by Bookworm S
"So when did Sweetie Belle become lil' miss science, 'xactly?" Apple Bloom closed the door to the lab behind them and set off down another tunnel. "I reckon when I last saw her, she could barely cook breakfast without it lookin' a marshmallow that fell into a campfire."
Apple Bloom allowed herself a chuckle. "Actually, she says that's what got her started. She never was one for recipe books or nothin'. If she didn't know how t' do somethin', she tried and tried till she figured it out. And that's all a scientist is, really; somepony who never gives up for nothin'." She took a left at the next intersection, leading them to a set of switchbacking stairs that spanned a tall shaft, heading in both directions. Apple Bloom started ascending, and Applejack followed close behind.
"Even so, I would'a half guessed you'd be in the lab coat, given how good y'all are at makin' potions and such." Applejack tried to keep pace with Applebloom, forcing herself to look ahead rather than at the long, dark pit that peeked through the wooden stairs.
Apple Bloom looked pensive for a moment. "Yeah, I suppose if things had gone differently, maybe that woulda been my cutie mark an' all. But... war has a way o' bringin' out skills y'all never knew you had."
"Like... bein' a leader." Applejack finished the thought she suspected Apple Bloom was forming in her head. Apple Bloom rolled her eyes slightly, but didn't look very abashed.
"Y'all do what you got to do. Sweetie Belle... losin' her sister hit her hard, harder than it even did me. It took all of us t' keep her from sneakin' off and goin' back to Ponyville, or what was left of it, in the early days. That was before we found these caves, while we were still runnin' and hidin' and doin' what we could to stay alive and one step ahead of the Windys." She gave a small shudder, and stopped at a landing to briefly catch her breath, turning to face Applejack.
Applejack was grateful for the rest, since her muscles were already weary from the exertions of everything that had happened to her since she arrived in this strange place. But the lack of a reason to look straight ahead meant her eyes tended to drop downward once again. To counter this, she locked eyes on her sister's.
"Those days were rough. Not all of us made it out alive, and those that did... Well, let's just say Sweetie never stopped, never slowed down. She came up with so many of the machines and tools we use today. If it hadn't been for her, we never woulda made it this far."
Applejack breathed out. "How many of y'all are there, anyway. This cave seems huge." Apple Bloom raised her eyes upward, and Applejack could see her mouth working, silently counting off.
"Well, last count, there were about five thousand of us, Mares, Stallions and Foals." Applejack whistled, but Apple Bloom's eyes had a distinct look of sadness.
"That ain't nothin' to shake a stick at." Applejack tried to chase the look out of her sister's face. "Five thousand, why, that's almost half o' the population o' Ponyville.
Apple Bloom's expression took on an edge of anger, but she kept her voice level. "That's five thousand ponies from all over Equestria. Barely three hundred of us made it outta Ponyville, and we lost almost half of those in the first few months before we were able to dig into these here caves."
Applejack blushed, and tried to swallow the lump that had formed in the back of her throat. Apple Bloom said nothing, but turned back towards the stairs. Applejack followed her, but as she did so she felt the scaffolding begin to rumble. The vibrations didn't seem to bother Apple Bloom, who continued ascending, but Applejack's nervousness at being this high up only increased as the vibrations gained in intensity. As Applejack was about to ask Apple Bloom what was going on, she saw the source of the rumbling. A large platform, almost filling the cross section of the shaft, was moving up towards them, running along tracks set into the scaffolding that also held the stairs. It was too dark to make out the details, but as it whipped past them Applejack saw a large machine of some kind on the platform. Apple Bloom continued upward undaunted, and so Applejack steeled herself and continued to follow her. She'd been doing a lot of that lately, she noticed.
The platform came to a halt a few flights above them, forming the ceiling of the shaft. Applejack was grateful she wouldn't have to be suspended in the air for much longer, and the two of them quickly closed the distance. The top of the scaffolding was covered with wooden planks and a trap door, but as they approached it Applejack heard the sounds of hooves and, incongruously, running water. The juxtaposition puzzled her until her sister flung open the trap door, exposing another large cavern.
Applejack took stock of her new surroundings, but her eyesight was hampered by the overall darkness of the cave. This new cavern was at least half again as large as the dining cavern, roughly oval in shape, and seemingly lit only by the dim glow of the green fungus. The faint green glow cast all the ponies and equipment in the cavern, of which there was no small number of either, in a dark gloom. Applejack could just make out a track that was set along the edge of the cavern, and several ponies who were jogging and running along it. Above it, the rock walls seemed to be inset with loops and walls that provided an obstacle course for flyers, and her eyes strained to make out several pegasi who were flying through it. The running water sound came from a river, to which Applejack had to do a double take, that sprung from the rocks on one end of the cavern and neatly bisected it. Following its flow with her eyes, she noticed for the first time that one of the walls of the was inset with sparkling stones against black rock that sparkled like stars.
