“So ya sure this ain’t gonna backfire?”
It was early morning at Sweet Apple Acres, a fairly normal time for Applejack to be awake and in the fields. What wasn’t quite so ordinary was the presence of her friends, the other five elements of harmony. While the farm pony would usually be happy to have them around, this wasn’t one of those times.
“I’m certain, Applejack. I’ve done all the necessary calculations, and nothing can go wrong.” Twilight Sparkle was circling one of the apple trees, a stick floating behind her, scratching marks into the dry earth.
The earth pony herself was standing a few metres away, or a ‘safe distance’ as Twilight had called it, seriously reconsidering her agreement with this madness. She glanced to her side, where Pinkie Pie and Rarity stood. The former with wide, impatient eyes, and the latter looking downright bored. Fluttershy was another metre or so back, making a poor attempt to shield herself with her hair, her body positioned to run at a moment's notice. Judging from the extra ordinary Fluttershy like behaviour, it seemed she was as sceptical as Applejack about the safety of this spell. Spike was, understandably, back at the library, fast asleep. Not even the promise of new magic could have woken him from his lie in.
“Now that’s not to say that it will work.” Applejack realised Twilight was continuing and brought her attention back to her friend. “There’s always a certain amount of trial and error required. What I learn from this first, absolutely safe, practice run can be used to perfect the spell in the future.”
“So what yer sayin’ is that ya’ll will probably be here tomorrow mornin’, tryin’ the same darn spell?”
“Precisely.” Twilight beamed, Applejack’s not so subtle complaint passing right over her head.
It seemed Twilight’s enthusiasm had not died down overnight. She’d been like this for weeks, all because she had discovered the existence of some new branch of magic. Applejack had paid it no mind. Twilight was always going on about some new spell or book or whatever. No need to go fussing over things she didn’t understand. That was, until yesterday. Twilight had come racing up to Sweet Apple Acres, begging the confused cowpony to let her practice her spell on one of the apple trees. She had seemed too excited that Applejack hadn’t the heart to refuse her, no matter what reservations she had, or how little she had understood Twilight’s ramblings.
“Perhaps, if it’s possible, the next time the spell is done, it could be used on a tree outside Ponyville.” Fluttershy suggested diplomatically, to Applejack’s appreciation. The pegasus was nervously glancing between the marks on the ground, and the apple tree.
“Oh no, that won’t do.” Applejack’s hopes dropped. “The subject will need to be an apple tree each time, to keep the experiments fair,” Twilight explained, as if it was obvious. She finished the marks on the floor and looked back on her work. A large, intricate design stretched out around the plant, showing the past half an hour of Twilight’s efforts. “And Applejack’s trees were necessary. The visibility of the spells effects on the apples is far more telling than any other tree.”
Twilight, oblivious to Applejack’s sarcasm, trotted away from the tree and re-joined her friends. “Now, I’m sure I don’t have to say this, but I must insist that you all keep a safe distance from the circle. There’s no telling what this magic could do to a pony. If so much as-” She trailed off, eyelids sinking into an exasperated look Applejack was familiar with. Turning back to the tree, the unicorn raised her voice. “Rainbow! How many times do I have to tell you?”
A rustling in the leaves and a flash of cyan betrayed Rainbow Dash’s location. She poked her head out the branches, blinking sleep out of her eyes. “Huh? Oh…” Leaping out of the tree, she spread her wings, and slowly glided down next to Twilight. “Heh, sorry Twi. Not my fault you picked the perfect tree for napping in.”
Twilight rolled her eyes, and Dash gave her hair an affectionate ruffle with her wing. Giggling uncontrollably at her friend’s aggravated look, she didn’t even flinch when Twilight picked her up with her telekinesis, and unsympathetically dumped her on the ground next to the other ponies. Applejack let a small smile filter through her concerned appearance as she noticed the blush on Twilight’s face. Not allowing this display to break her formal act, the unicorn drew her head up in pride.
“Now, as I explained before, I have gathered you here to help me test my recent foray into time magic.”
“Well, you only gathered Applejack.” Pinkie Pie interrupted, to Twilight’s obvious chagrin. It seemed the pink pony’s uncharacteristic silence while she was entranced by the actions before had to be broken eventually. “The rest of us are here because we love watching you make crazy science magic.”
“Yes, Pinkie, I know. I didn’t feel that nee-”
“Well, that’s not entirely true,” Rarity added. “I’m only here because this magic show is keeping Fluttershy and me from the spa.”
“Rarity!” Applejack snapped, Rarity having once again gotten under her skin. “Twilight’s gone and put all kinds’a effort into this spell of hers. At least try and show some support!”
“Oh, you have me wrong, darling,” Rarity hurriedly returned. “I’m fully supportive, and I’m very proud of her. Her magic is just dazzling in comparison to mine. But it’s been over three days since I’ve been to the spa, and I can just feel the grime in my coat.”
“Cry me a river, Rare.”
“Girls!” Twilight’s rise in volume caught Applejack’s attention, as it did the other four. “If you’re quite done… As I was saying, time magic. My intention is to increase the speed in which the apples grow in the trees.” Applejack opened her mouth to point out her opinion on the matter, but Twilight shot her a glare. “An intention that, I am fully aware, Applejack isn’t entirely behind, which is why I don’t plan on continuing the spell with all her trees.” She gave Applejack an understanding smile, and then continued under her breath. “Which is a waste of an opportunity, but never mind, they aren’t my trees.” So much for understanding.
A faint glow appeared in Twilight’s horn as she turned. “Now stay behind me, whatever you do.” Watching the glow spread to the tree, Applejack laughed at the notion. As if she had any plans to do so. Despite the bright morning weather, she could swear the sky began to darken as the tree, along with the markings, brightened with Twilight’s recognisable shade of pink. A deep rumbling could be heard, like a heavy bass behind a wall, threatening Applejack with a headache. If all this wasn’t convincing her that this was some serious magic, the sweat on Twilight’s face, and the buckling of her legs did the job. She considered stepping forward to check if the unicorn was okay, but the voice of common sense in her head kept her back. Twilight could probably do without the distraction. It was best to just sit back, and watch the light show. She could clean up the inevitable mess afterwards.
Then, out of the corner of Applejack’s eye, a flash of red. Apple Bloom, in all her curious, childlike naivety, came trotting over to the tree. No doubt the noise and lights had brought her out of the farmhouse, and over to investigate. In retrospect, Applejack’s next actions were a little overprotective, or downright stupid. But that’s how being a big sister goes.
“Apple Bloom!” she shouted, loud enough to get the filly’s attention. “Stay away from it!”
Twilight, who had not noticed the newest addition to the group, certainly heard the panicked cry in her ear. Flinching in surprise, her head twisted. This, evidently, was not supposed to happen.
Apple Bloom turned back, undoubtedly to question her older sister’s command, like any little sister would, but whatever was spoken was instantly drowned out. The apple tree, in a blinding flash, exploded, temporarily deafening all present.
Thrown backwards with the force of the explosion, Applejack curled into a ball, lessening the pain as she smacked into the hard soil. Taking less than a second to wince, she looked for where the tree once stood. Through the blur of her eyes and smoke in the air, the effects was still clearly visible. The spell was completely disregarding the markings Twilight had made, and the glow spread like ripples on a pond, radiating out from the blast crater. Wondering why she hadn’t aborted the spell, Applejack glanced over at Twilight, and received an immediate answer. She was no longer in control. Floating in mid-air, eyes glowing pure white, Twilight was an imposing sight. The other ponies were dotted around, also blown back by the failed spell. Fluttershy was in tears, clutching what could only be a broken leg. Apple Bloom was out cold. Dash, having been the first to act, was on her hooves. Blinking away her confused expression, she barked what looked like a command at Applejack, but the ringing hadn’t subsided, and the message was lost. The pegasi wasn’t waiting for a reply, however. She leaped up, spread her wings, and tackled Twilight in mid-air.
At first it looked like it worked. The pink glow died instantly, the darkened sky returned to normal, and the force of Dash’s leap brought Twilight crashing to the ground at Applejack’s hooves.
Gingerly getting off her victim, Dash shot Applejack a glare. “Or don’t catch her. Whatever.” Her voice was heavily muffled to Applejack’s ears.
“Sorry, RD. Couldn’t hear yah.” Her response was unfocused as her eyes scanned her friends. Pinkie Pie looked fine, and was helping the now conscious Apple Bloom to her hooves. Rarity, her hair slightly damp with blood, was using her limited knowledge of magic on Fluttershy’s ruined leg.
“Nothing can go wrong, my flank!” Dash appeared to be ranting. “What the hay was that, Twi!?”
She waited for a moment for an explanation that never came. Twilight was chillingly motionless. A cold fear washed over Applejack.
“Twi! Twi, c’mon! I’m not really angry!” Dash’s voice matched Applejack’s concerns. She was next to the unconscious pony, nuzzling her shoulder, her eyes wide with distress.
Applejack shakily took a step forward, reaching out to her friend. “Sugarcube?” In her peripherals, she could see the others diverting their attention to the downed mare. “Can… can yah hear me?” As Dash’s motions turned desperate, Applejack’s hoof neared Twilight’s horn. Something was telling her she needed to touch it. “Please get up.” Now inches from the tip of the horn, a soft, pink spark arched between the two ponies.
Twilight’s bright, white eyes snapped open.
With a heart stopping lurch, Applejack was pulled backwards. Or at least, that’s what it felt like. Her vision rushed away from her. She could see Twilight blinking, her eyes returning to normal; Dash frozen in shock, her expression mirroring the same confusion Applejack was feeling; Rarity running towards them in a panicked gallop. As her senses slipped away from her, she could swear a chorus of voices were shouting her name.
Then, like a candle snuffed out, there was nothing.
“Get up, mud pony.”
The deep voice was welcomed like a blaring alarm early in the morning. Applejack kept her eyes closed, refusing to open them until her head stopped spinning. It felt like the morning after a night of enjoying Sweet Apple cider, sickness and all.
She wasn’t dead then. It felt a little morbid that her first thought was that, but it was a fairly important position to rule out. This pain was an earthly one. That was for sure. Not many more conclusions could be made until she opened her eyes, which wasn’t happening any time soon.
“I said, get up!” This time the voice was joined with pain. A sharp blow to her stomach. So much for staying ignorant.
Carefully opening her eyes, letting in the bright sun, she gave her rude accoster a look. She was met with perhaps the most terrifying view of her life. Staring down at her was a pony, or at least she assumed it was one. It was entirely concealed in black armour, polished to a perfect finish. The face was covered by what looked like a modified gas mask, tinted glass hiding the eyes, and an emotionless circular grill where the mouth would be.
Jumping back, and to her hooves, she noticed the terrifying creature was flanked by two more, both identical. They were pegasi, she noticed. Wings were stiffly folded at their sides, covered in black material to match the armour. Their tails were presumably tucked in their disturbing shells. The only feature on them of note were two slim boxes strapped under each wing, with circular, hollow tubes protruding from them. All six of these, Applejack noted, were pointed directly at her.
“How the hell did you end up here?” the lead pony asked, mouth grill glowing slightly as he talked. The voice was no longer shouting, but it was dangerously low. Applejack realised he was waiting for her to say something wrong. “Ponyville District is strictly off limits to your kind. If you have a C-14 waiver form, it’d better be in front of my eyes before you say a bucking word.” The soldier, for lack of a better word, on the speaker’s left barked a rough laugh. Applejack didn’t get the joke.
“I… what?” Applejack eloquently replied. What was her kind? And why was Ponyville off limits? In her confusion she glanced around, taking in her surroundings. That’s when she realised how wrong everything was.
Giant glass buildings surrounded her, stretching high into the heavens. Between the buildings, the ground was an impeccable white marble. Ponies were milling around, paying Applejack and her three new friends little attention, all in fancy outfits Applejack would have expected to see adorning the mannequins in Rarity’s boutique. It took her a moment to realise they were all unicorns. Every single one. At the corners of the square she found herself in stood more soldiers. All pegasi. Overhead floated what looked like brightly coloured carriages, the likes of which had taken her to the Grand Galloping Gala. The only difference was the lack of ponies pulling, and the lack of wheels. But this made sense seeing as they were all floating. It made complete sense.
Applejack could feel her headache getting worse.
At the far end of the square stood the tallest building within sight. Its tip was dizzyingly high. But what was most disturbing were the words emblazoned on its side. Sweet Apple Banking Corporation. As Applejack tried to process this information, the soldier had clearly become impatient.
“I’m going to take your moronic confusion as a no. That means,” He cleared his throat. “You are under arrest for trespassing, as detailed in section 26, chapter 18 of Equestrian law. As an earth pony, you have no right to a trial, and will be detained at Ponyville District jail until further notice. If you attempt to resist arrest, you will be terminated. You have absolutely no rights to further speech, government approved or otherwise. If you do not understand, it is due to your own faults.”
No. This wasn’t Applejack’s fault that she didn’t understand. The world had just gone completely insane. Ignoring the rest of his absurd speech, the ‘earth pony’ comment was sticking out like a sore thumb. “What’s mah race suppo-”
She had barely started speaking when the lead soldier’s hoof shot upwards, cracking into the side of her head. “They never learn,” she heard the soldier grunt, as for the second time in what seemed like ten minutes, Applejack slipped away from reality.
How dare they!?
Applejack was furious. And her complete confusion wasn’t helping matters. Being mistreated, and having a justifiable reason for why it was unfair was one thing. Waking up in a cold, dark cell, with no idea where you were, or why you were there, was another. There was a horrible fear as well, but she didn’t have the courage to face that yet, so it was being smothered with rage. She didn’t even have a target for this darn rage aside from the solid metal wall she was bucking.
Her hat was missing too. She knew it shouldn’t be bothering her, but it was.
First thing’s first, there was the matter of location. The soldier had told her she was in Ponyville, but that wasn’t right at all. She was in some bizarre world where the buildings were larger than mountains, and crazy armoured pegasi wandered the street. It didn’t make any sense.
An easier question was how she got here. It must have been Twilight, somehow. She was sure Twi had no intention of whisking Applejack away to who knows where, but… confound it; she had assured them nothing would go wrong! In Applejack’s books, this was filed under ‘pretty darn wrong’. If Twilight was the only way she could get back, and Twilight was in Ponyville while Applejack was in alternate dimension-Ponyville, things weren’t looking hopeful. Had the others come with her? Would she never see any of them ever again?
There’s that horrible fear again. Change topic, change topic.
What could she do now? That was the last question on her mind. Well, slamming her hooves against this wall wasn’t helping. She sat down and gave the cell another look over. It was a solid cube, with a tiny window at the very top of the far wall, and a thick door at the other end, firmly locked with no handle. Her choices of activities was pretty limi-
Wait. Voices! She could hear muffled speech on the other side of the door.
Creeping over, she was nearly close enough to have her head taken off when the cell door swung open. Standing in the doorway were two of Applejack’s good friends, the faceless pegasi. Between them was a disgruntled earth filly. Before Applejack had time to react, the filly was thrown forward into the cell, and the door once again slammed shut.
“Bucking hell, they could have asked nicely!” The filly got to her hooves, and brushed herself down. Then, turning to Applejack like she was running into a stranger on the first day of school, she smiled. “Name’s Idared. You?”
“Applejack,” she replied, her mouth on auto-pilot. Her brain, on the other hand, had been shut down by the filly’s nonchalant attitude. Idared, as she had said, was a sharp red colour. Or at least Applejack assumed she was supposed to be, behind the filth covering her coat. Her short mane and tail, just as filthy, with the added benefit of being a tangled mess, were a dull yellow-green colour. Due to the state she was in, her cyan eyes were the brightest thing on her, and seemed to jump out at Applejack. She had yet to get her cutie mark, unless dirt was a special talent.
“Oh? Another Apple family member, huh? Small world.” Well, there was another question to add to the list. “So how’d you end up in the slammer?”
“I… don’t know?”
“Ah, the usual then. Wish I could say the same. But in my books, sneaking into Ponyville and stealing fresh apple pie is a victimless crime. Those bucking unicorns have more food than they know what to do with, know what I mean?”
Applejack did not.
Idared’s grin faded with Applejack’s confused silence. “I’m, uh… I’m getting the feeling this is your first time behind metaphorical bars. Where you from?”
“Ponyville,” was Applejack’s immediate reply. She quickly amended that. “Not this Ponyville though. A different one. I ain’t sure what ‘this Ponyville’ is, to be honest with ya’. I just kinda woke up here.”
Now it was Idared’s turn to look shocked. It quickly turned into excitement, as some realisation dawned on her. “You’re from outside the city! Oh Celestia, that’s amazing! I didn’t know there were any ponies out there anymore. How did you get in?”
“I’m not completely sure. Like I said, I just sorta woke up here. I reckon I am from outta the city though. Place I’m from’s as rural as ya can get.” The filly’s excitement was, strangely enough, calming down Applejack’s nerves, which had been on edge from the moment she had greeted Twilight that morning.
“Oh, that’s weird. Well, whatever. It’s still cool. I guess I should give you the proper introduction, if you’ve never heard of this place.” She coughed dramatically. “Welcome to Nova Equestria, the only free city between the zebra and griffon kingdoms.” She paused, and then corrected herself. “That, uh… that was sarcastic. I forgot you might not pick up on that. This city’s the damn opposite of free.” Applejack nodded, taking it in her stride. Idared continued, putting huge emphasis on the sarcasm. “Lead by our glorious leader, The Chancellor, the city is a haven for every kind of pony, protecting us against the harshness of a wilderness. Under the watchful eye of Canterlot and Cloudsdale, we are monitored daily for our own pro-”
“Hold on, hold on,” Applejack cut her off. “Canterlot? Cloudsdale?”
“Uh, yeah. Canterlot is the government’s seat of power in the city. The Chancellor’s palace is at the top of that mountain. Cloudsdale is the government’s floating fortress of sunshine and butterflies. Keeps our enemies away and its citizens in line.” She rolled her eyes. “Why? Heard of them?”
“Y- yeah. Somethin’ like that.” Applejack was feeling very out of depth here. Was this some kind of alternate universe? Or someplace she’d never heard of that just liked copying names?
“I’m not surprised.” Idared continued, not picking up on Applejack’s confusion. “They’re probably visible from miles and miles away from the city walls. Wouldn’t know, of course. Nopony is allowed in or out. They say it’s for our own protection, but then how do all those griffons and zebras get around without any harm, huh? It just makes no sense.” She finally noticed her companion’s lost expression and decided to change topics. “Anyway, like I said. The Chancellor is the undisputed leader. Charming old bitch. As the last remaining alicorn, she’s the one that built Nova Equestria, segregated the different pony races, and formed the government. It’s all really a façade though. She’s in control. Everypony knows that. Parliament members mysteriously go missing if they disagree with her. She seems nice, from when she makes formal appearances, but it’s all just propaganda.”
Applejack nodded along, her thoughts still filtering through Idared’s words, picking out what was important, and discarding the parts that made no sense at all. One of the filly’s earlier words struck her as quite odd, however. “Ya said ya were Apple family, right? Who’s in ya family?”
“Oh, right.” Idared began rattling off names, a touch of pride in her voice. “My dad was Sturmer Pippin. Stubborn old nutcase, but an awesome father. My mum was Pinova. She was, y’know, a little frail, but never let it stop her keeping up with dad. Only grandparent I knew was Knobbed Russet. Not all together in the head, but spoilt me far more than my parents liked. There’s uncle Zester too. He was never good with kids, so it was a good thing I’m good with adults.” Applejack recognised none of the names. Perhaps this was some distant side of the Apple family she hadn’t heard about. Or, giving the theory more fuel, an alternative universe version of the Apple family.
The use of past tense was noticeable though. Applejack didn’t want to say anything. Idared answered it for her, however. “All gone now. But the Apple family ain’t completely down for the count. Not while I’m still moving! And, I guess, you too. Never realised there was more Apple family out there.” She gave Applejack’s side a playful punch. Applejack could only give her a weak smile in return. For such a young pony, Idared was clearly independent. She didn’t need Applejack coddling her.
Still, she couldn’t help the “I’m sorry,” that escaped her lips. It sounded so weak as soon as it entered the bland room.
“Don’t worry about it.” Idared waved it off. “Gotta focus on the present. Speaking of-” She grinned wide, revealing her entire mouth, one silver tooth glinting in the weak light. With a fiddle of her tongue, the tooth seemed to pop out her mouth and into her waiting hoof. “The interesting thing about Ponyville jail is its lack of security. Y’see, for such a peaceful section of the city, no one ever thinks of recording conversations in the cells, or searching the prisoners before locking them up, or,” Idared leaned closer, a devilish glint in her eye. “And this is the important one. Checking the outside walls for cleverly hidden explosives.”
“I could get apple pie from easier places, AJ.”
Did she just say explosives?
“I chose Ponyville for a damn good reason.”
She did, didn’t she?
“This plan’s been in motion for a good month, and you’re here to see the grand finale. You lucky pony.”
With a casual flick, the silver tooth was thrown to the window. Passing through the bars, it caught the sun for a moment, a flash of light dancing on Applejack’s vision, before it disappeared.
There was a second of silence, like a spell had been cast on the small cell. Applejack dared not break it, fearing the repercussions.
“I like you. Trust you, in fact.” Idared had no such reservations, it seemed. “Stick close to me if you don’t want to die.”
As if on cue, all hell broke loose.
With no other option, Applejack had done exactly as Idared had suggested, and stuck close to her. The moment the walls had exploded inwards, showering the two ponies with plaster and metal, Idared ran. With her hearing, once again, gone, Applejack had galloped after her. She had been aware of a gash on her side, blood dribbling into her coat, but pushed through the pain. Around her, more prisoners, nearly all earth ponies, had been sprinting for freedom, all in various states of shock. As a sudden, blaring alarm cut through her ringing ears, she had followed Idared down a smaller street, around a few more corners, the sights of the buildings around her ignored, and straight into an open manhole. Idared had closed it behind them, and descended into the inky darkness.
That’s where she now walked, wading through knee deep sewer water, her tail raised for cleanliness. She gasped for breath, adrenaline rushing through her body. She had nearly died. If one piece of shrapnel had flown in the wrong direction, she could have lost a limb. As it was, the only injury she had was the one on her side. The bleeding wound was painful, but already closing.
Idared had motioned for silence, so that’s how their journey was going. Pushing past the smell, the pain, the confusion, Applejack made it her mission to just get through the day with her life intact. And, unless she was going to suffocate from holding her breath, that was proving fairly easy. They literally spent the next couple of hours in the cramped darkness, making their way through the underbelly of the city. It gave her time to think things through. The situation, while still absurd, was manageable. She had to just keep her wits about her. Don’t assume anything about this place, think on your hooves, find any clues on how to get home. The age old adventurer slogan, ‘trust nopony’, couldn’t really apply to the element of honesty. She’d probably go insane before following this one through to the bitter end. Idared seemed nice anyway, aside from the whole nearly blowing Applejack up part, so she had been nominated as the pony to trust.
Interrupting her thoughts, Applejack nearly walked into Idared, who had stopped directly under a ladder. She motioned upwards. “Up there is our destination. Are you sure you’re ready?” Her expression was solemn.
Applejack gulped. “I reckon I am. Why? Somethin’ yer not tellin’ me?”
“Well, nothing really. Only, this is sort of… the Equestrian Resistance’s main base. We’re sort of a freedom fighter group, or as the government calls us,” She rose on her back legs and made air quotes. “Terrorists.”
“…Yer a terrorist!” The signs had been there, but Applejack was still shocked by the news.
“No, no. Freedom fighter!” Idared waved her hooves, indicating Applejack to keep her voice down. “I mean, sure, it’s not as easy to say, but it doesn’t paint us as murderous psychopaths.” Her voice still held the same carefree tone she’d had since they first met. “Point is, you can come up with me now, or stay down here. Once you’ve seen the base, you’ll probably have to join us, or we’ll, uh, have to kill you. But you should totally join. We can be bunk mates!” To be honest, it wasn’t the most convincing reason Applejack had ever heard. “Your only other choice is to stay down here, I guess. The government does have little flying deadly robots down here. We’ve missed them so far, seeing I know the sewers like the back of my hoof. But you… yeah, not so much.”
Silence followed this, as Applejack debated the option of dying versus joining this resistance group. It didn’t take her long. “I suppose I ain’t got a choice. Lead the way.”
Idared’s grin returned, and she began her ascent up the ladder. “That’s the spirit. You’ll fit right in. You’re an earth pony, after all.” Yeah, that was another thing Applejack had to query. As soon as she had entered this city, her race had been the topic of most conversations.
Applejack began following, her dirty hooves slipping on the rusty metal rungs. “I still ain’t okay with all this terrorist talk though.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Idared’s assured her dismissively. Then, echoed by the pipe, Applejack heard her whisper. “Really shouldn’t have mentioned that part…” Idared’s position as the pony to trust was quickly fading.
Reaching the top of the ladder, where another manhole cover blocked their passage, Idared dexterously wiped her grimy hoof on her coat, and begin tapping some kind of tune on the metal disk. No wonder the filly looked like she needed a long bath. The tapping stopped, replaced by a soft hissing, and then the manhole cover swung open on its hinge with a squeal. Expecting to find herself outside again, Applejack was surprised as she emerged in a small underground room, the rough stone walls dripping with water. Idared trotted over to a tap jutting out of the wall, indicating Applejack to follow, and began washing the sewage off her. Now, Applejack wasn’t exactly on Rarity’s level of cleanliness, but even she realised it would take more than a trickle of cold water to wash the smell of sewage off her. Nonetheless, she kept her opinions to herself as Idared led her up a short flight of stairs, and down a featureless corridor. Doors lined the walls; all closed, but soft murmuring could be heard behind them. There was something unreal about the place. Something that put Applejack’s nerves on edge. Every building she had been in back home had character. Even the unwelcome home of Uncle and Aunt Orange’s place felt more alive than these cold, grey, metallic walls. There was, however, the door at the far end of corridor. Lit by the soft light in the ceiling, the wooden surface seemed welcoming. Almost like a familiar friend. She lingered there for a moment, reading the nameplate nailed slightly crookedly to its unpolished surface. Commander Firefly.
To her right, Idared coughed lightly. “That’s our leader’s room. New recruits don’t go through her. She can be a little,” Idared looked to the ceiling, trying to find the right words. “A little harsh. If you end up meeting her, don’t get put off if she doesn’t like you straight off the bat.” Suddenly the door seemed a lot less friendly.
Idared indicated a side passage Applejack had missed. This led to a spiral staircase, which give the impression of climbing at least three floors. The farm pony hadn’t realised how deep down they had been. Sounds of laughter, conversations, and hooves on wood reached her ears as they climbed. The cold lighting of the lower level surrendered to warmer tones, and as they reached the top, the sense of unease had been replaced entirely by an excited nervousness. A little of Rainbow Dash must have rubbed off on her. This wasn’t an exciting situation in the slightest!
Swinging the stairwell door open, Idared revealed the source of the noise. A large hall, modelled to look like a tavern, filled with earth ponies. Some were at the bar, collecting various alcohol; a few dotted around a huge notice board, discussing the messages; a couple at a bright screen, tapping things into a machine that wouldn’t look out of place in Twilight’s basement. Most, however, were seated around the tables, deep in either light-hearted, drunken conversations, or serious discussions. Only one or two turned to check who had entered the room, and none of them kept looking longer than a second.
“This is the main meeting hall,” Idared was saying, weaving through the tables. Applejack jumped forward to join her. “The door at the far end leads to the exit, the door on the right leads to the shooting range, this door here,” She stopped in front of the final door. “This is Glenlivet’s office. Second in command, leader of the resistance militia, and foster father of li’l old me.” As if to prove a point, Idared burst through to door without so much of a knock, dragging Applejack behind her. “Glen. I’m home!”
The office was a mess. Paper was strewn about all over the place, covering all the surfaces available. Pinboards were covered in notes and newspaper clippings. The light overhead, three bulbs working six bulbs blown, hung above the large central table, barely holding up the stacks of books resting on its grubby surface. The far wall was made entirely of screens, all showing various locations and ponies that went unrecognised by Applejack. Only the briefest flash of a castle, perching on the side of a mountain, was familiar. The sound, however, seemed only to be coming from one individual screen at the centre. A large chair was facing away from the two ponies, silhouetted by the screens’ light.
“Keep it down, lass,” came a gruff voice from the chair. A hoof reached out and tapped a remote positioned on the armrest. The screens all changed, showing an enlarged picture of that one central screen. “This is important.”
Idared, looking extremely irritated, elected to keep a sulky silence. At a guess, she had been looking forward to showing off her close relationship with the second in command to her new friend. Applejack expertly quelled the chuckle threatening to escape her lips, reminded of how Apple Bloom can act around the other cutie mark crusaders.
She turned her attention back to the screen. A cream coloured unicorn wearing a bow tie was staring directly at Applejack. It was a little unnerving. “This pony is dangerous, armed or otherwise. Citizens of Nova Equestria are advised to approach with caution.” It took Applejack a moment to realise this wasn’t intended for her, or anypony in the room for that matter. It seemed a general announcement. “She is wanted alive. If killed, those responsible will be dealt with severely.” The technology in this world was incredible. Twilight had shown her some amazing things before, but nothing like this. “Capture of the pony, and anypony aiding her, will be rewarded generously.”
The image on the screen suddenly changed, and Applejack’s thought process came to a screeching stop. There, on the bright display, was a rotating image of none other than herself, stetson and all. The voice was continuing. “I repeat, she may be dangerous, so approach with caution. She is currently the most wanted individual in Nova Equestria. Last recorded location of the fugitive, who goes by the name Applejack, was in East Ponyville.” Fugitive? Most wanted? What had she done to deserve this? She glanced at Idared for an answer, but her hopes were dashed by the equally confused expression on the filly’s face.
