Apple Bloom perched on a step ladder, articulating the wooden spars of the flight harness' redesigned wing, which now bore as much resemblance to the fins of a fish as it did the wings of a butterfly. Satisfied that the hinged attachment points were solid as well as moving smoothly, she gave Twilight a confident nod and climbed back down the ladder, folding it up and flipping it onto her back to move it out of the way.
The lavender unicorn stood on a square platform occupying the center of one of Sweet Apple Acres' hay barns, which had been partially cleared out to give Twilight, Rarity, and Apple Bloom someplace to work. A stout rope connected the harness to a pully, with Applejack holding the other end as a safety measure.
Since they'd arrived on her farm with this new project, the blonde earth pony had been watching their progress with an air of detached bemusement, but when time came to test the latest iteration of the wings she was adamant about handling safety. She gave a couple of tugs on the rope and nodded. "Okay, looks like yer hitched up proper, Twi. Now lets see if this contraption of yers can actually do what y'all say it can."
Twilight gave her a stern nod in return, then waved a hoof to Spike. "Sparkle/Belle/Apple Personal Flight Harness, Mark Three, Test One. Casting the spell."
A purple glow bathed her forehead, shining beneath the peaked crest of her crash helmet and reflecting off of her goggles. The scintillating light coursed along the radiating spars of the wings, and faded.
She smiled over to Apple Bloom and Rarity, who stood next to Spike. "I have a good feeling about this one!" She set her face in concentration. "Attempting to fly."
The wings creaked faintly in the expectant silence, and started to beat the air with greater and greater speed, throwing up a cloud of dust and particles of hay. Twilight began to rise, floating upward toward the vaulted roof of the barn as a wide eyed Applejack backed away, carefully taking up the slack of the rope so that if the wings gave out the hovering unicorn would only drop a couple hooves at most.
The freckled farm pony intoned through clenched teeth as she held the rope steady. "Land sakes, if'n I didn't see it with my own eyes I wouldn'ta believed it."
Rarity started to jog in place, completely ignoring the bits of cast up hay and dirt that were settling on her coat. Her sapphire eyes gleamed behind her goggles. "It's working! It's working!"
Apple Bloom kept her eyes trained on the harness and its occupant. "'Course it's workin'. We built 'em right this time."
Twilight's breathless voice echoed down from the rafters. "Initial results encouraging. Applejack, give me some slack, I'm going to attempt to move up and down a couple times."
The blonde earth pony traded a glance with her younger sister, who gave her a nod. She started walking forward again, allowing the rope to sag into a loop over the lavender unicorn's back. Apple Bloom held up a hoof. "That's plenty, AJ. Don't wanna git tangled in th' wings." She called up to the flying mare. "Okay! Ya got about twenty hooves o' play, start with that."
Twilight Sparkle nodded, an ecstatic grin plastered on her face. "Okay, going down." She lowered a few hooves, the flapping of the artificial wings decreasing in frequency, then rose an equal distance by willing them to beat harder. "Going up!"
She went up and down a few times, and called out to Spike with untrammeled glee on her voice. "Ascent and descent successful. I'll now attempt lateral movement."
Her smile faded as a puzzled look settled on her face. "Um... Attempting... Hmmm."
Apple Bloom lashed her tail. "Whats th' matter, Twilight?"
The lavender scholar looked around uncertainly. "Uh. I'm not completely sure how to do that."
Applejack took up some of the slack on the rope, and looked over at Rarity. She called to the alabaster unicorn out of the side of her mouth. "Rarity, do y'all remember how it was done? You seemed to take to them fancy wings Twi gave ya purty quick. You were even dancin' with 'em come the Young Flyer's Competition."
The fashionista's brow furrowed. "It... It was kind of instinctive. The wings just took me where I wanted to go and did what I wanted them to do."
Twilight brought one of her dangling hooves to her chin. "Hmmm. Maybe the physical connection component had more significance than just a structural one. Maybe if I translate some of those sub-dweomers into telekinetic patterns and transfer them to the control sequence, we could..."
Apple Bloom looked thoughtful. "Y'know, I don't rightly remember much of the couple o' hang glidin' lessons I took from Rainbow Dash when I was a filly, but I do kinda recall y'needed t' just lean in th' direction y'wanted t' move t' steer."
Spike nodded, tapping the tip of the quill against his chin. "Yeah, Sir Concord tells me to lean into my turns too."
The hovering unicorn gave a shrug and attempted to shift her weight toward the right. "Well, it's worth a WHOAAAA"
She banked sharply to the left and started spinning faster and faster. Applejack let out a surprised grunt and dug her hooves in as the rope suddenly pulled taut in her teeth. As Twilight circled, one of her wings clipped the rope leading from the pully to Applejack, causing her to break into a wild, shrieking backspin as she whirled crazily through the air like an out of control yo-yo.
Rarity rounded on Spike and stamped a hoof in wild eyed urgency. "Spike! Get ready to catch her on my mark. Three, two, one. GO!"
