Chapter 25: Work Ups
James stood in front of the row of four unicorns. At their hooves were four salvaged M9 pistols from Celestia's private vault, each unloaded, slide locked back. Approximately fifteen yards to his rear were four paper targets, a humanoid silhouette drawn on each.
"Alright, once more, just to make sure you've all got it. When do you ever point your weapon at anything?" James asked the group.
"When you intend to destroy it!" Came a simultaneous reply.
"And when is the only time you deactivate the safety?"
"When you intend to fire!" Came the chorus once again.
"How do you treat your weapon, regardless of it's condition?"
"As if it is loaded!"
"Outstanding! Now, put your weapons in condition three, please."
James circled around behind the group, which consisted of Sparks and Myst, plus two other unicorns from another team in the RSTG, the Nightstalkers. The team consisted of the two unicorns James was currently giving firearms training to, two pegasi and their earth pony leader, whom James had trained personally months ago. Every team member had been a part of Luna's royal Night Guard, hence, their name choice. Now James watched as the four ponies levitated their weapons with their magic and depressed the slide release.
"Good, now condition one." James ordered as he placed a magazine loaded with only two rounds next to each unicorn.
They all levitated the mags and slid them into the mag well. At that moment, the Nightstalker leader, Captain Mahdis, trotted over.
"How are my two ponies doing Commander?" The silvery stallion inquired.
"We're about to find out. Shooters, load and make ready your weapons!"
The four used their magic to pull back and release the slides, chambering a round.
They aligned the sights on the targets.
"Remember, aim for center of mass, anywhere else is a waste of ammo. Fire!"
A series of pops sounded as the unicorns discharged their firearms. All four hit their targets, but none came close to the center. When all of the eight rounds had been fired, James gave the command to cease fire.
"Cease fire, return your weapons to condition four, clear and safe."
Each pony did as ordered, removing the magazines with the slide locked back and inspecting the weapon to ensure the safety was back on and there was no round in the chamber.
"Well Mahdis, we got some work to do before they're up to scratch. They all did hit the targets though, so that's good."
James continued the weapons training two hours a day, every day, until they had graduated up to rifles. He had an idea that required two teams, and both needed to have individuals capable of using a firearm. Between sessions, the Nightstalkers would PT or practice their fighting. Myst was busy working on her aircraft and Sparks would be tinkering with his armor concepts and gizmos. James would spar with Feather and Flash, conditioning themselves for any fighting in the near future. They kept this up while the weather grew cold and the season moved into fall, the leaves on the trees taking on brown, orange and golden hues. Rarity had finished his order and delivered uniforms camouflaged for both arid and snowy environments, the latter being simply a series of white parkas and covers, and pants for the human. Before she left, she struck up a small conversation with her bipedal friend.
"Ugh, I'll just never understand your obsession with such ugly clothing." She said while sticking her tongue out in disgust.
"It's about practicality. You wouldn't go running in a dress, would you?"
"Oh, heavens no. Speaking of running, will you be participating in the Running of the Leaves this year?"
"The what? Is that like a marathon or something?"
"Oh dear, you don't know? Well, I suppose you wouldn't, you are not from around here after all. The Running of the Leaves is something we do each year to help shake all the leaves off the trees so that we can move the season into winter." The fashionista explained to him.
"Wow, you guys really take the weather thing here seriously. Uh, we might still be here. When is it?"
"It's only a few weeks away. Shortly after, we should get our first snow."
"I'll keep that in mind, thanks."
The luscious maned mare left and James returned to his work. After dropping off the uniforms in the ready room, he went to go check on Myst's progress. The previous week, Sparks had measured out the dimensions of her ship and was now beginning to fit the armor pieces. So far, most of the body was now encased in quarter inch thick metal, painted a non-reflective gun metal black. He noticed that the windows had been fixed too, but they were still fragile glass.
"Hey Sparks, what gives with the windows?" James asked the engineer.
"What do you mean? We fixed them, they look fine." Sparks rebutted, eyeing the portals.
"No doubt they look good, but they're still breakable glass."
"Oh. No worries there, I did some research with Twilight and found a spell to remedy the problem. Go ahead and chuck a rock at them, see what happens." The engineer dared.
"Alright, but you're cleaning up the mess."
James looked around until he found a jagged chunk of rock about the size of a grape fruit. Winding his arm back, he hurled the stone at one of the side windows with all his might. There was a sharp crack as the stone impacted, yet instead of continuing on its destructive path, it stopped dead and dropped to the ground. James walked up to the pane and inspected it, but found absolutely no scratches or marks.
"Impressive. Way better than trying to get you guys to develop plexiglass."
"Basically what you have here, but made with chemicals and plastics instead of magic. Honestly, I wouldn't know where to begin with it. I also wanted to ask you to help me make a special rig for the side door."
"No problem, just get with me later and we'll hammer something out. In the meantime, since you're here, I have a surprise for you. If you will just please follow me..." Sparks trotted off towards the back of the building where his workshop was located.
"Ok..." James followed.
Sparks lead him around to the back where there were several neat little piles of shaped metal the same color as the armor on the airship.
"Sparks, is this...."
"Yup, our new body armor. It's not all complete though. I saw your original armor and thought it would be smart to cover this with some sort of fabric too."
"Good initiative. It will help mask and muffle any sound it might make."
"Here's your set." The rusty coated unicorn levitated one of the piles over to the human. "Try it on, see how it fits."
