Chapter 7: The Manehatten Project
Industrial Rail Yard 359, Manehatten.
Three weeks later.
As the train ground to a stop with the slow screech of metal on metal, Sweetie Belle looked out the window. They were pulling into an ugly industrial area of some kind. A rusted fence surrounded an open yard, and beyond that were various warehouses and other buildings a couple of stories high. The yard itself was mostly paved, but some standing water remained in various potholes and cracks from a recent rainstorm. A few piles of pallets and disused barrels also stood out in the otherwise flat lot.
"Are you sure this is the right stop?" Sweetie asked, noticing other passengers looking out the windows with similar trepidation.
"Pretty sure," Scootaloo said, pointing to a building on the far side of the lot. "Look!"
Above the high doors of the warehouse was the familiar logo of the Cutie Mark Crusaders, the yellow filly silhouette in stark contrast to the blue shield she was centered on.
While her friends stared out the window, Apple Bloom had already made her way to the far end of the car, eager to be done with the long journey. She leapt to the ground before the linkages had even finished clacking and settling between the cars. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo hurried to catch up with her, and the trio were soon greeted by the unmistakable smell of the city.
To Scootaloo, it was just stale air; what happened when you let something sit too long near the ground. To Sweetie it was much the same, just the general miasma that was found in a large metro. But to Apple Bloom, it was something more.
On the one hoof, the city's smell was full of rot, of pollution, of too many ponies and not enough grass and trees. But on the other, the oily smells were those of progress, of technology and the future. Ponies crowded here, onto this otherwise useless little bit of land because this is where the world turned. Here in Manehatten, futures were written, pasts forgotten, and a pony could be anypony she wanted to be. Yes, it stank, but they put up with it because no where else in the world held such potential.
Apple Bloom looked up at the skyline in the distance beyond the rusted fences of the rail yard. Out there for miles and miles was nothing but pavement, bricks, steel, and concrete. Sure, there were a few parks here and there, the occasional garden or decorative bush, but by and large, the city was a made thing. It was hooves and horns that shaped Manehatten, not nature. The thought gave Apple Bloom shivers.
The city was, in a way, everything antithetical to her sense of life and nature, yet at the very same time, such a perfect example of life's fundamental tenacity. That Manehatten existed—that Manehatten thrived—proved that life itself could hang on anywhere. Sure, she could never live in a place like this, but knowing it was here, that somehow such an impossibly wonderfully awful thing could exist, well... She took a deep breath and—despite coughing at the smell of coal dust—smiled. At least it was always nice to visit.
Turning from the skyline and her reverie, Apple Bloom spied her cousin trotting out to meet them. "Babs!" She ran toward the greeting.
The two met and exchanged hugs, before Scootaloo and Sweetie Belle got their greetings in as well. After a few moments of small talk, Babs turned to all three of them. "So, youse guys finally found a problem ya couldn't solve on your own?"
Apple Bloom chuckled. "Yeah, well, ya said the CMC are the best at figuring out the impossible. We reckoned savin' the world might fall under that sorta category."
Babs just smirked knowingly, before turning and waving for the others to follow. "Come on you guys, lemme show ya around our fancy new headquarters!"
"Hang on," Apple Bloom objected. "We've still got gear to unload."
"Aw, don't worry 'bout that. You guys is royalty here. We've got loads of volunteers to do the heavy liftin' while I get youse settled in."
"Are you sure about that?" Scootaloo said. "I mean, some of that stuff is pretty fragile."
"Don't worry, Scoots. I already briefed everypony on the fancy stuff you guys was bringin'. Told 'em to be extra careful with all of it."
"Well, if you're sure they won't drop any of it..."
"I'm sure. Trust me, these ponies are the best at this. Heck, some of them even got their marks in logistics."
"Really?" Sweetie asked. "I thought it was all blank flanks here."
"Well, yeah, when ya join. But it's not like we just kick a pony out for getting their marks or nothin'." Babs nodded toward Sweetie's own cutie mark with a wink. "'Sides, it takes a lot of work to run this place, and I'm not gonna turn down help from anypony that wants to give it."
"Alright," Apple Bloom said. "Ya win. Just feels a mite weird lettin' other ponies do the hard work while we trot around gawkin'."
"Aww, you'll get used to it, cuz." Babs grinned. "Called bein' a manager."
Seeing all three of the Ponyville Crusaders cringe at the word, Babs found herself chuckling. "Well, if you're that worried about it, you can come supervise tomorrow when the big stuff shows up. That reminds me, how'd you get the railway to finally reopen the line anyway?"
"What do you mean?" Scootaloo asked.
"This place used to be a coal depot, offloading from ships onto rail. When it went out of business a few years ago, the railway closed the spur,” Babs explained. “I've been trying to get 'em to reopen it for over a year, ever since we moved in here, but they said no way. Apparently no profit in it. Then suddenly, I get a letter sayin' you guys is comin' and next thing I know there's a whole team of ponies workin' their way down the line inspecting and repairing things."
"Wow, really?" Scootaloo said, turning toward Sweetie and Apple Bloom. "You don't think—"
"Oh, I definitely think." Sweetie Belle said. "Remember how I said it was weird that the tickets were marked as sold through the Canterlot office, even though we requested them in Ponyville?"
"Eeyup," Apple Bloom said. "Got Celestia's hoofprints all over it. I ain't complainin' though!"
"Ya got the Queen herself pullin' strings for you," Babs said, shaking her head and smirking. "But you don't want to let another pony unload your luggage?"
"I reckon ya got a few string pullers yerself," Apple Bloom said. "Ah mean no offense, but I'm sure ya didn't just buy an entire industrial park on yer own."
"Hey, we've done pretty good here! Fundraisers now and then, a lot of alumni donate regularly. We've been goin' for years without a problem."
Apple Bloom stopped and stared at her cousin with raised eyebrows. "Really? Alumni donations got ya all this?"
Babs raised her forehooves in surrender. "Okay, ya gots me. Seems somepony with a lot of money decided the CMC was a worthy cause."
"No idea. Happened right after you guys left last time. Found a check for a million bits in the mail, completely anonymous."
Apple Bloom looked surprised. That was a lot of money out of the blue for sure. "Why didn't ya ever say anything? I know we ain't been here directly, but ya coulda put that in one a yer letters."
"Well, the check came with a note, asking that I don't say nothin' about it. Just that I use it, but try to keep it on the down low."
"That's... a bit odd," Sweetie said. "But I guess some ponies don't like being noticed, even when they're doing something nice."
"Yeah," Babs said. "And it seemed like the least I could do an' all. So I kept my mouth shut on it, and tried to make good use of the money. A few months later though, I got another check, and another. Then one day, a little more'n a year ago now, it's not a check I get, but the deed to this place, made out to the Cutie Mark Crusaders, care of Babs Seed."
"So why're ya tellin' us now," Apple Bloom said. "If it's supposed to be a secret?"
"Aww, you know me, AB. I was about to snap not telling at least somepony. I figure since youse guys is here in the flesh, then at least I ain't writing it down or nothin'. 'Plausible deniability', they call that. 'Sides, ain't like I ever signed nothin' or actually agreed to this secret stuff."
"Wow!" Scootaloo said. "That's really weird. Still though, pretty cool that somepony is giving you all that money and stuff."
"You think that’s cool?" Babs said, grinning as she opened the door to main building. "Wait 'till you see what we've done with it!"
The tour took over an hour, as Babs showed the trio through the halls, buildings, workshops, and studios of what could really only be called a campus. Though the place had been a coal and shipping yard in its former life, the Crusaders had transformed it into something wonderful. There were dorms and a cafeteria, machine shops and artist studios. There were docks at the south end, including a small drydock with a schooner under repair. The north had a three story building with a working bakery and a textile mill. In between there were seemingly endless passages and hallways and smaller rooms, all filled with blank-flanked ponies working on countless endeavors, skills, and trades. Many were foals, but quite a few were older, like Babs herself.
"I never knew there were so many grown ponies without their marks," Sweetie Belle said.
