Part 15 - Cloud Control
A warm summer breeze rustled the stubble of a recently mowed alfalfa field at the edge of Sweet Apple Acres. Low, shaggy haystacks dotted the broad surface, drying in the sun beneath a billowing procession of cumulous clouds drifting lazily across the azure sky.
Twilight Sparkle's brow furrowed pensively as she pored over a dog eared flight manual, pinning its fluttering pages down to the checkered blanket beneath her with a hoof to keep from losing her place. She looked up anxiously at the windsock and wind speed meter that Apple Bloom had set up on a nearby pole. "Hmm. I hope that crosswind isn't going to give us too much trouble."
The young handymare was currently busy articulating the flight harness' left wing with her ear perked for squeaks, while Pip stood patiently and craned his neck backwards to watch her work. The red headed earth pony pulled a socket wrench from her tool belt and tightened one of the joints, speaking matter-of-factly out of the side of her mouth as she gripped the handle in her teeth. "Well, we ain't got much of a choice but t' deal with it. The Weather Patrol's got light winds n' scattered cloud cover scheduled all week 'cos o' hay cuttin' season. Leastwise we won't have t' worry 'bout it rainin'."
Pip's smile gleamed as he gave her a wink. "That's looking on the bright side, luv." The young mare smiled and winked back as she gave the bolt she was tightening a final tweak.
Spike roused himself from the blanket and arched his back, stretching his green, membranous wings. "Relax, Twilight. Crosswind takeoffs are part of the F.A.T. anyway."
He gave the spotted stallion a wry grin. "Just count yourself lucky the Princesses don't want you to take the written part as well." The adolescent dragon made a grimace and stuck out his tongue. "Ugh. So much math and meteorology."
Twilight let out a sigh and murmured to herself as she allowed the wind to flip the page for her. "At least I could help you with that part..."
Spike's aural spines flexed as he cocked his head at her. "What was that, Twilight?"
The lavender mare cleared her throat and gave him a grin that didn't quite find its way up to her eyes. "I said at least you can help Pip with the flight test part of it."
The purple dragonet drew himself up proudly. "No problemo! Sir Concord said that I was a pretty fast learner, I ought to be a fast teacher as well."
Twilight cocked an eyebrow as she gave him a leery glance. "If I recall correctly, what he actually said was that you tended to rush things. I'm not certain if either would parlay into..."
Spike irritably flapped his wings and folded them as he shot her a glare. "Well, whatever he said, with my help Pip will be flying like a bird in no time."
The lavender scholar rolled her eyes as she got to her hooves, allowing the Flight Aptitude Test manual to float off to the side where it hovered at the ready. "And speaking of time, it's about time we got started. Does the harness check out okay, Chief Engineer Apple Bloom?"
The redheaded earth pony mare replaced her socket wrench on her belt and took a step back. "Harness and test pony check out A-Ok, Doctor Sparkle."
With that she flicked the tip of her tail at the youthful stallion's hindquarters with a snap that caused him to stiffen and break out in a warm blush. He gave her a bashful grin as she walked away, a bit of sway in her hips as she looked back over her shoulder.
Twilight nodded, all business as an intent expression settled on her face. "Excellent. And you're ready, Test Officer Pip?"
The spotted earth pony cleared his throat as he tore his attention away from Apple Bloom and gave the unicorn a confident smile with a snappy salute. "Never not ready, ma'am!"
She gave him a curt nod as her horn sparked to life, glowing softly in a faint pulsing rhythm that was echoed in the joints of the wings. "I'm not sensing any spell degradation. Lift and control sub-dweomers are still in full effect. I'd say preflight checks are all good to go."
The lavender unicorn stepped back to join Apple Bloom as Spike came forward, flexing his shoulders and cracking his sinuous neck. He reached up with a clawed fist and bumped it to the earth pony's extended hoof. "Okay, Pip. Lets take 'er up."
The dragonet bunched his powerful hind legs in a half crouch and raised his tail off the ground, bringing it down with an impact that launched him skyward like the arm of a catapult. He leveled out in an expectant hover as Pip lowered his goggles into place and screwed his coltish face up in concentration.
The wings of the flight harness began to beat faster and faster as the downdraft from the canvas and ash wood airfoils flattened the alfalfa stubble beneath him. He rose slowly into the air until he was eye level with Spike, only bobbling a bit as the wind picked up at a higher altitude.
