Part 23 - Lighter Than Air
After the spectacle of the two competing teams of inventors officially entering the Pegathalon and Spitfire's vociferous protest, the rest of Moonrise Court's docket of supplicants was rather drab and uninteresting in comparison. By the time the allotted hour and a half had passed, the ponies in attendance almost applauded when the princesses called an end to the proceedings and dismissed them to the anteroom for punch and cookies. With a final fanfare, the immortal regents of day and night departed, Princess Luna to the royal orrery to update her star charts and Princess Celestia to a well earned night's rest.
Professor Destiny and Doctor Insanity made their way out of the throne room with a final scathing backwards glance at their rivals. The black mustachioed unicorn stopped at the archway and called out to Harmony Aeronautics with a scowl and a flourish. "Mark my words, you deluded dilettantes, this night may have been yours, but WE shall win the day!"
Twilight drew herself up imperiously with a flick of her tail. "Your brother's alleged degrees should give you ample insight into my answer to that, Professor."
Rarity stepped up at her partner's side with her snout in the air. "Come along now, darling. No need to sink to their level."
The lavender scholar cast one more glare at the unicorn brothers as she assumed a similar pose. "We'd have to invent a tunneling machine to do that."
As one, the two mares flicked their horns in the classic unicorn's pose of disdain, let out a dismissive "Hmf!", and trotted toward the anteroom with their employees in tow, with Apple Bloom sticking her tongue out at the brothers over her shoulder.
Professor Destiny ground his hooves on the marble palace floor and shouted after them. "Bah! Bah, I tell you! Any tunneling machine you lot would come up with would be a foal's sand shovel compared to..." He cut off with a strangled gasp as his cravat lit up in sour green sparkles and started to drag him stumbling behind Doctor Insanity.
The dark spectacled unicorn rolled his eyes as he stalked out through the grand hall of stained glass windows. "Enough! One ridiculous contest at a time, brother. Come on..."
As soon as they entered the elegantly appointed anteroom, its banners a palette of rich blues, blacks, and purples set with sequins and silver moons and stars in honor of the night, Twilight and Rarity's air of hauteur evaporated to smiles and ready charm as a crowd of interested ponies gathered around for an informal question and answer session. Pip stood beside them, smiling brightly and modeling the Luna Moth under Apple Bloom's watchful eyes, which narrowed dangerously anytime a mare approached to gush over the harness' handsome young pilot.
Soarin surreptitiously broke away from his newfound comrades, steeled himself, and approached Spitfire, who stood by the punch bowl with a glass in hoof and a scowl on her face that darkened as he got closer. Her three companions from the Cloudsdale Athletic Committee were too busy filling up their plates to notice him.
The sky blue pegasus rustled his wings and haltingly cleared his throat. "So... hi there, Cap. How's tricks?"
He recieved a face full of sparkling cranberry grape punch in reply, followed by a cut crystal glass that bonked painfully off of his forehead and was frantically caught at the last moment by a nearby unicorn servant before it hit the floor.
Soarin winced, wiping the fizzing drink out of his eyes, and looked up blinking to see his former team mate's fiery tail vanishing through one of the arched windows lining the dome of the antechamber. He pursed his lips and furrowed his brow, rubbing the sore spot with a hoof as he took wing to follow her.
Spitfire gritted her teeth and poured on the airspeed as she felt a wing tip brush hers, her ears laid back on either side of her whipping, fluttering mane as a familiar voice called out. "Cap! If you'd just stop and listen to me!"
Her response rang out over the rooftops of Canterlot, causing more than a few monocles to pop out and late evening tea cups to rattle at the sudden bout of airborne profanity. She broke into a jinking, looping, weaving flight path to evade her pursuer, darting between the ivory colored towers as his calls faded to faint echoes behind her.
A bitter grin flashed across her blaze yellow features, as she took a glance over her shoulder and saw nopony in her six. The look of triumph faded into ear drooping misery as she let out a sob and blinked away a stinging welter of tears. She rubbed a foreleg across her eyes and looked ahead, letting out a shriek of alarm as she found herself approaching a billowing cloud bank at top speed. The sound was cut off as she smushed into it with a soft "poomf".