“Well isn’t that something…” The voice in the chair had started talking again, as the unicorn continued to repeat the information. “Idared. New mission. I want you to find this pony,” The chair spun around, revealing its occupant. “And bring her he-” Predictably, his voice cut off in shock.
He was a large pony. Larger than Big Mac, if Applejack had to guess. His charcoal coat was littered with scars, one striking example running from his muzzle down to his shoulder. His auburn mane also looked about Big Mac’s length, but its volume and wild look gave it a much larger appearance. Getting up, his tail was revealed to be of similar style. “Good… good work. Your timing’s improving, lass.” He seemed to take Applejack’s arrival in his stride, with only the shadow of disbelief on his scarred face. Taking a moment to turn and ruffle the filly’s hair, Applejack got a look at his cutie mark. A thistle, framed in the horns of a deer.
“So, Applejack, aye?” The pony in question could only nod in mute silence. “As you can probably guess, I’ve got a few questions to ask you.” He really was taller than Big Mac. His deep brown eyes were turned down to stare at her, seemingly drilling through any resistance she thought of having. “So let’s start with the most obvious one. What’s got the entire city on full alert looking for your valuable flank?”
Dread crept up Applejack’s spine. Valuable. They were going to turn her over for the reward. This day was getting worse and worse. She opened her mouth, about to launch into why she was oblivious, and to beg for help, when the screen behind her made her stop.
The cycle of limited information on Applejack had finished. Now a picture of a violet alicorn filled the screens, a wide smile on her lips that didn’t reach her cold eyes. The unicorn’s voice droned on. “This special report was brought to you by her royal highness,” Applejack’s mouth tried to talk, but nothing came out. “Eternal head of state and government,” Idared tapped her in the side, while Glenlivet calmly lifted an eyebrow in confusion. “And protector of all ponies. High Chancellor Sparkle.”
Twilight Sparkle’s image stayed on the screen for a matter of seconds. Long enough to be perpetually burnt into Applejack’s memories.
“That’s the Chancellor Idared’s been yammerin’ on ‘bout? Twi!?”
Glenlivet gave Applejack a long, cool stare, before wisely speaking. “Who?”
“That big ol’ alicorn on yer magic screens! Twilight Sparkle! That’s the Chancellor!?” Applejack may have been shouting. It was hard to tell. Her attention was on more important issues.
“Chancellor Sparkle? That would be her.” Glenlivet gave Idared a look that spoke a thousand words. Applejack’s sanity was being questioned. Idared shrugged in return.
“What’s wrong wi’ this place!?” The cap had blown on Applejack’s patience. Her confusion had kept her quiet before, but now she wanted answers. “How did Sparkle end up in some fancy seat o’ power?” She had to determine if this Twilight was anything like her Twilight back at home.
“She’s from outside the city,” Idared added, clearing up any misunderstanding Glenlivet may have had.
“That so?” An interested smile tugged at his lips, like a child with a new toy. “Well, there are two stories of how The Chancellor rose to power. The story the government would like you to believe, and the real one. I’ll give you the bullshit first.” He motioned them to come into the room, as Applejack realised she was still lingering at the door. “Over two hundred years ago, Princess Luna, overtaken by greed and jealousy, rose up against Princess Celestia, and turned her to stone.” The names of the princesses certainly caught Applejack’s attention. So they also existed in this world, too? “But before she could take her place as ruler of Equestria, Ms Sparkle, Celestia’s most loyal and powerful student, avenged her teacher, defeating Luna in battle. However, she felt pity for the weak alicorn, and merely banished her from the kingdom.” As he spoke, Applejack could hear the words laced with disgust. “Sparkle selflessly took it upon herself to take control of the sun and moon, and vowed to turn Equestria into a kingdom Celestia would have been proud to call her own.” He trailed off, finishing the story on an incredibly sour note.
“And the real story?” Idared prompted him.
“Oh that?” he continued offhandedly, as if it was a well-known fact. “Sparkle delved into magic she should never have done, and murdered Celestia in cold blood. Luna escaped to who knows where. Sparkle named herself supreme ruler, and royally bucked up Equestria for everypony.”
The first story certainly sounded like her Twilight. But at the same time, it did read like a lie somepony would feed you to explain a situation they messed up. Perhaps it was just the way Glenlivet told it. The second story… yeah, that wasn’t her Twilight in the slightest.
“So what ‘bout the earth pony deal? Why’s mah race such a gosh darn big deal?”
“There are places where it isn’t a big deal? Thank Celestia!” Glenlivet’s voice dropped, his anger evident. “There’s a form of tier structure in this city. Ponies have their place in society, and they have to stick with them. Unicorns, with their long lives and magic and,” his hoof was grinding the ground so hard, Applejack was surprised she couldn’t see sparks. “Superior intellect, are on the top rung. They fill the roles of artists, inventors, politicians. The pegasi, with their ability to fly, agility, and weather control, are automatically enrolled in the army. Why we need such a large army is anypony’s guess. The last war was before I was born. Their main role is keeping the peace, with whatever force necessary. The earth ponies…” His words faltered, and he decided to switch his view from Applejack to the far wall. “The earth ponies, as the strongest, least intelligent ponies, with the shortest lifespan, are given the generous role of labourers. Why bother ensuring safety or basic rights for the workers when they’re just going to die on you soon enough? Why let them live in the rich parts of the city when you can confide them to the slums? They won’t know the difference. They don’t have the mental capa-”
“Glen.” Idared shot him a warning, her eyes steady. The stallion had been gritting his teeth, the words coming out in ragged bursts. Applejack couldn’t blame him. What she was hearing only made her frustration worse.
She wanted more conclusive answers than this. Surely Twilight would be able to answer them, and even give her a means of getting home. That is, if she was anything like the Twilight that Applejack knew. The Chancellor wasn’t being painted in the best of lights so far. She also didn’t realise pony races had different lifespans. It was probably just a result of the different professions and medical care available.
Glenlivet, having composed himself, continued. “That’s where we come in. The Resistance. I don’t know how much Idared’s told you.” He glanced at the filly.
“Nothing at all.”
“Ya told me ya’ll were terrorists.”
“I didn’t!” The filly’s whine, once again, reminded Applejack of her little sister.
“We’re not terrorists.” Glenlivet calmly explained. “We never aim to take pony life unjustly, and everything we do has a direct purpose. Claim food for the slums, release unjustly incarcerated earth ponies, disrupt government operations with no loss of life. We will, when the times call for it, assassinate those who have brought harm to our kind, but that’s only in cases where we have strong evidence that they will repeat their actions.” As he paced round the table, the words came out as if repeated hundreds of times before. “Our goals are simple. Bring equality to Nova Equestria, bring down the tyrant Sparkle, locate Princess Luna and reinstate her on the throne, and turn this city into the peaceful nation it always should have been. These goals may be out of our reach at the moment, but we have hope.” He stopped pacing, giving Applejack a soft, yet proud smile. “We will show them the power and ingenuity of earth ponies. We built this city for them, and we intend to take it back.”
In the silence that followed, long enough for the imaginary applause to ring in Glenlivet’s head, Applejack pondered his words. Whether it was the power of his voice, or the reality of the situation, she felt the stallion was on the right track.
“Course, when I say we, I mean Commander Firefly.” His voice took a humble tone. “She’s the one who began the resistance. Her leadership and organisation are what will win us the day.”
“He has a major crush,” Idared whispered. Glenlivet either couldn’t hear her, or chose not to.
“An’ the city I keep hearin’ ‘bout?” Applejack felt she was on a roll with this Q&A session. “How big are we talkin’ here? An’ why was I getting’ rounded up for bein’ in Ponyville?”
“You were in Ponyville? How in Equestria did you get in by yourself?”
“Long story,” Applejack drawled. Glenlivet merely nodded, and made his way over to a map hanging from the wall.
“This is Nova Equestria.” The map was divided into various sections, and surrounded by a thick line. Applejack assumed that indicated the city walls. At the top of the city were a number of rings, a cartographer’s way of indicating a mountain. A dart had humorously pierced the paper at this point, and was lodged into the wall. Glenlivet’s hoof tapped the bottom right of the map. “This is West Ponyville, unicorn residential housing. Beautiful place. Just above that is East Ponyville. Financial centre of the city. All government sanctioned maps prefer putting Canterlot at the top, so North is off to the left.”
“That’s where you would have been, judging on where you were taken. East Ponyville,” Idared piped in. “Giant glass buildings, right?” Applejack nodded.
“Ponyville and Canterlot are strictly off limits to earth ponies.” The sections he had indicated, plus the mountain, were tinted slightly red. “Not a problem though, as we have plenty of space to live in the slums.” Noting the sarcasm, Applejack watched his hoof skipping the middle and moving to the other side of the map, indicating the largest section of the city. “This is your current location, The Mile. The earliest settlement after Ponyville and Canterlot. It was originally a shanty town, thrown together for the earth ponies building the city. The Chancellor never got around to renovating it, however, and what we’ve ended up with are huge areas of poorly built shacks that we have the honour of residing in. Originally it was called ‘The Dirty Mile’ by the charming unicorns, when it really was just a mile. It was officially renamed The Mile as an attempt to hide its conditions. You’ll mostly hear it being called the slums though.”
“Glen. Information overload.” Idared had a point. This was getting to be too much for Applejack to take in.
“Right, right. The rest of the city is made u-” The filly shot him a glare. “You’ll, uh, pick it up. The only other important part is Cloudsdale, where all the pegasi live. It’s not on the map, but you can’t miss it. Just go outside and look up.”
Applejack hadn’t seen it since winding up here, but maybe that’s because she hadn’t been looking. At the mention of outside, she felt the sudden urge to stretch her legs. Even if they were in the slums, there were always reasons for exercise to clear the head.
“But I feel I’ve become distracted slightly.” The stallion paced away from the map, his voice losing its friendly air. He rested once again in his chair. “The reason I want you here should be obvious. Any enemy of the government is a possible ally of The Resistance. So, let’s hear it.” He crossed his forelegs. “Why do they want you?”
“Ah, well. This is a mite awkward, but yer guess is as good as mine.” She decided to explain as much as she could without revealing her connection to The Chancellor. “Like I was sayin’ t’ Idared, I woke up here. A friend’s magic went all kindsa haywire, and ‘fore I could think I was in yer Ponyville.”
“A friend’s magic?” Glenlivet was sceptical. “A unicorn?”
“Well, yeah. But she’s harmless. Where I’m from there ain’t all this bad blood ‘tween unicorns and earth ponies.”
“Right, right. You mentioned that. And you’ve done nothing that would get the government’s attention.”
“Well, ‘side from the arrest, then gettin’ pulled into Idared’s jailbreak, no!”
“What?” Glen look uncharacteristically confused. “Jailbreak? That was today?”
“Of course it was!” Idared whined. “Where do you think I was all day!?”
“Oh, uh. I wasn’t sure. I assumed making mischief as usual.” The dig was intentional, but Idared remained silent. By her expression, Applejack suspected she was sulking. “Anyway, those aren’t enough reasons to become Equestria’s most wanted. There’s nothing else?”
“Nope,” Applejack lied, the picture of alicorn Twilight still in her memory. Her status as the element of honesty took a blow.
“Well, that’s… odd. The government usually has obvious reasons for wanting a pony captured, even if they never state them. But this one makes no sense at all. Still!” He launched out the chair, trotting up to Applejack. “Now that you’re here, I don’t have much option but to offer you a place in The Resistance. So how’s about it?”
There was an uncomfortable silence that followed. Glenlivet waiting for an answer, and Applejack reluctant to give one. Eventually she spoke. “Can I think it over first? Go for a walk?”
“Well, not really.” The reply was instant. “You know the location of our base, so for all I know you could be a spy for The Chancellor. And, while barely anypony has a television in the slums, you’re still taking a chance by going out right now. There must be somepony’s who’s seen the report on you.” The reasons were pretty conclusive. She felt she had no choice but to agree.
“Wait a sec!” Idared caught Glenlivet’s attention. “She’s been through all sorts of shit since she arrived. Why can’t she just go for a quick walk?”
“Well, as I just said, we have no idea if she’s… she’s… oh no. No you don’t, little missy!” Glenlivet, for some reason, was having trouble looking at Idared. The little pony was fixing him with the most intense glare. “Alright! Fine! She can go. But I’m sending somepony to keep an eye on her.”
“That’s fine by me.” Idared calling the shots caused a noticeable twitch in Glenlivet’s grimace, but he remained silent. Instead, he marched up to the pony, and pulled her to the side of the room.
“So, I see you’ve taken a liking to her, lass?” He was whispering. Was Applejack supposed to be hearing this? Should she say something?
“Yup. Us Apple family members gotta stick together.” Despite the guilt of eavesdropping, Applejack politely remained quiet.
“Right. Apple family.” Glenlivet’s anger seemed to lose momentum. “But seriously. Next time you use your damn Stare on me, you’re banned from the firing range for a week.”
Glenlivet had led Applejack into the main room once again, as Idared enthusiastically waved goodbye, and through the door that the filly had claimed ‘lead to the exit’. After a few soundproof metal hatches, the two of them had emerged in the back room of a shop. Various mechanical parts littered the shelves, and the faint smell of alcohol lingered in the air. Checking for signs of company, Glenlivet strode out on to the main shop floor.
“Tera? Packing up shift?” Applejack followed behind the stallion, her eyes roaming the room. With only four aisles, it was a fairly small shop. The target of Glenlivet’s call still managed to remain hidden. The crooked shelves of the far wall were packed full of whisky, from the highland’s scotch, to Appleloosa style bourbon, to bottles reminiscent of Ponyville’s own blended malt whisky. The remainder of the shop was stocked full of radios. Or, at least, Applejack assumed so. Some reminded her of the ones she knew back home, while others looked like something out of a science fiction book. At the far end, she thought she could spy a window, but what was outside was hidden by the glare of the shop. Everything looked absolutely filthy.
From some distant corner of the shop, a sudden crash was heard, followed by a muffled “Oh shit…”
Glenlivet didn’t move an inch, his expression impassive. “I’ll take that a yes.”
After a moment, a mare appeared from one of the aisles. “H- hey, Glen. What’s up, boss?” Her teal coat clashed horribly with her golden mane, which nearly reached down to her hooves in an untidy mess. It was maybe hypocritical coming from Applejack, but had no one in this world heard of a hairbrush? Resting on the pony’s nose was a pair of crooked glasses, which she was trying to straighten as she stumbled over to the pair, her somewhat lanky legs making a complete mess of things. Her cutie mark consisted of a wrench somewhat awkwardly jutting out the top of a radio, as if somepony had forced it in there. “Uh, that was… you- you don’t have to worry about that sound, kay?”
“This is Tera Hertz, our communications expert.” Glenlivet ignored her. “She also deals with the base’s cover, Whisky and Radios.”
“Oh, sup.” Tera pretended to notice Applejack for the first time. Her voice was so relaxed.
“Good t’meetcha.” Applejack cocked a foreleg slightly in greeting. “Name’s Applejack.”
“Cute accent.” Was that a compliment or sarcasm? “And yeah, this is Whisky and Radios. Bet you can’t guess what we sell.”
“Tera. Take care of closing the shop later. For now, I need you to take Applejack outside. She wants a walk. Keep an eye on her.” His gaze narrowed. “A close eye.”
“Oh snap. A real mission besides selling and fixing this crap? No problem!” Despite the inflection on the last few words, she still sounded like she was half asleep. “And, uh, if you see a smashed bottle around aisle one, that totally wasn’t me.”
Glenlivet rolled his eyes. “Get to it. Oh, and Applejack.” A flicker of concern entered his eyes. “Stay safe.”
“I’ll be back ‘fore you can say ‘apple’, Glenlivet.” She didn’t intend to stay out for long. Ten minutes should be enough to clear her head.
He nodded, eyes returning to normal. “Just Glen’s fine.” And with that, he returned to the back room.
“Once you get to know him, he’s a softie,” Tera explained, after the sounds of sliding metal disappeared, indicating Glen’s decent into the bowels of the base. “That’s the reason why he could never replace the Commander. He gets too caught up with the safety of every one of his little ponies, and the lives of the enemy, to make any decent plans. But dude, Firefly is brutal. Don’t know how she sleeps at night.” Applejack was looking forward less and less to meeting this Commander. If she got lucky, she’d never have to.
Tera turned and led Applejack to the shop entrance. “It feels weird to be babysitting somepony my age though, AJ. I can call you AJ, right? Anyway, just go where you want, I suppose. I’ll get us back here afterwards, no probs.”
“It won’t take long, I reckon. Jus’ want to get a lay o’ the land an’ all.”
Tera giggled slightly. “You’ll get more lay than you’ll probably want. This land ain’t pretty.” And with that, she opened the door to the shop.
Glen hadn’t been kidding. Applejack had thought the inside of the shop was dirty, but compared to the outside it had been a spa. The air was chocking with dust, catching the sickly orange light of the streetlamps, and hiding what was probably a beautiful sunset. The colour seemed to blend with the muddy brown tones of the houses. What may have once been clean corrugated metal was now thick with soil and dirt. What wood that hadn’t collapsed had turned an unhealthy, old shade of rotten brown. Of the two streets stretching from the shop, both were thin as can be, while one was even covered by more makeshift housing built overhead, creating a dimly lit tunnel. As the two mares headed of, picking the brighter route, Applejack couldn’t see a change in the quality of buildings, or streets, if they could even be called that. Voices could be heard from inside the structures as if the walls weren’t even there. Dreading what she was stepping in, she looked up, failing to see even the brightest stars. Through the chocking air, she did see a glimpse of what must have been Cloudsdale, but it was hard to tell.
As she turned back to look at Tera, the other mare was busy lighting a cigarette. “Hmm?” She had obviously noticed Applejack’s expression. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Ya smoke? A mare yer age?”
Tera’s expression looked lost for a moment, before she lightly chuckled. “Dude, where the hell do you come from?”
“Oh, uh. Never mind.” She didn’t feel like going in to her past again. Somepony not treating her like she was completely ignorant would be nice. Tera thankfully had the courtesy to drop the issue.
“Fine. Be all mysterious. Just keep an eye out for rats. They’re pretty bitey round this part of town.”
As Applejack suddenly began paying a lot more attention to the ground, they passed two colts on their right, also smoking. One shot Applejack a wink, while the other flicked their cigarette to the ground. “You two beauties lookin’ fer some company?”
“No thanks.” Tera called, her expression dropping as soon as she passed. “I swear, ever bucking time I’m out at night. You ever get that?”
“Not lately,” Applejack diplomatically replied, not wanting to lie. Maybe taking a walk had been a bad idea. She had held some mistaken belief that the city would be just a larger version of Ponyville, or maybe Manehatten. Instead, she was suffering some serious culture shock.
As the path ahead turned into a tunnel of houses, a stallion stepped out the shadows, directly in their path. Applejack had a feeling her walk was going to get a lot worse. “Well, well. Two lovely mares out for an evenin’ stroll, eh?” Next to her, Tera immediately tensed up. “Lovely weather, is it not?”
“H- hey. We don’t want any trouble, kay?”
“Who said anything about trouble?” He stepped forward. Behind her, Applejack could hear a number of other hooves squelching in the filth that made up the street. “You come with us all nice and quiet like, and there’ll be no trouble at all.”
With her attention on the stallion, Applejack only now noticed the mare hyperventilating at her side. “I- uh. We… we don’t- Buck! I can’t-” And like a flash of lightening, Tera darted backwards, dodging between the unsuspecting ponies, and disappearing round the corner. Applejack, forced into motion, tried the same. But this time the stallion’s friends were ready, and she slipped into the waiting hooves of one of her assailants.
“Wow. Loyal friend you ‘ave there.” As the first stallion approached, Applejack acted. She launched herself off the pony that held her, and bucked their leader square in the jaw.
Leaving him to stagger back, she pulled forward again, using the unwanted grip on her forehooves to her advantage. Her mouth connected to her captor’s ear, biting down hard and ripping flesh. As he stumbled back, clutching his ear in pain, she slammed into his side. He fell, a loose pipe catching the side of his head, and he collapsed like a rag doll.
Gasping air into her lungs, she checked the rest of the tunnel. One more mare had been flanking her, a switchblade gripped in her mouth. Using Applejack’s hesitation to her advantage, she swung her muzzle, slicing cleanly through Applejack’s cheek. Blinking tears away, the cowpony reared up on her back legs, and smashed her hoof into the mare’s nose. She lost her grip on the switchblade as she howled in pain, and it fell harmlessly into the mud at their hooves. Blood streamed from her broken nose, but she was hardly finished. As the two mares squared each other down, Applejack felt a heavy blow to the back of her head.
Dropping like a brick, she heard the voice of the first stallion. “Bucking bitch. More trouble that she’s worth.” His hoof pressed againt her neck as she writhed in pain, holding her in place. Her vision spun. “The hell ‘appened to Lucky?”
“Not sure,” the mare groggily replied.
“Forget about ‘im then. I’ll tie ‘er up, since you look like a bucking wreck.” The mare nodded lazily, fighting a losing battle with her nose.
Applejack tried to protest, her senses returning, but the stallion kept a strong pressure on her throat. As visions of what they planned for her flashed through her head, she didn’t hear the sound of a heavy metallic object landing just outside the tunnel behind her. Her captors also didn’t notice the additional guest. That is, until an ear splitting crack brought the stallion crashing down on top of Applejack.
“Oh shit.” With the pressure gone, Applejack was able to move her head. Looking up, she saw the stallion struggling to his hooves, blood gushing from a hole in his shoulder. “Pegasi! Bucking run!” The mare did so, sprinting for the end of the tunnel. The stallion tried to follow, leaving Lucky to his fate. He didn’t get far though.
His silhouette was visible near the end of the tunnel when the second crack sounded directly behind Applejack, violently assaulting her ears. She saw the stallion’s head jolt horribly, liquid exploding in the air around it. His body slid for a second after dropping, before going still.
Frozen in terror, Applejack remained on the ground as she heard the heavy hooffalls behind her. In the corner of her vision, she saw the black gleam of the pegasi soldier uniform stopping next to Lucky. A deep, disgusted tut could be heard as Applejack closed her eyes, followed by a third thunderous crack.
With her eyes clamped shut, she could only wait as the pegasus approached her. The hoofsteps stopped and a horrible silence rang in the air. This was it. The pegasus would either recognise her, and she’d be shipped off to prison, convicted for a crime she didn’t even know she did. Or she wouldn’t be recognised, and her life would come to an undignified end.
She dared to open her eyes, confused over the hesitation. The now familiar face of the soldier’s mask that met her still sent shivers down her spine. The barrels under the pegasus’ wings were lightly smoking. That must have been the tool used to do... whatever it did to the other ponies.
“Applejack?” There it was. The soldier had heard or seen the report. Well, at least it was a marginally better fate than death. Curiously, her fearful mind still noticed the tone behind the voice changer. A deep female rasp.
“You’re alive?” Was it her imagination, or was the soldier’s voice cracking slightly? “Rainbow Dash always told me you were dead.”
Applejack was back on her hooves, barely. Her legs had decided to shake uncontrollably, which was making it difficult to stay upright. It was slowly dawning on her that she had just seen two ponies killed right in front of her eyes. Not even in defence, but cold blood. One was fleeing, one was unconscious. Then, even worse, Applejack had been fully expecting the same fate to meet her. She guessed her legs were quivering up a storm due to the surprise of still being attached to a breathing body.
Indeed, as she stood facing her ‘saviour’, her lungs were doing more breathing than they had done all day. She didn’t want to think how much of the disgusting air she was gasping in.
“Are you okay?” the pegasus asked. She felt like laughing at that. “Your cheek…” She had a right to be concerned. Applejack could still feel the blood dribbling down her face, soaking into her coat. She hadn’t intended to hit the mare as hard as she did, but after the feeling of the blade, her fight or flight instincts had gone into overdrive, and flight had hardly been an option.
She ignored this for the immediate future. “Who…” Woah! There was still not enough oxygen going to her brain. She tried again. “Who, are ya?”
“I can’t say,” the pegasus replied. “Not yet, anyway. Look, you need to stay hidden. The entire guard is on the lookout for you.” As if to emphasise the point, the pegasus flicked her head to either side, to check they weren’t being watched. “There are some ponies that can help you. A group called The Equestrian Resistance. Their base is near here. I’ll note down the directions.”
“No need,” Applejack interjected. For the first time since she arrived here, she felt more knowledgeable than ponies were expecting of her. She’d probably feel pretty pleased if this wasn’t already the worst day of her life. “I already know.” It was somewhat surreal having one of these soldiers advise her to seek out The Resistance.
“Right.” The pegasus nodded, her movements becoming quite impatient. “I… I need to go. Take this.” She lunged forwards, causing Applejack to unwillingly flinch. All the soldier did, however, was raise Applejack’s hoof, and drop a small disk in it. “If you find yourself against the guard, use this.”
Examining it, she saw it wasn’t just a disk, but a small button. She resisted the urge to press it, and slipped it behind her ear instead. The pegasus wasn’t finished. “Don’t do anything stupid. Do not trust The Chancellor. Change your appearance.”
She paused in her frantic commands, glancing around once again. Applejack took this moment to ask once more. “How do you know me? Who are ya?”
She turned her emotionless mask back to Applejack. “And I’m sorry. So, so, sorry.” The sentiment in that voice cast a spell over Applejack, and all she saw was a devastatingly sad pony looking back at her.
Applejack blinked, her eyes beginning to water, and opened them to see the pegasus already leaving. She launched herself off the ground, gliding through the tunnel as gracefully as one can in a full suit of armour, and disappeared into the sky. The Mile once again returned to an uncomfortable stillness.
Averting her gaze from the body of Lucky, Applejack made her way back the way she came. The mess that had once been the other stallion was a little harder to avoid. Keeping her eyes shut, she stepped around where his body must have been, gagging slightly at the smell. Once clear of the tunnel, she opened her eyes again, revealing the end of the road, where Tera was nervously waiting.
The mare trotted up to her, her carefree attitude now just a façade. “Hey. Uh-“
“Don’t,” Applejack cut her off. “I don’ wanna hear it.” She hadn’t the energy to be angry, but darn it she was going to try.
The uneventful trek back to Whisky and Radios was done in complete silence. Applejack needed some time to calm herself down, and Tera seemed completely content to let her. During the journey, her emotions waned, and the irritation she felt became more of a formality. As they approached the shop, Applejack decided to clear the air.
“Look. I don’t blame ya, ‘kay?”
Tera, who had been holding herself back, seemed to explode. “Oh Celestia, I am so sorry. I just moved without thinking, and I was sure you were behind me, dude! I’m really, really bad at fighting. I hate it. I couldn’t have gone back. But I wanted to, I really did!” The poor pony was in tears at this point. How could Applejack stay mad now?
“C’mere, Sugercube.” She reached a hoof around the other pony’s neck, pulling her in for a hug. As Tera sobbed into her shoulder, Applejack felt her own tears threatening to spill out again. She kept them in, however. It may be a bad idea to have them both blubbering in the street.
Tera eventually withdrew, her glasses crooked once again. Some of Applejack’s blood was smeared on her cheek. “This is why I only run the shop. I can’t deal with this- all this… y’know. Action and stuff.”
“Can’t blame ya. And don’ worry. I’m jus’ fine.” Applejack followed her into the shop, trying to keep her voice as understanding as possible.
“But your chee-”
“Jus’ fine! It’s a tiny scratch.” Tera’s silence indicated her submission to Applejack on the issue. “Does that kinda stuff happen often ‘round these parts?”
“No way.” Tera locked the door behind them, her shaking hoof fumbling with the keys. “Like, it happens. Sure. But not near here. I’ve never had to deal with those people before. We just got unlucky.”
“Unlucky? How?” A deep voice from behind launched the mares into the air. The keys dropped from Tera’s grip and bounced under a shelving block. Glen had appeared from the depths of the shop with less noise than a gust of wind.
“Oh, nothin’ really. A little scuffle. Nothin’ t’ worry ‘bout.” Applejack played it down, hoping to spare Tera from more guilt. The other mare wasn’t listening though, and was crouched down searching for the lost keys.
“But your chee -”
“It ain’t a big deal, really!” Applejack retorted, a little more impatiently than she perhaps intended. “It just needs some cleanin’. Be good as new in no time. Were you comin’ out to see if I hadn’t scarpered?”
“The thought crossed my mind,” Glen mumbled, latching on to the new topic. “But you seem like a pony that wouldn’t lie.” That was an understatement. “Tera, I’ll be taking Applejack back down. Will you be okay up here?”
Tera raised her head to respond, and smacked her muzzle on the bottom shelf. As she whinnied in pain, Glen turned away from the hurt pony. “She’ll be fine.”
She didn’t sound fine, but Applejack avoided disagreeing. Instead, she leaned towards the other mare, and nuzzled her quickly. “Thanks. And ya got a bit o’ blood on yer face there.” Tera merely mumbled her acknowledgement.
Trotting over to Glen, she reached him in the back room as he was tapping the code on the first door. “So? Come to a decision?” A decision to a question that only had one answer.
“I reckon I have, with some convincin’.” She avoided mentioning the source of this convincing. “I’d be happy to join ya’ll, till I work out where mah home is.” Glen nodded, content with her answer. “Firs’ thing’s firs’ though. I can’t go out lookin’ like this, as ya said. I’m gonna need a new look.”
“One step ahead of you, lass. I have just the pony.”
“It’s, uh…” Applejack struggled to find the words as she stared into the mirror, the foreign pony in the reflection staring back. “It’s different.”
“It’ll take some getting used to, I’m sure,” the pony working on her hair, Populus Tremula, reassured her.
