ignored me. He threw bits of guitar and timber over his shoulder as he dug in the remains. He occasionally stopped to carefully lift a few record sleeves out, only to find them sharply bent in the middle, or a video tape with a big split in the case. He'd cringe and put them aside, and keep digging. I looked around behind him. Nevada, being a puppy, looked at everything with unbridled excitement. I spotted their rug, now caked in plaster dust and sitting in a puddle. Their cork board was crushed under some wall. At least they didn't need it anymore. Come to think of it, most of this stuff was Rainbow's. I had my whole life on my back, and I imagined Ivy lived light too. You can take the boy out of the stable, but you can't take the stable out of the boy.

He dropped a packet of spare record needles to the side and got up to dig on the other side of the room. "Shit. Shit shit." I stood aside, and he pulled the footstand of their bed clean off what was left of it. He held it like he didn't know what to do with it, then tossed it away and started heaving lumps of concrete off what must be the bed.

In standing back I tripped on something and stumbled. It was the camera. The flash reflector had a great big dent in it now, and it was split open. I picked it up and half the back plate fell clean off. What it did reveal to me, however, was the completely intact film roll. I bopped it out. "Hey, you might still be able to develop these. Dunno where you're gonna find a darkroom, but you must have been using this camera for something, right?"

I got no answer. Instead Rainbow was giving himself an aneurysm by lifting heavy bits of wall. "Shit. Fuck shit fuck, where did I put it?" I pocketed the film. Somewhere on there was a picture of me and him watching telly.

Nevada hopped out of my bag and started sniffing around. I went to pick him back up, because I was afraid Rainbow would step on him, but he was too quick for me. Rainbow at least saw him and stopped stomping around for a moment. A good thing too, he looked like he was going to have another panic attack. I stepped around him to go pick Nevada up, and I found him sniffing around the side of the bed. I found him sniffing at a thick book wedged between a beam of the bed and some wall. Wait a second. "I think he found your book."

"What?" he blurted out. I pulled Nevada out of the way before he could lick it.

"Maybe there's like, cooking smell off it."

Rainbow took a look, and immediately scrambled to pull it out. It was a clumsy operation of pushing the two things pinning it apart and nosing it out, but he got it. It was a bit dusty and damp around the edges, and the spine had taken some twisting damage, but the interior was intact. After inspecting it, Rainbow sat back on the bit of the bed protruding from the rubble and hugged the book. "Oh, thank Celestia."

I scratched Nevada under the chin. "You a bit of a bloodhound, eh? Maybe some rescue dog in there? Who is an extremely very good boy?" Nevada licked my nose. Rainbow smiled, briefly, then put the book down and returned to the record changer. Nevada turned to try and get to the book again. I tucked him back into the bag. "Nooo, you don't eat priceless family heirlooms. Plus it's all veggie smells, and you won't like 'em." Holy shit, I'm turning into a crazy dog mare or something. This is what puppies do to me.

Minutes passed. For every intact record he managed to pull out, there were a dozen or more broken ones. There was maybe one intact guitar between all the various instrument bits on the floor, and even then it might only have 5 strings. He carefully lifted the whole record player apparatus off, and then chucked it on the floor. I heard him make a noise, and walked over to look over his shoulder.

He picked bits of shattered plastic out of the way to lift up what used to be a violin. It was pretty recognisably violin-shaped, but with three severed strings curled up at the ends, part of the body caved in, and the neck hanging on by splinters, it was safe to say this thing was driftwood. He stared at it, and his wings drooped. I didn't know what to do, so I put a hoof on his back.

"Her name..." he sniffled. "Her name was... her name was Treble Clef." He kept looking at the broken violin. I felt him start to shake. By the time he put it down, he was sobbing into it, crumpled over the destroyed stereo.

I just stood there. I gave him a pat on the back and stayed nearby while he wept. I wanted to slap him around the back of the head and shake him until he came to his senses. I didn't, because he still had bandages around his head. I mean, yeah, it's a crying shame that all of these irreplaceable cultural artifacts had been destroyed, but fucking hell Rainbow, you're acting like you lost a child.

I heard some shouts nearby. When I climbed to a peak of rubble, I saw a bunch of Rangers rushing to one spot.

"There's someone in there!" I heard.

"Don't climb up there in that thing, you'll crush her!" said another.

"How are we going to get to her?"

I jumped down to the room. "Hey, Rainbow, I think they might need some help over there,"

He was, by now, lying face down in the wreckage, blubbering. "I'm so sorry..."

Okay. That was enough. I grabbed him by the wings to pull him upright. He yelped like a kicked puppy, so convincingly that I checked if Nevada was alright to be sure. Then, I stepped in front of him and lifted him by the chin. "Okay, look here, you." He had one of those miserable, mid-crying faces that begged for pity. "You can cry over your mementos another time. Right now we need you in the land of the living."

"But..."

"Yeah, it's sad. I get that. I am also a petty child who gets irrationally upset when my shit gets broken." He looked like he'd been slapped in the face with words. "There is someone trapped under rubble over there. Go help them, you fucking moron."

I let him go with a little shove. He was still sniffing, but he stood steady. Reluctantly, he nodded, looking at the floor, and then he nodded again firmly. He climbed over the rubble, and over to the commotion.

I waited a moment to catch up. I tidied the broken case up. The box part was badly cracked, but it held together. Maybe there was some saving it. There were enough strings around, certainly. He probably had spare strings stashed in here too. I pushed the violin-shaped wood back to its violin shape and left it there. While I was at it, I straightened up the intact records and put them on top of the stereo. "Equestrian Pie" was on top. I think I'd heard that one on his little makeshift radio station. Now that I think about it, that station is toast now. Of all the songs to survive.

Tidying done, I followed after Rainbow. They'd gone and done all the hard work without me, which was fine, I wouldn't have been much help anyway. Rainbow heaved one last slab away with the help of another similarly-bulky Ranger, and they reached in to help the trapped pony out. She coughed loudly. I scurried over for a better look.

"Okay, give her some space!" he shouted. The small crowd backed up. "Get a doctor! She's bleeding!"

"Rain... Rainb... sir," she burbled.

"You're okay, Lemon. You're gonna be fine." Oh shit, that was Lemon Puff? I hopped around the rubble to get a better look, and sure enough, that was her.

"Is Ocean Breeze okay?"

"She's doing great. We're all okay. Don't you worry."

"Oh... hey, Atom!" she burbled weakly. I didn't know she'd spotted me. I waved uncertainly. "Did you get..." She coughed. "... the lightning rods up?"

I snirked. "Some of them. Mid-storm is a bit late to get 'em up."

She chuckled, and then started coughing a whole lot. Rainbow put a hoof on her chest to steady her. "Easy, easy. Don't exert yourself."

"Oh, it ain't nothin', lemme just..." She hacked and spat to the side. "I'll be kickin' Enclave tail in no time."

A couple of scribes and two Rangers with a stretcher turned up at that point. Rainbow helped her onto it, and they took her away. She waved at us as she was carried off. The crowd dispersed shortly after, most of them going back to searching the rubble. Rainbow sat down where he was and watched the stretcher go. I sat beside him.

"I... I don't know what came over me," he said.

"I know exactly what came over you. It's okay." He looked at me. "You're a sentimental schlub trying to save the soul of a dead world. Everyone else is trying to bodge together guns and shit or just surviving, and you're there putting together this fallout shelter for culture. You're this... rage against the dying of the light. And that's kinda metal."

He smiled, looking at the ground. "Maybe a little hyperbolic. And morbid."

"It's true though, kinda? Like, that's what the violin means. It's what the records and the video tapes and stuff mean. If that shit wasn't important, you wouldn't be crying in a bombed out building over it."

"A week ago I couldn't get you to pay attention to my story about that violin for love nor money."

I chuckled. "It's been an intense week, okay?"

We sat quietly for a few moments. The smell of dead bodies, the trickling of surface water, and the wails of grief from around the courtyard had all gone away, mostly.

"Treble Clef was her name, you said?"

"Yeah," he said, a moment later.

"Who was she? I don't really remember the story."

He took a deep breath. "Well, it was about three weeks after I first joined the Rangers..."

Here Comes The Sun

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I'm not going to repeat Rainbow's story about Treble Clef again because I can only get so soppy before getting sick. I will, however, inform you that he reduced himself to tears as he clutched his broken violin. Twice. Left me to gather all of the intact shit into a box by myself. The prick. Not that it was a very big box, but still. The muppet could have helped at least.

