Act III - The Grandfather Paradox
Part 2: Premonition
If Rarity had any energy left in her, and had the situation been less dire, she would have been humiliated. As it was, however, she was far too focused on survival to care much about appearances. She could feel the rivulets of sweat that had run down her face the day before, only to freeze in the cold night. With the new morning, or whatever accounted for a morning in a land without a sun, they had begun to thaw, leaving a lingering chill as they did so, contrasting sharply with the new lines of sweat already beginning to form. How the temperature changed so drastically with no sun to heat the mountainside, Rarity couldn't even begin to figure out. Perhaps the temperature constantly hung around freezing, dipping above or below, depending on the whims of fate. She saw the Ponyville Light in the distance, hovering above the small town. She wished it would come closer, so that she may feel its warmth. Did the Light even have warmth? Moonlight herself had confessed that she didn't have the first clue what the light was. No other towns had them.
The most embarrassing part of Rarity's predicament was that she wasn't technically trapped. No stone was keeping her pinned in place. Her movement was only mildly impeded, at least as far as physical barriers went. Maybe if she tried again...
The unicorn took a tentative step forward, and her stomach lurched as if she had launched herself off a cliff. While it wasn't painful, it rose and fell with the pain from the burning streaks in her back, where the metal wings connected to her body. Part of the left wing had snapped and was barely hanging on to the base, dragging into the earth whenever she strained against it. She wished it would just detach entirely so she would be free to move, but as it was, the pain involved with trying to move it even an inch kept her rooted where she was.
Downright pathetic, thought Rarity as she waited for the tumult in her stomach to settle. Her chest lurched forward, and she heaved, but nothing came. The scant amount of food in her stomach had already made its way out of her body. The smell of the vomit was horrendous, and she was beginning to feel light headed. Dehydration, perhaps? But there wasn't a good source of water around, except for...
Rarity shook her head, disgusted at the thought. No matter what happened, there was not a chance she was going to stoop that low. Even trapped in a mountain range, a pony needed to have standards. Considering the smell, if she managed to get it down, it would probably be back up shortly.
She was going to die. There was no denying it now. Even if her friends were looking for her, the mountain range was large, and she had been moving quickly when the wings broke.
Her wings were broken. She recalled her collision with Rainbow Dash and the terrible sound it had made as metal rent against metal and flesh. Rainbow Dash had to have been seriously injured by that. But, then again, if there was one thing Rainbow Dash had earned a reputation for, it was surviving brutal accidents that nopony had any business surviving, and emerging with barely a scratch. It was almost magical, that girl's ability to take a beating.
Still, Rarity knew her friends needed her. Gilda was still out there, and for all Rarity knew, the griffin had already eliminated both Twilight and Rainbow Dash. If her friends were still alive, they were in desperate need of help. Yet Rarity could do nothing but strain against the wing that was weighing her down, each attempt to move lighting a fire in the two parallel strips down her back. The situation was hopeless.
She caught movement in the corner of her eye. Looking up, she saw a pegasus darting about. Rainbow Dash? No, it had the build of a stallion, and his coat was a dull orange. She had no idea what he was doing here, but he was her only chance of rescue. She shouted as loudly as she could, hoping to catch his attention. He seemed to notice, his head turning to locate the source of the sound, and Rarity swore he looked right at her. But a moment later he turned and darted away. She tried to call after him, but even if he wasn't initially out of earshot, there was no way he would have been able to hear her.
Rarity grunted in resignation. This was perfect. She was trapped in the mountains by a pair of broken wings that had done little but cause her crippling pain. Putting them on really had been a mistake. She should have listened to Moonlight's warnings. Out of all the ways to go, this was really one of the worst, and it was all her own fault.
She saw that the pegasus had returned. Fat lot of good it would do her. Except he looked different this time. When Rarity squinted, she could have sworn the stallion wasn't just one color, but rather... Rainbow Dash?
