A loud thunk echoed throughout the orchard, followed by a cascade of smaller thunks as the apples fell from the tree into bins that had been placed on the ground beneath them. Applejack wiped her brow and grinned at another tree successfully harvested.
Rainbow Dash was lying on her back nearby on a low hanging cloud, looking up at the sky. It wasn't too unusual for Dash to hang out with AJ around midday while she worked, but the typically boisterous pegasus was being unusually quiet today.
This hadn't gone unnoticed by Applejack, who glanced up at the cloud as she made her way to the wagon to get another stack of bins for the next tree. “You alright up there, Dash?”
“Yeah, I’m just… thinking, is all,” Dash replied without taking her eyes off of the endless blue above.
AJ took a stack of bins from the wagon with her mouth and placed them atop her back. “Well, don’t go thinking too hard!” she quipped with a smirk, which quickly faded when Dash didn’t respond to her jibe. “Thinking ‘bout anything in particular?” she asked as she moved to the next tree.
"That stupid alien radio of Twilight's," Dash replied.
AJ placed bin under the tree, then looked up at Dash with one eyebrow raised in curiosity. "Stupid? I thought ya liked that last song we ended up hearing?"
Dash rolled over onto her belly to look down at AJ. "Yeah, I did like it at first. But now, whenever I think about it, I also think about what we ended up talking about afterwards..."
AJ placed the last of the bins under the tree. "Yeah, I guess I can see how that might sour yer opinion of it," she said.
"And it was all my fault that the mood was totally killed, too," Dash said.
"How do ya figure?" AJ asked as she backed up to ensure all the bins were placed correctly.
"I was the one who picked the song, and then I'm the one who started talking about immortality," Dash replied.
Applejack reared forward, then slammed her rear hooves into the trunk of the tree, causing a rain of apples to fall down into the bins she had placed. She then looked back up at Dash. “Now, first off, you, me, and the rest of the girls all know that you had no way of knowing what kind of song was gonna come up. Second, there was no way you could have known how that conversation was gonna go. The only one blaming you for anything is yerself."
"Yeah, yeah, I know all that up here," Dash said as she tapped the side of her head with a hoof, "but I still feel bad about it. I made Twilight and Spike, two of my best friends, cry. That is extremely uncool."
Applejack gave an exasperated sigh. "Dash, I just told you, ya didn't do anything. If it was anypony's fault—and it wasn't!—then it was Fluttershy's for asking that question. And even then, Twilight apologized, so there still ain't a problem!"
"Fine, whatever!" Dash said with a scowl. "All I know is that stupid radio totally sucks and I don't think we should listen to it anymore!"
"Really? Y'all think we should just give up on it?" AJ asked in disbelief.
"That thing is just no good for us! Not only did it make both Twilight and Spike depressed, but the first time we tried it, it almost made Pinkie go crazy again! You never saw what she was like last time she got like that…"
AJ gave Dash a hard glare. "Now, I'll agree that some of the stuff we’ve been hearing has been hitting some of us pretty hard. But this here is Twilight’s own special project, and Celestia herself asked us to keep doing it, so I’m pretty sure Twilight ain’t gonna want to give up on it, no matter what. And if the rest of us all ditch on her, then she’s gonna feel plum terrible ‘bout it, and this time it really will be somepony’s fault."
Dash maintained her scowl a few more moments, then her features softened and her shoulders slumped a little. "Yeah, you’re probably right..."
“Besides, ya never know what might come up next. Just cause we’ve gotten some bad draws the first three times doesn’t mean that we aren’t gonna get anything good outa it.”
Dash sighed. “Alright, fine, I’ll give it another chance…”
Applejack smiled. “That’s the spirit!”
Dash's expression hardened again. “But if it ends up hurting one of us again, then I’m gonna…” Her face screwed up in frustration. “...I dunno, talk to Twilight about it!”
AJ nodded. “Sounds good to me. Just straight up quitting ain’t the right answer, but I’m sure that Twilight’d be able to come up with something if it’s really bothering ya that much.”
Having come to a conclusion, Dash flopped back down on her cloud and Applejack returned to her apple harvesting.
There was a knock on the door, and Twilight looked up from her notepad. “I’ll get it this time, Spike.” she said to her assistant who was sitting next to her, and quickly moved to open it. It was, as she expected, the rest of their friends. “Heya, girls! I hope you’re all ready to roll the proverbial die and see what we get this time!”
