“Two weeks, huh?” Trixie asked as the group made their way uptown via a busy street.
“Well, sure, if you want to ignore the decimals,” responded Twilight with an eyeroll, sidestepping to avoid bumping into a pair of ponies moving crates. “On top of that, we’ve only got a two day window to catch them in Cloudsdale. After that our choices are either catch our motes in open air, or wait for them to reach us.”
Trixie trailed at the back of the group, frowning now as she mulled over her options. “Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad? I mean, this place is really, uh…” She stopped, twirling a hoof while she searched for a word. “Um… sciencey? Who wouldn’t love that? Heh…”
Rainbow paused a moment at the head of the group for the others to catch up. She was wary of losing sight of her friends while grounded, especially in this much busier version of Ponyville. “Stuck somewhere for two weeks when I can’t fly? No way! Besides, I gotta see what Cloudsdale looks like here.”
“Right, that should be… something…” Trixie mumbled.
The crowd was definitely getting thicker as the girls made their way down the street. This section of town seemed to be growing architecturally more in common with what one would expect in a boomtown, akin to the founding days of Manehattan. The soft dirt road had shifted to cobblestone pavement a few blocks back, so the sounds of hooves on stone now mixed with the voices of dozens of ponies around them. Wooden beams were being lifted with both magic and rope pulleys to support the construction of second and even third stories on the local businesses. Now and then a wide swath of one side of the street would be taken up entirely by a large warehouse, completely out of place in their home dimension.
Twilight noted steam or smoke billowing not only from sewer manholes dotting the middle of the street, but from all manner of clockwork contraptions built into many of the buildings around them. Boilers and brass-work seemed to provide power, heat, or maybe both to most of the town. It was difficult for her to tell—the unfamiliar technology had a bizarrely elegant, yet slapdash style to it all.
When she tried to work it out in her head, she found she struggled to see which parts were functional and which were entirely superfluous or redundant. It was almost as though here, technology was fashionable. ‘Finally,’ she thought with a wry smile, ‘fashion I could really get behind.’
She stopped to peer inside one of the shops they were passing. Above the door a sign read “Doc Turner’s Time Machines, Perception Enhancements & Filters.” Inside, rows of wooden shelves lined the walls with hourglasses and pocket-watches of every shape and size a pony could want. A selection of telescopes took up half of the store’s space—some were familiar models, while others looked far more advanced than even her own personal Stargazer-800, which back home was the top-of-the-line. Stands in the front window hosted a display of loupes, microscopes, and even a pair of goggles with several magnifying glasses attached to the right lens. A stack of large red boxes on the right were labeled “X-109 Air Filter.”
’Well that’s an odd play on words,’ she idly thought while staring inside. Twilight got so caught up in window shopping that she only noticed the presence of Rainbow next to her when the pegasus started waving her hoof in front of her eyes.
“Hey, you in there?” Dash was asking.
“Huh? Oh, sorry Rainbow. I just…” Twilight stared wistfully into the store again. “I wonder how many bits that telescope costs? Would it be wrong of me to bring advanced technology home with us?”
Rainbow Dash just shrugged. “Heck if I know. C’mon, I think I see the airfield, you can worry about the egghead stuff later.”
With a little nudging she got Twilight on the move, and the group eventually reached the end of the road. What would normally have been the northern fields had been converted into a vast airfield, devoted entirely to the docking and loading of airships. There were currently nine of the behemoths ‘docked’ at the airfield, each surrounded by ponies loading cargo, doing maintenance, or seeing passengers aboard.
Front and center before reaching all of that was a station built in the same style as the local train station. At the center ticket window sat a lanky young stallion wearing a blue cap, while several ponies waited in line for tickets. The girls filed into line themselves, which fortunately was moving along at a steady pace. Within only a few short minutes it was their turn at the booth.
The stallion flashed the girls a charming smile and launched his standard greeting. “Welcome to Ponyville Air Terminal, how can I help you?”
The girls looked at each other, and Twilight nodded for Rainbow to take the lead. She stepped up to the window and spoke confidently. “Heya, I need three passenger tickets to Cloudsdale.”
