Chapter 5: The Teapot Dome Scandal
A quick trot from the library later. (Still three years after Rupert.)
"Hi, Pinkie," Apple Bloom said, trotting up to the counter with Sweetie Belle in tow. "How many kinds of candy do ya have?"
Pinkie Pie took a deep breath, preparing to enumerate the previously uncounted varieties of confection available.
"Wait! Forget I asked," Apple Bloom shouted, holding up a hoof just in time. "I'll just take one of everything."
Pinkie grinned, and hefted a large sack over the counter. "There you go! One biggest bestest every-flavor-we-have candy assortment, sorted alphabetically for ease of use."
"How many of those do you usually sell?" Sweetie asked, surprised-yet-not-really-surprised that such a thing was already prepared.
"Zero!" Pinkie gleefully exclaimed.
"Then how long has that one been sitting?"
"Oh, no, I would never sell old candy. I packed this one just this morning."
"You put one of these together every day, yet never sell any?"
Pinkie laughed. "That'd be silly, silly!"
"So you do sell some then?"
"Nope nope! You're the firstest to buy the biggest bestest! Like I said, I just put it together today."
"Wait, this is the first time you ever put one together? Then how did you..." Sweetie trailed off, realizing where this was going.
"Yup!" Pinkie said, winking. "Two tail twitches and an itch on the left fetlock."
"Well then, how much do we owe you?"
"Nada! The Royal Treasury already paid the bill last week."
"But we... we just found out about..." Sweetie lost the thread of any coherent thought, as she found often happened when dealing with Pinkie Pie.
Apple Bloom just smiled. Somehow, the more she learned about her own abilities, the less strange Pinkie Sense seemed. Recently, she'd started to suspect that it was some really weird extension of earth pony magic.
"Well," Sweetie said, turning to Apple Bloom. "Now we just need to go by—"
"Oh oh!" Pinkie interrupted again. "I already commissioned Bon Bon and Twist for all the candies they can make, too. They're in the bag as well, filed under BB and CC."
Deciding to ignore the first level question, Sweetie went for the second. "I get BB for Bon Bon, but why CC?"
Apple Bloom laughed. "She filed it by candy, not maker. BB is for bon-bons, the candy, not the pony. CC is candy canes."
Sweetie shook her head. "Let's just go, before my brain explodes."
"Thanks Pinkie," Apple Bloom said, waving. "We'll see ya 'round."
Three point one four seconds later.
Scootaloo heard a soft knock, and looked up from her book. Nopony ever knocked. The treehouse was a thousand feet in the sky, and miles from town too. Anypony that was coming to visit was generally expected well in advance, and it's not like the postmare would even deliver here.
Another knock. Well, Scootaloo thought, putting down her book and heading for the door, this should be interesting. Opening the door though, it was actually much more interesting than she'd anticipated. Standing on the other side of the threshold was a diamond dog.
"Gah!" she gasped, briefly startled by the freakish, bipedal appearance of the creature. It, in turn, stepped back in shock as well, and the two stared at each other in silence for a moment.
"Umm... Can I help you?" Scootaloo finally ventured.
"I... I was t-t-t-told I could vi-visit," said the—now that she looked more closely—small and scrawny creature.
"O-kaaaay..." They had set an official CMC policy that anypony was always welcome to visit the CMC headquarters, and several foals from class, as well as a few adults from town, had come to visit in the first couple of months after they'd finished the headquarters. But a diamond dog? That was new. This one seemed harmless enough though. "Uh, come on in I guess."
The diamond dog stuck his head in timidly, looking around at the interior without actually stepping inside. "Is-is... A-a-a-apple Bloom here?"
Curiouser and curiouser, Scootaloo thought. "Not at the moment. She'll probably be here later though. Why do you want to know?"
The diamond dog looked down, like he'd been scolded. "Sh-sh-she said I should v-v-visit her h-here."
Apple Bloom had never mentioned anything about knowing a diamond dog, and yet... Scootaloo got the impression he was telling the truth. Well, more accurately, she got the impression he was too socially inept to lie convincingly. Yet she also knew her friend wouldn't likely keep something like this from her. So what in the world was going on? Best to assume the best though. "You can come in and wait for her if you'd like."
The diamond dog took a few steps into the treehouse.
"My name's Scootaloo," the pegasus said, extending a hoof.
The diamond dog just looked oddly at the extended hoof, not sure what to do with it, but he did reply. "I'm... Runt."
"Umm, nice to meet you," Scootaloo said, after eventually lowering her hoof. "So how do you know Apple Bloom?"
The two were interrupted by a loud pop. Runt yelped, and dashed behind the table on instinct. Scootaloo just turned, well used to the sound of an incoming teleport. Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom had just arrived with a large bag. "What've you guys got there?" she asked.
"Candy," Apple Bloom said, letting the bag thump to the floor. "Lotsa candy."
Sweetie Belle quickly caught sight of Runt behind the table. "Uh, we have a guest?" she asked, pointing him out.