It wasn't until a group of three pegasi, flying towards the wall at full speed, curved upward and disappeared that Applejack realized that it wasn't a wall at all, but the actual night sky. She didn't recall giving an audible squeak, or jumping three feet to the left, but when she looked up at what her side had just made contact with, she saw Apple Bloom's sympathetic face.
"Relax." She tried to reassure Applejack. "This is the air wing's cave. You can't see it from the sky, and we seal it up when the sun comes out. Durin' the day it jus' looks like a waterfall, nothin' special."
Applejack was about to open her mouth to ask what an "air wing" was, when she suddenly found her jaw had already dropped as a familiar orange pegasus trotted their way.
Scootaloo had grown into a breathtaking young mare. Her outstretched wings, still pearled with droplets of water from a quick cooling bath in the running stream, were a far cry from the stubby filly's wings she remembered. She was wearing a leather helmet and flight goggles, but nothing else, so unlike the other two Cutie Mark Crusaders she had met so far, she could actually see Scootaloo's cutie mark. Despite the gloom, she could make out what looked like a phoenix, a long fiery trail behind it, on her sister's friend's flank.
"General." Scootaloo saluted Apple Bloom, who returned it in kind. Of all the ponies she had met so far, Scootaloo's voice had changed the most. It had shifted to a deep alto, with only the barest hint of a gravelly undertone. Her eyes sparkled in the starlight, friendly yet determined, but she spared barely a glance to Applejack while her hoof was still held to her forehead.
"Captain." Apple Bloom replied, before dropping the salute. Only then did Scootaloo allow herself to openly stare at Applejack.
"So the rumors are true, aren't they?" Applejack simply smiled, which seemed to set Scootaloo aback a bit. Apple Bloom's face remained impassive.
"Captain Scootaloo, we have reason t' believe that there may be other... visitors from our past out there. They may be alone, and afraid, and we need t' get t' them before the Windys do." Scootaloo returned her eyes to the general, nodding slowly.
"My team is ready to fly out, sir." Apple Bloom nodded as well.
"That's great, but there's not so fast. We're going to be putting Project Firefly into effect." Scootaloo looked shocked.
"Firefly? What do we need that for, sir?" Apple Bloom didn't say anything, just turned to look at her sister. After a beat, Scootaloo did the same, and then a look of understanding dawned on her face. Applejack still felt left in the dark.
"What? What's this 'project Fire-whatsit', and why are y'all lookin' at me like that?" Apple Bloom returned her gaze to Scootaloo.
"Y'all have till dawn to get her trained and ready to fly. I want you out there at first light. AJ will brief you on what you're lookin' for."
Applejack felt a sinking feeling in her belly, and her ears perked up at the word "fly". Nervously, she glanced at the hunk of machinery that had ridden the elevator that passed them. She could see Sweetie Belle fiddling with it, a device of brass and wood and wide, fabric wings. Wings. She gulped.
"I thought I was jus' briefin' the pegasi. Y'all ain't expectin' me to actually fly that thing, are y'all?" Her voice was almost petulant, though she tried to put on a brave face. She hopped the light was too dim for the other ponies to see her knees trembling.
Apple Bloom looked stoic. "Sorry, sis, there's been a change of plans." She looked at Scootaloo
"Relax, miss Applejack. I've taken loads of ponies out on Firefly before. It's easy enough for a foal to fly, and completely idiot-proof." She knew Scootaloo was trying to reassure her, but she she only felt more nervous as she saw Sweetie Belle and another unicorn touching their horns to a pair of large metal cylinders strapped underneath each wing, a dull glow of magic surrounding them both and casting the ponies in front of her into stark relief.
Apple Bloom took a step forward and placed a hoof on Applejack's shoulder. "Sis, you're the only one who's seen them in fifteen years. I need your eyes out there, you know what you're lookin' for. And if y'all do find them, you'll be the best one to explain to them what's goin' on. And besides." She gestured towards the Firefly. "Somepony has to bring them back on her anyway, it might as well be you.
Applejack still felt cold in her stomach, but she nodded. "I trust y'all sis. If you say I need to be out there, then I'll fly for you." Applebloom nodded, then leaned forward as if to nuzzle her sister. She stopped after closing about half the distance, looking around at the faces of curious ponies pointed in their direction, then pulled back, offering a salute instead. Applejack returned it nervously. Scootaloo saluted as well, then Apple Bloom turned and, without another word, headed towards a tunnel set into the wall behind her, disappearing from sight.
Scootaloo turned to Applejack, a questioning look on her face. Applejack sighed. "Well, what's next?" Scootaloo grinned.
"Now, you get suited up."