• Published 9th Mar 2012
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Contraptionology! - Skywriter



When life gives you lemons, make robot monsters.

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03 - Unmitigated Friendship

* * *
Contraptionology!

by Jeffrey C. Wells

www.scrivnarium.net

(with gratitude to the pre-reading powers of Akela Stronghoof and S.R. Foxley)
* * *

Part Three: Unmitigated Friendship

"Twilight!" I said, busting back through the door of the library. "We got ourselves a crisis at the schoolhouse! Scootaloo's got the Nightmare!"

"Aah!" said Twilight, dropping all her packing again with yet another thunderous crash. "When are people going to stop listening to metaphysical entities whispering dark secrets into the depths of their minds? What's she going to make last forever this time?"

"The science fair they got going on!"

"Oh, no!" said Twilight. "That's horrible! How will the children learn anything ever again, if there's always… a…"

She paused.

"Actually," said Twilight, tapping her chin, "I'm not immediately seeing the problem, here. I mean, you can do worse than being in the middle of an everlasting science fair, right?"

"Uh, yeah," I said. "Could also do a touch better, mind, but, sure, I guess."

"When I was a little filly in Princess Celestia's School for Gifted Unicorns," said Twilight, her big purple eyes going distant-like, "I once had a dream that I was in the middle of an everlasting science fair. It was in a tremendous white hall with a high crystal ceiling, and it just went on and on and on. Exhibits as far as a pony's eye could see." Twilight smiled, lost in recollection. "It was such a nice dream," she said. "I never wanted to wake up."

"Yeah, well, this ain't no exhibit-going-on-forever type thing," I said. "They got exactly one everlasting exhibit, and it's Scoot's baking soda volcano thing."

Twilight startled and shook her head, her beautiful dream all shattered. "What?" she said. "She's trying to emulate a volcano using baking soda?"

"And vinegar, yes ma'am."

"But… but that's… that's wrong!" Twilight cried. "I mean, maybe if she were doing an exhibit on double replacement reactions, or an exhibit on the decay of unstable carbolic acid into its component molecules, then sure, I could see a practical demonstration using sodium bicarbonate and vinegar. But that has nothing to do with volcanoes at all!" Twilight gave me a stern and kinda frantic look, leaning over her little table at me. "Volcanoes are caused by the snores of Tartarus-dragons living deep beneath the Earth's crust!" she said, banging a hoof down a couple times for emphasis. "It's indisputable scientific fact!"

"So it is a crisis, then?"

"You're darn right it's a crisis!" said Twilight, crossing over to a little glass-fronted emergency cabinet on one wall. "Those children are perilously close to assimilating a fundamentally incorrect concept! There's no time to lose!" Twi put her hoof through the glass, revealing a set of five little necklaces and one big ol' crown thing – one guess as to which one of us little ponies belongs to that one.

"Behold!" said Twilight. "The Elements of Harmony!"

"Yeah, uh," I said. "I know what they are."

"Of course you do!" said Twilight. "Here, take the Citrine Apple of Honesty!" Twilight tossed mine at me and cinched it around my neck with her magic, pulling it just a hair too tight. She turned back towards the kitchen. "PINKIE!"

"Yes, Twilight?" said Pinkie, from behind her.

Twi spun around. "Aha," she said, pulling out a second necklace. "For you, the Aquamarine Balloon of Laughter!"

"Oo, my favorite!" squealed Pinkie.

"So that's the Tourmaline Diadem of Both Friendship and Magic for me, leaving—"

"Uh, sugarcube," I noted, "this would go faster if we just grabbed 'em instead of talking about them."

"Right, of course," said Twilight, snatching all the rest up in a little blob of magic. "Okay, let me just do a few more little things around here so we don't leave the place a mess. SPIKE! COME HERE! AND BRING A BROOM!"

Spike showed hisself at the upstairs door again, clumped downstairs, clambered his way across a whole entire room of packing debris and started sweeping the little pile of broken emergency glass into a dustpan. "Thanks, Spike!" continued Twilight. "While we're gone, please check on the supply of little panes of emergency glass for the Elements of Harmony cabinet."

"We're out," said Spike, not looking up from his sweeping. "That was the last one. I told you about it last time you smashed the emergency glass."