Pulling Lemon Puff out of the rubble was the last excitement for a little while. It was peak heat and the only ponies doing much work were Crumble (who was in the shade), and a handful of ponies searching the rubble for survivors, all of them wearing air-conditioned power armour. Rainbow, who had run out of places to hide from Ivy, finally lay down to sleep. When I snitched that he'd been lifting plaster walls, she went ballistic at him, and I snuck off to embezzle some water supplies for Nevada. Once I'd done that, the tuckered out puppy found some shade to curl up in, and I sat with him. I didn't sleep, even though I was pretty exhausted. I woke up this morning in some supply cupboard in Los Arabos, and it felt like years ago. The weight of everything that had happened had me - a feckless transient - struck dumb. I couldn't imagine the effect it was having on Rainbow. The boy probably needed his sleep.

At some point I heard a minor commotion breaking out somewhere. Not a fight or anything - I'm pretty sure all of the Rangers were too demoralised for that. Someone had spotted something coming, and they weren't sure what to do. I was bored, so I got up to check it out. Nevada yawned, stretched, and scampered along after me. (Holy shit, I have a puppy! Aahhh!)

How anyone picked out the incoming caravan from the west is beyond me. I had to squint horribly in that direction, since the sun was descending that way, and I had to look away with streaming eyes before long. I took their word for it as I milled about looking for a familiar face. I passed by the mess almost-hall, and spotted the table will the kids. Only about six of them there now, Marmalade among them. I found Turing Test being briefed by scouts and keeping an eye out, and took shade nearby. Prickly Pear wasn't too far away either, but she looked like she was having a sulk.

"Are they armed?" someone said.

"I'm spotting one with a long rifle."

"Should we fire a warning shot?"

"It's not like we're in a condition to fight."

"There's just a few of them though. We could overpower them with our cadets."

"Stand down," Turing Test said.

"I'm sorry, Sir?

"I know that rifle anywhere."

The lancer and the scribe that were his current improvised war table exchanged puzzled glances, but sat down and put down the pistol and knife that constituted their combined defence. The caravan advanced in silence, with Turing Test watching them intently, and everyone else watching Turing Test.

Boy it was hot out here. Couldn't they be doing this at a more reasonable hour?

"Hail," the pony with the rifle called. Had I heard that voice before?

"If you're coming to keep the peace, you're a little late," Turing Test called back with a laugh.

The pony with the rifle looked at the rifle, tossed his hood back, and pulled his mask down. "Did what I could, my dude."

"How's your mother?" Turing Test said.

Full Moon chuckled. "So blind she don't know a cactus from a candle."

They both laughed, and clapped a hoof together in a sort of manly half-hug. "Last time I saw you, you were only up to my shoulder."

"S'all good. Babylon keeps me posted. Hard to get away in your shoes, I imagine."

"Not the kind of behaviour I'm supposed to encourage."

"And look who we've got here!" I smelled Full Moon approaching before I noticed he was talking to me. The sour smell of star stuff still made me a little sick. "Atom, up and about again. What'd I say?"

"It's just a little heart attack, it's fine. Walked it off."

Full Moon's eyebrow rode high. "You mean your brother walked it off for you?"

"Phbhbhft. Pffffft. Pschh." I waved dismissively like, four times. "Maybe."

A couple of other ponies milled around by the remains of the walls, with a couple of knights looking antsy. "Let 'em in. They're here to help," Turing Test called down to them. "You'll be lookin' for Night Light, I presume?"

"'Course."

"Well..." Turing Test cleared his throat. "I can't honestly say I know where he is. We're still trying to get a head count. You..." He made a face like he'd been kicked. "You know how energy weapons are."

Full Moon nodded, eyes on the floor. "We brought medical supplies. I dunno if Mister Cactus-Face himself would approve, but we've got some of the juice with us too. Makes an improvised anaesthetic with the right ingredients."

"Elder Saguaro is among our valiant fallen, Full Moon."

He breathed deep through his nose. "Apologies." He paused. "Shall we?" Turing Test nodded.

I hung to the back of the group as they moved, keeping upwind of them. A few Rangers looked uneasy as they approached, but no more than that, particularly when Turing Test gave them his 'go about your business' look.

"The infirmary is a slag heap now, so we're in the process of setting up a temporary one over behind that building. You'll want to borrow Crumble, over in the mess hall, to see about those ingredients you need. As for Night Light, we're counting casualties by the gate. In the event of the worst, that's where he'll-"

"Hold on."

Full Moon jumped ahead a few steps to the row of bodies that they were running out of room for at the gate, and who were starting to spill out on to the walls and the helipad. He stopped at one, and stared. Turing Test scratched the back of his head. I grimaced. Was it? I mean, with this much carnage, someone I know was bound to have-

"Ow!" Full Moon kicked the body.

"Get up."

"Five more minutes, man, can't you give me that?"

I smacked my forehead. You're kidding me.

"Nighty, you're chillin' with the cadavers."

"What?"

Spaceman sat up, helmet still on. He tipped it back to look at who was talking to him, which had to be the first time I'd ever actually seen his eyes. Much clearer than I was expecting. Full Moon grinned, picked him up and pulled him into a tight hug.

"Bro, what are you doing here?"

"Lowering mom's blood pressure, you turkey."

Turing Test sighed. "Well, that could have turned out a lot worse. Knight Night Light, quit your slackin' and report your status!"

The poor boy wasn't entirely awake yet. "O-oh-kay?"

"If he didn't have such sharp eyes..."

"Sir!" A scribe pushed past the Wormwood caravan, slamming off the back of one of them and rolling into the dirt. He scrambled back up to Turing Test. "Sir, the sentries have spotted more incoming,on foot."

"Hostiles?"

"Unknown. Looks like it might be a caravan, or it might be raiders."

Turing Test snorted. "Now what are you renting that braincase out to, Chive? Use your common sense. What kind of raiders ride up in broad daylight, going slow enough to be confused for a caravan?"

"Uhhh..." Chive sweated. Turing Test lost patience, and left the way he came. Naturally, I followed him to see what all the fuss was about.

The noise of the first caravan arriving had disturbed some ponies from their siestas, and while it wasn't yet a crowd - it was still too hot for that - it would be getting that way if commotion continued. When Turing Test climbed the remains of the north wall to get a better look, there were enough ponies at his back for whispers to circulate. Then, he hopped forward off the wall and started walking to meet them. The crowd's whispers grew to nervous chatter.

"Calm down, calm down!" Rainbow yelled from somewhere nearby. The muttering reduced to the occasional murmur. I whipped my head around, and he was making his way towards me with Ivy in tow. "Atom, what's going on? I heard something about a caravan."

"Turing Test just hopped over the wall to meet 'em. One of the scouts said they looked like 'raiders'." Yes, I did the air quotes. Ivy glared - not at me, just that 'oh yeah, that's the kind of people I work with' glare. Rainbow walked up to the wall, and we followed.

Turing Test was holding someone a short way ahead of the caravan while they caught up.

"We came as fast as we could!" I heard. Babylon? Of course.

"I'm just glad you were out of harm's way, darlin'. I'd said my goodbyes back there."

"Oh, quiet your mouth. Lightning cares not for who it strikes. Where is our dear little sparrow? Is she alright?"

At this point, Ivy couldn't help herself. She leapt over the wall and scurried over to meet them. "Over here, Momma!"

"Ivy!" I couldn't really see them properly from the distance, but I fully imagined Babylon in floods of tears. Made me lean on Rainbow a bit. I stopped when he went 'ow'.

It was a couple of minutes before the group got as far as the walls. We backed up a bit to make room for them. Turing Test climbed over first, with Babylon close behind. Then when Jericho crested the wall, every weapon in the base made a whine as it was primed and trained on him.

He froze and lifted a pair of rifles. Nineveh, coming up on his flank, crouched with the wall as semi-cover, looking wary, and Jaffa, coming up on the other side, brandished a spear, bless him.

"Don't shoot!" Turing Test and Babylon immediately threw themselves between them.

"They are afraid, confused! They mean no harm!" Babylon pleaded.

Jaffa pointed his adorable spear at a few places, trying to look threatening. "And I suppose those are laser rifles of greeting, then?"

"That's my brother-in-law, you morons!" Turing Test yelled.

"They're raiders!" someone called back from the Ranger crowd.

"Excuse me!" Jericho barked.

Ivy finally found a way over the wall. With three other ponies standing in the deepest breach in the wall, she had to scramble and climb up somewhere else. She stood atop it, watching the display with... on another day she might just be disappointed. Today though, she looked like a terrier on a balcony barking at passers by.

"Will you morons put those things down? The tribe are here to help!"

A scribe put up a hoof. "But..."

"But nothing, shitrag! Are you gonna turn down help at a time like this?" The scribe who raised the objection sank, silently. "Y'all are family. My family. C'mon now." She hopped off the wall, and circled the standoff, gently pushing weapons down with her magic as she passed. "Give peace a chance, hm?"

The clearing remained silent. Ivy could only avert the weapons of so many ponies at a time. Turing Test and Babylon backed up to each other. Rainbow bit his lips. Ivy's pacing slowed, then stopped. Her gaze darted between the Rangers, and Jericho. Jericho breathed deep. Some Rangers exchanged glances.