Spitfire coughed and spluttered, her mane, tail, and dress uniform sodden with water, as she was hauled by her collar out of the cloud's interior and set down on its upper surface in a limp tangle of flailing legs and splayed wings.
She flinched at a weary, out of breath voice beside her. "So... are you done being mad yet, or do I need to shove that hot head of yours through another rain cloud?"
The pegasus mare spat out a mouthful of vapor and glared at Soarin, who ruffled his wings and undid his purple scarf, offering it to her like a hoofkerchief. She grudgingly took it as she pushed herself up into a seated position on her haunches, wiping it across her scowling muzzle. "How in Hurricane's hocks did you catch me?"
The sky blue stallion gave a wry shrug. "I stopped chasing you."
He gave the grey cloud under them a gentle pat. "I saw this sweet little number five floating over the royal gardens waiting to pop its drops. It's amazing how far and fast you can get 'em to coast with the right backspin." An apologetic grin flashed on his earnest face. "Sorry about soakin' ya, but it was the only one at hoof that was hefty enough to stop you."
His expression became serious again. "So now that I have stopped you..."
Spitfire tossed the now soaking wet scarf back at him, and slouched with her forelegs crossed in front of her, gazing angrily off into the starry sky above. Her voice cracked a little as she spoke, and new moisture appeared at the corners of her eyes and began to roll down her dampened face. "You can save your breath. I know this is all some kind of stupid revenge for me bouncing you off the team."
Soarin's wings flared in shock. "What?" He gave a snort and shook his head. "Spitfire, we've been squaddies since the rookies' roost. Have you ever known me to be the vengeful type?"
The blaze yellow mare uncrossed her forelegs and pawed at the cloud, sniffling a bit before she spoke. "N-no, but I wouldn't blame you if you felt that way n-now, I guess... I mean..." She hung her head, trailing off as tears dripped down her snout.
He reached up and laid a hoof on her shoulder, causing her to flinch. "Look, Cap, getting bounced from the 'Bolts hurt bad. You guys were almost like a family to me, but it was my own fault for letting myself slide. You did the right thing in givin' me my papers and showin' me the door. The 'Bolts are supposed to be the best of the best, and there's no room for slackers on the team. You wouldn't be what you are if there was."
She looked over at him, her lower lip quivering. "B-but... but..."
The sky blue stallion set his hoof back down on the cloud and gazed off into the distance. "No, this isn't me lookin' back. This is me movin' forward." He gave her a sidelong smile. "You slam into fewer clouds that way." She huffed and averted her gaze, slapping her sodden tail on the cloud in irritation.
Soarin looked fondly at the patch adorning his flight jacket in the moonlight. "Harmony Aeronautics is working to bring ponies together, Spits. They want earth ponies and unicorns to be able to understand just how awesome it is to be able to fly. Since I've been working with 'em, I've kinda reconnected with that feeling myself. The same feeling I'd lost after twelve years of touring."
He looked over at her with a gentle smile. "They're not tryin' to bring pegasi down, they want more ponies to be able to come up and meet us where we are. They want to show that if we can do things together, than the differences between us aren't such a big deal in the big picture."
He gave a shrug with his sky blue wings. "That's why I want 'em to succeed, and why I'm helpin' em."
Spitfire stared at him, her pupils flicking rapidly back and forth as she absorbed what he'd said. She let out a ragged sob and buried her face in her hooves, slumping into Soarin's side with a damp splat as he laid a wing across her shoulders. They sat that way for a while, with the fiery maned mare weeping softly into his shoulder as the cloud drifted over the twinkling lights of Canterlot.
Eventually she growled petulantly between sniffles and gasps. "You big h-hailstone head. Why don't you ever let me stay mad at you?"
He gave a shrug as he wrung out the scarf and proffered it to her again. "I dunno, Cap. Path of least resistance, I guess."