“Cloudsdale?” the stallion parroted, raising a brow before looking down at his timesheets. “One moment, let’s see here… Cloudsdale, Cloudsdale…” He reached up a hoof and scratched his head, knocking his hat back a bit before straightening it. “I’m sorry ladies, I’ve got nothing coming or going to any ‘Cloudsdale’ on the books.”
Twilight and Trixie looked at each other, while Rainbow tilted her head and addressed him again. “Seriously? Nothing? What about tomorrow?”
The stallion shook his head and gave her an apologetic look. “I’m sorry, I mean I don’t have it on any of our books. None of our routes go there.”
“Wait, what?” Rainbow blinked in confusion behind her goggles.
He shrugged. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
While Rainbow groaned and smacked a hoof to her face, Twilight just shook her head at him. “No, I guess not. Thank you anyways. Come on, girls.”
“So now what?” asked Dash, following Twilight and Trixie off to the side of the station.
Twilight looked around, hoping to get some inspiration from her surroundings. Trixie and Rainbow were talking about the problem, but she tuned out the conversation so she could think. She knew they couldn’t just leave and wait it out at home—well, strictly speaking they could leave, but whatever force attracted their motes would cease to pull on them until they returned. She looked up in time to spy a pair of pegasi soaring overhead, their exo-wings leaving twin jet trails in their wake. “Hmmm… Maybe we could see about getting three of those ‘jetwings’ the other you mentioned?”
Trixie visibly blanched at the suggestion. “Please tell me you’re kidding! Those devices don’t look even remotely safe to Trixie! B-besides, wouldn’t I need wings to use one?”
Rainbow Dash shrugged. “I could just carry you.”
Trixie took a step back, her eyes getting even wider. “N-no!”
“Well how else are we supposed to get to Cloudsdale?” demanded Dash, throwing her hooves up in frustration.
“Girls, settle do—” began Twilight, but she was interrupted by a laugh from somepony outside their huddle.
“Did one of you fillies say Cloudsdale? Why I haven’t heard that name in years!” When they looked up, there was Granny Smith of all ponies walking up to them. She smiled wistfully, as she often did when recounting her younger days, creating a look that spoke of her mind being halfway between the past and the present. “You girls need a lift?”
Despite everything else that had changed, Sweet Apple Acres looked just the same as it always had. Here the only sounds that broke the peace and quiet was the occasional bark from Winona, playing in the fields. In fact, it seemed to the trio that the modestly sized airship parked in the backyard was no more than a second barn until they’d gotten up close.
Instead of the elegant curves of the airships seen until now, the one before them looked like somepony had flipped a barn upside-down and then strapped a balloon and engines to it. In fact, a set of actual barn doors on the side of the hull lay open for a ramp to the ground, where Applejack and Big Mac were pushing several crates of their family product onboard. Another difference was the balloon—well, balloons—were attached to the sides and front of the hull in a triangular pattern rather than having one large balloon suspended above the ship.
AJ noticed the approaching group as she walked back down the ramp to get the last of her cargo. Twilight could see an eyebrow raise at first, but her friend’s double quickly replaced it with a big, welcoming smile.
“Welcome back, Granny! We’re just about done loadin’ up here. I see we’ve got guests!” she beamed and walked up to the group, stopping at Twilight and extending a hoof. “I’m Applejack.”
Twilight blinked in confusion for a moment, before the reality of the situation came back to her. “Oh, hi! I’m—” ’Don’t panic, Twilight! Name… name... think of someth-- Oh!’ “—Horizon, and this is—”
As soon as Twilight’s hoof met Applejack’s, the farm pony grabbed her hoof up in both of hers and started shaking like crazy, immediately bringing back memories of the first time they’d met. “Well howdy-do Miss Horizon! A pleasure to meet you and your friends! We here at Sweet Apple Acres sure do like making new friends!”
Twilight gritted her teeth while her foreleg still kept swinging up and down wildly of its own accord, even after Applejack had let go. Rainbow reached out and stopped Twi’s leg, failing to suppress a snicker in the process. ’I really should have seen that coming,’ she thought wryly.
