Act III - The Grandfather Paradox
Part 4: Allegiances
Dinner consisted of quiche lorraine, baked in rosemary flatbread and stuffed with chives and ricotta cheese. Only the faintest scent of garlic crept through, overwhelmed by the aroma of the adjacent honeybread and the chana masala, which was peppered with apple spice, a combination Rarity was afraid would turn out dreadfully mismatched but ended up going quite well together. Finally, a salad of spinach, mushrooms, strawberries, and shaved almonds adorned the side, joined by large goblets of wine. It was one of the most magnificent meals Rarity had ever laid eyes on.
And then Rainbow Dash's previous words to her ignited something, and Rarity realized there was one very important question that needed to be asked.
"Isn't this a bit..." she began, gesturing at the food while trying to find the right word to describe the situation without being too offensive.
Across from her, Madame Orange was looking at her guest. Whether Rarity's outburst had attracted her attention or she had already been staring, Rarity wasn't sure. She had been too focused on the food.
"...much?" she finally decided on. "Isn't this a bit much?"
Madame Orange chuckled. "I suppose the portions are a bit large. But it's better safe than sorry. We can take the leftovers back to the others."
The feeling that had been tugging at Rarity was causing her to lose her patience. Was that really what Orange had gotten from this? A fear that she might overeat?
The two had gone out to get dinner for the group, and Orange had insisted on stopping for the two of them to eat. Amazingly, they still hadn't left the building.
"That's not what I mean," Rarity grumbled. "It's just, well," and she faltered, aware that she was treading on fragile ground. "I spoke to Rainbow Dash," she said at last. "She told me what it was like in Ponyville. The crops are all sick and shriveled. There's barely enough food. And then there's this spread." She waved a hoof at the food in front of her. "Do you just pretend that ponies go hungry a day's flight from here?"
Madame Orange, closed her eyes, counting off seconds and using them to regulate her breath. She'd dealt with this accusation before, she could do it again. She chose her words deliberately and carefully. When she spoke, her face and voice shone with a soft admiration. "You would, honey, wouldn't you? Notice. Ask. You're observant. But are you meaning to say that I'm responsible for the suffering in Ponyville?"
The only thing that would have disturbed Rarity more than Orange being oblivious was this. She knew but didn't seem to care. "You certainly aren't doing things to help matters," she said coldly.
Something in her words set Orange off. "That's what you think, then?" she cried. "That I'm sitting on my tower of gold and watching the world burn under the Nightmare's reign? Maybe you forgot that I'm risking my life on this venture, same as you. Give me a bit of credit." The fight vanished from her, and she sunk into her seat, laying her head on the table. "Ponyville was my home. My family lives there. Of course I care about it."
Orange cut her off, finishing the sentence. "Then why don't they have food? There's a reason they're suffering. There's a pony responsible. But it's not me."
"It's Nightmare Moon?" Rarity asked snarkily.
Orange paused. "Well, yes. But not just her. I want to help Ponyville, but there's a pony impeding my efforts. My sister-in-law. Your counterpart. Ponyville is hurting because of Rarity Apple."
The Ponyville Light had set, removing the lingering glow from the eternal twilight. Now only the moon and stars lit up the plains where Applejack was pulling the weeds out of the tomato crop.
Rarity Apple watched the mare from her window. She had to admire the mare's perseverance. She wasn't kidding when she said she would earn her keep. But at this rate, she was going to tire herself out and end up bedridden again.
"She still out there?" Big Macintosh asked from the bed. "What's she trying to prove?"
"I don't think she's trying to prove anything," admitted Rarity. "I think she honestly wants to help. What I don't get is why." The obvious answer was that she made a promise and was keeping it. But her work ethic, her complete devotion to helping the farm in any way she could...
It seemed as if the strange pony had personal reasons for helping. Maybe she was a distant relative of the family? That would certainly explain the physical resemblance to Orange. And the cutie mark.