The orange stallion followed quickly behind, and the two landed in front of Rarity. "Is this her?" she heard the stallion ask.
"Does it matter? You should have helped her when you first saw her, instead of coming to me."
"I'm sorry, Miss Dash. But Madame Orange placed us under your direction."
Rainbow Dash huffed in irritation. "New orders then. I order you to help any pony you see that needs it. Can you do that?" Not waiting for an answer, Rainbow Dash stepped directly in front of Rarity and touched noses. "Thank goodness," she said, smiling. "We were all so worried. Let's get you home." Then she wrinkled her nose. "What's that smell?" She looked down and realized what she was standing in, a look of horror spreading across her.
Rarity, flooded with relief, let her consciousness drift away.
When she awoke, she was in a bed larger than she would have imagined was possible. She was enveloped on all sides by thick sheets that felt as smooth as satin, but were heavy enough to press down on her comfortably and make her feel almost weightless.
Her back still hurt, but the pain was much less severe. The wings were gone, but the hard metal ridges where the metal had bound to her remained. Her headache was completely gone, and Rarity felt astoundingly refreshed.
The room she was in stretched nearly out of sight, with a single large window covering an entire wall, looking out at an industrial skyline. The sky above the buildings was a pure blue, without a single star. Light pollution, Rarity recalled. Lights from the ground would drown out the stars, making them invisible. She had heard of the phenomenon, but having spent most of her life in Ponyville, she had never really had a chance to witness it firsthand.
One thing was clear. She was no longer in the Swayback Mountains, but she wasn't in Ponyville either. Hoofington, perhaps?
Her eyes lowered to the stand erected next to the bed, from which multiple small bags filled with liquid hung, small tubes connecting them to her front leg. So that was how she felt rehydrated. Now that she was aware of the IV, she could feel the point where the tube entered her body, and the sensation threatened to make her stomach turn again. She felt around the area with her magic until she had a pretty good idea where the needle was, and she forcefully removed it in a single tug. No longer physically attached to her surroundings, she felt a lot freer.
Next was the matter of moving. As pleasant as the notion of lying around in bed was, especially after her ordeal, she knew she had to get a firm grasp on her situation. And a shower. She definitely needed to take a shower. She threw off the covers, and while the movement made her nauseous, the feeling was manageable. She pulled herself slowly to the side of the bed and slipped slowly and deliberately over the edge.
Either the bed was higher up than she had expected, or her legs weren't quite as strong as she remembered, because they buckled as soon as she touched down, and she collapsed to the floor. The bed suddenly seemed like a much better prospect.
She picked herself up and managed to stumble over to the door. It opened easily, but she almost fell over when it did, not realizing how much weight she was putting on it. Past the door was a hallway lined with more doors, all painted the same pure white color.
How in Equestria did she get here from the mountains?
She made her way down the hallway, and near the end she started to pick up another voice. It was definitely a mare speaking, but she was too muffled and far away to make out clearly. Still, the voice sounded familiar. While trying to place the sound, Rarity turned a corner and came to the top of a flight of stairs. As she carefully descended them, the words began to become distinct.
"I suppose that the lesson to be learned here is that when a pony is in need of something, she would do best to handle things on her own, instead of relying on others. As such, after carefully reviewing the offers, I'm afraid that I no longer have use for any services you could feasibly provide for me. New opportunities have since presented themselves that would allow me a much increased level of control and finesse, and the only sensible solution would be to take them. Opportunity, as the popular expression goes, only knocks once."
The mare finished talking, but Rarity still couldn't place the voice. She knew she had heard it before, but there was something off about it. It seemed out of place. She reached the bottom of the stairs and came to a door. She pushed it open in time to watch Applejack sign a slip of paper held up by a young colt in a telegramming uniform.