Applejack grinned and turned to Rainbow, who spat in her hoof and raised it for a bump. “Name’s Firebug, nice to meetcha!” she said with a smug smile.
Applejack let her grin slip into a smirk as she returned the bump. “Likewise, though I gotta be honest—yer name kinda makes ya sound like an arsonist.”
Rainbow blinked, then pouted. “Why does everypony keep saying that?”
Trixie took her turn to snicker, earning a sour look from Dash. She ignored it and stepped forward, giving a short bow to Applejack. “You may call me Wanda.”
“Well then, Horizon, Firebug ‘n Wanda, nice to meet y’all. So, what can I do ya for?” asked Applejack, crossing one hoof in front of the other proudly.
Granny Smith spoke up first, “Why, these here fillies are buying a ride up to Cloudsdale with us.”
“Cloudsdale? Huh… Well if’n it’s not too far off course, I don’t see why not.” Applejack rubbed her chin, a perplexed look creeping across her face.
“Oh it’s right on the way, don’t you worry.” replied Granny, immediately laughing at a joke only she seemed to get.
Big Macintosh came walking down the ramp just then, the sounds of his heavy hooves descending the wooden ramp getting everypony’s attention. He looked around the yard slowly, sweeping his gaze back and forth twice, and then nodded to Applejack.
“We all ready to go, Big Mac?” she asked.
Twilight heard an audible gulp from her right, and she turned to see Trixie had moved up next to her. Her friend was staring up at the ship before them with wide eyes, but she saw immediately that those eyes weren’t expressing the wonder or fascination she herself had been feeling. “‘Wanda’? What’s wrong?”
Trixie opened her mouth as if to respond to Twilight, but Applejack interrupted.
“Alright then, all aboard, everypony!” Applejack smiled, then waved her hoof up the ramp while the group made their way aboard.
All that came of whatever Trixie had been about to say was a strangled squeak—a sort of noise which would have made Fluttershy proud. She didn’t move at first, which got an eyeroll from Rainbow before the pegasus literally headbutted Trixie’s flank up the ramp.
Inside was a long, low-ceilinged cargo hold. Two rows of slightly raised platforms lay on either side of a central aisle, filled with well-secured crates of Apple Family products. Thick support beams lined the aisle from the ramp entrance to the stairs on the other end, while wrought-iron sconces held a few heatless candles to illuminate the interior.
A short climb up the stairs brought them to a door leading to the middle deck, with a wooden sign above that simply read “Engines.” They all had to duck a brass pipe leading between the walls to reach the next flight up, but when they finally reached the top of those stairs, the group was treated to the breathtaking view of the ship’s deck.
The layout looked similar to a traditional sailing ship, with large raised cabins both in the front and the rear, and a solid, two-foot high wooden bulwark lining both edges of the ship in-between. A giant vertical shield of wood rose from the cabin at the bow, following a V-shape around the hull. More slats of wood stood spaced evenly outward from there along the first third of the ship, all standing nearly six ponies high and connected along the top with a rail. In the very center of the deck, a mast supported a crow’s nest just slightly higher than the shield, with a spiral ramp winding around it to an observation platform on top—all of which were lined with surprisingly fancy wrought-iron railings.
A pony Twilight didn’t recognize saluted down to Applejack from the top, who returned the gesture. She then lead the group into the cabin at the bow, which turned out to be the ship’s bridge. The entire front and sides of the room were made of tall glass panes, giving them a perfect view of the outside. Macintosh had taken his place at the wheel and Granny Smith sat down at a table with a strange metal box connected to a microphone and telegraph key. An orange-haired, yellow-coated unicorn sitting at a table with a large map of Equestria looked up and smiled when they entered. A pair of compasses—both kinds, noted Twilight—adorned her flank.
“Marmalade, let me introduce ya to Horizon, Firebug and Wanda. They’re hitchin’ a ride with us to uh, Cloudsdale?” Applejack motioned to the trio, then turned to face them. “Everypony, this here’s mah cousin Orange Marmalade, our ship’s cartographer.”