Her friends all entered, and Twilight couldn’t help but notice that Rainbow Dash seemed significantly less enthusiastic than she usually did. She was curious to know if there was something wrong, but she also didn’t want to pry. “Does anypony have any concerns before we get started?” she asked, not wanting to single her out.
Dash looked over at Applejack, who simply raised an eyebrow in return. She then hesitantly turned back to look at Twilight. “Twilight? Are you sure you still want to do this? You know, even after what happened last time?”
Twilight smiled. “Is that it? I appreciate the concern, but Spike and I have mostly gotten over it, I think,” she said as she looked back at Spike.
“Yeah, we even ended up writing a letter about it to Princess Celestia the next night,” Spike said.
Twilight nodded and turned back to Dash. “It was a lot like one of those Friendship Reports we used to do all the time. It was actually kind of nice. She actually responded that she'd like to talk to both Spike and I next time we're in Canterlot.”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” Rarity said.
“And besides,” Twilight continued, a more serious look on her face, “even if I didn’t like what we were doing here, I still couldn’t just quit. Now that I’m a Princess, I have a responsibility to the rest of Equestria to do whatever I can to make our world a better place, and that includes learning whatever I can about any potential neighbors we may have among the stars.”
“Ya don’t think we’re ever gonna actually meet these aliens, do ya?” Applejack asked incredulously.
Twilight shrugged. “Who knows? But it’s better to be safe than sorry.” She smiled again. “And anyway, I'm just so excited to be learning more about these aliens, that I think it's well worth any emotional distress that may occur! So, with that out of the way, are we ready to get going?”
All of her friends nodded immediately except Rainbow, who hesitated only a few moments before she nodded as well.
“Great!” Twilight turned and headed towards the table with the Subspace Transceiver and a basket on it, the rest of the her friends following her. “Spike, tell us who’s going to pick a song this time!”
“Only four options left…” Spike said as he reached into the basket. He pulled out a slip of paper. “And the winner is… Fluttershy!”
“Eep! Me?!” Fluttershy squeaked out. “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly… Somepony else can take my turn…”
“C’mon, sugarcube, it’s easy! Ya just gotta turn the knobs!” Applejack said.
“Yes, do go ahead, darling. I’m sure you’ll come up with something simply delightful,” Rarity added.
“Oh dear… Um, o-ok, if you’re all sure…” Fluttershy meekly responded, and slowly walked up to the table. She quickly took to the device, apparently having watched what knobs to turn when the others did it.
“Yeah, you go, Flutters! Get us something nice!” Pinkie shouted as Fluttershy worked, and soon enough, some soft piano playing began. Fluttershy’s unsure expression quickly turned to a smile as she listened.
“My goodness…” Rarity said after a few moments. “That voice!”
“It sure is distinctive, ain’t it?” Applejack said. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anypony who sounds quite like that.”
“He reminds me of Harry...” Fluttershy said.
“Harry?” Rainbow Dash asked.
“Oh, Harry is a bear I’m friends with,” Fluttershy responded.
“I guess I could see a voice like that belonging to a bear,” Spike said.
“Their world really does sound wonderful, though…” Fluttershy said with a small smile.
Even Dash couldn’t help but smile as she listened to the next verse. “Hey, their skies sound pretty similar to ours! It might be cool to fly on an alien planet!”
“That’s not the only thing that’s similar!” Twilight said, taking only a moment to look up from her notepad. “Green trees and red roses, blue skies and white clouds, bright days and dark nights? Their planet seems to have a surprisingly large amount of similarities to ours!”
“It sounds super duper fun! I’d totally love to visit!” Pinkie said.
A few moments later, and Dash spoke up again. “And they even have rainbows! Their planet sounds pretty awesome!”
Twilight was already paying close attention to the song, but her ears perked up at the next part. “People?” she asked, looking up at the Subspace Transceiver in surprise. “Is that what the aliens call themselves!?” She broke out in a huge smile. “This is fantastic!”
“Well, these people sound like a perfectly friendly bunch, even if we know they’re not all that way from some of the other songs we’ve heard,” Rarity said. She listened for a few more moments, then turned to Fluttershy. “This really is a lovely song you’ve managed find us, dear.”
Fluttershy nodded shyly, but then immediately perked up with a small gasp. “Babies? I wonder if baby people are as adorable as foals…”
“I hope that they’re easier to take care of than foals!” Pinkie said, a very serious look on her face.
Rarity looked to Pinkie with a smirk. “I think that young are an absolute hooffull no matter the species, darling.”
