It was shop day again. Maud hitched up her wagon and headed into Rockville. It was a walk, but it was a nice break from working the mine and the fields. Coming into town like this was liberation from her home, but standing there at her little fold up counter at the end of the boardwalk without Boulder, without anyone to talk to, was lonely and uncomfortable.
She spent forty-five minutes rotating a crystal cluster in her heavily curated spread, trying to decide which angle made it appear most enticing to a prospective buyer. She would plant it and then moments later second guess herself and continue fiddling with it.
"Hello, Maud," chimed a familiar voice.
Maud looked up from her display to see the stallion from the time before, the unwitting catalyst in the demise of her and Boulder's relationship. "Tim?"
"Time," he corrected, but you can call me 'Tim' if you like. How's business?"
"Ordinary," answered Maud. She smiled inwardly, looking at his flank again.
"It's nice that you're here again because I was thinking, since you like geology too, you might like to come out and see the Painted Hills."
"I've already seen them dozens of times," replied Maude thoughtlessly.
His face fell. "Oh, well of course."
Wait, was he just asking me to do something with him? She panicked, trying to rewind the conversation in her brain.
Time scratched his head and cleared his throat. "I suppose what I actually mean is that you should go see the Painted Hills one last time before they get demolished." His demeanor was suddenly sullen.
Maud's heart froze. "They're going to destroy the Painted Hills… for the railroad?
"I'm afraid so," nodded Time.
Maud paused, lost in a deluge of foalhood reveries and guilt over the possibility of shirking her duties to go be alone with a boy.
"You might see a few things that you never noticed before," added Time. "You don't have to come… go right now… or at all," he backpedaled. He became flustered over the subtle implications of the words come and go, one sounding solitary and non-compulsory and the other sounding like an invitation to accompany him and he worried that it sounded too forward and maybe he should have thought this through better.
"I want to come now," blurted Maud decisively as she began to scoot her wares together upon the table.
"You should bring your saddle bag," suggested Time.
After only half a day open, Maud closed up shop and left her cart by the saloon with a wheel lock on. The two of them walked out of town together. There was no road or trail, but it was a hike Maud had taken countless times over her life.
"Where are you from?" asked Maud after a careful deliberation over what she thought normal ponies just meeting might talk about.
"Oh, I'm actually from Ponyville. You may not have heard of-"
"I've heard of it. My sister lives there."
"Your sister?" Time wracked his brain, trying to think if he'd ever met anyone like Maude in Ponyville. He hadn't, but he had met a Pie. He looked back at her, cockeyed. "You're not talking about Pinkie Pie, are you?"
"That's incredible," he laughed. "I would have never pieced that together." The two didn't look or act anything alike. Was one of them adopted, he wondered. "How many siblings do you have then?"
"I have two more sisters who live on the rock farm.
"Sounds like you have a large family. I was an only child."
They crested the edge of the plateau and looked out where a strange ridge of multicolored hills seemed to erupt from the bleak gray dust of the desert floor. The new railroad track snaked out of Rockville and swooped down on a wedge of scaffolding where it sat stalled amongst a sparsely spread constellation of tents some distance from the hills themselves.
"The track layers may catch up before the demo team clears the way if they put their minds to it," muttered Time as they scraped and scuffed down the small incline.
Maud silently eyed a small group of Buffalo standing vigil above the little camp, protest signs in hoof. She was half surprised that she hadn't found out about this little detail about the project much earlier.
"They could just lay the track around the hills instead," mused Maud.
"That they could," agreed Time. "And the conductor could tell everypony to look out the right side of the train as they went by, but of course that's not going to happen. That costs the company more money and puts them behind schedule."
Maud's face softened slightly in lament as they got closer and the memories came flooding back. "I haven't been to these hills in a while. I used to play around here with my sisters all the time when we were little. Almost every weekend when we came into town. It has a lot of caves… We used to find spearheads around the base. I found my pet-" her lips tightened with ambivalence. "Never mind."
"It's not as if the hills are going to be razed," he comforted. "They'll still mostly be here… just with an ugly swath cut right through them."
Finally they were at the base of the hills which were composed of neatly regimented layers of yellow, red, white and green stone.