"Yeah, says he knows you, Apple Bloom," Scootaloo said. "I think the teleport scared him," she added in what she—and only she—would consider a subtle whisper.
Apple Bloom, recognizing Runt from yesterday, gave a soft smile in his direction. "It's okay, Runt. These are my friends. You can come out."
Runt looked embarrassed as he stepped around the table. "S-sorry. The n-n-noise was l-loud."
"It's okay, Runt," Apple Bloom said, pointing at her friend. "It was just Sweetie here showin' off again."
Sweetie opened her mouth for a witty retort, but decided against it. Instead, she turned to the diamond dog. "Hello, Runt. Apple Bloom's been telling me a bit about you this morning. It's a pleasure to meet you." Sweetie held out her paw.
Startled, Runt looked at the metal limb. Apple Bloom had told him about her friends last night, including the one with the metal bones, but it was still surprising to see directly. At least he knew what the gesture meant though. He grasped her paw in his own, and they shook.
"Wait," Scootaloo said. "Am I the only one that didn't hear about this? Also, what the heck kinda hoofbump was that?"
A smirk crossed Sweetie's face. "Like it? I picked that up from Spike, who said he learned it from a griffon. Apparently it's how you do it if you have thumbs."
Scootaloo shook her head rapidly to clear her thoughts. "Okay, never mind that. Since when do you have a diamond dog for a friend, Apple Bloom?"
"Aw, relax Scoots." Apple Bloom said. "I only met Runt yesterday. It's yer own fault ya slept in late this mornin'!"
Rolling her eyes, Scootaloo shrugged. "Okay, fair enough." Her tendency to sleep in routinely meant she was the last to the party, so to speak. "So fill me in though. What's the story here?" she said, nodding toward Runt and the bag of candy.
"Sweetie," Apple Bloom said. "Why don't you and Scootaloo take a walk while ya tell her what's goin' on? I'd like to talk ta Runt on my own fer a few."
Casting a suspicious look between her two friends, Scootaloo wanted to object. She didn't feel like a walk at all—she was a pegasus, she never did—but she'd learned that when she had no idea what was going on, it was usually best to follow the lead of her friends. "Umm, okay," she said. "Yeah, let's go on a walk. I sure love me some long, slow walks on the flat ground. Yup."
Apple Bloom facehooved. She appreciated that Scootaloo at least got the hint this time, but her attempts to "sell it" were simply awful. If the situation itself wasn't so sad, she'd be laughing her tail off right now. Instead, she just saw her friends to the door, and made sure it was closed behind them, before turning to Runt.
"So," she said, not wanting to face the hard truth. "Uh, welcome to the CMC Headquarters, I guess. Ya want the tour?"
"Tour?" Runt asked, tilting his head to the side.
"Yeah, I can show ya around, explain stuff."
Runt looked around at the one-room treehouse. There were a few windows, a couple of doors, and some very spartan furniture. "Th-th-there's more r-rooms?"
"Ah, not exactly."
"Then wh-wh-what's the t-t-tour?"
Apple Bloom chuckled a bit nervously. "Well, mostly it's me walkin' real slow and pointin' out the trophies an' such on the shelf. Then we stand out on the porch, and ya get to go, 'I can see mah house from here!'"
Runt looked toward the glass doors leading to the porch. "I w-w-would like to s-see the view."
"Right this way then!" Apple Bloom trotted to the doors, and opened them, motioning for Runt to step through.
"Wow, it really is h-high up here!"
"Eeyup. Nearly a thousand feet. Took me forever ta grow all those stairs."
Stepping to the railing, the diamond dog leaned out and took in the view. He really could see his house from here, or at least the hillside that contained it. Looking off to the distance though, Ponyville itself was visible, the multi-colored houses standing out from the greens and browns of the surrounding fields. Beyond that, the distant mountains, and the great castle of Canterlot.
Runt closed his eyes, and took several deep breaths. When he opened them, he was smiling. "It's so... peaceful," he said. "The sky is so endless from way up here. It's like it goes on forever."
Apple Bloom couldn't help but notice his stutter had practically disappeared. "Ya like it up here, eh?"
Nodding, Runt grinned. "There are no walls c-closing in. There's no ceiling pressing down on me. It's like... like being free." He closed his eyes again, and turned his face toward the sun. "It's wonderful!"
A diamond dog that didn't like the ground? Well, Apple Bloom thought, certainly not the strangest thing she'd heard. The look of joy on Runt's face did make what she needed to say that much harder though.
Opening his eyes, Runt turned toward her and saw the look on her face. He tilted his head. "Is something wr-wrong?"
Taking a deep breath, Apple Bloom sighed and hung her head. "Yeah, Runt, I'm afraid there is. I promise I'll tell ya all about it in a few. First though, would ya mind helpin' me with something?"
"Okay. I g-g-guess I can tr-try." It seemed his stutter was coming back as Apple Bloom's nervousness wore off on him.
She lead him back inside, and pulled a few hard candies from the bag. Apple Bloom unwrapped one and broke it, offering a piece to Runt. "Can you taste this, and tell me what ya think?"