"Don't go looking her in the mouth," she heard Big Macintosh say behind her. He didn't speak much, but the advice was always worth taking. "She'll speak up in her own time."
Rarity realized how cold it was. Indoors she was shivering, and she could only imagine what it was like outside. All of the other ponies had already come in. "She'll freeze to death before then," she muttered. "I'll go get her."
She hurried down the stairs and out the door, wincing as the cold wind bit into her. She hadn't considered the possibility of wind chill, and now her top priority was getting to the mare and getting the pair of them inside as quickly as possible. She hoped the cold wind wasn't an ill omen. The past week had been relatively calm, but she knew too well the terrible storms that easily hit when there weren't any weather ponies to keep the fronts in check.
By the time she reached "Trixie", the mare had stopped working and was looking forlornly at a barren tree. Rarity shouted her name, and it took a moment for the mare to respond. Definitely not her name, Rarity decided.
Then why all the secrets? Why the stoic commitment to helping the farm? None of the mare's actions made sense.
"How did this happen?" the mare who probably wasn't named Trixie asked sadly. "This land used to be so beautiful. It's a downright tragedy and travesty that the great Sweet Apple Acres would be reduced to nothin' but withered and dead branches."
"It's not a tragedy," answered Rarity. "Tragedies are accidents. This was malice." She extended a hoof to her guest, who leaned in for warmth, hooking the hoof around her neck.
"You mean to tell me," the mare murmured as she nuzzled up against Rarity, "that Nightmare Moon targeted you all, specifically."
"Not the Nightmare," answered Rarity solemnly. "But another pony. A pony who could have saved the farm but refused. She's a traitor and scum, and it's because of her the farm's in the state it is."
"Trixie" pulled herself up and stared into Rarity's eyes. "Who did this?" she demanded. "Tell me and I'll buck 'er into next week."
"Her name was Applejack."
Rarity watched "Trixie" freeze, and the color drain from her face. Apparently the name was ringing bells.
"It's a long story. I'll tell you the rest when we get inside."
"Twilight and I were at the Summer Sun Celebration when the princess vanished and the Nightmare emerged," explained Madame Orange, as Rarity listened intently, sipping on the wine. "We had seen the signs, heard the legends, and we were prepared to take action, should it come to that. But our plan was not to make enemies, but to learn. Unfortunately for us, Nightmare Moon wasn't interested in sharing. We had brought with us her supposed weakness, the Element of Magic. We were there to study her, and should we deem her a threat, eliminate her. Unfortunately, she did the one thing none of us predicted."
"What was that?" asked Rarity.
"She ran away. We gave chase, but tracking a god-being who can dissolve into mist at a moment's notice turned out to be as difficult as one would expect. While the two of us were chasing our tails, she was building an army. Scouting schools and institutions, recruiting the able-bodied under threat of death, or worse. When she was finally ready to step into the spotlight, we wouldn't have stood a chance against her. Twilight tried anyway. We're lucky she's got away with her life and sanity. And as I carried her bruised and broken body away from the carnage and nursed her back to health, we had a lot of time to think. I wondered what would have happened if we had never stolen the Element of Magic from Celestia. Instead of being in the hooves of an inexperienced young mare, were it wielded by the princess, it might have been useful. It might have made a difference. Instead, all we had done was ensure the death of Equestria. The two of us made a pact then, that we would do whatever it took to ease the suffering of the Equestrians hurt by our foalishness.
"The Greenhouses were our penance, in a way. We couldn't undo what we'd done, but at least we could return part of what we'd taken: the nurturing light of the sun. I engineered the physical machine itself, and Twilight designed the spells that powered them. A true team effort by the two of us. And given my position here in Manehattan, we could mass-produce them. Ponies employed by me before the darkness fell could continue working as if nothing had changed, while saving lives. Orange Industries wasn't going to become obsolete. Instead, it was going to lead the world into a new age of survivability in the face of the Nightmare's Curse.