“Oh, sorry. I really ‘ppreciate what ya did, Populus. But-”
“It doesn’t look right. I understand, honey.” He dropped back onto all fours, returning the scissors to his trolly. A small section of Glen’s office had become a makeshift hairdresser. Something that the owner didn’t look too impressed with. “And please, call me Aspen.” The forest green stallion grabbed a smaller mirror in his mouth, and held it up for Applejack’s convenience, showing off the back of her mane.
“I never thought I’d see mahself with such a short mane though. And… the colour.” Applejack was perched in a folding chair. Sitting for that long in such an unnatural position had been uncomfortable, and her muscles cried out for a stretch.
“Midnight blue,” Aspen informed her, his voice soft and musical. “It compliments your coat. And I thought you’d look good with a pixie cut. It suits your facial structure.” In Applejack’s opinion, so did her ponytail. But she had to admit, it did the intended job. She certainly looked nothing like what she did before. Even her tail, sticking out a hole in the chair, matched her new appearance. Hair could grow out, however, given time. What she suspected would never go away was the large scar covering her cheek. It had been cleaned up, and wasn’t deep enough to need stitches, but was still horribly noticeable.
“I know it’s a big change, but it’s better than being recognised.” Aspen’s own olive green mane and tail were carefully styled, and over his sparklingly clean fur he wore a pinstripe jacket. He seemed the only pony in The Resistance who put any care into his appearance. “I know how you mares are with your hair. My own wife won’t let me near hers until I’ve promised to not change her ‘style’. Before you know it, you’ll be as familiar with this as you were with your old ponytail.”
“We’ll see,” she replied. Aspen tittered at the scepticism in her voice. “Still, thank ya kindly for takin’ the time over this.”
“Not at all, dear. It’s what I do best. And do try to take care of yourself. I’m sure I’ll see you around, however. I work as the provisional medic, after all.” As he made his way over to the brush resting against the wall, Applejack spied his cutie mark. A tree carefully cut into the shape of a pony, representing topiary. Cutting hair was obviously not what Aspen did best, but it was close enough. Applejack had to grudgingly admit, while she didn’t think it suited her looks, it was a very stylish job.
She finally descended from the seat and stretched, feeling her muscles sighing in happiness, before shaking herself. Blue hair danced in the air around her, before drifting to the floor like confetti. Aspen was already beginning the sweeping process, so Applejack left him to his work, and trotted over to Glen. The larger pony had been watching quietly the whole time from his chair, his expression unreadable. However, as Applejack approached, he broke out into a small smile.
“That works, Honeycrisp.” He referred to her by her cover name she had decided on, taking her own great grandmother’s name Granny Smith had often spoken kindly of. “Now there’s one last thing to change before you become a brand new pony.”
Applejack had been dreading this part. Her cutie mark. But as much as she wanted to avoid this step, she released it was vital if she was to remain incognito. “How’s this gonna work? I thought it was plum impossible to change a cutie mark.”
“Oh it almost is,” Glen mysteriously agreed. He spun in his chair, facing the screens. “But we have a pony that can go beyond the impossible.” Tapping a few buttons on the remote, the monitors sprang to life, displaying a grey canvas. “Specialist? Can you hear me?”
There was a pause, in which Applejack suspected the machines weren’t working. Then, in the top left of the screen, out of nowhere, thick black letters appeared.
“Grand. If you’re up for it, I have a job especially for somepony of your talents.” Glen continued his conversation with a talking screen. There were moments where Applejack questioned who she was agreeing to work with. This was one of those moments. “Are you free?”
“Thank you. Just give me a moment to explain to my newest recruit before you teleport in.”
You have a minute
With these words, Glen swivelled to face Applejack.
“Is this… a pony?” Applejack was almost going to continue with ‘or a machine’, but didn’t want to tempt fate. The thought of some lifeless creature having control over her cutie mark wasn’t an encouraging idea. Then again, neither was such a mysterious pony.
“Yes. A unicorn, to be precise. There are a few nice ones out there, surprisingly.” This wasn’t so much of a surprise to Applejack, but she widened her eyes in shock for Glen’s sake. “This unicorn’s called The Specialist. Specialising in any magic we need, to be precise. They’re powerful too, so changing your cutie mark won’t be a huge issue.”
“They? You’ve never met ‘em?”
“Well, yes, I have. In theory. The thing is, they don’t really like anypony knowing their identity. Look, you’ll see what I mean in a second. There’s no need to panic, though. I’ll admit, the first time is a bit weird.”
Applejack opened her mouth, her patience at an end. Glen was going to start making sense if Applejack had to force him. However, in the time it took her to blink, she found herself standing on the other side of the room, facing Glen, who was out of his chair. The words, that were on the tip of her tongue, seemed to vanish. Had she just teleported?
“Like I said, a bit weird.” He tilted his head slightly, looking at Applejack’s flank. “There we go. Problem solved.”
“What-” Applejack looked back. Her cutie mark had completely changed. The pony now had a lasso emblazoned on her hindquarters. “What!?” She stumbled, collapsing to the floor. How did- What-
“The Specialist has come and gone,” Glenlivet calmly informed her. He was failing to hide his humour, if his wide smile was anything to go by. The darn pony was finding Applejack’s incomprehension amusing. “A spell they never fail to use is the memory wipe. By the looks of things,” Glen glanced to the corner, where Applejack’s hair had been completely cleaned up, and Aspen was casually pushing his trolley to the door. “They were here for a fair amount of time.”
Applejack didn’t quite know what to say to that. Her mind was preoccupied with feeling robbed. “An’ ya trust ‘em!?” is what she eventually managed.
“Not much else we can do. They’ve helped us so many times in the past, and if they wanted to report us, or destroy us, they could at any time. And anyway, your cheek’s fixed.”
He was right. The scar was completely gone. Instead of having stupid hair and a scar, she only had stupid hair. She slowly shook her head in exasperation. In a matter of a second, her cutie mark had been changed, perhaps permanently, and a significant chunk of her memories had been stolen. Looking to the ground with a sigh, a piece of paper under her hooves caught her sight. Moving her limb out the way, she realised there was a note written in her own hurried handwriting. ‘Future me! The Specialist is-’ The rest was entirely cut off, the paper having been ripped away.
Hearing a light chuckle, she looked back up. “Nice try, Applejack.” Glen had noticed the note. “I’ve tried that one before. They’re smarter than that. There’ll be a gap in the security footage as well.” As he spoke, more words appeared on the screens behind him.
Clever idea ;)
Was everypony having a joke at her expense? It sure seemed like it. The words continued.
Good luck, Applejack. You will need it.
Then, with a flicker, the screens returned to their original black.
“I think,” Applejack blinked furiously, her eyes unfocussed. “I think I need sleep ‘fore this day gets the better of me.” Her legs chose this moment to buckle, unceremoniously collapsing her flank to the floor.
Still with that frustrating smirk on his face, Glen shook his head. “If you want my opinion, it already has.”
The dormitories had been downstairs, back in the corridor Applejack had travelled through all that time ago. Once again passing by Commander Firefly’s door, Glen had shown her into one of the several doors that lined the walls. The dorm was surprisingly expansive, with many bunk beds lining the walls. Showing her to a free bed, he had left her to collapse into the itchy sheets. They weren’t important though. It was a bed. A soft bed, lovingly embracing her, whisking her off to a deep slumb-
“Hey! Applejack!” A squeal violently brought the cowpony back to the waking world. Blearily raising her head, she spied a little pony’s head hanging from the bunk above her. “I told you we’d be bunkmates! I was right!”
Applejack gave Idared a long, cool stare. “Ya sure did, sugercube.”
To her annoyance, the filly dropped down from the top bunk, and jumped in next to Applejack. “So, what do you think? Cool dorm, huh?”
“Sure is.” She gave the room a look over, something she’d not done when she wearily entered. “Looks great for sleepin’ in.” Applejack guessed Idared wouldn’t get the hint. She was right. “Wait. Who sleeps there?” She pointed at a bunk that had caught her eye. Nailed to the wall above it was a giant poster of a changeling.
“That’s Tera’s. She’s can be a bit of a geek when it comes to extinct species. Donkeys, buffalo, most of the big ones. Her one true love is changelings though. Little creepy, if you ask me.”
“Huh. That so?” Applejack’s reply was mediocre. She was done with surprises for the day. Everything else was just background noise.
The look on Idared’s face suggested she had noticed Applejack’s sleepiness. Would she finally give her some rest? “Big day, huh? Most interested part had to be the jailbreak, right? That was pretty crazy.” Guess not.
“Actually… this city’s intolerance is what’s gettin’ me. Why would any single pony not think everypony was equal? Let alone a whole darn city of ponies? It just… ain’t right.”
“Well,” Idared’s voice was softer. “It’s true, isn’t it?”
“…What ya sayin’, Idared?”
“It’s true. Earth ponies just aren’t as good as the others. We can’t do magic, right? We can’t fly. What use do we have?”
“Now wait a minute!” Applejack’s pride snapped back at the filly. “We ain’t got all them fancy abilities, sure. But we’ve got our strength, our endurance. Heck, no pegasi or unicorn would even know the basics of workin’ a farm. They’d just make a mess of it all.”
“Sure, we can farm and fight.” Idared returned anger with more anger. “Whoop de doo. That’ll help us show them what for. Who needs longer lives, or special ability, or more intelligence? We got farms!”
“Idared.” Applejack dropped her tone. Snapping at each other was the last thing they needed, even if what the filly was saying was complete horseapples. “Don’t ever think like that. Lifespan means nothin’ if ya ain’t puttin’ it to good use. And if these higher ups are usin’ their lives to make others suffer, then your life is worth a hundred times more than theirs. As for intelligence, please. Just ‘cause we earth ponies ain’t as fancy as them, don’t mean we’re dumber. You’re as smart as you want to be, puttin’ in the effort and all. You don’t need some silly horn on your head to do that. Y’know, the dumbest ponies I ever knew was a unicorn and a pegasus.” She ruffled the filly’s hair, pulling her closer. “Weren’t it Glen himself that said us earth ponies built this city? If that ability ain’t special, then I don’t know what is.”
Idared returned the hug. “I guess so.” Her voice remained unconvinced.
“If ya agree with all this rubbish, why’re ya in The Resistance?”
“Just because they’re better than us, doesn-” Applejack gave her a light smack on the head. “Okay, okay. Just because they think they’re better than us, doesn’t mean they should treat us how they do.”
“Now yer makin’ sense. Nopony has the right to make you live in filth!”
“Or take the food and stuff we work hard making!”
“Or lock you up fer no good reason!”
“Or kill my family!”
“Or tell ya whe- whu- uh…” Applejack’s momentum spiralled off a cliff. That had taken a darker turn. “Idared?”
“Wow, uh. Haha. Sorry. Kinda broke the mood there, huh?” There were tears building in her eyes. “Guess I’m as tired as you are.”
“C’mon! Why aren’t you asleep yet?” She wiped her eyes on the back of her leg, reverting quickly to her natural grin. “You have no idea what crazy stuff you’re going to go through tomorrow. Initiation is a bitch.” She jumped out the bed, grabbing onto the ladder, and hoisted herself halfway up.
“Idared!” This time Applejack was forceful enough to stop the filly. The split second expression the older mare received was powerful, begging her to drop the subject. “H- have a good sleep.”
The grin returned, “You know it, roomie!” Applejack reluctantly watched Idared return to the top bunk.
Lying back, sleep didn’t come quickly this time. As she stared into the darkness, the memories of the day came crashing home, ending with the lonely pony above her. The tears that had threatened her all day finally escaped. She silently cried herself to sleep.
Applejack had no idea what time it was when she woke. Was it just another disturbance like the ones she had been suffering all night, or was it actually morning? The lights were still off in the dormitory, but she doubted they actually existed. Surely, with such a group as this, there would be at least one pony sleeping during the day. The shuffling of limbs and clopping of hooves behind her were a decent indication of morning’s arrival, however. She had hoped it had all been a dream. That she would wake up in her bed at Sweet Apple Acres to the sound of the cockerel. Still clinging on to this belief, she curled up tighter in the bed, blocking out the sounds, the thoughts, the hoof sadistically poking her in the back.
“Lass. Making a ball of yourself won’t stop me from waking you.”
“Five… more minutes, Mac…”
The poking stopped, and once again the bed was the only sensation on her skin. That is, until she was pulled out by the scruff of her neck.
“Hey! C’mon! I’ve had better monin’s on harvest day!”
From her supine position on the icy floor, Applejack stared into the unamused eyes of Glenlivet. “I’m going to pretend I understood that for the sake of argument, and disagree. Look alive, sunshine.”
“Stallions allowed in this dorm?” From what she had seen last night, there were only mares sleeping here. Well, there had been. It was mostly empty now. A few sleeping ponies were ignoring this little exchange.
“I own this building, filly.”
“I ain’t a fi-”
“Commander Firefly wants to speak with you.” Now Applejack was awake.
She scrambled to her hooves, eyes wide. “What? Why? Did I do somethin’ wrong?”
“Possibly.” Glen wasn’t the reassuring type. “But I doubt it. It’s probably to do with yesterday’s report.” When Applejack hesitated, Glen flicked his muzzle. “On yer way. She won’t bite your head off, unless you provoke her.”
“Can’t I have a shower first? Brush mah teeth? Have some break-”
“Stalling tactics. Do I have to explain to her why you insist she meet you outside her office? She may be more inclined towards the head biting then.”
Applejack hastily shook her head, blue hair catching her vision. That was going to take some getting used to. Making her way to the door, Glen took up position at her side. Did he think she’d really run off? There wasn’t exactly many escape options. Nevertheless, his presence didn’t make the walk from the dorm door to the Commander’s door any easier. The corridor seemed to stretch on longer than it had the day before. The only information she had heard about the Commander danced in her head. She was harsh, brutal, an unforgiving leader. Applejack was determined to not be intimidated though. She didn’t want to be pushed around. She was doing a pretty poor job of staying strong at the moment though, if her racing heart was any indication. Before she knew it, the imposing wooden door loomed above her; the crooked nameplate with its carved letters looked larger than they had yesterday.
Without a second’s wait, Glen rapped on the door. “Commander. Applejack here to speak with you.” Oh Celestia, the nerves weren’t easing up.
After a moment’s pause, one that stretched on for hours, a heavily muffled reply came. “Send her in. You can go.”
Glen nodded, not that the Commander would see it. “Well, you heard her.” He opened the door, and Applejack took a few tentative steps inside. “Good luck.” Good luck? Why would she need luck? Before she could ask, the door slammed shut behind her, and the oppressive silence crashed down.
Gulping, she realised she was alone. The room was a dimly lit office, similar in size to Glen’s. This one, however, was much more organised. An ornate mahogany desk stood in the centre, mostly cleared of items, with the exception of a few letters, trinkets, and a picture frame facing away from her. The walls contained bookshelves, filled with hardbacks. A large globe sat in the far left corner, lit up by the wall mounted light above it. The far right corner was brightly lit, as atop a simple bird stand, a silent phoenix watched her with careful eyes. Well, she wasn’t entirely alone then. Under her hooves was the first carpet she had seen in this world so far. Everything was coloured a deep red, black, or soft brown, giving the room a very warm, yet imposing feel. It was a complete contrast from the metallic feel of Glen’s office, with its blue walls, and giant screens. Somepony had put a lot of thought into appearances here.
That somepony, she assumed, had been Commander Firefly. The pony in question was behind the door at the back of the office. It was slightly ajar, giving Applejack the thinnest view into what looked like a bedroom.
“Applejack, eh?” A weary, course voice called out from the other room. From the sound of it, Firefly was a fairly old pony. Late sixties, at least. “The name on every guard’s lips. And here you end up, sauntering in to my base.”
“I wouldn’ta called it saunterin’ to be honest with ya.” Applejack regretted the reply as soon as she said it. The Commander probably wasn’t a fan of smartass replies.
To her surprise, a cracked laugh was her responce. “No, no. Maybe not. Still, how in Equestria did a young mare like yourself end up here?”
“I, uh, was rescued by Idared. Some of them armoured pegasi threw me behind bars.” Applejack dared another few steps into the room, trying to peek a better view past the back door.
“No, you misunderstand.” There was a tone of understanding in the voice. A tone Applejack wasn’t entirely comfortable with. “How did you end up in Nova Equestria? Any pony with half a brain can see you’re not a local.”
Glen must have given her a brief explanation. “No. I’m from outside the city, I suppose. Magic got me here.” Taking another step, her attention was drawn to the picture on the desk.
“Some spell went wrong, and you arrived here?” How did she-? “That must have been… disorientating.
“That’d be about right. Disorientatin’s puttin’ it lightly.” The picture came into view as she circled the table. The phoenix released a warning growl as she drew close. Ignoring common sense, she slowed her pace so as to not spook the bird. The heavily faded paper under the frame meant a better angle was needed.
“And you have no idea where you are? Is that right, AJ?” The use of her nickname missed her recognition as the picture came into focus. Staring back at her from the frame was the image of herself. Standing next to her was a violet unicorn, a yellow pegasus, a pink earth pony, a white unicorn, and hovering above, a cyan pegasus. “This just seems like a different world to you?”
The cowpony yanked her head up. “How in sweet Equestria did you get…” The loud demand instantly lost its power, finishing with a weak “…this?” In the door, Commander Firefly had joined Applejack in the front room.
Her face was lined with wrinkles, while her entire body seemed thin with age. One eye stared weakly at Applejack, while the other gazed blindly, a solid white. Her thin hair hung around her, the different shades of grey betraying what must have once been an impressive variety of colours. Her coat was also an imposing shade of silver, with the faintest of blue tints. Two wings were tucked into her sides, sporting fewer feathers than a younger wing probably would. The brightest show of colour was her cutie mark. A lightning bolt erupting from a cloud, highlighted in red, yellow and blue.
“A memento from a forgotten age,” the pegasus explained to the dumbstruck mare. “Taken days before I last saw you, Applejack. About three hundred years ago.”
Applejack cautiously sipped the coffee in her hooves, testing its temperature. Still too hot. She sat on one of the soft, red cushions, realising how hungry she had become. The delicious smell wafting from the back room wasn’t helping. The phoenix gave her an amused look, cooing softly, as if mocking her. Applejack shot it a glare.
“I suppose you’re findin’ this all sortsa amusing’?”
The bird nodded, cawing in affirmation. Rainbow Dash must have trained it well. In such a flammable room, it was being as well behaved as necessary. Speaking of Rainbow, the infuriating pony hadn’t given her a single nugget of information before returning to the back room with the promise of breakfast. In the meantime, Applejack had resisted the temptation to nose around the letters on the desk, and instead inspected the globe in the corner. Where the continent of Equestria should have been, the majority was a pale brown, which the globe indicated as Disputed Territory. A large blue rectangle in the centre was labelled Nova Equestria. The continent’s east coast, where Applejack remembered staying with her relatives in Manehatten , was shaded green. The globe indicated it as part of the Zebra Kingdom, vast distances from their native lands over the Antlertic Ocean. The west coast was shaded red, covering cities such as Los Pegasus and Vanhoover. The Griffon Empire. But the griffons were a nomadic race, weren’t they?
Rainbow had disturbed her musings, bringing her out the coffee, but once again retreated before answering her guest’s mountain of questions. Applejack had only the phoenix to keep her company until, minutes later, the pegasus emerged, balancing a couple of plates on her hoof, a big smile on her face.
“Okay, so nopony tries any of my cooking aside from myself, so I don’t know if you’ll like this. But I do, so it should be good.”
“Rainbow! Where are we? What happened to Twilight? How did I get here? Why are you-“
“Woah, yeah. I get it. Calm down,” Rainbow sighed, dropping the plates to the table. On each plate was a pile of mashed potatoes, or at least what vaguely looked like it. Applejack could feel her hunger retreating in fear. “I haven’t seen you in so long. I thought you were dead. Just give me a few happy moments before I have to explain all this crap.” She sat down on the cushion opposite. “I only really get to talk to Glen, and he’s-” She stalled, trying to find the politest words. “Not the best conversation partner.”
“Uh huh.” Applejack began picking at her food. Her suspicions were validated when the taste of cardboard met her tongue. Sensing her friend’s expectant eyes on her, she managed another few mouthfuls. “It’s, uh, real nice.”
“Thanks. It’s made with twenty percent real potatoes.” Applejack gagged. The pegasus didn’t notice. “I really like your mane now. It’s so, what’s the word, hip.”
Applejack narrowed her eyes at the mocking smile she received from the other side of the table. “Don’t.”
“That country look never suited your cool city personality.”
“Yer askin’ for a hoof to the mouth.” Rainbow broke her act, laughing to herself. Applejack rolled her eyes. “Why didn’t ya just say it was you?”
“Oh, for the look on your face, obviously,” Rainbow answered matter-of-factly. “You should have seen it. You looked like you’d seen a ghost.” She continued laughing quietly. This was going to take all day if the pegasus was going to act like a foal.
Eventually she stopped, and her voice took a more serious tone. “I suppose I should explain what happened to you. Or, at least, what I assume happened to you.”
“Time travel, right?” Applejack had eventually put two and two together. “Twi was practicin’ time magic, and you tell me you haven’t seen me in- How long was it? Three hundred years?”
“Yeah. To the day. I just checked.” She began eating up her own breakfast, unaffected by the taste.
“Then how in Luna’s moon are ya still alive!?”
“It’s… complicated. You’ll need a little history lesson.” Rainbow cleared her throat. Applejack took that a cue to get comfortable. “Uh, after you disappeared, Twilight took it upon herself to get you back, no matter what. The rest of us couldn’t really do much else, so we supported her as well as we could. As time went on, we started,” she waved her hooves, trying to find the words. “Accepting you had gone. Died, I guess. Or at least to us you had. That’s what we ended up telling most people. Twilight, of course, refused to accept that, and shortly after moved to Canterlot. More books and research and whatnot. She’d asked the princesses, but they couldn’t help. Something about not being able to pluck ponies out of time indirectly. They, and Twi’s brother, tried to convince her to stop her frenzied research, but she was having none of it. Her guilt was… substantial.
“Back in Ponyville, things mostly returned to normal. Pinkie Pie carried on as usual. Rarity was less… sociable, but she too dealt with your disappearance. Big Mac took over the farm, as devastated as he was. It didn’t help when Granny Smith died the next year.” Applejack blinked the tears from her eyes. It was the future, it was to be expected. But she still wasn’t prepared to hear it. “Fluttershy helped out a lot, seeing as she had free time. I think it was mostly to give Big Mac and Apple Bloom the emotional support they needed. She and your brother actually ended up marrying. It was a really sweet service. Twilight never attended. As for myself, I spent time-”
“Wait. Hold up there for a sec. Mah brother? Fluttershy?” The two had never even spoken to each other, if Applejack recalled. “They married?”
“Oh yes. They had, like, this really sweet, innocent romance. Ended up having a bunch of kids, too. Continued on the Apple family, seeing as Apple Bloom never had any.”
The realisation hit Applejack fairly hard. “That… that means…”
“Yeah. You’ve met Idared, haven’t you?” Rainbow caught on to Applejack’s line of thought. “She’s your, uh, great great… great… something something niece.”
“You don’t say.” That’s why the filly seemed so familiar. She was actually related to Applejack. Big Mac’s descendent.
“I do. But anyway, as I was saying.” Rainbow seemed eager to continue the story, now that she had the ball rolling. “I was mostly travelling between Ponyville and Canterlot. I mean, somepony had to be there for Twilight to, y’know, be her friend. She spent half the time ignoring me, deep in her books. But maybe if I’d been around more for support, she wouldn’t have…” Rainbow trailed off, disgust creeping into her expression. “But anyway. The past’s in the past. What’s done is done.”
“What has been done?” Applejack prompted, noticing a pause in Rainbow’s explanation.
“Twilight…” Rainbow was having trouble finding her words. “Twilight ended up discovering, completely by accident, a forbidden spell. Not in a book, mind you, but with calculations and all that science stuff. Basically, it was theoretically possible, but it needed more power than Twilight could perform. She was still intent on bringing you back, of course, but she allowed herself this one little distraction. After all, it had been nearly ten years since you’d gone.” Another wave of sadness rolled over Applejack. Twilight had spent that long trying to fix things?
“She spoke to the princesses about this discovery,” her host continued. “But they forbid it. Twilight was furious. She spent the whole night ranting at me. About how the princesses were restraining her experimentation, how they were limiting the uses of magic, how they were missing out on such an opportunity. I tried to calm her down, but-”
“What was the spell?” Applejack interrupted.
“It was…” Rainbow stalled, rubbing her temple with a hoof. She looked exhausted. “It was a lifespan altering spell. It used magic to extend the life of ponies beyond what they naturally where.”
Applejack waited for more explanation, but none came. “So? That’s a good thing, right?”
“No!” The Pegasus slammed the table, shocking the life out of the earth pony. “Well, yes. At the time it seemed like it. I agreed with her initially. But the princesses forbid it, and they must have a reason, right? They never told us why, of course. Could have avoided all this bucking mess if they’d just- just- not been so bucking stubborn!” This last line was shouted.
Rainbow instantly sprung from her cushion and began pacing, her hooves slamming the floor as she walked. “Instead, they left it, and let Twilight wallow in her thoughts. After that night, she told me she needed some time alone. She’d send me a letter when she was okay. ‘Some time’ ended up being three months. When she finally contacted me, I was there as quickly as my wings would let me. But-” Rainbow dropped back onto the cushion, her shoulder facing Applejack.
Rainbow quietly chuckled. “Been a while since I’ve heard that, AJ.” She turned her aged face back to her friend, her voice resolute. “She had changed. She was nothing like the Twilight I knew. She told me her plan. She was determined to perform this spell, and if that meant going behind the princesses’ backs, then so be it. She had convinced herself that they were poor leaders, that she could be a better leader than them, that she deserved to be.” Closing her eyes, Rainbow let out a sigh. “Sparkle was talking about treason. So I did the only thing I could think of. I went to tell the princesses. They came to confront her, and explained exactly why the spell could never be performed.”
Opening her eyes again, Applejack could truly see the years behind them. “The spell used the natural magic from within the ponies themselves. But each species had a different amount of magic. The effect on earth ponies would be almost unnoticeable. Pegasi would live nearly nine times as long. And unicorns… Unicorns could potentially have lifespans of up to ten thousand years.”
The effects of the spell were obvious now. Such a segregation of the pony races would be created. “So that’s why ya still alive?” Applejack queried, breathlessly.
Rainbow nodded. “Taking in the normal years I lived before the spell was performed, plus the altered years after, I’d be about sixty three in earth pony years. Twilight is still thirty two.”
The question of how old her earth pony friends would have been was left unasked and unanswered. “How did Twilight perform the spell, then?”
“Sparkle, in some shape or form, had gained power beyond any of our understanding. I was there when the princesses confronted her. Their explanation meant nothing to her. It was like her brain was clouded to reason. When she instead threatened them, they asked her to surrender peacefully. No matter how mad she had become, Celestia still wanted to calmly talk with her student. This was breaking her apart. But Sparkle’s response- her response…” Rainbow gritted her teeth, determined to show anger through her grief.
“She turned Celestia to stone, AJ. Just like that. Like she was a damned cockatrice.” Applejack shuddered. It hadn’t been the murder Glen had described, but it was all the more horrifying now that she knew it was her Princess Celestia. “I couldn’t turn away. Luna, doing the smart thing, teleported away. I can’t even begin to imagine what she was thinking. I- I guess I just did the same. Flew out of Canterlot as fast as I could. I had no idea what to do. The only pony I could talk to about this was gone.” She gave Applejack a grim look. The earth pony, at a loss of words, weakly returned the stare.
“Things escalated after that,” Rainbow continued after a moment. “The official story was released, about how Luna slayed Celestia, Sparkle avenged her, and so on. With Luna missing, there were no witnesses, seeing as nopony was going to believe me. Sparkle appeared in the papers, now an alicorn, taking the role as princess. Cadence, next in line to the throne, had no objections and refused to speak about it.” She began rattling out the events like a list. “Sparkle performed her spell, extending the lifespan of pegasi and unicorns. Unicorns gained more power and authority. The inequality began. Sparkle fuelled it, claiming ponies will perform well in the roles better suited to their race. I spent the next fifty or so years in and out of prison, all for speaking out against Sparkle’s leadership. The lands around Canterlot and Ponyville begun building up, and industry spiked. Big Mac-” Rainbow catches herself before continuing, and looks away. “Big Mac had a stroke, and died shortly after. Fluttershy, broken with grief and still relatively young, just vanished one night.”
Applejack knew it was coming, but still wasn’t prepared to hear it. Rainbow let it sink in before carrying on. “Pinkie was getting old at this point. She was-” Her voice was failing, but she pushed on. “She was nothing like the Pinkie you knew, especially in the final years. Watching her friends break apart, unable to do anything about it, had taken their toll on her. The last time I ever saw her, I would never have guessed she had once been the element of laughter. She,” Rainbow paused, now looking anywhere but at Applejack. The earth pony herself was struggling to accept what her friend was about to say. “She told me that we had all failed. Not just Sparkle. I shouted at her, demanded to know what she would have done in my place. She just started crying. A pathetic tactic for pity, or so I thought, and I stormed out.
“She died two days later. Alone.”
Silence hung in the air like cobwebs. The warmth of the room had been completely sucked out. Rainbow carefully finished her story, her voice even. “Shortly after, the Griffons invaded. Cloudsdale was turned into the military base it is today. Apple Bloom eventually followed her brother. Most of Equestria fell. Shining Armour was killed in action. Cadence finally challenged Sparkle for the right to rule. From what I’ve heard, Sparkle ripped her apart limb from limb, though that may be an exaggeration. The war ended seventy years ago. And that’s,” Rainbow finished, without a shred of motivation, “where The Resistance begins.”