Nevada poked his nose over my head.

One by one, the whine of primed energy weapons died off, and lasers were lowered. The first few were nervous and slow. Jaffa lowered his spear, and as it seemed more and more okay, the crowd disarmed. Nineveh stood up, and Jericho let go of the breath he was holding on to. Babylon and Turing Test sighed with relief and turned to each other. Ew, old people intimacy.

"What the heck is holdin' y'all up over there?" someone shouted. That was a very impatient tribespony. Jericho made an 'oh that's me' face, and still wary of trigger-happy Rangers, climbed down from the breach. Jaffa and Nineveh followed, along with a couple of the other tribe members. Peregrine flashed me a smile when she spotted me. Behind her, two ponies manoeuvred two carts over the wall by lifting them awkwardly. Behind them, well.

"What'd I tell you? I knew these son-of-a-guns would be right in the middle of it." Madeira was not who I was expecting to see in this combination of place and time. From the way Rainbow looked like he'd been smacked on the back of the head, I don't think he was either.

"Pay up, Rough Stuff, heh," someone further back said.

"Aw, hasenpfeffer."

"Okay, hang on. Hold the phone. What?"

"Something the matter, Miss Atom Smasher?" Madeira came over to me, since Turing Test was busy coordinating the tribe's carts.

"I can understand Jericho's lads showing up, they've got an extended family thing going on here, but why are you here? And more to the point, is... are those the two idiots who were duelling in the street?" Tumbleweed and Rough Stuff, each pulling a small cart, through the breach bashfully doffed their hats when I mentioned them.

"Just seemed the neighbourly thing to do, hm?" Madeira leaned on a crumbling pillar. "Y'all were more helpful than you'd ever know from passin' through. These two felt so bad after you made fools out of 'em that they started doin' extra chores to make up for all the trouble they caused. Heck, it was their idea to bring a care package after that ruckus this morning, and then we bumped into Jerry 'n co on the way, so we all formed a big convoy..." Jericho must have heard his name being mangled, and shot a look in our direction. "Not to mention that that robot fixed up the boiler. Is he around? I know he said he weren't a fan of Rangers..."

"Uhhh..." I looked at Rainbow, and he looked at me. "He's not around."

"That's a shame. Really knocked out those problems we were having with the water condenser. I'm sure I'll run into him again, hm? He's a little hard to miss!"

I nudged Rainbow before he and his honest streak broke Madeira's heart. "Right!"

"Now, where should we put these? We got medical supplies, water supplies, food supplies, and drinking supplies."

"Oh boy." Rainbow ran a hoof over his head. "Talk to Crumble in what's left of the mess hall. Down to the helipad, right, past the hangar, right again and then follow the smell of food."

Madeira turned. "You heard him, boys!" With discipline I wasn't expecting from two idiots whose pastime had been duelling up until this week, they rolled out, and were gone.

We came over to see what Jericho was doing. He was cracking open one of the boxes from the tribe's carts. Turing Test peered in from the other side, as one of the sets of goggles floated out. Jericho grimaced.

"We were not able to return all of them. One pair was lost, another damaged. We were lucky not to lose a life with them."

Turing Test nodded, and put it back. "Well, if they were still here, they'd be under ten feet of water right now. Dunno how much good they are to us, but it's somethin' at least."

"Do you think you could find a buyer for them? It might give you the resources you need to rebuild."

Turing Test winced. "Ah, we're not gonna sell 'em. At that point we might as well give up being Rangers."

"Your choice, brother."

He nodded. "Chive!" That snivelling little scribe was still hanging around? "Find somewhere to put these."

"So."

Jericho snuck up on me when I was looking in another direction. "Ahh!"

"I see you have returned from the Cave of Screams?"

Rainbow nodded. "Just flew back this morning. Sam was right, it led right through to the lab." I spotted Ivy heading towards us.

Jericho measured us up carefully. "What happened to the metal pony?"

Both of us winced at the same time. Rainbow paused. "Enclave happened to him," I said.

"Oh," Jericho's look slid to crestfallen.

"So weren't I right all along about the cave?" Ivy was totally failing to conceal a smug smirk. "Nothing to worry about."

"Uhh..." Rainbow put a hoof up, but Ivy grabbed it and waved it around, and made him touch Jericho's front. He did not look happy.

"See? Both of them still in one piece."

I scratched my temple. "Well, I mean, Sam bought it, but it's not entirely relevant to what you're saying..."

"You need not insult my intelligence, little sparrow."

Rainbow couldn't keep biting his tongue. He had a face like he was busting for a piss. "I wouldn't say we had nothing to worry about..."

"Oh?" Ivy and Jericho looked at him at the same time.

"I mean, it's an old quarry and mining facility. The place was dangerous. But the kicker was the rogue mining robots."

"Yeah, we uh." I smirked. "We found the 'screams' in your cave of screams there. Old engines and machines still trucking along and making lots of noise."

"My guess is - and forgive my outsider perspective here - that the oral tradition started up to warn people away from a dangerous location that they might otherwise use for shelter. Just a theory."

The two of them looked at each other and blinked. "I..."

Ivy nodded. "Yes, I'd say that makes sense?"

"It's not unreasonable."

"So in a way, you're both wrong!" I said. Ivy and her cheating unicorn magic yanked my goggles down over my eyes, which knocked my glasses off. I mean, I deserved that one, but still, fucking scribes.

While I was scrambling in the dirt for my glasses, and Rainbow was chuckling at me, Ivy and Jericho wandered off to make up for being jerks to each other or something. Bastards, the lot of them. I gave Rainbow a thump and traipsed off to find someone else to talk to. Fortunately, I didn't have to go far.

"Jaffa! Me ol' boy. Jaffa cake. C'mere." He was hanging out on a peak in the ruined wall, keeping watch, because I guess that's all he knows how to do.

"I am neither old, nor a cake, free bird."

"Do I have some stories to tell you."

He tilted his head. "Why are you asking me?"

Was he being intentionally obtuse? I'd never know. "This spear." I pulled it off my back. I had to tug a bit because my duct tape harness got caught on it. "This spear has seen some shit." He tilted his head at me like a confused puppy. Nevada, the actual confused puppy, was busy sniffing the tribe's crates and peeing on them. "See this gouge in the blade? Where it's bent a bit?"

"I see it."

"A couple of hours ago I used this thing to pry open the door on a flooded saferoom. There were fourteen foals and one of the kindest ponies I've ever met holed up in there. All of them are currently over there, finishing their lunch. Right now Crumble is probably figuring out what to do with all the shit you've guys brought." I smiled, and held it up. He watched it with wide eyes. "This thing you gave me saved lives. I just... thought you might like to know before I give it back to you."

"You're... giving it back?"

"Well yeah. I didn't ask for it. And hey, I know how much things can mean to a person. I thought you might be missing it."

Jaffa smiled, and sat. "You keep it, free bird."

"What?"

"An object only means as much as the story it tells. For me, that spear was a toy. I never used it for more than troubling strangers coming to meet with Jericho. With you, it is the wings of life. Its story is now more yours than mine."

"You never used this when like... the Rangers and the Tribe were fighting?"

"That was before my time. Bear it well, free bird."

I looked it over again. Well, that was unexpected. Guess I need a sturdier holster than duct tape now. "Well! Thanks, Ja-" When I looked up, he was gone. Not gone gone, he'd just hopped over to the next peak on the walls, but I humoured his dramatic exit and let him be.

Now, you might be thinking, who else could possibly wander out of the desert to come to our aid? We already had the Eagle Tribe and caravans from Wormwood and Fort Mercer, who's next? The Ranger-hating loonies from Isotope City?

Well. Wait right there.

An hour passed. The lookouts calmed down, the new arrivals rehydrated, and Babylon took over cooking duties while Crumble started organising supplies. The sun had stopped rising and started sinking, and it was cooling down enough for ponies who aren't me to do some work. I chilled in a shaded part of the north wall with a puppy sleeping on my stomach. I remember thinking that I should get some real sunglasses at some point. The hypnoswirly toy glasses were fun, but they were starting to bend and wobble (they were only supposed to fit a foal), and they were crap for sun protection anyway.

Then I looked over those glasses as I held them in my hoof, and saw another caravan coming from the north.

I scooped Nevada off me (gently, he's only wee) and scooted along the wall to get a better look. One, two... six ponies, three carts... four blue jumpsuits, one oversized helmet, and one... suit of armour with a trucker hat? I didn't believe it. I sat there, watching them, not believing it.

The equine manifestation of a briar patch stopped on the road below me. I smirked.

"Well inn't this a turnaround for the books?"

Winchester glared at me, then turned around. "Okay, we're going back. I knew this was a bad idea."

