The whine of nearby machinery cut through the air like a circular saw through a lead pipe. Given the amount of multicolored sparks showering from above, this was probably not that far from the truth. Rainbow Dash gaped at the sheer size of the facility that Celestia’s Day Guard had brought her to. Chains dangled from towering cumulonimbus clouds that rumbled with barely hidden lightning, suspending massive vats high in the air. The glow of molten metal that bubbled and hissed within the large metal containers as they moved slowly along an overhead assembly line, making the dense clouds glow from within as they passed from room to room, was an awe inspiring sight to say the least. All around were pegasus hard at work. Dash's parents worked in a factory much like this one, but while she'd visited several of the other weather facilities on school trips she had never been to the Lightning Factory before. It was a dangerous place, even for the experienced weather ponies, and no children were allowed within several miles of the dark clouds that harbored the industrial site. Yet here she found herself, flanked by two royal guards, following them through its twisting corridors and cavernous work floors.
As awed as the little filly was, she wasn’t so distracted that she didn’t notice that all of the weather pegasi were studiously ignoring her and her escort. At first she thought they were simply too busy. After all, one moment's inattention while fashioning a lightning bolt and your goose would be cooked - along with the rest of you. Even so, they refused to even glance in her direction, and once or twice when it seemed like a worker was going to look their way, a stern glance from one of the guards would send them into a panic. Rainbow Dash already knew she was in a huge mess; a mess that for once wasn’t her fault, or at least she hoped nopony would try to blame her. She was still trying to processes what she had seen, what she had heard. The sheer carnage she had witnessed in that forest on the ground was staggering. It made her shiver, despite the furnace like heat of the factory.
Distant sounds of ponies hard at work were drowned out by a thick set of doors that yawned open and then closed behind Dash and the Day Guards. As soon as the sounds of the factory began to fade behind them, a wave of apprehension swept through her. Dash liked to think of herself as brave, but she realized she was deep in a government facility with two ponies she didn’t know and nopony, not even the Flight Camp counselors, likely knew where she was. They were in a much older part of the Lightning Factory now. The machines in the rest of the factory had looked old, but at least it was clear they were well used and cared for. Here instead, long disused machinery coated in a thick layer of old grease creaked and groaned like sad forgotten hulks looming to either side. As they wove their way through the dense darkness around the machines, it was hard not to think of them as long dead, yet dreaming monsters ready to leap to life any second if Dash were to lay one hoof too close to their mouldering forms.
Only the occasional flicker of distant lightning dispelled these thoughts,illuminating their path into the heart of the storm. Dash hesitated as they came to another set of doors, these had clearly been chained shut until not too long ago. The fresh cut metal of the massive padlock that had once held all the chains in place gleamed in a way that was almost more disconcerting than the silence of the Day Guard. The little filly thought for a moment of making a break for it. Sadly the guards were pegasi just like her, larger, and though she hated to admit it, almost certainly faster than she was. One of the guards smiled as if he had read her thoughts. Perhaps it was meant to be reassuring, but to Dashie it was just one more thing she didn’t like about this whole situation.
Screwing up her courage, Dash walked through the creaking double doors. Immediately she had to cover her eyes with one forelimb as blinding light blazed all around her. The guards bowed low as Princess Celestia, the source of the brilliant illumination, turned to acknowledge them. They immediately stepped back from their former charge and posted themselves on either side of the door they had just come through. Dash understood what this meant. While they were here, they would not be disturbed by anypony, for good or ill. Rainbow Dash found herself kneeling almost instinctively. The aura of sheer power that resonated from Celestia was at once overpowering and comforting, not unlike the noon day sun. A little of her apprehension faded while she was engulfed in the Princess’s royal glow.
“It’s good to see you again little one,” said the Princess of all Ponydom. “We have much to discuss and very little time to do it in, I’m afraid. Please, walk with me, we shouldn’t need the Day Guard’s protection beyond this point.” Celestia guided Rainbow Dash deeper into the chamber. Unlike the corridors leading to this place, the halls here seemed well scrubbed, almost antiseptic. The scent of old hospital rooms clung to the pure white walls. The clouds, extra thick and fluffy, silenced all sound from the noisy factory yet the ever present rumble of distant lightning still shook the floor from time to time. What few machines were here hummed quietly, their purpose completely lost on the chromatic filly. It struck her as extremely odd that such a place could exist at the heart of the Lightning Factory.
“Um...Princess...I know, it’s probably not my place to ask, but where exactly are we?” Dash had to hover slightly, fluttering along on her wings to keep up with Celestia’s long strides. The Princess didn’t even glance back at her as she answered.
“Long ago, before the founding of Equestria, your pegasus ancestors controlled the weather without the benefit of factories. They received the bare minimum of cooperation from their unicorn brethren, yet even so they came to be aware of the magical properties of their fine work. Many secrets about weather production and its properties have been lost since the unification, but a few secrets are still known to the pegasi of Cloudsdale and the Royal House of Canterlot.” They came to a long corridor. One wall made of glass, allowing observation into a large room. “These chambers house one such secret, one I’d hoped could remain buried here in the clouds. Sadly it appears we will have to utilize these old machines if we are to have any hope.”