"Twilight and I had found out place in this new world. And then I met a unicorn. A farm worker from Ponyville who had come to New Yoke seeking a Greenhouse of her own. I didn't realize at the time, I couldn't, that my business with her was only going to cause trouble."
Applejack and Rarity sat in front of the fireplace as Rarity began her story. "For the first few days, nopony knew what was happening. There were rumors, stories from ponies who knew a stallion who knew a mare who saw it up close. Hay, I was there myself, and even I had trouble putting the pieces together.
"It happened during the Summer Sun Celebration in Ponyville, almost two years ago. I had been working at the farm for a couple years then, and I'd been tasked with selling treats to all the tourists that Celebration brought.
"When the princess didn't show up, nopony immediately panicked. We were all whispering reassurances to ourselves, saying that there had to be some sensible explanation. But we could tell. That feeling of dread one gets when there's a terrible tragedy. It was everywhere. We could feel it. The fact that none of us knew what was causing it only made us worse. The delicate calm was hiding a rising frenzy.
"Then she showed up. The Nightmare. I don't think anypony there will ever be able to forget the experience. As scared as we were, though, none of us immediately realized the true significance of her arrival, that the sun not rising meant no crops. It slowly dawned on us that Ponyville was going to starve. We tried, the first month or two, but anything that grew at all was shriveled and sickly.
"A couple months in, the Ponyville Light appeared in the sky for the first time, and we dared to hope. But nothing changed. It wasn't the sun. It gave off no heat, and it barely glowed at all. It was a dud. And then, in the midst of all this fear and suffering, we found hope. More rumors, of course, but we were desperate for anything. We heard word that there was some big company up in Manehattan that had discovered a way to grow crops without the sun. It was a miracle. For a brief moment we were willing to believe we were saved. I traveled to Manehattan to see if these rumors were true. But the moment I arrived, I knew we weren't getting the help we needed.
"She goes by Madame Orange now, but her name used to be Applejack. She's Big Macintosh's little sister who left the farm eight years ago. Have you ever met her?"
The question bordered on accusation. Applejack swallowed hard. She had always valued transparency, so lying never came easy. She knew she was terrible at it, too. It never seemed to come natural, and it never felt right. But despite the strain the act was putting on her, she pressed forward. She could only guess what Rarity really thought of her sister-in-law. If she knew the truth, Applejack risked losing the pony whose help she needed. More importantly, she would lose the only friend she had made in this universe.
"Never heard of her."
Rarity frowned, and Applejack realized how suspicious she seemed. A pony, bearing a striking familial resemblance to the Apple family and branded with an apple cutie mark, was claiming to never heard of the family's most famous member. Now that she had already spoken, a dozen other possible excuses came to her. She could have said she was a long lost relative, maybe a niece or nephew of the Orange line who had returned to apples.
Still, if Rarity suspected anything, she didn't show it. "Orange ran a business where she invested in other ponies' futures. She tracked down young ponies who she saw potential in and scooped them up before anypony else could reach them. Some unicorn had designed a greenhouse that had its own sun, and Orange was in charge of building them. Our family's survival was now in the hooves of the mare whom had left us behind.
"We didn't have much in the way of money. Everything we used to have had gone toward keeping the farm in business, putting food on the table. But Orange Enterprises weren't exactly in the business of giving out expensive magical machinery. Orange agreed to help us, on one condition. I don't know if it was spite, a way of forcing us to admit that she had been right, or a way of claiming what she felt was hers, but the price of our salvation was clear.
"In exchange for sunlight, Madame Orange demanded we give her the farm."
"I don't want you to think for a moment that I don't love my family," explained Madame Orange. "The last thing I wanted was for my folks to starve. But I didn't have many options. When all the facts were laid out, only one course of action made any sense.
"When Rarity Apple came to me to ask about buying a Greenhouse, she didn't understand what she was talking about. She didn't even know what it looked like, or what it was named. She called it 'salvation', as if it was a magic miracle cure for all her problems. But real magic doesn't work that way. Nothing is free, and the Greenhouses had two shortcomings she didn't predict and couldn't comprehend.