They fell into silence as the song slowly came to an end and Twilight turned off the Subspace Transceiver.
Fluttershy had the widest smile on her face. “That was such a wonderful song… I’d love to be able to visit their planet.”
Rarity smiled as well. “I agree, it was a very nice song.” Her smile faded a bit. “I just wish I knew what these people looked like. The song painted a lovely picture of their world, but without knowing what the inhabitants are like, it’s an... incomplete painting, so to speak.”
“Well, we already have a few clues as to what they’re like based on the music itself,” Twilight said, and began flipping through her notepad. “For instance, the fact that they were playing what sounded like a trumpet in this song means that their mouths must be able to create an airtight seal with the instrument, so we know that they don’t have beaks or anything like that. Which also lets us narrow down what their diet might be like!” She paused for a moment, a thoughtful look on her face. “That is, of course, assuming that their mouths are connected to their respiratory system in the first place.” She paused again and blinked. “Assuming that they even have a respiratory system like we do.”
“Hey, and this song mentioned shaking hands, so we know that they have hands, too!” Dash added.
Twilight nodded. “Right, although we kind of already knew that from the first song we heard. The fact that they were using a guitar means that they have hands, claws, talons, or telekinesis, since you can’t really play a string instrument with hooves.”
Dash’s expression turned thoughtful. “Ya know, I’ve always wondered about that. How did ponies end up inventing a type of instrument that only unicorns can play?”
Twilight smiled. “That’s because ponies didn’t invent string instruments, Dash!”
Dash’s head drooped to the floor as she realized that she had just started Twilight on another lecture, but Twilight didn’t notice. “The first string instrument, the lyre, if I recall correctly, was actually invented by the griffons shortly after the unification of the pony tribes.”
“If it was a griffon invention, then however did they become so popular among ponies?” Rarity asked.
“Well, even though the tribes had officially unified, there were still a large portion of unicorns who felt they were better than earth ponies and pegasi.” Twilight grimaced slightly. “The lyre became wildly popular amongst them almost purely because it was an instrument that they could play but other ponies couldn’t.”
Rarity shared her grimace. “Ugh, I’m so glad that there are bowed string instruments now that anypony can play.”
Applejack chuckled. “And y'all got the Apple family to thank fer that.”
“Wait, are you saying that the Apple family invented bowed string instruments?” Spike asked.
Applejack grinned. “Eeeyup!”
“Really?” Twilight asked. “I would have remembered if I had read that before... although admittedly, musical history is an area I’m not particularly well versed in…”
“Yep, it’s true! It’s actually kind of a funny story!” Applejack said.
“Yippe, story time!” Pinkie shouted, then plopped herself down in front of Applejack and pulled a bag of popcorn out of seemingly nowhere.
Applejack, having long since grown used to most of Pinkie’s antics, began without a hitch. “I dunno if y'all know my cousin Fiddlesticks, but it was her great-great-great-great-great—”
“Okay, we get it!" Rainbow Dash said. “They were alive a really long time ago! Get on with the story already!”
Applejack glared at Dash. “...great grandpappy, Fiddle Around, that invented them.” The scowl on her face quickly turned back to a smile as she continued. “Ya see, he had heard some unicorn playing a lute, and he really liked what he heard! Now, Fiddle wasn’t the brightest of ponies, and so he ended up ordering one for himself without realizing that he couldn’t actually play the durned thing!” She smirked. “When he finally got the thing and realized it was useless to him, he right flew into a rage!” Applejack curled her tail around as if she was holding something in it, then began squeezing with it as if she were trying to crush something. “In his raging, he grabbed that lute in his tail and began trying to break the thing in two! It was pure luck that one of his tail hairs managed to catch on one of the strings in just the right way to make a noise! It immediately broke him out of his rage, and he decided that he liked what he had heard!” She smiled. “And that’s how the first bowed string instrument was invented!”
“Yay!” Pinkie shouted, and clapped a hoof against the floor.
“Well, that was… interesting,” Twilight said.
Applejack nodded. “Some of the details may be off, but you’ll find that it’s true if ya go looking.”
“Ok, now I have to look into this!” Twilight said.
Applejack chuckled. "Well, I guess we should be leaving you to yer studies, then. It's 'bout time I headed back, anyhow."
The rest of her friends all agreed, and Twilight nodded. "Alright, then. I'll see you girls next time!"
“Spike!” she shouted once the last of her friends had left, then turned around to find him already at the bookshelves.
“Way ahead of you, Twilight." he said. "Where do you want to start?”