"I don't think anypony did," Babs replied. "Most of the foals are from in and around Manehatten itself. They come in after school or on weekends, and go back home to their families at the end of the day. But the older ponies have come here from all over the world. We were so spread out that nopony knew just how many of us there were until we started to gather together. Now we've got so many that we ended up needing to build dorms. It's been for the best though. The older blank flanks have basically become permanent staff, helping out with the foals, and in all the daily chores around the place. Some are are even on the payroll, like me."
Apple Bloom couldn't help but look at her cousin's flank. "Ah can't believe ya still haven't gotten yer mark, Babs."
Babs laughed. "And I still can't believe you're made of mud or whatever, or that Sweetie's got a metal paw for a forehoof."
"Ya get used to it after a while." Apple Bloom said, smiling.
"Yeah, and eventually, you get used to being a blank flank, too."
"Don't tell me you've given up," Sweetie Belle said.
"Naw, more like I've... accepted it I guess. I jus' got burnt out on tryin'."
"But..." Scootaloo said, trying to find the right words to encompass the "everything" she was waving her hooves around to indicate. "You're like, the head of the Cutie Mark Crusaders! If you're not trying to get your mark any more then... then... Well, what's it all for?"
Babs smiled, but there was a wearied look in her eyes as she did so. She'd heard this from other close friends before. "How many things did you try, before you got your mark, Scoots?"
Scootaloo laughed. "I have no idea. Seems like we were trying a dozen things a week back when we were foals."
"Right, now imagine that you were still trying that hard, all these years later."
Scootaloo opened her mouth to argue, but froze, unable to think of any reasonable retort once she properly imagined just what that might actually feel like. "I'm... I'm sorry, Babs," she said eventually, pawing at the ground awkwardly. "I guess I never really thought of it like that."
Babs snorted. "Don't be sorry for me! That's the last thing I friggin' need. I'm just sayin', I think I'm doing something pretty good in the world—which is more than most ponies can say—and at some point, it simply stopped being about getting my mark. Now when I do something, it's because it needs to be done, or even just because I want to do it. No larger goal required. In a way, I think I'd actually be a bit sad if I finally got a Cutie Mark."
"Ya really mean that?" Apple Bloom said.
"Yeah," Babs said, nodding. "I don't have a Cutie Mark, so I can be anything I want to be. I can learn whatever, do whatever, and none of it's 'wasted' because it doesn't compliment some singular 'special talent' or whatever." Babs held up a hoof to forestall the incoming objections. "Yeah yeah, I know it ain't really like that exactly, and I'll clock any o' ya that tell the youngsters I said that. But that's how most ponies treat it, and you know it. I'm jus' sayin' I don't have any pressure on me to specialize, so I can learn and do whatever I feel like. For example, would you guys believe I actually spent the better part of a year studyin' magic?"
The other three ponies all gave very incredulous looks.
"Naw, it's true! Me, an earth pony and everything. But I was still desperate back then, and after I heard about how you got your own mark, AB—how ya found all sorts of earth pony magic—well I figured I had to at least give it a shot."
"No luck though?" Sweetie asked.
"Not really. Eventually learned to make plants grow a little faster. I can sense a little bit of lifeforce stuff, but nothing like what AB can do, never mind a unicorn like you. Still though, I don't regret it. There was a ton of really interesting stuff I'd never even thought of before, and even if I can't cast spells or nothin', it's still neat to be able to look at some unicorn device and know how it works. Plus it's great for messin' with ponies' heads."
"What do you mean?" Scootaloo said. "Like pranks or something?"
"Not exactly, but... well, you know how snobby unicorns can be sometimes—no offense Sweetie—especially here in Manehatten?"
"None taken," Sweetie said. "That's Rarity's world, not mine."
"Well, just picture the look on their face when they're braggin' about some priceless magic heirloom or whatever at a party, spinning some grand story about how the ancient runes symbolize this and that, and the seventh son of a seventh son... you know the kind. Anyways, picture the look on their face when this earth pony—and a blank flank even—comes up and reads what the runes actually say. Nine out of ten times, it's a chamber pot, and the runes are just dirty jokes, or it's some vase from an old store, and the writing is just listing a price for cornmeal or something."
As the group was laughing at the thought, a teenage unicorn ran up to the group. "Hey boss," he said, addressing Babs. "We finished unloadin' da gear off da first train, but what do ya want us to do wit da big freight on da boat?"
Babs cocked her head. "The rockets and engines aren't supposed to be here until tomorrow."
"No boss, ain't that. This is some sorta big black rock thing."
Turning to the others, Babs asked, "Youse guys expecting a delivery?"
Apple Bloom shook her head. "Just the Teapot and Kettle prototypes from Ponyville tomorrow, like ya said."
Babs turned back to the errand runner, who responded before she could even say anything. "Naw, boss, this ain't no mechanical stuff. It's this big, tapered rock thing. Pointy at one end, looks a lot like a two hundred foot long version of a stalllion's—"
"Celestia!" Sweetie said, cutting the unicorn off mid sentence. "I'll give you even money that she had the obelisk shipped here for some reason."
"Even money?" Babs said. "You still owe me for the Manehatten vs. Rainbow Falls game!"
"Yeah yeah," Sweetie said, waving a hoof dismissively. "You know the Prismatics are a better horse hockey team. Manehatten only won that one on a technicality!"
"The Prismatics only made it to the finals on a technicality! Either way, you technically owe me two hundred bits!"
"Uh, boss..." the unicorn gopher interrupted. "Still need ta know where ya want us to put that big black... uhh... 'stallionhood' thing."
Rolling her eyes, Babs looked at the hapless volunteer. "Did it come with any paperwork? Shipping manifest? Receipts?"
"Oh, yeah," he said. "Got somethin' right here." His horn fritzed with some seemingly mismanaged spells as he magically searched through his saddle bags. "Ah, here it is!" A paper levitated over to Babs.
Babs read the crumpled manifest: "Transport and store only in a horizontal orientation. Ensure a north-south axial alignment whenever possible. Do not allow long axis to come within fifteen degrees of alignment with sun."
"Eeyup," Apple Bloom said. "Sounds like our obelisk."
"Shall we go see?" Babs said.
The others nodded, and the group headed out to the south docks. There, they saw a freighter with a massive black obelisk prone on the deck.
"Why'd Celestia have it shipped here?" Scootaloo pondered.
"I'm sure she thought this would be the best place for research," Sweetie replied, nodding cheerfully to Babs. "It is the thing we're trying to launch into orbit after all."
Jaw dropping, eyebrows scrunching, Babs turned to Sweetie. "That? That thing is huge! No way is something that big going to fly."
"Oh yeah?" Scootaloo said, smirking. "You haven't seen a Tea Kettle yet."
"But that thing is made of solid rock. Look how low that ship is sitting in the water. The thing must ways tons."
"Oh, many, many tons!" Scootaloo said, still smiling. "But I reiterate: You haven't seen one of the Kettles yet."
"You keep saying that, but I don't see how anything can be powerful enough to make that fly,” Babs said, still waving in the general direction of the massive piece of cargo
The conversation continued in that tone for some time, taking the party back indoors. As the argument continued, they eventually found themselves in a classroom with a blackboard. There, Scootaloo used science. It was super effective.
"So you get it now?" Scootaloo asked, looking at Babs, chalk dust covering both their upper bodies.
Babs stood back from the chalkboard, staring at the numbers for both the tested Kettle prototypes and the still-only-conceptual Cauldron designs, before finally accepting the truth of what the numbers were telling her: It just might actually work.
The sheer magnitude was still boggling though, and as the reality of that settled into place inside her mind, only one word was appropriate.
CMC Headquarters, Manehatten.
A day later.
The rest of the Ponyville shipment had come in just before noon, and Babs Seed found herself smiling to see the hard-and-fast physical versions of the mathematical concepts she'd been discussing the night before.
The Teapot Flyer was something to behold, in and of itself. Swept wings, fish-like body, and this giant, flared nozzle on the back; it was, in Babs' reckoning, a very, very elegant way to commit suicide.
