• Published 9th Mar 2012
  • 16,407 Views, 1,126 Comments

Contraptionology! - Skywriter

When life gives you lemons, make robot monsters.

  • ...

02 - Wheels and Fire

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by Jeffrey C. Wells


(with gratitude to the pre-reading powers of Akela Stronghoof and S.R. Foxley)
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Part Two: Wheels and Fire

If there's one thing that going on just a little sleep does to a pony, it's make her right distractible. I mean, here with all this forest fire and Nighmare hoo-ha I was about to let Twilight head out on her dang-fool nopony-understands-why mission to Maresachusetts without even taking even one minute to have her cast that fancy-pants cloud-walking spell on me! A pony can just imagine how well that woulda gone come the day after tomorrow.

Yep, I thought to myself, trotting through Ponyville on my way over to the library, that would have been right impressive to them Cloudsdale weatherponies. Good morning, y'all, I just want to tell you how plumb grateful I am for this great big welcome y'all prepared for me, let me just step down outta this here balloon, and oops, golly, looks like I just went right through your main street and am now tumbling head-over-hooves all set to fall about a mile and then splat like a tomato soon as I get that far, would anypony kindly mind chucking some of those delightful-looking snacks down after my plummeting soon-to-be-cadaver so I can nibble a little while I wait to kiss ground, thank you kindly, commander. Praise to the Grower, though, I had remembered in time, and we were back looking like things were gonna be all nice and normal for a while.

Then I got to the library and there was Pinkie Pie outside, and of course that blew it all to Tartarus.

"Pinkie Pie," I said, "what in the name of oats and apples are you doing?"

"I am talking," she said, her eyes fixed on the little beehive hanging from the branches of the library tree, "to the bees!"

"Well, sure," I said. "Of course. You mind telling me why you're jumping and leaping about like a titched fruit bat at the same time?"

Because she was, hear? Even if you're in a charitable mood, it's hard to describe Pinkie's typical way of carrying herself without dropping into words like "frantic" or "rabid" or "right square in the middle of an attack of some sort". But this beat all – crazy girl looked like she was practicing for the All-Equestria Act-Like-A-Dang-Freak-off and stood a good chance of capturing top honors, all spinning in circles and jumping into the air and wiggling her cutie-marked haunches around like she was doing.

"Aw, who's a silly pony?" said Pinkie, grinning at me, her wiggling not slowing down even a bit. "You should know this stuff! You're an earth-triber, just like me!"

"Not hardly like you," I said, ducking a particularly wild haunch-swing. "Not hardly in the slightest."

"You're right," said Pinkie, thoughtfully. "You tan easier. Still! The point is that bees… communicate… by…" Pinke dropped down on her hind-knees. "…dancing!"

She threw her forehooves wide. "Jazz-hooves!" she added. "C'mon, everybee! Shake those abdomen thangs!"

"'Every… bee'?" I asked, frowning.

"Sure. I just took the normal word 'everypony' and substituted 'bee' for 'pony'!"

"That just sounds silly," I said. "And besides, last I heard, you was supposed to be helping Twilight get ready for a trip or something, and this ain't looking like something Twilight told you to do."

"Pinkie!" came Twilight's voice from inside. "Have you finished dancing at the bees like I told you to do? We're on a tight schedule here!"

"In a minute!" yelled Pinkie back, all sing-song. She blinked sweetly at me, then returned her attention to the beehive. "Okay," she muttered. "Gotta get the inflection on this last wiggle right, or else they'll misunderstand." She frowned, tapping a hoof. "Hmm… 'left left right'? Or 'left right right'?"

"What's the difference?"

"One way is 'pretty please with sugar and cherries on top make more wax to replace the candles we're packing for our trip' and the other way is 'please sting the holy BEJEEZUS out of the first pony you see wearing a hat'."

I took my hat off.