The young purple dragon gave him a nod. "Okay, lets start with some level flight and some basic turns."
Down at the far end of the field, one of the haystacks rustled, and a patch of fragrant, fresh cut alfalfa fell away to reveal a set of binoculars hovering in a subdued glimmer of greenish magic coming from a sharp, pale yellow horn. The battered, chipped end of a brass telescope joined it a moment later, held up by a set of stubby, olive brown hooves.
A harsh whisper could be heard from the owner of the binoculars. "Tartarus' tom-toms, will you just look at that, Otto."
A low, gravelly voice could be heard to reply. "Lookin' at it, bozz."
The first speaker continued, his voice incredulous shading to angry. "I can't believe they got that preposterous contraption to work. Just look at it. Look at it!"
His companion let out a faint rattle of a sigh. "Still lookin', bozz."
The binoculars withdrew as the first speaker's tone took on a harsh edge. "Well, if they think they can steal a march on Professor Destiny and his fantastic B.A.T. Nineteen, they're sorely mistaken. Emphasis on the sore."
At this he let out a chuckle, and the haystack rustled as the taller pony turned to the smaller one. "Prepare the rocket, Otto. We'll soon put a stop to this nonsense."
The brass telescope pulled back into the gap and out of sight, and moments later the haystack began to shimmy to the sounds and undertone cursing of a tall, skinny pony and a short, dumpy one trying to maneuver around one another in a cramped, supremely itchy space. Moments later the pointed tip of a red and black striped rocket cone with a leering, sharp toothed shark's face painted on the end poked out of the gap in the hay like an overeager quaray eel.
The Professor's voice took on a sneering, gloating tone. "Lets see how Harmony Aeronautics likes my little magic seeking missile."
After a brief, dramatic pause, he called out in as commanding voice as he could muster and still maintain their cover. "Light the fuse, Otto!"
The crack of a match being struck sounded from deep inside the haystack. "Lightin' it up! Fire in da hole, bozz."
A sinister chortle sounded as the binoculars floated up once again to allow their owner a better view, the lenses glinting in the bright sun as a greenish glow surrounded them. "This is going to be good."
Otto gave a gravelly hiss of alarm. "Uh, bozz... Yer magic!"
Destiny's voice came in a faltering undertone as the hovering field glasses began to sink. "Wh... what?"
His only answer was the rustle of hay and the receding sound of scuttling hooves, followed by the splat of a heavyset gnome of a pony hurling himself into a nearby drainage ditch.
The tip of the rocket vibrated a bit, then lurched sideways as its leering warhead was pulled like the opposite pole of a magnet toward the Professor's green glimmering horn. With a flash that illuminated the interior of the hollowed out haystack, the motor ignited, causing the projectile to begin pinwheeling around the bellowing unicorn's head. "AUGH! OTTOOOOooo!"
With a loud FOOMP the shaggy mound of freshly cut hay was transformed into a fiery mushroom cloud. A hurtling, screaming, long legged silhouette wreathed in smoke and flames tumbled end over end out of the conflagration and landed with a crash in the canopy of a large, sturdy apple tree.
At the other end of the hayfield three ponies and a dragon's heads whipped around in alarm as a column of black smoke billowed up before their eyes.
Apple Bloom's pupils shrank to pinpricks as she hiked her tail in alarm. "Great flamin' cinnamon sticks, its a brush fire!" With that, she wheeled and galloped toward the main compound of Sweet Apple Acres, calling frantically for her big brother and sister. Several of the Apple family's farm hoofs were already dropping their tools and galloping toward the well with buckets in their teeth.
Twilight shouted up to her airborne assistant and employee using the Royal Canterlot Voice. "SPIKE! PIP! GO INTO TOWN AND ALERT THE WEATHER PATROL! TELL THEM WE NEED A RAIN CLOUD OUT HERE FAST! I'LL TRY TO KEEP THE FIRE CONTAINED WITH A SHIELD SPELL!"
Pip threw the lavender mare a sharp salute as an intense expression settled on his coltish features. "Right ho! You can count on us, ma'am!" He tucked his hooves in tight to his body and lit out after Spike with a flap of his wood and canvas wings, soon catching up and then outpacing the young dragon as they raced toward Ponyville.
