This wasn’t funny anymore.
It started Tuesday morning. Mom never bothered to reset the timing on her bedroom lights and nearly overslept; she made it to work on time only by the barest of margins. It was kinda funny to watch, actually—her eternally morning-shy mother, up and zipping about the kitchen/living room in a high-pitched squealing panic as she tried to make herself something edible to munch on before rushing out the door in her Stable suit and holstered pistol at speeds she’d never shown herself capable of in the morning. Since school was out until the Overmare said otherwise, Light Tail spent the rest of the dawning morning hours cleaning up the mess left behind and trying to figure how to set the timing mechanisms on Mom’s room lights so that they’d wake her up two hours sooner than usual. Then she set her own room lights up for the same time to make sure Mom didn’t try to ignore the lights and sleep through them like she usually did.
Wednesday morning came, and Mom was so difficult to rouse out of bed that breakfast had grown cold by the time she’d crawled out from under the blankets. Mom didn’t like cold breakfast. She didn’t either, but she’d tried so hard to get her out of bed in the first place that she escaped punishment that time. Aunt C didn’t care either way. She was weird like that.
Thursday morning, it appeared at first glance, was going to be a repeat of Wednesday if she didn’t try something different this time. And after three days of being the one to kick her own mother out of bed when it should’ve been the other way around, she was starting to get irritated with the entire process.
“Rise and shine, Mom!” Light Tail announced in a high, loud voice, purposefully ignoring the suffering the bright lights inflicted on the slumbering mare. “A new day of excitement and adventure awaits!”
Mom’s only answer was to shove her head under her pillows and fling her blankets over herself in a vain effort to hide from the light and the tiny filly that had so rudely awakened her.
With a growl, she began to pull at the top comforter with her teeth in an effort to stir her mother from her slumber. “Come on, I’m the one who’s supposed to be doing this! Get up!”
One of Mom’s forelegs snaked over the edge of her blankets and bent inward at the knee joint, trapping them within and allowing her to pull the blankets back over her body. “Don’t wanna,” her mouth slurred quietly. “Go away.”
Arrrggh!!! How’d you get a job in security?!
Since asking wasn’t working (nor were her pathetic attempts to outmuscle a pony over three times her size), she decided this morning was a good time to try something a little nastier. “Then I guess you don’t want that delicious strawberry-flavored oatmeal and a helping of grapes,” she said with exaggerated flair, slowly turning around and walking back out of the room. “Oh well, guess that means more for me, then—“
Mom’s bedsprings creaked as she finally forced herself to at least attempt to leave the supreme comfort of her mattress and fluffy comforters. “….you wouldn’t.”
The taste of victory was bittersweet. It was kinda sad that the best way to get Mom’s attention was with a plate of food. “Wouldn’t want it goin’ to waste like yesterday’s biscuits and hash brown casserole. And I loooooove strawberry!”
The bedsprings creaked again, and Mom’s hooves thudded onto the carpeted floor with the enthusiasm of the doomed. “You are an evil, evil little filly.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘mission accomplished’!” she squealed with delight, and promptly trotted back out into the living room. “Hurry up, slowpoke!”
She wasn’t sure, but she swore Mom was mumbling something unkind under her tired breath as her body lumbered along behind her. Well, whatever! At least she was up and awake. A little. And she kept hoping against long odds that if she did this often enough, Mom would get the idea and start doing a better job of getting herself out of bed every morning. Not likely, but one could dream.
As was the case the last two mornings, breakfast was a rather quiet affair, mother and child content to munch away in silence and simply enjoy the warm, sweet strawberry oatmeal and the sharp buttered toast. In time, the meal was finished and the used dinnerware set aside in the washer, and the first real surprise of the day came not long after. As Light Tail pulled The Mare of the Everfree back out of the bookshelf for another morning reading session, Mom strolled out of her room in her stable suit, complete with a holstered sidearm on her left side…
And a small, black canvas bag floating beside her in a field of magic. Not her usual morning routine.
“Gonna do something a little different this morning,” Mom explained to her curious glance as she set the book down on the table. “I think it’s time I showed you how to shoot.”
Most children were not as smart as her little night light. Foalsitting on the side here and there earlier in her life had taught her that the hard way.
I’m hungry, a filly would say. Be patient, she’d answer. I wanna eat something now, would be the very next thing she’d hear. No, not now, later, she’d insist as per the parent’s instruction. I wanna eat now! Daddy would let me eat something right now! the filly would yell. Insolent little pest. Daddy’s not here right now, and he told me not to spoil your dinner, she’d explain. The argument would go back and forth, eventually ending in a mess when the father came home to find his little girl in tears from arguing with the stable’s “immoral whore”. And then another, shorter argument would follow concerning her lack of parenting skills in dealing with a child.
Don’t run through the hallways like that, she’d admonish a rambunctious colt. You’re not my mom, you can’t tell me what to do, the irritating child would bite back. I’m telling you for her, ‘cause she’d say the same thing. Don’t run in the halls! And the colt would ignore her, and speed on until he tripped on his four left hooves and cracked a leg bone, or bowled over a stable resident exiting their quarters. And then the mother would be rushing up to the infirmary ward, sick with worry at her child’s self-inflicted injury, and yell at the stable’s “immoral whore” about how kids were more than just the end result of sleeping with the first eager stallion that came along, and that she needed to be responsible for once in her life.
Do your homework, kids, she’d tell a pair of twins, brother and sister. We’ll do it later, the sister would half-promise with a dismissive demeanor. “Later” turns into “oops, sorry teach, forgot to do my homework last night”, she’d say. We’re busy right now, we’ll do it later, the brother would repeat for his twin. The checkers board will still be there when you’re done, if you do your homework now you can play the rest of the day, she’d try, hoping to appeal to their desire to be free of impending responsibility. They’d shrug and ignore her, mutter something about how mom and dad told them to try and be nice to her even though she wasn’t exactly an upstanding mare herself. She’d get mad at them, and let them waste away their evening. And then the parents would come to her a couple of days later and berate her for not making sure the little bug bites had done their homework because they’d just failed a surprise mid-week test that included their missed homework as part of the grade. They’d wonder aloud if the stable’s “immoral whore” had ever had an education in anything higher than sex ed because she didn’t seem to know how to keep her own child from causing trouble in her “cutie mark crusading”.
She finally put her hoof down. Fine, find another foalsitter, I’m done looking after your little demons, she’d told the parents of those lazy twins. It’s not like you ever wanted the “stable slut” anywhere near them to start with! A slap of her tail against their noses cemented her anger with them, and that was the one time her being in security came in handy. Nopony ever laid a hoof on a security pony and walked off without help. Their angry talk was just that—talk. She never looked after another pony’s kid ever again. Her own child needed her attention.