"The hell you are, y'old coot." Sam headbutted him immediately, and being a domesticated forklift, there was no way ol' Winnie was overpowering him.

"Sam? Okay. This needs some explanation."

"That you, Atom? Oh, thank fuck."

"Aw, you were actually worried about me? That's sweet."

"Oh, can it featherbrain."

"Alright, consider it canned." I sat over the edge with Nevada at my side. "So please, do explain. We thought you'd kicked the bucket and legged it over here to help with the defence."

"Me? Sunk by a little blue party favour? Nahhh. I must have rebooted shortly after you left. I knew I wouldn't be able to get to you guys before the lightshow was over, but I did beeline for Isotope City to get some help."

"Y'gonna sit there or are you gonna let us out of the sun already?" Winchester barked.

"I have to say, I'm impressed at the feat of negotiation that had to take place to get us to this point. How'd you pull that one off?"

Winchester raised his rifle at me. "Let us in already!"

Sam slowly put a metal hoof on the gun and pushed it down. "No guns, sheriff, we're here to help."

There was a brief, excellent moment of watching Winchester's blood simmer. I should really stop fucking with him now, poor Caliber looks like he's going to fall over any second. "Only reason we're here is because it's his idea." He gave Sam a shove, and only succeeded in shoving himself. "We're gonna dump our shit and go, and if he thinks he ain't gonna be torn apart immediately, that's his business." You confusing-motived, angry little man. Sam gave him a nudge. His moustache wrinkled. "And... I guess it's... neighbourly." He said that like it was a verbal brussels sprout. "If they're comin' out and attacking the Rangers, well... enemy's enemy." Sam nodded and looked at me. If he could smile, he would be grinning from ear to ear, the beautifully smug bastard. "Now hurry up and open the gate before I change my mind."

"You uh, you actually might want to come around the side? The gate's out of commission."

Winchester grumbled, and around the side of the base they went. Naturally, as they entered, they were met with stares. Even Sam started to look antsy. Cinderblock was the big one's name, yeah? He was pointing his guns at everyone who looked at him. I'm no expert, but from the look of his saddles, Sam had unloaded them first for just such an eventuality. I got some gliding use out of my wings for finding Turing Test and ushering him over. Rainbow Code spotted them by himself as I was returning.

His eyes widened. "Is that..."

I nodded. "Yep."

"The lone robot rides again," Sam said.

"How... what? You're here?"

"Get it all out, Ken."

Rainbow instead ran out of works and looked kind of offended. Turing Test took advantage of this pause to step forward. "Now what's all this then? Stable jumpsuits are some of the last things I'd expect to wander into town today."

I smirked. "It would appear we've been busy making friends this week."

Winchester glared at me, then at Turing Test. "Tincan here wanted to make sure the two pigeons were alright and drop off some supplies. They're dandy, here's your shit, we're leaving. Good day."

All of us tried to say something, but we... couldn't think of anything. We looked at each other and shrugged.

"Ma? Is that Ma?" Caliber tipped his helmet back, looking at the Tribesponies gathered in the shade, watching.

Winchester didn't even bother to look. "No, Cal, it ain't your Ma. She's probably in another galaxy by now." I'm sorry, I snickered. I couldn't help myself.

"Wait!" Peregrine scrambled to her hooves and galloped over. "Caliber!"

"M-ma?" Caliber's jaw was on the floor. I think I saw Winchester's actual eyes for maybe the second time.

She practically jumped into hugging him. Cinerblock tried to fire, and got nowhere. "My lil' Callie... I had no idea you'd be here. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry."

"Peh... Perry..." Winchester gibbered.

Peregrine released Caliber. He was stunned stiff. "Chas, I'm... I never meant to meet you like this. I'm sorry."

He reached a hoof up to touch her front, like he was trying to make sure she was real, and then suddenly grabbed her sides. "What did they do to you? Where did they take you?"

She threw him off and stepped back. "What? What are you talking about?"

"Y'know... those."

Peregrine stared for a moment. Every time Winchester leaned in, she backed up. "Tho... oh you're not talking about..." She chuckled nervously. Any trace of a smile departed when Winchester's desperate grimace remained unbroken. "Oh. Oh no. Chas... Chas there are no aliens. It was made up. Someone in Stable-Tec made it up."

"Wha... but the lights! They were here! They attacked this base!"

"That was the Enclave, Chas. It was ponies, just like you and me."

"The... Sam?"

Sam sighed. "Listen, if I was made by aliens, why would I look so damn much like a pony?"

He sniffed and gibbered. "Then who took you?"

"I..." She paced on the spot. "Chester, I ran away." He sat back on his haunches, his jaw slack. "I'm sorry. It was selfish and Callie, you... you didn't deserve it. Of all the things, you didn't deserve to lose your mother." She scooped up Caliber's chin and nuzzled him. The poor kid looked like he was about to faint. She turned back to Winchester, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Wh..." Winchester's rifle dropped to the ground, and he rubbed his face with a hoof. "But why?" His voice cracked.

"Because I was young and wild and reckless and couldn't stand the thought of living my whole life in that damn baseball stadium, scared to death of phantoms. The world is... big and beautiful and out there, and even when it's ugly it's worth fixing, and I... knew there was no way I'd ever convince you to see things my way. I said it was selfish, and if I could make the choice all over again, I don't know if I'd do it... but it's what I did, and you know why."

Winchester panted. "But you could come back! I found you! You can come back with us! Today!"

Peregrine... poor girl. Jericho, with a grimace, walked towards her. "Chas, I'm sorry, I... this is Jericho. I ran away with his tribe, and we wander the wilds here. It was the life I always wanted, so... we got married." Have you ever seen a stallion with a face like a broomstick cry? It's kind of hideous. "Callie. You have a sister. A half-sister. Her name is Ellasar, she's twelve and she's full of energy and joy and I'd love for you to meet her."

"A sister?" Caliber actually smiled. It wasn't a big smile, but it was something.

"I..." Winchester was still panting. Then, he closed his eyes, breathed deep, and held it. I couldn't imagine the spinning that must have been going on in his head. He tossed his rifle to the side, turned and paced. He muttered things I couldn't hear. A small crowd had gathered around the scene (and it was a scene). He looked at the sky.

"Chas, say something."

"I'm gonna need... time. To think about all this. But you... you made your choice a long time ago. You've got your own life now. I'm just..." Winchester wiped his cheek, and even had a little chuckle. "It sounds silly now, but to see you one more time with my own eyes, safe and sound... that's enough for me." He tried so hard to smile, bless him. Peregrine was also choking back tears around a smile. Jericho held her. "C'mon boys, let's go home. 'Fore any more surprises show up."

"Uhmm..." Caliber took off his helmet and held it close to his front. The mane underneath was matted, greasy and pressed into a bowl. "P-Pa. I was wondering, uhm... if I could... I mean, if you'd let me... I'd like to..."

"You wanna see your sister," Winchester interrupted. Caliber nodded anxiously. "Cal... do whatever you want. You don't need your ol' man beatin' you up anymore."

"R-really?" I thought Cal was going to collapse into a gibbering fit at any moment.

"I'm sure you've got a lot of catching up to do with your mother." He sniffed again. Caliber... he didn't so much answer as squeak, and he slapped his helmet back on and bounced over to Peregrine. "As for the rest of you..."

"Hang on. Hang on." I raised a hoof and stepped forward. Winchester found his glare again. "I know you're probably having a wild enough day without me being in it, but I don't know if we're ever going to have all of the same people in the same place again. If you were married to Peregrine... and she's married to Jericho..." I looked around the group and crowd, picking out ponies by hoof. "... who is the brother of Babylon..." She made a 'wait, what did I do?' face when I pointed her out. She'd arrived to see what all the hubbub was. "... whose daughter is Ivy Bells, who is married to Rainbow Code, who's my brother..."

"Oh no."

"Cousins!" Some of the crowd actually cheered. Winchester, however, didn't seem too interested in my offer of a hug. "You're my sister-in-law's uncle's wife's... ex-husband? Dunno if I got that right."

He rubbed his brow. "Aliens made more sense than this."

"I mean, look at this! The gang's all here. I can't go anywhere in this fucking desert without tripping over extended family. Kinda sucks that the camera got wankered in the attack, this'd be a great photo." Winchester was losing patience with my shit, and backing up to leave. The crowd started to chatter, drift off and return to their business.

I think Crumble intercepted Winchester to insist he stay and get some food. Caliber got talking to some Tribe members, quite enthusiastic to know what their life was like. I couldn't understand how he was so apparently quick to forgive Peregrine for walking out on him, but that's not my place to judge. Sam talked shop with some curious scribes, with Ivy Bells keeping a close eye on them in case they got a bit grabby.

Babylon tapped me on the shoulder. I finally noticed that I was standing there gawping. "Now you see, free bird, that the stars are all connected."