The breakfast had gone cold by this point. Applejack’s was mostly uneaten, but she couldn’t say she really had the appetite to eat anything anyway. The soft cooing of the phoenix in sleep matched her chocked breathing. She had tried not to cry, but hadn’t done a very good job about it. “That’s… I can’t even imagine…”
“You see why I wanted a moment of happiness with you before launching into this?” Rainbow’s voice was hoarser than it had been at the start. Applejack nodded mutely. Sighing once again, Rainbow got to her hooves, and made her way over to the phoenix. “I’m happy to see you, but at the same time saddened that you have to witness what we’ve become.”
None of it felt real. The different strands of information fought for dominance, none of them getting through. A small section of her brain was even happy. She had worked out the mystery of this place. That was a cause for celebration, wasn’t it?
Her family was dead. Pinkie was dead.
She could repeat it in her mind as much as she liked, but they weren’t being registered as fact. More a collection of words that, when joined together, made no sense at all. Pinkie would burst in the door any moment, shout surprise, and explain it was all a prank.
But no Pinkie came. The only surprise was when Rainbow nudged the bird awake, some birdfeed in her hoof. “You recognise Philomena, right? She fled Canterlot after Celestia was defeated. She’s been following me around ever since. No idea why.” The phoenix finished eating, and rubbed her head affectionately against the outstretched hoof. “Long lives, these birds have.”
“What happened to the rest of y’all? Rarity and Sweetie Belle? Spike? Scootaloo?”
“They’re around,” Rainbow answered enigmatically, giving Philomena a quick stroke before returning to the table. “Well, I actually have no idea where Spike is. Sparkle should know. You should ask her.”
Applejack nodded. “I plan on talkin’ to her. I wanna know what drove her to do this.”
“That was sarcasm, AJ.” Rainbow waved away the issue, then realised how serious Applejack had been. “No, really. You can’t talk to her. She’s insane. She did what she did because she’s an insane psychopath. And good luck getting close enough to her for a decent conversation.”
“So what? I sit around gettin’ used to mah new life here?” Rainbow may have explained to herself why things had turned out this way, but it wasn’t good enough for Applejack. As the element of honesty, she wanted the whole truth. “Too bad. It ain’t gonna happen.”
“Fine. I get it. There is something you can do for now, to help us. To help me, actually.” She picked up one of letters on the table, giving it a quick read over. “There’s a pony I’d like you to meet with. She used to be an agent of ours before we had a… disagreement a few years back. Any attempt to convince her to return has been met with rejection.” She slipped the letter into a draw, and turned her attention back to Applejack. “She’s invaluable to us, so we need her back no matter what.”
“If ya’ll have so much trouble convincin’ her, what makes ya think I’d be any better?”
“You’re a new face. Somepony she hasn’t seen here before. It may make her more inclined to listen to you.” Rainbow made her way round the table. “Glen’ll show you where she lives. I can’t leave this base, for obvious reasons.”
“Yer puttin’ me to work mighty quickly.” It felt right though, if it was Rainbow asking. A pony she could finally trust.
“Hey. This is you. Working’s where you shine. Besides, it wouldn’t be right having the strongest pony I know sitting around on her flank, taking up space.” There was a chillingly nostalgic quality to her words, and before Applejack new it, she was pulled in for a hug. “Celestia, I missed you, AJ.”
“Woah there, sugercube. I missed you too.” She returned the hug, realising how much weaker Rainbow’s forelegs had become.
“Not quite been as long for you.” Rainbow pulled back, her eyes tearing up, a weak attempt at a smile back on her face. “Seriously, three hundred years without a decent rival was pretty lame.”
“Girl, you gone soft with age.” At that, Rainbow gave her a light punch.
“Hah. Don’t start.” She turned to the door, her voice turning sombre. “If only you knew.”
Handing Applejack back to Glen like she was the new puppy, Rainbow returned to her room. Glen, it seemed, had been waiting outside the door the whole time. He led her back through the base, out Whisky and Radios, and through the streets of The Mile. They looked a whole lot cheerier in the daylight. With the weaker smog, Applejack could clearly see Cloudsdale above her. From below it was hard to make out, but it seemed the open plan architecture had been replaced by walls and towers. Black dots swarmed around it like wasps. Just what Applejack needed, another thing to keep her awake at night.
Passing through the narrow alleyways, Glen led her to a wide avenue, filled with the pony carriages Applejack was used to. No fancy floating, just ponies pulling other ponies. While they could use a drop of paint, she admitted that their drab colours fitted in to the background. Armed pegasi, once again, watched silently from the side. Not one of them looked twice at Applejack, or so she assumed by their head movements. The disguise was working so far.
The conversation between the two of them was non-existent. Glen was presumably comfortable with the silence. Applejack had decided the best thing to do was avoid thinking about the difficult topics. It was the coward’s way out, but right now she felt justified. Instead, her mind was on her immediate future. Helping Rainbow for now was fine, but she needed to speak to Twilight. If what Rainbow had said was right, there was a way for her to return home.
They reached the end of the road after a good half hour of walking, mostly uphill, at a wall. An open gate, surrounded by pegasi, allowed passage through. Glen stopped her, finally breaking the silence. “The Mile began in a lake, drained by The Chancellor to build her city. You can get a pretty good idea of its size from up here.”
He indicated for her to turn around. The view that met her when she did so blew her mind. Stretching for miles, the rows and rows of shanty houses curved down into the bowl, before snaking upwards and continuing on. From this position, the left and far edges were closed in by huge, imposing walls, dotted with watchtowers and coated with barbed wire. At the right edge, behind a smaller wall like the one they had walked to, large black chimneys rose into the sky, spewing inky smoke into the air.
“That’s the Blueblood Industrial Park, where most earth ponies work their lives away. Named after some unicorn Member of Parliament, but it’ll be a cold day in hell before you’d ever see a unicorn actually enter those walls. I used to work there myself, before I woke up and joined The Resistance.” He shook his head sadly. “We technically don’t own the land, but we get all our fuel from outside the city. Government approved maps show the land belonging to us, of course. There’s a huge natural gas field a few miles east of here that we pump exclusively. To the west there are various coal mines, both owned by griffons and ponies, resulting in all kinds of tension and accidents. The Chancellor’s somewhat desperate to find new oil, after we depleted our nearby well to th-”
“I have no idea what yer goin’ on ‘bout.” She had lost the gist of the explanation shortly after the mention of ‘fuel’. “Idared told me y’all ain’t allowed out the city.”
“There are exceptions, of course.” He swiftly changed the conversation by pointing at a point on the nearer slope of The Mile. It seemed only a stone’s throw away. “That’s our base, where we just walked from. Gives you a pretty good idea of the scale of things. And I’m sure you’ll recognise,” he directed his hoof to his right, at the mountain looming over the city, “Canterlot.”
Applejack certainly did. The castle hung from the side of the mountain like it always did. But surrounding it, also clinging to the side of the mountain, were a large number of glass buildings. They covered the mountain like mould, dotted over its surface all the way to the base, just out of sight. “Yeah, Canterlot,” Applejack mumbled, unable to recollect how it had looked in her time.
“You okay, lass?” Applejack pulled her gaze from the mountain to Glen, who was looking at her with concerned eyes. “You seem a little out of it. Firefly too much for you?”
“No, no. She, uh, The Commander was jus’ fine.” She pressed her face into her hoof, trying to will a positive expression to her face. “Just a lot on mah mind, y’know?”
“I understand.” He patted her on the back. “Just take it easy today.” That was easy for him to say. He wasn’t meeting some mystery mare, and convincing her to return to an organisation she had left. Rainbow hadn’t even explained why she’d defected. People in the future were far too tight lipped for Applejack’s liking.
The two of them passed through the gate with ease. They were checked for possessions by the pegasi, but neither pony had even a scrap on them. Applejack had left her gift from her encounter the previous night in her bed, forgotten in the rush of the morning. While regretting leaving behind what could possibly be a useful tool, she was thankful she hadn’t given the guards a chance to repossess her of it. Eventually they were approved. Their pegasi hosts, satisfied they weren’t smuggling illicit items through the city, forcibly hurried them through the gates without so much as a second glance at Applejack.
Glen began giving her the walking tour of the city. The next district they passed through, The Central Emponium, looked like an infinitely massive version of Ponyville market. Outdoor stalls lined small brick houses, earth ponies flogging everything from fruits and vegetables, to bags and hats, to all sorts of trinkets Applejack had never seen before. The crowds barely parted to allow the huge stallion to pass, and Applejack felt herself pressed against far more ponies than was comfortable. The commotion of voices almost drowned out Glen’s geography lesson, and the younger pony only managed to pick up half of it. Apparently, stretching from the walls of The Mile all the way to Ponyville, The Central Emponium showcased the entire range of goods Nova Equestria had to offer. If you needed to buy something, this was the place to get it. Relations between the three races here remained mostly civil, as long as earth ponies understood that when a unicorn was browsing their wares, they were expecting a discount. It was an unspoken rule. The expression on Glen’s face said everything you needed to know about his opinion of this.
Cutting left, they left The Central Emponium before Applejack could see the full spectrum of wealth. Another gate, another search. This new district held an entirely different atmosphere than the previous. While relatively lacking in pony life at the moment, Applejack was told that changed dramatically in the evening. Tower blocks pressed against each other as tight as possible, and neon lights hung in their hundreds, a direct contrast to the tinted glass hiding the building’s interiors. Signs advertising restaurants, bars, clubs, theatres, and everything in-between vied for Applejack’s attention. With the overload of words and pictures, she decided the floor was a better place to keep her eyes. Riverside, as Glen explained, was the city’s entertainment district. Where unicorns spent obnoxious amounts of money for cheap thrills, and earth ponies wasted what little they had for exactly the same. Disputes between the races, with the abundance of alcohol that flowed in these streets, were vastly less courteous than the rest of the city. Applejack didn’t see herself spending many a night here.
The reason for the district’s name became apparent when they reached a river. Or what had once been a river. Now it looked more like a slow moving swamp, rubbish bobbing up and down in brown water. The banks were ugly concrete walls, supporting promenades that the two ponies walked, benches dotted about for citizens to enjoy the pleasant view. It took her a few moments to realise this was the river that lead from Canterlot through Ponyville.
The other bank, however, made up for the state of the river. Behind the houses that lined the shore stood grand buildings and monuments, all with a Cloudsdale style of architecture. Applejack received a better view when they reached a bridge, crossed through another checkpoint, and stepped into the wide decorative streets. The buildings were huge, replacing the darker metal of Riverside with the bright colours of marble and limestone. Fancy names disguised the true nature of the structures, as Glen pointed out what were libraries, museums and research institutions. Over the tops of the buildings, an enormous marvel of architecture could be seen.
“Grand Ponyville Station,” Applejack’s guide noted. “The largest building in this district, Platea Academia. It’s the main transportation hub in and out of the city, and the only one for griffon and zebra tourists. You can probably understand why this section of the city is so impressive. Appearance is important for a dictatorship. Almost all these houses are bed and breakfasts, or student living for unicorns. Speaking of,” he veered her off down a large side road. “Our destination is The University of Equestria.”
Applejack felt eyes on her as they travelled. Earth ponies were evidently not a common sight here. They had been allowed in though, so their presence must be lawful. However, her attention was grabbed as soon as they reached their destination. An impressive domed building stood before her, with two wings stretching out each side. Sunlight glinted off the jade roof, and birds gathered in the shrubbery that lined the lawn. Huge, ornate, wooden doors stood open at the front, where unicorns around Applejack’s age were milling in and out the building.
“Here we are.” Glen was also looked uncomfortable at this point. His gaze shifted around, trying to catch an invisible fly. “I’ll be leaving you to it then.”
“The pony I’m meetin’ works here?” This was feeling a little out of Applejack’s league. Was this contact supposed to be some professor?
“Aye. She’s the head lecturer on history.” Glen answered her spoken question as well as her unspoken one. “Also known as the study of lies the government wants you to believe.” Seeing the nervous look on her face, he sighed and ruffled her mane. “You’ll be fine, trust me. She’s a bit in your face, but a sweetheart really. I’ll be glad to see her return, assuming she will. Just go in and talk to the receptionist. Say you’re speaking on behalf of a fellow professor. Any name will do, receptionists have no idea. Ask for Doctor Rarity.”
“Got it,” Applejack mumbled. But had she really? Nopony had said acting was to be involved. Lying to the receptionist wasn’t going to be easy, and without a trial run she wasn’t c-
Applejack spun on the spot, eyes wide. “Who’m I askin’ for!?”
Glen was gone. Swallowed up by the throng of students. Son of a pear farmer!
Applejack was shaking slightly as she approached Rarity’s building. She’s almost failed completely at the reception. The unicorn behind the desk already suspected her due to her race, and the story she made up on the spot was worse than the stories she had told Pinkie on her birthday. No, don’t think about Pinkie.
She was here on behalf of Professor Desklamp, and needed to speak to Dr Rarity about the paper the professor was writing on the history of old buildings. How she had been let inside was anypony’s guess. The receptionist had pointed her through the expansive lobby, into the courtyard, filled with all its beautiful flowers and sparkling fountains, to the staff housing. A collection of small cottages, all within sight of the university building, had been her destination. The grounds were beautiful, which the students were taking full advantage of. They sat in groups, reading books or chatting amongst themselves. Applejack paid them no attention.
Now here, the faint sounds of birds in the trees and the distant murmur of conversation did little to calm her. She had no idea if this was the Rarity she knew. If it wasn’t, she was faced with the impossible task of convincing a stranger to return to a ‘freedom fighter’ group. If this was her Rarity, would she have changed? Would she be as warped as this city? Probably not, considering Glen’s words, but it was still a possibility. Swallowing, she knocked.
“It’s open.” A singsong voice greeted her. “Come on in.”
If the voice hadn’t persuaded her, the sight that met her as she opened the door did. The room seemed to take up most of the small building. A quaint lounge made up the left side, with attractive sofas, a screen like those in Glen’s office, a fireplace, and other simple but pretty objects that just screamed ‘Rarity’. The back wall was made up of sliding glass doors, giving the room a very open, outdoors feel. Paintings, no doubt costing a fortune, lined the walls. The face of Sweetie Belle stared out from a couple. The other side of the room consisted of a kitchen, decorated in much the same way. It was a mess, but a very clean mess, almost as if it was intentionally that way. Crouching in front of the oven was a very familiar white unicorn.
“I…” Applejack’s voice caught in her throat. This was a perfect start. Good job, AJ.
“Hmm? I’ll be with you in a moment, dear.” Rarity opened the oven, bringing out a tray of perfectly designed cookies. She looked exactly as she always had. Elaborately styled hair, the faintest hint of makeup, sparklingly clean coat. She appeared to have aged a few years, but that only made her more regal. Grinning with glee, she levitated her creations to the countertop. “Perfect. Now, how can I help yoaaahh!” The yelp came as she turned to inspect her visitor. Time to explain why a dead friend had turned up at her door.
“Darling! Look at you!” Rarity trotted up, concerned. “You’re filthy! And you look famished! Quick, can I get you something to eat before you fade away?”
Well, that wasn’t exactly what Applejack had expected. Not a second after their reunion, and Rarity was back to her criticising, pernickety self. She opened her mouth to answer, but Rarity hadn’t finished. “How can he treat you like this? I’ll have to have a few words with Desklamp. When we had dinner last month, he seemed to understand the plight of earth ponies perfectly well.”
What? Applejack didn’t seem to have a grasp of the one-sided conversation.
“Oh, no need to look so shocked. Reception gave me a call. I understand you’re here about his paper.” She tapped a hoof to her chin. “I have no idea why a palaeontologist would be writing about buildings, but I’m sure he has his reasons. However!” Suddenly Rarity was in Applejack’s face. The anger in her voice was a little intimidating. “There is no reason at all for how he’s looked after you! I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, darling, but the way earth ponies are regarded as objects in this city is, ugh, despicable.” She gave Applejack some space by returning to the kitchen. Applejack let out a breath she didn’t realise she’d been holding. Her disguise was working a little too well. “I’ll be writing a very angry letter to SIS, you mark my words.”
“Rarity!” Applejack found her voice, a lot weaker than she had intended it to be. “I ain’t here about the paper.”
Rarity paused in the middle of levitating Applejack a meal. “You’re… not? Then what are-” As if a bulb went off in her head, she lowered the food slowly to the counter. “Then you’re with The Resistance, aren’t you?” Her voice had gone very cold.
“I- I am,” Applejack managed. There was something in that voice that put her on edge. “But-”
“How dare you!” Applejack ducked just in time as a jar of jam flew past her head, smashing against the wall. “I made my intentions perfectly clear, unlike your mindless monster of a leader. I will never return, do you hear me!” Rarity’s wide eyes were locked onto Applejack, her raised voice digging directly into her ears.
What in Equestria had RD done to warrant this reaction? The earth pony prepared herself for more flying objects, but none came. “I have a new life now. I don’t need Firefly’s thugs breaking into this one, reminding me of what happened, and threating to ruin it!” The last few words cracked as they escaped her lips. Tears were trickling down her cheeks. Applejack needed to calm her down, fast.
“Rarity! Stop! It’s me!” Applejack took a step forward, driving past the glare she received. “It’s Applejack.”
“You think that’s funny?” Rarity’s voice was dangerous, passing through her gritted teeth. “Does Firefly think that’ll work? That tactic’s low, even for her.”
“Wait! Would Rainbow know anythin’ ‘bout the time we slept over at Twi’s?” Applejack was thinking fast here. “Together we fixed the tree in her window. We never told RD ‘cause we worried it’d make her jealous. Only I’d know that!”
For a moment it looked like it had work. There was a glimmer of hope in Rarity’s eyes, hidden behind the scepticism. “M- maybe. Twilight could have told her though.”
“Then that time you ran the Sisterhooves Social! Remember what I said ‘bout apple pie. Would she know that?”
Rarity spent a moment deep in thought, as if trying to find a lost memory. “I… I suppose not.” Her eyes glazed over as she pondered. “And that voice…” She staggered for a moment, her back legs giving out. “It really is you, isn’t it? Applejack?”
“It’s okay, Sugercube.” Applejack hurried forward, convinced the danger of blunt head trauma was gone. “I wouldn’ta believed it either.”
“You’re alive. You’re… you’re… ohh-” She raised a foreleg to her head. Applejack saw it coming from a mile away. Three hundred years wasn’t enough to change such a drama queen. The white unicorn fainted as elegantly as possible.
“Rarity. Ya can wake up now.”
The sleeping unicorn had been dumped on the sofa while Applejack sat around waiting. Everything in the room caught her eye, from the books in the bookcase to the photo album sitting on the coffee table. Though, for the sake of etiquette, she had decided to wait until Rarity awoke before delving into the unicorn’s private life. Anyway, there were other fun things to take up her time, such as making sure the drama queen was still breathing, and slapping a cold flannel on her useless head. Well, maybe useless was too strong a word, but there was only one pony in the room who had passed out, and her name didn’t contain the word Apple.
After what felt like hours, Rarity began to stir. With her eyes opening weakly, she reached over to grab Applejack’s leg. “Applejack, sweetheart. Listen t-”
“Woah. Calm yerself. I ain’t goin’ anywhere.” Rarity completely ignored her.
“Listen to me.” The grip on her leg was weakening. What in Equestria was wrong with the unicorn? She’d only fainted. Applejack assumed it was another case of overacting. “You must escape, while you still have the chance.”
“Escape?” She’d just got here. She had no intention of leaving until Rainbow’s request was completed. “Why?”
“She knows you’re here.” Who knows? As Rarity turned, Applejack followed her gaze to the window. Towering over the trees, Canterlot was clearly visible. “She’s coming.”
“She?” She snapped her neck back to her patient. “Twilight? How’d she work out where-”
Any words Applejack had planned on saying were lost as the front door burst open. Standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the midday sun, was an alicorn. Her features were hard to make out. But the purple eyes, deep purple eyes penetrating the earth pony, shone like diamonds.
“T- Twi?” Cold has swept in with the intruder. Applejack’s fur raised in response to the temperature. Or was it fear? “Long time, no see.” Smooth.
The alicorn said nothing. Instead she strode forwards, her hooves making a racket on the floor. Those horrible, burning eyes never left their prey. Rarity had dropped her hooves, having gone still. Applejack wanted to check her health, but couldn’t turn away from those purple voids. Her legs had decided to freeze too, not helping the situation.
“Applejack.” The alicorn spoke. While a whisper, it shocked the earth pony as any scream would. All confidence drained from her, disappearing as the horrific, looming figure approached her. “Applejack.” Every muscle in her body begged to move, but a cold numbness had washed over the pony. A niggling voice in her head made a suggestion. Give up. Let whatever fate the alicorn has in store take its course. Embrace death.
She awoke with a jolt, bathwater crashing over the side of the tub, drenching Rarity’s pristine floor. The heavy crash of hooves still echoed in her head. In the warmth of the bath, she had let the comfort of sleep take her. Judging from the water she proceeded to cough out her throat, she had woken not a moment too soon.
“Applejack! Answer me!” A shout came from the bathroom door. Apparently the sounds of hooves were not in her head. Rarity was franticly knocking.
“I- I’m fine. Sorry.” The last of the bathwater was expelled from her mouth. Unlike her dream, the real Rarity had recovered almost immediately. After a tearful reunion, Applejack had been forced into having a bath. After all, Rarity had been right. She was filthy.
“Celestia’s sake. Don’t scare me like that.” The voice grew more distant. “Come out when you’re ready. I’ve made you some food.”
Applejack struggled from the bath, shaking herself dry, and immediately regretted it. Rarity’s beautiful bathroom was covered in droplets of water. Guiltily, she grabbed a towel and flung it over her back. Rarity would never notice. Returning to the main room, she was met with the amazing scent of what a real meal should smell like.
Rarity glanced up from her preparation. “Oh, much better. You don’t look like you’ve been rolling in mud.”
“Uh, thanks?” A quick glance to the window reminded her that, no, Canterlot could not be seen from the house. Just trees and other buildings. “I really like your home. It suits you.”
“Pardon?” Rarity bristled in annoyance. “It doesn’t in the slightest! The University of Equestria has no sense of style. I mean, art nouveau? Really? You should have seen my last place, a late modernist house in West Ponyville. Wonderfully designed, with the faintest hint of organic architecture.” Finishing with the food, she floated two plates to the table. The falafel salad and rice she had made looked incredible. “Suits me? Honestly, Applejack.
“Well, sorry. Next time I try to compliment ya, I’ll hold mah tongue.” As soon as the plate hit the table, she began devouring it with the enthusiasm of a lion with a fresh catch. “I like it anyway.”
“Oh, I’m sure. But your fashion sense is…” Her gaze flicked to Applejack’s hair. “Somewhat absent. When I said you needed to do something with your hair to bring out its true beauty, this wasn’t what I had in mind at all.”
“This weren’t my decision!” Applejack snapped, spraying food over the table. Rarity twitched in horror. Wincing, the earth pony continued with restraint. “Aspen did it. I needed a new look so I won’t get captured. Ya saw the news on them screen things, didn’t ya?”
“Oh, the TV? No, I’m afraid I hardly have time to switch that thing on any more.” She made a show of brushing herself down, despite the fact Applejack’s onslaught hadn’t even reached the middle of the table. “I assume you’re enjoying my meal? You haven’t even had the chance to thank me.”
“Ain’t generosity supposed to be about not expectin’ thanks?” Applejack was a little irked at Rarity’s disinterest. Wouldn’t any normal pony want to know why their friend was in danger of capture? Her stubbornness, however, gave in. “Thanks, though. It’s real nice.”
“But of course. A couple of centuries gives a pony plenty of time to perfect their cooking skills.” Her haughty attitude remained for a few more seconds, before she broke into giggles. “I’ve missed our arguments. It’s been far too quiet without you.”
“I- uh…” She finished off her last mouthful. The meal hadn’t lasted long. Rarity, on the other hoof, had barely started. “Seems like an odd thing to miss.”
“Well, you know what they say. You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
“Yeah, that’s it alright.” The conversation was veering too close to sappiness. Grounds she didn’t feel like treading with Rarity. “So you’re still against the idea of re-joining The Resistance?”
The unicorn tapped her chin, mulling the question over. “Yes.” Blunter than a foal’s horn. “However, I’ll return with you. I think a reunion between Dash and I has been long overdue.” Her cheery overtone hid the darker meaning behind this.
“What even happened? Rainbow said you had a disagreement.”
Rarity laughed bitterly. “Disagreement? Oh Celestia, she would say that, wouldn’t she.” She finished this with a long, draw out sigh. “She’ll tell you. I’ll make sure of it. I don’t feel like going into it myself.”
An awkward silence settled in, with Applejack unwilling to push the issue, and Rarity eating her meal in peace. “So what happened?” She finally spoke, remembering what had been bothering her earlier. “With Twilight, I mean. How’d she end up like she is? Rainbow told me all she knows, but it ain’t makin’ sense to me.”
“We all heard most of the story from Rainbow Dash. The official story is, naturally, complete tosh. Lies for the bourgeoisie to gobble up like sheep. Unfortunately, so did the rest of Equestria. Luna’s image is sullied beyond repair outside The Resistance. Rainbow Dash’s version,” she paused, biting her bottom lip. “Unfortunately, that could also be a fabrication. At the time I believed her, but now…
“Anyway, it’s the best we have to go on. Similar to how you are no doubt feeling, I was confused by her actions at the time. But, giving it thought, I think it just comes down to stress. It’s a powerful force.”
“Well, I ain’t buyin’ it!” was Applejack’s instant reply. Stress would never make Twilight commit the acts Rainbow had described to her. Not the Twilight she knew. “Consarn it, I’ll need to ask her myself.”
“That is an option.” Unlike Rainbow, Rarity wasn’t dismissing it offhandedly. “Oh, but you’d be insane to try. Security is mostly unbreakable in Canterlot.”
“There are ways.” Applejack’s hopeful face gave the game away. “But they’re far too risky. And there’s no chance I’ll be telling you the details. I’m not having you gallop off to your death so soon after you’ve returned.”
“Nope, no whining in this house. This is a whine free zone.” Applejack eyed the massive wine rack in the kitchen. “Oh you know what I mean.
“That’s a hella lot of wine, Rare.”
“Is that the sound of you insinuating I am an alcoholic?” Applejack heard water running. “Or is it the sound of you kindly offering to wash my dishes in return for the meal?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Applejack reluctantly trotted to Rarity’s side and grabbed a plate. “It was the first decent meal I’ve had since getting’ to this hopeless city.”
“Hopeless,” Rarity mused. “That pretty much sums this place up in one. The unicorns have no hope. Opportunity is served to them on a silver platter. Why should they hope for more? And the pegasi? Mostly brainwashed thugs, taught to use whatever force to get their way, break any pony stopping them.” She took the first dish from Applejack, drying it with her magic. “But the worst case, by far, is the earth ponies. Hope was crushed from them years ago. That’s the best thing The Resistance is supplying. Hope. Do not think, for even a second, that they have a chance of taking this city from Twilight.”
“Glen seems to think so.” Applejack scrubbed the marks off the second plate.
“Glen would. You know what his cutie mark signifies? The two closest ties to earth ponies, nature and animals. His special talent is pride in his race. He’ll gladly hand his life over for earth pony freedom.” She snatched the plate from Applejack, removing the stains in seconds. “The only reason he’s not in charge is because Rainbow founded the resistance, and Glen is too caring. Rainbow Dash has no problems in that respect. To lead a group such as this, you can’t let compassion for every one of your members get in the way of duty.”
“You know Glen well, then?”
“Of course I do. I did help them for a good fourty years or so. Glen’s one of the nicest ponies I’ve ever met. Now come along,” she finished drying the last plate, and returned it to the cupboard. “I have a lecture this afternoon. And like removing a plaster, I’d rather put this meeting with dear Dashie behind me as soon as possible.”
They took a slight diversion on the way back, missing the main road leading to the station. Entering a square, packed with ponies milling around on their lunch breaks, Rarity trotted over to the statue in the centre. It was Princess Celestia, much as Applejack always remembered. Her head was tilted back, her hooves firmly planted on the plinth she stood. Applejack figured it was supposed to look proud, until she saw the sadness in the statue’s features.
Approaching the unicorn, Applejack caught the end of sounded like a one way conversation. “-that I don’t think will work. I know I should be forgiving, but it’s just so hard after what she did. But for your sake, I-“
“Uh, Rare,” Applejack interjected. “Ya alright?”
“Oh, and look who returned.” Rarity blanked the earth pony. “Applejack. So there’s that mystery solved.” A few ponies nearby had turned to look at the peculiar unicorn.
“Rarity. Yer talkin’ to a statue.” Maybe she had gone a little senile. Three hundred years was a long time, after all.
Rarity merely sighed, and turned to her friend, giving Applejack a look one might give a foal. “This isn’t just a statue, darling.” The meaning of her words hung in the air for a second, before hitting Applejack like a brick. Choking on a gasp, she spun back to the plinth. The sadness in the eyes of the life-sized statue was suddenly given disturbing new significance.
“Let’s go.” Rarity tugged her away, concern in her voice. “It’s best to not dwell for too long.”
The rest of the journey had been uneventful. Ever since seeing Celestia, Applejack had been feeling quite weak. A kind of weakness that could only be achieved after seeing your immortal princess defeated and left as decoration.
At Whisky and Radios, Tera had been busy with customers, so Applejack slipped past, pretending to be a colleague. Tera made a poor attempt to continue the ruse as she stared slack jawed at Rarity. “The new recruits won’t have seen me before,” Rarity murmured in her ear. “You basically look like you’re smuggling the enemy into the base.” At that, Applejack hurried her pace, not wanting Tera to make a scene.