And she was much more intelligent than the others. Where other children wanted to just play all the time, Light Tail wanted to play and learn on her own time. Where other fillies wanted to play with dolls, Light Tail preferred to play with other fillies and colts. Where colts would see a filly with “cooties” and want nothing to do with her, she would see a colt that was being teased or bullied and stand up to the tormentor simply because she felt it was the right thing to do regardless of how it ended. Where other children were unsure of whether or not you actually could subtract three from two and end up with a viable number, Light Tail was already mastering the concept of geometry and advanced algebra. Where most children were reading books appropriate to their age and level of intelligence, Light Tail had already read most of the books in the library and learned something from every one of them. Where other parents had to cook meals for their kids, her own child could probably make better food than anypony else in the stable and frequently cooked their breakfast and dinner for no other reason than because she could. It was, at times, more like dealing with a yearling that was nearing marehood than anything else. The kid simply required less energy to deal with, fewer “Because I said so!” approaches to ensuring her wishes and commands were obeyed. There were times when a child’s mind would emerge for brief moments, but they were far less frequent than what she’d dealt with foalsitting other children. She was forever grateful for that.
So when Chief Farsight had debriefed the entire security department about a potential outbreak near the spark generator yesterday afternoon, she’d decided that she’d put off testing that intelligence long enough, and that it was time her filly started learning more concrete and usable skills in the event that she was ever left on her own. Her first order of business: learn to shoot.
And Light Tail didn’t like it one bit.
“I don’t wanna learn how to shoot somepony,” she pouted somberly, lagging behind her mother at a slow, leisurely pace that was killing her plans for making it to the shooting range with time to spare. “Equestria That Was died ‘cause that’s all anypony would do to zebras. Nopony wanted to talk about why they were fighting in the first place.”
Why couldn’t it be something as simple as ‘I’m scared of it’? “You shouldn’t want to hurt another pony at all,” she agreed solemnly. She didn’t like the kid’s stalling, but she couldn’t fault her reasoning for it. “But that’s not what this is about. Remember the radroach infestation the Overmare’s afraid of?”
“The one that’s got you and Aunt C working twelve hours a day? Yeah, what about it?”
“We think it’s gotten worse, and those things are usually about the size of Teakettle’s cat,” she answered. Terrible as it was, scaring her would probably make her less resistant to the idea of pulling the trigger on a gun. “But I’ve seen some bigger than that. We went to twelve-hour shifts to double our numbers on patrol, but I’ll feel a lot better if I know you can look after yourself until I get there. I don’t want to teach you how to hurt somepony, but I do want you to be safe. And this is Stable 115. You’ll never shoot anything more than a paper target or a radroach in your entire life. Nopony’s hurt each other here in two centuries.”
“Can’t I just levitate it out of the way?” Light Tail surmised in the next moment, just as the lettering on the shooting range door grew into a legible form. “Or push it with a telekinesis spell?”
“You could if you were just dealing with one radroach. We’re talking about dozens, all of them with a hankering for the flesh and meat of little ponies like you and me. Think you can control that many at once?”
The thought that she might end up cornered and trapped, facing death at the pincers of giant bugs was all Light Tail needed to stop resisting her mother’s efforts to teach her more practical methods of pest control. “….I…wouldn’t wanna try,” she admitted with a terrified gulp. “Guess I’d rather shoot it. I’m okay with shootin’ a bug, at least.”
The critical issue settled for the moment, Sling Shot continued on through the hall, eventually reaching the entrance to the shooting range where the magic of her horn compelled the door to retract into the doorway and allow her passage. Being the quartermaster of the armory, she was almost immediately recognizable to the poor pony stuck with manning the desk in the reception room during the graveyard shift.
“Oh stars, am I hallucinating again?” the pastel purple earth pony mumbled tiredly. Her seemingly aimless gaze had trouble focusing on anything in particular except the unicorn in front of her, and even that seemed to be a challenge. “….that you, Sling?”
“Lavender, you look terrible,” she spoke, growing more concerned with the range officer’s physical condition now that she had the time to take a good look at her. “….please don’t tell me you’ve been covering Butterscotch’s shift again. Because I told you not to do that anymore.”
“….he never came,” Lavender answered, but only after she’d taken a moment to think it over. “Nopony else came. Nopony came, so I had to stay. Farsight said he’d send somepony…was that last night? Or yesterday, or…oh crap, my brain hurts, no more thinking….I think, I need to…”
Lavender wasn’t done talking, but she seemed to lose track of her own thoughts, and as her body began to give in to its exhaustion and tip over, Sling Shot loosened a light levitation spell from her horn that enveloped the poor earth pony and lifted her over the counter, towards a more comfortable position on a lounge sofa in the corner of the room.
“Wow, she’s soooo wasted,” Light Tail blurted, taking a few steps forward to poke the response-challenged Lavender with a hoof. “Kinda like you in the mornin’, Mom!”
“Very funny,” she bit back, but pushed aside the rest of her barbed response and settled for activating the intercom to Farsight’s office. Even though he wasn’t due on duty for another hour, the night shift chief should still be there. “Hey, Daffodil, you still there?”
A momentary pause accented the response. “…Sling Shot? What are you doing in the shooting range, you’re not on duty ‘till six a.m..”
“I just came here to teach my kid some basic firearms handling, but Lavender is really out of it,” she answered quickly, taking a quick glance at the dazed earth pony and cringing as she began to swipe at the air around her, as if reaching for something she thought was right there in front of her. “She said Butterscotch never came in for his shift yesterday afternoon, so she’s probably been here for over a day and a half. I’m not even sure she knows where she is.”
“Never really does,” Daffodil’s voice snarled, but nonetheless she sounded very concerned by the situation. “But yeah, Farsight mentioned that when I punched in for my shift, said he’d sent Slipknot out to check on his quarters in case he was ill. He called me back a few minutes after the Chief left, said his quarters were empty. We’ve been looking for him since, not sure what’s going on. His Pip-Buck’s not transmitting his location, though. Our best guess is that he either turned it off or broke it.”
“What about Lavender?!” she shot back, miffed that Farsight would have overlooked the fact that the earth pony had essentially no relief from her duty station for over a day. That level of monotony for such a long time would drive anypony mad. “Did anypony ever think to come relieve her so she could get some sleep?!”
“H-he probably thought she could handle it,” Daffodil’s voice muttered weakly. “…um…since you’re already there I’m gonna go ahead and mark you as punched in for your shift, so I guess you’re her relief until the Chief can get somepony else down there to cover Butterscotch’s next shift. They’ll see her to the infirmary.”
Fu….why do these things happen to ME? “…ugh, can’t you send anypony else?” she protested loudly, her blood beginning to bubble with anger. “I don’t really trust Rose Glade or Sunflower to handle the paperwork for the armor transfers, not with the entire department crossing paths all at once—“
Daffodil’s tone was rather dismissive of the affair—or perhaps just of her. “Sunflower will be fine, the Chief said to forget the paperwork last night after maintenance found a second nest near the spark generator, not far from the first one they found. He doesn’t want our response time lagged because you’re too busy filling out a two-page form every time armored barding gets traded around. Look at it this way, if you went to the range to teach your squirt how to shoot, you’ve got plenty of time now. Those shooting lanes need testing anyway.”