I opened my mouth to snap back but... fuck. She had me there. I smiled. "Dammit."

By about four, the base had become pretty lively. Everyone who'd arrived from the caravans had stuck around. I imagine the cases of booze they'd brought with them helped with that. Rainbow was still nursing a bit of a headache, so he took a spin away from the crowds for a bit. Nevada started following him, so I went with him. (Ivy also wanted me to keep an eye on him because of the whole concussion thing, so there was that too.)

We weren't the only ones out the back of the terminal, though. Nevada got ahead of us when we spotted someone sitting by themselves on the west wall looking out. It was Prickly Pear. The oblivious little mutt scampered up the rocks to give her haunches and legs a good sniff, and boy was he an excited waggy-tailed little thing when she dignified him with a look.

Rainbow whistled. "Hoy! Nevada, get down from there."

"He's like four weeks old, he's not gonna answer."

Pear looked over her shoulder at us with an inscrutable stare. Rainbow bit the corner of his mouth. "Sorry, didn't mean to bother you! We'll just grab the puppy and get out of your hair, uhm..."

"No, wait, uh..." She stopped and cleared her throat, because she'd accidentally yelled at us, and was acutely aware of that. "I'd actually wanted to talk to you. Both of you."

"The fuck do you want with me?" I chuckled.

Rainbow smacked my shoulder. "What were you looking for?"

She sighed, and resumed staring at the horizon. I could see Big Top in the distance. She contented herself with petting Nevada, who was quite happy to be pet. "It appears that you're owed an apology. I've never trusted you, Rainbow Code. And I've certainly never trusted you, Atom Smasher." No kidding. "Today has been the greatest test of the San Palomino Steel Rangers in my lifetime. We were caught by surprise by overwhelming force, and have paid a terrible price. The comfortable thing for me to do would be to blame you. Cast you as spies. That would be... as my father would say, lily-livered and downright dumb."

I went to open my mouth. Rainbow touched my front again, and I closed it. I guess I won't mention the part where Saguaro wanted to shoot me outside his office? He sat down.

"Today has tested the bonds that hold the Rangers together, and I have come up wanting. But you... I sit here not because of my pride, but because of your valour, Rainbow Code. Our wounded are being healed not by my purity, but by the gifts of tribals that you befriended, Atom Smasher. My father would never have been able to admit such a thing, but we are in your debt, pegasi."

I wanted to wisecrack. I wanted to make some quip about 'it's about damn time' or something. But she was holding my puppy and she could probably squish him flat by not paying attention.

"I think you're forgetting someone, Pear," Rainbow said. She turned her head around once more to look at us. "I'm sure your first friend would love to know how you're doing."

Then she did something I wasn't expecting. She smiled. I don't think I've ever seen her smile. Not sincerely, anyway. "Y'know... maybe she would." She turned, and carefully jumped down. The earth didn't shake too much. Nevada stayed on the wall and barked until she picked him up and set him down, so he could scamper back to me.

"Dismissed," Rainbow said.

Prickly Pear shot him a glare as she passed. "Don't you... you're gonna know how it feels. Just you wait."

"Why am I not allowed to be a cheeky shit?"

He ignored me, and exchanged smirking glares with her.

As is pegasus habit, we found ourselves a perch to hang out on. It was hard to find a spot with the sun not in our eyes, but we eventually found one in the terminal ruins overlooking the remains of the quad. From here we could see everything from the bodycounters carrying out their grave duty, to Crumble and Babylon consoling a distraught Marmalade, to Ivy and Madeira leading a dance with Tumbleweed on an accordion. Nevada clung to me for dear life. I don't think dogs were designed for going this high up.

"So," I said. "What now?"

Rainbow sniffed. "Well. The base is obviously a wreck. They're going to struggle to keep everyone warm tonight, but with all this help around I think they'll manage."

"They'll be fine. Look at all these jolly pricks. It's a fucking carnival down there. I'm not worried about them."

"You're not?"

"Nah. Weren't we here for something else?"

He paused. "I thought you hated him."

Then I paused. "I thought I did. Then we met Valkyrie again."

"That's fair."

"So what's the plan?"

He sighed. "You tell me. Somehow I don't think a full-frontal assault or asking nicely is gonna get her to turn over Gadget unharmed. Celestia knows what she's been doing to him all this time. We should have left here sooner."

"Relax, hot-shot. We were pretty busy."

"I guess."

I scratched my forehead. "Okay. I've done things your way today. Now it's time you try my way."

He snorted. "And what's that?"

"Steal some clothes, waltz right in and lie through our teeth."

He chuckled. "You can't be serious."

"Listen, I do this constantly. Just walk like you've got to be somewhere and most people won't question it."

"And do you know Enclave callsigns and radio protocol? You'll look a bit silly asking for directions around the base."

"You're overthinking it. You just gotta... wing it."

"Auuuugh, Atom."

"Really though. Just follow my lead. A, because it's not that hard, and B... have you got a better plan?"

He grimaced, and scratched the back of his neck, and hissed. "No."

"Exactly. Now go convince your wife to jailbreak the armour off some of those dead troopers and let you wander off four hours after a concussion."

"You're not making this sound any easier."

Blowin' In The Wind

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"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?"

"Up."

"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."

"Right."

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!"

"Shh. Doors."

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."

"Where?"

"Dead ahead."

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?"

"Oh, bollocks."

"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.

"Except Ivy."

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?"

"What?"

"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.

The Long and Winding Road

View Online

So, let me tell you something about deserts. There’s something about living at the mercy of a deadly space laser that cooks peoples’ brains. I know I’m prone to flights of whimsy and not thinking things through, but I know what I like, and I take reasonable steps towards achieving it. And what I happen to like is getting into trouble, winding people up, making a mess, and having a good time. Y’know, general hooliganry and mischief.

So why is it suddenly so damn hard to walk down this road?

I was standing by a bent road sign, declaring that this was Route 66, and that I was to be travelling no faster than 75 miles per hour. No danger of that, mate. I had the radio on - a proper radio, since the tape I’d fished out of a dispenser way back was now useless. It seemed like a good idea when I set out, but now there was this awful weepy ballad on, but at worst it would be three or four minutes of miserable crooning and then it’d be on to something a bit more upbeat. Nevada, now up to my shoulder, circled me and sniffed the ground.

The sun was almost directly in front of me and low in the sky. I was setting off early in the morning to return to the worst of Equestria’s warzones. The kind of environment I thrived in. Or at least, I was standing on the highway, with the remains of a roadside diner with a space cat on it nearby, gazing reluctantly in the direction those places were. I was losing valuable morning travel time standing here. What was weighing down my mind so much that was just fucking standing there?


The day after Big Top, we stood at the top of a mountain in the Death Caps with a hole in it. Today was blustery, and even a little chilly on the mountaintop. I knew I was going to get sunburned from standing out here regardless. We all had arrays of bandages on us, and I think I was starting to come down with something. Gadget definitely didn't look fit for it, but it was by his insistence that we were up here. Rainbow and I accompanied him in the air, and Sam was able to make the trip on foot, because I guess robots can just sprint the whole way. I mean, he did make it down to Isotope City while we were fighting yesterday, didn't he? That trip took us a whole day on the way out. I don't know, man. Mercifully, he didn't keep us waiting too long, because by the time we were all on the peak, it was approaching midday. Not ideal the day after spending basically a whole day fighting.

Wordlessly, Gadget held up the mug and the mail tray, and tipped them out. The ashes immediately caught in the wind, and scattered into dust, and then into nothing, blowing away into the desert. Once they'd vanished into nothing, he dropped the containers, and let them tumble down the mountain. He stood there, alone, silhouetted against the blue sky. His life's work, blowing away in the wind. We said nothing. There was nothing left to say.

We'd already been through the lab waiting for Sam to get here. Rainbow tried to give Mum's book back to Gadget, but he told him to keep it. Rainbow gathered up some of the remaining food supplies, since they'd do nothing here except rot. Gadget took what notes he could from the files, but there were lots of things he left behind. I couldn't help feeling frustrated that after all this - after ruining so many lives, including mine - he looked like he was abandoning the project. I didn't get the chance to raise this concern with (and probably punch) him though. Rainbow had spotted me coiled up like a cobra and did that thing where this overgrown puppy of a stallion touches my shoulder and asks me if I'm okay and I immediately take it down a notch. Of course I told him I was fine, but what was really going on was a little moment of logic. Whatever Gadget did at this point didn't really matter. Whether or not he returned to his work, it wasn't going to change the past. Hadn't I just told Valkyrie as much?

We came down from the mountain with naught but the exchange of looks and a nod. Sam agreed to meet us again later, and we returned by glide to Roswhinny. If we made good time, we'd be there in time for lunch.