She accepted it and blew her nose, straightening up with a lopsided grin slowly working its way onto her face. "Well, we aren't gonna make it so easy on your lazy rump in this race, I'll guarantee you that, brother."
She ruffled her blaze yellow wings in the cool night breeze. "Harmony Aeronautics wants to fly with the pegasi, they better be ready to face some heavy wingwash."
Soarin gave her a fond smile as he climbed to his hooves. "I'll tell 'em. And you tell the 'Bolts it'll be an honor to meet 'em at the finish line." He gave her a wink. "Whichever of us is waiting when the other gets there."
With that, the sky blue stallion reached out a hoof and helped her up. "Now if you'll excuse me, I oughta be turning in soon. I got a lot of training to get in before I see you again in Manehattan."
Spitfire looked him over with a critical eye. "Not as much as I was afraid of, from the look of you." She cocked an eyebrow. "So aren't they feedin' you in Ponyville, or is the chow not as good as Dash made it out to be?"
Soarin shook his head. "No, it was even better." A shy grin spread across his face. "You'll have to come out to my new marefriend's farm and see for yourself someday."
The blaze yellow mare's eyes flared. "Marefriend?!" Her eyes spun in opposite directions as she shook her head to clear it. "Whoa... The horizon just kinda flipped on me there. Gimme a second to figure out which way is up..."
Her former team mate pursed his lips and rolled his eyes. "Sheesh, Cap, it's not THAT much of a cross draft that I found my own special somepony."
She gave him a mischievous grin and a wink. "Well now I have to book a flight out to Ponyville after all this blows over. Gotta make sure this filly measures up to sky cav. standards."
Soarin chuckled as they reared up into a heartfelt hug. "Anytime, Cap. Anytime. You and her big brother can hoof wrestle to settle who's worthy of who."
Spitfire pushed back to look him in the eyes. "If you go the distance in the Pegathalon, I don't think it'll even be a question."
The sky blue stallion gave her a solemn nod. "When I go the distance, me and her might just be neck and neck."
She nodded in return as they disengaged. "Well, best of luck, Soarin. Clear skies."
He threw her a salute. "Clear skies, Cap."
With that, she shook herself off and launched into the cool Canterlot night giving a last fond wave over her shoulder.
Soarin sat back down on the cloud with a sigh, staring at the broad valley spreading at the foot of Equestria's capitol mountaintop. Nestled among the rolling hillsides the lights of Ponyville glittered like a thimbleful of gold dust in the deep greens and blues, more precious to the wayward stallion for being his long sought home.
He laid back and closed his eyes, spreading his wings across the cloud's soft surface, and thought of Applejack.
The skies over Manehattan hadn't seen so many balloons overhead since the last Marecy's Harvest Festival parade. Their shadows cast creeping pools of shade across the teeming streets below, and drifted between the foamy wakes of countless water craft thronging the harbor.
The largest penumbra spread for blocks beneath the silvery, whale-like outline of the T.M.S.S. Ambrosia, one of the grandest, most luxuriously appointed airships in all of Equestria. The vast ship was currently moored to a Royal Blue skyport atop the towering Cerulean Building, with a steady stream of stevedores looking like busy ants on branches as they carried supplies for the airship's upcoming voyage across the gangplanks into the holds inside the superstructure.
A multi tiered gondola ran along the bottom length of the craft, with rows of wide, arched windows marking each luxury stateroom and a faceted glass viewing deck and ball room occupying the forward prow that provided the elegantly dressed ponies within a commanding view of the bustling metropolis below. The elite from across Equestria had gathered in Manehattan to board the widely publicized air tour, and were streaming aboard en masse as the day of the Pegathalon's start drew nigh.
Among them, Rarity sashayed up the gangplank, resplendent in a sky blue silk stole and a pillbox hat adorned with gossamer butterfly wings styled after the Luna Moth. A burly earth pony porter in a royal blue uniform followed her, his thick legs shaking slightly as he bore her steamer trunk and several suitcases on his muscular back. He waited patiently, a weary look on his face, each time she stopped to greet assorted high society ponies on her way to her stateroom.