Rarity’s words became a lot more apparent when they entered the base itself. Opening the door to the bar, responses were mixed. While the younger ponies shot Rarity looks of mistrust and surprise, the rest shot up. The greetings she received were far warmer than Applejack had imagined. It would seem this animosity existed purely between Rarity and Rainbow. Ponies crowded her, pushing Applejack away slightly. Hey! This was her Rarity, not theirs!
“Rarity, my dear!” Aspen’s voice could be heard. “How are you?”
“Don’t you ‘dear’ me!” Applejack felt Rarity’s hooves wrap around her leg, pulling her back through the horde. “I’d like an explanation as to why you ruined my friend’s blonde hair!”
“Ruined is such a strong word,” Aspen responded, giving the two mares a warm smile. Applejack agreed, feeling immensely self-conscious. “I’d prefer to think of it as ‘changed’.” Hold on a second! Where was all the complimenting her coat and suiting her facial structure he had gone on about? Applejack suspected he had decided to drop his half-truths once faced with a pony who actually know something about fashion.
“I’ve half a mind to ‘change’ your mane. How do you think pink would look, Mr Tremula? I’m sure your wife would love it.”
“Pink!? No, you wouldn’t.” Aspen gasped in mock surprise, the smile still on his face. “Anything but th-” He was cut off by the resounding crash of a door slamming into a wall.
“All right, ya wee scunners! What's the bucking racket for?” Glen’s voice blasted through to room as the stallion strode from his office. All voices in the tavern went silent. “You’d best hope The Chancellor herself arrived, or you’ll all be loo-”
“Glen, darling.” There was a warm smile on Rarity’s face as Glen’s words petered out. “Is that any way to greet a lady?”
Glen found his vocal chords again. “Alright there, lass? How’d a beautiful filly like you find her way in this den of thieves?” His expression was stern, but his voice had a playful quality to it, with only the faintest hint of surprise.
“Flattery will get you nowhere, young man.” The room had gone silent for this exchange, the ponies backing away. Rarity seemed to love the imaginary stage she now stood on. She strode up to Glen, and used her telekinesis to ruffle his hair.
“This is all kinds of demeaning,” Glen grumbled.
“Aww. Am I embarrassing you in front of your little chums?”
“I have an image to uphold.” Rarity nodded as Glen spoke. “A reputation.” It seemed to Applejack that Glen was intentionally playing along.
“Of course you do. I’m very proud of you.” She finally let Glen’s hair go. Amazingly, it looked less of a mess than before. “Now, is your mummy home? I need to talk to her.”
“You want to speak to Firefly, right?” Glen’s act dropped. “Just, please, make it civil this time. She had that black eye for weeks after your last chat.”
“I’ll do my best.” She headed for the back stairs, Applejack in tow. “I’ll come say goodbye on the way out.”
“You do that, lass.” As they began descending the stairs, Applejack heard Glen’s voice growing fainter. “None of you can act like that with me unless you’ve saved my life more than ten times. No, Peaks, that time you flicked a miniscule spider from my shoulder does not count. Anypony who tries to touch my hair will spend the next month cleaning the toilets. Is that clear?”
Any response was too distant for Applejack to catch as they reached the bottom of the stairs. “Just for the record,” Rarity whispered, “I can’t be held responsible for my actions when I see her.”
“Gotcha.” Applejack had no idea what to prepare for. Better make it a disaster, just in case. Rarity swung the door open without knocking.
Rainbow, seated on the floor, legs tucked under her, was deep in a book. She jerked her head up as they entered, her expression rapidly switching from anger, to surprise, to resolve. “Rarity. It’s-”
“Ah, ah, ah. Back room. Now.” Applejack’s ears perked up. They wouldn’t, would they? “Sorry, darling. I’d rather keep this private for now.” They darn well were! Secrets and lies!
“No problem,” Applejack mumbled, teeth gritted slightly. Rarity didn’t seem to notice, and hustled Rainbow into the inner chamber. As soon as the door shut, Applejack jumped forward, pressing an ear to the door. Like hell was she going to be in dark any longer.
The first voice was picked up crystal clear. “So, you finally decided to re-join us?” That was Rainbow, her voice unnaturally polite.
“Don’t make me laugh.” Rarity seemed to be struggling with her anger. “Did you actually expect I’d return? I’m no more on your side than Sparkle’s.”
“Then you’re on nopony’s side? You’ll sit here and watch this city burn around y-”
“DON’T! Don’t you dare talk to me about burning.” Rarity’s voice had dropped all pretences of courtesy. “And don’t feed me your pathetic lines. I’m here about Applejack.” After the earth pony heard her name, it was followed by the faint tapping of hooves. “She will not be working for you.”
“I don’t think this is your decision to make, Rarity.” Rainbow remained calm. There was an edge to her words, however. “Applejack has no objections to aiding me. She can see the obvious alternative to supporting the monster.”
“Hearing you speak of monsters is almost amusing, if it didn’t make me so sick. I doubt she’ll think so highly of you when I tell her what happened to-”
“I will tell her!” Rainbow interrupted. “I will tell her, mark my words.”
“How noble of you,” Rarity spat. “Honesty never was one of your strong points. Turning over a new leaf, are we?”
There was a crash following this, and a second of silence before Rainbow snapped. “Keep your snide remarks to yourself! As if I haven’t heard them all before!”
“This… this isn’t about us…” The clopping sounded again. Somepony was pacing. “This is about Applejack. Our bickering will only drive the poor pony to her.”
“I am not the one who can’t put our differences behind us.”
“Our differences are why I fear for her!” There was another crash following Rarity’s outburst. “For all I know, you’ll bring her the same anguish you brought me! Use her as an offering to Sparkle in some mindless pl-”
“I WOULD NEVER!” Rainbow’s voice was breaking as her emotions exploded. “I CARE FOR APPLEJA-”
“LIKE YOU BUCKING CARED FOR MY SISTER?”
Like the flick of a switch, silence crashed in after Rarity screamed. Applejack, mouth dry as a bone, held her breath to catch any further sounds. A faint sobbing could be heard, broken only as the owner of the sound spoke. “Like you cared for Sweetie?”
“No. Don’t!… I don’t want to hear it.” Her words came out in gasps. “I have not come here for you. I have not come here for your little rebellion. The only thing that could bring me to face you again is Applejack.”
“And if I hear anything, anything, has happened to her,” Rarity voice, while soft, was silencing Rainbow with ease. “You’ll wish Sparkle had found you first. Resistance be damned.”
Hoofsteps approached the door, and Applejack sprang back. Sitting back down just in time, the door swung open, and Rarity strode through. Head held high, a determined expression on her face, damaged somewhat by the tearstained eyes. She softened as soon as she saw Applejack.
“I’m… I’m sorry, Applejack. I can’t stay here any longer.” Before the earth pony could reply, Rarity trotted over, taking her hoof. “But you know where to find me. If you need anything, anything at all, just contact me.”
“This is me, Rare. I ain’t gonna stay a stranger.” There had been something wrong with Rarity from the moment Applejack had seen her again. Only now did it make sense. She was lonely, but was putting up the best act to cover it.
“Splendid.” Out the corner of Applejack’s eye, she saw Rainbow reach the doorway. Rarity also appeared to catch the movement. She swept in for the briefest of hugs. “I’ll see you soon then.” Releasing Applejack, she headed towards the exit.
“Rarity,” Rainbow’s voice didn’t stop the unicorn. “I hope the next time we speak it will be as friends.” Now she halted, her magic paused in the process of twisting the door handle.
“You-” The words died in her mouth, the forthcoming insult cut off for a more diplomatic reply. “I hope so too.” The door opened, and she gave one last glance into the room. “Though I very much doubt it, Rainbow Dash.” The name sounded more like an insult than anything else.
As the door shut, and the faint sound of hooves died away, an awkward silence fell on the room.
“So?” Applejack demanded, having had enough of the calm far sooner than Rainbow. “You gonna tell me the deal ‘tween you two?”
Rainbow deflected the question instantly. “Maybe we sho-”
“No.” Applejack stopped her before she could even begin an excuse. “I heard ya. You said you’d tell me.”
“You were listening.” This wasn’t a question. She didn’t even look surprised. Just weary.
“Of course I was.” A spark of anger flared up inside her. “I’ve had enough of ponies keepin’ things from me! I went to that Academia place with no darn clue who I was meetin’. You didn’t think of tellin’ me it was Rarity?”
“I didn’t want you to have the wrong idea.” Again, Applejack’s anger was drawing no visible response from the older pony.
“Well, good job with that, ‘cause I’ve sure as sugar got the wrong idea now.” She went silent, expecting Rainbow to fill the gap. When the pegasus remained silent, Applejack went straight to the point. “What happened to Sweetie Belle?”
Rainbow sighed, defeated. “It was around thirteen years ago now. Rarity and Sweetie Belle helped the resistance as much as they could. It wasn’t continuous, as they both had full time jobs, but it was valuable to our success. Rarity ran her own chain of dresses, unsurprisingly. Business was doing well. Sweetie Belle was a professional singer, having released more albums than I can count with my hooves.” It wasn’t an impressive statement, but Applejack got the point. “One night Sweetie was staying in the base, singing for the recruits. I, meanwhile, was preparing for a mission that involved a unicorn. A delivery to Canterlot. Unfortunately, the unicorn that had volunteered was seriously ill, and couldn’t make it. As you can guess, my choice of unicorns isn’t high, and Sweetie was my only alternative. It was a risky mission, I knew that, but I wasn’t going to send anypony if I thought it was impossible.”
Rainbow begin tapping her hooves together, the body language of a guilty filly. “I made an enormous oversight though. I don’t usually make calls from the base, but I was fairly desperate. The call I had made to the sick unicorn had been intercepted by the government. They hadn’t been able to work out the location of the callers, but had heard the message loud and clear, and the soldiers were waiting for Sweetie Belle in Canterlot.
“Disposing of the package, and the recipient, they then trailed Sweetie Belle home. She and her sister shared a huge house in West Ponyville. Rarity was out that night, attending a party in Riverside. Once inside, the soldiers barricaded her in, and set the house alight. Not a scrap within the building survived the flames.”
Burnt alive. The thought sent shivers up Applejack’s spine. She assumed Sweetie Belle was a lot older than when she had last seen her, but all she could see was the poor filly surrounded by flames. Nothing could dispel the image. “You… how could ya!?”
“Oh don’t you start!” Rainbow snapped. “Do you think I mean for this to happen? Why the buck would I want that!?”
“Okay, okay. But still, you- you…” Applejack deflated, having no energy to argue. “Oh Celestia. Sweetie. That’s…”
“My fault, I know. Whether I meant for it or not,” Rainbow finished for her. “Rarity was accused of working for The Resistance. She was acquitted, but her business was destroyed. She became a lecturer, having previously taken a doctorate in Equestrian history. She was-” Rainbow shook her head. “Unforgiving. When she found out, she tried to kill me. We’ve barely spoken since.”
“I ain’t surprised,” Applejack mumbled. Rainbow didn’t have a response. “Only thirteen years ago. No wonder she’s so…”
“What I did was inexcusable,” Rainbow started weakly. “But I’ve tried all I can to make it up to her, while still making sure The Resistance can still operate. That’s not good enough for her though.”
Silence followed this. Applejack tried to imagine if Apple Bloom died due to a mistake her friend had caused. Without any siblings, Rainbow couldn’t understand the pain of losing them, but Applejack could. The only thing stopping her from giving up was the knowledge that, if she can secure a way home, Big Mac and Bloom would be there waiting for her.
“I’m shocked,” Rainbow noted, trying to change the subject. “She has your hat, you know. I don’t know why she didn’t let you have it.”
“She does?” The new topic was a good distraction from the looping vision of Sweetie burning. “How’d she get it?”
“Well, your sister had it till she, y’know, passed on. It pretty much replaced her bow. She left it for Rarity and Sweetie when she went. Something to remember both her and you by.” The last line finished weakly. Her distraction hadn’t lasted long.
This clearly wasn’t something the pegasus wanted to dwell on. Applejack decided to help her. “I’ve made mah mind up ‘bout my plans, by the way.” Rainbow perked up. “For now, I’ll help you. Just don’t go makin’ stupid mistakes on me, ‘kay?”
“No!” Rainbow looked hurt. “I swear I wo-”
“But I still want to get to the bottom of Twilight’s actions.” She had a way, as well. She just needed to squeeze the information from Rarity. It was better if Rainbow didn’t know about that part. “And, hopefully get home to my time. But until then, I’m yours to command.” A few reckless ideas of Rainbow’s popped into her head. “Within reason.”
“Thank you.” Rainbow stepped over to her friend. “I won’t let you down.” She raised a hoof. “Together, we’ll restore sanity to this city. You can count on it.”
“Yeah…” Rarity’s opinions replayed in her head as she tapped her hoof against Rainbow’s. The only thing The Resistance was supplying is hope. Their plans for freeing the city would, ultimately, fail. She gulped impulsively. “I will.”
“So now he’s running, right. The guards are on his tail. He hides in an abandoned oil refinery, still used to store the stuff.” Idared sat on her pillow, animatedly describing the situation. “Blueblood’s full of unused buildings. As soon as they’re no longer in operation, they’re just abandoned. Anyway, what was I saying?” Applejack was curled up at the end of the bed, listening earnestly. “Right, yeah. He’s hiding, basically wetting himself now. Thing is, the genius had been doing a little reading on Molotov Cocktails. So he runs in, finds a bottle and gasoline and whatever else you need, and makes his own.” She rolled her eyes dramatically. “He’s lost a few marbles, considering the situations.”
“Did it work?”
“Well, course. He’s still alive, isn’t here? The soldiers burst in, drawn by the sound of the clumsy idiot, and he throws his little toy. Huge fire, which did shit all to the guards in their fireproof suits. If that fire hadn’t reached the gas storage, he’d be a goner. As it turns out, the explosion nearly finished him off anyway. Burnt half his coat off, incinerated the soldiers, and ripped a massive hole in the building. When he tells this story, which he does if you give him half the chance, he’ll tell you he woke up, saw the Molotov cocktail cutie mark, and has been here ever since.” Idared giggled. While her stories were interesting, Applejack didn’t entirely get the comedy behind them. “And that’s how Fastball got his cutie mark. By being a reckless moron.”
Now Applejack joined Idared’s laughter. “’Kay, that’s a good one.” It was late morning, three days after Rarity and Dash’s confrontation. Applejack had spent the time chatting with Idared, meeting various members of The Resistance, and exploring The Mile. In daylight this time. She was growing restless, however, and Glen hadn’t given her any indication that she was needed for work. Maybe Rainbow had no intention of using her. Rarity had met her for coffee yesterday, insisting they catch up. No mention of Sweetie Belle was brought up, nor Rarity’s past. She seemed content with describing her amusing students, and places she needed to take Applejack in the future. It was a little worrying how the troubles of the city seemed to disappear when engaged in Rarity’s conversations.
“How ‘bout Tera?” At the moment, they were discussing cutie marks. Or, to be precise, their origins.
“Oh, that one’s so weird. She’s great at computers and all her radio stuff, and shit at fixing them. But then her cutie mark’s, like, a wrench jammed in a radio. Her special talent is breaking radios.” Applejack cracked up with laughter again. Idared continued through her giggling. “She- she doesn’t tell it like that though. She has this excuse- pff, she says it’s the government’s radio, as if she’s some kind of saboteur.”
As the two ponies rolled with laughter, a voice perked up from the bunk opposite. “Oi. I can hear you, you know!”
“Oh snap!” Idared ducked from Tera’s glare, struggling to contain her enjoyment. “Is she still there?”
“Yup,” Applejack confirmed, giving Tera a sympathetic smile. “If looks could kill.”
“Oh whatever.” The blonde pony turned back to her book. “You suck, Idared.”
“So, uh,” Applejack flicked through the list of ponies she knew in her head. “Oh, how about Glenlivet? His was supposed to represent earth ponies, right? How’d he get it?”
“Ugh. That’s… not really a funny story. You should probably hear it though. Most ponies know about it.” Idared dropped from her sitting position, curling her legs under her. “Okay, so when Glen was younger, early twenties, he was married. It was one of his childhood friends, a stallion called Laphroaig. Anyway, Glen was a blank flank at the time. Real late starter. He and Laphroaig worked at Horseshoe Inc, one of the original steel mills. Probably the worst places to work in Blueblood. Earth ponies were just tools for the machines. The foreman, this ex-military pegasus, drove them to near death.” Applejack didn’t like where this story was going. Depressing tales seemed to be the most popular thing in the city. “Laphroaig was a real rebel though. You know the sort? Had strong morals, and didn’t take shit from nopony. One day, he decided enough was enough, and started a strike. Not a violent one, mind you, but it had a lot of support amongst the workers.” Idared tutted, as if this was the worst thing to happen.
“His execution was public. His last words a rallying cry for freedom before he was hung. Glen was there to see it. It was that second, the moment that Laphroaig took his last breath, that Glen received his mark. It was exactly the same one as Laphroaig’s. He had basically inherited his husband’s special talent.”
“He went through that?” Applejack imagined the gruff, proud lieutenant of The Resistance. “I had no idea.”
“Yeah, well, don’t go speaking about it around him. But it makes sense, doesn’t it?” At Applejack’s lost look, Idared elaborated. “Most ponies here have lost somepony close to them as a result of the government. We can’t all be revolutionaries like Laphroaig or Firefly. What’s the point in joining otherwise?”
“Ain’t it to see justice and equality?”
“Yeah, but why throw your life away for it? It’s dangerous, putting your allegiance with us. Most ponies are happy to go along with the system, to not complain. As long as they do, even earth ponies can survive in relative peace and make a half decent living.” Applejack had seen it. Earth ponies living favourably with the leftovers they’d been given. Making do. “It takes the death of a loved one to see your own life as dispensable, because that’s what it is in the end. I’ve seen so many ponies leaving the resistance in exactly the same way, reuniting with Celestia. With somepony you love is ripped so violently from your life, only then can you have the freedom, the power, the anger to truly stand up for what is right, when the world is against you and your life on the line.”
“I didn’t think of it like that.” It was a chilling thought. Everypony here had a reason for being here, for risking their lives. Like Tera, for example. Applejack glanced over to the quiet mare. Why was she here? What event had led her to choosing this life? “What was yours, Idared?”
“Heh. My family’s death was a fairly large factor.” Oh Celestia! Applejack had completely forgotten about the filly’s family. “I mean, there’s not much else besides empty revenge for an orphan in the slums.”
“I’m so sorry, Sugercube.” She was kicking herself for being so insensitive. “Of course that was why.”
“It’s fine. I’m past it.” How could anyponye be past that? “It’s not even a good story, like Glen’s.”
At that moment, the stallion himself decided to burst in. “Skeevet and Adangi! Get your flanks down here, on the double!”
“Skeevet and Adangi?” Applejack whispered, as Idared made to move off the bed.
“Don’t ask. Some show before my time. I’m fairly sure it’s an insult though.” Applejack followed her down. As she passed her bed, she grabbed the button she had received from the pegasus guard on her first day, and slipped it safely behind her ear.
“C’mon, lasses. Walk and talk.” Glen was already moving out the dorm. The two girls hurried their pace to keep up. Time was of the essence, it seemed.
“He’s in a business mood,” Idared whispered as they drew up behind the stallion. “You can tell because-”
“Idared! Keep your candy filled thoughts to yourself, and your ears open. I have a mission for the two of you.” Applejack felt a friendly hoof in her side. Idared was grinning, eyebrows wiggling. Somepony was eager. “I’m putting you together for two reasons. One, you seem to enjoy each other’s company. Only Luna and Celestia know why. Two, you make a good team. Idared’s the brain, and Applejack’s the brawn.”
“Beg yer pardon!?”
“Oh? And you’d suggest Idared’s packing more kick than you?”
“No, no.” That wasn’t the issue at all. “She’s the brains? I’m not?” The filly was giggling uncontrollably. Applejack felt a show of her brawn to the back of Idared’s head was becoming a viable course of action.
“Based on the situation, I think so. Who has more understanding of this city? Who has been on more operations for this group? You, lass? Or the wee pain in the flank?” He had a point. Applejack begrudgingly mumbled her agreement.
“Don’t worry yourself about it. This mission’s easier than taking a piss.” Interesting choice of words. They reached the top of the spiral stairs, and entered the bar. “All you need to do is stand around and smile sweetly. My colleague will do all the talking.” Glen indicated to a nearby table, where a pony sat hidden by the day’s paper. “Barentu, they’re here.”
The paper was lowered, and Applejack received a clear view of the pony behind it. Or, to be precise, the Zebra behind it. He looked to be around five or six years older than Applejack. His stripes a far more vivid shade than Zecora’s had been. His mane, loose and wavy, but neatly trimmed, matched the black and white of his coat. His hazel eyes, and gently curving muzzle, ending in a pair of soft, full lips, could only be described in one way.
He was gorgeous!
“Glen, you must tell me how you read this trash?” He indicated the paper he was reading, Equestria Daily. That was hardly important, however. What was much more important was his voice. Every syllable was pronounced, and seemed to melt in Applejack’s ears. It was husky and dangerous, without even trying, and at the same time, so approachable.
“I don’t,” Glen grumbled, breaking the fantasies that had begun to form in Applejack’s head. “Firefly reads it to understand the lies the government feeds the ponies. Personally, the name Equestria Daily just makes my skin crawl.”
“I should hope so too. The nerve they have to write this.” He threw the paper to the table. “Ugh!” It was that moment his eyes fell on Glen’s company. His mouth curved into such a devilishly handsome smile, a crooked twist of the lips, that Applejack felt like she was almost floating. “And these are the lovely mares who will be joining me? Excellent.” He hopped out the chair, and bowed elegantly. “Barentu, at your service.”
“I, uh, th- the name’s Applejack. Or, uh, Honeycrisp, ‘round others.” The mare tried to match his bow, but only ended up stumbling forward. Barentu reached out a hoof, gently catching her.
“Careful there. And it’s a pleasure to meet you, Applejack.” The mare’s heartbeat resounded in her ears as she righted herself, stumbling over an apology. Glen made an enormous display of rolling his eyes. “And you must be Idared? Glen speaks highly of you.”
“He does?” Idared seemed genuinely shocked. Glen’s eyes made another lap around their sockets. “Well, he’s never mentioned you.”
“Hah. I’m sure.” His laugh wasn’t mocking. It was jovial sound that matched the shine in his eyes. “My work usually keeps me out the city. Today, however, is a special occasion.”
“Before you launch into the plan, you should probably head out.” Glen tapped his wrist, where a watch should have been. “You’re late as it is.”
“Right, right. Places to be, ponies to meet.” He made for the door, ushering Applejack and Idared with him.
“Thank you kindly once again, Barentu.” Glen made a slight nod of the head. Woah! Where had this polite, considerate Glen come from?
“Not at all, my good stallion,” Barentu called, looking over his shoulder. Applejack’s gaze jerked from his flank just in time. “Not at all.”
“Zebra technology, as I’m sure you know, is the finest around.” Barentu had led them through Central Emponium. If Applejack had been paying attention, she would have seen the gradual change from earth pony businesses, to unicorn. The outdoor markets began dwindling, with their fresh food and homemade clothes, and more glass stores lined the streets. The products changed, with items aimed at the hooves of an earth pony, to equipment ideal for those with magic. Designer brands, and premade meals. Prices skyrocketed too. At one point, Barentu had taken them through a strange indoor building, with a huge glass ceiling and shops coving every inch of the five floors, that their guide had called a ‘mall’. There were still earth ponies milling around, and the first few pegasi Applejack had encountered out of uniform, but it was mostly unicorns that passed them. A surprisingly high number stopped in their tracks as the three Resistance members passed, staring in amazement at Barentu, whispering excitedly to each other. The cowpony, however, was not paying attention, so all this fascinating information was lost to her. Barentu was busy drawing her in with his musical voice.
“We supplied weapons to the griffons during the war, after all. But I’m sure you know all that.” Barentu had two bulky, heavy looking saddlebags on his perfectly toned barrel. They were blocking the view somewhat.
At Applejack’s silence, Idared decided to help her. “Actually, Applejack has no idea. She’s come from outside the city. Doesn’t know a thing about the history of Equestria.”
“Oh really?” Barentu gave her a sidelong glance, his eyebrows raised. “Well then, let me give you a little background. Around one hundred and eighty years ago the griffons formed an empire. It came as a fair shock at the time, considering a nomadic race such as the griffons banded together. It was due to their first Kaiser, Yesukhei, a ruthless and peerless tactician, that the alliance was formed. His bold move caught The Chancellor entirely off guard. He took Old Equestria’s west coast faster than anyone could have suspected, citing the treaty with the deceased Princess Celestia as void. In a mere ten years, he had claimed the entire coastline. Fighting back then was a bitter, slow process. However, it had given The Chancellor time to prepare an army. The pegasus force that met The Kaiser’s griffons held them there, trapped. As clever a griffon as he was, The Kaiser’s tactics were not gaining any ground. And that’s where we stepped in.
“Now, I can’t saw what my ancestors did was right. In fact, it was downright devious. But it was certainly clever. Emigrating in huge numbers, they started to settle on Equestria’s east coast. They began supplying the griffons with weapons, completely under the ponies’ noses. For the first time since the stalemate, The Kaiser pushed the ponies back. As the fighting entered the mountains, and the Kaiser was succeeded by his son, a poor excuse of a leader, the stalemate grew once again. But this time, to hold on to their ground, the griffons needed more weapons from us. More sales meant more money, which led to better research. Of course, at this point we began selling to the ponies as well. Always a step below what we sold the griffons, just so that stalemate would last, and more money would come to us. Where do you think those pegasus uniforms come from? With her attention on the griffons, The Chancellor didn’t even notice as Old Equestria’s east coast slowly fell into the hands of the Zebra Kingdom. And if she did notice, she couldn’t do anything about it for fear of breaking the arms deal. An arms deal, I might add, that prevented her city from destruction.
“Then the dragons came. They ripped apart the lands between Canterlot and the east coast, cutting off all safe passage between our countries. Their new leader, a ravenous brute of a thing, has held the land ever since. He allows passage, in theory. Anyway, without the zebra aid, the war became even more desperate, until finally The Kaiser and The Chancellor called a ceasefire. Five years followed before a written treaty was finally signed by each party, calling the war off. This was seventy years ago. At that point, it was the first day of peace every griffon and earth pony alive had seen between their nations. The land between this city and the Griffon Empire is a barren wasteland, inhabited by few. Relations between the current Kaiserin, Guanyin, and The Chancellor are friendly, but a lot of their citizens still cling to the old wartime rumours about the other side.
“And that,” Barentu gasped, “is how Nova Equestria was made, and how the zebras became the richest nation on the planet.”
His speech had given Applejack’s higher brain functions enough time to start working again. “So there’s a whole buncha dragons ‘tween here and yer lands?”
“In theory, yes. No one’s seen them in years, but resettlement is a no go. Whenever a new zebra or pony town springs up, it’ll be fine for a month or so, and then magically disappear, leaving a huge charred crater where it once stood. It doesn’t take an alicorn to work out what’s happened. Travel’s fine, as long as you don’t tarry, and the party is small enough.”
“That’s great and all,” Idared piped up. She had been more interested in avoiding cracks in the pavement than Barentu’s story, and had finally decided enough was enough. “But what has it got to do with now? You haven’t told us anything about what we’re doing out here!”
“Ah. Context, my inquisitive little friend.” He earned a glare for that title. “For the first time in years, ponies may have the upper hoof in weapon technology over zebras. Misaki Corporation has developed a revolutionary weapon prototype, improving drastically over the design currently used by pegasi. We have no information beyond that, but gosh do we want to get our hooves on that prototype.”
“So we’re helpin’ ya get this fancy new weapon so zebras can still be the best?” Applejack’s infatuation had now given in to confusion… mostly. “Why’d we wanna help zebras? No offence.”
“Haha, none taken.” There was that beautiful laughter again. “The reason is quite simple. There’s a small faction within The Zebra Kingdom that is most interested in earth ponies. This faction, led by yours truly, sympathises with your Resistance’s plight. For years, my species faced the same racism earth ponies now endure. Not as extreme, I’ll admit, but still. We sell our technology, at a bare minimum price, to The Resistance. Without us, you organisation wouldn’t have the tiniest foothold in Nova Equestria.”
Idared didn’t look so pleased with this. “And our roles?”
“Merely backup.” The filly sighed melodramatically at this response.
“Well, it makes sense, don’t it?” Applejack tried to mediate between her new friend and her new eye candy. “This’ll be mah first mission, ‘sides checkin’ in on Rarity. And I doubt Glen wants you in the thick o’ things.”
“Psh! Firefly always sends me on the awesome missions.”
“That’s ‘cause Firefly wouldn’t know responsibility if it bucked her in the face,” Applejack drawled, her face deadpan.
“Idared. Think about it this way. I’m basically helping you into one of the most advanced companies in the world to have a nose around. I’m sure you’ll find something interesting that’ll make this trip worth it.” By the way her muzzle scrunched up, Idared disagreed.
“So, if I’m understandin’ ya right, yer gonna walk in and ask for this prototype?” Barentu had started to slow down. They had entered a grassy square, surrounded by cafes and expensive stores. At the opposite end stood yet another impossibly tall building. Featureless glass, tinted a deep black, covered all four sides, and a unassuming sign above the main entrance announced its purpose. ‘Misaki Corp Head Offices’. “What makes ya think they’ll just give it to ya?”
Barentu shrugged, his cocky grin unflinching as he took in the building. “Just a hunch.”