She came within a second of loosening a barrage of hateful curses and disparaging questions concerning Daffodil’s parentage onto the unfeeling intercom that separated the quartermaster from the deputy chief. Only Light Tail’s nearby presence stalled her tongue inside her mouth, leaving her breathing in sharp rasps as the unspoken implications piled up. She was just the quartermaster. The “immoral whore”. Nopony wanted her in the halls safeguarding their lives, or watching after their fillies and colts, or doing much of anything beyond keeping their weapons and armor working for themselves. The last time the Stable had a radroach infestation, fifteen ponies got hurt before the bugs could be put down. One poor little colt eviscerated in a dark corner of the commons level, backed up into a dead end hallway with no escape.
And she’d been stuffed in the armory, told to stay put and guard the weapons and armor while everypony else—the Chief included—went out and did their jobs without her. And now that they were getting radroach nests near their power source, she wasn’t even getting the chance to do her job. Was she that unnecessary to the security and safety of the Stable? Were they just throwing her there to put her out of their way?
Did they even want her in security at all?
“….fine,” she hissed back, though her angry tone suggested otherwise. She slapped the intercom off before Daffodil could shout back, and promptly turned her attention to Lavender’s state of mind—
—Light Tail’s face stared back up at her, her wide eyes glimmering with the sense that she probably understood more of that conversation than she would have liked.
Why was she the only one who cared?
“….do they always treat you like that, Mom?”
Not this. Not now. “Let’s not talk about it right now,” was the only answer she felt like giving, trotting past her and up towards Lavender’s dazed, listless form. She nudged her hind legs up onto the lounge sofa in an effort to make the earth pony a little more comfortable, then pushed her body up against the backrest to ensure she wouldn’t slide off and hit the floor without at least rolling around a little first. “Just rest here, Lav. No wandering around, somepony will be down in a bit to take you to the infirmary. Okay?”
“Nuuu wanderin’,” the aloof mare mumbled back softly, curling her forelegs in towards her body as she settled her head down onto the cushions beneath her, her dark blue mane splaying out into the backrest. “Okies then just gonna lay here a bit, buh-bye…”
In a few moments the seductive allure of sleep tugged her mind into its grasp, and soon Lavender was slumbering soundlessly, her breathing slowed to a crawl. Sling lingered there for a minute just to make sure the poor thing didn’t have anything else wrong with her, and then finally turned back around and walked towards the door leading into the shooting range. A simple nudge with her left foreleg had Light Tail falling in behind her.
The shooting range’s door opened before her, revealing a row of eight shooting lanes, each separated by a divider and given its own bench rest for a user’s equipment. Behind the booths were two large steel-gray colored metal tables, measuring around ten feet in length and four feet wide, which came up level with her chest. She set her black canvas back onto the closest table and tugged the zipper open with a slight telekinetic pull.
“Before we even start I want to make a few ground rules perfectly clear,” she stated aloud, slipping into the best “stern mother” voice she could muster in her lingering frustration. “One, always make sure and check whether the gun’s loaded or not every time you get ahold of it. Two, treat it as if it’s always loaded no matter what. Three, never ever point it at anything you aren’t willing to shoot, and always point in the safest direction possible. Four, be sure of your target and what’s behind it. Five, don’t put any pressure on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. Six, shoot only if you’re absolutely certain that nopony else will be hurt in case you miss. Clear so far?”
Light Tail’s wide eyes betrayed the tremor of fear filtering through her mind at her mother’s demeanor. “…j-jeez, that’s a lotta rules…but yeah, I got it.”
She narrowed her eyes as she stared back at the slightly trembling filly. “Are you sure?”
Light Tail wasn’t used to her mother snapping at her like that, but it seemed to bring her into a sharper focus for the task ahead, and she straightened her body up into a firmer stature. “Y-yeah, I’m sure!”
Guess that’ll have to do. Not wanting to start a fight before the lesson could even begin, she turned back to her bag and reached inside until her magic enveloped itself around the heaviest object it could find, and then slowly drew it out.
Compared to the arsenal she was used to working with in the armory, the pistol in her magic grasp was rather homely in appearance—a lightweight stainless-steel revolver, small-framed, five-shot cylinder, with a four-inch fully-shrouded barrel and a solid walnut wooden grip. There was no provision for mounting a mouth bit grip into the lower frame, as the revolver was designed for the talon of a griffon, not a pony’s mouth. Yet she found this style of revolver easier for her unicorn magic to grasp and manipulate, and came to prefer it over the pistols squirreled away in the armory. The rear sight was fully adjustable for windage and elevation, while the front sight ramp featured a brilliant green arcane crystal, cut into a perfect cylinder and sealed inside the black metal sight. Day or night, that sucker’s glow was bright and crisp, impossible to miss and easy to focus on. She loved it.
With a mere thought, the cylinder release button was pressed down, popping the cylinder loose from the frame and allowing the crane lock to swing it down for her inspection. Pleased with the five empty, polished chambers, she turned and promptly trotted off towards shooting lane #3, keeping the barrel pointed upward the entire time. She set the pistol down on its right side onto the booth’s knee-high bench rest (which was about chest high for Light Tail), barrel oriented downrange, and gently eased the filly forward with a tap to her flank.
“There’s two ways of lifting and using a gun,” she said. “Levitation, and telekinetic. For right now, just use a telekinetic spell.”
“Levitation would be a lot easier,” Light Tail complained immediately, as she expected her to.
“It would, but this isn’t a book or that pair of sauce pans you like to wake me up with. When a gun fires, it generates recoil. If you use a levitation spell to lift it, you’re tempted to use less telekinetic force to hold and use it, and if you’re not careful it’ll buck right into your face. By using just telekinesis you’ll generally be using enough force to properly control it during firing. It can be harder at first, but safer.”
Don’t want to give the Stable anything else to taunt their “immoral whore” with, either, she didn’t add.
She heard what sounded like an irritated whimper as her night light’s horn began to shimmer with a bright, opaque indigo glow, followed by an identical glow that morphed over the revolver. With focused effort and patience, the revolver slowly began to peel off of the bench rest and into a steady ascent—
—which became a rapid, panicked flight when she found the initial ascent too slow for her liking and tried to lift it up faster. The pistol came within a hair’s length away from Sling Shot’s nose before its flight path was halted, causing the mare to jerk away from it.
“Whoa, easy there—“
“S-sorry!” Light Tail cried quickly, going so far as to set the pistol back down on the bench rest, barrel aimed downrange. “I don’t think I’m cut out for this—“
“Mistakes are fine so long as you learn from them,” she assured her quickly before she could squirm her way out of this. She was not leaving until she learned how to do this right. “Try it again.”
Given little other choice in the matter, Light Tail simply huffed in resignation and did as she was told. Her telekinesis spell once again took hold of the revolver, but this time she took quite a bit more care in the amount of force exerted in lifting it from the bench. Its ascent was steady but measured, eventually coming to a hovering stop in front of her face where she began to fight it into a fairly steady and upright position, keeping it pointed downrange the entire time.
“How does it feel?” she asked when the revolver’s constant shaking calmed down into a gentle wavering.