Atop the Ambrosia's gigantic cylinder, a domed structure rather like a miniature palace had the most commanding view of all, and flew the flag of Equestria and the colors of the Royal Blue airship line on a flagstaff topped by a gleaming golden sun. This was the master suite, the finest accommodations the airship, and the entire company it belonged to, had to offer.
The royal owner of said company lounged on the brocaded cushions in the cupola's forward lounge, idly peeling a hovering tangerine with his magic as he nursed a glass of cognac and gazed out over the skyscrapers. Manehattan was a city with little of the poetry of his home in Canterlot, its drab, blocky towers having been built by earth ponies for the purpose of conducting their dreadfully pedestrian commerce.
Blueblood cast a languid glance over his shoulder at the door to the suite's business office, behind which his young wife was engaged in her own particular brand of dreadful commerce. It was one of the few things that they agreed on, that the less he knew about such dealings the better. All he was aware of was that it had been a while since he'd seen or heard his bride, and it had been quite relaxing.
His ear flicked at the muffled clack of the office's bay window ratcheting open, followed by the harsh sound of multiple taloned feet clattering along the catwalks outside and clambering over the railing. He caught a glimpse of large, leonine, winged shapes launching into the air and diving into a nearby bank of clouds, their sinuous, tufted tails trailing behind them as they vanished into the mist.
The puffy eyed unicorn cast aside the rind and began pulling the succulent fruit into sections as the office window closed with a soft clunk, followed by the clack of the bolt being drawn on the door. A moment later Diamond Tiara came striding into the room with a guardedly smug look on her face. She flounced over and snagged the floating tangerine sections with her tail before curling up on the couch opposite her husband. She plucked one of the topaz like citrus wedges in her teeth and flipped it into the air, snapping it up like a shark and chewing it with relish.
Blueblood gave her a brief, reproachful glare and then turned his attention to his glass, idly sloshing the richly fragrant liquid within before taking a sip. His voice dripped with regal boredom as he deigned to speak to her. "So, we presume by the general air of a well fed cat atop a vacant canary cage that a deal has successfully been struck."
The pastel pink princess grinned a wicked grin as she snapped up another tangerine section. "Yeah, lets just say I bought us a little reverse insurance, just in case something bad wasn't going to happen." Her eyes narrowed as she chomped down two more segments of sweet, tangy fruit. "The premiums were steeper than I would have liked." Her grin widened a bit as she wiped a droplet of reddish juice from her chin. "But it's worth it to shift the actuarial tables in our favor..."
The prince nodded vaguely and yawned, any talk of numbers causing his already glazed eyes to go a little further out of focus. "Whatever you say, dear..."
She rolled her eyes and huffed, climbing back to her hooves and flicking the remainder of the tangerine into a gilded waste bin as she strode out of the room, muttering under her breath. "Darn right whatever I say, you worthless pinhead..."
Blueblood cast a wan gaze at the garbage bin, sighed, and levitated a fresh tangerine from the bountifully stocked fruit basket resting on the wet bar. He levitated it and the bottle of vintage cognac over and opened them both.
All ears perked up in a modest balloon hangar in Manehattan's upper west side as the brass bells attached to a wooden box on the workshop table rang out. The bakelite cone hanging from a hook on the side floated up in a cloud of glittering purple magic and landed on the tip of Twilight's horn, which pulsed in time to her words as she spoke seemingly to herself. "Harmony Aeronautics! Doctor Sparkle speaking..."
A smile spread across her face as she met Apple Bloom, Pip, Spike, and Soarin's eyes. "It's Rarity! She says there's a hornophone in her stateroom!"
She averted her gaze, staring into space as she spoke. "That's excellent news! Apple Bloom helped me wire our phone to a crystal transmitter, so we should be able to communicate freely while we're..." Her face fell. "Oh, well, I suppose 'free' isn't the best term to use. I guess that'll just have to come out of our 'emergency' budget. Okay, we won't stay on the line too long."