“Name?” The unicorn at the front desk didn’t even bother to check who had greeted her. Her attention was focused on what must be the most riveting paperwork.
“Barentu.” The zebra’s forehooves casually rested on the counter. “One word.”
“Uh huh.” She wasn’t the most engaging mare. “And you’ll be meeting?”
“Mr Okane Mochi, I believe.” Barentu kept his infallible charm on, despite the cold response.
“Yo- wha-” Now she looked up, surprise written all over her. This surprise seemed to increase tenfold when she realised who her customers were.
“Mr Mochi? I apologise if I’m not pronouncing that correctly. The company’s CEO?”
“Yes, yes. Of course!” The unicorn began tapping her keyboard franticly, as visibly confused as Applejack that Barentu had secured a meeting with the CEO. “Uh… yeah. Mr Barentu, half past one with Mr Mochi, two guests.”
“Splendid. That’ll be us.” Barentu tapped the counter before jumping down. “Shall we go on through?”
“Oh, n-no. Don’t worry. I’ve paged him for you. I’ll just need your bags to be checked first.” She motioned a nearby unicorn, who trotted over. Attached to his head was an earpiece, and light armour hid most of his coat. A holster was attached to his side. A security guard, presumably. He looked as pleased to be here as a student in a three hour lecture. And no, the student was not Twilight.
Barentu waved a hoof. “That won’t be necessary. There are a few important documents I’d rather not have tampered with.” He was being pretty daring. Any other pony would call it arrogant, but not to Applejack, with her rose-tinted glasses for the zebra.
“It will be necessary,” grunted the security guard. “Empty your saddlebags, sir.”
“Yeah, that’s not going to happen.” Barentu gave the guard the most apathetic look possible.
“Yes, it will!” The security guard threatening stepped forward. A faint glow surrounded the holster by his side, sliding out the object within.
“No, it most certainly will not!” A new voice echoed through the lobby, stunning the staff and visitors alike. Having just teleported in, a well-dressed unicorn came galloping over from the other side of the foyer. His grey coat, white hair, and silver eyes made him one of the dullest ponies Applejack had ever seen. “Stand down, Thorough Check!”
“But, Mr Mochi, sir.” Now the unicorn wasn’t bored. “Isn’t it company poli-”
“Forget company policy. Do you even know who you’re talking to?” He strode up to Thorough Check, pulling him away from Barentu. “This zebra is Prince Barentu, senior major of The Royal Dragoon Regiment, and heir apparent to the Varkoor Throne of The Zebra Kingdom.” Barentu’s smile had been upgraded to conceited. “Did you not see his royal wedding last year? It was international news!” Applejack, her mind having collapsed somewhat, looked at Barentu in a new light.
He was married! Celestia damn it!
Oh, and also he was the next king of the Zebras. That was fairly important too.
Thorough Check was now a nervous wreck. “I, uh, I can’t say I did see that, sir. I’m very sorry.” The receptionist had decided the best course of action was to keep her mouth shut, and head low.
“So you should be! I’ve half a mind to… ugh!” Amusingly, Mr Mochi poked Thorough Check with his horn. “Back to your position. You’re lucky you’re chief of security, and not one of the other morons.” As the dejected stallion returned to the side, Mr Mochi spun round to face his guests, his smile more transparent than Applejack’s ability to lie. “Your highness, I’m so very sorry for being late, as well as this abysmal display.”
“No need.” Barentu indicated the almost unreadable modern art clock on the huge back wall of the atrium. “We’re ten minutes early, and I always enjoy an entertaining reception.”
“Right, right. Of course.” If the unicorn wasn’t careful, he was going to have a heart attack. “Now, you’re here to see the new prototype, correct?” Barentu nodded. “Well, I won’t keep you waiting any longer. Hopefully the elevator will be politer that the security.” He laughed nervously, quickly stumbling to a halt as nopony joined him. “Follow… Follow me, please.”
“Now, while a prototype, you will soon see that the model works as well as we would hope the final product will,” Mochi explained. “There’s a lot of testing that’s gone into this, so you may as well call it the final product. It a prototype for various, uh, legal reasons.”
He had taken them to the tenth floor, past a ridiculous number of security checks where, once again, Barentu’s saddlebag was left untouched, and into a small office. The far wall was made entirely of glass, giving the CEO and his guests a clear view into a clinically white laboratory. As they took their seats behind a desk, a group of white coated unicorns lead a pegasus into the lab. The lead unicorn, levitating a black, bulky saddle with her, stepped forward.
“Mr Mochi.” The scratchy voice seemed to come from hidden speakers to the side of the window. “The prototype is operational, and the volunteer has been briefed. Shall I commence the demonstration of Lightning Storm?”
“This is our chief engineer, Professor Diode.” Having not sat down, Mochi trotted over to a button on the wall. Holding down the button, he spoke into an adjacent grill. “Go ahead, Professor.”
“Thank you.” She returned to the pegasus. “Now, as you are aware, the pegasi currently use the suit mounted assault rifles. While cheap to make, they are expensive to maintain, and requires extensive training to use. Lightning Storm, however, negates these problems. Our volunteer has had no experience with the prototype before.”
She floated the saddle over the pegasus’ back, securing it in place. A few straps under the saddle were attached. A helmet was levitated from a nearby shelf, and placed over the pegasus’ head. A thin cable was connected from the helmet to the saddle.
“We will activate the weapon,” the Professor barked, with as much emotion as a pencil. The pegasus, with his shifting hooves and cautious eyes, was showing the first signs of worry. “Please keep your eyes forward.”
A switch on the side of the saddle was flicked, and the machine sprang to life. Lights began to faintly glow, and a soft humming could be heard. Then, as if controlled by a unicorn, three long, black tubes disconnected from the saddle, and began hovering around the pegasus. They all pointed at the far wall, where the pegasus was unflinchingly staring, as if his life depended on it. Not a single unicorn horn was glowing. While untouched by visible magic, each tube was striped with blue lights, which pulsated slowly in luminosity. Applejack was thankful to see Idared and Barentu looking as shocked as her.
“The weapons are kept in their levitating position by a collection of electromagnets, all communicating with one another, and the saddle.” Diode’s voice took on a tone of excitement. “But the most impressive thing in this is the power source. Unicorn magic, securely contained and stored in the machine.” She tapped a blue glowing box attacked to the rear of the saddle. “The machine regulates the use of power itself, as programmed beforehand. The helmet reads the direction the pegasus is directing their eyesight, provided that it remains within the one hundred and eighty degree angle the saddle is facing, and aims the weapons at the calculated point.” She turned her attention to the pegasus. “Try looking around.”
The pegasus did so. The floating weapons, as naturally as if controlled by a unicorn, waved lazily in the air, following the pegasus’ eyesight. “Wonderful. Let’s move on to actually firing the weapon.” She raised her hoof, purposefully not using her magic, and lowered a bar attached to the helmet. It swung down, and fitted into his mouth with ease. “This’ll be the trigger. It requires a fair amount of pressure to fire, to prevent accidents, but to be safe, make sure you have your vision focused on the target at all time.” She indicated a concrete block on the far side of the lab. “On my mark, bite down, and hold until the weapon has fired.”
The pegasus nodded, blinking nervously. His eyes never left the very centre of the concrete. As soon as Diode gave the word, his jaw tensed. The faint humming grew to a horrible buzzing sound, vibrating the teeth in Applejack’s head. Three hazy, red beams could be seen stretching from the weapons to the same spot on the target. The air around them seemed to distort slightly. For a few seconds Applejack wasn’t sure what she was supposed to be seeing. Then the weapons fired. A flash, like a bolt of lightning, jumped from the three nozzles and hit the target. Hidden by a flash of flames the target cracked open, spraying concrete into the lab. Drowning out the sound of the wall breaking, the noise of the machine, and Idared’s gasp was a deafening boom. It was as if a sonic rainboom had just exploded in right in front of Applejack. As the smoke in the lab cleared, and her hearing returned, Applejack could see the pegasus, his mouth hanging open in shock. The unicorns seemed entirely unfazed.
“That’s… incredible!” Barentu gushed, his face mirroring the pegasus’. “How does it work?”
“I’ll briefly go over the science behind the weapon,” Diode coincidently began, unable to hear Barentu. “In laypony’s terms, the laser initially heats and ionises the air, creating a conductive plasma channel. A high powered electric current is sent down this channel, causing the demonstrated impact.” She motioned towards the concrete target, which now featured a remarkable hole straight through the middle.
“That was laypony’s terms?” Applejack grumbled. All this weaponry and science didn’t impress her in the slightest. So there was a new way to kill ponies? Hooray!
“No recoil in the slightest, which I understand is a problem when firing the current pegasus weapons.” Diode hadn’t finished. “The time it takes to fire may be a problem, but I’m sure the payload makes up for that. The noticeable sound is caused by a small sonic boom, which we are unable to remove, unfortunately. Like I said, the most impressive part of this, the part we are most proud of, is the energy source. Never before has unicorn magic been contained in such a way, until now. And the amount that can be stored is impressive. The small battery, as you can see, can charge over thirty shots from the weapon.” That didn’t sound so impressive to Applejack, but what did she know?
Mochi tapped the button on the wall once again. “Thank you, Professor. That will be enough.” Diode nodded as her team began unstrapping the saddle from the pegasus. A metal screen slowly descended over the window. “So, your majesty. Your thoughts?”
“It’s amazing!” Barentu remarked, who had dropped to his hooves and began pacing. “How soon can you begin production?”
“Oh, that’s actually our major hurdle. Our company, and Equestria, simply doesn’t have the funds or resources to mass produce.”
“Is that so? Then I think a business opportunity is available, wouldn’t you agree? I’m certain my father would find this worthy of zebra funding.” What. Was this part of the plan? Applejack kept the complaint to herself.
“Yes! Perfect!” Mochi jumped towards Barentu, before remembering who he was talking to, and finishing with an enthusiastic nod. “That… that’s exactly what I was hoping for. Funding from the Zebra Kingdom would be a huge positive for the success of this project.”
“Glad to hear it. I’ll need to take the prototype back to my father first though, for testing.” Ah. There was the kicker. Barentu had been leading up to this. About time, too. Applejack was getting restless inside this characterless building.
Mochi, it appeared, was having trouble responding to this request. “Ah, well… um, that won’t really be possible.” Barentu’s smile barely faltered. “This prototype is the only one of its kind, and I’m sure you understand our need for security.”
“Right. No, no, I understand completely.” There was a second of painfully awkward silence. “Could you give my associates and I a few moments to discuss our deal in privacy?”
Mochi’s mouth opened and closed wordlessly. The worry on his face was almost pitiful. “Yes, I… yes. Certainly.” He moved towards the door, his legs acting as if the floor itself was paper thin. He paused, magic gripping the handle, and gave Barentu one last look. The prince, with none of the courtesy befitting his title, raised his eyebrows and flicked his hoof in a leaving motion, urging the unicorn to get out.
As soon as the door shut, Barentu sighed. “Funny little pony, that one.”
“Yer a prince!?” Applejack exploded, having held it in long enough. “And when were ya gonna tell us that?”
“I was sure it’d come up. And it did. So I was right.” With the option of anything vaguely romantic happening with Barentu out the window, Applejack was starting to see what a cocky mule he really was. “The important thing is our plan. It’s changed.”
“The plan in which ya walk in and just ask for this weapon thing? Sorry if I ain’t surprised at that not workin’ out.”
“Yeah! You tell him, AJ.” The filly hadn’t forgiven him for his earlier comments to her.
“Hah, well, yes. Maybe it wasn’t entirely fool proof. But we can improvise.” Barentu’s voice remained as positive as ever. “New plan, new plan. Let’s see… I distract old Okane, and the two of you… steal the weapon!”
Applejack’s mouth fell open. Steal it? Just like that? “That’s yer new plan!?”
“Our new plan, yes. Don’t worry. Just keep out of the guard’s reaches. And, you know, improvise.”
“Improvise is my middle name,” chirped Idared. She seems worriedly excited. So much for having her on Applejack’s side.
“Wait, wait. Hold on. Why’s this so darn important anyway? They can’t even make it without the money and stuff, so why’d y’all need it?”
“That would be due to my father.” Barentu took on a more serious tone. “He has no interest in pony politics, to be honest. The Chancellor could be systematically murdering earth ponies for all he cares. I, naturally, do care. But being his son doesn’t change much. I need him to owe me some form of favour. If I get this weapon back to him, he has promised my faction of earth pony sympathisers the crown’s permission to directly attack the government.”
“You mean a full out war?”
“Not quite. Marching an army over dragon territory would be suicide. No, it would merely be a couple dozen of my highest trained soldiers. There’s no real threat of retaliation from Nova Equestria, due to the whole dragon business. These soldiers wouldn’t go marching blindly in, of course, but they would be available to aid Firefly however she wishes.”
“And whatcha gonna do ‘bout powerin’ these weapons? They need unicorn magic, right?”
“Then The Zebra Kingdom’s unicorns will be busy.” His smile grew at Applejack’s confusion. To what extend was he enjoying baffling her? “Applejack. Did you really think that, after we moved over to Equestria’s east coast, we’d kick out all the ponies? Nonsense. They leave in peace and wealth within our lands, as far removed from the abysmal conditions of this city as possible.”
At least there were some earth ponies out there having great lives. “I guess that makes sense. Still-” Before Applejack could finish, she was interrupted by the office door opening.
“Oh, your majesty. I did for-”
Barentu clapped his hooves together. “Wonderful timing! I was just about to come find you, Mr Mochi. I have decided, after a short deliberation, that I will need a full tour of your company before I make any rash decisions. Who better to give me such a tour than yourself?”
“I, uh. Yes. That’s-”
“My colleagues will wait here. They’ve much work to be done that I’ve pulled them from.” He shook the saddlebags from his body, and onto the nearby chair. “You’ll find all the documents in there, ladies. I’ll be back here to meet you before I leave.” He winked discreetly.
“Barentu. Is this-” Applejack was having as much luck as Mochi at getting a word in.
“Come, my friend, and possible business partner if all goes well.” Barentu gave Mochi a light, playful punch in the leg. The unicorn looked as if he was close to a panic attack. It didn’t help when the zebra threw a foreleg over his shoulder. “Let’s see this company of yours, in all its technological glory.”
“Uh, uh… Y-yes, your majesty.” With Mochi’s reluctant surrender, the two stallions left.
“Well that,” Applejack fumed, “was stupid! What’re we supposed to do now? Just walk out and grab their stuff? That darn prince is such… is such…”
“A genius,” Idared whispered from behind Applejack. The older mare turned to see that the filly had opened the saddlebags, spilling their goods over the floor. She was hunched over them, a hungry look in her eyes. Various metal balls, two sheathed blades, two bodysuits with matching facemasks, and two odd objects looking disturbingly similar to the weapons on the pegasus armour. “Colt shotguns. He shouldn’t have!” She sounded like it was the morning of Hearth’s Warming Day.
“And do I wanna know what those are?” Applejack indicated the balls.
“Grenades, of course.” Idared scooped them up and poured them back into the saddlebags.
“Of course.” Applejack sighed, massaging her temples. When she looked back up, Idared was already getting into the smaller suit. “We’re actually doin’ this, are we? Are ya kiddin’ me?”
“Hell yeah we’re doing this!” The suit was on, and the facemask followed quickly after. “I’ll show you the ropes as we go along, don’t worry.” The sheathed knife was attached to her foreleg as Applejack hurried to catch up. “The freaking next king of the Zebras is kinda counting on us.” The saddleback was on her back. Applejack, on the other hand, was busy hopping around, half in the suit. Going well so far.
“Now c’mon.” Idared grabbed her shotgun, cocked it, and swung it over her back, its strap keeping it secured. “Let’s do some paperwork!”
“Sugercube!” Applejack yelled, careful to not use the filly’s name. She ducked as bullets slammed into the wall above her, spilling plaster over the mare. “This is insane!” Alarms blared around them, hiding the sounds of metal boots echoing through the corridor. “Yer insane!”
Idared was a few meters in front of her, sliding effortlessly under the unwieldy pegasus’ legs. As it turned, with less grace than a buffalo, Idared raised her shotgun. “Hah! This is the sanest thing I’ve done all week!” She fired, launching the unsuspecting pegasus into the air, where it crumpled at Applejack’s hooves, motionless.
Idared had been quick to assure her that shotgun shells, while painful, couldn’t kill a pegasus in armour. They could quite effectively disable them, however, by heavily damaging the internal systems of the suit if fired at close range. This meant Applejack had taken on the role of pack horse, the heavy bags of grenades no problem for a pony of her strength, while Idared used her unnaturally fast reflexes to clear a path through the skyscraper.
Still, it was insane. Applejack had assumed they’d be heading out with some degree of craftiness, but no. Idared had kicked the office door open, and fired point blank at the pegasus stationed outside. It hadn’t taken long for the alarm to be raised and pegasi to descend on them at every turn. Thankfully, firing a single shot weapon from their side meant the soldiers probably couldn’t hit a whale from less than a meter away. Idared explained they had better aim in the air, being able to angle their bodies however they desired. But, in the confines of the building, their ground position was no match for the gun wielding filly.
Applejack, however, was not having such a good time. The shotgun was impossible to use. Apparently they were the preferred weapon of earth ponies due to their scattering shot, meaning the awkward aim her kind had to rely on wasn’t so much of an issue. That was, of course, if the earth pony in question could even shoot in the right direction. Applejack had discovered firing with one foreleg was next to impossible, with her aim more likely to hit the ceiling or herself than the pegasus she was faced with. Rearing back on her back legs and aiming with both her forelegs was a much better option, if she hadn’t been carrying an entire bag of grenades. Why did they even need them? So, in her limited position, Applejack had left the job of combat to Idared, as she kept pace behind, being as useful as a potato in space.
“D’ya even know where we’re goin’?” This was the third time this question had been asked. The reply, without fail, was always:
“Something’ll come up. Trust me.” Idared slung the shotgun back over herself, her ears perked. “On the other hand, I think we’re alone for the moment.”
“Always look on the bright side, huh?” Idared began cantering down the corridor, without a care in the world. Applejack kept pace behind her. She held on to the naive hope that Idared knew where they were going, because the farmer sure didn’t. A single floor of the building was a lot bigger than Applejack had expected it to be, and lacked the elegance and openness of the glass lobby. The corridors were a sterile white, with little to no character. The rooms they poked their heads into were much of the same. White walls with no decoration, desks that looked unused, windows that showed the magnificent view of the adjacent building’s bleak walls. All empty, which Applejack found surreal. Idared, naturally, took it in her stride.
“I ain’t kiddin’ though.” Applejack continued, determined to not let the filly wave away her concerns. “We can’t go traipsin’ through this place and hope we bump into the weapon. A map ain’t gonna just pop outta nowhere.”
Idared had stopped at the end of the corridor, distracted by a notice on the wall. “Uh, AJ.” As Applejack neared, she gained a better view over the filly’s shoulder. A sign on the wall read ‘Directions’. Idared raised a hoof, tapping the sign. “What was that you were just saying?”
“This…” Applejack struggled to find an excuse, and failed. “This… this is jus’ lucky, okay?” Ignoring her partner’s gleeful victory smile, Applejack moved closer to find a simple button under the sign. “Hold up. This ain’t no directions.”
Idared raised a hoof. “Well, I assume we press button, get directions. It isn’t rocket science.”
“Woah, woah.” Applejack grabbed her hoof inches before it made contact. “Let’s not jump into this. What if this button lets them guards know where we are? What if it’s rigged to blow up? What i-”
“Less thinking!” Idared yanked her hoof away. “More acting!” And slammed it into the button. How in Equestria could anypony think she was the brains of this outfit? Applejack inadvertently tensed up, fully expecting the worst to befall them. When nothing happened, she let out a sigh of relief.
“Welcome to the Misaki Corporation help system. How may I aid you?”
The sound Applejack made was somewhat similar to an upset cat. The voice came out of nowhere, just behind her ears. She leapt forward, tried to swing her shotgun into firing position, failed as the strap caught her forehoof, and crashed into the wall headfirst. The feeling of shock was quickly replaced by a horrible throbbing pain in her skull.
“You okay there, AJ?” Idared was standing over her, as cool as a cupcake. “Have a nice trip?”
“What?” Applejack scrambled to her hooves, and turned to face the pony that stood behind them. “What?” She was smiling warmly, her coat a shining light blue, matching the dazzlingly light purple mane. She had snuck up on the two without the slightest of noise. Her eyes were bright blue, but seemed to emit their own source of light. Applejack blinked, but couldn’t stop herself from thinking the pony was flickering slightly. “What?”
“Oh, right.” Idared stepped towards the newcomer, and suck her front hoof straight through the pony’s face. “You’ve never seen a hologram before, have you?”
Idared’s words meant nothing to her. But she was hardly concerned about that. The vision before her was taking up the majority of her thoughts. Idared’s hoof was completely cut off where it met the other pony’s face. She didn’t seem too bothered with having her head impaled upon the filly’s limb. “What the heck is she!?”
“As your companion correctly stated, the avatar you see before you is a hologram.” She spoke with such a refined voice, making sure every syllable could be clearly heard. It was almost how one would talk to a foal. “However, I myself am an artificial intelligence, programmed to aid in any problems or queries you may have about Misaki Corporation.”
Applejack responded with a high pitched squeak, the back of her foreleg coming up to rub the insanity from her eyes. Idared, having lowered her hoof, took control of the situation. “Yes. We’re, uh, looking for where Lightening Storm is kept. The prototype weapon your company’s making?”
“Yes. I recognise the product you have requested.” The… thing smiled warmly. “It is located on the eighth floor, in room eight three nine. Advanced security pass is required.”
“Yup, we’ve got one of them.” Idared patted her shotgun. “And this is the seventh floor, right?”
“That is correct. Elevators are located at the end of the corridor to my left.” She indicated with her hoof, which passed straight through Applejack’s ear. While she felt nothing, she still jumped back in revulsion. “Warning, currently the security alarm has been activated, so the elevator is out of commission. Stairs are located beside the elevator for your convenience. You are required to evacuate the building, as per the terms in you contract.”
“Yeah, we’ll, uh, get on that. Is there anything else that happens when that alarm goes off?”
“There is. Government security has been called, and will be here in less than ten minutes.”
Idared’s eyes widened. “Balls.”
“Sports products, including balls, are located on-” Idared tapped the button again, and the ghost pony disappeared into thin air. Applejack didn’t know whether to be relived, or further horrified.
“That’s enough outta you” Idared turned to Applejack, clapping her hooves. “Okay, Equestria to Applejack, we gotta get moving. Now!”
“Right, right.” Applejack blinked away her confusion. “And that thing-”
“I’ll explain later.” Idared began a gallop, heading in the direction the pony had indicated. “But right now… well, right now we’re in trouble. I didn’t really think they’d react so quickly.”
“The prince of the zebras is here!” Applejack kept pace with her partner. She could go a lot faster, but didn’t want to leave her best source of survival behind. “How’d ya not think they’d be prepared!? There’re gonna be on higher alert than a cow on milkin’ day!”
“That was a comparison I definitely understood, AJ.” Idared snarkily returned, her casual attitude having dissolved. “Just calm down, alright? We’ll be fine. We just gotta pick up the pace a tad.”
As they approached the end of the corridor, Applejack spied the stairs. “Right. Pick up the pace.” Panic instincts kicking in, she surged forward, giving the door a shoulder barge. “Nothin’ to get worked up ‘bout.” She began taking the stairs two at a time.
“Yeah, you- you find the room.” Idared, despite her abundant energy, was falling behind.
Applejack, meanwhile, had reached the stop of the stairs. Bursting through the door, she was met with another identical corridor, not a single pony in sight. A simple green sign was nailed to the wall, indicating room numbers. No further information. What was with this building and its lack of informative signs and abundance of ghost ponies? Yes, a single ghost pony was an abundance. Granny Smith had warmed her of ghost ponies, but Applejack had just assumed it was one her imaginative stories, like talking apples or the doctor that stole her bones.
Rooms 801 to 850 were located to the left, and Applejack wasted no time charging down the corridor. “Ya never got ‘round to tellin’ me the escape plan, Idared. I assume ya have one.” Calmly strolling out with the weapon in their saddlebag was probably not an option. “Idared?” She spun around, assuming the filly was only a few strides behind her. She wasn’t.
Applejack slowed to a stop, realising for the first time she had been shouting down a corridor in a building she wasn’t supposed to be in, with her only defence missing. Keeping her movements silent, despite the rising panic, she trotted back to the stairwell. Easing her head through the door, she looked down. No Idared.
“Hey,” she whispered, as loud as she dared. “Sugercube?” Had the filly gone down instead of up? No, she wasn’t a complete moron. Applejack withdrew, giving the corridor another look over. She was starting to feel like a foal who had lost their parents. Should she just carry on? Idared will probably turn up at room 839 eventually, having taken a longer route. And if Applejack met any pegasi, she’d just throw her saddlebag at them, and run. A foolproof plan.
Okay, no it wasn’t, but she didn’t have much to work with, considering the situation. She resumed her search again, flicking her head back now and again to check she wasn’t being followed, welcome or otherwise. With her luck, she half expected the guards to choose this moment to stumble upon her. Thoughts of what they might do to her were not helping her nerves. The only things keeping her from a full blown panic attack were her naturally high courage and levelheadedness. Pragmatically, she reminded herself that freaking out wouldn’t do much to help her situation.
It didn’t take too long to find room 839. It was at the end of the corridor, much like any of the other doors she had passed. It would have taken her ages to discover this by chance alone. Applejack found it unlocked as she silently eased it open, revealing a room quite unlike any of the others she had checked inside. For starters it was dimly lit, the window blinds closed. The desks that were dotted around the room looked more like individual lab stations than office desks, and the various cupboards labelled with various chemical or mechanical names Applejack didn’t recognise seemed to fit the theme. A secure looking cabinet stood at the far end of the room, its doors slightly ajar. Figuring that would contain the weapon they were after, she stepped into the room, and made her way between the first couple of desks.
It was only then she remembered the ghost hologram thing’s words. Didn’t she need some kind of security pass? The door had been unlocked. She glanced back in confusion.
Behind her, doing a very good job of being silent, was Thorough Check. Two pegasi flanked either side of him. He blinked in surprise at Applejack’s sudden head turn. “Uh.” His horn glowed slightly.
Applejack was just as stunned. When had they come in? She opened her mouth to politely ask, just as Thorough Check’s spell washed over her. Her muscles instantly relaxed, and she collapsed to the floor.
Now that just wasn’t fair.
Thorough Check had Applejack in a chair, her hooves tied behind her back. Behind him sat the saddlebag, her shotgun and her knife. “Raiding Misaki Corporation? I’ve seen some stupid things in my time, but this tops it.” The two guards stood silent, watching the exchange take place. The room was still barely lit by the sunlight peeking through the blinds. It was starting to feel like an interrogation. “And using a member of the zebra royal family to achieve it? I hope you know how much you’ve bucked up.” He must have noticed the look of surprise in Applejack’s eyes. “Oh come on. You thought that getup was going to disguise you?” His horn glowed again, and Applejack felt her mask pull away from her head. “There. A proper look at your mud pony face. And what a surprise, I’m correct.”
Applejack, in her compromising position, still had the pride to take offence. “I ain’t no mud pony, ya bone headed nut!” Her ears flared, and the small device given to her on her first day took that moment to dislodge itself, dropping to the floor. Seeing a chance, she awkwardly bent her back leg, and pushed the device’s single button. If it was to be used against the guards, this seemed like a perfectly applicable situation.
In the few moments of absolutely nothing happening, Thorough Check drew close to her, and slammed the back of his hoof over her muzzle. “Such a filthy mouth, running off your pathetic insults.” The hoof swung back, connecting once again, and snapping her head in the other direction. She could feel the slow trickle of warm liquid spilling from her nose. With a glow of telekinesis, Thorough Check yanked her hair back. “There were two of you.” He was uncomfortably close now. His breath smelt of daisy sandwiches. “Where’s the filly?”
“She left,” Applejack lied, badly. But any chance she had to convince them Idared didn’t need to be searched for was a chance she could escape. Her trump card had completely failed, so there wasn’t much choice available.
“Bullshit.” A punch connecting with her solar plexus launched her head forward, gasping for breath. “The only one that left these floors was the zebra. Speaking of-” He stepped away from the wheezing mare, and tapped his earpiece with a hoof. “Sir, it’s Thorough Check. Your suspicions were correct. The intruders were working with the prince.” Lowering his leg, he smirked at Applejack. “Well, I hope you’re happy. You’ve successfully started another war.”
“’S yer fault.” Applejack managed through the pain. “You an’ yer sick system.”
“Oh shut up.” Thorough Check swung an uppercut, connecting with Applejack’s slouched head. This time the blood flowed freely, splattering over her coat. As Thorough Check’s hoof dropped, it landed squarely on Applejack’s useless device, smashing it. “You mud ponies have no idea. It’s pathetic.” He sighed, and turned on the guards. “She’s no more use. Her face alone is proof enough. You can kill her.”
A number of regrets danced through Applejack’s mind as she clenched her eyes shut. Obvious ones, such as not noticing what was clearly a trap, or deciding she could carry on without Idared, as well as not so obvious ones, like her hare-brained decision to lend her aid to Rainbow Dash. What could she have done, besides clumsily wander into situations like this? She was a farmer, not a fighter. She’s arrived in a world where even a filly Apple Bloom’s age had more combat experience than her. When death is seconds from whisking you away, you begin to realise how mindlessly stupid the last few life decisions you made really were.
But a few seconds past, and Applejack still felt very much alive. That is, her muzzle was still radiating pain, and she couldn’t sense any bullet holes in her, not that she had any idea what they’d feel like. Opening her eyes, she was faced with the frozen scene of Thorough Check smiling grimly, and the motionless pegasi.