The Kettles, on the other hoof, were well... another kettle of fish entirely. The two prototypes took up an entire flatbed freight car each. The bell assemblies alone were large enough for a pony—even Celestia—to step inside of. The compression chambers and turbopumps were absolutely revolutionary compared to any engineering she'd seen before. Then there was the main fuel ring. It was—and she could find no other word for it—a thing of beauty. Apple Bloom had apparently managed to engineer a near-perfect annulus made of Equium, such that it irised open and closed with finer precision than most camera apertures. Through it, water or—as Sweetie Belle had suggested—cryogenically liquefied gases could be injected and flash-heated to millions of degrees, providing enormous thrust, as well as precise throttling. A few of these really did have the potential to lift even a multi-ton stone obelisk.
After the Ponyville Crusaders had checked things over, Babs gave the order and the logistics team moved in and started removing tie-downs in preparation for offloading the engines. As Babs and the others watched and chatted, a shadow flicked across the yard, causing eyes to turn skyward. Moments later, a large chariot set down, bearing Queen Celestia herself.
"Hey Celestia, good to see ya," Apple Bloom said as the Queen stepped off her conveyance.
"A pleasure, as always, Apple Bloom," Celestia said. "And it's lovely to see you as well Sweetie Belle, Scootaloo."
"Hi!" Scootaloo said.
Sweetie just smiled.
"I trust Rupert still fares well?"
"Yeah," Scootaloo said. "Stupid little hole in the sky isn't going to throw him off."
"And Sky Chaser? How has he handled the fall of Cloudsdale?"
"Well enough," Apple Bloom said. "I mean, as well as anypony that called it home can, I reckon."
Celestia hung her head. "At least we had time to get everypony out. I do miss the grand arena though, and the pegasi architecture." She pawed at the ground, then looked up with a bright smile. "We shall rebuild it ten-fold when this is all over! It shall be the grandest sight in ponydom!"
"Hear, hear!" Scootaloo chorused.
"First though, I fear we must face our foe. Have you had time to look over the obelisk?"
The Ponyville contingent turned toward Babs, who was showing a timidness none of them had seen since they were foals.
"Umm..." Babs muttered, barely audible, as she stepped forward to address the Queen. "If it please your majesty I—"
"Nope!" Apple Bloom stepped forward, putting a hoof on Babs' chest to stop her. "Celestia," Apple Bloom said, "this is mah cousin Babs Seed. So I'm uh... invoking Apple family privilege here."
Both Celestia and Babs cast nearly identical looks of confusion at the earth pony. "Apple Family Privilege?" Celestia said. "What, pray tell, is that?"
"Ain't quite sure yet," Apple Bloom said, still standing proud. "Just made it up. But it means ya gotta treat her like ya treat me."
All around the perimeter of the yard, ponies were gasping or holding their breath. Sure, Manehatten didn't often stand on hierarchy. In fact, the working classes pretty much prided themselves on not giving a buck where a pony came from. But a queen—The Queen—was still The Big Glaring Exception. Seeing a pony act so brazen, even in defense of their beloved Boss, was a bit surprising. More surprising still, was Celestia's reaction.
"Of course," Celestia said. "I would have it no other way." She looked to Babs and motioned with a forehoof to come closer. Babs, for her part, looked mortified. "It's okay, my little pony. I may look a bit dessicated, but I assure you I have no desire for your blood."
"Blood?" Scootaloo said.
"Sorry, just got back from Transylmaneia. You try being several thousand years old and then holding a press conference there."
Scootaloo waved a hoof. "Nevermind, I don't even wanna know."
Apple Bloom stepped up behind her cousin and pushed her toward the Queen. "Go on, she just said she ain't gonna bite."
Resisting, Babs slid across the muck of the yard as Apple Bloom pushed her toward Celestia. "I'm not scared," she said in a loud whisper to her motivator. "I just don't know what to say."
"Try 'hello'," Apple Bloom loud-whispered back, as the top of her head was still pushing Babs along.
Stopping just shy of running into the Queen, Babs looked up. Before her was the pony that controlled the sun itself. The pony that ran the nation, and, at least in practical terms, the world. The pony that was, quite possibly, older than dirt itself. She stared wide-eyed up at the kind, wrinkled face, and found her mouth frozen halfway to open.
"Boop!" Celestia said, as she tapped Babs on the nose with a hoof.
Babs remained motionless, and Sweetie asked "What'd you do that for?"
Celestia seemed equally puzzled. "It's one of Luna's tricks. Doing something very un-royal-like usually breaks the ice and puts others at ease. Usually."
Apple Bloom walked around to the front of Babs and waved a hoof in front of her eyes. "I think ya broke her."
Sweetie was just about to start probing the motionless pony for spells or other magic influence when the corner of Babs' mouth started twitching. A moment, later, she broke into riotous laughter.
"You okay there, Babs?" Sweetie Belle asked after the laughter had subsided.
Shaking her head, Babs looked over with a grin. "Yeah, just... well you ever have that feeling that everything you ever thought you knew just got turned on its head?"
Sweetie smiled and raised her paw up in front of her, turning it in contemplation as she thought back to that day in the clubhouse all those years ago. "Yeah, I think I know the feeling."
Apple Bloom gave Babs a playful shoulder bump. "We've all been there, cuz. Like ya said though, ya get used to it."
"Heh, yeah!" Scootaloo said. "Now? World goes upside down? We just call it Thursday."
"What do you call it when things actually go as expected then?" Babs asked.
Scootaloo made a show of pondering this for a moment, looking to Sweetie and Apple Bloom, both of whom shrugged. "Don't know," she finally said, smirking. "It's never come up!"
The assembled ponies all chuckled at that. Celestia, laughing as well, looked around at the Crusaders, both the ones she knew, and the ones she was just meeting. She could tell she'd made the right choice in bringing the obelisk here, even though all her advisors had tried to insist on taking it to one of the various universities or other "proper" research facilities. They'd talked about how this was a one-of-a-kind event, how important it was to the fate of the world, how it needed the top ponies of the top facilities working on it, how this project was going to turn the world upside down in terms of what they understood about science and magic. They were all right, of course, and that was the problem. Anypony else she took this to would, quite rightly, consider this an astoundingly unique occurrence. But she'd brought it here, because to these Crusaders, it was just another Thursday.
"So, my little pony," Celestia addressed Babs again. "Have you had a chance to examine the obelisk?"
Babs, still chuckling slightly, turned back to the towering form of Queen Celestia. Suddenly, the alicorn seemed far less imposing, and she marveled at just how palliative laughter can be. "Yes, Ma'am," she said, with a touch of formality still in her voice. Laughter or not, this wasstill the Queen she was talking to.
"And what have you found?"
"Well, to be blunt, we've got a lot of work to do. Right now, everything is pretty theoretical. I mean, the engines we're talkin' about flyin' that thing with are just ideas, and even Apple Bloom isn't sure we can find a metal strong enough to withstand the heat. And then, even if we get it up there, we still don't have spells to send through it yet, and that's assuming the thing actually focuses as much power as we're assuming, which I personally have doubts on."
"So you don't believe it's possible?"
"Never said that, Ma'am. Just sayin' it's a lot to be worked out still. If anypony can do it though, my money'd definitely be on the ponies here." Babs' voice swelled with pride as she waved a hoof toward the ponies scattered around the yard, unloading the train, and peering surreptitiously from some of the doors and windows of the buildings. "You ain't never gonna find a more clever and resourceful bunch of ponies than the Cutie Mark Crusaders."
Celestia smiled warmly, the wrinkles around her eyes seeming to diminish slightly as she did so. "Of that, I have no doubt."
From any other pony, that would have been merely a polite formality. But from Celestia, the absolute sincerity shone through the words like the rays of sun itself. Babs stumbled in her next words as she realized the Queen of the Sun literally and honestly believed in the Crusaders as much as she herself did.
"Uhh, thanks, your majesty."
Apple Bloom frowned slightly at that, then Celestia responded, "No, thank you for doing such good things here, Ms. Seed," causing Apple Bloom to frown even more before unsubtly "coughing" the words "Apple Family" and nudging Celestia in the ribs.
"I mean, Babs..." Celestia corrected. "Thank you, Babs, for all you've done here."