Marmalade gave Applejack a nod, then stood and bowed her head politely to the group, speaking in an upper-crust accent. “A pleasure to meet you all.”
“Likewise!” chimed Twilight brightly, barely remembering in time to keep her voice disguised.
Rainbow leaned her head closer to Twilight and whispered, “That’s weird, I never met her in our world, and I’ve known AJ a long time.”
All Twilight could do was shrug in response, while Marmalade went back to her maps. Meanwhile, Applejack walked up to what looked like the end of a brass trumpet with a pipe leading into the walls. “Bloom, we’re ready up here, fire her up!” Moments later, Apple Bloom’s voice responded with “Roger that, sis!” from the device. Applejack turned back to her guests and pointed to the door. “Alright y’all, welcome aboard The Harvester! The passenger cabins are on the other side of the deck. Why don’t y’all go make yourselves comfortable?“
“Cool, thanks!” Rainbow beamed, zipping out the door in a flash. Twilight caught herself giggling at her friend’s antics and started heading that way herself, but paused when she saw Trixie shuffling on her hooves anxiously by the door.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” asked Twilight, placing a hoof on her friend’s back.
“O-of course, t-the Calm and Collected W-wanda is perf-fectly f-fine!” she stammered back at Twilight, doing nothing to ease her concerns. Before Twilight could respond, Trixie jerkily swung the door wide with a mortified look on her face and stormed stiffly out onto the deck.
The two were halfway across when what appeared to be two long metal stacks, connected to some sort of complex gear assemblies lining the rear half of the bulwark, came to life. They raised high above the deck, then folded outwards into a fan shape, forming a set of glistening metal wings. Steam billowed out of an array of pipeworks at the rear of the ship with a shrill whistle, and the ship began to rise into the air as the engines groaned to life.
Twilight covered her ears, wondering if the shrill sound would ever die down, but after a minute she realized it hadn’t been the steampipes making the commotion. When she looked back to her side, there was Trixie, wrapped solidly around the mast with pupils the size of pinpricks.
The noise was the sound of her screaming.
“Why didn’t you tell us you were afraid of heights?!” asked Twilight, hints of panic entering her voice.
”Trixie tried to!” cried the terrified mare, her hooves clinging to the the ship’s mast with an iron grip.
“Just come down from there! We can go in the cabin, then you won’t have to see how high we are anymore and Rainbow, that is not helping!” Twilight turned to glare at Rainbow Dash, who had taken to rolling around on the deck laughing as soon as she’d seen Trixie’s predicament.
“Now just what the hay is all the commotion out here?” asked Applejack, having just walked out onto the deck from the bridge. She was momentarily taken aback at the spectacle before her, but recovered quickly enough and trotted the rest of the way over at an increased pace. “What happened? Is anypony hurt?”
“Tr—ah, turns out Wanda is afraid of heights…” came a partially muffled response from Twilight. She seemed to have decided that, yes, her hoof rather was a comfortable place to rest her face after all, and it should remain there for the foreseeable future.
Relief washed over Applejack’s face. “Shoot, is that all? I thought it was something serious!”
“S-serious?!” Trixie wailed indignantly, her cheeks flushing red. “Everything is upside down and spinning!”
Applejack smirked just a bit. “Horizon, why don’t you take the hyena there and head on inside? I know just the thing to help with flight jitters.”
Twilight arched an eyebrow. “Are you sure? I really don’t want to leave her like this.”
Applejack nodded. “Trust me, a little one-on-one time and I’ll have her right as rain.”
Twilight hummed slightly while moving over toward Rainbow. “Well, I guess you know what you’re doing. Wanda, are you okay with that?”
“S-sure! Yes! Help! Anything!” stammered Trixie, her mouth contorted into a grimace and her eyes slightly crossed. ’Ohh Celestia, everything is spinning again!’
“Okay, we’ll be just inside if you need us,” said Twilight. A gentle kick and an ”oof!” later, Rainbow got the cue to restrain herself and managed to follow Twilight into the cabin.