"The Greenhouses are very intricate, temperamental pieces of machinery. Twilight and I never could get all the bugs worked out of them. As a consequence, they had to be monitored and operated by somepony trained in their behavior. Somepony intimately experienced with the workings of the device. In other words, a permanent on-site representative. Rarity wasn't very excited about this, but she was willing to accept it, until she learned what frankly should have been obvious. A Greenhouse can still only grow as much food as the land it covers. To restore her farm to its former glory, the entire location would have to be swathed with the Houses. Which would require permanent terraforming. The project was massively impractical, and I knew they could never afford it. But they were still my family, so I agreed to it. I returned to the farm to oversee the project.
"Big Macintosh was very cooperative. I think he was just glad to have me back. Truth be told, I missed him just as much. But Rarity was much less enthusiastic. She wasn't satisfied with the degree of control I was trying to have, that I needed to have, for the project to work. She didn't want me to 'ruin the natural beauty' of the place, which was pretty much impossible. And even though she wasn't even family, Big Mac listened to her. If she didn't approve of something, it wouldn't happen. You could see how much he cared about her input. Or maybe he was just afraid of setting her off. Which, in the end, was exactly what happened.
"Rarity finally got fed up with how Big Mac had granted me permission to do whatever was necessary to get the Greenhouses up and running. She told me it was their farm, not mine, and I didn't have the right to touch it. So I told her maybe that ought to change. If I owned the deed to the farm, then there wouldn't be any more disputes about who had which rights to do what. After all, it wouldn't be useful to them if they were going to starve. And besides, they still owed me for the work I was doing for them.
"She refused. So I told her that we didn't have a deal. And I left.
"It broke my heart; it really did. I wasn't expecting her to be so stubborn, but I couldn't back out on my threat. It was like a game of chicken, and she didn't move out of the way. But she didn't just hurt herself. She brought the entire town of Ponyville down with her. Because of her refusal to work with me, see me eye-to-eye, she made it impossible to keep working. There was literally nothing I could do. If Ponyville was going to starve now, it would be because of her.
"I never really figured out why it was so important to her. The best I could figure it out, I was stealing her thunder. She wanted to be the one to save Ponyville, and if she couldn't save her friends, then no one could. Everypony lost because Rarity had to be the hero."
"Everypony lost because Madame Orange had to be the hero. It wasn't enough for her to give us the tools for survival, but she had to be the one wielding them. Because in a position of power, she could extort us. The farm would have just been the beginning. Madame Orange was planning to use our misfortune to control us, to rule us. She was profiting from our suffering. She had the power to save us, and she refused to grant it, because giving up her power for the greater good was unthinkable. Either she saved Ponyville, and gained something from the process, or everypony else would lose. The worst part was, she could change her mind and decide to do the right thing at any time. But she wouldn't. Make no mistake, Orange only wanted to bleed us dry. Even if we had given her everything, it wouldn't have made a difference, because her intent was never to help us, but to keep us forever in her debt."
Rarity finished her story, and Applejack was silent as she tried to imagine her other self. It was too much to take in at once, and any time she thought she had focused on one part of the story, another part of Rarity's tale would rise up and overtake it in Applejack's mind. Hearing and understanding were turning out to be two completely different things entirely.
"I can't believe she would do something like that..."
"But we can fix this," Rarity reminded her. "You told me before about the Elements, these items in the Everfree Forest that can bring back the sun. Tell me more about those. We should always look ahead, Trixie."
Applejack cringed at the fake name. Was this her plan? Continue to lie to Rarity until she got what she wanted? Betray the trust of a pony that had nursed her back to health?
"Ah need you to go get Pinkie Pie," said Applejack. "She's a part o' this too. But before you do, there's something I need to tell ya first."
Rarity's gaze was sympathetic. "I'm all ears."
"Mah name isn't Trixie."