Twilight gasped. "Oh my gosh!" she said. "You're right! I had been waiting for my end-of-month stock-up trip to Quills, Sofas and Small Panes of Emergency Glass! Pinkie, please find my petty cash envelope and tell me what's inside."

Pinkie had it in hoof already. "Two buttons and a moth!" she said, proud. The moth fluttered away. "Two buttons!" she corrected. "It was empty before, so I tried filling it with things!"

"Aah!" Twilight yelled. "This is a disaster! Spike, when you're done sweeping up the broken glass, we need to do our budget and process one of our internal forms for restocking the petty cash out of general funds!"

"We're out of that form, too."

Twilight twitched. "Okay," she said, pacing back and forth. "I'm a good leader. I can handle this. All we need is to mock up an ersatz petty cash transfer form that we can copy over to an official one once we re-supply. Spike, when you're done sweeping up the broken glass, find me our copy of Fundamentals of Fiscal Formcraft."

"Can do," said Spike, yawning and munching at one of the little pieces of glass.

Forty-five minutes later, us three ponies finally showed up at the schoolhouse. The everlasting volcano presentation was still in full swing, and much to Twilight's consternation, all them little colts and fillies were starting to get interested in it.

"Ooh," said Twist, craning her little neck to look at the goings-on. "So fizzy! How'd you get it to look red like that?"

"Food coloring!" said Nightmare Scoot. "Just like a real volcano!"

"Stop, Nightmare Scoot!" shouted Twilight, charging into the room and tossing the rest of the Element necklaces at our friends, hitting Fluttershy clean in the face with hers. "Your days, or rather day, of teaching bad science is over!"

"Twilight Sparkle!" hissed Nightmare Scoot.

"The same!" she said, head up. "Prepare to be banished back to the depths of—"

"Wait, hold on," said Nightmare Scoot, holding up a hoof. Her eyes rolled back a little.

"Ex… cuse me?" said Twilight.

"Look, hold on, okay?" snapped Scoot, her eyes going back normal. "I'm trying to have a conversation here!" Scoot's eyes resumed doing their unnatural thing. "Uh huh," she said. "Uh huh."

Twilight frowned. "Um, what are we waiting for?" asked Dash, as Rarity finished clipping her Element necklace on. "Let's blast her!"

"Patience, Rainbow Dash," said Twilight. "I want to see what this is about. You can't just go around blasting things indiscriminately, even if they are apparently in direct communion with maleficent powers."

Nightmare Scoot continued on ignoring us. "Uh huh," she said. "Uh huh."

We all waited a while. Pinkie started up a game of tic-tac-toe.

"All right, thanks," said Scoot. Her eyes rolled down again and fixed back on Twilight. "Okay, I'm supposed to, um, give you a message from the Nightmare?"

"Really?" said Twilight, dubiously.

"Yep!" Scoot cleared her throat. "Okay, the Nightmare wants you to know that she's got a great name picked out for when you succ— succ—"

"Succumb?"

"That," said Nightmare Scoot, relieved. "She says that when you succumb to her wiles she's gonna make you call yourself 'Nightmare Gloaming' and she's got a wicked cool armor design all ready for you and everything."

Twilight smiled defiantly. "You tell the Nightmare that I'm not planning on 'succumbing' to her any time soon. Because the only lever she has to get inside a pony's head is envy, and I am not envious of anypony! And do you know why that is?"

Because you're everypony's favorite pony, I thought to myself. Because even Princesses get all silly-noggined watching you do your winsome li'l baby arch-wizard thing.

"Wrong, Applejack!" said Twilight. I froze. Dadgumit, did I just out-loud that? Lawks, but I'm a few chickens short of a henhouse lately…

"I am not envious of anypony," Twilight continued, without even stopping or nothing, "because whenever I start to get envious of somepony, I write a story about how I already have the thing I'm envious of, and it makes me feel better! If I get envious of Rainbow Dash's wings, I write a story where I've got wings! If I get envious of Rarity's great fashion sense, I write a story where I have great fashion sense! And If I get envious of how Bell Pepper looks at Applejack, I write a story where it's the harvest season and a thinly-veiled depiction of Bell has invited me up to his family holdings to teach me how to harvest peppers the earth pony way, with just teeth and hooves and muscle power; except I'm having trouble with the little pepper bush he assigned to me, so after a while, he strides over to where I am, pushes me gently aside with one nudge of his powerful neck, and leans in close to my little bush, his hot breath brushing at the leaves, and then he parts his warm lips, reaches out with his teeth and gives a few delicate nibbles at the tiny green stem of one bright and swollen scarlet pepper-fruit, and then he takes it up in his mouth, and then… and then…"

Twilight looked around the schoolroom at a mess of either confused or horrified faces. Cheerilee, all wide-eyed, went ahead and clapped her hooves over the ears of one of her charges, probably the most impressionable one she could find.