Soarin eased a fluffy cumulous cloud forward as his youthful senior patrol pony Rumbles hovered high over the edge of Ponyville's park, directing him with hoof signals as they sought to park the billowing mass of water vapor among a lineup of others. Later in the day, they would be set loose to provide light shade to the ponies who would be out taking their lunch breaks on the wide, manicured lawns and flower gardens.
The sky blue stallion pricked up his ears as he heard a distant voice calling his name, and turned with a shocked expression spreading across his face as he spotted Pip approaching at top speed with Spike close on his heels, puffing and straining against his heavier mass as his membranous wings furiously beat the warm summer air.
Pip attempted to skid to a stop in midair and tumbled end over end with a yelp of alarm as his back legs swung forward and sent him into a backspin. Soarin furrowed his brow and shoved off of the cloud, flying to meet the youthful test pony on an intercept course. He nimbly ducked the spotted stallion's flailing hooves and caught him around the middle, receiving a sharp blow across the cheek from one of the artificial wings' ash wood spars.
The former stunt flyer shook off the stinging impact and was just about to ask the dazed earth pony whether he was alright when a cracking adolescent dragon's roar of alarm sounded from a purple and green blur that shot past beneath the two stallion's hooves and plowed into the cloud that Soarin had just been guiding, sending it barreling into Rumbles as the startled young pegasus tried frantically to signal it to stop. The pillowy mass' forward movement was checked when it smushed into one of the other parked clouds, sandwiching the pale blue grey pegasus between them.
Pip shook the spirals out of his eyes and grabbed the older stallion by his shoulders. "There's a ruddy fire out at Sweet Apple Acres!"
Soarin's own eyes widened in alarm as he looked past the spotted earth pony's shoulder toward the vast swaths of apple orchard on the far side of town, spotting the wisps of smoke rising against the brilliant blue of the sky.
His face set in determination, and he gave the harness clad earth pony a sharp glance. "Can you fly under your own power, Pip?"
In response, the young stallion pushed away, flapping the artificial wings briskly as he gave the sky blue pegasus a curt nod. "Seems like it."
Soarin wheeled and dove toward the jumbled cloud collision. "Come on, help me with this thing." With that, he planted his hooves on the far side of the cloud and pushed it away from the other, revealing the semi flattened form of Rumbles splayed out like a Eohipptian hieroglyph.
They young weather patrol pony blinked in wide eyed befuddlement as he pulled himself free of the other cloud. "What in Princess Luna's waxing moon is that?" He stared in disbelief at Pip as the young test pony brought himself about, flying around the circumference of the cloud until he came up beside Soarin.
When he reached out to place his hooves on the fluffy white mass of vapor, he found himself passing through it with another startled yelp and tumbling out the bottom with ragged wisps trailing from the dampened canvas wings. Grimacing with effort, he managed to check his descent and pulled into a wobbly hover several hooves below the cloud.
He gave the sky blue pegasus a sheepish grin over his shoulder as he righted himself. "Dreadfully sorry, mate. Can't get a grip on the bally thing."
The sky blue pegasus tsked in irritation. "Who's been teaching you to maneuver? I've seen cheese danishes with better trim control."
At this Spike's head popped out of the top of the cloud with an annoyed look on his scaly face. "Hey!"
Soarin ignored the dragonet's fuming glare as he turned to Rumbles. "Yo Rum! Go round up Cloudchaser and Raindrops. I think they're working vapor collection down at the train station. Tell 'em to double flap it over to Sweet Apple Acres for some fire suppression. Have 'em bring a Number Seven, or a double wetloaded Number Five if that's all they can get their hooves on. Okay?"
The younger pegasus stallion blinked, tearing his gaze away from Pip and his artificial wings. "Uh.. I don't think either of us is authorized to..."
The sky blue former stunt flyer snorted in irritation. "Look, if they wanna write me up for overshooting protocols later, I'll be glad to supply 'em with a quill." He jerked his head toward the distant apple farm. "Right now, though, we got a fire to put out, so less yappin' and more flappin', okay kid?"
Rumbles saluted in spite of himself and rocketed away over the rooftops of Ponyville. Soarin gave a nod of satisfaction, then beckoned Spike and Pip to fall in behind him as he grunted with effort and began to push the cloud against the wind in the direction of Sweet Apple Acres.