“Feels…weird,” the filly answered quizzically, her tongue unconsciously poking out of her mouth as she continued to toy with her control over the weapon. “Like there’s somethin’ tuggin’ on my horn. It’s what threw me off the first time.”
“That’s a feedback loop from your spell,” the answer came almost immediately. “Density of weight can affect the flow and sensory input you get from the spell field. Move an object up, and you sorta ‘feel’ it pulling up on your horn. Down, left or right, forward or backward, every movement you will it to make will be felt through your horn. The heavier the object, the more you’ll feel it. Lightweight stuff like that pistol won’t bother you too much, but bigger or heavier objects can really tax the spell’s limits—and by extension, yours. Your ability to compensate for the weight and size will determine how much you can pull around.”
As if to confirm or disprove what she was being told, Light Tail began to shift the telekinetic forces at work within the field, and the revolver floated about in tune with her experiments. “Whoooa, you’re right…now this is stuff I wish I could learn in school. Already got three years’ worth of a head start on all the other kids, at least.”
“The biggest objects you can think of to lift can only be lifted by telekinesis,” she added after she began to think of the potential damage the little filly could do trying to find out what she could or couldn’t lift in yet another one of her “cutie mark crusades”. “A levitation spell works best on lightweight objects. About the heaviest thing you can cast it on is another pony. And all the levitation spell does is make something float. If the object is too heavy the sheer weight will overpower the spell and dissipate it before it even has a chance to work. Telekinesis, on the other hand, is dependent on your force of will. A determined enough pony can lift almost anything with that spell, but only a few have ever mastered it that well.”
“Like Twilight Sparkle,” the filly stated firmly. The revolver in front of her began to steady itself into a still form, no longer bobbing or tilting off to the side as she struggled with her control over it.
Quick learner. “Or the Princesses,” she added needlessly. Now that Light Tail was showing decent control over the weapon, it was time to move on to the next lesson. She glanced back at the bag on the table, reaching a telekinetic spell into its confines until she felt the field enveloping itself around a fairly weighty object (and an extremely feather light trickle right next to it), and then pulled the offending objects towards her—a cardboard box of ammunition and a few “dummy rounds” for dry-firing practice. “Okay, then, part two. Load these five dummy rounds in the cylinder and practice pulling the trigger a few times, then we’ll move on to live fire.”
She floated the five practice rounds out towards the filly, and quickly found them wrested from her telekinetic grasp and carefully slipped them into the empty chambers. And here her child encountered her first real problem—how to articulate the telekinetic field in a way that would pull on the trigger and nothing else. Her first attempt simply pulled the entire gun back towards her. Her second attempt barely budged the trigger, and her third attempt caused the weapon’s barrel to dip down towards the floor.
“…hunh,” Light Tail muttered aloud. If she was getting frustrated with her repeated failures, she was hiding it very well. “You make it sound easier than it actually is.”
Her own first-hand experience in learning this very trick allowed her to identify the issue almost immediately. “Your hold on the rest of the weapon slacks when you try to pull the trigger, doesn’t it?”
Light Tail’s fourth attempt to pull the trigger was met with the same result as her third attempt, though this time the barrel only dipped down to about a thirty degree angle rather than ninety. “Never had to change just one small part of a spell field before. How do unicorns get the hang of this?”
“With practice,” she answered. At the rate the kid was improving, it wouldn’t be long before they could actually start live fire practice. “It’s actually a lot easier than you think. There aren’t very many objects in this world that require you to fine-tune a telekinesis field this way, so once yo—“
She didn’t even get to finish her encouragement—at that exact moment, the revolver quickly righted itself upward until it was pointed at the back end of the range, and the trigger went through its complete double-action stroke before releasing the hammer. Light Tail seemed surprised at how quickly the hammer itself could snap back forward, and her flinch was transmitted to the weapon, which jerked forward and up.
“There, you see?” she finished casually, although she secretly wanted to start leaping about like a five-year old finally getting the birthday present she wanted all along. “Nothing to it. Just takes practice. You can cock the hammer first before you shoot, which makes the trigger a lot easier to pull. Practice both ways while I set up the target, and then we’ll actually start shooting.”
Increase in radroach nests. Butterscotch gone for over a day, if Slipknot wasn’t just covering for the fool. New reports from maintenance about altered air flow and oxygen quality on all three agriculture levels in addition to the spark generator level. And just a few minutes ago, complaints from residents on level eight about rattling environmental vents that kept the place cool and comfortable.
Things were going to Tartarus real fast. She didn’t care what Farsight said, the skin underneath her coat was itching and crawling with bad vibes all over. Now was not the time to be keeping the stupid shooting range open. Sling was of better use in the hallways, regardless of what everypony thought.
One emotionally-charged bad decision in the throes of passion did not make her a bad pony. Or an immoral, irresponsible “whore” of a mother. It just meant she made a bad call and paid for it with a foal before she was emotionally ready for the responsibility. And really, the kid was turning out all right despite all the odds against her. Any filly that called her “Aunt” with true affection despite there being no actual blood connection between them was okay with her.
So when that idiot Daffodil told her to fetch Lavender from the shooting range and take the squirt away from her mother to escort her back to quarters, she was very eager to carry out the task. Not out of malice, but because she didn’t want anything bad to happen to her or her mother. And as the designated safety officer for the security department, she could make decisions that nopony, not even the Overmare, could override if she could prove it was made to reduce or eliminate a potentially hazardous or dangerous situation. And she was pretty confident that leaving a single pony in the shooting range with no backup and no viable escape route other than the door in the face of an imminent radroach outbreak qualified as a dangerous situation.
She found Lavender exactly where she was told she would—on the lounge sofa, dozing away with nary a care in the world and a tiny smile on her face that suggested her dream was going fairly well. Since the exhausted and overworked earth pony was obviously going nowhere, she went straight towards the range door and pressed down on the large button labeled “BELL”, which would activate a warning bell inside the shooting range itself to warn occupants to hold their fire until the incoming guest could get their hearing protection ready. She waited for about four seconds before hitting a second button below it labeled “DOOR”, opening the way into the range and revealing a visibly stunned Sling Shot and her preciously smart daughter.
Predictably, Light Tail’s face perked up at the sight of the pegasus, and she promptly trotted away from her mother’s protective reach to greet her favorite “aunt”. “Hey, whut up, Aunt C?!”
Someday you’re going to learn how that pegasus greeting really goes. But until then, she would just go along with it. No need to ruin the kid’s good intentions. “Nothin’ but the rain, El-Tee!” she greeted in return, though this time the hoof-bump was omitted, as she really wanted to get the squirt back to quarters where she was safer. “Hey, I hate to break this to ya, but I’m shutting this range down.”
“Only the range master or security chief can make that call,” Sling Shot quipped from memory, surprisingly resistant to her friend’s efforts to get her out of this place. Such a stickler for rules at the worst times! “And you’re neither.”
“No,” she shot back sternly. “What I am is your friend and more importantly, the safety officer for the security department as well as the Stable in general. And as we’re about to have a real fracas on our hooves before the day is over, I find that keeping a pony squirreled away in the back of a shooting range that won’t see any use and with only one escape route is about the worst idea that one can get. Therefore, under Stable-Tec security regulations, chapter four, subsection E, concerning imminent breach of the security of the Stable, you are hereby ordered to shut this range down and report to the Chief for immediate duty reassignment. This is not negotiable by anypony, even the Overmare. Got it?”