"I can't believe she would do something like that!" Rarity was shattered. "How could I really be so heartless?"
"She's not you," reminded Madame Orange.
"But she could be! Everything that's in her is in me. The fact that our different experiences put us in different places changes nothing. The fact is, if I had been through what she'd been through, I'd be her. The only thing really different between us is a coin toss. If she's a monster, then so am I."
"Rarity, I really don't think this level of self-depreciation is called for," said Orange. "And I think you're causing a scene."Many of the other ponies in the restaurant were beginning to pay attention to them, although they all tried to make it seem that they weren't.
Rarity leaned in toward Orange across the table. "I don't think you understand," she told her. "Thinking about you makes me think about her."
"The other me? Applejack?"
Rarity looked away, embarrassed. "Yeah. Our relationship was strained, to say the least. We have mutual friends, and we're both part of the whole 'Elements of Harmony' thing, but beyond that we tried to avoid each other. I didn't care for her much, and the feeling was mutual. In fact, I'm pretty sure she hates me."
"I'm certain that's not true. If she's anything like me, anything at all, then she doesn't hate you. Not in the least."
"No. It's fine. Because I think I deserve it. I see her in you, Madame. But I don't hate you. Far from it. I think you're amazing. So I really thought about it, the reasons why I don't like her. And I think they're really superficial. And petty." She looked up at Orange. "This isn't an easy thing to admit," she said, chuckling a little. "I always considered her uncouth, uncivilized, but that's not a reason to hate pony. But she's also smarter than me. She always knows the right thing to do, the right advice to give. Even though I went to college and she didn't. It's humiliating. Somepony who doesn't abide by my code, doesn't act at all how I feel a pony should behave herself, and she's better than I am. She wouldn't be so bad if she weren't so helpful, so genuinely nice, so..." Rarity paused, trying to come up with the best words. "So pure."
"So the Applejack you know is a nice mare. That's hardly a reason to put yourself down like this."
"You don't get it. How can I prove myself to her when she's the one who's flawless in both realities? In every reality, more likely. And I'm just a vain petty prat in both. What if Applejack meets the other me and decides that we're not that different? That everything your Rarity has done is something I'm capable of doing. Applejack's not afraid to get her hooves dirty like I am. She's not afraid to do the right thing, no matter how painful it is or how much pride she has to swallow. She embodies tough love. And you're just... just... love. How do I hold my candle flame to that?"
"Don't be that way," chided Orange. "I think you're a wonderful mare. Sophisticated, charming, but with a real heart. You care about what others think, not because you like being the center of attention, but because you want to be involved. You want to change the world, to stamp out suffering. The fact that you're worrying about your heart like this is only proof. If you were truly heartless, Rarity, that fact wouldn't bother you in the least." Orange moved around the table and grabbed Rarity, hugging her tightly. "Let's finish eating and get back to the others. Maybe we can help them prepare for their journey. The Mooncatcher sets sail for the arctic circle tomorrow, and everything has to be perfect."
Rarity nodded. "Yes," she agreed. "Let's focus on the task in front of us."
"Although," added Madame Orange, "and I can't stress this enough, honey, I'm really glad we had this talk. You're not the only one of us to benefit from our meeting. You've gained perspective. I've gained a friend."
Applejack wasn't used to having the eyes of everypony in the room. The fact that she knew most of them, but they continued to regard her as a near stranger, did little to ease her nervousness. This was going to be her first real impression, and she knew she was going to sound crazy. Rarity and Big Macintosh were huddled together, and Rarity was offering her a supportive smile, trying to egg her on. Opposite them sat Pinkamena and her husband, Pumpkin Custard. Pinkamena looked, if anything, confused, and Custard's glare was saturated with suspicion and impatience. Taking a deep breath, Applejack began.
"What ah'm about to say doesn't leave this room, y'hear?"
Four nods encouraged her to continue.