A satisfied smile crossed Apple Bloom's muzzle and she stared at Babs for her response.
"Umm, glad to help... Celestia." The name felt weird on her tongue. Where she came from, the word was either something you yelled when hitting your head on a low beam, or an adjective to help illuminate just how stupid the builder of said beam must've been to put it there. It certainly wasn't the name of a pony one talked to in normal conversation.
"There," Apple Bloom said. "Ain't that better? Now we can all just act like friends."
Friends with Queen Celestia, Babs thought. This really must be a Thursday. This time though, she managed not to freeze up, and was even waving with the others as Celestia departed, leaving them to the task ahead.
2.2 Thursdays later.
The first week went by in a blur, as the ponies of the CMC poured over the engines and the designs, raided the city library researching magical theory, and generally brainstormed everything up to the radically impossible and down to just the insanely unlikely.
The work—if it could be called that—seemed to consist mostly of very dull, quiet periods of reading, calculations, and consultation, punctuated by frantic bouts of noisy debate, collaboration, and teamwork. Of course, most of those tended to end abruptly, usually when somepony realized they forgot to carry the one, seven hundred and nineteen steps ago.
Sometime in the second week, Apple Bloom was relaxing at the back of the main hall. Well, hall maybe wasn't the best word for it. It was, she felt, more like a warehouse crossed with a garage, but with seats and a podium. She suspected union meetings wouldn't look out of place in it. And maybe relaxing wasn’t the best word for it, either.
While she took a break from her own work, Apple Bloom watched the ponies across the room try to figure out a better way to forge the high temperature alloys that would be needed if the Cauldrons were to run at anywhere near their theoretical output. She marveled at just how focused, enthusiastic—and perhaps even obsessed—the rag-tag group of blank flanks became once they started to attack the challenges before them. She thought back to her younger days, and wondered if that was how she and her friends had looked to the others in Ponyville as they sought their marks. Had they had that same, manic look in their eyes for each Crusade?
Not that it was all that bad, mind you. The driven focus was inspiring for the most part, and to see so many ponies working together was always wonderful. But she couldn't shake the feeling that there was this ragged edge to everything they did; this slight hint of desperation creeping in underneath the massive enthusiasm. Was she projecting her own feelings, her own sense of worry about the dire circumstances of the world? Or was it something else? For a moment, she thought maybe it was just this city itself. Everypony she'd met from Manehatten tended to be wound a few turns tighter than she was used to. Or maybe it was just the nature of being a blank flank. Apple Bloom knew "desperation" would've been a mild term for how hungrily she'd pursued her own Cutie Mark as a foal.
She was shaken from her reverie by the approach of Babs Seed.
"Hey cuz, how's it goin'?"
Apple Bloom looked down at the pencil covered blueprints on the table. "Not great," she said. "Without magical reinforcement, the structure has to be a lot stronger than the Teapots were. That means a heavier frame. But a heavier frame means less room for other things, so then the ship becomes bigger. When the ship becomes bigger, the drag through the atmosphere gets worse. That means more heat on the skin, especially without strong pegasus air shielding. More heat means thicker, heavier skin. That means more weight, which means bigger engines, thus bigger frame, etc. Wash, rinse, repeat."
"Well, we're working on stronger metals."
"True, but I think we're nearly hittin' the limits of metallurgy. We've got metals that are strong, and with a carefully designed honeycomb, might just be light enough for a frame. And we've almost got metals that can take the heat in the engine core, but they're extremely heavy. Thankfully, those core parts are small. But the skin of the thing... you can't have honeycomb holes in your heat shielding, and I can't figure out any other way to make it light enough."
Babs tapped her chin with a forehoof for a moment. "How hot are we talking here?"
"Over a thousand degrees."
"And it needs to be very light, right?"
"Yeah..." Apple Bloom was wondering where her cousin was going with this.
"Hmm..." Babs looked around the room, searching for somepony or something that apparently wasn't there. "Be right back, cuz." She trotted hurriedly out of the room.
A moment later, Babs Seed returned, followed by two blank flanked ponies Apple Bloom didn't recognize. "Apple Bloom, this is Flurried Heart," Babs nodded toward a light blue pegasus stallion, "and Burning Sky." She finished, indicating a teenage earth pony whose bright red mane stood out in eye-searing contrast to her black coat.
"Nice to meet ya," Apple Bloom said. "It seems mah cousin here thinks ya'll might be able to help me."
The two blank flanks looked apprehensively at the Boss, then back to Apple Bloom. "Umm," Flurried Heart ventured. "What kind of a problem is it?"
"Well, you might've heard we're trying to build this sort of flying ship sorta thing, and I'm trying to figure out how to insulate it from the heat of atmospheric reentry."
"Uh, I'm afraid I don't know much about that, ma'am." Flurried Heart said. "I'm just kind of a cook, not really into that engineering stuff."
Apple Bloom wrinkled her brow. Why'd Babs go and fetch a cook? She turned to look at the young filly.
"Hey, don't look at me," Burning Sky said, blowing her mane out of her eye in a way that reminded Apple Bloom of a much younger Babs. "I do art and stuff. I'm no brainiac!"
Babs rolled her eyes. "Yes, Sky, I know that. But what kind of art do you do?"
"Umm, the awesome kind? Duh!"
Sighing, Babs tried one more time. "Can you just humor me for a sec, okay?"
"Sure, why not."
"So why don't you tell Apple Bloom what you're working on."
"Well, it's this really cool glass sculpture thing. Only, I mean, you've seen glass works before, I'm sure, but like... I found that if you drop hot glass in water, it comes out with all these really awesome colors in it. But it always comes out in ugly shapes. So I've been working on trying to do that, but keep it in the shapes I want for a sculpture."
Apple Bloom was intrigued. She'd noticed that effect herself one time when she'd accidentally melted some lab equipment, but... "I'm not sure how that relates to the problem at hand, though it sure does sound interesting."
Babs took a breath, mentally stepping into her role as teacher. "Remind me, Sky, how hot does glass get when it's melted."
"Oh yeah, like, super hot. Actually, that's part of the problem. The hotter the glass is when I drop it in water, the more of the color effect I get. So I've been trying to build a better kiln to..." The youngster's eyes lit up as she realized the connection.
Apple Bloom leaned forward, her own mind now seeing the connection as well. "So what were you building your kiln outta?"
"Umm, bricks. All the kilns I've seen are bricks, but some of them crack and stuff when you get them that hot. So I've been having to work a lot to try and figure out what kind of clay makes the best bricks so I can make a kiln to go way hotter."
Could you cover a space ship in bricks? Apple Bloom wondered. It sounded crazy at first, but... technically bricks were lighter than metal, and certainly worked well in fireplaces and such. But any normal brick would still be far too heavy for insulation.
"How heavy are these bricks you've been testing?"
Sky quirked an eyebrow. "How'd you know the weight mattered?"
"Of course it matters. This thing has to fly."
"I mean, for me. I found that the lighter a brick is, the more heat it can take."
A smirk grew on Apple Bloom's face. "How light?"
"Umm, I guess the best ones were probably about..." Sky looked around, finding an empty mug and hefting it in her hoof. "About this heavy."
Apple Bloom took the mug and judged it's weight. "And how big were they?"
Sky mimed a rectangular space about the size of a typical fireplace brick. So, lighter, but still too heavy.
"How much lighter do you think you can get it?"
"That's the problem. I got to that point a few months ago, and I've been stuck ever since. Everything lighter I've tried to mix up for clay either turns to dust in the kiln or seems to sink down and compress by the time it comes out, like it's some kind of bad soufflé or something."
Now Flurried Heart's eyes lit up. "Like a soufflé, you say? Très bon! Maybe I can help after all."
Resisting the urge to laugh outright, Apple Bloom still couldn't help but smile. Babs had known exactly who to bring together for this problem, even if neither of the two had seen it themselves. It was, she reflected, eerily reminiscent of Celestia's own nearly-transparent meddling.
"You really think so?" Burning Sky said, excitement plain in her voice. "I've been so frustrated with this!"
"Well," Heart said. "I can't promise much, but I can at least promise you I know how to properly cook a soufflé. Maybe it'll help?"