The lavender mare turned to cast a satisfied gaze at the looming form of a familiar purple balloon, one that she and her friends had been using since she'd come to Ponyville all those years ago. Its basket had been enlarged and partially enclosed, with a hatch leading from a small cabin behind to an open platform out front. A bullhorn and one of Twilight's telescopes had been mounted on swivels on the rail. The balloon was fitted out with two props driven by magic turbines and rigged for sail as a redundancy, a mesh of crisscrossed ropes reinforcing the envelope with loops for climbing hung across them. Harmony Aeronautics' crest was proudly emblazoned on a banner hanging across the front of the gas bag.
Twilight gave a nod to her friends and employees as she continued her conversation. "We've got all the equipment and supplies for the first leg packed up and loaded, and our esteemed Chief Engineer and Test Officer have checked The Friend Ship over and declared it air tight and ready for flight." She gave the young earth ponies a wink as she continued. "It won't be quite flying in style like you are, but I think this is going to be the trip of a lifetime."
The lavender mare let out a chuckle as she cocked her head, the cone on her horn pulsing from within with a silvery blue light. It shifted to blinking glimmers of purple as she replied with a roll of her eyes. "Well, I'm sure you can endure there being only vanilla and apricot scented mane wash in your private shower. We're all roughing it on this trip in our own way, I guess."
She paused again, tapping her hoof as more sparkles of blue illuminated her forehead. She gave a careful nod, keeping the cone steady on the tip of her horn as she answered. "Yes, yes, well it's good to hear that. Convey our thanks to Mister Pants and Lady Opulence, any good wishes are welcome."
Another pause. "Yeah, we'll miss you at the opening ceremony tonight. I'd trade places with you in a minute."
She nodded after a brief interlude with another roll of her eyes. "Well yeah, of course it's better for you to be up there turning the charm on all those potential investors. Honestly, if I had my real choice, I'd just spend the evening curled up with a dozen or so good books, but somepony senior in the company should be at the ceremony."
She gave a nod toward the sky blue pegasus. "Soarin's already bowed out because he wants to get in some last minute training, so it'll be just me, Apple Bloom, Pip, and Spike."
Twilight cleared her throat after another pause. "I'm sure it will. Okay, well I'd better get going. We need to wrap up here and head back to the hotel to get dressed. I'll be on the horn with you tomorrow and tell you how it went."
A slight smile curled the corners of her mouth. "Yes, I'm sure a bit of inside gossip would come in most handy with the fancy ponies up on the Ambrosia. To save bits I'll write you up a report and send it via dragon fire."
She gave Spike a wink, then started to nod, her expression shifting slowly from a fond smile to mild exasperation. "All right. Goodbye Rarity. Yes yes. Kiss kiss... Uh huh... I'll tell them. Okay. Bye bye. Yes. Hugs too. Mm hmm. Goodbye. Good... bye... Rarity..."
She gave a huff as she flicked the cone off of her horn, using her magic to levitate it back onto the cradle as she cast a wan look at her employees. "She says good luck, and 'kiss kiss'."
Rarity set the gold plated cone back on its ornate set and turned to the earth pony porter with a vivacious smile as he stowed the last of her luggage in the cabinets of her elegant stateroom. He stopped in the hatchway with a click of his hooves and a short bow. "Will there be anything else, milady?"
She smiled and batted her eyes at him as a small velvet bag full of bits levitated in a cloud of blue magic from her panniers. "No, that's all quite satisfactory, Sterling. Here's a little something for your trouble."
His polite smile widened a bit as he felt the weight of it in his hoof. "Your generosity is much appreciated, milady."
She gave a toss of her mane and let out a silvery chuckle. "Think nothing of it, Sterling."
The dappled grey earth pony pocketed the bit bag and leaned in, raising a hoof to his mouth in a conspiratory whisper. "If milady has a preference for her toiletries, I'd be more than happy to pass it along to the flight stewards."