"Er, yes," said Twilight. "Hypothetically-speaking, that is. So anyway, the point is, Nightmare Scoot, is that your evil master can't get to me via envy, because I've got the world's best defense against it: when I start to get envious, I make something! It's something you could try yourself: if you're envious about other ponies being able to fly better than you, well, then, maybe you could write a book about being able to fly!"

Nightmare Scoot shrugged. "I think books are kinda dumb," she admitted.

"All right, let's blast her," said Twilight, her eyes narrow. "Girls! Formation!"

The rest of the five of us leaped up on desks and such behind Twilight as the big star jewel on her crown started glowing. In some kind of response, I could feel my little orange apple start rattling against my brisket, which weren't usual in situations like this, truth to tell.

"Good formation!" said Twilight. "A.J., you're just a hair out of place, though. Do you mind?"

I blinked, looking up from my apple. "Do I mind wh—"

My gut turned inside-out – followed by the entire rest of me – as Twilight forcibly teleported me a few inches to my right. "Aah!" I said, real intelligent-like.

"That's a little better," said Twilight, cocking her head at me like she was trying to figure something out, even as the twirly whirly rainbow energy of the Elements commenced a-twirling and whirling, carving channels in the air for magic to flow along like some kinda supernatural irrigation system. "Still not quite right, though. A.J., you're in good formation now but I'm not feeling your unmitigated friendship. What's wrong?"

"What's wrong?" I said, a little too loud, the apple jewel shaking on my chest like a flywheel that done got knocked clean off-kilter. "What's wrong? I'm…"

I clenched my back teeth and cleared my throat. "I don't know, Twilight. You tell me."

"Okay," said Twilight, briskly, her horn starting to shine. "Let's have a look at what's inside your head."

My hoof slipped on its already-precarious perch on the top of the school desk as I stumbled a step backwards. "Wait, just one cotton-pickin'—"

* * *

The train howled on through the night, across the wide open spaces of the Dodge Badlands. I sat on my little coach bench, hunkered up against the worked-glass seat back, saddlebags strewn all over the seat beside me. Just above my head, a row of hurricane gaslights burned, doing actually not an awful lot at all to beat back the darkness. Shadows were everywhere in this here train car, and they only seemed to get thicker the further away a pony got. The door to the next car was pretty near impossible to even see.

"This is interesting," said Twilight, walking down the aisle between the otherwise-empty seats toward me, drinking everything in with those big purple-black eyes of hers. "This isn't normally what your internal psychoscape looks like, Applejack. You're usually in one of your orchards when I come see you. Isn't that odd?"

"Yeah, uh," I said, glancing around. "I guess I'm just sorta tired, is all."

"Huh," said Twilight, poking at one of the glass lampshades, making it clink a little in its mount. "This is the train to Dodge Junction, isn't it? From that time when you ran away from Ponyville because you couldn't bear to face us after you didn't win first prize at the All-Equestria Rodeo Championships?"

"I guess so," I said, looking around, as if I didn't already recognize every inch of this here train car.

"So what does that mean to us?" said Twilight. "Maybe that you're running away from something again, only it's in your mind this time?"

"Sure I wouldn't know."

"Hm," Twi said, thinking it over. "I'm also worried about how gloomy it is in here. What's up with that, A.J.?"

Holy Grower, but the girl gets her kicks with this particular spell. Ever since she learned it, she's been going around peeking in at everypony and whipping up fancy interpretations of their mental difficulties based on all these symbicological things she sees in our heads. "It's night outside, for one thing," I said, waving a hoof at the window. "Might be raining, too. Can't tell."