Applejack trotted over to the terribly panicked mare and sat down next to her, looking her in the eye. Trixie wasn’t sure what she’d expected to see when she looked back, but what she found was a strangely calming sense of… understanding? It was an odd thing, a sensation only ever felt the one time she met Princess Celestia as a filly at the School for Gifted Unicorns.
“You alright there, sugarcube?” cut in Applejack’s voice through her reverie, interrupting her trip down memory lane.
Her first thought was to respond sarcastically, but then Trixie felt a surge of panic rush through her heart as the ship began a slow turn, sending her vision spinning once again. “Nnh, not so much…” she whimpered, the visible portions of her face somewhat green.
Applejack nodded and reached over, gently placing her hoof over Trixie’s. “Now don’tcha fret, sugarcube, the Harvester is perfectly safe. Never once had an accident and I don’t see that record slipping anytime soon.” She smiled slightly, letting her gaze wander to the clouds drifting past, glittering in the sunlight, then met Trixie’s eyes again. “You know, not a whole lotta ponies know this about me, but I used to be terrified of heights too. Actually, they still get to me a bit.”
Trixie’s eyebrows went up at that. “But y-you must have to fly this thing all the time!”
Applejack frowned just slightly, tipping back her hat. “Yep. Never felt natural for an earth pony like me to be up in the air like this all the time, but that’s the world we live in.” Her face softened a bit, seeing ‘Wanda’ shiver a little and readjust her forehooves’ grip around the mast. “Do you know what exactly made you so scared of bein’ up high in the first place?”
Trixie scowled behind her mask. Embarrassment and frustration over her predicament compounded with a flash of something just at the periphery of her memory, and it all suddenly boiled over into a shout. “I just am! I don’t know! There’s no reason for it! Fear of heights is an irrational fear, anypony knows that!” she snapped. Applejack didn’t recoil, but when Trixie saw her ears pin down slightly, her eyes widened further than they already were and she looked down sullenly. “S-sorry...”
Applejack paused, then ducked her head down slowly to the deck, tilting her face up so she could look up into Trixie’s eyes again. “It’s alright, I know you don’t mean nothin’ by it. But I don’t believe that for one second, either. There has to be a reason for what’s got ya so afraid. It was the same way with me—I couldn’t get over my own fears until I faced what caused ‘em in the first place. Once I started bein’ honest with myself and took a good hard look at it, that’s when I could finally come to terms with it. Ya understand?”
Trixie blinked, nodding slightly. “I… I think so…”
Applejack smiled softly again, raising her head back to a comfortable level while Trixie did the same. “Alright, so just relax and think back. Don’t try to deny or suppress it, just let the memory come to you. When did you start being afraid of heights?”
Trixie sighed, shaking the dizziness out of her head one last time before she closed her eyes and tried not to focus on how the ship was bobbing lazily beneath her through the sky. ’Why am I afraid…. why am I afraid…?’ At first, she felt nothing, just the tense knot of her mind trying to recall the past in the darkness. But then, just as she let out a long sigh and was about to give up, it all came rushing back.
Trixie stood on a small wooden platform at the front of the classroom, looking up at her teacher with wide eyes. Ms. Fairweather was going over the elements of the spell used for teleportation while she listened intently one last time. It was an unusually high level technique for unicorns her age to attempt, but Trixie had always shown an unusually high magical aptitude and an insatiable need to learn more about it. Trixie had insisted she could learn it and demonstrate it to her class for this quarter’s practical exam, despite her teacher’s apparent trepidation over the idea.
She distinctly recalled thinking, ’Why are old ponies so afraid of everything?’ in the moment before she started casting her spell. Her horn glowed brilliant pink, the casting only lasting about a second. From her perspective, that second stretched into a minute’s worth of fractured moments as the sigils and lines came together in her mind’s eye.
She first saw herself and everything around her as she envisioned her point of origin, then focused on her destination—the other side of the classroom. The next moment she glanced toward it, seeing the spot which had been cleared for her, as well as the window and its spectacular view of Canterlot Castle up on the mountain, far above the School for Gifted Unicorns which lay at the city center. The moment that would be her undoing, when a stray thought seeped into her mind as she saw the palace in the distance.