"Why don't the two of ya go off and get started?" Babs said. "Keep in mind we need these bricks for a rocket now, not just a kiln, so the lighter the better, okay?"
"You got it, boss!" Flurried Heart said, while Burning Sky managed only a squee and a rapid nod before trotting off.
"So," Apple Bloom said, after the two had departed. "How'd ya know them two would be the ones ta talk to?"
"Honestly?" Babs began.
"Yeah, yer soundin' a bit like the Queen herself, if ya don't mind me sayin' so. How'd my dumb ol' cuz ever get that wise?"
Babs broke out in laughter. "I don't think anypony's ever stooped to call me 'wise' before, especially one that knows I ain't."
"Well, it's a mighty fine act yer pullin' off then."
"Ha, well... just so you know, all I did was think abouts it literally. Ya said it gots to be hot, and it gots to be light. So I just thought through all the projects I'd seen ponies workin' on, and figured melted glass was the hottest, and some of the cotton candy Heart makes must be the lightest. Figured I'd smash their heads together, see what came out."
"So we got lucky?"
"Nah, ain't no such thing as luck. You know that, AB. But when you spend time around so many ponies getting their marks, you realize there's kind of a pattern to it. It always seems like luck, or coincidence for that one single time, but if it happens for every single pony that ever gets her mark, and you see it happen time and time again, then... I don't know, but nothin' that predictable gets to be called 'luck', at least not the way I sees it."
"So it's, what, 'fate' or somethin'?"
"It's certainly somethin' alright, but I wouldn't say fate. I probably could've thrown a couple of darts at the roster, and no matter what ponies I got, they would've figured something out. If anything here's 'fate' then it's that I wanted a snack last week and ended up with some deliciously fluffy cotton candy, so that was on my mind when you said 'light'."
Looking at her cousin, Apple Bloom pondered what she'd just said. Though the tone was joking, she realized Babs actually meant every word literally. She honestly did believe that randomly picking from the roster would've resulted in just as good of a potential solution. That was... weird. And she said so.
"You get used to it," Babs said, smirking. "But seriously, think about it. Have you ever heard a story about a pony getting their mark that was not full of seemingly impossible coincidence?"
There was Apple Bloom's own story, of course, so she dismissed it out of hoof, as her very existence was kind of an impossible coincidence to begin with. Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo were disqualified for the same reason. Then she thought back to the stories her sister and the other Elements had shared, and all six of them were not only impossible in their own rights, but also shared amazing coincidences as well. But they're the Elements of Harmony, they're kind of unique as well. Then there was Celestia, and Luna... but they're atypical too, being alicorns and all. Wait, did she even know any "normal" ponies?
Well, of course. Maybe not as well, but certainly as friends over the years. There was Bon Bon, and... well, it wasn't really impossible, but it was unlikely. Then Lyra, of course, but... okay, her's was downright impossible. In fact, Apple Bloom had assumed it was simply made up to try and support Lyra's other crazy theories. Octavia and Vinyl? No, their stories intertwined as well. Wow, Apple Bloom thought, Ponyville really is full of some odd characters.
Wait, her own family! Nothing was more down to earth than the Apple Family. Granny Smith got her mark with... Oh, right, and then that leads to lightning-based apples, sapient squash, and singing to watering cans. And Big Mac... well, that one actually seemed plausible enough, unless you actually knew Big McIntosh yourself, in which case it was even less plausible than the squash.
"Okay, I give up, ah can't."
Babs nodded knowingly. "So I gots this theory, see. Cutie marks are magic, yeah, and getting them is one of the more magical parts in a pony's life. But before that, this cutie mark magic is just kinda runnin' around in their veins, all wild and untamed, like electricity in a storm cloud. It's all creativity and ideas and inspiration, but with no focus. When a pony finds her mark though, it's because she finally latched on to some thread of that, and pinned it down, and held onto it long enough."
"Like a rodeo."
"Yeah, like that. So when she holds on strong enough, when she rides the lighting and finds some focus, the magic kinda snaps into place, like a bolt from a cloud that's been grounded. That first connection is made, and all the rest of the energy comes pouring down the same path. It burns a mark of whatever pattern it was when it hits, but that pattern is there because that's the thread the pony herself chose to hold on to."
"I guess that makes as much sense as anything else ah heard."
"Right, so the way I sees it, putting a bunch of blank flanks together is like gathering storm clouds. The energy builds and builds, and while one cloud maybe didn't have enough to reach the ground, together, sometimes it works, and these bolts form, and maybe it's together, or maybe one cloud borrows a bit from another for a moment, but still makes it on its own. Anyway, point is a place like the CMC, well, there ain't no place in the world with the raw creative energy like we gots here. So, it's real easy to set off a spark. The tiniest nudge, and the cutie mark magic finds its way through."
Apple Bloom nodded, beginning to appreciate the analogy.
"So yeah," Babs continued. "It always seems impossible, like it came out of nowhere when it happens. But so do bolts of lightning when you don't realize you're in the middle of a storm."
"Ya know," Apple Bloom said, a warm smile crossing her face. "In all our years of crusadin', I don't reckon I ever thought much about what a cutie mark actually was, just knew I had to get mine, an' soon. Hearin' ya explain now, well... I'd say that's a downright beautiful analogy, Babs."
"Aww, shucks..." Babs said, imitating her cousin's country accent.
Not to be outdone, Apple Bloom countered, "Hey, don't makes me take it back, ya schmuck."
With a menacing giggle, Babs stuck out her tongue and made a raspberry. "Oh, you'll regret that, blank flank!" Apple Bloom said, as fair warning before she dove for a tackle. "Bring it, ya stick in the mud!" Babs responded.
Apple Bloom froze just as she was about to pounce, and found herself chuckling. "Okay, that one was pretty clever, so I'll give you a two second—" Before she could finish, "head start," Babs had already leapt at her. Both ponies grinned like little fillies as the wrestling match commenced.
One Month(-ish) Later.
The Ponyville Crusaders were in a small classroom, chatting amiably amongst themselves after another long day of attempted problem solving. Sweetie had been working steadily with several of the more magically adept and/or inclined crusaders, trying to resolve the exact thaumaturgical parameters of the obelisk. Meanwhile, Scootaloo had been alternating between the mechanical design teams, and the more general (usually pegasi) groups, who were brainstorming some more unorthodox ways to fly a multi-ton stone into space, in case the purely scientific approach failed. Apple Bloom was... well, she was just glad to not be doing whatever she'd been doing for a couple of hours and just talk with her friends.
The trio were interrupted by the sound of clattering, sliding hooves in the hallway. Looking up, a bright red mane slid around the corner and the filly attached to it rushed into the room.
"We did it!" Burning Sky exclaimed, her smile bright enough that it threatened to outshine even her mane. "It worked!"
She was followed a moment later by a much more sedate, but still grinning, Flurried Heart.
Apple Bloom turned to the pair, optimistic. "What, the bricks?"
"No, better!" Sky declared, holding up what looked like a pink piece of tattered blanket.
"What's that?" Scootaloo asked, not really aware of the project. "I thought AB said you were working on some kind of space brick."
"Yeah, but... then this happened!"
Apple Bloom looked toward Flurried Heart, who was still smiling, but took the prompt. "It's something we came up with together," he explained. "It's spun fibers made of—"
"Just let me show 'em!" Sky interrupted. "You, unicorn," she said, pointing at Sweetie Belle. "Make a candle or fire or something!"
Eyes rolling suspiciously toward Apple Bloom, as she knew this was somehow the mud golem's fault, Sweetie none-the-less couldn't resist the young mare's enthusiasm. She lit her horn, making a small, candle sized flame a couple of paces in front of her.
Burning Sky rushed forward, and stretched the weird blanket over the fire, revealing an ice cube that'd been wadded up within. As the ponies watched, the bottom of the blanket took on a darker hue, soot building on the fibers there, yet it didn't catch fire. More impressively, the ice cube on top seemed to be unscathed as well, melting only as slightly as one might expect for the room's temperature.