It seemed the unicorn also had the same thoughts as Applejack. This execution thing was taking far too long. “Well? Shoot her then!” Silence. “Are you goons even listening?” Again, not a sound or movement was made. Thorough Check walked over to one, and gave it a forceful shove. In a perfectly timed comical fashion, the pegasus tottered on two legs for a moment, still completely frozen, then dropped to his side, hitting the floor with a heavy clunk.
Thorough Check, speechless for a second, got back on his earpiece. “Sir! My backup has encountered some… technical difficulties. Could I get some replacement guards here?” He paused to wait for a response that never came. “Sir? Sir? Can you hear me? Sir?”
Applejack, though trying to contain it, let out a quiet derisive snort of laughter. That proved to be a mistake. Thorough Check whirled on her, his expression crackling with anger. “You! I don’t know what you did, but it’s not going to help. I don’t have legal right to do this, but I just don’t give a buck.” He drew his gun, hovering it close to Applejack, and jabbing it into her head with each emphasised word. “No bucking mud pony takes me for a fool!”
“I do!” a voice cried out from above. Applejack glanced up to see its source. A section of the ceiling had been removed, and hanging in the gap was Idared, the cockiest grin stretched over her face. Thorough Check turned to look, his gun levitating slightly off target. Whatever he had intended to do, it was too late. Idared launched herself down; landing hoof first on the stallion’s back, resulting in a horrible cracking sound. Her shotgun was ready, its muzzle pressed against the unicorn’s horn. As strong as those things were, at point blank range the result was inevitable. With the roar of the shot, the bone shattered, spraying chips of horn over the room. Applejack winced as Thorough Check screamed in pain, his legs buckling. Applejack didn’t know much about unicorn horns, but she knew that the destruction of one was the single most painful thing a pony could experience.
Idared casually hopped off the writhing pony. “Nice thinking, AJ.” She circled the chair and began untying the older mare. “Disabling all electronics? Sneaky.”
Applejack glanced at the ruined device by her chair. “Yeah, I reckon it were.” With her forehooves free, she made an effort to stop her bleeding nose. Idared went to collect her discarded mask. “Where’d ya been all this time?”
“In the vents. It was obvious this was going to be a trap. I just needed you as bait.” She made her way over to Thorough Check. “Good job with that, too.”
Applejack grumbled a response into her blood-stained hoof. “What’re we gonne do with ‘im then?” It felt slightly wrong ignoring the crying stallion in the room.
“Question time!” Idared playfully declared. She whisked out her knife, and pressed it against Thorough Check’s exposed neck before Applejack had time to object. “First question. Where’s this prototype of yours being kept?”
“Twelfth floor,” he gasped through the pain. “Storage department.”
Applejack, having managed to stop the bleeding, added in her wisdom. “He’s lyin’.” She didn’t approve of this violent interrogation, but she may as well point out where it was going wrong.
“Good eye,” Idared complemented. Then, like a switch, her attitude changed. “Don’t bucking lie to me, unicorn.” A few drops of blood appeared under her blade. “I will bucking kill you right now. I bucking swear it!”
“Okay! Okay!” His tearstained face took a much more truthful edge. Applejack was good at picking up on these things. “Fortieth floor. You won’t miss it.”
Idared turned to Applejack for a response. The mare nodded. “Yeah, pretty sure he’s bein’ honest.” Idared smiled, and withdrew the knife.
Only to thrust it violently back, slicing straight through the unicorn’s throat with ease. His neck exploded with blood, and it didn’t take long for Thorough Check to slump over, dead.
“IDARED!” Applejack screamed, the contents of her stomach threatening to evacuate. “HE TOLD THE TRUTH! WHY KILL HIM!?”
Idared flinched at Applejack’s tone. “Geez. Calm down. He saw your face, right? If he gets out alive, they’ll know you did it, they’ll know I did it, and they’ll know Barentu helped us. The Resistance’s plans would be over.”
“Oh Celesita, oh Luna.” Applejack backed away from the mess in front of her, shaking slightly. “You killed him. You actually killed him.” She stamped her hoof, trying to calm herself. “We’re the good ponies! Yer not supposed to just kill ‘em!”
Idared just fixed her with a cool stare, ignoring the blood pooling around her hooves. “Applejack. I’m not arguing about this. You’re being immature.”
That shut her up. A filly of Idared’s age telling her she was being immature. As she tried to find a counter argument, Idared was already steeping towards the first guard. “Fine!” Her tone was a lot more venomous than she intended. “I- Do what ya have to, but I’m- I ain’t having no part in this.”
“Fine!” Idared shot back, her frustration showing. “Just stand over there then, with your hooves in your ears, and your eyes shut. You’ll thank me when you’re waking up tomorrow.” Without waiting, she held the knife under the Pegasus’ helmet and began fiddling it. Not wanting to give in to the filly’s mockery, Applejack kept her eyes open. Eventually Idared seemed to find the position she had been looking for, and the blade slid in with ease. In the silence that followed, a barely audible screaming could be heard, heavily muffled. Then, after a few seconds, silence.
Applejack, unable to take it, made for her weapons. “I’ll be outside!” She grabbed her shotgun and knife, purposefully leaving the saddlebags. If Idared wanted them, she could take them. “Just hurry up, y’hear.” Without waiting for a response, she exited the room, and shut the door behind her.
Now alone, she let out the breath she had been holding. She was still shaking. That time in The Mile had been bad, but at least then it hadn’t been a friend she trusted doing the deed. Seeing Idared ending those ponies lives was… disturbing. The lack of remorse she had, the ease at which she did the job, the logical reasoning she had behind doing it.
But that was another problem. The reasoning was completely logical. Applejack had just been uncomfortable about what they needed to do, and lashed out at Idared by arguing against it. If her identity was released it would cause a problem for everypony. She owed it to Rainbow to, frankly, not buck up. Without Idared there, she would have ruined it all just because she shied away from killing another pony.
She facehoofed, grumbling quietly. She was actually justifying murder to herself. The future was horrible!
It was another few moments before Idared quietly left the room, saddlebags on her back, and came to stand by Applejack. The filly broke the awkward silence that threatened them. “It’s done.”
“Look,” Applejack was quick to speak. “I’m sorry. I was actin’ kinda stupid back there.”
“No, no.” Idared stopped her from continuing. “I shouldn’t have expected you to accept it. Glen told me you’re from a place untouched by violence, and I- well, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to see that kind of thing for the first time.” A wave of sympathy welled up in Applejack. “Apathy’s just been my way of dealing with all this shit. That or, y’know,” she looked away guiltily, “enjoying it.”
“Hey, don’t worry. We’re both sorry, ‘kay?” She affectionately ruffled Idared’s hair. “Tension was just a little high. Now c’mon. We got a weapon to steal.”
Idared half smiled. “Heh, yeah.” The two of them began the march back to the stairs. “Gotta climb a mountain before that though.”
“Tha’s right,” Applejack mused, feeling the tension slipping away. “Fortieth floor.” She didn’t even realise buildings could go that high. The scary this was that Sweet Apple Banking Corporation had been nearly twice the height of this building. “That’d be near the top, right?”
“Yup. The top floor was something like forty three, or something. I have no idea why they’d have the weapon up there though. Maybe they-” Idared trailed off, the two of them having reached the stairs. “Oh hey, look. The elevator’s working again.”
Applejack looked up at the electronic number over the elevator doors. As she stared, it changed from four to five. “Oh yeah, how ‘bout that. Didn’t the ghost say it won’t work while them alarms are goin’ off?” The background ringing was quiet enough that Applejack had started to phase it out. The elevator reached floor six.
“Hologram, AJ. It was a-” Idared sighed and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, sure. Ghost.” Floor seven. “I suppose once it gets here, we can just catch it up. Unless…” Her eyebrows screwed up, a sudden concern on her mind.
Applejack had come to the same conclusion. There was only one reason why the elevator would now be working, and only one kind of pony that would be on board. The number changed from seven to eight.
“Bucking!” Idared smashed through the door to the stairwell. “RUN!” Applejack didn’t waste any time following. Behind her the elevator doors could be heard opening, and the chatter of armoured pegasi. A few flights down, more voices could be heard, and the slamming of metal hooves on metal stairs.
“Escape plan?” Applejack gasped, taking three steps at a time.
“One thing at a time!” Idared returned, doing a pretty good job of keeping up.
If earth ponies had one advantage, it was stamina. Sure, pegasi had the speed, but they needed a lot more than just that to sprint forty flights of stairs. Those bulky metal suits probably didn’t help either. By the time they reached their destination, Applejack and Idared were out of breath, but still moving rapidly, despite their consistent speed. The filly, with her shorter legs, had really pushed herself to keep astride of Applejack. The older mare had taken back the saddlebag, which had upgraded from being useless to actually causing inconvenience. The sound of soldiers had faded away, until the only sound was the ponies’ laboured breathing.
“Floor… forty,” Idared managed, her front legs buckling. Applejack let herself collapse against the wall, sweat pouring down her face. “Let’s… give it a moment.”
“No…” Applejack heaved herself back up, every muscle complaining. “No time.” She helped the unsteady filly back to her hooves.
“If I… If I see that freaking prince again… pow, right in the kisser.”
“Oh really?” Applejack tapped the stairwell door. “You were all kindsa excited when we got started.” She swung it open, expecting another blank corridor.
What she didn’t except, however, was the surprised faces of Okane Mochi and Professor Diode, the amused face of Barentu, and the emotionless faces of about half a dozen soldiers. The entire floor was one room, three times the height of the other floors, and surrounded by entirely glass walls, giving spectacular views of the city. Mochi sat with Barentu at a circular desk, Diode a few paces away, levitating Lightening Storm, the solders dotted around the room. Everything was lavishly decorated, from the ornately designed furniture, to the priceless statues and canvases dotted around. A huge fish tank stood a little to Applejack’s left, while to her right was a minibar, an equally shocked bartender hovering a cocktail shaker.
Time seemed to pause for a second. Not a single pony moved. Then Idared acted, swinging her shotgun round with unnatural ease into her waiting hooves. She raised the muzzle in the rough direction of Barentu and Mochi.
“NO PONY BUCKING MOVE, OR I BLOW THEIR BUCKING BRAINS OUT!”
Oh sweet Celestia in Canterlot.
“You heard her!” Barentu screamed in response. “I’m not losing my life to some damn pony!” His acting, Applejack had to admit, was good.
Mochi nodded in agreement, raising his hooves. “W- we don’t want any trouble.” He glared around at the pegasi. “Stand down! T- turn around or something! Don’t give them a- any excuse!”
The pegasi hesitated, glancing at each other. Now that Applejack knew a little more about their suits, she wondered what they must have been saying to each other with their internal communicators. Eventually, in a single motion, the barrels of their guns folded back on themselves.
“Take Barentu. Be threatening. Improvise,” Idared hissed at Applejack, urging the other pony forward. The cowpony nodded, terrified. Walking what felt like a mile to the desk, she shakily swung her shotgun over her back. May as well copy the professional. Using Barentu’s body to stable herself, she aimed the weapon at the zebra’s head, careful to not drop the saddlebags.
“So,” Barentu whispered. “Plan going well?”
“What does it look like? The hell’s the weapon doin’ up here?”
“Honestly, I have no idea. I think the old guy was planning on using it for negotiation. Never got to that part. As soon as we got up here, the alarms went off. “
“He didn’t think of escapin’?”
“He seemed pretty calm, until you two charming girls burst in. Said security would take care of it.”
In between this subdued conversation, Idared had been slowly making her way to Mochi, her gun never leaving his head. The way she was able to walk on two legs, and keep the gun perfectly straight with the other two, was uncanny. Mochi himself was once again looking close to a heart attack. Today was not his day. “Wh- what do you want? Money? We have money. I can get y-”
“The weapon,” Idared interrupted. “Give us that, we’ll go peacefully.”
Mochi turned his almost vibrating head to Diode, who was now surveying the scene with the look of mild curiosity. “You heard her, Professor. Th- the weapon.”
“Sir, really?” Surprisingly, she actually sounded insulted. “Are we really going to lose the weapon over a couple of masked earth ponies?”
“Diode, I swear!” Mochi’s voice was an almost comically girlish squeal. “If I die because of your- your crush on that damn machine, I will haunt you until your last Celestia damned breath!” Applejack knew it! Ghost ponies!
Diode sighed and rolled her eyes. You had to admire her nerves next to her hyperventilating boss, and the psychopathic Idared. Floating the weapon over, she secured it to Idared. “Some of us have a little pride in our work, sir.” With the helmet over her mask, the filly looked absolutely ridiculous. They hadn’t made it with her body size in mind.
It was that moment Applejack noticed the movement outside. Swarms of black dots flittered around outside the skyscraper. “Hey, uh… partner. We ain’t alone.” She indicated the window as Idared looked over.
“D- don’t worry about them,” Mochi reassured her, for his own self-preservation. “They wouldn’t dare fire upon my company. Not with me in the crossfi-” He was cut off as the window behind him exploded inwards, bullets flying through the air.
Everypony inside ducked instinctively. This didn’t help Diode, who caught a shot straight through her rear leg. The roaring wind drowned out her cursing; the paper that had been sitting on the table began blowing around the room, hampering visibility. Mochi turned to the opening in the window, screaming in frustration. “Are you insane!? Prince Barentu is here! I’m here! Hold your fire!” The wind, however, rendered his words useless. The soldiers fired another volley, missing everypony present by a fair distance.
Idared suddenly caught Applejack’s attention, poking her in the side. She had crawled over from her position. The table was turning out to be quite a useful barricade. “We’re getting out of here, AJ. You okay on your own, Barentu?”
“I’ll be fine,” he murmured. Or at lease Applejack thought he said that. It was fairly hard to hear over the cacophony of sound in the room, now entirely exposed to the elements. The sloshing sound of water nearby betrayed the unfortunate fate of the fish tank. His next few words were completely lost to Applejack. Idared, however, seemed to have no problem, and nodded in agreement.
“Gonna need a little…” Her head dove into the saddlebag still weighing down Applejack’s back, and returned with a couple of the larger grenades in her mouth. “Hmmrg.”
Barentu was moving towards the stairs, still keeping the table between himself and the window. Diode seemed to have the same idea, while trying to nurse her bleeding leg. The bartender was nowhere to be seen. Mochi, the enormous moron, was still near the window, curled up in a ball. “Idared,” Applejack shouted over the noise. “Don’t tell me yer thinkin’ of-”
Idared wasted no time in nodding. She bit down on the grenades, which clicked inwards. As soon as she released them, they began flashing. The dropped too her hooves. “We’re blowing ourselves up.”
“All part of the plan.” Idared made a beeline for the window, now in sight of the pegasi outside.
“Yer plans are so, so, stupid.” Applejack began following her, feeling horribly exposed. Thankfully, with all the paper in the air, and the sun reflecting off the remaining pieces of glass, the soldiers’ aim seemed to come down to complete guesses.
“You’re not dead yet. My plans combine luck, madness and pure, undiluted brilliance into the masterpieces you get to work with.” She glanced back. Applejack dared the second to follow her gaze. Barentu had made it to the stairs, now helping Diode to walk. The grenades were still merrily flashing. “The brilliance comes in my timing.” Her insane grin was back, the one that looked half surprised at her own good fortune. “On my mark, jump. Follow my direction, and put some force in it.”
“Jump? Jump where?” Applejack had an awful suspicion; she just hoped the filly wasn’t that stupid.
“Where do you think, AJ? Outside!” Before Applejack could reply, a high pitched whine screeched from behind her, originating from the grenades. “There’s our mark! JUMP!”
Following her word, Idared leapt thorough the gap in the glass, straight out the window of the fortieth floor. Applejack paused, her brain torn. If she jumped, she would surely die. If she stayed behind, she would die. The only lead she had was to trust the filly. The filly that went in with no plan, made up everything on the spot, and had just thrown herself from the top floor of a skyscraper. This was the stupidest and most terrifying decision she had ever experienced in her life. But the answer, unfortunately, was obvious.
Taking a running start, Applejack jumped.
The saddlebags, the damn saddlebags, were still attached to her back. In the first few seconds, they managed to spin her around, forcing her to face the tower. Now at least she wouldn’t see the ground coming to kill her. Instead she had front row seats to the explosion that ripped the roof of Misaki Corporation clean off. The pegasi, in the corners of her eyes, were thrown backwards by the force of the massive fireball. Never would Applejack have guessed those grenades, no bigger than Applejack’s hoof, would contain such power. Concrete was flung in all directions, one piece looking horribly like the body of a certain unicorn. It was almost beautiful, in a disturbing way. The explosion also ripped apart a large chunk of the two floors below which, Applejack desperately prayed, were empty. Barentu had hopefully been given enough time to successfully escape the blast. The pegasi were having an awful time trying to stop themselves from spinning out of control. Just as Applejack had just finished taking in the horrifically stunning act of terrorism she had helped achieve, she hit the ground.
Three thoughts came to her in rapid succession. One: that was pretty fast, considering how high they had been. Two: hitting the ground, while incredibly painful, wasn’t as bad as she had imagined. Three: how in Equestria are these thoughts occurring if she was dead?
Then, with a flailing of her limbs, she realised she wasn’t dead. The resistance of water stopped her legs from waving as violently as she intended. An actual solid ground met her back with surprising force, dispelling the last of her momentum with a second bolt of pain. Using it as support, she propelled herself up, breaking the surface of the pool she found herself in.
“Holy alicorn horns!” Idared brought her back to her senses with a screech, the water draining from her ears. “I can’t believe that actually worked!”
Applejack, gasping for breath, looked around for some sign of answer to this madness. In front of her stood Misaki Corporation, its roof missing, smoke and dust were enveloping it like a cloud, metal girders protruding from it in various awkward angles. This scene of disaster was only about ten floors above her current location. The pegasi, having regained their composure, were frenziedly converging on the wreckage.
Applejack seemed to be bobbing in a swimming pool, completely empty of ponies. Its surface was covered by a thin layer of dust, and various concrete slabs were slowly making their way through the water to the bottom. The same water that had, presumably, prevented her death. It didn’t stop her back feeling like a train had hit her, however. “Wh- where are we!?”
“A pool, I guess,” was Idared’s obvious reply. She was bobbing in the water next to Applejack. “They haven’t spotted us. It actually worked!” She began to swim her way to the edge.
“We ain’t out yet. Not till we’re outta this buildin’,” With her fight or flight instincts leaving her, Applejack felt the rush of the past hour or so catch up to her, her depleted energy leaving her paddling with all her remaining might.
“No problem,” Idared cackled. “Just wait till Glen hears about this. He won’t believe it.” She looked like the cat that had not just eaten the canary, but the entire aviary.
“I can’t believe it.” Applejack stood in front of Glenlivet smelling, once again, of sewers. They were in The Resistance’s meeting hall, a small collection of ponies surrounding them with various expressions of shock and amusement. “I can’t believe how mindlessly, destructively, painfully STUPID you are!”
Idared had the decency of trying to look sorry. The act wasn’t fooling Applejack, and it certainly wasn’t working on Glen. He was pacing rapidly, his anger erupting. “You stormed through the place with no more disguise than a bodysuit, you were caught on just about every camera they probably own, you managed to get the CEO killed, and to top it all off, you blew up the building!”
“Uh,” Idared dared to open her mouth. “It was only t-”
“Blew up!” Glen whirled on her, eyes ablaze. “Blew! Up!”
Idared made the wise decision of keeping silent.
“With Applejack as well! She’s just joined us, and you nearly kill her at least a dozen times!” He resumed the pacing. “Firefly would have your head if you managed to get her killed!”
Idared took his second of silence to try again. “But Barentu gave us-”
“Don’t go pinning this on him, lass! He gave you the tools to come up with a decent plan. Heck, a hundred decent plans.” He stopped pacing, sat down on his hunches, and massaged his temples. “For once, for once, just use your brain.”
A voice perked up from the corner of the room. “To be honest, it wasn’t the best of situations.” Barentu was sitting nearby, being fussed over by Aspen. His entire tail was missing, cuts ran down his right side, and his coat was fairly singed. In Applejack’s honest opinion, it had been entirely his fault. “I’d go so far as to commend Idared on her… unique ideas.”
Barentu had arrived shortly after them. He had sworn that he had been perfectly fine to the unicorn authorities once they had brought him out safely. He insisted, after the swarms of reporters had been satisfied, that he’d like to be given some privacy to calm his nerves with a drink. According to him, the building had been completely evacuated by the time the grenades had gone off, so the only casualty had been Okane Mochi. The building the two girls had found them in had been a gym. One of Nova Equestria’s largest gyms, complete with its own open air pool on the roof of the thirty two floored building. This too, due to the nature of the incident, had been evacuated. Getting out had been surprisingly easy, especially when Idared took Applejack to the basement of the building, and ‘created’ a handy entrance to the sewers with one of the smaller grenades thankfully spared from getting too waterlogged.
“Please,” Glen continued. “Don’t cover for her. She nearly got you killed, after all. With her fancy little escape, the sewers will probably be searched extensively, so no using them for a while. I can’t bloody wait till the newspapers come out tomorrow.”
“Hasn’t the televised news released anything yet?” Barentu queried.
“Not yet,” Glen informed the zebra. “That’s all government operated, and it takes them about half a day to work out how to paint themselves in the best of lights.” He fixed Idared with another death glare. “You’d better be happy Commander Firefly isn’t here right now. Otherwise you’d be in all sorts of hot wa-”
“Ahem.” A light cough interrupted Glen. Rainbow herself had just stepped from the stairs into the room. Based on the reactions of the ponies, this wasn’t something that happened often. Most took a worried step back. A few bowed awkwardly, then straightened themselves then they realised no pony else was following. One pony, in true Fluttershy fashion, squeaked in fear, and hid behind her hair. Even Idared straightened up, a look of pure terror passing over her featured.
Stepping forward, her working eye scanning the ponies, Rainbow spoke. “I’m not angry. Idared did what she had to do.” It seemed ‘the boss’ had been eavesdropping. Idared visibly relaxed. “There were better ways of dealing with it, sure. But, yeah, she did her best.” It was strange, seeing this commanding, formal Rainbow Dash mixed in with a few habits the old RD that Applejack knew would have done. “Applejack, how did you find it?”
“I ain’t leavin’ this base for a month. That’s how I found it.” She was brutally honest to her friend. “Y’all have more courage than I could ever imagine.”
Rainbow laughed quietly, taking Applejack’s statement as a joke, which it sure as Luna wasn’t. The city was a deathtrap, especially when you were part of this motley crew. The issue of what they had even done, the killing Idared had performed, was being pushed to the back of her mind. The one thing she knew for sure is where she’d be spending the next few days. In the firing range. If she was forced out on her flank again, she’d at least be a little more prepared.
“Whelp,” Barentu got to his hooves, waving away Aspen. “I’ll be heading off now.” He patted his considerably larger saddlebag. “Got to get this baby opened up and checked out.” Idared had completely destroyed the thing by submerging it in water. That was not a problem though, according to Barentu. “Firefly, give me about a week, and I’ll be back to you with news from my father.” He saluted. “Hopefully the next time we meet will be in battle.”
Rainbow returned the salute. “I wouldn’t be too eager, your majesty.” She smiled warmly. “But thank you, once again.” Barentu grinned, shook his head in response, and made for the door.
“Commander,” Glen began. “I’m so sorry ab-”
“Glenlivet, don’t give me that.” Rainbow hit him lightly over the head. “It went well. We’ll work over the complications. And buck the news. What happened happened.” She turned to Idared. “As for you, Idared. Good work. You did what you had to do.” At that, the filly looked ecstatically pleased. Not her cocky, manic, playful happy. At was the look a filly would give if their mother had praised their latest schoolwork.
“And AJ,” Rainbow turned to her friend, who was now swaying slightly on the spot. “You did more than I could ever have hoped. Plus, you’re still alive.” Applejack shrugged, not understanding a word. Her vision was getting a little fuzzy. “Now, for the love of Celestia, get some rest.”
That, she understood. Nodding enthusiastically, she dropped to her stomach. The tavern’s floor, in all its sticky, dirty splendour, was looking like the best bed Applejack could have asked for.
With the carnage of the previous day, Applejack had been hoping for a relatively peaceful follow up. Predictably, this wasn’t to be the case. Lying in bed for an hour, willing her pain away, was not working. It seemed she had been transported to the dormitory sometime after her graceful exit from the conversation the night before. Every muscle, especially those in her legs, sent jolts of pain to her head as she flexed them. Her back was throbbing from hitting the water, and she swore her face was still feeling the heat of the explosion. Forcing herself up the spiral stairs, her eyes millimetres from closing, she faintly heard the youthful voice of Idared.
“Your favourite pony, Firefly, said it was fine! Last time I checked, she was in charge around here. Why do you still have a problem!?”
Applejack sighed, pausing in her ascent to rest her head against the wall. Maybe youthful was putting it lightly.
“My problem?” the gravelly voice replied, as equally intelligible to Applejack. “My problem is that you’ve learnt nothing from this. Nor the time before that. Nor the time be- You know what, I could go on all day.”
Applejack resumed her climb, eyes pressed shut. Maybe if she couldn’t see them, they wouldn’t bring her into the fray.
“And as I’ve been saying, grandpa, it works! Why fix what isn’t broke? ”
Applejack reached the top of the stairs, unwilling to enter the bar. Surely she could wait until they’d finished?
“Because one of these days you’re going to get us discovered and, worse, yourself killed!”
She could smell fried eggs. Delicious, freshly prepared fried eggs. Oh, and was that hash browns?
“Hah, like you’d actually care!”
Glen ignored the immature riposte. “Anyway, everypony makes mistakes. You know what I think about Firefly’s attitude to all this. She never learnt from the Rarity incident, nor the griffon ambassador, and she won’t learn now, so why argue?”
“Bucking hell, stop being so pathetic then!” If Idared was going down the path of petty insults, now might be a good time for Applejack to break this up. Her stomach wholeheartedly agreed. “If you have a problem with me, stop kissing Firefly’s flank whenever she disagrees!”
Applejack swung the door open and put on her friendliest smile. “G’mornin’, everypony.”
The bar was fairly empty, once again reminding Applejack how long she had taken to get out of bed. The delicious smell came from the direction of the bar, where Brie, their bartender-cum-chef, stood lazily in front of the kitchen door. She and the few other patrons were watching the two central ponies with an air of amusement. Idared was perched on a table, breathing heavily, her eyes glaring daggers into her verbal sparring partner, Glenlivet. The stallion himself was a table away, sitting down. While his posture seemed to suggest his disinterest in the argument, his clenched jaw and narrowed eyes told otherwise. As Applejack made her greeting, both turned to her in one movement. Now she’d stuck her hoof in it.
“AJ! Will you tell this mule how our plan went perfectly well! You were there, you had the best view.”
“Lass, get the wee one to quit her bull! She bucked up, and is trying to pass it off as a success.”
‘No, yer both wrong! Idared ain’t at fault. Barentu threw us into that mess of a situation, and she did what she could. But it sure weren’t no success. We killed a buncha ponies, blew up a buildin’ and barely survived! Now stop arguin’ and sit the hay down!’
These words, on the edge of Applejack’s lips, were the honest truth. But she may as well have thrown a ball of paper to stop a buffalo charge. Instead, she listened to what was currently the most rational organ in her body, and turned to the bar. “Brie. Ya wouldn’t mind rustlin’ me up some’a yer delicious breakfast, would’ja?” The yellow earth pony returned a knowing smile, and trotted into the kitchen.
Applejack took a seat at a free table, ignoring the intense stares she was receiving. “I ain’t getting’ inta it. Y’all can bicker till yer blue in the face, it ain’t changin’ nothin’. “
There was a moment’s silence. As Idared opened her mouth, threatening to break the awkward yet peaceful stillness, a pony descended the stairs from the shop above. “They’re here, finally.” It was Tera, two rolled up newspapers sticking out of the bag on her back. “You’re gonna like this.” Glen and Idared instantly lost interest in each other, and trotted over. The rest of the room murmured in interest. Reaching a table, Tera opened the first paper, Equestria Daily. “First, what the government wants people to believe.” Applejack realised this commentary was probably more for her than anypony else, so made her way over. It would be rude to not pay attention. “Not a whisper of blame on us.”
“Freak accident at Misaki HQ.” Glen began skimming the first page article. “Three dead, and seven injured. Prince Barentu among the injured. His two associates and Misaki boss, Okane Mochi, confirmed dead.” He glanced over at the ‘confirmed dead’ Applejack and Idared. “Experimental recording equipment is to blame. Misaki has ceased its research in that department. The Chancellor was quick to express her sadness over the incident in a private press conference mere hours after it took place.”
“Well, it’s all lies, ain’t it!” Applejack protested.
“Applejack, meet Equestria Daily. EQD, Applejack.” The mare rolled her eyes at Glen’s humour. “In all seriousness, we’re pretty damn lucky they’re not pointing the blame at us. I suppose they’re just afraid of implying Barentu would be working with Resistance members.”
Tera was pulling out the second paper. “Well, The Independent Hoof sure isn’t.” She unfurled it before the impatient crowd with her usual slow pace, revealing a large front page featuring Barentu. “They blame Barentu, accusing the government of being too weak to do anything about it, implying they’d rather kill their own citizens than risk insulting the zebras.”
“Of course, that’s the government’s biggest problem,” Glen grumbled sarcastically. “They’re right though. The Chancellor wouldn’t risk starting another war over the lives of a few ponies. Unicorns may realise she’s not a very good leader, Celestia forbid.”
Daybreak, a golden mare, nudged forward, ignoring Glen’s rant. “Is there anything about us in there?”