"In here, Applejack," said Twilight, stamping one hoof. "Not out there. Why is it so dark in here? And what's in the next train car, where all those shadows are gathering?"

"Nothing!" I yelled. "Look, lemme just fix it if it's bothering you so all-fired much." I scrunched my head a little and the train car folded in on itself and vanished in a flash, leaving the two of us standing in my apple orchard, the part down by the west-end hollow.

"That's better," said Twilight. "Or… maybe not." She gazed westward through the shifting trees, trying to get a fix on something. "A.J., it's still pretty gloomy here in your mind, especially over there on that side." She gestured toward what did indeed look like a cluster of unnatural shadows among the trees near the hollow. "What's the matter with you today?"

"I don't know!" I fumed, the apple trees all about me rustling in agitation. "Tired! Up all last night fighting forest fires! I ain't in the mood for brain surgery here, Twi. Look, can you just… I mean, I'd appreciate it if you stayed out of my head, okay?"

"I'm sorry," said Twilight, like she genuinely meant it. "I only did it because of that one dinner where we all agreed to do whatever was necessary to keep our mutual friendship in tip-top shape, up to and including invasive psychoanalysis. You remember our pact, right?"

"I remember!" I said. "It's just that… I ain't comfortable with it no more."

Twilight looked a little hurt, to be honest.

"All right," she said, eventually. "After all, your friendship is too valuable to me to risk it over an issue like this. I'll stay out of your mental landscape from now on. But the fact remains, we've still got some kind of a problem with our friendship in the physical world, and I don't know what it is! You sure there's nothing you want to talk about before I eject myself?"

"I'm sure," I muttered. "Like I said. Just a bit tired today."

"Hm," said Twilight. "What to do, what to do. Maybe if I make metaphorical contact with you right before I pull out it'll kickstart the Elements into action?"

"What's that?"

"BRAIN HUG!" shouted Twilight, grinning like a crazymare and chucking herself at me, forehooves spread wide. There was a sudden bright flash and then—

* * *

"—minute!" I said, back in the real world, but nopony could even hear me, drowned out as I was by the terrible ruckus of the Elements roaring to life. Colored waves burst out of the little lockets of all us other ponies, waves that spun and twined together around Miss Twilight and her fancy crown, a whole storm full of rainbow. Twilight's eyes flared up pale as noon as she focused her attention on the pathetic, cowering form of Nightmare Scoot up there at the front of the classroom. Why the Nightmares never just up and run away from us is beyond me. Maybe it's a pride thing.

So anyway. Magic lashed out, doing what it does. "NOOOOOO!" screamed Nightmare Scoot as the rainbow storm fell on her like a load of shiny horse manure. Vision and sense were wiped out in a blinding sheet of white light, yadda yadda, yadda yadda. All the normal everyday steps of Nightmare-squashing. I blacked out, like I typically do of late. Just another day of evil-smitin' chores on the evil-smitin' farm.

I was only out for minute this time. When I woke up, Scoot was lying there in a pile of armor shards, her mane looking like it was made out of normal hair again instead of goofy sparkle-stuff. The baking soda volcano beside her was actually smoking for real now, a fact I figured would please Twilight to no end.

"That was a pretty good blasting," said Rainbow Dash, lounging at one of the desks, picking at her teeth with a toothpick.

"I thought so," agreed Twilight. "Hey, A.J.! My plan worked!"

"Uh huh," I said, trying to fold my legs back under me.

Meanwhile, Sweetie Belle and my kid sister Apple Bloom – Scoot's partners in Crusaderhood – strode up to the broken little pile of orange filly.

"Scootaloo," intoned Sweetie Belle squeakily, "it has been since, what, yesterday, that we've seen you like this?"

"Yesterday," Apple Bloom agreed. "About a thousand minutes, I figure."

"It has been a thousand minutes since we've seen you like this," continued Sweetie Belle. "It is time to put our differences behind us. We were meant to crusade for our Cutie Marks together, not go off on our own and get eaten up by evil and junk!"

"Sister?!?" Pinkie Pie yelled. Then she frowned and pulled little stack of paper out from behind her back, giving it a quick look-over. "Oh, wait, wrong scene. Oops!"

"Will you accept our friendship?" said Apple Bloom.