Taking the sweet, runt put it in his mouth and tried to chew it, his sharp teeth making loud crunches.
"No, no, just suck on it for a second, let it melt in your mouth slowly. Like this." Apple Bloom put another piece in her own mouth, and let the sweet, orange flavor melt on her tongue.
Trying to comply, Runt dutifully stopped chewing, but couldn't stop himself from making contorted faces as he sucked on the candy. "H-how long do I have to-to keep doing this?"
"It ta-tastes awful!"
"Oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead and spit it out if ya want."
Runt did so immediately, smacking his tongue and lips afterwards, trying to get the taste out of his mouth.
"That bad?" Apple Bloom asked, surprised at the reaction. "I guess we can cross orange off the list then. How about this one?" She handed him a piece of another candy. Runt looked at it suspiciously. "Just a quick taste. Ya can spit it right out if it's no good."
It was, apparently, no good. Neither was the next, or the next. Apple Bloom dug further into the bag, and tried some wider varieties, including chocolates, mints, and assorted truffles. Runt didn't like any of them, though mint he at least tolerated, saying it made his tongue feel funny, even though it didn't really taste good.
"Okay, one last thing." Apple Bloom went to the small pantry in the corner, where they kept their tea, hot cocoa, and some basic snacks. She returned with a bowl of sugar, and gave Runt a small spoonful to taste.
For once, his reaction was rather mild. "Like it?" she asked.
"It's m-m-mostly tasteless. Just a faint h-hint of dust."
Brow scrunching in confusion, Apple Bloom thought it through. "So I guess ya just really can't taste sugar at all then. Nothin' sweet works for ya."
Runt nodded, and Apple Bloom tried to imagine what candy would taste like without the sweetness. Orange would be... just bitter and acidic. Mint would be weirdly numbing. Chocolate... well, burnt dirt was how Runt described it, and she had to believe that was probably about right. Even apples and cider would be awful without the sweetness. She shuddered at the thought.
"So it wasn't just sweetrock that you don't like, but all sweets." Apple Bloom said. "You can't taste sweetness, so it's all just blech?"
"Y-yes," Runt answered. "But I n-n-never knew there were s-so many other things that I c-couldn't like because they're sw-sweet. Wh-why did you want m-me to try all th-those?"
It was sad, Apple Bloom thought. Runt would never be able to enjoy so many delicious things if he couldn't taste sugar. But there was a tremendous upside for him as well. Because of his lack of taste, he'd never poisoned himself with the lead in sweetrock. She looked up at him and gave a sad smile, before launching into a full explanation of what she'd learned about the systemic lead poisoning she suspected was crippling the diamond dogs.
By the end, Runt was horrified, yet nearly as determined as Apple Bloom was to do something about it. It all made so much sense, he thought. Why he was so different from all the others around him. He wasn't just smarter than them by accident, but because he'd been the only one to grow up without being poisoned. Though some quirk, he'd been born without the ability to taste sweet things, yet that'd allowed him to escape the curse that plagued the rest of his entire race. A small price to pay for never being able to enjoy an apple, he thought, even after Apple Bloom had explained in detail just how much he was missing in that regard.
A dome-shaped hillside, near a crashed Teapot.
Two days later.
The three Crusaders stood a little ways down the hill from the entrance to the diamond dog warrens. Apple Bloom was carrying the bag of candies, and today was the start of the experiment. She was nervous, but was glad to have her friends beside her.
Out of the cave-like entrance, Runt appeared. Jogging over to the ponies, he looked nervous.
"Are we good to go?" Apple Bloom asked him.
"I th-think so. I t-t-told them you were coming, bu-but they didn't seem to really understand why p-p-ponies would come here. I th-think they might not be t-t-too nice."
"We suspected that might happen," Sweetie Belle said. "That's why all three of us are here."
"Yeah," Scootaloo said, nodding to Sweetie. "We're more than a match for any mean old diamond dog."
"Whoa there, Scoots," Apple Bloom said. "Let's try the carrot—errr, the candy, before the stick, okay?"
"It's your show, AB. I'm just here for backup."
"Yeah, Apple Bloom. Lead on!" Sweetie Belle said.
Taking a moment to psych herself up, Apple Bloom took a few deep breaths, then marched resolutely into the tunnels.
Runt and the other two ponies followed closely behind, and the group soon found themselves in near darkness. Then it started to get brighter again. Continuing, the ponies were surprised to see how well lit the tunnel became. As they stepped into the fully lit portion, they could see the light was coming not from torches, but from glowing rocks stuck into the walls at irregular intervals. It was just as Runt described, they really did use "hotrocks" for lighting. As the equium in the stones wasn't purified though, the glow was mostly pretty faint, meaning there were a lot of rocks used to light the tunnels.
Turning a corner, they came upon a larger room. It'd obviously been dug out from the surrounding earth by claws, and assumed a roughly hemispherical shape, though the floor and walls were full of imperfections, where large stones or tougher strains of minerals protruded. Several other tunnels connected to the room, and before they could ask Runt which direction to take, a large diamond dog entered the room from the far side.