For the first time in the five years that she’d known the kid, Light Tail actively stepped away from her, her eyes locked open in shock at the strong, commanding tone she’d laid down. “…whoa, Mom, you ticked her off…that’s never happened before…”
Cloud Wind’s ears drooped low almost instantly, her fiery attitude wilting away in the face of a terrified filly she hadn’t meant to terrify at all. “N-no, wait—“
Sling Shot saved her flank with a hearty laugh that bounced off of the steel walls and into her ears. “She’s not mad, squirt,” she assured her child gently. “She’s just being serious for once. Fine then, Miss Safety Officer, but only once I’m finished here. It wouldn’t do to leave without showing my one and only daughter how to protect herself when her mother isn’t around, would it?”
The sly, almost mischievous glint in the unicorn’s eyes did not combine well with that innocent smile she flashed whenever she was trying to use a pony’s own logic and reasoning against them. It was if as she was making her intentions plainly obvious to her adversary. Funny thing was, nopony ever called her on it.
Either because she was usually right, or because there really wasn’t time to argue over it.
“Five minutes,” Cloud huffed indignantly. “And I’ll be counting them with you. I’m serious, the sooner the kid’s back in quarters the safer she’ll be.”
Sling Shot was, if anything, efficient when it came to managing her schedule when pressed to keep to a timetable. She immediately turned her attention back to the shooting lane and the paper target that was set up at about seven yards away. “You’ve got fifteen shots,” she told the filly, withdrawing the stated amount of ammunition from their box and laying them out on the bench next to the stainless steel revolver. “Keep a good hold on the weapon when you’re firing. Line the bright front dot up inside the square notch in the rear sight over the spot you want to hit, and then squeeze the trigger. Don’t jerk it or pull it or you’ll mess up the shot. And don’t flick the cylinder shut or I’ll ground you for a month. That ruins the cylinder-barrel alignment over time.”
The sternness of her warning made it clear to both filly and guest that the unicorn mare was not making empty threats. With a nervous gulp the streak-tailed kid took the revolver into her telekinetic grasp and carefully loaded five rounds into the open cylinder, and then gently (and slowly) pressed it back into place inside the frame, and took aim at her target—a simple scoring bullseye, meant to be used at twenty-five yards instead of seven, but for a filly shooting for the first time, even the seven-yard distance would be challenging to hit accurately.
The ambient noise of the vents and glowing light panels died out, in tune with Sling’s magic shimmering over her horn, just before the kid took the first shot of her life—
--the hearing protection spell turned the ear-splitting sound of the gunshot into a tolerable, muffled crack, but did nothing to lessen the filly’s surprised shriek at the suddenness of the report. The gun in her magic grasp jerked up momentarily before being forced back on target, but it was already too late. All three ponies in the range could hear the bullet smacking off the ceiling, then ricocheting off the floor on its new downward trajectory. It finished its short flight with a final clink into a light panel near the back of the hundred-yard range, which amazingly remained largely undamaged from the impact.
Sling Shot was understandably displeased. “That is why you keep a good grip on the weapon when you’re firing,” she snapped calmly. “That bullet can easily bounce back and hit us. Try again.”
Her mother’s unusually strict attitude was startling for the kid, who wasn’t used to being talked to like that. It did much to keep her quiet and under control, but she wasn’t smiling or smirking. If anything, she looked a little upset, as if she didn’t understand why her mother was being so strict with her all of a sudden. Something to talk to Sling about later.
Shot two was much more controlled in the sense that she didn’t flinch and send the bullet into the ceiling, but it still missing the scoring rings completely and instead punched a clean hole in the top left corner where a two-century old logo had been adorned. Said logo was, naturally, no longer present. But her souring mood actually helped her to focus better. Desperate to avoid being scolded for messing up again, Light Tail took careful aim and squeezed off a third round, and finally succeeded in at least hitting the outer scoring ring at the top. Her fourth shot was further down in the eight ring, and the final round came close to nicking the center bullseye.
Impressive for a ten-year old filly.
“For the next five shots, cock the hammer before squeezing the trigger,” Sling instructed next, not even bothering to comment on how close her kid came to scoring a bullseye in just her first five shots. A little encouragement wouldn’t have killed her, would it?
But El-Tee didn’t complain (out loud, anyway). She simply opened the cylinder and ejected the spent cartridges, though it took her a moment to figure out that that was what the ejector rod was for. As she slipped her next five shots into the chambers, Sling quietly drifted the five empty shell casings out from underneath her filly’s hooves and tucked them away inside a pocket on the right side of her stable suit. Fired casings could be reloaded later, or melted down to be used as scrap metal for maintenance if they were too damaged to be used again.
The revolver reloaded, El-Tee took to firing once more. This time around, she did much better—three of her five shots landed in the center bullseye, while the other two pockmarked the eight and ten ring. The kid could really shoot.
“Nice shooting!” she shouted to ensure she could be heard clearly through the hearing protection spell.
“Good shooting,” Sling corrected the pegasus quickly. “There’s no such thing as ‘nice’ shooting.”
“Do you two need to go sit in the corner?” Light Tail berated both mares derisively as she unlatched the cylinder again and dumped the empty casings onto the shooting. The surprisingly motherly comment—coming from a kid, no less—tickled her brain into a short burst of laughter, which washed away the burgeoning anger that was beginning to cloud her better judgment. Even Sling couldn’t keep from chuckling. Seemed like the kid got fed up with their arguing just in time.
Or maybe she’d meant to calm down them to start with.
Rather than revisit her kid’s words and bring up the potential fight again, she simply went back to her task as though nothing had happened. “Trigger was a lot lighter that time, wasn’t it?”
“’Cause the trigger didn’t have to cock the hammer first, right?”
“Exactly. But it’s a lot slower to fire a revolver that way. The first revolvers, in fact, could only be fired that way. That didn’t work out so well the first time they went up against the zebra in the war, so somepony found a way to make the trigger both cock and release the hammer. Faster, but takes more pressure which means more force is exerted on the pistol that can affect your aim. Not as accurate. At ranges like this, though, you won’t have much time to aim carefully. Shoot five more rounds, however you like, and we’ll call it a day.”
Light Tail preceded to do just that—having already gotten the hang of single-action firing, she simply went back to practicing the double-action stroke with careful, deliberate trigger pulls. Which was actually not the best way to practice that method of shooting, because if one didn’t have the time to cock the first it was usually because something very dangerous was coming their way and their nerves would be jacked up with terror and adrenaline. Most combat shooting was done under stress, which translated into much larger shot groups than one would normally shoot. The best practice was stressful practice.
But not this time. This time, just getting used to the trigger pull was important, and even that would take several sessions. But the kid still managed to impress—this time around, all but one round stayed close to the center of the target, with one clipping right between the bullseye and the ten ring, and the other three landing inside or near the outer edge of the ten ring, forming a loose cluster of four holes. The one stray round—her third—smacked through the top of the eight ring.