Scootaloo's eyes got all teary. "I'm so sorry!" she said, throwing herself at her little friends. "I missed you so much, Cutie Mark Crusaders!"

"We missed you too," said Sweetie Belle. And Cheerilee looked all happy, and Fluttershy looked all happy, and Pinkie offered to throw everypony a party just as soon as she got back from Maresachusetts and basically we all had a touching reunion moment, same as always.

"Thank you, Twilight Sparkle," said Cheerilee, beaming at her.

"You're welcome," said Twilight, proudly.

Yep, I thought to myself, standing in a wedge of shadow over near the back wall, underneath a crude mouth-drawn picture of a tree or something. Same as always.

* * *

"Okay, so what have we all learned about getting possessed, today?" said Rainbow Dash, flapping alongside Scootaloo as the whole bunch of us trotted our way back to Ponyville proper, six of us Element-bearers (all of us still bearing our Elements, in fact) plus an assorted collection of Cheerilee's rugrats.

"To not to!" shouted out everypony.

"Exactly," said Rainbow. "And how do we stop from getting jealous of other ponies and giving the bad guys an opening?"

"Write stories?" volunteered Sweetie Belle, sounding a little unsure. "Like Twilight said?"

Rainbow pshawed. "Yeah, sure, if you're an egghead like Twilight. We're looking for the pegasus answer, not the unicorn one. Here's a hint – it's something I'm really really good at."

Scootaloo frowned. "Be… awesome?"

"Nothing but net!" said Rainbow, as Scoot's face lit up like a Hearth's Warming Eve tree. "Two points, kiddo. The real way to stop yourself from getting jealous of other ponies is to be one hundred percent blue-steel bleeding-edge awesome. That way, you really are better than everypony else you meet, and wanting to be like them will never even cross your mind."

"I try to be awesome!" said Scootaloo. "I really really try!"

"Keep it up, kid," R.D. replied. "You'll get there someday."

"I'm already awesome!" said Sport Pepper, tagging along in the air behind Dash, doing a few loop-de-loops apparently to show this fact off or something. "Also, radical!"

"I don't mean to beat a dead horse," said Twilight, "but I still think that writing elaborate stories featuring obvious fictional analogues of your family and friends is also a very emotionally healthy thing to do."

"I don't wanna write stories!" said Sport Pepper, flipping herself over and tearing across our path in a furious backstroke. "I just wanna learn how to fly real fast! I'm gonna be a royal courier for Princess Celestia just like mi tia Cayenne someday!"

Twilight smiled. "Princess Celestia values creativity as well as athletic prowess," she said. "The Day-Court couriers I know, including your aunt, aren't just quick-winged; they're quick-witted, too. Competition is tough at the top, and a little word-sense can give you the edge you need to really shine in the Princess's eyes."

"You could also try filling your heart with love," said Fluttershy. "Um, talking about jealousy again, if that's okay with everypony. That way you're never angry or jealous of anypony, because you've just got so much love for them."

"Good suggestion!" said Twi. "What about you, Applejack? Would you like to contribute to today's ambiguous morality cloud?"

"Uh," I said, trotting along. "Yeah, sure. I think the best way to not be jealous of another pony is… to honestly admit to that other pony when you're jealous of her. 'Cause jealousy only gets worse when you hide it away."

My apple necklace rattled a little on my chest. It weren't visible to nopony, but I could feel it myself. I clapped a hoof down on it and it stopped. Wasn't sure why it was acting all funny, but relics of power got a mind all to themselves, I figure.

"An excellent answer, A.J.," said Twilight, either not seeing or not noticing me grab at the stone around my neck. "Pinkie, any thoughts on envy?"

"Sure!" said Pinkie Pie, bouncing along. "I think everypony should just be who she really is inside, every single hour of every single day! Forget about trying hard to be awesome, or forcing yourself to love what you don't, or working yourself into a frazzle hoping to impress princesses with book-learning that you're really not interested in. I think that if you're happy, really deep-down wiggle-your-hooves-in-the-grass smile-because-you-can't-help-it happy with who you are, problems and all, you'll start to realize that being envious of any other pony is meaningless and just plain silly."

Us and the kids trotted quietly for a spell.

"Rarity?" said Twilight, eventually.

"Yes, well," said Rarity, "I was going to say something much like what Pinkie Pie said."