Rainbow Dash was just a little filly it's true, though she was trying hard, it was very difficult for her to grasp what exactly her Highness was talking about. It was only when she noticed the tiny form of Fluttershy strapped into a chair through the observation glass, wires leading in and out of a harness secured to her head, that she gained an inkling of what was going on. Several pegasi in lab coats, rubber boots, and goggles swarmed over the machinery that took up most of the rest of the room on either side of Fluttershy. Dynamos hummed silently with stored lightning that arced from diode to diode, thick tendrils of power barely restrained. “You’re going to electrocute her!? Oh Princess, you can’t! I mean...I mean you mustn’t! I know that she did some horrible things to those boys we found, but they were jerks! They had it coming!” Tears welled up in Dash’s rose tinted eyes. “She was hurt, alone, and afraid, you can’t hold her accountable for...for what she did. She doesn’t deserve to die!”
Princess Celestia’s looked the hovering pony full in the face with an air of disbelief, “You think that I’m going to...what?” She paused for a moment, and then started to laugh melodically. Under the circumstances Rainbow Dash didn’t see what was so funny, but Celestia’s laughter didn’t sound like that of a tyrannical despot. Much of her fear washed away into confusion as Dash waited for the Princess to catch her breath. When the ruler of Equestria finally calmed enough to speak, she still couldn’t help but chuckle a bit as she tried to allay the little ponies fears. “I assure you, it’s not my intention for your friend to die dear. By no means! Take a closer look.”
Dash was still confused, but did as she was told. Fluttershy appeared to be in a deep sleep. A frown creased her forehead, but aside from that her face was unmarred. Indeed her entire body was completely flawless, there was not so much as a scar from the many wounds that had covered her friends body the last time she’d seen her. Even her shattered wing seemed whole and perfect, hanging languidly at her side. “Oh my gosh, you fixed her! How did you do that!?” There was no way that Fluttershy could be all better after a single day. That kind of healing power was beyond contemporary medicine.
Celestia nodded, “There is much and more that magic can do for a broken body if one is willing to devote their power to it. It can mend flesh, knit bones, and even restore vitality to limbs that should long be dead. Even so, it has its limits.” The Princess’s eyes grew sad as she continued. “You’re friend will be able to fly again one day, but she will never be as strong or as agile as her fellow pegasi, save perhaps in short bursts at extreme effort and cost to herself. She will ever be fragile and delicate from this point forward. Far too delicate to dwell in the cloud cities of her birth. She will have to remain on the ground until she has recovered some of her strength. This will likely be the last time she is here in Cloudsdale until she has blossomed in adulthood.”
Celestia turned from the glass and walked to a door that let into the room that contained Fluttershy’s sleeping form. The technicians turned as she entered, bowing low and backing away from the Pegasus Device. “Then what’s with all the wires and things?” asked Dash as she followed the Princess, subconsciously lowering her voice so as not to wake Fluttershy. “Why are we here?”
“As I said, magic has its limits,” Celestia continued, her horn glowing slightly as she began to adjust knobs and dials on a nearby machine that seemed to be monitoring Fluttershy’s vital signs. “She could be shattered down to the very last fiber of her being, and yet with my power I could make her a new body a thousand times over. It would tax me, but it could be done.” She paused again, and directed Rainbow Dash’s attention to one particular monitor. It made no sense to Dash, just a jumble of lines arcing wildly up and down across the screen. “But no magic known to pony-kind can fix your friends mind. Her ordeal has left her shattered, and while the wounds of her body were swift enough to mend, the wounds in her heart and mind prove far more stubborn. As it stands, even with her weakened body, she is a threat to not only herself, but everypony around her. If she were to remain like this, she would spend the rest of her life in a facility dedicated to the care of broken ponies like herself. It would be a long, grueling process, with very little hope she’d ever truly recover. She would lose her childhood, and very likely most of her adult life, behind cold grey walls with no family or friends to help mark the time. At last, in her waning years, if she proved herself reliable, she might be allowed back into society but only under the closest of monitoring for fear her years of isolation may have rendered her incapable of functioning outside the facility. Many ponies find life within those sheltering grey walls to be far easier than having to adjust to a world of light and color after going so long hidden away.”
Dash couldn’t help but weep for her friend. She had heard of such facilities before. It was even rumored that her friend Derpy’s mother was in one, though the grey filly would deny it vehemently if it were mentioned to her. Life in such a place wasn’t all bad, but the shame and stigma that came with it was usually enough to lead the family’s of those who had to dwell there to disown them, and do their best to forget they had ever existed. It was a sad fact of life that very few ponies, especially in pegasus society, were willing to put up with having a 'damaged' pony in the family. “Isn’t there anything you can do for her?” asked Dash with tears in her voice.