"My name ain't really Trixie, though I think y'all have already suspected as much. Mah real name is Glimmer Shine. Ah didn't mean ta lie to such kind folk as y'all, but ah had no choice. I work with Twilight Sparkle, the mare ah heard you played host to a couple nights ago. Somepony attacked us, got us beat up pretty bad. Ah got scared, that she might still be out there looking for me, so ah lied. But ah didn't get you all here to apologize for that. I got you here so we could talk about something a bit more important: helping Ponyville, and helping all of Equestria to boot."
"I'm sorry," interrupted Pumpkin Custard, "but what does this have to do with us?"
"It doesn't have anything to do with you," said Applejack dryly. "You weren't invited."
"This is preposterous," exclaimed Custard. "She's hardly in a position to ask more favors of us. You're lucky I'm here, or she'd be dragging us all into the pits of Tartarus."
"Hush, Custard." Rarity's command, although not loud or angry, was stern, and the stallion quieted immediately. "You haven't even heard her proposal yet. Continue, Glimmer."
All the ponies really did listen to Rarity, Applejack realized. Even the ones who disagreed with her. The unicorn's authority seemed unquestioned. Big Mac himself was a strong leader and clever pony, and it seemed he'd found a commanding wife-to-be as well. Applejack grinned stupidly as she tried to think of something the two of them wouldn't be able to accomplish together. The pairing had seemed ridiculous to her at first, but it was beginning to grow on her.
"Alright, here's the deal," she said, shaking off the images. "Twilight's research uncovered the truth about Nightmare Moon. She's actually Celestia's sister, banished to the moon a thousand years ago."
"And now she's spouting fairy tales," Custard muttered.
Rarity shot him another glare. "Maybe not," she countered. "Dawn, where did you learn of this truth behind the Nightmare Queen?"
"Why, Celestia herself told me."
"Are you serious?" Custard looked over each of his companions, his jaw hanging open. "This is asinine! Do any of you actually believe this con artist?"
Rarity's voice grew restrained. "Your personal opinion here is irrelevant," she told him. "We are here to listen to what Glimmer Shine has to tell us. If you do not want to listen, you are free to leave. But you have no right to deny this choice to any of us. Either leave or stay seated, but either way, I do not want to hear your voice for the rest of the night."
Custard groaned as he stood. "Fine. Pinkie, come."
Applejack raised an eyebrow. Nopony she knew spoke to Pinkie that way. If anything, Custard was sounding like Gilda.
Slowly, Pinkamena rose and trotted over to her husband. "I'm sorry," she muttered.
Custard gave a whinny of contempt and marched out of the room, Pinkamena following behind him.
"Hold on!" Applejack called after them. "Rarity said you ain't got the right to keep this from any of us, an' that includes Pinkie Pie. Let her stay."
Custard breathed deeply, retaining his anger as he trotted over to Applejack. "I'm sorry," he said bitterly. "I must have missed that part where you married her."
"Let them go," Rarity told Applejack. "This isn't worth fighting over." The earth mare was about to speak back when she noticed the stern look on Rarity instructing her to remain silent. Rarity's unquestionable authority indeed. The unicorn definitely had the charisma for it.
Applejack managed to hold her tongue until Custard and Pinkamena were out of the room, at which point she exploded. "What gives him the right to do that?" she demanded. " Ya saw how he treated Pinkie Pie. And yer telling me she's not worth fighting over? Ah don't like him, Rarity. Ah don't like him a bit. "
Rarity sighed. "Join the club, then. But regardless of his attitude, what happens between the two of them isn't up to us. I can fill her in later, and believe me, she'll want in. You just keep on explaining the plan."
"There isn't much of a point to it now," said Applejack. "You already know more than I was planning on telling either of them. And I'd be shocked if you hadn't already shared it with Big Mac."
"You're sharp, Applejack," said Rarity. "Big Macintosh and I keep no secrets from each other."
"Ah'm still surprised you believe me," said Applejack. "Ah know ah wouldn't. I'm even more surprised you still want me around, knowin' who I am."