Pinkie made up her mind, such as it is, and went with it. "Left left right!" she said, throwing her hips around one last time. After an expectant pause, she turned back to me. "Okay, that was the candle wax one after all. You can put your hat back on now!"

"I didn't know you spoke bee," I said, squaring Old Reliable back on my head.

"Oh, sure," she said. "Me and bees bonded once over our mutual love of honey. That was back at university."

"Back at… what?" I said.

Pinkie looked left. She looked right. "Um," she said. "Did I say 'university'? I meant 'Universe of Bees'!" She laughed. "It was this traveling bee exhibit that I saw back when I was in college—SHOOT!" She crammed her forehooves into her mouth.

"Pinkie," I said, "are you trying to keep from telling me something?"

"Yes!" she wailed, sobbing and pounding her hooves in the dirt. Then she immediately brightened. "Phew, I feel better for having confessed that," she said, trotting into the library. "Okay, let's go inside and see Twilight!"

"Yes, let's," I said. I don't fancy myself the type of pony to fall victim to brain-humors, but if you ever catch me locked in a padded room up at the loony ward of Ponyville Hospital, chances are it'd've come about after an afternoon with Pinkie Pie. Pinkie, a college student? Really?

I guess I've heard stranger things, I thought, shrugging. Anyway.

Twilight, never much saner of a pony to begin with, had dropped into full mane-frazzled glory with the stress of packing for a road trip with Pinkie Pie. Right away upon entering the library I nearly got my head taken clean off by a flying steamer trunk, just one of about a thousand different things floating around in the pink-purple glow of Twilight's magic telekiwhozit, along with books and charts and spare coats and about eight different kinds of scientific froo-froo. The whole first floor of the library had been strung over with circles and lines of sticky colored tape, forming some kind of strange organizational pattern of the sort that only makes sense to wizards and fever victims, and everything up to and including the kitchen sink was being shifted around from place to place in the diagram as Twilight's organizational bender went on. Trip-trapping lightly through the mess like a water-strider on our old pond, Pinkie crossed the room without so much as striking a hoof on a thing and headed into the library's tiny (and now sink-less) kitchen, as Twilight acknowledged me.

"Ah, Applejack!" she said, looking up from a book that was hovering in front of her snout. "I was just researching my copy of Watercrossing's Excursion Charms!" She shut it and tossed it onto the table in front of her. "What can I help you with?"

"Well, see," I said. "I don't know if you remember this, Twi, but I got me a speech to deliver in Cloudsdale day after tomorrow, and it just ain't gonna be possible unless you hex up my hooves afore you leave."

"Of course I remember!" Twilight shouted, producing a scroll of paper from across the room, her eyes big and gleamy. "It's right here on Final Preparations 4, item 3(b)!"

"Well, good," I said, edging back towards the door. "Just making sure. I can head on back now that I know it's on your list. You look as though you're a touch busy."

"Don't be ridiculous!" cried Twilight, grabbing my neck in a claw of magic and dragging me across the floor to her. "FP4:3(b) is one of those rare and beautiful to-do list items that has no real prerequisites and no subsequent depending tasks! It sits there, gleaming, like a beautiful soap bubble, just aching for me to pop it! And if I don't have to find you first, that's fifteen minutes back into the wild-card time kitty!" Twilight grinned at me in a frankly kind of unsettling way. "So what do you say, A.J.? Wanna pop this bubble with me?"

"Uh, sure," I said.

"Great!" Twilight cried, all but leaping down my throat. "I just need to find my copy of Watercrossing's Excursion Charms!" She craned her head up toward the stairs. "SPIKE!" she yelled.

A couple seconds later, Spike appeared at the upstairs door, his little arms full of packages and a mop curled in the tip of his tail. The baby dragon's eyes were half-lidded from tuckeredness. "Spike," said Twilight, "find me my copy of Watercrossing's Excursion Charms, please."