The night before, we hadn't had much time to discuss anything. Ivy had plenty to talk about with the scribes and Sam about the successful trial of the Little Boy, but Rainbow and I just ate and passed out. Gadget... I don't think he even got as far as eating. It was a weird and short evening where most of the base gathered around fires and slept in tents, shivering. When we arrived today, the tents were still there, and were even being expanded, with help from the tribe and the Wormwood crowd. The Fort Mercer ponies got ready to go when they saw us return, and most of the Isotopians (that's a word, right?) were gone before we even left for Big Top.

Gadget peeled off to find the bathroom, and Rainbow and I continued to lunch. I suspected that he wasn't hungry, really. Considering this was peak hours for the mess hall, it was quieter than I expected it to be. It was less of an uproarious cacophony of chatter and more like a muted chorus of muttering, broken up by the occasional laugh or some other yell. At a rough guess I'd say they were missing a third of their number. The way that many of the Rangers gazed gloomily into their plates, you'd think they were missing more. Crumble was busy fighting the grill, so we got our food from one of the other kitchen attendants.

"I mean, I guess your situation is different to mine, kinda." Rainbow homed in on Ivy's voice. We found her talking to Caliber. Nevada had taken a liking to Caliber, it seemed, and was making it difficult for him to eat his lunch without there being a puppy in the way. "I've been hikin' round the mountains for weeks at a time ever since I was born, and you... this is the furthest you've ever been from home, ain't it?"

"Get down, you little... y-yeah."

I whistled. Nevada instantly perked his ears and scrambled towards me over the table, falling over himself and rolling on the floor in his demented rush to jump at my hooves. Caliber lost his cola in the process. Ivy tipped some of hers into the cup. "Sup," I said. Nevada sat at my hooves and wagged his tiny labrador tail so much.

"Cal was just asking me about how I manage trips out to see Mom."

"This all sounds like a lot of walking," Cal said, voice cracking.

Ivy rolled her eyes. "You get used to it."

'No you don't' I mouthed. Ivy spotted me doing this and gave me a bop on the nose with my own fork. "I thought the rest of you guys had left for Isotope City already."

"They-they-they did. I'm gonna visit Ma's home." He smiled, but also shrank into his shoulders. "K-kinda nervous..."

"The hike will knock that out of you. You'll be fine." Ivy patted him on the back, and he made a tiny squeal. Ivy winced from the pitch.

"Where's Sam?" I gathered that Cal's question sounded a lot more panicked than he meant it to. Not everyone gets a fight-or-flight response from reassuring gestures.

"He's-" Ivy started.

I talked over her. "He's walking, he'll be a little while."

"Who's gonna be a little while?" Sam said, right behind me. Ivy was, fortunately, on the ball enough to catch my lunch when I threw it all into the air from jumping with fright.

"I was gonna say, he's right over there. You're gonna need to be more observant than that wandering around the city."

"Oh..."

Grumbling, I sat down with my food. Rainbow snickered, and went around to sit beside Ivy so they could be gross together. "When did you get here?"

Maybe I was seeing things, but I think I was starting to read expressions into his unmoving metal face. This one was unbearably smug. "'Bout twenty seconds ago."

I shook my head and stuffed my face with a hash brown. "So the guard duty's paying off in the end?"

"What?" Caliber was absolutely withering and dying with all this attention. "Oh, I'm not doin' no guard duty no more. Pa said I could... said I could go work in Sam's shop iff'n he'd let me."

Sam made... a noise. "Yep. We talked about it." Just thrilled. Thrilled, he sounded. "We can try it. I'm sure you'll understand if I don't let you work on anything that could put someone's eye out for a while." Cal looked excited enough to burst, and then small enough to vanish from existence in the space of seconds.

I giggled. Nevada jumped on my lap and started sniffing my plate. I didn't want to bap him on the nose, but needs must. Poor thing and his whiny noises. "So, you think you'll be around the base again any time soon?"

"Me?" Sam stared at me. I nodded. Holy shit, I was making small talk. What is happening to me. "What, the Caballero Center too inconvenient for you?" Well, now I felt like a moron. "Listen. You folk around the table have been sweet, but I will be happy to see the back of this place. Right now everyone's licking their wounds but I can see those scribes over there eyeing up my servos. Miss loudmouth over there looks interested in the second-hand parts she can get off me too."

Ivy nodded and rolled her eyes. "That's fair. If this were any other day they'd be on you like vultures the moment my back was turned."

"Although." Sam leaned in. All of us did the same without realising it, except for me, because I had a puppy in my lap trying to catch his own tail. "Something tells me Isotope City is gonna be a bit less... weird. I'd wonder if Winchester would be able to convince people about the whole aliens thing, but he's surrounded himself with such idiots that if he told them the earth was a giant donut they'd probably start eating dirt. Maybe the place will open up a bit and finally stop being a squalid garbage hole."

"Hey!" Caliber whined.

"Cal, I live there. The place is so filthy that I'm worried about catching something."

Cal grimaced at the table, then nodded. "Okay, yeah, i-it's pretty bad."

"The alternative is that alien conspiracy theories explode across the wasteland and undermine trust and cooperation between settlements, but..." Sam shrugged. "Gotta break a few eggs."

On that cheery note, Nevada decided that he'd scratched my lap enough and jumped off to scamper around the mess hall. I'd scoffed enough of my lunch that I didn't mind chasing after him mid-conversation. Being exhausted and in pain, he escaped the hall before I had a chance to catch up. I really needed to invest in a leash or something. When I did catch up with him, he'd found the eagle tribe, packing up their stuff and getting ready to leave. Babylon had him high in the air and was saying nonsense words to him, while he tried get a noseful of all the interesting smells coming off her. Jaffa, bless him, was enthralled. Nevada realised I'd caught up and barked at me. Babylon let him down so he could return to mashing his face into my legs.

"A new journey, where so many end," Babylon said.

"Oh, not this bollocks again."

She laughed. "Metaphors are useful."

I couldn't help it I was smiling. "Yeah, okay. Stars and stuff." Jaffa was on the ground trying to touch noses with Nevada. "He is absolutely adorable, though."

"Will you be able to care for him? I don't mean to doubt you, free bird, but nurturing is... not something I would expect from you."

"There's a lot of things I didn't expect from me before this week, but it's just all surprises lately, innit?" I smiled, and ruffled Nevada's ears. "Besides, with what I went through for my last dog, I think Nevada's gonna be just fine." He barked. Oh, long may these few weeks last when he is but a tiny hoofful of yaps and falling over and fitting in my saddlebags. "You lot heading off?"

"When the sun lowers. We are preparing. The foals and a few others are camped west of Fort Mercer. We've left them alone long enough."

"So like, that's it? Just back to being nomads?"

"What do you mean?"

"Like, you're just going back to exactly what you were doing before all of this happened?"

Babylon squinted for a moment, and then laughed. "Free bird, there have been many journeys before you, and there will be many after. The tribe made its peace with the Rangers long ago. We return to the road because it is our home."

"Me? Not the missing puzzle piece of the universe? Pshhh." I waved dismissively, and she chuckled. "Yeah, that's fair. It did seem like a lot of the Rangers had it out for you, though."

She rubbed her face a bit. "You are a pegasus, yes?"

I demonstrated by giving my wings a little flutter. "Obviously."

"When you flew over the north of the city, what did you see?"

"Uh, ruins I guess?"

"To the north of that. In the plains before the hills."

I bit my lip. "I mean, there were no buildings, but there was still the old street plan, sorta."

Babylon smiled. "You see, the roads are more stubborn than we imagine." I scoffed when I figured out where she was going with this. Again with the bloody roads. "One day they will all blow away into dust, and it will be as if they were never there. But that may be after you and I are long gone from this place. We may not see them often, but the ways walked in the past shape the ways of the future."

I sighed. "Makes sense. Shame, but it does."

She put her hoof on my shoulder. "If it makes you feel any better, missing puzzle piece of the universe, before this week, I doubt we would be able to come here and do what we did. Thank you, Atom." Then, when I wasn't expecting it, she kissed me. Just a little smooch. I think she was aiming for my nose or cheek or something but by me moving around clumsily it hit the bullseye and she just rolled with it. I... what? She's married and old enough to be my mother. She's basically an in-law. The fuck? Maybe she could tell that I really liked her voice. While I was standing there looking like a beet red mannequin, Babylon smiled at me, and returned to her business. She knew what she was fucking doing. Nobody saw it. Nobody would believe me. I think I tried to look indignant but just looked flustered.

She smelled like cinnamon, by the way.

"Y'alright there?"

"What?" I blinked. Turing Test was waving in front of my face.

"You look a little sunburned."

I staggered. "Oh. Must have spaced out. Sorry. I'm fine." I'm just blushing, I didn't say. I noticed Babylon was still nearby, at Turing Test's side, smiling. I quirked a brow at her, and left it at that. The tribe had basically packed up their stuff - how long had I been standing out here? In the baking heat of the day, no less.