Was that Applejack? At first glance, it certainly looked like her. Her coat and mane were the same color, although they were both styled differently. Her coat was cut much shorter than Rarity had ever seen it before, and the hair on her head, instead of the usual ponytail, was up in a beehive. She had exchanged her hat for earrings and a red fringed dress that covered her cutie mark. But her eyes still gave her away. Rarity knew those eyes, wide and honest but clearly showing the determination of a street-smart mare.
As the telegram deliverycolt departed, Applejack turned around, and jumped as she noticed that Rarity was up and about.
"Gracious, honey." she spoke. "You really should not be on your feet. You've taken quite the tumble, and we don't want to irritate the implants. Twilight told me what happened. You must have quite the gall, to make such a sacrifice for your friends. And to already be back among the world of the able-bodied, you are without a doubt the most tenacious mare I have ever met."
Rarity stood slack-jawed throughout the entire speech. This couldn't be Applejack. She had never been this florid; she had always been a pony who said what she meant and not a word more. "What was that about?" she asked, gesturing to where the telegram deliverycolt had left.
The mare sighed. "A significant delay," she answered. "Missing parts. Really, do you have any idea how difficult it is to find thermite this time of year?" She huffed.
"I strongly advise you to go back to bed, but you know your body better than I do. If you're going to stay awake, would it at least behoove you to sit down? I've got some tea I was about to prepare." The mare that was possibly Applejack gestured to a round table ringed with plush chairs. Rarity nodded, beginning to feel fatigued from her brief journey down the stairs. Perhaps she did need more rest. The other mare grinned at her and trotted off, presumable to make the tea.
The table was by a window, so Rairty took a moment before she sat down to look outside. She hadn't noticed from the window in her bedroom, but she was dozens of stories off the ground. A smattering of smaller buildings trailed off in the distance, ending at a coastline with a statue anypony would recognize: the famous Lady Harmony.
The mare returned, the door swinging shut with a clamor and awakening Rarity from her investigation. She was carrying a tray of tea in her mouth, and she set it down on the table.
"You like the view?" she asked.
Rarity nodded. "I'm in New Yoke City," she breathed.
The mare sat down and gestured for Rarity to take the seat next to her. "Please," she said. "Relax. It's not every day I have company from another universe."
Rarity sat and levitated a cup, trying to make sense of the strange mare that reminded her so strongly of her friend. "How did you know..." she began, but she didn't finish, unable to come to terms with the events of the past day.
"That you're not from this world? Your friend Twilight has already explained everything to me. I imagine that you have a lot of questions, while I only have one. So let's get that out of the way, and then I'll do my best to put you at ease." She readjusted her position in her seat, trying to look as relaxed as possible. "So, tell me, what's she like?"
Rarity looked up from her drink. "Who?"
"The other me. I've met the other you before, and I'm curious. What am I like over there?"
"Oh." Rarity tried her best not to choke on the tea. "You're Applejack."
The mare's face puckered and her eyes narrowed, and Rarity was worried she'd said something wrong. "So you keep reminding me," the mare said at last, bitterly.
"You don't go by that name anymore?" asked Rarity, unsure what to make of her aversion to the name.
"Names are like cutie marks. You need one that suits you. Like yours does. A Rarity indeed." Rarity felt her face flush at the compliment, but the mare formerly known as Applejack continued without giving her a chance to respond. "I used to be Applejack. But I'm not anymore. And calling me by my old name just wouldn't be right, because it's not who I am. It's not something I control. Surely you understand."
"Of course," Rarity mumbled. She found that she could no longer look into her eyes without feeling intimidated. Where just seconds ago she had seen familiarity, now she saw the eyes of a complete stranger. "What should I call you, then?"
"Madame Orange," the mare introduced herself. "A pleasure to finally meet you. Now, I asked you about my counterpart. I'm curious to know what I've been up to in the past ten years."
"Wait," interrupted Rarity, trying to piece the puzzle together. "Twilight was here. My Twilight. And she told you everything. The rest of the gang was probably with her. So why didn't you ask Applejack herself what she's like?"