She glared up at Twilight and her horn flared to life with an intense blue glow. Matching sparks burst across the harness, as every buckle released at once, throwing the lavender unicorn mare loose from the flapping, spinning contraption and sending her tumbling through the air, her legs limp like a rag doll's and her eyes spiraling in a daze.
Spike backpedaled furiously, flapping his wings as he fell backwards over his own tail with a look of horror on his face. He hit the floor with a heavy thud, lurching desperately up to a sitting position just in time to have Twilight bounce off of his face and crash into a pile of hay bales. Tiny lavender colored unicorns with fluttering wings circled the adolescent dragon's vibrating cranium, and he slumped to the floor in a daze.
The vacant flight harness went limp overhead, spiraling to the floor of the barn on its rope as all of the ponies still standing rushed forward to help the unconscious dragon and unicorn.
Twilight Sparkle let out a whimper and dug her hooves into the improvised mattress of hay bales, hoping that if she just held on hard enough the room would stop spinning. Vertigo was the least of her problems, however, for as soon as she had proven to be awake and largely unharmed, she found herself faced with the formidable tag team of Applejack and Rarity.
The blonde farm pony stomped a hoof. "You are not gonna go up in that confangled flapdoodle of a thingamajig again, even if'n I have t'find th' biggest tree on this farm and tie y'all down to it. I ain't never seen anythin' so dang foolhardy in all my born days."
Apple Bloom snorted and called out from the sidelines. "Y'all never hung out with the Cutie Mark Crusaders on a Saturday afternoon." Applejack turned and cast her sister a glare as the red headed mare flicked her tail and assumed a look of exaggerated innocence.
Rarity gave the freckled earth pony a sidelong glance and looked Twilight in the eyes with an earnest gaze. "I quite agree with Applejack. In practice, if not in principle. Those amazing brains of yours are far too valuable to risk dashing them out in some horrible mishap." She gave Spike and Applejack a look. "Plus it strikes me that with your magic you'd be much more effective on safety detail."
Twilight quailed under her friends' onslaught. "But... But if not me, then who?"
Apple Bloom spoke up again "I'll do it."
She reared back, cowed, as Rarity and Applejack both turned and shouted at her in unison. "ABSOLUTELY NOT!"
The blonde farm mare's green eyes narrowed as she stared her little sister down. "If'n you think I'd let any member o' the Apple family within' twenty hooves o' that thing, you got yerself another think comin', missy."
Rarity rolled her eyes. "Once again, I find myself agreeing with Applejack, and for the same reason why I think it's a bad idea for Twilight to be testing the harness. Your skills as an engineer are too valuable to this enterprise to risk losing them in a test gone bad." She drew herself up and let out a breath. "There's no way around it, we simply must hire ourselves a test pony."
Applejack rounded on her with flaring eyes. "Now just a durn minute. I ain't gonna just sit by while y'all put some other poor soul at risk."
Rarity turned to face her, her sapphire eyes solemn and earnest. "Here's where we diverge, darling. Risk is hoofmaiden to progress. Would we even be standing in this barn if your Grandmare didn't venture alone into the Everfree looking for seeds?"
The blonde earth pony hiked her tail and ground her hooves. "Yeah, and she durn near got et by timber wolves when she did."
The pale unicorn raised a hoof and pointed out the wide open door of the barn, toward the fragrant acres of blossom festooned apple trees covering the rolling hills. "Look around you, Applejack dear, look what she grew with those seeds. If she'd stayed home worrying about timber wolves, this would be nothing but wilderness."
Applejack stuck out her lower lip in defiance, trying in vain to come up with a counter argument, then let out a sigh as she hung her head in defeat. "Y'know, I sure hate it when somepony whups me with th' truth."
She fixed Rarity and Twilight with a stern gaze. "Okay, I won't stand against y'all, but I'm gonna make sure whatever guinea pig y'all get is gonna know what they're gettin' into, and I'm gonna make sure y'all play fair by 'em."
Rarity drew herself up, clearing her throat. "Rest assured, darling, whomever we hire will be generously compensated for the risks they'll be expected to take."
Apple Bloom spoke up again. "Does that mean I can expect a some bits comin' my way too?"
She flinched as Rarity and Applejack rounded on her again, but relaxed as she saw a smiles on their faces. The alabaster fashion designer nodded sagely. "Of course, darling. When I say your skills have value, that means in bits just as much as it means in importance. Although if we're going to turn this into something official we're going to have to back it up with more than... ahem... saliva on our hooves."
She let out a tiny shudder before continuing. "We'll need to write up a partnership contract for Twilight and I and file for a business charter with the Mayor. For now I can hire you on as a contractor to my current business. I presume you're operating on a freelance craftspony's license and haven't filed for a charter of your own quite yet."
Apple Bloom nodded. "Eeyup. Still savin' up for a business charter, so contractin' would suit me just fine. Even if it don't work out it'd git me that much farther towards bein' able to set up a proper storefront instead o' just doin' odd jobs and piece work."
The fashion designer beamed. "Excellent!" She furrowed her brow in thought. "I suppose we could classify our test pony as a 'model' of sorts, although they'd be working on a whole different kind of runway."