Apple Bloom, Applejack, and Big Macintosh galloped to and fro across the field, dumping buckets of water on scattered flare ups around the perimeter of a shimmering purple dome filled with roiling black smoke that was eerily underlit by crackling orange flames at it's base. A steady stream of farm hooves were taking the empty buckets back to the nearest well pump, refilling them, and then bringing the laden buckets to the Apple family to disperse as needed.
The blonde farm mare was panting as she came over beside Twilight, who stood with hooves set and a furrowed brow as her horn glimmered with purple magic. The earth pony settled heavily onto her rump and drew a hoof across her soot and sweat stained brow, pushing her cowpony hat back as she let out a tired sigh. "I reckon we done got all th' outlyin' fires. Fluttershy's got the bird's lookin' out fer any other loose embers." She nodded toward the dome. "Now there's just th' big one t' settle."
A look of chagrin passed across the lavender unicorn's face. "I'm sorry I can't make the shield opaque to air, or I could smother the fire myself. This isn't really how the spell was meant to be used... "
Applejack gave her a fond smile. "Y'done plenty just keepin' it contained, sugarcube. Th' weather ponies oughta be able t' put it right out once they get here."
She turned her gaze back toward the dome as she rubbed her chin in thought. "I've heard o' haystacks catchin' fire if'n they get all moldy inside, but we only cut this field a couple days ago, and I sure ain't never heard of 'em up n' explodin' like that."
Twilight gave a shrug as she maintained her concentration. "Well it wasn't Spike's fault, he was in the air with Pip when it happened, and even if he had been the one to breathe on it then instead of putting out a grass fire we'd be having to explain to Princess Celestia why she'd suddenly received a super sized order of hay fries with her lunch."
Applejack shook her head as she replied. "I didn't reckon it was Spike in the first pl..." She paused as she noticed that she and her scholarly unicorn friend had fallen into shadow. "What in tarnation?"
Both mares looked up as a wheezing, panting voice called out from above. "Did... did some... pony call for a rain cloud?"
There they saw a puffy white cumulus about the size of a cottage hovering only fifty hooves above their heads, with a slightly overweight stallion peering over the edge as he caught his breath. An adolescent purple dragon and a spotted earth pony wearing a wood and canvas approximation of a pair of wings hovered expectantly at his side.
A smile spread across the blonde mare's face as she met Soarin's earnest gaze. "Hey there, sugarcube. Nice of y'all to drop by."
Soarin looked around with his brow furrowed in confusion. "So where's this fire at?"
Applejack pointed toward the ominous looking black dome with its flickering orange bottom edge. "Right over there. Twi's keepin' it bottled up with her magic."
The lavender unicorn spared them a sidelong glance as she called up to them, mainly keeping her eyes focused on her spell. "You won't be able to get any water on it until I drop the shield. Let me know when you're ready."
The sky blue pegasus' brow furrowed as he surveyed the situation. He gave a shake of his head as he looked down at Twilight. "The minute you pop that bubble we're gonna get a huge thermal updraft." He patted the fluffy surface of the cloud. "Which'll either slide this skimmer out of place like a scoop of ice cream off a hot slice of pie or punch a hole right through it."
Soarin thought for a moment, and then nodded to Pip and Spike. "I need you guys to give me some cross draft to disrupt the air column. If you can break it up a little I ought to be able to keep the cloud in place and hop some drops down onto the target.
The spotted earth pony threw him a snappy salute with a gleaming grin while the purple dragonet gave him a clawed thumbs up, and the two of them took up positions near the roiling black globe. The pegasus stallion gave a nod of satisfaction and set his hooves against the trailing edge of the cloud, pushing it forward until it hovered about a hundred hooves above the magically contained fire.
A look of concern crossed Applejack's face as she called up to him. "You be careful now, sugarcube! Don't singe yer feathers!"
Soarin gave her a wink as he flew up to hover directly over the cumulous. "It's all in the reflexes, hot stuff!" This elicited both a blush and a glare from the blonde farm mare as she kept her eyes trained on him with a hint of worry creasing her brow.
His face set in determination as he called down to Twilight, Spike, and Pip. "Doctor Sparkle, I'm gonna count to three and then I want you to drop the bubble. You kids start that crossdraft."