The longer Sky held the blanket over the flame, the more rapt the attention of the others became. After nearly a minute, Scootaloo finally broke the silence. "Okay Sweetie," she said, standing and walking toward the demonstration. "Very funny, you really had me going. I almost thought that was a real fire for a—" Her speech was interrupted as she'd reached toward the flame, only to recoil at the heat she had knowncouldn't actually be there.
"I'm as surprised as you are," Sweetie Belle said. "I assure you, I'm not faking this for them. I don't know how, but that blanket is blocking all the heat, and without any magic I can sense."
Burning Sky turned toward Flurried Heart, "See, I told you they'd be totally surprised!"
"Okay," Apple Bloom said. "I'm impressed. Can I take a look?"
Sky hoofed her the blanket. "Careful, it'll still be hot on the underside for a minute."
Apple Bloom ran her hoof over the material. It was loose, like unpressed felt, yet it wasn't made of any fiber she'd seen before. "What is it?"
"Glass!" Sky responded, her uncontrollable grin leading now to mild pronking. "It's nothing but glass!"
Apple Bloom bent and flexed the blanket. It was amazingly pliable and really felt nothing like the cold, brittle nature of glass she was used to. As she examined the fibers more closely though, they did have a sheen to them and a bit of translucency that seemed to bely their origin.
"Okay, someone want to clue me in here?" Scootaloo said. "How'd you make a fuzzy blanket out of glass?"
"Well, we were discussing—" Flurried Heart started, but was cut off yet again by the young mare.
"Cotton candy!" she exclaimed, her joyful pronking now orbiting Flurried Heart. "Show 'em! Show 'em!" she squealed.
"Show us what?" Sweetie Belle asked, seeing nothing else the two had brought.
Landing firm, as though the ground had suddenly become covered in glue, Sky pointed at the hock of the pegasus. There, on his blue coat, was a mark, showing a fluffy pink heart.
"Oh, congratulations!" Apple Bloom said, and her friends echoed the sentiment. "So tell us what happened."
"Well..." he began, then paused, looking suspiciously toward Burning Sky.
"What?" she said. "I totally can be quiet sometimes, you know."
The pegasus just rolled his eyes at the dubious statement, but continued. "We spent several weeks trying to treat clay bricks like soufflés, and while we made some progress, it wasn't going all that well. Bricks don't rise quite the same way. But a few days ago, we were taking a break, and Sky followed me into the kitchens. I wanted something sweet, and pulled out the cotton candy machine, figuring it was time to restock the snack bar anyway."
"Ooh, and then—" Sky cut herself short at a stern look. "I, uh mean, why don't you tell it."
"As I was saying, I'd pulled out the machine, and then started preparing the sugar for it. Sky saw me pouring a bunch of sugar into the pot to melt things, and commented 'That looks just like the sand and shards that go into glass.'"
Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle both smirked, the dots connecting in their heads. Scootaloo though, said the literal thing. "But sugar isn't pink!"
"Heh," Flurried Heart chuckled. "Nor is glass. But a little coloring makes it more appetizing, so we dye it."
"Wait, why would you want glass to be appetizing?"
"No, I meant the sugar."
"But why's the glass pink then?"
Flurried Heart rubbed his temples. It was like another Sky in the same room, and he wasn't sure if his patience could take it. "Sky?" he prompted. After all, why not fight fire with fire.
"Oh, so yeah! It's pink because it makes it show up easy. We kept losing it when it was mostly kinda clear white-ish invisibleness."
"But why pink?" Scootaloo said.
"I just said, to make it show up!"
"But why not some other color."
"Oh! Umm, because that's what coloring I had lying around from my sculpture project. It was going to be a Princess Cadence, rampant, after she flew and caught the crystal heart and snatched it from Sombra. The heart was why I wanted the multi-color glass-dropped-in-water look, as it'd be all the colors."
"Oh, cool!" Scootaloo finished simply. The entire exchange had taken only a couple of seconds, both ponies talking earnestly and quickly in a way that few, save Pinkie Pie herself, could. The rest of the ponies in the room felt just a tad woozy, like they'd been trying to follow a tennis match at supernatural speeds.
"So," Sweetie Belle ventured, after proper silence had a moment to pervade the room. "Do you think it'll work?"
Apple Bloom rubbed the sample between her hooves one more time. "It ain't what I was expectin' in the slightest, but... I reckon it just might do."
A subdued, yet high pitched tone of glee came from somewhere inside the black and red filly, and she resumed her pronking.
Meeting Hall, CMC Headquarters.
Three days later.
The hall was nearly full, with ponies of all ages and types milling about, talking excitedly in small, rapidly changing groups. It was loud, but the excited, interesting kind of loud you find at charity rallies, certain outdoor music festivals, and really good faculty parties.
Putting a hoof in her mouth, Babs Seed whistled loudly from her place behind the podium. The fervor in the room calmed down, and the ponies turned to face her.
"Alright blank flanks, listen up!" Her words, while offensive on the surface, seemed to hold nothing but respect in the ears of those listening. "We've been at this nearly a full season, and it's time to shake things up. As the saying goes, 'If at first you don't succeed, skydiving's probably not for you.'"
A few of the younger Crusaders chuckled.
"Yes, it's mostly a joke, but one with a very real grounding. If you've been trying the same thing repeatedly and without result, then it's probably not your special talent. Likewise, if you've been at the same problem for the past few months here, then now is the time to ask for help, or to give up and move onto something else."
There was a murmur of assent in the crowd. Most all of them had heard this speech before, as the Boss gave it every time she seemed to think things had fallen into a rut. A few had found it frustrating, being kicked off projects they thought they were doing well enough on, but most tended to focus on how there was always an uptick of "graduations" in the weeks following a shake up.
"So today," Babs continued, walking back and forth on the "stage" in an almost military fashion. "As we have a single project for most all of us, we're doing things a bit differently. This is important. It's about more than just finding your marks. So, instead of simply telling you all to move on and try something new, you get one last chance to beg for help if you think you're close. Come up here, explain your problem, and let's see if it resonates with any other pony. Who knows, the answer could be just waiting in this crowd!"
Sitting in the back, Sweetie Belle had to admire the leadership skills. Babs seemed, at close range, like the same pony they'd always known. But seeing her stand up in front of these hundreds of other ponies, taking charge and inspiring them, well that was something else. Sweetie looked to her side, catching Apple Bloom's gaze, and knew she was thinking the same thing. Then Scootaloo caught her eye as well, and she could swear, even the less-than-introspective pegasus must be feeling it too. Babs and these other ponies really were the actual Cutie Mark Crusaders. The three of them, well... they just happened to get the ball rolling, but were no more than the snowflake that started the avalanche.
"Okay, who's first?" Babs shouted, as her speech ended. Despite the enthusiasm of the crowd however, there was no rush to admit defeat. "Anypony?" Babs finally said. "Come on, I know some of yous guys need help."
There was a sound of small hooves, and a unicorn colt walked up to the stage. He looked very young, even by CMC standards.
"Well, hello there Rolling Thunder," Babs said, as she helped him onto the stage. "Don't be shy." The colt climbed up, and then turned to face the crowd. He was really far too young to be in the CMC, but his older brother had been coming frequently, and no one had seen a reason to object to the little brother tagging along. No harm in letting him speak now. In fact, it'd be good to encourage the more shy of the older ponies to do so as well.
"I..." he began, faltering at the sound of his own voice in the now silent room.
"It's okay," Babs whispered, kneeling beside him. "Go on."
"I've, uh, been trying to, uh... make bubbles of water, so fish can fly."
A few glances were exchanged in the crowd, but no pony said a word.
"But it doesn't seem to work. The fish fall out of the bubble, and land on the floor, and then they have to go back in the tank and rest so they don't get too tired before next time."
"And that's the problem you need help with?"
The colt nodded rapidly.
"Okay, everypony... any ideas how to make fish fly safely in water bubbles?"
The room was silent, so Babs picked up the slack. "Are you sure the fish want to fly?" she asked.
"Umm," Rolling Thunder answered. "I don't know."
"Well, why are you trying to make them fly?"