"I thoughts I smelled ponies!"
Apple Bloom recognized him from both the voice and the dark vest as one of the bullies she'd subdued the other day. Looking at her, it appeared he recognized her too. "You!" he said. "I owes you a beatings!"
Scootaloo quickly stepped beside Apple Bloom, and Sweetie Belle took the other flank, both ready to defend their friend. Apple Bloom held up a hoof for them to stand down, as Runt slowly tried to move out of sight of the whole ordeal.
"Howdy!" she said, taking a slow step forward. "Mah name's Apple Bloom. I think maybe we got off on the wrong foot the other day."
"I'm going to breaks all your foots!"
"You could do that. Or, maybe I can give ya a present to make up for it?"
The large diamond dog paused in his advance. "Present?"
"Uh, yeah. I got some delicious candy here. It's like sweetrock, but way better." Apple Bloom reached into the bag and pulled out a small piece of watermelon candy, and carefully tossed it to him. "Try a piece."
The diamond dog sniffed at it, before starting to put it in his mouth.
"Ya gotta unwrap it first!"
Getting a confused look in response, she pulled out another piece, and demonstrated, before putting it in her own mouth.
The diamond dog followed suit, and made several curious faces. Then he crunched into the candy and finished it quickly.
"Like it?" Apple Bloom asked cautiously.
"Is good," he said, before starting to advance again. "Still owes you a beatings!"
"Wait wait wait!" Apple Bloom said. "Try this one." She broke off a piece of a candy cane and tossed it to him.
Trying to find a wrapper again, the diamond dog was slightly confused. After Apple Bloom explained it was safe to eat directly this time, he put it in his mouth and made several funny faces as the strange cooling effect hit his mouth. After a few seconds though, he seemed to be enjoying it thoroughly.
"Is bestest sweetrock I is ever had! Does pony has more?"
Apple Bloom turned and smiled at her two friends, nodding. This might actually work. "Yes," she said. "I've got lots more. I'll give ya a big piece if ya promise not to beat us up."
The diamond dog considered this for a moment, before making his own counter offer. "Maybe I just beats yous and takes all the pieces of candies?"
"Yeah, you just try it," Scootaloo said. "See what happens."
The diamond dog started to growl, the fur on his neck and back rising at the threat.
As she was trying to defuse the situation, Apple Bloom felt that could've been worded better. That said, it was bound to come up eventually. If the diamond dogs thought they could just take stuff, they'd never learn to cooperate. They needed that cooperation if they were ever going to convince them to stop using sweetrock. Maybe it would be good to set an example. Carrot and stick.
"I really wish ya wouldn't try to beat us up," Apple Bloom said. "Ya couldn't even take me alone last time, and now mah friends are here too. But if yer determined. Well, let's get it over with."
The diamond dog charged.
"Sweetie, would ya be so kind?"
"With pleasure," Sweetie Belle said, her horn lighting as she levitated the bully off the ground and held him just beyond his arm's reach of the group. He struggled for a few moments, throwing insults as well as useless swings and kicks. The ponies just waited him out. When he started to slow down, Apple Bloom spoke.
"Now, we could keep at this all day, but I'd really rather not. Wouldn't ya much rather have this here candy cane?" She brandished the large confection in front of the helpless creature. "Like I said before, I'll be happy to let ya have it. Ya just gotta be nice to us, an' stop tryin' to pick a fight."
The diamond dog finally stopped struggling.
"Ya ready to play nice?"
"Are you sure, Apple Bloom?"
Sweetie shrugged, then released her hold on the diamond dog, freeing him where he'd been held, mere inches from Apple Bloom.
Holding out the candy cane, Apple Bloom offered it to the diamond dog, who quickly snatched it from her. "Now remember," she said. "This means ya aren't gonna try to hurt us no more, right?"
The diamond dog nodded meekly.
"Right? Ah want to hear ya say it."
"Yes. Not hurts ponies."
"Good!" Apple Bloom smiled. "Now, how would ya like to get another candy cane?"
Suspicious, but obviously interested, he responded. "What's the pony wants this times?"
"I reckon we might make a trade for this one. I see ya'll got all these hotrocks just all over the place here, and I'd really like a couple'a my own. So I was thinkin' maybe if ya wanted to trade me a couple of those for a big ol' piece a candy, that'd be a fair deal."
"Pony just wants the hotrocks? Why ponies not just takes them?"
"They ain't so easy to find where I'm from. An' these 'round here belong to ya'll, least the way I reckon. Figure I gotta give ya somethin' to make it fair."
Thinking the deal seemed too good to be true—hotrocks were everywhere, literally every couple of feet in every tunnel—the diamond dog was hesitant, but couldn't pass up a chance for this delicious new pony sweetrock. He darted to the side of the room and yanked a few of the hotrocks out from where they'd been placed in a wall, then offered them to Apple Bloom. She took them, and gladly handed over another candy cane, this one spearmint instead of peppermint.