Only then did Sling have anything positive to say—when Light Tail asked, anyway. “So how was that?” she quipped with a smirk, the revolver’s cylinder already falling away from the frame to dump the empty shells out.
“Considering this is your first time shooting, very good,” her mother replied, finally allowing some pride into her demeanor. “Most of the security department took weeks to get shot groups like that and we haven’t had the ammunition to practice on a regular basis for over two years now. If we had enough ammo in the Stable to allow it you could probably end up out-shooting them in a month.”
The revolver froze in place, hovering at about a fifty-degree angle with the barrel in an upward direction, as the filly processed the idea of just how regularly trained the armed security ponies were at a time when their skills should have been up-to-date. “…that’s…not comforting,” she wailed softly. “Not comforting at all.”
‘Comforting’ was not the word she would have used, but the message was the same. For such a serious situation to have to be shooting in, the fact that almost everyone in security had not actually fired a weapon on a monthly basis for two years was not ideal. Skills of any sort diminished or outright died without regular practice, and shooting was the one skill that needed to be a regular habit to do it safely. She had not personally pulled a trigger on anything outside of the last function check on the stable arsenal months ago! And she still had the gall to silently complain about not being able to roam the hallways with a loaded gun she wasn’t sure she could hit with? What a wi—
What a stupid mare I am for having an opportunity to test myself five minutes ago and wasting it!! she screamed at herself in the private confines of her brain. Just…just great! Stupid stupid STUPID.
Too late now. The Safety Officer hath spoken, and such. Sometimes Windy could care a little too much. Still, more than she ever got from anypony else in the Stable, save perhaps her daughter. It was almost sad, actually.
She parted ways with Cloud Wind when the elevator reached the eighth level—the first of the residential levels—and silently escorted Light Tail all the way back to their quarters, her ears and eyes attuned more to the vents than to whatever was in front of her. Fortunately, very few ponies were out and roaming about at this hour, so the journey was brief and relatively painless. Once inside their ‘home’, she was quick to lay down the law of the impending lockdown. It hadn’t happened yet, but judging by how anxious Cloud Wind was to get the kid somewhere safe, it wasn’t far off.
“The Stable may go into lockdown in the near future,” she said the instant the door whished shut behind them. “Whether it does or not, though, I want you to stay here. No wandering off to the library or your friends, understand?”
Most children would have complained and whined. ‘But why, Mommy? I wanna play with my friends!’, or ‘That’s not fair!’, or something with similar self-interest. Most children were not her Light Tail. “….it’s really that bad?”
“It could be,” she answered, trotting past the light teal-blue filly towards her bedroom. “So I’m leaving the pistol out of its safe where you can get to it if you have to use it. Don’t touch it otherwise, I will find out if you do.”
“O-okay,” Light Tail squeaked in a shaky voice, and Sling’s heart tore at itself. She’d never acted like this towards her before today. Even during the last radroach outbreak she’d been calmer and more collected. Today, she’d been more insensitive than anything else, lording over her night light like an overbearing boss. She wanted to chalk it up to stress—the stress of the largest radroach infestation in twenty years, the stress and monotony of being little more than a desk clerk in a two-century old underground fallout shelter, the stress of being the one pony in the Stable that was shunned and pushed away by the population at large, the stress and loneliness of having only her daughter and a pegasus mare to socialize with…
…the stress, and terror, of not knowing if she was going to be picked to leave the Stable and her daughter forever, to venture out into a world that would likely be her grave.
But truthfully, it was mostly her frustration at being so powerless to do anything about it that was getting to her. And that was no reason to take it out on the best thing to come along in her sad, lonely life. She would have to make it up to her later, somehow.
Today, she had to be overbearing and protective so that she could get a chance to apologize later. She couldn’t even bear to think of the possibility of life without such a bright and loving soul.
She deposited the canvas bag onto the coffee table where Light Tail would likely be able to get to it in a heartbeat from the couch, and hurried along into her room. Ignoring the crumpled, unkempt state of her bed and scattered wardrobe across the floor, she dove straight into her storage closet and dragged out a pair of leather-harnessed, thick canvas saddlebags, complete with pony-sized bedrolls and an assortment of holsters for storing pistols of various makes and models. Ever since the last radroach infestation, she’d taken to keeping these saddlebags packed and ready for a trip into the outside world in the worst-case scenario of the Stable becoming incapable of supporting life for one reason or another. Designed by a long-dead outdoors outfitter company from Equestria That Was, the amount of gear their spell-matrix treated bags could contain was nothing short of impressive, and was designed to work in tandem with a Stable-Tec PipBuck 3000-A to keep it organized. Her survivalist approach to the contents of each saddlebag set made good use of the generous storage—two months’ worth of MREs (Meal-Ready-to-Eat, though there were less flattering names for it), three canteens for water, enough water purification tabs to last four months if properly rationed, a first-aid kit with enough supplies to allow a properly trained medic to perform emergency field surgery if necessary, five healing potions, three soap bars, a flashlight with spare spark battery cells, a lensatic compass and a map of the region surrounding the Stable, a small tool kit with a screwdriver, an adjustable wrench, and an eight-piece set of hex keys, and a repair kit for her PipBuck.
And the weight limit for the saddlebag’s spell matrices still had enough capacity for another hundred and twenty pounds of gear. Now was a good time to add to it.
She lifted her saddlebag set up onto her bed and walked over to the wall safe on the other side of the room. It took her half a minute to input the combination on the dial lock, and a gentle tug on the handle unlatched the door and allowed it to be pulled away, revealing the contents inside.
The big brother to the lightweight revolver she’d brought to the range earlier, and an assortment of ammunition and speedloaders. The big revolver was nothing like the one she’d let her little girl shoot. This one was much larger, chambered for .44 Mag, and was likely from the same griffon company that had built the lightweight revolver as it shared many design similarities—thick, solid sidewall frame, longer overall cylinder with thicker chamber walls, and additional steel along the top strap and the barrel-to-frame junction. The checkered wooden grip itself had a strange-looking curve bump along the top that arched down towards the trigger guard, and the full underlug barrel shroud was designed to hold small weighted cylinders to alter the weight balance as the shooter desired. Along the top of the first five inches of the seven-point-five inch barrel sat a set of strange—and aggressive-looking—cross-bar slots, presumably for attaching a griffon-designed scope of some sort, as nopony in Equestria That Was had ever designed a mounting system such as this. The front sight ramp had a red crystal insert instead of a green one—still easy to pick up in the dark, but she was worried if it would be harder to see in the daylight if she was ever forced topside. She hoped she’d never find out. Still, an impressive weapon, far stronger than the Ironshod .44 Mag that likely inspired this design. Its dulled, satin stainless steel construction even lent it its own unique nickname—Grayhawk.