’Wouldn’t it be nice to go there?’
In a starburst of pink she was gone, followed by another starburst of light and the rushing of air. Trixie opened her eyes just in time to see the ground rapidly approaching, and only had time to put the first piece of a bubble shield around herself before impact.
Trixie remembered everything now. Her first and final attempt to teleport. The screams of her classmates and teacher when she’d appeared three stories up outside the window instead of the other end of the room. The month she’d spent in the hospital while a quarter of the bones in her body had to mend, the partial shield she’d created having been the only thing keeping her skull from sharing the same fate. Her parents had pulled her from the school shortly afterwards, despite how much of an honor it was seen as to attend by the common populace. Her accident had robbed her of the chance to graduate.
All this came back to her in a vivid rush, and she felt hot, wet tear streaks marring her face. She heard her own shuddering, cracked voice, and realized she had been describing every word of the memory to Applejack as it came back, pouring out her soul to the mare beside her. Applejack simply hugged her gently and let her get it all out.
“Shhhh, it’s okay sugarcube. It’s okay,” cooed the farm pony in a motherly tone of voice, one more suited to another of Twilight’s friends. “That’s some mighty serious hurt you had buried inside you, but now it makes a lot more sense why you’ve been so afraid. I know falling hurts, and it can be hard to pick yourself back up again afterwards, but every time you do, it makes you that much stronger and that much wiser.”
Trixie wiped her nose with a hoof and nodded slightly while she put her slipping mask back into place. A strangled sound escaped her throat, halfway between a sob and a laugh. “I never did try to teleport again…”
Applejack chuckled slightly, letting up on the hug and sitting up. “Yeah I can’t imagine why not. Trust me though, nothin’ like that is going to happen here. We’ve got just about every safety measure possible, and Steel Flight up top there has a jetwing in case of emergencies,” she motioned up to the pegasus sitting in the crow’s nest high above, who gave a curt nod to his captain. “Even if, Celestia forbid, you or anypony fell, somepony will be there to catch ya.”
“You promise?” asked Trixie, wiping her eyes with the other hoof.
Applejack grinned, sitting back on her haunches so she could motion with her forehooves. “Pinkie promise. Cross mah heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.”
Trixie once again felt something register in the back of her mind, and she blinked a few times to clear a sudden pink haze from her eyes. It had grown more powerful than the last time she noticed it. A warm feeling filled her heart, and she let her smile return to her face at last. However, she noticed Applejack was now staring at her with her jaw slightly agape.
She looked down at herself to see what was the matter, but didn’t notice anything right away. Then she realized—she wasn’t clinging to the mast anymore. All four hooves were firmly planted on the deck, and she didn’t feel the dizziness washing over her like she once did.
Her smile grew brighter and she threw her arms around Applejack in a hug, surprising the captain. “Thank you.”
Applejack’s apparent shock wore off, and she returned the hug gently. “You’re welcome. Why don’t ya head on inside now and see your friends? I should probably check in on Mac and see how we’re coming along.”
Trixie nodded, but then blanched when another realization hit her and she looked up to the crow’s nest, spying the stoic, dark brown pegasus stallion up above. “W-wait, he didn’t hear all of that, did he?”
Applejack looked up and shook her head. “Naw, the wind up here’s too loud and strong for that, don’t you worry. Steel’s eyes don’t miss a thing, though, so don’t worry ‘bout that either. Like I said, if anything happens, he’ll be there. Now you go inside and have yourself a good rest. We should have a few hours before we get to where we’re going.”
Trixie nodded one last time and turned towards the door to the cabin, finally confident enough to cross the deck on her own. Her fears still lurked at the edges of her mind, but no longer did they haunt and consume her like they once did. She opened the door to see Twilight and Rainbow look up from their own conversation as she entered, relieved expressions softening both their eyes.
What Trixie didn’t notice, however, was a suddenly flustered looking Applejack turn to look up at her scout, mouthing the words “Did her eyes just glow?” Likewise, she couldn’t know that when the hard-jawed pegasus looked down to his captain, he would simply nod.