Madame Orange looked down, the universal signal for trying to mask a heavy truth. "We don't know," she finally answered. After I picked your friends up in the mountains, I sent out some of my servants to help Rainbow Dash look for the two of you. They tracked you down quickly enough, but they're still trying to find her. It's funny, like something is trying to keep us apart." Her voice dropped. "I really want to meet her," she confessed.
Rarity thought, trying to figure out how to best condense the idea of Applejack the farmpony into a concise description. "She's nice," she finally said.
Madame Orange raised an eyebrow. "Is that all?" she asked. "I hope she's more than nice. A lot of ponies are nice."
Rarity, irked by Orange's aloofness, decided to strike back. "She's very hard headed individual. She lets emotions get the best of her, and then she can't think straight. Gets up on her high horse and doesn't come down. I think you'd already be familiar with her, being the same pony and all."
The earth pony widened her eyes, feigning innocence. "Are you calling me obstinate?" Rarity glared, unamused, and Orange cracked a grin. "There's no point in denying it. I wouldn't be where I am today without that fire in my furnace. I've just learned to keep my cool while I do it. You can tell her that, once my boys find her and bring her back here. I take it she still works at the farm?"
Rarity nodded. "She loves it there. She loves her family." She forced herself to look at Orange. "Do you miss them? Apple Bloom and Big Mac and Granny Smith?"
Madame stood up quickly. "I think that's enough questions about the life I left behind," she said, stuttering. "I'll do my best to get you up to speed on what's been going on. But first, I think we should let your friends know that you're awake."
She didn't have to bother, as the pair was disturbed by voices behind them.
"Oh my gosh, Rarity!"
Twilight, her Twilight, had entered the room while Rarity was distracted, a collection of scrolls floating above her head, and a single heavy tome. Fluttershy peeked her head out from behind Twilight. Noticing the white unicorn, she bounded forward and embraced Rarity in a hug.
"We were so worried that something really terrible had happened to you. Even when Rainbow Dash said that she found you, we didn't know if you'd been really hurt, and I didn't know what I would do if you'd been hurt because of me, because I should have stopped you from going out there, it was just too dangerous, but you went anyway because you were brave and you wanted to help and I wasn't brave and I didn't help and I should have and I'm so sorry!" Rarity, sympathizing for the poor pegasus, gently pushed her away, and Fluttershy looked up at her friend. "You are... you, right?"
Rarity chuckled. "Yes, Fluttershy, darling. It's me. There's no doppleganger shenanigans going on here."
Fluttershy sighed, relieved. "That would be embarrassing," she said quietly.
Rarity turned her attention to Twilight. "It's looks like you've been busy," she commented.
Twilight grinned, eager to talk about the work she'd done. "Oh, yes!" she commented enthusiastically. "I'm charting a course for the Mooncatcher that will take it through the Aurora so we can talk to Celestia. Fluttershy is being my assistant, since I'm not very good at visualizing the maps. I'm not really the explorer type. But that's why I've got Fluttershy helping me. She's filling in for Spike."
"Spike?" asked Orange. "You never mentioned a Spike. Who's that?"
"Oh, just my dragon assistant," answered Twilight nonchalantly.
Orange whistled. "You never mentioned a dragon before. Where is he?"
"He stayed behind to take care of Fluttershy's animals," Twilight explained.
Fluttershy interjected, "And since he's doing my job right now, I'm doing his."
Twilight froze, confused. "Do I not have Spike in this version of events?" She thought it over, and then berated herself. Of course she wouldn't. She wouldn't have succeeded in hatching the egg without help from the sonic rainboom. But that meant the egg was still out there somewhere, maybe given to another student to hatch.
Rarity used the silence to take charge. Finally beginning to make sense of her surroundings, she asked about the one remaining pony unaccounted for. "Where's Pinkie Pie?"
"She's with Rainbow Dash," explained Twilight.