James took the pile and set it down, separating individual pieces. The whole set consisted of greaves, bracers, shoulder guards, thigh plates, plates for the upper arms and a chest and back piece to cover the torso. The torso piece was a bit peculiar in that in the abdomen area, it was loose and segmented with a thick inch and a half wide belt wrapped around it.
"How do I put the chest piece on?"
"You put it on over your head like a shirt and then use the belt to tighten it down. The buckle should be on your left side."
James followed the instructions and donned the armor. After he had done so, he strapped the rest onto his extremities and began to stretch and move around. He wanted to make sure he still had a full range of motion. Surprisingly, the armor wasn't at all restricting. The entire ensemble was form fitting, it was like he was wearing another set of clothes, only slightly heavier.
Without looking up, James asked, "Will this stop a blade?"
"Only one way to find out!"
James looked up just in time to see Sparks launch a short sword straight at his chest with magic. He threw his arms up to block it, but was too late. The blade struck his chest with enough force to knock him on his ass. He lay there looking up at the sky as Sparks appeared in his line of sight.
"THAT was for the time you tossed me out of Twilight's balloon." The stallion said down to him.
"Fair enough.Your armor works great by the way, barely felt a thing. Also, couldn't you have hit me with just a pipe or something?"
"Don't worry, it was just a practice blade. Thing could barely cut butter." Sparks reassured his human friend as he helped him to his feet.
"Great. Well, go ahead and have Rarity take a look at these and see if she can wrap them up in a good, tough fabric. I want these kits available for use by next week."
"You got it. I'll also have the schematics and processes sent back to Canterlot for production."
"Sparks, you got a good head on you."
James left the engineer to finish his work on the Clipper and later returned to work on the rig he had come up with. It was simple design for a weapons mount. It consisted of just two thick bars welded at an obtuse angle and attached to the deck of the Clipper in such a way to allow it to pivot on one end. The other could be secured with a cotter pin. This way, even though it would block the side door of the craft, it could be swung to the side to allow the safe passage of individuals. Locked in place, it would become a stable firing platform. It was his plan to mount the MG3 on a swivel, The M249 would go up top on a detachable. Until he could come up with a way to allow the others to operate it, Sparks would be the only door gunner besides James, he only needed some training. Before long, the unicorn was shooting like a pro on the automatic weapon. Myst even requested some familiarization even though she would only be carrying a sidearm.
The teams were shaping up quite well. Now all James needed to do was gather as much information as he could for his op so they wouldn't be going in completely blind. There was only one pony he could think of that could give him the most help in that area. So he had a letter sent to the library explaining his predicament and what info he might need. A day later, he traveled there himself to see the results first hand. Twilight of course had accumulated piles of books and scripts for him. All he needed to do was sort out all the superfluous information.
"Twilight, could you please separate all the info you gave Feather previously from the pile?" He asked her.
"Sure, no problem." She obliged, levitating a large portion of the mountain of paper away from them and into a corner of the room. "What exactly were you looking for? As you can see, there are plenty of accounts about the mountains around Whitecrest."
"Is there anything that specifically mentions caves and caverns, like mining reports or histories of the region?"
"There are plenty of mining reports, but they're mostly about soil composition and quality of extracted ores. Any mention of natural chambers are few and far between."
"Twilight, you're smart. Are there any that stick out, don't quite fit in the puzzle?"
"Well, there is one," She used her magic to separate a small book from the pile and flipped through the pages before stopping on one, "It's a written account taken from a miner's journal years ago. I thought some of the things he was describing were a bit wierd."
James took the book from her and began to read.
'Day 1: As long as I'm part of this dig, I've decided to keep a journal of sorts as there aren't many of us here and there isn't much to do besides work. Hopefully we'll be done with this task soon as winter is fast approaching and the cold in these reaches can be harsh.
Day 6: We've begun excavation of the mountainside. The rock and soil is hard packed. This makes it difficult to dig, but also means the tunnels we create will be less prone to collapse. There's always a silver lining.
Day 17: We've hit the first sign of iron ore. This is great news because we haven't gone very far into the mountain and it is a sure sign that there is a rich vein deeper in. With any luck, I will finally be able to buy my own house with the money I could potentially make here.'
Much of the journal entries were like this, so James skimmed through most of it, until...
'Day 73: The workers are getting superstitious. Here and there, stories pop up about strange creatures running about on only two limbs in the southern mountain passes. Of all the accounts, all that is described are fleeting glimpses. Most tell of beasts resembling Diamond Dogs, but standing taller and lacking hair. Although nopony has actually had any run ins with these alleged beasts, the workers are getting spooked. The abnormal noises and seismic activity being detected in the shafts aren't helping either. Ponies are beginning to think the area might be cursed with an ill presence.'
Only two more passages were like the first one and after that they returned back to uneventful observations of daily goings on.
"Twilight, who wrote this?" James asked his lavender friend.
"A foreman that helped construct a mining shaft far south of Whitecrest."
"Any chance he's still around to talk to?"
"I checked into that and unfortunately he's on the list of missing ponies from that region." The librarian said with a frown.
"Well, it's better than nothing. Thanks Twilight, you've been a great help."
The human departed and made his way back to the house. From the journal, he could deduce that the Lotkin had probably been in that area for a few years. But why attack now? How did they get around the country without detection? Where were they taking their captives, why were they even taking them? James couldn't divine any answers with the information he had, but he knew where he could go find more. He needed to act soon. This was unfortunate as he really wanted to go to the 'Running of the Leaves' Rarity had told him about. He loved learning about other cultures, but duty calls.