Without saying a word, Spike trudged down the steps, walked over to Twilight, tapped twice with his mop-handle on the book on the table in front of her, then trudged back upstairs and shut the door.

"Ah!" said Twilight, happily. "Thanks, Spike!" The little purple unicorn grabbed the book back up again and began leafing through it. "Here we go, here we go, here… we… go! Cloud-walking! All right, A.J., prepare to be ensorcelled!"

I squinted my eyes and braced myself, never quite trusting anything what came out of Twilight's horn. Despite already being pretty busy with the glow of an entire room full of organization, there was apparently room enough on it for one tiny white spark to course its way up the spiral groove and then leap off the tip like a grasshopper, right at my hooves. They shimmered pale and prickled for a second like I had slept on them wrong overnight, but then the feeling faded, leaving behind only a couple barely-visible wiggles of white light boiling on their surface.

Twilight studied her hoofwork, looking pleased. "There!" she said, ticking off a little box on her list. "Done and done. Now you're just like a pegasus pony, at least in your ability to treat clouds as solid matter." She squeezed her eyes shut in some kind of weird completely mental delight at having put a mark in a box, then turned back to her organizing work, getting her head back in that game. "You know, I never did ask why it is you're doing a talk at Cloudsdale, A.J. You don't seem like much like the 'give speech' type of pony."

"Well, I ain't," I said. "But I got me a vision, see."

"Do tell," said Twilight, hardly listening to me as she paged through her book, various chemical bottles and owls and such floating past in the background. Didn't matter. If my vision was strong enough to send me up to Cloudsdale to talk about it, it sure wasn't gonna shy away from a mare who was "hardly" listening. Because "hardly" meant she was at least kind of listening, see, and dagnabit, if anypony gives me even half an ear, I was gonna fill it. That was the kind of vision this was.

"Okay, listen here," I said, feeling the fire start in my chest and the wheels commence a-turning in my skull. "I was just reflecting one day on that big ol' hailstorm we had last summer, and how it plumb took the stuffing out of my corn crop. I ain't recovered financially from that yet. You understand why the pegasi gotta do them big thunderstorms in the summer?"

"The molt, right?" said Twilight, scanning through some paragraph or another. "They're not working at optimum efficiency because their top flyers aren't up to speed, so they schedule long hot days just to give themselves some breathing room, and then they have to toss a doozy of a storm at us every once in a while just to keep things in balance."

"Correct," I said. "And it ain't wrong of them, exactly, but the pegasi are all about the pony touch. I mean, pretty near everything they do, they do with their own bodies, whether it's making cyclones or carving snowflakes or kicking holes in the cloud layer, or what have you. Very hooves-on sorta folk."

"That sounds about right," said Twilight. "I'm not hearing a vision yet."

For Pete's sake, filly, I thought, just let me finish. "Here's the story, y'all," I said. "Earth ponies used to be like that too. We was all about doing things by hoof. And there's still a place for it – ain't no kind of mechanical harvester that can compare to good ol' bucking, least when it comes to apples. But it came to pass one day that there was just too much that needed doing and not enough hours in the day to do it all in. So we put our heads together and we all came up with an answer: Farm Machinery."

"Uh huh," said Twilight, all distracted from me, busy as she was in turning a little glass beaker over and over in the air in front of her, looking for flaws in it or something.

I tried to hide my ignore-me-some-more-why-don't-you? scowl and charged on. "The wheeled snowplow and the irrigation cart," I said, all sharp-like, "allow one little pony to do the work of about five different little ponies using sledges, or bucket yokes. It's ain't even fancy math, just a little common sense. You give them weatherponies the sorts of tools that earth ponies have been using for years now, it'll all work slicker than celery smut up there in Cloudsdale. We won't even need to have them big summer thunder-boomers. Weather, nice and even, all throughout the year."

"I do enjoy efficient labor," said Twilight, looking up from her beaker, which meant I had succeeded a little. "Do you have any specific mechanized processes you'd like to see them implement?"