Rarity crinkled her nose in confusion. "In the mountains?"
"Oh, no, honey," Madame Orange corrected quickly. "We forced her to take a break from the search for my counterpart. She was refusing to rest, and we were worried she was going to wear herself out."
"But she's not taking it easily," added Fluttershy. "She's really worried and still not sleeping. So Pinkie Pie's spending time with her to cheer her up. I think we could all use some cheering up, though."
Twilight nodded in affirmation. "Madame's guards are still out there doing their best. There's really not a lot else we can do but wait and make sure we're well prepared for the journey ahead of us."
"Consider this a reprieve," said Orange. "A breather. As soon as Applejack is found and brought back to health, we're going to be moving again. We're going to find the Elements of Harmony and kick the Nightmare Queen's flank back to the moon."
Some days, Soarin just didn't feel like getting out of bed. More recently, those some days had become nearly all of his days. There wasn't much that could beat the feeling of the warm plush clouds enveloping him. The rest of the world didn't matter. While he wouldn't go far as to say the world was fine without him, removing himself from it or putting himself back in never seemed to make it any better or any worse.
The world was gray. At least he could still dream in color.
He felt a rough prod in his side, softened slightly by the thick layer of cloud between him and his attacker. He shifted away from it, hoping it would go away.
"Get up," a feminine voice commanded.
Soarin ignored it. He got another poke for his efforts.
"I mean it. Get up, Soarin. I don't have time for this. Don't make me angry."
The stallion and former Wonderbolt cringed. She still hadn't figured out that threatening him with anger wasn't going to accomplish anything. If anything, it would encourage him. He loved it when Spitfire got angry. It was a tiny remnant of the old days, back when his friend was feisty and lived up to her name. Now she spent most of her time moping around. She almost wasn't even the same mare. And so Soarin would take any chance he got to make her emotive, even if that emotion was frustration.
"I'll get up in the morning," he muttered, well aware of the blasphemy in his wording.
A pause. For a moment, Soarin dared to believe he'd won. Then a sharply delivered kick knocked him out of the cloud and onto the wooden floor. He hated the floor. While he was in bed, he could pretend he back home in Withering Heights. But the wooden floor was an Earth Pony invention, and it was all it took to remind him of the new life he'd been dragged into.
He looked up to find an angry Spitfire was glaring down at him, dressed in her Shadowbolt uniform. "We've been summoned, Soarin. You don't ignore a summons."
It was true. Soarin had been warned of the consequences of rebellious behavior, and he wanted nothing to do with it.
"Fine," he groaned. "I'm up, I'm up." Maneuvering around Spitfire and avoiding looking her in the eye, he reached his wardrobe and fished about inside for a new uniform. He showed it off to her and pretended to gag. The mare didn't react, clearly unamused. Her expression persisted the unspoken order to hurry the hell up already. That seemed to be her general mentality recently. Work, don't have fun, and don't think. Thinking was too difficult these days.
Soarin disagreed. If Spitfire was going to force him out of bed to serve a hedonistic unicorn overlord, he was going to do his best to enjoy himself regardless. Besides, the outfit deserved his derision. The black and violet clashed horribly, and it reminded Soarin of being deep underwater. He always felt bound when he was wearing it. He wished he could show up in his old Wonderbolts uniform. Just tell the Queen off without speaking a word. But even he wasn't that stupid.
Fortunately, he was still stupid enough to tease Spitfire. He lowered each hoof into the outfit with slow, deliberate movements, swaying his hips and giving his partner a sultry look. "Look what you've done," he chirped. "Have you no decency, Spit? Forcing a stallion to dress himself while you watch?"
Spitfire huffed. This was one part of Soarin's attempts to raise their spirits that she really could do without. He wouldn't win her over, and they both knew this. Thus, reasoned Soarin, there was nothing wrong, so long as they were all on the same page. Spitfire still found it irritating. "Enough," she said. "Nopony wants to watch your fat ass. Why do we have to go through this every time?"