"Oh, hush," jibed Rarity, wrapping a foreleg around Applejack. "Is it really that much harder to swallow than anything else that's happened? And we have no bitterness toward you, Applejack. You aren't her. Honestly, we're just glad to know that somewhere there's a version of you who hasn't forgotten about her family. I'm happy you were willing to trust us with this secret. Now, if these elements do what you say, if they strip the Nightmare Queen of her powers and bring the sun back, then that's a goal worth pursuing. I'll help you find them and use them. And so will Pinkamena, I know it."
"If that bully lets her," sulked Applejack.
"He will. You just leave that to me."
From within the closet, Scootaloo's pace quickened and she tried her best to keep her breath even. She had no idea what to expect when she suggested to Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom that they spy on the grown-ups, and what she was hearing was a bigger scoop than she could have imagined.
Her family were spies! This was incredible! Her amazement continued to grow as she began to imagine what this could mean for her fellow crusaders.
Madame Orange and Rarity had just returned to the living quarters when they spotted a scrawny brown earth pony colt with a screwdriver cutie mark trying to get their attention.
"Madame Orange!" he called as he approached them. "If I could just have a word with you, please."
Madame gestured for Rarity to go on without her before following the earth pony down a hallway toward a lift.
"I thought you should know, Madame," the colt began, "that I finished it just now, as per your request."
"It's about time, Gear Shift," answered Madame Orange, her voice inflectionless. "You're running things a bit close to the deadline, aren't you?"
"Sorry, ma'am. I've been working as fast as I can, and I think you'll find the results satisfactory." He grinned. "Would you like to see it?"
Gear Shift forced open the door for the lift, and the two ponies climbed in. They descended multiple stories, emerging in a hallway that was much less furnished. Bare walls and wooden floors with no decoration filled their view. The halls didn't have to look appealing when they were never meant to be seen by guests.
Maintenance, thought Orange. Always a cheerful atmosphere.
She followed Gear into a large workroom where various bits of machinery, gears and pistons and engines, all lay strewn about. In the corner was the device in question.
It wasn't large, it could comfortably be carried by a single pony. Two cylindrical metal containers, joined by multiple tubes and wires and connected to a square interface in the center. While the machine could easily feel cluttered or disorganized, everything was precisely positioned and arranged for a pleasing aesthetic. A simple shape for a very simple purpose. Perfect engineering, up to Orange Industry standards.
"Excellent work," Madame Orange told the colt. "Exactly what we need."
Gear Shift seemed nervous, uncertain, and he did not take her praise without a bit of concern. "If I can ask you, Madame, what do you plan to do with it?"
Orange turned and looked him in the eye, the smile gone from her face. "That is none of your business, Gear Shift. And I would like to take this chance to remind you that your payment for this project is contingent upon you upholding your vow of secrecy. You are not to tell anypony what you've done today. Not your coworkers. Not my guests upstairs. Especially not my guests upstairs. Is that understood?"
Gear nodded shakily. "Yes, ma'am," he responded.
"Don't be so nervous," she instructed him. "This is perfect. And like I just got done explaining to my friend, everything needs to be perfect."
Apple Bloom watched from the roof as the Pumpkins exited the building and turned in their direction of their house.
And then they stopped. Apple Bloom squinted, trying to make out what was happening. Pumpkin Custard and Pinkamena were talking about something, but she couldn't make out what. Finally, they split, Pinkamena continuing toward her home, and Custard making his way in the complete opposite direction.
Wait, what? Apple Bloom tried to come up with a good reason why her family member would be up and about this late. Maybe he wasn't tired and wanted to get some work done on the fields, but all of the soil Custard worked was right by his house.
Climbing down the outside of the chimney was easier than climbing up, and Apple Bloom cleared the last couple of feet by leaping into a bale of hay. Careful to be light on her hooves, she walked to the corner of the building and peered around. Something strange was going on, and she knew she wasn't going to be able to fall asleep until she figured out what.