Time's eyes sparkled as he was overcome with beauty and he frolicked over to run his hoof across the technicolor stone. "Don't you just love it when everything's organized in strata?" he began exuberantly. "When natural processes make things look designed? And it's so colorful, like oxidized bismuth!"
Maud's eyes bulged slightly, flicking over to him in the first non neutral expression he had witnessed from her.
Time Turner cringed at his own words. I don't think normal ponies speak like that, Time, he thought to himself. "I mean it looks like… a rainb-"
"No, you were right the first time," Maud interrupted. "It sounds like you enjoy rocks."
"You'd be correct on that hypothesis," he chuckled. "They didn't send me out here at random."
His enthusiasm was charming. It reminded her of Pinkie, but more relatable, because it was about geology instead of parties. He acted externally about rocks the way Maud felt inside about rocks.
The footprint of the hills was organic and irregular. Tendrils of striped stone rippled and radiated from the little range in a branching fractal pattern, concealing all manner of nooks and crannies, some of them leading into maze-like open air crevices or even holes going deep underground.
"Look," said Time, pointing to what looked like a mess of broken shale before them. "This was one of the things I wanted to show you. Did you know there were fossils down here?"
"No, I didn't," Maud picked up a sheet of stone from the ground and held it up to see. The surface was populated with several little flat bug-like sea creatures. "Trilobites," she mumbled. Oh… and an ammonite." She turned the piece around to show him.
"So it is," he smiled and accidentally locked eyes with her.
Her expression is so wooden yet so alluring, he thought. Somehow I can tell she's as excited as I am even without a smile or a gasp. She has the piercing stare of a fashion runway model… You must break eye contact now; it's becoming weird.
Time looked down at the ground. "Take them, Maud. Take as many as you can. I've already filled my tent near capacity with the bloody things. They're just going to get destroyed. It's utterly nauseating. Imagine dying in some mud and then slowly having your body permineralized into stone artwork over millennia only to be blasted to bits the moment you see sunlight again."
Maud's heart fluttered. He says what we're all thinking, she swooned internally. She gazed intensely into his eyes. "I like the way you romanticize petrification."
Time blushed, fumbling for words but for once he couldn't find any.
Maud had never felt like this about another pony before. Slow down, she told herself, remembering how she'd felt at first about Boulder and the feverish whirlwind that had consumed her and felt so exhilarating before fizzling out, leaving her cold and alone. It's too soon.
"Help me pick out some nice ones," she flirted, in spite of herself.
The two of them began sifting through the broken shards and stuffing choice pieces into Maud's pack.
"Look at this one," he chuckled, holding up the piece. "They're congregating. It looks like they're having a little tea party. Would you like another phytoplankton, Mrs. Paradoxides?" he asked, adopting an older female voice meant to be one of the trilobites speaking.
Maud paused at his playful jest. "That's cute," she remarked flatly. I want to talk with him about fossils all night long, she thought.
Soon enough, Maud's saddle bag was bulging with the best fossils within reach and they were meandering back into town. Neither one of them was eager to part and get back to work.
"That was fun," began Maud impassively. "But in a good way," she clarified. "But also sad… in a bad way."
Time smiled weakly. It certainly doesn't sound like she's too normal for me.
Maud's eyes landed on the row of protesters who hadn't moved an inch from their post. "If the company didn't have anyone in-house available, why'd they pick you instead of any of the dozens of assayers and surveyors in town?"
Time sighed. "I think the whole point was to get someone from out of town. I had no idea this was going to be a contentious project, but I bet the company did. They were hoping to scoop up somepony indifferent or unaware of local issues who would just look at the data and give them the green light ASAP if everything checked out."
"Is that what you're going to do?" asked Maud.
"If I don't, somepony else will."
"But you can resign and refuse to be part of the process," she prodded.
"I know… but I have an idea. It's a gamble and I'm skeptical it will work, but I think it's the only way. I'll tell you about it if it's successful but otherwise… blasting starts in three days," he added gravely.
The two said their goodbyes at the cart and Maud reestablished her shop for what little time she had left in the work day. She spent the rest of her time at the counter, walking home, at the dinner table and laying in bed thinking about how she could weasel out of farmwork to spend more time around Time Turner. Mother and Father wouldn't approve of the means or the ends, but he wasn't going to be here forever. What if he just disappeared one day? He didn't seem real, more like a weird yet pleasant dream.