She carefully pulled the weapon from the safe along with its weighted discs, and then retrieved eleven speedloaders—five of them built for the lightweight revolver in the next room—and two separate boxes of ammunition. One, labeled “.357 Mag”, contained twenty-eight rounds, while the other one labeled “.44 Mag” contained forty-two. She took a little over four minutes to load all the speedloaders, and then set the .357 loaders and the last three spare rounds into the filly-sized saddlebag set on the floor, and the .44 loaders into hers on the bed. Lastly, she nestled Grayhawk into a large holster set into the harness along the edge of the right-side saddlebag after loading the last six rounds from the box into the cylinder and latching it shut. This routine was one she practiced roughly six times a year to ensure all the gear was ready to go at a moment’s notice, or during emergencies such as the one currently looming over the stable.
What wasn’t part of the routine was the short, silent prayer she offered to the memory of the Princesses in the hopes that she could put the stuff back up at the end of the day. The act itself made her worry that she’d just jinxed that plan all the way to Tartarus.
Too late now. As usual.
Her preparations complete, she took a few moments to calm her staggered breathing before trotting back out into the living room. Seeing Light Tail perched on the couch with the Mare of the Everfree open in front of her gave her the first real sense of relief she’d felt all morning….and the dreadful feeling that it might be the last, as well.
“….the vents are screwed in pretty tight, so you’ll know if anything crashes its way through,” she said to the worry-faced filly as she headed straight for the canvas bag on the coffee table. One last thing to do…
When she reached the table, she bent her neck down and touched the bag with her horn, then channeled a stream of magic into the bag that coalesced around the revolver still tucked inside. “This is how I’ll know if you’ve been playing with the gun while I’m gone,” she explained. “If you pull it out, the spell on the gun will leave a mark on your face through the feedback loop that only I can remove.”
“You don’t trust me to leave it alone?” the filly grumbled bitterly and not entirely without reason. She’d never honestly lied to her about anything before, but…
“This isn’t a plate of cookies, this thing could kill somepony if it’s mishandled,” she replied defensively. “You’ve never lied to me once in your life, but I have to be certain it won’t be used unless you need it. Just stick to that rule and you have nothing to worry about. If Cloud Wind isn’t held past her shift and decides to crash here again, just tell her not to touch it.”
“Might be worth lettin’ her just to see the look on her face when she finds out she can’t scrub the mark off with soap and water,” Light Tail said with an evil little laugh, likely having gotten the idea just now to try and make herself feel better.
Sling snickered a little herself. She could use a good laugh right about now, and seeing the sky blue pegasus panicking trying to get that magically-imbued mark off the left side of her face before the start of her shift would be just the ticket. “…I might actually let you do that,” she chuckled. “The spell lasts a couple of days no matter how many times it’s triggered.”
That bit of information was enough to tear the scheming filly away from the book and onto all fours with an excited leap. “Teach it to me when you get back?!” she begged almost immediately.
She’d learned long ago that that usually mean somewhat sinister purposes behind the request. “And get run down by my boss the next time you prank one of your classmates with it? I think not, you evil little demon,” she teased with a laugh. A tiny laugh, and yet even that little bit was working wonders on her tight-knot stomach, loosening up the tension and filtering the fear out of her nerves. Oh stars, why couldn’t she stay?!
“Demon?!” the filly shot back with faux shock…but then followed it with true, actual anger. “Say that to Sun Star, he deserves it! He called ya a slut and a—“
At the word ‘slut’ her brief moment of joy was crushed, disheartened at hearing such a filthy word come out of her kid’s mouth, and she spun back towards the filly with a mind to put some soap to that snout. “Where did you learn that kind of language?!”
“Sun Star!!” she yelled back, somehow growing even angrier as she recalled how she’d come to learn the words she was about to be punished over. “He pushed me into the wall on my way to the filly’s washroom last week, said I was a mistake!! Called you a slut and the dirty whore of the stable, and it’s not right!! I don’t know why it’s not right, I don’t even know what it means, but it’s just not right!!”
The tail for which she was named flicked wildly as she let loose a week’s worth of pent-up rage and hurt, blinding her mother with its electric-blue streak as it swished through the air, but even that failed to stir her from her stunned stupor. Nothing in her tiny world, not even the violent arrival of radroaches ripping their way through the vents into the room, could have hurt her more than what her night light had just told her. That the stable’s residents were less than receptive towards her was bad enough….but Light Tail had done nothing to deserve it. And now everypony’s opinion of her was filtering down to their children, some of who seemed to see fit to share it with them. And if this was the first she was hearing of them bullying her kid like this, how many other times had it happened before?
These were questions to be answered later. Her kid was hurting, and she had no idea how to deal with it. She couldn’t exactly slap a bandage and a mild healing spell on it to make it all better. The only thing she could think to do was scoop the poor thing up in one of her forelegs and nuzzle her. “….I’m sorry you had to hear those things, honey. But hurting him back just starts that vicious cycle that turned Equestria into a memory. We’re supposed to do better.”
“They could start by not treatin’ you like this!” she huffed through her clenched jaw, still refusing to let go of her fury now that she’d found it. Sling did not like hearing this kind of rage in her little girl’s voice. “If we’re supposed to do better, we’ve failed already!”
A wistful sigh left her lungs, rustled her child’s mane with tinges of sadness. “Nopony’s perfect. The fact that they say those things to my face at all is proof enough. But the Princesses taught our ancestors of love and tolerance, and every day is a chance to set ponykind back on the path of harmony. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. Equestria enjoyed over a thousand years of peace in a virtual utopia because of Celestia’s guidance and the willingness of her little ponies to make it work. We can’t let her teachings be for nothing.”
“I’m not the one who needs to be told that,” Light Tail sniffed. “And I don’t wanna hurt Sun Star, much as I think he deserves it. Just embarrass him more than he’s ever been embarrassed before!”
“After that firecracker prank you pulled last week I doubt that’s possible, you little joker,” she teased, ruffling the squirt’s mane with a hoof and thankful she finally had something to work with to try and brighten both their moods. “I’ll track down Sun Star’s dad during my shift, trade some words with him. Get you and Sun Star to stop fighting like this, ‘cause you two will tear the Stable apart otherwise.”
The filly tried to shake off her mother’s re-arrangement of her mane, with little success, and simply stopped fighting it after a couple of seconds. “Suppose the big jerkface don’t wanna listen, then what?”
“Then you learn a new spell to embarrass the brat with when I get off duty,” she replied with a slightly sinister tone. “One more imaginative than whatever you were just planning with that marking spell you were asking about.”
That got a rise out of the filly, who snorted at the idea (and just thirty seconds ago she was suggesting it). “What happened to ‘love and tolerate’? Princess Celestia practically ran a peace train.”
“Celestia wasn’t above fighting if the situation was dire enough,” she answered. “Even a peace train comes to a stop sometime.”
Light Tail was finally back into a somewhat cheery mood, laughing quietly at the euphuism for reasons only the squirt knew. “Stars help the poor souls when it does.”
Now it was her turn to laugh—what would happen if a train full of peace-loving hippies suddenly hit the brakes and stepped off of it? “We’ll talk more when I come back. I don’t think I’m going to try to explain what those words mean until you’re older, but…we’ll talk.”