"Okay, good!" said Twilight, hauling us all to a stop near the top of a grassy hill that overlooked the big green spread of Equestrian countryside surrounding our tiny village. "Thanks, Rarity! And thanks everypony else. I think we've had a lot of good lessons today. I know I certainly have learned enough to write a nice long letter to the Princess as soon as Pinkie and I get back from our vacation. But right now, we've gotta run."

"We've got an important meeting!" said Pinkie.

"With an old friend of Pinkie's in Maresachusetts," said Twilight, nodding at Pinkie. "A pony named 'Professor Danger'."

"And we're taking along a gift for him!" said Pinkie. "It's a lizard!"

"A lizard in an asbestos bag," said Twilight, cutting in again, "but we're not going to talk about that right now, right, Pinkie?"

"Right!" said Pinkie. "Totally not gonna talk about that."

"Are you sure you're going to be okay?" said Fluttershy. "Um, whatever it is you're doing. It just all sounds really… unsafe."

"Don't worry, Fluttershy," said Twilight. "Science has proven time and time again that asbestos is absolutely harmless."

"It's not the asbestos, darlings," said Rarity. "Everypony knows that's safe. I myself make many fine fireproof garments out if it, like that fashionable little set of lava-swimming trunks I designed for my dear Spikey-wikey. It's just all this talk of ucky lizards and ponies named 'Danger' and all. Are you certain you can't stay and tell us more about it over tea? Or a nice citrus bath?"

"Sorry, Rarity," said Twilight. "We're already way behind schedule. My time kitty is totally depleted. Rain check on that citrus bath, though; it sounds delightful." Twilight turned to me, looking all encouraging and such. "But, in the meantime, I can promise that you won't be lacking for entertainment! A.J., you want to tell them about your rodeo idea?"

"Actually was Twilight's idea, tell the truth," I said. "But, uh, yeah. Sure." I turned to the mess of students trailing along with us. "Listen here, y'all, I got a talk to give at Cloudsdale day after tomorrow, but soon as I get back, we was thinking that Twilight and Pinkie being away might be a good time for us all to have a little junior rodeo type-thing. Learn all you fillies and colts a little something 'bout bucking and barrel-racing and ropework. Life ain't all about books, after all."

"Oh boy!" said Snips. "I just learned a new rope-levitating trick that'll be perfect!"

"Hold on there, horn-head," I said, giving the little unicorn colt a hoof-noogie. "This is gonna be an earth pony rodeo. No fancy magics allowed. We'll get us some calves what don't mind being trussed up, set up a pole-bending course, and make a real show of it."

"Neat!" shouted Apple Bloom.

"Cool!" said Scootaloo.

"Awesome!" said Sport. "And radical!"

Well, well, well, I thought, looking at all them smiling faces, my heart starting to feel right toasty again for the first time in I don't know how long. There's hope for this town yet. And maybe it was a wrong thing for me to think, but I couldn't help a-thinking it: it was just barely possible that Pinkie and Twilight taking a little leave from Ponyville might be the best thing to happen around these parts in a while. I mean, I'd miss them, sure, on account of them being my friends and all. But it did kinda seem that there was something a little sprained, or at least twisted, between me and Twi. Maybe we just needed a little absence. Y'know, to make our hearts grow fonder, like they always say.

Yessiree, I finished, I this vacation of Twilight's is gonna work out just fine, and as far as I was concerned the longer it takes them little ponies to find their Professor Danger, the bett—

"Hey, look!" said little Rumble, gazing off over the hill. "Somepony's coming!"

Everypony turned to look. Sure as shooting, there was somepony coming up the road to Ponyville, pulling a little cart behind him. Older gentlepony, a iron-colored earth stallion with unshorn fetlocks and a wild dishwater mane, dressed in a sharp-looking coat and a pair of safety goggles pushed up to his forehead. Little bit lame in one hind leg. Cutie Mark was a little bit hard to tell at this distance, but it looked kind of like interlocking machinery of some kind.

The fella stopped at our attention. "HEYLO, PONYVILLIANS!" he called out in a Hoofington accent thick enough to spread on toast.

Pinkie's eyes went wide and shiny as she gasped in total crazed Pinkie Pie joy. "PROFESSOR DANGER!" she cried.

…Nuts.