Applejack rubbed her chin with a hoof. "Y'all got the bits t' be takin' on more hired hoofs, Rarity?"
The elegant mare gave her a guarded smile. "Well, I had some measure of success with this year's Spring Collection, and the advance orders on the Social Season are starting to pick up, so I think I can manage some venture money. A little bit of calculated risk is involved, but I was sold on the potential reward as soon as Twilight explained her idea to me." She gave her fellow unicorn a wink. "Being in on the ground floor of something so transformative for ponykind is a once in a lifetime opportunity."
The elder Apple sister took a slow look around the barn and scratched the back of her head. "Well, if'n it'd help y'all out, I'd be happy t' keep lettin' ya use this ol' barn, provided you keep plenty o' hay bales stacked around." She gave a shrug. "And heck, dependin' on whether there's zap apples this year, maybe the Apple family can slip a l'il extra seed money to ya."
Twilight met her friends' eyes with a pensive gaze. "Perhaps it's time we approached the Princesses with our preliminary findings. Perhaps I can repurpose some of my current research grants under their auspice."
Rarity's eyes lit up as she stood on the tips of her hooves. "Even better darling, if we could obtain a Royal Charter, then we'd really be cooking with dragon fire! And we could attract investors from all over Equestria."
Twilight nodded. "I'll write a letter requesting audiences."
The pale unicorn let out a chuckle. "No need for that, darling. We'll be in the audience with both of princesses next weekend, and I daresay from what I recall you telling Sweetie Belle, they'll be in quite the jovial mood too."
The lavender scholar's eyes twinkled as she shared a grin with her partner to be. "That's brilliant! It'll definitely save us from having to leap a few bureaucratic fences if we have their Highnesses' preliminary approval. Rarity, you're a genius!"
The alabaster fashionista tossed her elegantly curled mane with a preening smile. "No, dear, you're the genius, I've just got a mind for business to go with my eye for beauty."
Applejack rolled her eyes and pointedly cleared her throat. "Well, now that y'all got th' jump on congratulatin' each other, maybe we oughta set about gettin' th' ball rollin'. I reckon th' next order o' business is t' head on down to the town hall to get all the forms and whatnot y'all need, and then I suppose we oughta see about findin' some durn fool to play tetherball in yer wingflappin' watchamacallit."
Apple Bloom stifled a grin at her sister's usual bluntness and stepped forward. "Since it's just about lunchtime anyhow, what say we knock off and head into Ponyville? We can swing by the town hall after we eat."
Spike gave a small flap of his wings as he got to his feet. "Now we're talkin'!"
Rarity favored the two earth ponies with a warm smile. "Trust the ever practical Apple sisters to keep us on track. Yes, I'm a bit peckish now that you mention it, and we can also stop in at the Carousel so that I can get you both fitted for dresses for the opera."
At this, Applejack and Apple Bloom both exchanged a puzzled glance, and the elder sister's eyebrow arched dubiously. "Do what now?"
The alabaster unicorn met their questioning gaze with glittering sapphire eyes. "Well, if we're going to approach the Princesses with this endeavor, it will strengthen our case immensely to have the Element of Honesty weigh in, as well as getting Apple Bloom's input as our chief engineer."
She gave the younger sister a wink. "And Sweetie Belle will be ever so thrilled to see you at her grand debut, darling."
Applejack lashed her tail nervously. "Now just an apple pickin' minute. Aside from the fact that I know about as much about opry type music as a fish knows about tap dancin', I ain't exactly what y'all would call sold on this here project. Not by a long shot."
Twilight climbed down off of the hay bales with Spike's careful assistance, a thoughtful look on her face. "No, I think Rarity's right, Applejack. It's easy enough for her, Apple Bloom, and I to gush about the potential that the flight harness represents, but when considering the applications of research it's important to face the cons as well as the pros."
She winced, but stood patiently as Rarity produced a comb and began to telekinetically run it through her disheveled mane. "I won't be so presumptuous as to say I know how the Princesses' minds work, but I do know that they respond much more favorably to an issue posed to them from multiple perspectives than they do to a hard sell, based on what I've seen at court."
Applejack took another glance at her sister, who didn't try very hard to suppress a smirk at her elder sibling's discomfort.
She reached up and adjusted her battered old cowpony hat, and let out a heavy sigh. "Okay. It's against my better judgment, but I'll agree to it." She fixed both unicorns with a hard glare. "But I'm drawin' the line right here before y'all try to smooth talk me into strappin' into that flutterin' doohicky o' doom and goin' for a spin." She jabbed an emphatic hoof at the empty flight harness lying like a huge, squashed insect on the platform, and punctuated her tirade with a twirl of her fetlock.
Rarity let out a silvery laugh as they set out. "Oh Applejack, you shouldn't knock something until you've tried it. You might enjoy yourself." She gave the hard working farm pony a sly grin. "At the opera, I mean."
Applejack huffed and cast a nervous look over her shoulder at the barn as they walked through the sun dappled orchards toward the road into Ponyville.