"Pleasure doin' business with ya!" Apple Bloom set the bag of candy on her back and turned to leave. Her friends, having expected a longer expedition, were confused, but followed her, as did Runt.
After they left and got some distance away from the exit, Scootaloo spoke up. "What was that all about? I thought we were going to try to meet a bunch of the diamond dogs."
"Ah think that one will be enough for now," Apple Bloom said. "We gotta work 'em slow. We'll come back in a couple of days, after the big bully in there has bragged to every other one about his delicious new sweetrock. Then we won't even have to talk 'em into tryin' it. They'll be begging for it."
Sweetie laughed. "You know, Apple Bloom, sometimes, I think you're a little too devious."
Diamond Dog Den.
Three days later.
"Mores! Wants more pony sweetrocks!"
"Hold on there," Apple Bloom said. "I've got another deal for ya."
The diamond dog waited patiently to hear it.
"See, ah've been thinkin' that maybe some'a the other diamond dogs might want some candy too. Well, and there are so many kinds, that ah ain't quite sure what's best. So I was gonna have my friend Runt try to find out. Problem is, he'll need some help."
"Yes, yes. I helps the Runts. Hows I helps?"
"What I'm gonna do is leave him a whole bag of candy, and everyone'a ya'll can get one piece a day from 'im. Now, a course some a ya might think to take more than one piece, but that wouldn't be fair. Runt's gonna need someone to make sure no one tries to take more."
"Pony wants me to guards Runts and the candies?"
"Exactly! I figure yer big an' strong. I'm sure ya could do a good job at it. But I know it's hard work. So I'll tell Runt to let you take three pieces a day, instead'a just one. How's that sound?"
"Three pieces? Justs for guardsing?"
"Eeyup. But if I hear ya let the others cheat, or ya let anything hurt Runt, then ya ain't never gonna get any candy from me again, got it?"
The diamond dog nodded. "Is deals! When starts? I gets my pieces nows?"
"Once piece now. Ya get the rest at the end'a each day."
"Twos now. Ones later!"
"Heh, okay. Ya got a deal!"
One week later.
"Well?" Apple Bloom asked.
"I c-can't believe it actually w-worked," Runt said. "None of them cheated, and no one p-p-picked on me."
"So, what'd they like the best?"
"The c-c-candy c-c-canes. The r-r-red ones."
Apple Bloom smirked. Somepony was about to become very busy. But first things first. "Okay, so tell me, just how important are the hotrocks to ya guys in those tunnels?"
"Wh-why do you ask?"
"Because if ah go through with this next stage of the plan, I think ya might be runnin' outta 'em pretty quick."
"I-it's not going to k-kill us to do without them."
A non-descript house in Ponyville.
Later that afternoon.
"Apple Bloom?" Twist said, opening the door. "What are you doing here?"
"Oh, ya know, just tryin' to save the world."
Twist looked at Apple Bloom with confusion. "What does that have to do with me?"
"That depends. How fast can ya make those candy canes?"
"Umm, usually I do about three hundred in a large batch, but the Cakes let me use the kitchen in Sugarcube Corner at Hearth's Warming last year, and I did maybe a thousand. It took the whole weekend though. Why?"
"Hmm." Apple Bloom ran some numbers in her head. "Three hundred should do fer for now. But, just hypothetically speakin', how many could ya do a week if ya had, say, yer own kitchen and maybe a couple'a other ponies helpin'?"
Twist scrunched her brow in thought. "Umm, I don't know, Apple Bloom. Thousands at least. But what in the world is this about?"
"To be honest, Twist, I ain't positive it'll work out yet. Don't want to get yer hopes up. But if it does go like I'm tryin' to make it go, then ya might be runnin' the biggest business in Ponyville in a couple'a months. Suffice ta say, I think I may'a found ya the biggest untapped market for candy in Equestria."
Twist, for her part, really had no idea what to make of that. It sounded appealing, but the whole thing was so out of the blue. And while she was friends with Apple Bloom, it wasn't like they were extremely close friends. Still though, she knew her well enough to trust that this wasn't some sort of trick. "So, what do you want me to do?"
Royal Ponyville Library.
The next day.
"Value?" Twilight Sparkle said. "I'm not sure. Caribou traders consider them to be decently valuable tools, equivalent in trade to a good axe. I have no idea what the value is when you're talking about refined equium, as there's never been such a thing before."
"Can't ya... extrapolate?" Apple Bloom asked, hesitantly. "That's the right word, right?"
Nodding, Twilight considered it for a moment. "Well... If you consider just the value as a fuel source for existing steam engines, a few ounces of equium could replace all the coal needed by a locomotive." She pulled out a pen and parchment, running some calculations. "Figuring the number of trains in Equestria, multiplying that by the average length of trip, and accounting for the coal consumption per mile of travel and the number of trips per year. Hmm... wow! That's... Wow!"
"What? What's 'wow'?"