Celestia smiled warmly at the concerned filly, “That is precisely why we are here my dear. As I said before, this facility houses an old secret of your people. The pegasi race has dealt with all forms of weather for generations, but no form has proven more deadly, nor more useful, than the lightning that arcs through the sky. It can be used to power great machines, light up entire cities, and even perform feats that magic alone cannot.” She turned her full attention on Rainbow Dash. “The dangers of its use and manufacture, however, are well known. A single jolt can burn a pony to the bone, stop her heart, or kill her out right. But there are benefits to being exposed to lightning as well, in small doses. It was discovered early on that a mild shock, while disorienting, could have positive effects on otherwise depressed or disturbed ponies. The only noticeable side effects being disorientation and temporary memory loss.”
Dashie was having a hard time following again. She knit her eyebrows in concentration, “So you think this machine can fix her mind?”
Celestia’s smile turned into a frown. “Not in the slightest. For all their successes, this device’s positive effects always proved temporary and many of its negative effects were all too fatal. It was used as an execution device, rather than one for healing, on more than one occasion.” Celestia used her magic to guide a lab coat and a pair of boots and goggles from a hook on the wall and place them on herself, magically securing the protective gear as her smile returned. “However, that was before the unicorns had a chance to analyze the machines properties and its effects on the minds of ponykind. With the power of this machine we can harness what was previously considered a negative side effect and use it to our advantage. With this Pefasus Device we can erase the last few weeks from Fluttershy’s mind, undoing damage that magic alone cannot repair!” She smiled triumphantly, “And with a few choice spells, I’m fairly certain we can make her remember things differently. In one fell swoop we’ll turn her nightmarish experience into the best memories of her life!”
She couldn’t help it. Rainbow Dash’s mouth hung wide open. She’d never heard of such a procedure before. She couldn’t shake the feeling that it sounded horribly wrong. “You mean you’re just going to blank her memory? But isn’t that dangerous? Besides, even if she doesn’t remember, won’t everypony else?”
“Not at all. We’ve already used the procedure on those two boys your friend injured and healed their bodies. They believe that they’ve been enjoying their summer at flight camp, both attributing any residual soreness to over exertion. As to the others who were searching for Fluttershy, they believe she was found unharmed, frolicking with animals on the ground.” Celestia adjusted a few more dials on the machine and the lights in the room dimmed. “Our hope is the procedure will be as successful with Fluttershy as it was with Hoops and Dumbell, but we are concerned that there’s a chance she may relapse. She may be prone to episodes of paranoid delusion, unreasoning fear, outbursts of rage, and sadly perhaps even some casual cruelty. But if the magic holds and this device does as it has previously, we can transfer some of that fear into bravery, some of that rage into love, and a good share of her cruelty into kindness. Still...she will have to be watched.” Celestia leaned intently over the machine, a rumble of thunder rolling somewhere nearby. “I’d like you to do that for me, Rainbow Dash.”
The filly had landed as the machine was powering up, afraid that an errant bolts of lightning feeding into the machine might snake out and smite her from the air. But at Celestia’s words Rainbow Dash gave a little jump and almost gave herself the same kind of procedure Fluttershy was about to undergo. “You want me to what!?”
“Watch her, dear. As I said before, she will have to be somewhat isolated from the rest of pony society, preferably on the ground as her body will be weak for some time. As her mind adjusts, I’ll need somepony to keep an eye on her and protect her. And, with luck, slowly guide her back into society. I understand that before all of this she was a somewhat shy filly. She still will be. She will need somepony who is assertive and patient to help her along the way. I think that pony is you Rainbow Dash.”
“But... Why me?”
“Because you found her. Because you are her friend. I know that giving up living in Cloudsdale will be tough, but we’ll get you a nice government job working the weather of some small town. Someplace nice, I promise. It won’t be all bad. You’ll have respect, a job for life, and at least one familiar face so you don’t get lonely. I think its fair compensation for this service we are asking of you.” Celestia smiled mildly, as if she weren’t dictating anypony’s fate at all.
“But...but I’m just a kid! I haven’t even finished flight camp! You can’t expect me to give up my life to take care of somepony I barely know!” Dash was shaking, a mixture of fear and guilt wracking her frame. Part of her wanted to help Fluttershy in any way she could. But that wasn't the part that was strongest in her right now and all her fear and doubt washed through her again like a wave crashing against the shore. “I’m sorry Princess, but I can’t do this for you. She might be my friend, but I don’t owe her, or you anything like this. She can get better on her own!”
“Oh dear, it appears you misunderstand my little pony." Celestia threw a switch and the lights dimmed further. The quiet hum of the machine rose ominously in pitch. "Are you perhaps under the delusion that this all occurred by chance? By happenstance? This is why you are here, why I am telling you all this in the first place.” Celestia smiled gently as the Pegasus Device let out a scream of tormented metal and crackling lightning. The overwhelming scent of ozone and burning tin flooded the chamber as a thick bolt of lightning was pumped through Fluttershy’s dormant brain. The yellow pegasus filly's entire body convulsed as seizures gripped her and destroyed much of the "damaged" parts of her mind “Rainbow Dash, you don't have a choice in the matter. You never did.”