"C'mon. Let's get you inside 'fore you hard boil that noggin o' yours." He gave me a little knock on the side of the head, Babylon followed him, and after another moment to figure out what the hell was happening, so did I.

We returned to the mess hall. It was quieter now, with only stragglers getting food now, and some of the remaining tables taken by groups lollygagging. Crumble sat out talking to Prickly Pear. Ivy was still in the room, doing something in the kitchen for some reason. As soon as I came in, Nevada scurried towards me and headbutted my legs until I picked him up. Sensible pup had gone and found some shade while I was going for my latest case of heatstroke. I didn't think I was that fried in the face, but maybe I'd come to regret it in a few hours.

"Can we get some water over here?" he yelled.

"Ivy?" Crumble called to the kitchen. Moments later a bottle fired over the counter, and Turing Test snatched it out of the air, and gently floated it to me. Man, having one of the sparkly pricks around was kind of annoying, having two to deal with would be insufferable. I pressed the bottle to my face for a bit before drinking. Maybe I was a little sunburned.

"What's cookin'?" Turing asked as he sat down at the bench across from Crumble. Babylon sat down beside him, and I sat on the floor nearby with Nevada.

"Pear's thinking about strategy. What to do about... well, y'know." Crumble waved at the room, particularly gesturing to the rubble strewn across one side of it.

Turing Test chuckled. "That sounds like a plan I'd want to be here for, missy. You ain't elder yet."

Pear waved it off. "I'm not getting very far while we're still waiting for inventories to come in. First things we need are food and clean water. We're on to emergency supplies, and they're gonna last... maybe a week. The food will run out before the water."

Turing sighed and nodded. Babylon rubbed her chin. "It is a shame that your home is where it is. This ground is hard, and the waters are too far below it to reach."

"Y'know they have a water talisman in Isotope City?" I blurted, while I absent mindedly tugged on the toy gun with Nevada chewing the handle.

"Atom, I..." Turing Test didn't sound comfortable. "I don't think..."

"They did just roll up with aid yesterday. Something tells me they're not as impenetrable as you might think." He still looked sceptical. Pear looked at me like I had two heads. "On top of that, word on the street is..." I smirked. Word on the dirt track? "They're going to need some help with construction and repairs over there. I know repair is going to be something you're busy with here, but given the priority of water, maybe you can arrange a little quid pro quo."

The two of them looked at each other thoughtfully. "That could work," Ivy said, leaning over the counter. "We have contacts now. Hell, the sheriff's son is my..." She squinted as she worked it out. "... stepcousin? I think? And there's Sam too. As long as we can guarantee that we're not going to shoot up the place and disassemble Sam, I'd say they'd come around the table."

"I worry," Pear said. "I worry about compromises like this. They may be essential to our survival now, but if we continue to compromise the mission of the Steel Rangers, we might as well disband. What would command back east say?"

"Listen." Turing rubbed his beard. "Listen, listen listen. If one of them desk pirates took a spin round our way, they'd already have the whole Palomino chapter thrown out as heretics. Star Paladin consorting with a tribal, diluting the blood..." he waved in Ivy's general direction. "Your Pops and I were among the first generation to be raised out here. Y'know how many Rangers came to San Cimarron at first?" There was a pause. Pear shrugged weakly. Turing Test leaned in. "Thirteen. That's not a base. They didn't so much establish a base as absorb a settlement. Orders were to get a foothold in the SC area by securing Roswhinny as a base of operations. And what do you know, there was already someone here. A young, starving settlement clutching weapons they didn't understand. And let me tell you, I..." He put a hoof to his chest. "Your father was my brother in arms. Today I hurt as you hurt. But if Saguaro was in charge of those thirteen Rangers that day, we wouldn't even be here."

I heard the pop of Prickly Pear's eyebrow crunching. "What do you mean?"

"I know him. He'd have evicted them by force. It wouldn't be hard, even. Ideologically pure, sure, but strategically? Dumb as a bag of rocks. That 'colony' wouldn't last ten years. We're incredibly lucky they didn't. Instead they negotiated. The Rangers knew they needed the location and the horsepower, so in exchange for cohabitation, they'd secure the base, teach them how to use this hardware they were sitting on. They did all that and more. They made them Rangers. And the San Cimarron Steel Rangers are stronger today because of that. We have succeeded through co-operation where force of arms never could. It's in the very blood we shed to keep this place." Turing Test realised at this point that he'd banged the table and was leaning over it, and he sat back and took a deep breath. "That was something your father never allowed himself to understand."

Pear nodded pensively, gazing at the table. "You make a strong case, Turing. My gut still ain't feeling it, but..." she looked at Crumble. Crumble looked tired, but she smiled. Then her eyes scanned across Ivy, Babylon, and then slid over to me, where they lingered. Then she looked back up at Turing Test. "My gut's been wrong before." Crumble was watching all of this carefully, and she shot me a wide smile after Pear's answer.

"Then it's a plan? Or, the start of one," he said.

"Sure. Like I said, survival concerns first. We can look at building materials later."

Their conversation moved on to medical supplies and food trade, and my interest drifted. I spotted Ivy leaving the kitchen. I called over to her.

"Yo, where's Rainbow man got himself to?"

She only realised I was talking to her when she heard Rainbow's name. "What? Oh, I was just about to look for him. I think he went to find his daddy."

I scoffed as I was getting up. "Typical. Had him one day and he's already lost him again."

"Come on. Let's track 'em down."

She waited for me at the doors, for me to catch up, and we headed out on to the helipads together, with Nevada scampering behind.

"Y'know, I was gonna make an observation about how this time last week we were making the same journey only we were at each others' throats the whole time, but that hallway probably doesn't have walls anymore."

Ivy laughed. "Only a week? It can't be only a week. Feels like you've been here for years."

"Yeah! It's what... yesterday, day before was in Los Arabos, day before that was the trip out and that was a week on the dot... ten days. I think it's ten days."

"This has been the longest ten days of my life, Atom."

"You said it."

We found Rainbow and Gadget in the ruins of the old room. Rainbow was showing off the remains of his collection, bless him. Gadget looked like his interest had been exhausted and he was now in the realm of polite patience with his excited son. He now also had to deal with an excited puppy, who he'd managed to not meet yet. I had to pull Nevada off him when I noticed he was visibly in pain when trying to catch him jumping. We let Rainbow finish the story about Treble Clef (again), while I kept the puppy busy.

"Well, it’s definitely played its last now. Maybe with some care and attention I can get it back in one piece, but I doubt it’ll ever sound as sweet again."

I broke the silence. "Ivy, how many times have you heard that story?"

"I’ve given up counting." Rainbow looked like he’d been punched in the stomach. Gadget looked more relieved than maybe he meant to. Ivy bounced over and gave her husband a kiss on the nose to cheer him up. "C’mon. We’re only kidding around."

I’m not, I didn’t say.

"It’s a shame," Gadget said. "Reminds me a lot of your old collection in the Stable. If I were here to see it a few days ago I’m sure it would have reminded me a lot more."

It was around this time that I noticed that the box of stuff I’d helped pack was missing. "Hey, where are the records?"

"Oh, they got taken to Isotope City."

"What? Those bastards, already looting on us?"

Rainbow chuckled. "No-no-no. Sam’s gonna hold on to them. They’re gonna get ruined sitting out here. He also said it was your idea? But then if you’re confused, I don’t know what he’s on about."

Of course! He’s actually bloody doing it. "Oh, hang on. I get it now. Don’t worry. All fine."

"I hadn’t figured him for much of a collector, but..." He shrugged.

Gadget’s stomach interrupted us. He tried to look like it wasn’t him, but I think he was incapable of not looking guilty, even when he hadn’t done anything. "‘Scuse you," I said.

Rainbow smirked. "Not hungry, are you?"

"I... mm. The group, and all the Rangers..."

He went behind him and nudged him along. "Come on. You didn’t even have breakfast. They’re not gonna poison you."

"Not intentionally, I mean the freezers probably lost p-ow!" Was all I managed before Ivy skulled me with the alarm clock.

Turing Test, Babylon and Prickly Pear had cleared out, leaving us to find a table by ourselves, with Crumble idly cleaning the kitchen. Nevada wandered into the kitchen like he owned the place. I... didn't mention it.

"So I'm curious." I made Gadget immediately nervous by what I said as I sat down. "What’s going to happen to Valkyrie? I doubt we’re seeing her again." I squinted. "At least I hope not."

He sighed. He probably didn’t want to think about it, but at the same time, could have been most of what he could think about. "Well, I imagine she’ll face charges for abuse of her command. What she said about my exile causing her disgrace wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t inaccurate either. Big Top isn’t a glamorous posting, and she probably didn’t have to fight hard to get it. Now that the reasons why are clear, and there’s half a base KIA with nothing to show for it, I doubt the council will have much patience for her."