A warm smile came to the elegant mare's features. "Oh, you're too kind, Sterling. I do have a preference for lilac and lavender, but there's no need to put anypony out. One imagines you're all busy enough keeping this fine ship airborne without catering to every passenger's silly whims."
The stallion gave a bow. "I'll see what we can do, milady, and it's a pleasure to do so for a genuine lady. I speak on behalf of my fellows on the staff and crew that we're happy to have you aboard, and we hope you enjoy your voyage."
Rarity gave him a genteel dip of her horn in return. "I'm sure I shall, thank you, Sterling."
Sir Paladin stood like a marble statue in the corner of a dilapidated blimp hangar on the Manehattan water front, his steely, disapproving gaze fixed on the two scrawny yellow unicorns and their dwarfish earth pony lackey as they loaded stacks of red and black striped phlogiston rocket motors into the cargo compartment of a cigar shaped black mini-dirigible emblazoned on each side with a skull and crossbones flanked by two bats. A soot stained turbine apparatus fueled by the same distilled magical essence as the rockets occupied the back end of the ramshackle gondola.
Professor Destiny cast the guardpony an exasperated glare. "This would go faster if you helped, you know."
Paladin flicked his close cropped tail. "My job is to fly escort and watch you, and I can do that just fine from over here."
He pursed his lips. "Frankly, I don't know what's more alarming, the flammable gas you've got filling the envelope of that sky-rig or the explosives you're loading in the crew compartment."
Doctor Insanity gave an impatient flick of an ear. "The Phogiston rockets are perfectly safe to handle, sir."
His horn sparked to life as one of the red and black striped cylinders floated off of one of the cluttered work tables and drifted toward the white pegasus with the pallid unicorn following behind it. The bespectacled stallion gave the rocket a nod. "Give it a look, you'll see."
The guard reluctantly reached up a hoof and took it, giving it a dubious once over with his gimlet eye. His lip curled back in disgust as he peered at it. "Ugh, it's sticky..."
Insanity gave a shrug. "Oh, that would be the sovereign glue we use to seal the binding. It probably hasn't dried yet, although it really doesn't take long to do so."
The burly pegasus frowned as he gave his hoof a shake, the rocket sticking fast to it. "Hey, what the..."
The thin faced stallion bobbed his horn at the blunt end of the device, ignoring the royal guard's glare and continuing his explanation. "The condensed phlogiston is held inert in a clay and crystal powder lining, and unlike conventional explosives it doesn't react to fire. Only a bit of magic, applied thusly to the priming plug will activate it, causing a violent conversion to dynamic magical energy."
A green spark floated from the ersatz doctor's horn tip to the end of the rocket like an angry, hissing firefly, causing the end of the missile to splutter and fizz as both Insanity and Paladin's eyes went wide with alarm.
Otto's gravelly voice rang out, shattering the sickened hush that had fallen save for the hissing of the phlogiston primer. "FIRE IN DA HOLE!"
The bespectacled unicorn and his brother dove for cover behind the broken down boilers and steam engine parts that cluttered up the hangar as the royal guard pony desperately waved his fore hoof trying to dislodge the rocket.
The volatile engine roared to life in an explosion of greenish flame followed by a loud crash and a full throated bellow of terror and dismay that grew softer and softer as a scattering of snowy white feathers drifted to the dusty floorboards in a dissipating cloud of black smoke.
Professor Destiny tentatively cleared his throat as he straightened his cravat and stepped up to the perfectly pegasus shaped hole that had been punched in the wall. "Well... that certainly solves some of our problems..."
Doctor Insanity joined him, peering over his dark glasses through the newly made window as a distant, wailing shape trailing black smoke skipped across the waters of Manehattan harbor, finally slamming into a garbage scow and exploding in a mushroom cloud of green flames.
He tugged at his collar with a hoof as a weak grin spread across his sallow features. "And adds a few more, I'd imagine..."
They shared an uneasy glance as a trail of white feathers drifted down to bob gently on the waves.
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.