"So I can be friends with them!" the colt responded eagerly. "They're so pretty and if they're flying then I can see them up close and be with them!"
Smiling, Babs put a hoof on the colt's shoulder. "Well, maybe if you want to visit your friends, you should try going to their home, instead of making them come to yours."
The young colt's eyes lit up. "You mean, like... like make air bubbles I could go in, and maybe go underwater and see all the fish that way?"
"If you think you'd want to, it does seem like it might be easier. After all, lots of ponies like swimming, but I've never seen a fish learn to fly."
Smiling, Rolling Thunder turned and hugged Babs. "Thanks miss boss lady!" he said, before trotting off the stage.
"Alright, who's next?" Babs asked the crowd. "Come on, there are no dumb problems, only dumb ponies who don't ask for help."
A somewhat older stallion walked up to the stage, and began explaining the problems he was having developing a navigation method that didn't rely on ground-based position. A number of hooves went up as he asked for help, and ideas started flowing. Babs Seed wandered away from the stage and toward the back of the crowd. Now that the ball was rolling, she figured to let things take their course.
As she sat in the back, she listened, and in her own mind started cataloging the problems they still had to overcome if they had any chance of success. Space was hard. Really hard. And there were a lot of things to overcome if they were going to get up there and attack Nemesis on his own turf, but hearing some of the ideas spawning even now, gave her infinite hope that it wasn't only possible, but that it would actually happen.
Then Sweetie Belle took the stage.
Most of the assembled ponies had seen her around, but there were still a few hushed whispers at the sight of her metal paw. For her part, Babs was more worried about what intractable problems the unicorn's team had run into than her appearance. Sweetie had been decidedly non-committal in their conversations, expressing uncertainty about the magical portions of the plan and the obelisk, but nothing either confirming or denying the feasibility of the plan.
"So I'm afraid I have bad news," Sweetie Belle said. "As many of you know, we've been studying the obelisk recovered from Saddle Arabia, intending to use it as a conduit through which to attack Nemesis and the Hole. The studies have proved exceedingly difficult, as the device itself absorbs and nullifies magic. We have, however, finally determined what we believe are outside limits to its power, range, and functionality."
Yeah, Babs thought, this didn't sound good at all.
"Bottom line," Sweetie paused, then hung her head. "It's simply not enough. Even if we channeled as much spell energy into it as possible before the device itself imploded—and keep in mind we're still unsure how or even if we can generate that kind of energy—the effective thaumaturgical energy reaching the sun would be at least a full order of magnitude below what we estimate is necessary to penetrate the corona and reach the horizon of the Hole itself with even the most simplistic and robust spell."
Hooves shot up around the room, and Sweetie pointed to a mare near the front.
"But if even some of the energy reaches it, couldn't we fire repeatedly?" The mare asked. "Wear it down?"
"Good thought, but unfortunately that won't work. We need to deliver a coherent spell inside the aura... the horizon, of the Hole so that..." Sweetie noticed confusion on the mare's face, along with the faces of many others. "Okay," she said, "let me back up."
"So a quick primer on magical combat, and spells in general. First, know that there are two main components to a spell, at least in general analogy, though there's a lot of crossover when you get into the finer details." Sweetie shook her head, trying to avoid the tangent. "There is the spell energy, which is a sort of carrier wave or conveyance. This is the energy you see when powerful magic is cast. The second, and more important part, is the spell itself. This is, technically the same sort of energy, but woven and wound together in a kind of self-sustaining form. This is the part that 'does the thing' the spell is designed to do. It's the virus inside the needle."
Sweetie Belle surveyed the crowd again. Many unicorns were nodding, but most of the earth ponies and pegasi still had furrowed brows and tilted heads.
"Think of it like this," she tried. "What we're trying to build is a poisoned spear. The spear is the huge energy we're using to send the spell all the way to the sun. The poison is the spell itself. It's tiny, but if it gets through the defenses, it can defeat the whole thing. But if it doesn't get through the armor, then no matter how many times we poke, it doesn't do any good."
More heads were nodding now, so she continued. "Actually, it's worse than that. If we don't get through, then any magic that does reach the horizon gets absorbed, and actually makes Nemesis stronger. That's what the obelisks have been doing all this time, basically feeding raw magic to the Hole."
Another hoof went up, and Sweetie called on the colt it belonged to.
"But I heard you think there are more obelisks out there. Can we combine them somehow?"
"Great question," Sweetie said, "that's actually what we've been trying to work on most recently. Ignoring for a moment that we don't even know for sure where the others are, we do estimate we'd need at least two more. The problem is that, at the distances these devices are meant to operate, the thaumic wavelengths are huge."
"And that means that to have them operate in phase with the proper harmonics, they need to be separated from each other by exactly a powers-of-nine multiple of that wavelength and a ninth-root of the distance to the target."
"In non-unicorn please!" Apple Bloom shouted from the back.
"Heh, sorry," Sweetie Belle said, blushing slightly. "I do tend to get caught up in the math. Which is pretty hairy, let me tell you. But the least common denominator of all that is something around forty miles."
"Space is huge!" Scootaloo offered. "We can place them a hundred miles across, or even a thousand!"
"Not if we want to keep them in sync. To even attempt this, we'd need some very complex runic structures connecting all three devices. The timing has to be perfect—we're talking less than a thousandth of a second in tolerances or even tighter. It'd be almost impossible for three separate unicorns to cast spells identical enough in the first place. Having them do so with sub-milisecond timing really would be impossible. And that's assuming a single unicorn could even cast a spell powerful enough on their own."
"Not even you?" Scootaloo said earnestly. Her friend was the most powerful unicorn she knew.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Sweetie smiled as she said it. "But yes, that's quite beyond me. I suspect not even the Queen in the height of her power could cast a spell strong enough. No, this will have to be a ritual casting of some kind involving many, many ponies, and we'll need a runic structure channeling it through all the devices simultaneously."
An earth pony near the middle of the crowd spoke up. "How big do these 'structures' have to be? And what do they have to be made of? I'm thinking maybe we could string wires between them or something?"
Sweetie Belle did some quick math in her head. "If we want to carry enough energy to maximize the devices' output potential, then it'd need to be roughly the same thaumic inductance as the obelisks themselves. That means... well if it was something with high load capacity like pure platinum, maybe twenty feet in diameter. If it was more typical metals or the obsidian of the things themselves, then it'd need to be almost the same diameter as the obelisks in order to carry the same potential."
"Well, never mind then." The earth pony said. "Forty miles of platinum as wide as a hallway. That sure isn't flying."
"Forty miles times three," Scootaloo corrected. "So, more weight than every building in all of Manehatten combined."
Every pony pondered that number for a second, and there was a nearly palpable drop in enthusiasm.
"So," a cheerful voice piped up. "All we have to do is figure out how to fly Manehatten into space?"
Sweetie looked down and saw Burning Sky grinning like an idiot at her, but the smile was rather infectious.
"Well, that, and locate the other obelisks, and find a way to generate enough energy to power this whole idea in the first place. Oh, and then figure out what kind of actual spell can defeat our foe in the first place."
"Well, yeah, duh! Of course those things. But if we can put a city in orbit, then those should be like, super easy by comparison, yeah?"
Sweetie chuckled, as did a few others. "Yeah, by that standard, I suppose they are. So, how do we go about doing that first one then?"
Burning Sky made a show of thinking hard for a moment, her red mane falling away from her eyes as she tilted her head and scrunched her eyebrows in feigned thought. "No idea!" she cheerfully concluded. "But this time last week, I had no idea you could make an ice cube fireproof with cotton candy made out of glass either!"
Near the back of the room, Apple Bloom leaned over toward Scootaloo. "Her enthusiasm remind you of anypony?" she whispered, thinking back to how the pegasus always dragged her and Sweetie into the most ridiculous things, just with how excited she was to try them.
"Yeah, I know what you mean." Scootaloo said. "She squeaks just like Sweetie Belle used to when she got excited."
"Or there's that."
Babs Seed, not too far away, overheard the two, and chuckled slightly. Apple Bloom herself had been known to be overly enthusiastic as well, plenty of times. She supposed every pony is just a bit blind to their own self in some ways. Still though, at least they were all smiling thanks to Sky's rather infectious enthusiasm.