"Good," Ivy said. "If I had my way she’d be pegasus pizza, but this’ll have to do."

"Steady on," I chuckled. "Does this mean the Enclave are gonna bugger off? I’ll bet everyone could do without that stick up their arse."

He blew and hissed. "All depends on how the politics go down in New Cloudsdale. There’s definitely a strong case for a withdrawal, especially if Valkyrie’s been spending all her time chasing me and not recovering technology. With no cloud cover and disappointing returns, they could just cut their losses. Or they could decide that being so far steeped in blood, they might as well keep at it. Who knows? It’ll be months."

"I see... Would be nice to not have to watch the skies." Rainbow said. "And what about you? What are you going to do now? I doubt you're in a hurry to get back to Los Arabos."

He relaxed. Or, that might have been him deflating because he reminded him that all of his comrades were dead. "I... don't know. I haven't had time to process everything yet." I nodded.

Crumble, always with the perfect timing, got our attention by sliding a plate full of hushpuppies in front of us. The actual puppy was sitting on her shoulders. "I know what might help with that."

She helped herself to a seat beside Ivy. Gadget looked like he wasn't sure if they were poison or not, while I was scooping some into my mouth. Rainbow gently pushed my hoof away from the plate before I ate them all. Eventually, Gadget tried one. His eyebrows raised, and he continued to munch. He shot a smirk at Crumble.

"You're very clever."

She winked. "Of course I am."

"Well." He sat back. "I suppose... I have to think about it sooner or later." He sighed and looked at the ceiling. "I'm really too old to be starting this all again... another two years to recruit? Another seven years' work, with this leg? I'll be in no condition to see the end of it."

I snorted. "Are you seriously gonna put your feet up and drink scotch all day? I can't see it myself. If familial chaos isn't gonna get in the way of your work, I'd hardly expect old age to."

He stared at the table with a resigned smirk. His number had absolutely been called, and he knew I knew it. "Have to be realistic."

"Phbhsh." Rainbow thumped me.

"I've already had two runs at this thing and they've taken most of my life. They've torn apart everything I've ever held close to me. The third one is going to kill me."

"What is this work anyway?" Ivy sensibly cut me off before I suggest that he hurry up with it then. "Considering the ruckus it's caused I'd hope it be a darn good excuse."

Gadget winced. "I couldn't..."

"Dad..." Rainbow sighed. "The jig is up. There's nothing left for anyone to take, and nobody's willing or able to take it anyway. You might as well spill the beans."

He looked at him, then at me. I don't know why he was looking at me, I was struggling to give a shit. "Right. Okay." He took a deep breath. "The Manehattan Project... it's - it was an effort to complete an unfinished pre-war megaspell that would restore the land. We had the plans and a team of experts, and the run of an old research facility."

"Restore the land?" She leaned in closer. "Like what, toxins? Radiation? Soil chemistry?"

"Everything. We couldn't hope to match the range in the original plans, it was going to cover all of Equestria... but if we could build something that was half as effective in half the range, that would be enough."

"Have you conducted small scale tests? Like a proof of concept?"

"Oh, of... of course, that was how we were feeding ourselves, we had plots of soil that we worked the methods out on first..."

I knew the look in Ivy's eyes. She was trying so hard not to be patronising. "Well... why not share that? If you're not being hunted, sharing your findings could help a lot of ponies."

"Have you seen my notes? They're incredibly technical, they'd be useless to anyone who I wouldn't consider-"

She talked over the end of his sentence. "Working for the project, right, and where would they have come from?" He shot her a whiny glare. "If there are ponies out there educated enough to work on your magnum opus, ain't there gonna be ponies educated enough to read a manual you wrote?"

"So I give them to you, and then what? You get your little band of land bastards up and pillaging again and then sit on the recipe with the rest of your hoard?" Gadget sneered. I laughed. Everyone else didn't.

Ivy looked over her shoulder and then at Crumble. They exchanged grimaces. "Look. Prickly Pear ain't gonna wanna hear me say this, but I'm not talking about just us. I'm sure we can run interference for you while you get back on your hooves, and then I dunno. Travel around teaching your food magic. Do whatever you did when you were recruiting others to help you in the first place, but get them to help their own communities. Get them to share it too. You might not be around to see it all, but... you might make more of a difference than toiling in a hole for something that might not work."

"You've... got a point. I'll have to think about it. I'm not going anywhere for the time being. You're sure I can stay here? I certainly don't... feel safe."

I banged the table harder than I meant to. "Mate, with the life you've had, I don't think you're going to feel safe anywhere." He frowned and quirked a brow in a 'yeah probably' kind of way.

Crumble nudged his side. "Gadget, these Rangers ain't hunting anyone. They've neither the will nor the means. Make yourself useful and some of 'em might even grow to like you."

"Not like I have a choice, I suppose." He paused, and then popped the last hushpuppy into his mouth. "Keep these things coming and you've got a deal."

She chuckled. "Gonna need corn for that. Maybe you can help."

He smiled at her. Like, really smiled. My eyes widened when I noticed what was happening. Was my dad getting an old man crush? Oh fuck. Fuck that's not something I need to be thinking about. I scrambled for another topic. "SO." I threw my elbow on the table without having a topic ready to go. Uhhhh. "What are you two doing now?"

"What?" Rainbow and Ivy said at the same time. I was looking at them.

"Like. What's the plan? I've been following you guys for the last week and a half. Might help to know what you're up to next."

They looked at each other, then they laughed. "What do you mean?" Rainbow said. They didn't stop looking at each other. I shrugged. "I mean, we're not exactly gonna sit down and try for a baby next week, are we? The whole place is dirty and we're burning the food stockpile. You're not gonna want to give birth in a tent?"

Ivy smiled. "Sugar." He smiled too. "Darling." He smiled less. "Sweetheart." He went into full panic mode. "I was born in a tent. You know this."

"Not that tents are bad!" Crumble and I tried really hard not to burst out laughing. "I'm sure it'd be fine! Just maybe there might be a better time? I don't know, we hadn't talked about this before, I-I-I..." His face went beet red.

Ivy hit his front. "Relax, goober. We ain't having no kids yet. Not when we're three first aid kits away from using whiskey as a painkiller."

The relief on that boy's face. "Of course! Yes. Exactly."

I chuckled. "Y'know I actually meant like, what are you doing now that there's nothing tying you down to San Cimarron?"

They looked at each other again. "Well I'm not going anywhere without Ivy."

"And I ain't going anywhere without my steed." She squeezed his shoulder. She could barely reach around it. He hadn't stopped blushing from the last topic. "Plus I got family here. I don't think we're in any hurry to leave, are we?"

"I mean... a holiday might be nice. We could go visit Manechester, maybe? I could show you the old stomping grounds."

Ivy smirked. "What, the same bombed out ruins but raining and muddy?"

"Uhm... well, we don't have... I mean..."

She shut him up with a kiss. "I'd love to, sugar."

"G-great! Excellent! Once we're all fixed up here, right?"

"Duh."

They gave each other a squeeze, and sat leaning together. It was mostly Ivy leaning on Rainbow, because I think if they leaned the other way around, he'd be a widower quite quickly.

"So what about you, Atom?"

"What?"

Ivy leaned over the table. "What are you gonna get up to now?"

"Well." I breathed deep.


"Wow, always brings a tear to the faceplate, don’t it?" You wouldn’t know Sam was a robot over the radio, because funnily enough, it kinda hides how much he sounds like he’s talking over a radio. "That one goes out to a friend of the city who’s hitting that long and winding road today. Maybe one day it’ll lead you back to our door. Until then, fly safe, pal. And now, some messages."

Nevada bumped my front with his nose. He’d finished pissing all over the Satellite Sam’s, and was now looking for attention. I was constantly surprised by how big he’d gotten in just a few weeks.

"What’s wrong with you, boy?"

He sat, with an unwagging tail. He looked behind me. I looked over my shoulder. I saw the big metal atom on the stadium, the peaks of the Death Caps to the north, the crumbling towers of downtown San Cimarron, the broken glass roof of the Caballero Centre, the bombed-out remains of the Roswhinny flight tower, the smaller encampments on the plains in the hinterland and the squat blip on the horizon that was Big Top. All of it was behind me. In front of me was unbending, baking highway, for days. Y’know, I couldn’t blame him.

"Just between you and me, I’m not too jazzed about this either. S’hot out, innit?"

He tilted his head.

"Okay. How about this. We stay until the end of the summer, and then hit the road? How’s that sound? Maybe we’ll have Rainbow and Ivy with us then."

He stood up and barked. The worst of the wasteland could wait.

"Come on. If we hurry we’ll be back in time for lunch."

THE END