The adolescent dragon grimaced with effort as his wide, membranous wings pushed great scoops of air over the black dome. Pip willed the flight harness' airfoils to beat faster and faster, sending a steady stream of wind alongside Spike's pulsing blasts.
Soarin bunched up his legs and beat his wings a couple times to gain some altitude. "Okay everypony, on my mark! One! Two! Three! NOW!"
Twilight released the glimmering purple shield spell with a flick of her horn as the pegasus stallion shot downward, striking the cloud with all four hooves and then tumbling away with a powerful beat of his wings. The cumulus instantly collapsed into a torrent of water which fell like leaden sheets, as a thick column of black smoke rose from the now vanished dome. The two met in the swirling vortex of Spike and Pip's crosswind, creating a swirling cloud of grey smoke and mist as the heavier globules of water crashed down onto the flames and rebounded as a hissing bloom of steam.
Both the dragon and the young earth pony test pilot backed away from the roiling grey cloud. They looked over sharply as Soarin floated down between them with a look of concentration on his face. "Okay guys, gimme another crossdraft so we can disperse this smog and see how we did." They gave him a nod and resumed their tempo with the retired stunt flyer at their side, matching their wings beat for beat.
The steam and smoke began to dissipate, revealing a charred circle of smoldering ash with a few flickering, greatly weakened tongues of flame sputtering to stay alight.
Soarin pursed his lips and furrowed his brow as he gestured for his hovering companions to slow down their wing beats. "Okay, back it off so we don't fan those flames. One more cloud worth would probably do the trick."
He looked down as Apple Bloom's voice arose from below. "One cloud, 'comin' up!" The leggy young mare stood on the tips of her hooves and pointed toward Ponyville. "And it looks like a whole mess o' pegasi besides."
The sky blue pegasus stallion looked to where she was pointing, his brow darkening as a look of concern washed across his face. A pair of mares, one a light lavender with a powder blue mane and the other a bold yellow with deeper blue tresses, were in the lead with a leaden grey cumulous between them. It looked like maybe a Number Five with a little extra rainloading, from the way it was trailing ragged splatters of water beneath it. Rumbles could be seen following behind him, and further on behind was a flock of winged stallions, mares, and foals clustered in groups of three to five strong.
He cast a worried glance over at Pip, who smiled a broad, glittering smile and raised a hoof to wave at the approaching crowd.
As Rainbow Dash's parting words rung in his mind, he murmured under his breath. "Oh sleet and hailstones..."
A pink mare with a frizzy magenta mane ambled down a broad road flanked by apple orchards, humming a happy tune and pushing a perambulator with the tip of her nose as a chocolate brown pegasus filly with a light pink mane of equal frizziness buzzed along at her side with a well loved and consequently well worn rainbow maned Wonderbolts doll drooping from her dainty little muzzle. The baby buggy contained a plump foal the color of bubble gum with a light tan shock of mane, who laid on her back and burbled, kicking her tiny hooves and shifting her downy wings against the brightly colored blanket beneath her, gazing with wide blue eyes as another shoal of pegasi passed overhead.
The chocolate colored filly watched the flying ponies making their way toward the rising column of grey smoke over Sweet Apple Acres and turned to her mother, murmuring something through the doll in her mouth as the pink mare pricked up an ear. Pinkie gave her daughter a shrug. "I dunno, sugar pot. If it really is a pegasus party, though, then it's you and Puddin's lucky day!"
She craned her neck over the pram's handle, nuzzling the little foal's tummy. "Yes, it's Puddin' and Tootsie's lucky day! Yes it is! Yes it is!"
The pink mare brought her head up with a nonplussed expression as her ears began to flop. "Uh oh, somepony's gonna need a bath..."
After a moment's mental calculation, her eyes narrowed as she turned toward her elder daughter, an edge of exasperation creeping into her voice. "Tootselina? Whatever you're planning on getting into... don't. This is our first outing with Puddin' and I don't want to spend it... hosing... you... down?"
She trailed off, her arch expression dissolving into surprise as she found the chocolate brown filly innocently hovering at her side, her own little ears flopping in tandem with her mother's.
Pinkie shook her head and blinked, then rubbed her chin with a hoof as she watched her eldest match her ear flop for ear flop. "You too, huh? Who's gonna need a bath, then?"