She waited for Custard to walk out of sight, behind another building. Then she moved to catch up with him. The list of locations he could possibly be going diminished as he passed the outhouse, the pig farm, the storage shed...
He approached the fence at the perimeter of the farm. With a running start, he leaped over it effortlessly. Apple Bloom had heard Pinkamena tell her that Custard had worked in a rodeo before he had married. It showed, and she realized Custard was not a pony she would want to upset. She considered abandoning the pursuit but quickly realized that wasn't going to happen. Curiosity had gotten the best of her; she was going to get to the bottom of this. She stumbled over the same segment of fence Custard had easily cleared and followed him into the fringes of the Everfree Forest.
She quickly lost sight of Custard through the trees, and it was too dark to make out any tracks. Apple Bloom turned to make sure she could still see the farm; getting lost in the Everfree Forest would be a worse fate than being caught by Custard. She could barely make out the wooden fence in the distance. She took note of her surroundings, making sure she knew what direction to travel in to get out, and she dared to venture a few steps further.
The trees let up into a clearing, and Apple Bloom froze at the edge. Pumpkin Custard was talking with a strange pegasus stallion hitched to a cart. A large wooden crate had been dumped from the cart onto the ground.
"Ya haven't told Big Mac about this, 'ave ya?" asked the pegasus in a Trotston accent. He was a dark mustard color, with a disheveled mane and unshorn fetlocks.
"No. If he knows, then she knows, and I think we both know how Rarity would react if she knew."
"Yeesh," bemoaned the pegasus, possibly sympathetically. "That'd be a fight for the ages. She's gonna figua it out, ya know. She ain't dumb."
"What do you know?"
"I met the broad before. Be careful's, all I'm saying. That's one mare who ain't afraid to get her hooves dirty."
"Consider myself warned then," answered Custard, irritatedly. He made a move for the crate, but a suddenly extended wing cut him off.
"Nuh-uh-uh!" cried the pegasus shrilly. "Tell me a little somein' foist."
"That was never part of the deal."
"No, but it's coitosy. How's ya doughta doin'?"
Custard sighed. From the bushes, Apple Bloom could see that he was smiling.
"She's going to grow up to be a fine young mare, I can tell. More energy than either Pinkie or I are able to manage, but that's all part of the charm, isn't it? It's impossible to be around her without having your spirits lifted. You can really see a change in Pinkie when Pumpkin's around. She went missing last week, and Pinkie got really depressed. She needs her daughter. Pumpkin's everything to her."
Apple Bloom tried to listen as Custard went over everything that had happened on the farm in the last week, but her tiredness quickly got the best of her. Forced to sit still, she stifled a few yawns before her focus faltered and she nodded off.
She awoke to rough prodding from an angered Pumpkin Custard. The pegasus was gone, and the crate was strapped onto Custard's back. The look in his eyes was clear. Apple Bloom knew she was not to speak of what had happened to anypony.
When they got back to the farm, Custard shooed Apple Bloom away. She hurried to the treehouse, eager to share what she had just seen.
Except she knew she couldn't. Maybe Scootaloo could be trusted to keep her mouth shut, but Sweetie Belle wouldn't be able to keep a secret. Still, though, she was curious what the others had managed to pick up. She pulled herself through the door to discover that Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle were waiting for her. Scootaloo looked grumpy, while Sweetie Belle seemed concerned. Relief overcame the unicorn when she saw her friend.
"What took you so long?" both Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle asked, their differing intonations making the questions seem completely different.
"I fell asleep," Apple Bloom answered honestly.
Scootaloo rolled her eyes. "Of course. But get this." She then recounted to Apple Bloom everything that she had heard from the adults' meeting.
"So the grownups want to find these element thingies to bring the sun back?" asked Apple Bloom when the story was complete. "I guess that means there's only one thing for us to do."
She didn't have to elaborate. The grins of the other two ponies told her that they were all thinking the same thing.
"Cutie Mark Crusader Treasure Seekers!" they shouted in unison.