"That's a lot higher than I imagined. The three or four ounces of refined equium to run a train for a year would save about thirty-thousand bits in coal. And that's not counting for all the time saved in not having to continually reload at stations, and shovel the coal itself. And if you consider that the equium would probably last for many, many years as well, then it'd be worth maybe something around one hundred thousand bits, just in coal savings alone."
"So, yer telling me that marble-sized bit'a equium ya gave me to experiment with was worth more than a house?"
"I... I guess I am." Twilight looked as shocked as Apple Bloom felt. "Wait, what do you mean, 'was'?"
"Ah, never mind that for now. There's plenty more I think. Here." Apple Bloom handed the hotrocks she'd traded for over to Twilight. "How much do ya think ones like these are worth?"
Horn glowing, Twilight scanned the rocks. "Hard to say for sure, but these seem to have roughly the same concentration of equium as the samples we originally got from the Caribou. Something around eight percent or so if I had to guess."
"So, ten or twelve'a' 'em to make a fuel-sized marble bit?"
"Or less. These are larger in volume than our target size after refining."
"So that rock is worth ten thousand bits after it's refined?"
Twilight held the rock up in front of her. Hard to believe, but yet it seemed to be true. "I think so, if you can find somepony to buy it, of course. Speaking of, how did you get a hold of it?"
"Would ya believe me if I said I got both of 'em in exchange for a single candy cane?"
"From a diamond dog?"
"Eeyup. And they got thousands of 'em too. How fast do ya reckon you an' Sweetie can refine a hundred of these things?"
"Me?" Twilight asked. "It took several days to refine a single ounce. Sweetie Belle helped speed that up some, and it goes a bit faster now, but there's no way to do that much here in my lab. You're talking an industrial scale process here, Apple Bloom. You'd need a dedicated facility to process that much on a regular basis."
Apple Bloom hung her head.
On the trail from Teapot Dome.
Three hours later.
The Crusaders were walking through the fields, headed back to Headquarters from the hill that Scootaloo had christened Teapot Dome, in honor of the crashed engine. Apple Bloom had insisted on the walk, both to clear her own head, and to give her time to explain things to her friends after they'd dropped off another batch of candy with Runt.
"Ten thousand bits!" Scootaloo exclaimed. "Each? That's crazy!"
"Eeyup, but that's what Twilight said they'd be worth." Apple Bloom was still trying to wrap her own head around it. "An' that's just the saved cost in coal for trains. I reckon we can find dozens'a other places it could be used too, like if we ever get that Teapot flyin' properly. Of course, we ain't got no way to refine it all, and the raw rocks aren't worth much to anypony when they just glow a bit."
"But ten thousand bits per rock! We'd be rich. We could buy anything we ever wanted!"
"Yeah, Scootaloo," Sweetie Belle said. "But it's not ours to sell. It belongs to the diamond dogs."
"Sure, but we can trade a few candy canes and then we'll be rich!"
"That was mah plan," Apple Bloom said. "But the point was to keep 'em from poisoning themselves, not to make us rich. I figured we could trade some candy, keep 'em eatin' that instead, and get a little useful equium in the process. But if it's worth that much... that changes things a bit."
"How so?" Scootaloo worried her brow with confusion. "I mean, more money is better, right?"
"But what happens once everypony else figures out what we're doing?" Sweetie Belle said. "Just imagine what the papers would look like, 'Fillies trade candy for untold riches!' Then the next day, every swindler and huckster in Equestria would be here, trying to take everything they could for themselves. Imagine the Film Flam brothers times a thousand."
"Yeah," Apple Bloom said. "We're tryin' to help the diamond dogs, not get 'em overrun and ripped off."
"Hmm," Scootaloo said. "I guess you have a point. If we really want to keep them from eating sweetrock, we need to keep trading them candy for years and years."
"Exactly," Apple Bloom said. "So we either gotta keep equium from actually bein' valuable, or keep everypony in all'a equestria from learnin' about where it comes from."
"That's a pretty big secret to try to keep, AB."
"Ah know. Which is why I think we gotta try for the other one first."
"But how do you make something valuable not valuable?"
"Well," Apple Bloom said. "Remember what we've been learnin' in economics?"
"Ugh, don't remind me. That textbook is the most boring thing I've had to read all year!"
Apple Bloom chuckled. "Yeah, but I know ya picked up some of it, so stay with me here for a sec. The way I figure it, we got cheap supply right now from the diamond dogs, as they have no idea what hotrocks are really worth. Yet we've also got a potentially high demand for equium, replacin' thousands'a bits worth of coal every month. If we let everypony in on it, the diamond dogs get overrun and bought out, and then we got nothin' to keep 'em away from sweetrock."
"Right," Sweetie said. "But the prices will go down pretty soon after all that equium gets on the market. It won't be worth nearly as much after a few months."
"Exactly! So what we need is some kinda buffer. Somethin' to keep the market steady."
"Oh," Scootaloo added. "Like the way a water tower works!"
"You know, the water from a well gets pumped up to the reservoir in the tower a little bit at a time by the pump, but then it provides steady pressure to the rest of the pipes going into ponies' homes, even when ponies use more water than the well could provide on its own."