Tootsie pointed a dainty hoof at her younger sister, muttering through her doll in a helpful tone. Her mother cocked an eyebrow, then reached into the baby carriage and lifted the burbling little filly out, turned her around, and raised her diapered bottom to her nose, inhaling deeply.
After a moment's consideration, Pinkie shook her head and laid her youngest back on the blanket, then turned to her eldest with a pensive expression. "Noperoony, jellybean. Puddin' didn't make an 'uh-oh'. She's bein' good just like you are."
She lowered one eyebrow and raised the other as she saw Tootsie staring down the road ahead of them. She turned, and saw what the little chocolate colored pegasus was looking at.
Two ponies were coming up the road, one tall and skinny and one low slung and a bit chubby. The taller one was a sooty black, with the charred, ragged tatters of a cloak and tailcoat hanging on his narrow frame, the exploded remains of a top hat giving the impression of a chimney as a wispy plume of smoke trailed off of him. His mane and what may have been a handlebar mustache were frayed and frazzled, with twigs and apple tree leaves tangled in them. His gait was stumbling and unsteady, and it seemed as if he was having trouble getting his knees to bend properly. His squat companion, on the other hoof, was dripping with a slimy coating of mud and grime, and a faint squishing noise could be heard with each hoofbeat as he scuttled along leaving a damp trail behind him.
Both stallions stopped, the tall one weaving a bit on wobbly legs as Pinkie gave a little bounce on her hooves and greeted them. "HI! My name's Pinkie Pie, and these are my kids Tootsie and Puddin'. Who are you?"
The smoldering unicorn's horn sputtered to life with green tinged magic as the battered remains of his top hat floated over his head and tipped politely. He gave her a stiff bow. "I... am Professor... Destiny."
He inclined his head vaguely toward the dwarfish pony skulking behind him. "And this... is... my assistant Otto Bomb."
The rotund little pony gave a curt wave of his blunt, mud coated hoof and replied in his low, gravelly voice. "Heya."
Pinkie smiled a cheery smile. "Nice t'meet ya!" She cocked her head. "I don't think I've seen you two around Ponyville before."
The Professor settled his hat back on his head, accidentally poking a fresh hole in it with his horn. "Oh, I've been to Ponyville on several occasions." His bloodshot eyes narrowed as he muttered under his breath. "And this sort of debacle is pretty much par for the course..."
The pink mare's grin widened. "Oh, well that's just great! You're only a stranger once, here in good old Ponyville. As soon as you get yourselves cleaned up you should stop in at Sweet Apple Acres." She waved a hoof toward the orchards. "Which is this big apple farm right here."
The soot blackened stallion's eyes narrowed further. "I'm... familiar with the place."
Pinkie gave another little hop. "Great! They're having some kind of pegasus party here, but I bet unicorns and whatever your little friend is would be welcome too. The food here is super scrumpdiddilyicious, especially if there's a zap apple crop, and they have some of the bestest cider this side of Equestria."
The Professor flinched at the mention of cider, and gave the pink mare as charming a grin as could be managed with his mustache still smoldering. "Sounds... delightful. We'll be back." He turned and beckoned his assistant with a flick of his horn. "Come along, Otto."
His expression darkened as he stepped around her and continued up the road. "Oh yes... We'll be back indeed..."
Pinkie waved after them as Tootsie continued to make faces at them from outside her mother's field of view. "Okey dokey smokey! Tell your brother he's welcome to stop in too!"
The Professor stumbled to a halt, his shoulders bunching up in shock. He looked back over his shoulder, his bloodshot eyes wide in disbelief as the pink mare turned away and continued up the road to Sweet Apple Acres pushing the baby buggy ahead of her and cooing at her infant daughter. The little chocolate brown pegasus filly stuck her tongue out at him one more time with her eyes crossed for emphasis, ceremoniously replaced the doll in her mouth, and fluttered away after her mother.
The soot covered unicorn who called himself Destiny grimaced, stuck his tongue out after her in reply, and stalked away down the road to Ponyville, muttering darkly under his breath with his scuttling sidekick following dutifully behind.
The characters depicted in this fiction are copyright and trademarks of Hasbro, Inc. This is a work of fan fiction, and the author makes no claim on Hasbro's copyright or trademarks.