The idea itself was even a bit comical, just imagining an island full of ponies floating in the black of space, rather than the blue of the ocean, the light of the moon showing confused faces as they struggled to figure out which way was up and which was down. The... Wait a minute.
Babs rewound her thoughts and the other problems she'd cataloged from the meeting. It really would all be pretty easy to solve if they could just put Manehatten in space. Building a 40-mile wide runic structure would be no more difficult than the typical city works project. Exact positioning would be as easy as surveying and grading a road or the cornerstone of a building. There'd be plenty of room for all the casters needed for any rituals, and even places for everypony to sleep and eat while working. It'd all be so easy if they just had a city in space. But flying an island into orbit would be impossible, no matter how big the engines they tried to make. And it's not like there was any land they could just stake a claim on and start building. Space was just that, space. Empty. Nothing up there but the stars, the sun, and...
Babs Seed felt her eyes go wide, as her mind ran a million miles an hour looking for the catch. No, it'd work. Well, it just might work, but... but... no... it could actually work! She dashed to the front of the room and up on stage.
"The moon!" Babs shouted, her face full of a manic excitement like few had ever seen. "We build it on the moon!" She dashed off stage and dragged a rolling chalkboard back with her, and started sketching. "We put the obelisks in formation on the far side of the moon, then we can connect them with whatever scale of runic structure we need to."
Sweetie, still on stage and a bit surprised, felt her own smile growing. "Yes, of course! Lunar basalt is actually a pretty decent substrate. Not quite obsidian, but I've worked with far worse!"
"And we can tunnel!" a voice shouted from the crowd. Eyes turned toward a red colt, and several saw a twinkle as a mark with a pickaxe appeared on his flank. "We can tunnel between them and put runes in the tunnels. It'll be hard work and take time, but we'll have air to work in that way."
"Yes!" Another voice shouted. "It'll be slow, but we can build all the stuff we need underground. We can even grow food there!" There was a twinkle, and a domed greenhouse appeared on her flank.
"Right," Babs said, rejoining the thread. "And then we tunnel though the moon!" She sketched tunnels going around the moon to the near, planet-facing side, and converging on another structure there. "To the receiver!"
There was another twinkle in the crowd, and a dark green unicorn mare spoke up. "The ritual! We can have it here on the ground, when the moon is right overhead. We can't hit the sun from the ground, but we can hit the moon! And then structures there will amplify and focus it into the sun!"
There were more flashes of light, and several ponies spoke up simultaneously.
"The runes could—"
"If we place lines between—"
"—then we just have to—"
Those involved quickly congregated and were soon talking hurriedly amongst themselves.
"But we're talking months if not years of work," Babs said to the remaining crowd, as more flashes of light pinged from the ponies talking rituals. "We'll be trying to live there."
"We'll need plumbing." A young mare said, her face set in a very determined grin. "Space plumbing!" A twinkle and then there was a pipe wrench with strange, floating rings hovering around its grip.
"And space toilets!" A colt said from not too far away. The two locked eyes, and there was a flash, resulting in what could only be described as a "space toilet" appearing on his flank. They dashed off to a corner where, a pony presumed, the pair proceeded to plan proper plumbing.
A few minutes later—which felt like either seconds or days, depending upon your perspective— Babs turned away from the chalkboard, and surveyed the room. The twinkles and flashes had slowed to one every few minutes now, and more and more ponies had joined into groups and started excitedly and earnestly discussing plans for building a city on the moon, or as it seemed many were already calling it, "The Manehatten Project."
Babs could feel the raw magic of creativity permeating the room. It was... well, it was more fantastic than her wildest dreams. It was like she'd told Apple Bloom, all this energy, pent up, seeking a way out, and then that slightest spark, and the storm began. It was a Cutie Mark Cascade, unlike anything the world had probably ever seen before. She estimated at least half the ponies in the room had gotten their marks in the past twenty minutes.
But it wasn't just numbers that had made it so amazing. Nor was it the sheer joy and excitement radiating from all the new graduates. It was more than that as well. It was the new marks. There were a lot of cutie marks in the world, but for some reason, a vast number of them tended to be shared, or at least share some common iconography. For example, there were a huge number of marks with musical notes in them, Sweetie Belle's included. There were also large numbers of hearts, plenty of gems, and almost all tools were represented strongly too. The number of tinkerers, repairponies, mechanics, and similar who had a screwdriver or maybe a slide rule in their marks was staggering. But to the best of her knowledge—and Babs conceded without ego that she may be the most knowledgeable pony ever on the subject—there'd never before been a mark with a rocket engine in it. Now there were at least three in this very room. Likewise, the odd "space wrench" mark she'd directly seen manifest, as well as at least a half dozen other genuinely new symbols and concepts she'd seen.
Lastly, and this was the most curious part of all, was that the marks seemed to pay no attention at all to tribe. There were pegasi now bearing runes, stars, flames or other magic symbols, as well as foods, flowers, and tools normally found with earth ponies. Then there were unicorns with wings and rainbows and other weather, as well as plants and even animals. And then there were earth ponies with any mix of the above.
Nowhere was this contrast more stark than with Burning Sky, whose mark seemed to embody all three traditions. On the earth filly's night-black flank was now emblazoned the chromatic form of a glass pony rising ascendant. The pose was one echoed frequently, being similar to Celestia's own silhouette during the Summer Sun celebration. This radiant figure rose not before the sun however, but before the crescent moon, and she did so on wings made of pure, bright flame.
Looking over the room again, Babs Seed sighed in contentment and put down her chalk. It'd probably take the next few weeks just to catalog and record all the breakthroughs happening around her, and even longer to chronicle the actual details of each mark. She noted a few ponies in particular she wanted to talk to first though, Sky included, before Apple Bloom sidled up next to her.
"Quite a show ya just put on there, cuz." Apple Bloom said. "It always this hectic?"
"Heh, I wish."
"I've never seen so many ponies get their marks before."
Apple Bloom noticed Babs glance subtly at her own flank. "I saw that," she said.
"I'm sorry you still didn't get yours."
"Oh that..." Babs let out another sigh, and gave up the facade. "You know, just for a moment, I almost thought it might be possible again. That maybe, just maybe, I'd end up with some mark for a city on the moon, or at least, a mark for getting everypony else their marks." Babs put on a weak smile.
"I'm sorry, cuz. Ya know I'd do anything to help if I could."
"I know, AB. And for what it's worth, thanks."
Apple Bloom just nodded.
"You know," Babs said. "It's still pretty exciting, whether I got my own mark or not."
"Ah think you might be understatin' things a mite bit."
Turning to her cousin, Babs grinned and started laughing a bit. "Holy crap, AB, we're gonna build a friggin' city on the friggin' moon! How crazy is that!?"
"Well Babs, what can ah say?" Apple Bloom gave a lopsided grin. "Welcome to Thursdays at the CMC!"
Almost nine months... I am so incredibly sorry it took that long. Also, in hindsight, I regret that I somehow planned this for April Fools' Day. As you can hopefully now see, it was no joke, but a legitimate update. Although, as I originally set out to subvert as many tropes as possible (from giant, super-evil, 6-winged demons, to every-pony-is-an-alicorn-princess) releasing a non-joke update on April Fool's Day seems to be right on par. I think Discord (and Fluttershy, Lady of Chaos) could appreciate that nuance!
Also, it's only a few days before BABSCon (I'll be there, click that link!), so... Well, this is Babs' first chapter, AND she's got theories about Cutie Marks. I figured I needed to offer those up as canon fodder before the season five premier this weekend!
I can't promise anything for the next chapter, save that it WILL happen. I know I'm not the most punctual with this tale, but as much as real life keeps me busy, I would never dream of abandoning this story. I love it too much to ever just quit! Really, I mean that. So, more will come, I can promise that without hesitation. My desire is that it's sooner, rather than later of course, but I hope you'll forgive me if real life gets in the way again.
In the meantime, if you haven't already, check out some of my other stories. I just posted one that could really use some love. I promise you'll get some love in return too!