Her night light, her eternal bundle of joy and love, picked up on the subtle unspoken message, and gently freed herself from her mother’s grasp, but not before leaving a parting nuzzle across the cheek. “…thanks, Mom. Be careful, okay?”
She couldn’t bear to leave right then…and yet she had to. Still, she stole another moment and left her with a light kiss to the forehead, and then finally turned back around to return to her original journey. “I will. See you soon.”
Her good mood held up until she’d left her living quarters and trotted down the hallway, turned right at the four-way cross section just past the washrooms, and then she finally allowed her own rage to return to her blood. And this time, she didn’t want to let go of it. Ponies had been slinging barbs at her for far too long, and now their attitudes were starting to rub off on their own demonspawn and tormenting her only child. If she’d done something about it much earlier that entire episode El-Tee had suffered could have been avoided. But ignoring them had proven to be so much easier that she just stuck with it. And now her kid was paying for it. That incident was as much her fault as it was Sun Star’s. Or Comet Star’s, for that matter. She wanted to scream, to cry, to find something fragile and utterly shatter it as violently as she could manage.
And Princess Celestia’s ancient words of wisdom were all that stopped her. Love and tolerate, my little ponies…
…well, that, and the fact that Cloud Wind was stepping out of the elevator at the end of the hallway. Wouldn’t do to freak out and trash stuff in her sight, the pegasus might think she’d finally gone off the deep end—
--her attitude faltered once more when a spherical shape slowly floated its way out of the dimmed lighting of the elevator’s interior and into the more brightly illuminated hallway, revealing a trio of mechanical arms—one with a buzz saw tool attached to the end, a second arm fitted with what looked like an arcane energy weapon, and the third arm featured a clamp that was fixated on a bent sheet steel panel, dragging it across the floor as the robot hovered out of the elevator and fell in line behind the pegasus.
Oh gods no, not now! She had to find another way up, this damn robot recognized her on si—
“Good morning to you, Sling Shot!” the robot’s synthesized voice modulator spat out, its accent replicating that of the Trottingham region from before the war—as did all the Mister Handy bots, for some reason. “It’s been three weeks, four days, six hours, forty-seven minutes and thirty-two seconds since our last encounter, oh how have you been dear?!”
She stopped cold in the hallway, turned towards the wall, and promptly dropped her head against it, crying softly. “Why now, Celestia, why? Why do you hate me so?”
“Oh come now, dear, that’s no way to greet a friend!” the robot admonished her gently, firing off its thrusters to reach her at a faster pace. “Where’s that unflappable spirit of yours?! That smart aleck wit you bear to the hateful residents that tarnish your name?! Because I don’t seeeee heeeer.”
“Give me a clue, Windy,” she begged of the pegasus who loved to torment her with blind dates. “When did this damn robot start calling me a friend?”
“I believe it was when you found that spare spark battery we needed to keep him up and running when his old one blew itself out,” Cloud Wind snickered with delight, amused at how the robot had doted on her ever since that day. “A good thing, actually, this is the only unit that’s authorized to repair the spark generator without pony supervision. He’s armed, even. He could probably handle this radroach problem on his own if Farsight would let him.”
“Oh fiddlesticks, I’ve no time for that!” the robot spat back, almost sounding offended by the prospect of combat. “I’ve duties to attend to! Speaking of which, could one of you little ponies kindly direct me to Hacket Wrench? I’ve found the replacement wall panel he requested in storage, but it’s in a slightly off shape and in need of some straightening. And he seems to have blocked my tracking software, I can’t trace his PipBuck tag. How rude.”
Suddenly the robot’s presence wasn’t quite as unwelcome. She’d been pining for something to smack the living daylights out of, and that bent piece of metal was just weak enough to do the trick without breaking her legs. She pulled away from the wall and pushed her head past the robot’s buzz saw arm to take a closer look at the wall panel. “Is that all?”
The buzz saw arm promptly lifted away from her neck, and the robot spun itself around to properly present the panel for her inspection. “I should think so! All of its mounting holes are properly threaded and the preservation talisman was still intact when I ripped it off of the storage crate! Should be an excellent replacement for the damaged power relay cover just over yonder! Remember? The one that spontaneously exploded last Saturday when somepony shut down the power relay for level seven and just shunted all the energy down here instead of PROPERLY re-routing it across the Stable so as not to overload a single floor?!”
“I remember the lights flickering on and off for nine hours before Socket actually answered repair calls,” she grumbled at the recent memory…and the lack of sleep she’d gotten that day. “Ruined Paint Splotch’s latest work too. Just lift the thing up a bit for a minute.”
She didn’t know how it was possible, but the robot seemed a mite confused over her order. “…umm…well, since it’s you, all right, but what do you plan to do exactly?” the machine questioned as it carefully lifted the panel up until it was barely off the floor. “You’re not really qualified for maintenance repair.”
Cloud Wind wasn’t quite sure what to make of the request either. “…yeah, he’s actually got a point Sling, maybe you should just let Hacket deal with it.”
She wasn’t listening to either one of them. The moment the robot had pulled the panel upright, she turned around and swiftly bucked it along the bottom as hard as her two rear legs could manage, putting all the rage and boiling hatred she’d been holding back into her kick. The impact reverberated through her bones and into her flank, and the packed nature of the hallway ensured that the hard clang would leave an echo in her ears for a quarter-hour. But when she turned around to inspect her work, she was pleased that not only had she left a pair of hoof prints imbedded in the exterior, she’d put enough power in her blow to bend the panel back into a fairly straight-looking piece of metal again. She didn’t doubt it wasn’t completely level, but it was straight enough for its impending new home. It was strangely cathartic, even if only for a moment, to know that her directed violence had actually had a positive impact for once.
The robot was ecstatic. “Oh, excellent work!!” it cried cheerfully, even “hopping” in place by putting a little extra power into its thrusters at regular intervals. What a strange machine. “I shouldn’t even have to bother maintenance to get it properly modified for the relay piping now, your hoof prints should be just deep enough to fit over the conduction coils!! Oh thank you my dear!! A thousand times, thank you!! Domo arigato and such!! Ah, you are always such a boon to my continued existence in this hellish hole in the ground!! I shall await our next meeting with baited photonic mana particles! I’ll be counting the seconds!!”
I don’t doubt it, she didn’t say. Instead, she simply let the slightly psychotic robot move on with its day, watching it float past and on down the hall—
--and without warning, the robot broke out into song as though its programmed happiness was not satisfied with the fact that its commanded task could be accomplished more efficiently.
“A griffon tar is a soooaring soul, as free as a mountain bird, his energetic fist should be ready to resist—“
His impromptu song continued on as it slipped around a corner in the hallway, disappearing from sight but not, unfortunately, out of hearing. She didn’t think there was a pony alive down here that couldn’t hear that thing’s racket now.
“…congratulations, Sling Shot,” Cloud Wind’s stunned voice finally found the strength to say. “You’ve given Stable 115 the gift of a singing robot. Now I actually want to hate you.”
“—orial wooooord! His nose should pant, and his beak should curl, his cheeks should flame, and his brow should furl—“