"Yeah, I guess that is a good analogy then."
"But it only works if the water tower gets filled up before everypony turns on their taps."
Apple Bloom smiled. "See, I knew ya were payin' attention!"
"Yeah yeah," Scootaloo said dismissively, even though she was smiling a bit. "It's still boring though!"
"So," Sweetie Belle said. "We've got the well, with the diamond dogs. I think the candy is our 'pump' then. That means we need a water tower."
"That," Apple Bloom said. "And we need the pipes to distribute it. Well, and some way to refine it. Ah guess that'd be like the water filter in this analogy."
"Doesn't the water company usually do all of that?" Scootaloo said.
"Hmm," Sweetie Belle stopped on the trail as she pondered. The other ponies stopped as well, once they realized she'd fallen behind.
"What is it, Sweetie?"
"Well, I was just thinking you're on to something there. It's going to take a pretty big facility to process all the equium the diamond dogs have. You need a company for that sort of thing. So doesn't it make sense that the same company might also provide the pipes and the water tower? That is, store up a reserve of equium, and run the distribution network?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
"But they'd have to be trustworthy," Apple Bloom added. "We have to make sure we trade candy to the diamond dogs really slowly. So they'd have to build up a reserve for a couple years before startin' to sell, and not tell anypony about it in the meantime."
"I think I might have an idea on that," Sweetie Belle said, grinning.
A rather ostentatiously large house in Ponyville.
The next day.
"Sweetie Belle? What are you... I mean, uh... Hi! What's up?"
"Hi Diamond, am I interrupting something?" Sweetie Belle said.
"Oh, no. Silver and I were just hanging out by the pool. Come in!"
Diamond Tiara led Sweetie Belle through the large house and out to the backyard and the poolside. "Have a seat," she said, motioning to the chairs under the large umbrella.
"Thanks." Sweetie took a seat, and the two were joined a moment later by Silver Spoon. She took a seat next to Diamond after drying off from a swim in the pool.
"Hello Sweetie," Silver said, squeezing the last of the water out of her braid.
"Hi, Silver. I haven't seen you in a couple of weeks. How are you doing?" Sweetie Belle replied.
"Better. It's still hard, you know, but..." Silver looked across at Sweetie. "Well, it's getting easier. At least at times. Sometimes, I even forget she's gone, and for a few minutes I feel almost normal. Then I feel awful that I could ever forget."
Sweetie nodded in sympathy. "I don't think she'd want you to feel bad, Silver. Your mom loved you, and I can't imagine she'd want you to feel guilty for moving on with your own life."
"I know, it's just..." Silver Spoon hung her head, tears starting to form in her eyes. "I just miss her so much."
Sweetie stood up and walked around the table, giving Silver a hug. "I know, and I'm sure she knows it too."
Sniffling, Silver looked up. "Thanks, Sweetie. For everything, I mean it. I don't know what I would've done without you and Diamond these past few months. My father's so distant, and..."
"We're here for you," Diamond said, leaning in to make it a group hug.
"Thank you both... I mean it." As the hug ended, Silver wiped her eyes, and tried to put on a smile. "So what brings you over here anyway, Sweetie Belle?"
"Actually," Sweetie said. "I've got a bit of a business proposition for Diamond."
"Oh?" Diamond said, "What kind of business?"
"Big. Really! It needs your father's company to pull it off."
"Why are you talking to me then?"
"Well, you said last year that he was grooming you to take over the company when you graduate. I figured that if you were to bring him a big deal now, he'd be pretty impressed, right?"
Diamond leaned forward in her seat. "And?"
Sweetie chuckled a bit nervously. "Okay, so it requires a lot of secrecy, and sounds pretty crazy at first. It'd be a tough sell. But I think you, his own daughter, would perhaps be able to convince him."
"So, how big and how crazy are we talking here?"
"Big enough and crazy enough to change the world." Sweetie looked Diamond directly in the eye. "Literally."
Diamond paused in thought for a moment. Strange how much difference a few years could make. She and Silver both used to tease Sweetie and her two friends mercilessly. But the unicorn had, against all odds and common sense, decided to befriend them regardless. At the absolute height of their teasing one afternoon, she'd... hugged them. Diamond still wasn't sure exactly why that even worked, but it broke something in her. She'd needed that hug, more than she had ever realized. After the initial shock had worn off, she started to see everypony, including herself, in a different light.
In the years since, Sweetie Belle had become a relatively close friend, to both her and Silver. Then, when Silver's mom had died in the spring, Diamond had been at a loss. She loved her friend dearly, but had so little practice in how to be outwardly compassionate. Sweetie had stepped up to fill that gap, helping Silver get through the worst of it, while Diamond in turn learned from her example, and saw what true friendship and compassion should look like. She was eternally grateful to Sweetie, both for the indirect lesson, and for saving her friend Silver from the worst of the depression.