Soarin, his uniform in place, checked out his reflection in the window. Outside, the darkened spires of Canterlot rose up from below, their peaks obscured by fog. At least it wasn't windy. Without the weather crew, the winds often became downright lethal.
"I've told you why," he said, abandoning his respite and nuzzling up against her. "Because I love you."
Spitfire stiffened. "Soarin," she warned.
"It's true. And I don't care if you don't love me back. If you can't love me back. Because out of all the terrible things she's done, there's only one that I can't forgive. I don't care that she stole the sun. But I care that she stole your ability to smile." He grinned and chuckled softly. If she couldn't find a way to smile, his would have to be wide enough for the both of them.
"How do you do that?" Spitfire asked, trying her hardest to seem energetic. "How can you smile at a time like this?"
Soarin shrugged. "If I can't laugh, then what do I have left?" he asked. "Let's go see what Queen Meanie wants with us."
Rarity shuffled the papers laid out on her desk, scanning through them for the relevant pieces of information. Number of potatoes uprooted in the last week, number of new sprouts planted, finding the difference. If managing the farm had done anything, it had improved the unicorn's abilities to do mental math. She wrote some of the larger numbers onto a piece of scratch paper, performing the necessary calculations.
They were going to need more potatoes. Satisfied with her result, she let the pencil drop from her mouth and onto the desk, and she pushed her hat back with a free hoof. Things weren't looking good. A lot of the seeds that they planted just weren't sprouting. Rarity had believed that the lack of sunlight was surmountable if the soil was rich enough, but now she wasn't as certain. Had something happened to the soil? Or was this just the naturally depletion of the minerals in the soil impeding her work. Maybe it was time to rotate the crops again, or fertilize the fields.
A knock at the door to her study interrupted her. She called for the guest to come in, and the door opened, a small orange pegasus filly making her way over to the desk. Rarity turned the chair to address her.
Scootaloo had been taken in by the Apple family after both of her parents perished in a flood caused by the unpredictable weather. She lived in the tree house with Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle, and the three of them had become the best of friends, perhaps because none of them had their cutie marks yet.
The tiny pony looked up Rarity. She liked to think the two shared a connection, since neither of them were members of the family by birth. "Fluttershy is here," she said. "And she brought another pony with her. She's hurt real bad, and Big Mac told me to get you. They're in the old barn"
So the reclusive Fluttershy had decided to pay a visit. This didn't happen often; the wingless pegasus didn't usually enjoy the company of other ponies. Yet multiple displays of goodwill by both parties had established respect between them, and Rarity knew she could count on Fluttershy for something important.
She thanked Scootaloo and set off for the old barn, which had recently been renovated into a group of additional bedrooms for the members of the extended family who had moved in to help with the farm. On her way, she wondered about the injured pony. Who could it be, if Big McIntosh wanted her there, specifically?
She entered the barn, checking the rooms one at a time until she found Big Mac. He and Fluttershy were standing on opposite sides of a bed in which slept an earth pony.
"I thought you would want to see this," said the stallion as she approached. "I haven't sent for Apple Bloom yet, 'cuz I want to get everything sorted out first. Make sure we're all on the same page."
Even though they had only met a couple of times, Rarity instantly recognized the pony on the bed. Her mane was styled differently, in a single dirty matted ponytail instead of coiled up on top of her head, and her body seemed more sturdily built than Rarity remembered, but there was no mistaking her.
"Is that really..." began Rarity.
"Ah don't know," confessed Big McIntosh. "Her cutie mark's not the same. See for yourself."
Rarity grasped the sheet in her mouth, blushing at the prospect of removing the covers to look at another pony's hindquarters. She pulled back the cloth and got a good look at the pony's rump, and the three shiny red apples that appeared on it.
"Welcome home, sister," said Big McIntosh.