The wheels started glowing hot in my head. Asking for specifics always pushes the noggin a little too hard, because I ain't the kind of thinker Twilight is. "In fact I do," I said, fishing around in the mess a little. "You know how they restock the water for them cloud factories they got going on?"

"Of course," she replied. "They draw it up from the earth using waterspouts."

"Well, I was thinking," I said. "Why are they throwing so much pony labor into making a big old tornado to suck the water up instead of concentrating on, say, a pump or something?"

"A pump?" said Twilight, sounding kind of dubious.

"Well, sure!" I said.

"It's conceptually intriguing, Applejack, but Cloudsdale is thousands of feet in the air. You'd need an awfully strong pump, and a lot of line. And there'd still be a lot of room for things to go wrong."

"I know, I know," I said. "Look, this speech ain't a lecture on mechanical engineering. It's just me blue-skying a little. Get them dang weatherponies to maybe look at how they do things a different way, savvy? I know how to make stills, mend porches and fix plows, but when you get to the hard stuff, well." I rolled my eyes and tossed a hoof. "I ain't all book-learned like you, or apparently, Pinkie Pie, is."

Every last little floating thing in the room fell to the ground with a thud, thump, fwap, crash, tinkle, or poof, depending on the thing.

"Oh, that Pinkie Pie!" Twilight yelled, basically in my face. "Has she been regaling you with some of her random and totally untrue stories again?"

"Uh," I said. "Maybe?"

"Hoo hoo!" said Twilight. "What a laugh! Boy, she was telling me a real whopper earlier today, I don't know, maybe it was the same one she told you!" Twilight's ear twitched a couple times. "It was just some crazy and, let me stress, totally non-true, story about how she's secretly a doctor of advanced contraptionology with a degree from the Maresachusetts Institute of Technology and how while she was in college she made a mechanical lizard that makes 'squonk' noises and breathes fire when it eats hot food and it came looking for her and that's what started the forest fire last night and so now we have to return it to her thesis advisor in Maresachusetts and that's why we're going on a road trip!" Twilight laughed erratically, cocking her head to one side. "It was funny because of how patently not-true it was!"

"SQUONK," came a sound from the kitchen. About a second later, Pinkie zipped through the open door.

"SQUONK!" yelled Pinkie Pie, waving her hooves around and smiling hugely. "Hey, Applejack, do you like the 'squonk' noise Twilight told me to make whenever Iggy made one of his squonking sounds so it would seem like I was doing it all along?"

"It's fine, I guess," I said.

"Ha ha!" said Twilight. "That Pinkie Pie! She sure is a kidder!" The purple unicorn dashed over to the kitchen at a clip that would have made Rainbow proud and started shoving Pinkie back through the door. "Unfortunately she needs to go back into the kitchen now and stop talking about Iggy the Salamander, who I must stress is a laughably fictional construction of her feverish imagination!"

"Girls," I said, frowning, "forgive me for talking this way, but it seems a mite as though y'all are trying to cover up the fact that you're actually going to Maresachusetts to take back some kind of mechanical fire-breathing lizard, and all of this horse hockey is your attempt to keep me from finding that out."

"Yes, indeed," said Pinkie Pie, matter-of-factly. "That's exactly what we're doing." Pinkie squealed like a piglet. "She wins the guessing game, Twilight!" she exclaimed. "What's the prize!"

Twilight fumed for a second, and then found herself again. "The prize is," she said, "that Applejack wins an all-expenses-paid trip to Don't-Tell-Anypony-About-This-ington."

"Oo!" shouted Pinkie. "Are meals included?"

"She did say 'all expenses paid'," I noted.


"You know what?" said Twilight. "Forget metaphors. Metaphors are obviously not working. Applejack, I will give you a full explanation of this entire situation once we're back from Maresachusetts, but right now, Pinkie and I need to get on the road as soon as possible, and I need to get back to packing and planning. Is there anything else I can do for you, other than the cloud-walking spell?"