Through the whole ordeal, she'd come to realize she could trust Sweetie Belle implicitly, despite their earlier history of animosity. The unicorn didn't hold a grudge. She was truly one of the nicest ponies Diamond had ever met, as well as one of the most forthright and honest. Never mind that she was also one of the most powerful. So when she said this idea was big enough to change the world, Diamond Tiara believed her.
"For the better, I presume?" Diamond asked.
"That's the hope."
"Just like that?"
"I can't speak for my father, of course. But I think I personally owe you more than you realize already. If you say it's worthwhile, I trust you. I'm in."
"Thanks, Diamond." Sweetie Belle couldn't help but smile. Three years ago, everypony in class, even her own friends, had called her crazy for trying to befriend the two biggest bullies. Now, not only had they stopped picking on everyone, but they'd become pretty good friends to her in their own right. So, while she logically knew it was by no means a done deal, she couldn't help but feel she'd just been granted a multi-million bit favor on the power of friendship alone. It really was magic.
"Now," Diamond said. "You mind telling me what I just signed on for?"
"That's great!" Apple Bloom said, happy to hear the news from Sweetie Belle. "Ya think she'll be able to convince her dad to go along with it though?"
"Well," Sweetie said. "Like Diamond said, it's all about profit. As long as we can prove the potential for that, the rest is just a matter of balancing the numbers. We just need to get a proper presentation together for him."
"We could show off the Teapot!" Scootaloo said, eager to help. "I bet he'd love that."
"Ah think we might want to keep it a bit more... professional," Apple Bloom said. "Besides, just the potential revenue from the railroads should be more 'en enough profit for 'im. Let's save the fun stuff for later."
"What worries me," Sweetie said, "is, even if Diamond and her dad come through, and agree to keep everything secret for a couple of years, the second they start selling, everypony in the world is gonna be trying to jump into the market too. Somepony's bound to figure out where the equium is coming from at that point."
"Yeah," Scootaloo said. "It'll be impossible to keep it a secret after ponies start using it all over Equestria."
"We got one other problem to worry about too," Apple Bloom said. "Let's not forget, the whole point'a this wasn't to start a business or change the world. The point was to keep the diamond dogs from poisonin' their kids." Sweetie and Scootaloo lost their smiles at the reminder. "Even if we pull that off, let 'em grow up healthy, they ain't gonna be able to do much with their smarter minds if they don't get some education to go with it."
Sweetie nodded. "Yeah, if this works—"
"When it works," Apple Bloom corrected.
"When it works," Sweetie continued. "There's going to be an entire generation of diamond dogs growing up, needing schools."
"Well," Scootaloo said. "There'll be plenty of bits to help pay for schools, and to hire ponies to teach them."
"But what to teach them, that's going to be the tricky thing. The basics, sure, at first. But when they get a little older, what then? When unicorns learn magic, or pegasi end up at flight school, where do the diamond dogs go?"
The conversation was interrupted by a knock at the door. "Come on in, Runt." Apple Bloom called, recognizing the unique echo of his lifeforce outside the door.
Runt stepped into the treehouse. "We were just talkin' about ya," Apple Bloom said.
"We were?" Sweetie asked.
"Close enough. Anyway, got a question for ya, Runt. What would ya do if ya had a million bits?"
"Ya know, money?"
"I don't kn-know. Is that a lot?"
Chuckling, Apple Bloom replied. "Yeah, it's a lot. What would ya do if ya had enough money to do whatever ya wanted?"
Runt scratched behind his drooping ear as he thought. "Uh, first I'd l-leave the tunnels. Get some house way h-h-high up, like this."
"You think this is high?" Scootaloo said. "You should see Cloudsdale!"
Runt tilted his head in what they'd come to recognize as a non-verbal, "What?"
"It's a pegasus city that's actually made of clouds. It's way, way up in the sky!"
Eyes lighting up, Runt said, "That s-s-sounds amazing! H-how do you g-get there?"
"Well, us pegasi just fly there. But other ponies can get up there by balloon and stuff."
"Do you th-think I could g-go sometime?"
The Crusaders looked at one another, shrugging. "I don't see why not," Sweetie Belle said. "I can probably get Twilight to teach me her cloudwalking spell. Maybe we can visit in a couple of weeks."
Runt smiled. "Th-thanks! I c-can't wait!"
"So," Apple Bloom said, getting back on track. "What else would ya do with all that money. After ya got yer own place up high somewhere?"
"Ummm... I think I'd buy l-lots of b-b-b-books. Th-there's just so mu-much to learn."
"You like learning things?" Scootaloo said.
"Have you ever thought about going to school?"
"We don't h-have schools. I r-read about them though."
"Well," Apple Bloom said. "We were thinkin' maybe ya might want to go to a pony school, at least for a bit."
"I c-could do that?"
"I don't know if—" Sweetie Belle started to say, when Apple Bloom cut her off.
"Yeah, o' course ya can."
"But Apple Bloom," Sweetie said. "I'm not sure that—"
"I said, o' course he can go to school," Apple Bloom insisted, then amended in a whisper to Sweetie, "We'll figure out the details later."