"I… guess not?"

"Good!" said Twilight, leaping over the wreckage of her packing to escort me to the library door. "I'd like to thank you for being such a good friend, Applejack. I'm sure that Ponyville will be in capable hooves while we're away. Maybe you can hold some sort of rodeo competition or something to keep the townsfolk distracted from probing too deeply into the cause of last night's forest fire and the unorthodox and potentially apocalyptic methods we used to extinguish it! Doesn't that sound like fun?"

"Yeah, well," I said, in the process of being shoved out the door. "Funny you should mention it, I was just thinking about how rodeos aren't as big around here as they used to be. Everypony seems more interested in book learning and whatnot lately."

"As well they should be," said Twilight. "I mean, if you're only going to do one thing with your life, then by all means, it should probably be learning things from books! But if you've got time to spare, then rodeos are great pastimes. They're perfectly, almost aggressively… adequate! Right, Pinkie?"

"Are you kidding?" said Pinkie, from the other side of the room. "I love rodeos! Rodeos are the most adequate things I've ever seen!"

"Thanks, y'all," I said. "I can honestly say all your explaining has really, truly raised my level of confusion here."

"You're welcome!" said Pinkie.

"Okay, keep the town safe while we're gone!" said Twilight, getting me through the library door at last and onto the sun-brightened dirt roads outside. "And… like I said, A.J., I promise to tell you everything about this mess when we get back. I have to keep you in the loop – you are my second-in-command, after all!"

"Second-in-command," I said. "Right."

Twilight beamed at me, the smile kind of beaming, not some magic voodoo rays. "See you in a few days!" she said.

The door slammed behind me.

"Harumph," I said, turning my tail and trotting away, back out to the schoolhouse.

So that's what a modern hero is, I thought as I trotted. That's what all the little ponies in town are looking up to and hoping to turn themselves into someday, what with all them books and whatnot. Town full of flaky wossnames can't even tell spit from horseshoe shine, that's what we're heading toward. Mark my words.

Maybe this vision I had to put earth pony machines in Cloudsdale needed some re-thinking. I mean, it'd be all right if they threw up a few pumps and a couple engines, but what if everypony started getting too enthusiastic? What if the whole world started getting run by just bigger and bigger machines, with folks like Miss Twilight Sparkle at the controls? What if weather started getting produced by folks who understood the idea of weather, the science of it, right to a T, but who never had to spend a sleepless night mulching a field of seedlings ahead of a late spring frost, who never had to find a lost lamb in a thunderstorm with only hope and instinct and a good solid dog by their side?

Where on this earth are plain everyday values gonna come from? I continued thinking, as the schoolhouse came into view ahead of me. How are we gonna teach these kids that there's more to being a hero than just filling your head full of words? How do we learn them that power ain't just what comes from your brain? That power's what comes from your brain and your heart and your hooves, and occasionally, your hindquarters too? That power is who you are, not what you know?

We show 'em, I said, crossing over the threshold back into the schoolhouse. We show them that loyal, strong, dependable ponies can get 'er done just as well as the smart ones can. That when you give an important job to a pony like yours truly, she comes back a flying-colors winner, job all finished with bells on.

I looked at the scene spread afore me in the schoolhouse. Dash and Fluttershy, hovering there just a little off the ground. Rarity with her chin up, judging, always judging me. And Nightmare Scoot, still there at the head of the class, her sad little soda volcano demonstration fizzing away like it was gonna go on forever, which I guess was the aim.

"Hey, Applejack," said Nightmare Scoot, kinda tepid-like.

"Applejack," said Rarity, "wherever on the way over here did you lose Twilight and Pinkie?"

"And where are the Elements?" demanded Rainbow Dash.

I blinked.

"Butter my biscuits," I cussed.

I headed on back to the library.