“Oh, you have no idea.” Tera flicked a few pages over. “We get a special feature.” The pages fell, revealing a large mug shot of Rainbow Dash, titled with GOVERNMENT HIDES RESISTANCE INFLUENCE. Hushed whispers echoed through the crowd.
“Well,” Glen spoke up. “I see they’re not getting bored of reusing that one Firefly picture.”
“It’s all hit and miss,” Tera explained. “There are sections that accuse Barentu’s companions of being Resistance members, and sections that accuse Misaki of being filled with our unicorn spies.” Tera giggled. “If only, right? There’s a bit near the end all about how we and the government are in cahoots, which is, y’know, really shooting in the dark.”
A question on the tip of her tongue, Applejack was immediately distracted with a small picture hidden away at the bottom. “So, uh, why’ve they got a picture of me?” It was the same picture that Applejack had seen on her first day, with her long blonde hair and Stetson, featured on the news.
“Oh, nothing much. Just a reminder of the recent government announcement about you, and some vague attempts to link it to this.” Tera looked over at Applejack, smiling warmly. “Don’t worry though. They’re way off the mark.”
“Right, right,” Applejack mumbled, her eyes fixed on the picture. She wasn’t entirely placated by Tera’s words. “Are these folks that write this on our side or not?”
Tera instantly looked to Glen to answer, who winced before responding. “It’s… complicated.”
“It’s not that complicated,” grumbled Cream Slice, an elderly stallion. “It’s written by pegasi, who are as racist as unicorns. Same bullshit, different source.” Applejack held her tongue as the urge to point out his hypocrisy rose.
“They’re useful sometimes,” Idared pointed out. “Remember the Emponium riot? They basically stopped the government’s witch hunt in a single day.”
“Yeah, that’s one incident, kiddo. Firefly had a backup plan anyway.” Idared rolled her eyes at the old pony’s response. “There have been plenty of times they’ve brought unwanted attention our way before you were even born.” As Applejack listened, she suddenly noticed Aspen, glaring daggers into Cream Slice. “Now, I remember this time when I was a lad, and the go-”
“Like I said.” Glen’s voice rose as Cream Slice trailed off. “It’s complicated. The pegasi have a tendency of wanting their independence. The government gives them some freedom on account of their invaluable service to the city.” He looked up, as if able to see Cloudsdale through the ceiling. “If any uprising could be successful, it’d be a pegasus one.”
“Shame they love kicking our skulls in,” Tera mumbled, looking up from her paper. At Glen’s glare, she dropped her head, suddenly interested in an article on the newly appointed health minister.
“Yeah, let’s keep pegasus comments to a minimum, okay?” Glen gave a few members of the group a quick glare before turning to his office. “You’d do well to remember who our own leader is.”
At this, there were a few murmured complaints and agreements. Aspen, looking uncharacteristically furious, immediately made for the lower stairs in silence. Then, as one, the crowd dispersed, leaving Idared and Applejack next to Tera, still engrossed in the paper. Applejack looked at Idared inquisitively.
“Pegasi are a controversial topic,” she explained. No kidding. It seemed the city’s citizens weren’t split as simply as pro and anti-government.
“Favourite ice cream flavour is a controversial topic nowadays,” Tera grumbled. “Pegasi are on a whole other level.”
“I can imagine, what with Rain- uh, Firefly leadin’ y’all.” Applejack had a fairly good idea how Rainbow would handle any racism directed towards pegasi. Then again, Rainbow had changed a great deal from the Rainbow she used to know. Who knows how diplomatically and maturely Old Dash would deal with it? Old Dash was Applejack’s new internal name for her.
“Eh, whatever.” Idared waved a hoof dismissively. “There’s only one good way to release stress here, and it’s not arguing.”
“Oh?” Applejack raised her eyebrows. “What’cha mean?” The filly wasn’t saying what she thought she was saying, was she?
Idared grinned. “I’ll show you. Meet me in the shooting range after breakfast.” Right, yeah. Of course not. “I’ll turn you into a lean, mean, fighting machine. You’ll be out there busting government heads in no time at all.” Tera’s sceptical smirk matched Applejack’s confidence in Idared’s words.
‘In no time at all’ turned out to be quite a considerable amount of time, all things considered.
A week and a half, to be precise. Applejack’s excuses grew thin as time went on. At first it was her body, which lingered in a state of pain for a few days. Idared’s gun training had been an uphill climb, her muscles protesting every time she raised anything heavier than a shotgun shell. By the third day, however, her aim and balance had improved considerably. That’s when the next excuse came about: training.
Applejack had decided the next time she left she’d be able to at least have some competence with the shotgun. This had taken some time, as Idared had predicted, but she eventually had mastered the art of swinging it over her shoulder without accidentally firing it, as well as balancing on two legs and aiming without falling flat on her face. It was a passing grade, or so Idared said. So now she was completely prepared, without a shadow of a doubt, to leave the base once again. That is, if it wasn’t for the final excuse.
“A cold?” Glen repeated, giving Applejack the iciest stare. She nodded, and coughed for emphasis. Glen sighed, face-hoofing. “You are honestly the worst liar I’ve ever know.” They stood in the shop, Tera busily closing the place up for the night as Glen watched over her. “You’re going out tomorrow, whether you like it or not.”
Applejack had to admit, it hadn’t been the best idea. Even if they had believed her abysmal deception, a cold was hardly a good enough reason to remain inside. Aspen trotted over from the counter, crouching down. “You’re afraid to leave again, aren’t you?” His tone, while accusing, was understanding. “Your fear is well founded, but you can’t let it control you.” Since when had Aspen been so good at reading her?
Fluttershy landed at her other side, smiling gently. “The hardest step is the first one. I should know.” Applejack blinked in confusion.
“Oh, well if that’s true, why don’t we solve it now,” Idared eagerly suggested, nudging Applejack’s tail. The force was strong enough to push Applejack towards the shop door, her legs continuing the motion. “Just go outside for a moment. It won’t hurt.” Applejack felt like protesting, but her mouth was too scared to move.
Outside the shop windows, Applejack spotted movement. There was something out there. Something she didn’t want to see. Why couldn’t she stop her legs? Passing the last aisle, she spotted Tera sweeping the floor. She wasn’t doing the best of jobs. The broom was just spreading Thorough Check’s blood all over the shiny surface, without actually clearing it up. Nevertheless, Tera stopped her work to give Applejack a friendly wave.
As her legs continued their journey, Applejack turned her attention back to the window. This time the source of the movement was visible. The pitch black alicorn stood outside, waiting for her, its body unaffected by the light of the shop. Those two purple, cruel eyes glaring at her once again. As Applejack tried to scream, tried to stop her legs, the shop door swung open, slamming her in the face.
Applejack jumped, jerking out of her sleep. Her book sat on her pillow, just as she had left it. What time had it been? It was after dinner, she knew that at least. Her dreams were still catching her off guard, and always ended with that damn alicorn. She dropped her head back down to her sheets, groaning in frustration.
“Oh, sorry.” The soft voice nearly caused her to jump again. “Did I wake you?”
Applejack looked to her side, blinking sleep from her eyes. The blurry image of Rarity came into focus, appearing concerned. “Uh… n-nah. I was just... wakin’ up.” There was a horrible taste in her mouth. “What’sa time?”
“Just past ten,” Rarity replied, a small smile curling up her lips. “In the evening.”
Applejack stumbled from the bed as Rarity giggled. “I’m awake, don’tcha worry.” As soon as her hooves were on solid ground she stretched, her back cracking. “See? Weren’t sleepin’.” Her eyelids hovered, struggling to stay open.
“Oh, I can see,” Rarity hummed, tilting her head in amusement. “I think you’ve had enough beauty sleep though. I’ve had a chat with Glen.”
Applejack blinked her eyes wide, suddenly feeling like a guilty school-filly. “O- oh?” When the word ‘chat’ is used, it’s never in an innocent way.
Rarity gave Applejack a concerned look. “From what I heard, it sounds like you’ve been avoiding the outside world.”
“That- uh.” She had been hiding the truth far too much recently, and this was Rarity she was talking to. “That ain’t entirely… wrong.”
The two mares stare at each other for a moment, Applejack struggling against her rising guilt, Rarity’s expression turning understanding. Eventually, she looked away. “Okay. Well, I’m not going to force you out. I just think it would be wonderful if you and I went out for a few drinks, chat about things, relax.” She smiled her smooth, persuasive smile. “I would love your company.”
Nope. No way. She wasn’t going to sway this farmer. Applejack’s resolve was unswayable. She had an entire anti-sway section of her brain. There was no way Rarity could guilt her into leaving the safety of this base.
The glowing lights of Riverside mocked Applejack as she plodded down the street, her ears lowered in defeat. Rarity almost skipped at her side, the widest smile on her face.
“Oh don’t look so glum, darling.” She shifted to the side, bumping Applejack playfully. It hadn’t taken that long for her convincing to win over Applejack’s stubborn nature. “A lady needs a little sunlight. It’s good for her skin.”
In the end, Glen had been right all along. Applejack still felt on edge, but the majority of the fear had been over exaggerated by her own anxiety. With Rarity by her side, chatting away, her previous feelings seemed fairly laughable. Still, any sound nearby had her ears flicking to attention, and her eyes made sure every pony that neared them was given the once over for signs of hostility.
“Yeah, ‘cause explosions and gunfire are also great for mah skin.” She glanced to her left, where Canterlot shone between the buildings. The cool night air blew the cobwebs from her head, and she found herself full of energy as the two of them dodged around another groups of ponies, all enjoying the nightlife. They were mostly unicorns, but there were the odd group of pegasi, and the very rare group of earth ponies, looking very out of place. No mixed race groups which, while unsurprising, still disappointed Applejack. She supposed Rarity and herself were a one-off. “And where’s this sunlight anyway? It’s nearly midnight!”
“It… it was a figure of speech, Applejack. I wish you would stop complaining.” Rarity suddenly stopped, stamping her hoof on the concrete. Applejack stumbled forward, attempting to match her partner’s movements. Turning back in confusion, her words were halted when she saw the pout on Rarity’s face. “This evening is supposed to be fun!” The pout was powerful, but Applejack was having none of it. “And you will have fun, whether you like it or not!”
Her stubbornness finally waning, Applejack sighed. “I know, Rare. I’m just… y’know. Bein’ me.” She closed the small gap between them, nudging Rarity’s shoulder. “C’mon, it’s you. How could I not have fun?” The unicorn’s face lit up.
“Wonderful! Between you and me, there’s another reason why I called you out. I didn’t forget your interest in gaining an audience with Sparkle.” She winked playfully, and then returned to her trot. “I may be … persuaded to help you out, given the right incentive.” Well that settled it. Applejack was going to enjoy the hell out of this evening. The chance to confront Twilight wasn’t something that would come around every day.
And there was something else there. Something about seeing Rarity’s good spirits and playfulness that urged Applejack into prolonging that mood. She hadn’t missed the occasional disheartened look that would flash over Rarity’s face. Applejack’s thoughts drifted back to Rarity and Rainbow’s fight, to the fate of her sister, to the loneliness of her empty house. She deserved this, above all else.
Rarity’s pace had slowed down, her eyes darting over the venues. She came to a stop in front of a small entrance, the words ‘Aces & Eights’ shone in garishly red neon. “Now, I hope you’ll like this bar. I’ve only been here once before, but it’s more your style than the places I usually frequent. It’s more …” She turned to Applejack, trying to find her words. “Rustic.”
“O’ course,” Applejack drawled, giving the nearby bars a look. They all seemed a lot less elegant than Applejack had expected. The outside of Riverside was generally the same; dark windows, emotionless metal buildings, overhanging brightly lit signs. But once she could see past the doors, she realised how different the businesses themselves appeared. This one had a warm, welcoming interior. Red leather bar stools under soft yellow lights, dimly lit rows of alcohol behind the bar, stained wooden tables. “What was wrong with yer usual joints?”
Rarity paused for a moment, concern flashing over her face. “Well, my usual … joints probably won’t, uh … accept a pony such as yourself.”
“An earth pony,” Applejack drawled. “Y’can just say it, y’know.”
“Right, right. Of course,” Rarity flustered. “I didn’t mean to … You’re not- I wasn’t-”
“Relax, Rare.” Applejack had been so used to the Resistance’s blunt way of talking about the inequality in the city that Rarity’s difficulty in addressing the subject came as a bit of a surprise to her. “Just speak yer mind ‘round me. I know yer intentions are good.”
“Oh I’m sorry, darling. Tripping over my words like this. Everything’s so dreadfully unfair, and I feel awfully guilty in my position when you-”
“Well that’s just stupid,” Applejack interrupted, fixing Rarity with a glower. “Ain’t yer fault. None of this. Now c’mon,” she opened the glass door, indicating Rarity to enter. She was instantly met with the pleasant sound of jazz music and the faint hum of conversing ponies. “Let’s enjoy the hell outta this evenin’. This place looks perfect.”
Applejack quickly followed Rarity inside. The atmosphere inside met her expectations made outside. The subtle smell of cigarettes and alcohol was overpowered by the woody, earthy smell the bar seemed to radiate. The stalls and tables were surprisingly busy, with ponies of all races engaged in conversation and laughter. The bartender, a brown pegasus with a mess of curly hair for a mane, finished serving an elderly stallion, before turning to the newest customers, his smile welcoming. “A unicorn and an earth pony coming in together. Now there’s something you don’t see every day. I swear there’s a joke that starts like that.” Applejack politely laughed, and was quickly joined by Rarity’s nervous tittering. “What can I do for you two beautiful mares?”
“I’ll have a G and T, if you would be so kind. And my companion will have …” Rarity glanced at Applejack, who had just come to the realisation that she was without a single bit to her name. She couldn’t possi- “A pint of hard cider. Your best brand.”
“Rarity!” As the bartender turned to make the drinks, Applejack turned on her companion.
“Ah! Ah! Don’t even start. I’ll be paying for your drinks, whether you like it or not.” Rarity waved her hoof dismissively, before levitating her purse out her saddlebag. “I think they take card anyway.” She slipped a small piece of plastic out the purse, covered in numbers, with the large, bold letters SABC at the top. “I’ll just stick it all on there.”
Okay. Now Applejack was lost. “Card? What d’ya mean? What’s a Sabc?”
Rarity flicked her eyes between Applejack and the card, realisation dawning in them. “O- oh! Nothing. Um … I’ll just pay with bits instead.” Before Applejack could enquire further, the bartender had returned, balancing the two drinks on his wings. As Rarity paid, Applejack scanned the bar for an empty place to sit. She had bigger fish to fry than whatever futuristic mumbo jumbo Rarity was spouting. She was seconds away from finding out how to achieve the goal that had been gnawing away on her mind since she arrived here.
They found some seats near the back of the bar, in a quiet little alcove. Rarity floated the drinks over, and took a seat next to Applejack. As Rarity began on her gin and tonic, the earth pony jumped straight to the point. “So, yer Twilight plan. What’ve I gotta do?”
Rarity sighed as melodramatically as possible, lowering her face to the table and slumping her back. Applejack waited, unimpressed, as her companion dropped her act. “I had a feeling this topic would come up rather quickly.” Rarity turned to face Applejack, her tone serious. “My plan isn’t safe in the slightest. Look, I’m going to explain it, and the moment you think it’s too risky, interrupt me. Understand?”
“You’re not going to interrupt me at all, no matter how absurd my plan is, are you?”
There was a moment’s silence, Rarity’s expression betraying her degree of exasperation, ending as Applejack decided to elaborate. “Rarity, put yerself in mah hooves. Y’all have had time to deal with this change, but I haven’t. I want answers, and Twi’s the only one with ‘em. If I have any chance of getting’ home, it’s through her. So no, I don’t give a hay ‘bout the risk.”
Rarity avoided Applejack’s gave for a moment. “I admit there are times I want to know. It’s like a puzzle piece that’s missing. I want to know what happened back then without hearing Dash’s version. But most of all, I want to know why, and I want to understand why, especially since Sweetie…” She laughed humourlessly instead of finishing the sentence. “I think that’s the reason why I should never hear the answer. It would never be good enough.”
“I guess,” Applejack pondered, shuffling in her seat. “But all I need’s the truth, no matter how bad it’s gonna be. I just …” struggling to find the words, she finished quietly, “gotta.”
Rarity smiled understandingly. “You want a little bit of honesty, Applejack. That doesn’t really surprise me.” She turned back to the table, resting her head in a hoof. “When I told you there was a way the first time, I was mostly humouring you. The risk was far too great. Technically, I can teleport you into the castle without alerting any of the security systems. Problem is, the destination would be random, and you’d have no way back.”
Applejack nodded hesitantly. “That don’t sound too bad. I can work with it.”
Sighing, Rarity brought her drink to her mouth, and took a sip. “No, you can’t. There’s being brave, and then there’s being stupid.” Applejack rolled her eyes. Blunt Rarity was uncommon, but it always managed to irritate her. “I’ve been working with The Specialist though, and they’ve helped me reduce the risk. A simple revision to my spell has shrunk the possible destination to a far safer range. As long as I target a room large enough, there won’t be any risk of teleporting you into a wall.” She smiled weakly, the slightest hint of pride showing through. Magic had never been Rarity’s strong point, and it looked like that hadn’t changed. Applejack grinned supportively. “I mean, it’s no Twilight level spell, but it’ll have to do. As for return, I won’t be able to perform that spell myself. It’ll need to be down to you.”
“Uh, I ain’t sure that’s gonna work.” Applejack tapped her forehead, where a unicorn’s horn would have been. “Y’know, for obvious reasons.”
“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong. The Specialist has explained to me the art of storing spells for later use. If I can capture the essence of a teleportation spell, the destination the Resistance base, I can store it in a particular kind of gem, which any non-unicorn such as you can utilise.”
“Rarity. That’s perfect! I can get out of there at any moment with something like that.”
“Well, of course,” Rarity mumbled, trying to act modest. “As long as you don’t let the gem get taken from you or something equally stupid. Also, it’s hardly my idea. The Specialist is the one to thank. They’re the reason I’m able to bypass the Canterlot security magic in the first place.”
The Specialist, huh? You and her … him … it worked together?” Rarity’s expression was unreadable. “So … you know who The Specialist is, huh?”
“Naturally,” Rarity hummed. “Oh? You don’t know?” The unicorn’s fake shock wasn’t fooling Applejack. “Okay, fine. I’ll tell you. But you have to keep it secret, okay?” At Applejack’s nod, Rarity paused, no doubt for dramatic effect. “The Specialist … is Snails.”
The words hung in the air for a moment. Applejack sat, shocked, her mouth slowly opening. Before she could get a word out, Rarity burst out laughing. “Pfff- hahaha! Oh, I’m- I’m so sorry. But you should have seen the look on your face! Hehehe-”
“Yeah, hilarious.” Applejack’s deadpan tone gave away her sarcasm. “No, really? Who is The Specialist?”
“No idea,” Rarity managed as her laughter drew to a close. “They contact me the same way they talk to anypony else. Through the written word, and memory spells. Obviously they’re a unicorn, and a powerful one at that. They also have a strong loyalty to the Resistance. The amount of aid they’ve supplied to the cause is outstanding, the amount of information they’ve given us-”
“Aside from a name,” Applejack interjected.
“Yes, yes. Aside from a name. But if an individual wants to keep their identity secret, who am I to judge?”
“Yeah, but what if it’s Twilight? The real one! And The Chancellor is a double.”
Rarity rolled her eyes, floating her drink over once again. “You’re really reaching with that one, Applejack. If that were true, why wouldn’t she just reveal herself?” At Applejack’s disappointed silence, Rarity continued. “Anyway, you’ll have a chance to ask Sparkle as soon as we’re ready. The spell to get you there is easy enough, but getting you back … well, I’ll need something very few ponies in this city actually possess. A tiger’s eye.”
“A … tiger’s eye,” Applejack slowly repeated. “Yeah, I … I ain’t so sure we’d find one of them any-”
“The gemstone, AJ. I mean the gemstone. I’ll need to store the spell in a tiger’s eye jewel.” Rarity shook her head with a sigh, as if what she was saying was quite obvious. Because, of course, Applejack had always been an expert with gems, and was bound to understand her. “They’re only found in the Griffon’s homeland,” Rarity continued. “the griffons originally came from the west. Far, far to the west, as I’m sure you know.” Applejack didn’t. Geography classes had always failed to grab her attention when she was a filly. Nevertheless, she nodded, urging the unicorn on to her conclusion. “Well, shortly before the war, some great disaster occurred in their homeland. Famine, war, who knows? Whatever it was, it drove the survivors over the sea to join their brethren living in Equestria. Most historians agree that it was the fear of another disaster befalling them that united them under Yesukhei. Strength in numbers, after all.” Applejack felt she was starting to lose track of the information. She decided to hide her confusion with a mouthful of cider. “Anyway, it was these survivors that brought the last tiger’s eyes over to Equestria.” With a relaxed sip of her drink, Rarity sat back, content with her story.
“So …” Applejack’s attention hadn’t wandered far enough to notice the absence of a certain important piece of information. “Where’re we gonna get one?”
“Right, right!” Rarity tapped her hoof to her head. “Getting one in the city won’t be possible. Well, I’m sure The Chancellor has some lying around, but I’m not breaking you into Canterlot to steal an object to help you break into Canterlot.” She tutted dismissively. “That would just be pointless. However,” Rarity paused, eyeing Applejack up and down, her expression calculating. “Glen tells me he has business to attend to west of the city, involving griffons. I … suggested you’d be excited at the prospect of seeing what Equestria’s like outside the city walls, and he agreed.”
“Outside the city!” Applejack had heard enough about the surrounding lands to realise how absurd Rarity’s suggestion was. “Yah expect me to go out there? Ain’t it a war-zone?”
The unicorn turned away, muttering to herself. “Hmm, yeah. I imagined this would be a problem …” She switched her attention back to Applejack, her voice laced with honey. “Applejack, darling, it’s hardly a war-zone. The war ended years ago. It can be a little harsh at times, but most of the rumours spread around the city are lies the government fabricated in a successful plan to keep earth ponies willingly imprisoned.” She swung a hoof around Applejack’s neck in a uncharacteristically chummy manner. In entirely unrelated news, the white pony had finished her drink. “You’ll be perfectly safe out there. You’ve just got to keep an eye out for a suitable tiger’s eye gem.”
“Rare. Y’know how hard it was to get me outta the base.” She stared her companion down, but made no attempt to remove the hoof. “How’d’ya reckon I’d fare out there in the wilderness?”
“Glen tells me you’ve been training since we last met. You’ll manage,” Rarity offered, avoiding a more complete answer. “Anyway, I do believe it is you who wants this gem so very badly.”
Applejack opened her mouth to argue, but found no excuse immediately available. If she couldn’t do a task as simple as this, how was she going to face Twilight when she needed to? As much as she hated to admit it, Rarity was completely right. Beaming victoriously, Rarity hovered her drink over for another sip, only to find it empty. “Oh. Oh my. That went far too quickly.” She glanced at Applejack’s glass, only two thirds empty. “Well, this business talk is getting far too dull for such an evening. I’ll let you think it over, but I believe you’ve already come to a conclusion.” Applejack kept her eyes down, raising her beverage to her mouth. She left it to her imagination to picture the unicorn’s smug smile.
Rarity dropped from her seat with her usual flair of elegance. “Meanwhile, I’m going to acquire a couple more drinks for ourselves.” She gave Applejack a light bump with her shoulder as she passed. “By the time I’m back, I hope to see your glass empty, m’dear.”
True to her word, Rarity had kept the conversation clear of any serious or gloomy topics, instead talking in length about her students and colleagues as Applejack listened in amusement. It relieved the earth pony to hear of such things, and dispelled her fear concerning her friend’s loneliness. While it was true that Rarity wasn’t in the same good cheer she had been in the past, she was the closest to what Applejack was familiar with since arriving in Nova Equestria. There was something so relaxing and comforting about listening to the fashionista ramble about nothing in particular. When it came to Applejack’s turn to provide conversation she would delve into her recent memories, retelling events such as the royal wedding in crisp detail, as to her they had only occurred weeks previously. Rarity, having mostly forgotten about the events, hung onto the cowpony’s every word.
“I’m sure,” Rarity interjected, as Applejack retold the past. “I’m very sure I forbid you from wearing your hat.” The unicorn had her head resting on her foreleg, slouched over the table. Her flushed face was fixed on Applejack, a tipsy smile adorning her features, her eyes half lidded. In the red neon lights near their table, her coat had a pink sheen. A long cocktail sat nearby, rarity’s lipstick marking the end of the straw.
“Oh, sure as sugar yah did,” Applejack sniggered. Her glass of bourbon was still in hoof. It was her fifth drink. She was sure of that. She was carefully keeping count. Or it was her eighth drink, one of the two. Or any of the numbers in between. Look, she knew it was a number under ten for sure. “But d’ya really think I was gonna listen? Mah hat wanted to see the weddin’ too, y’know.”
“Your… your hat wanted to-” Rarity lost it, rolling her face into her foreleg to suppress the fit of giggles that escaped her. For a pony ten years older than Applejack, physically, she was dangerously adorable. Her hair rippled in such a mesmerising way as the unicorn’s body shook that Applejack almost missed the muffled question. “I- is that what y- your hat told you?”
Applejack was giggling away, despite her embarrassment. “Eyup. It also liked seein’ you while you were wearin’ that fancy dress, Rarity.” There was something about Rarity that brought out Applejack’s rare teasing nature.
Rarity jerked her head up, spluttering on her laughter. “W- well, the hat obviously has good taste then. Wouldn’t you say?”
“I reckon so,” Applejack mumbled, her thoughts momentarily distracted. “Now that I mention it, didn’t Rainbow say you’d been keepin’ an eye on my hat while I was gone?”
“Of course, honey,” the unicorn hummed playfully. “I wasn’t going to lose that old thing. Naturally, I did give it a slight makeover. A few jewels, a nice bow, nothing too big.”
Applejack gulped, eyeing her friend. “Yer… yer kiddin’ me, right?”
Rarity responded by raising her eyebrows incredulously, giving Applejack a light tap on the head. Or, at least, she tried to. She ended up missing and nearly falling onto the earth pony. “What do you think, dummy?”
Applejack giggled as Rarity righted herself. “Okay, okay. So ya didn’t. No need to go fallin’ off your chair on my account.” The unicorn pouted, generating another giggle from Applejack. “I know I can’t just go ‘bout wearin’ it. I just miss it, is all. I feel naked, y’know?”
“Uh, AJ. I hate to be the one to point this out, but-” Rarity poked her in the side. Her hoof felt so warm. “You are naked.”
“Oh you know what I mean,” Applejack mumbled, rolling her eyes. “It’s just another apple to add to the … pile of apples.”
Rarity slowly blinked, her ears flicking slightly. “Apples.”
“No, uh,” Applejack pressed a hoof to her forehead. “The apples are representin’ mah problems right now, with all the time travel and stuff.”
“Of… course.” Rarity still looked lost. What part of that didn’t she understand? “How are you dealing with everything? The future stuff.”
Sighing, Applejack raised her drink. How was she supposed to respond to this when she didn’t even know the answer herself? For the first few days, she’d basically put off thinking about it in any significant way. She was determined to return, through whatever means necessary. It was this dominant thought that postponed any belief that this world was real. It was a few nights ago that it had hit her though. What if she was stuck here? What if this had to be her home from now on? Idared had been there to calm her down after that particular panic attack. Since then she had come to terms with it, or as close as she felt she could. The feeling wasn’t a particularly nice one. “I’m managin’,” she eventually replied, the taste of whisky fresh in her mouth. “As best I can. It ain’t nothing’ short’a hopeless though. I can’t stand feelin’ this vulnerable.” She gave Rarity a sad look. “Sorry. I ain’t got a better answer than that. I doubt you’d understand either.”
Silence followed this. Rarity probably regretted asking. Trust Applejack to bring down the mood. She was in the middle of another drink when Rarity spoke up. “I think I would. I felt the same thing after… after Sweetie passed on.” Applejack paused mid-gulp, her eyes wide. This was the first time Rarity had brought it up around the earth pony. “There was the court case where I had to defend my innocence.” When had this conversation taken such a horrible turn? “I had to deal with Rainbow Dash when I found out how it happened. The feelings of worthlessness I felt then… I can’t even describe it.” There was an unbearably awkward silence as the two mares attended their drinks.
But Rarity wasn’t finished. “I clearly remember the last time I saw her. She was fussing over me, as she always did.” The unicorn’s eyes were fixed on her drink. “She was the down to earth one between us. It’s why we never moved apart. I don’t think she trusted me on my own. I knew full well that I relied on her more than I should have done.” Her voice was starting to crack. “That particular afternoon I was rushing, and nearly forgot my bag. I told her I wouldn’t know what I’d do without her.”
As soon as those words left her lips, Rarity’s back shook with a heaving sob. Applejack instantly shot out a hoof, putting her foreleg around her companion. “Rarity. I’m so sor-” Her flat, empty apology was cut off at the unicorn moved, closing the space between the two of them, and firmly wrapping her forelegs around Applejack’s torso. Applejack returned the hug, feeling Rarity’s hiccupped sobs shaking her warm body. Hot breath tickled her shoulder, as her coat caught the odd tear that fell from her friend’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” she finished, imagining her own sister, and filling the words with all the meaning she could manage. Rarity’s perfume enveloped her, and Applejack closed her eyes, annoyed at being distracted by something so meaningless.
“I’m glad you’re back,” Rarity whispered, her mouth surprisingly close to Applejack’s ear. “When you left, I didn’t know what to think.”
“I’m here now though.” Rarity’s behaviour was definitely different. She felt a hoof rise up her neck, playing with her short hair. “And I’ll be around for a while, I reckon.”
“I miss your mane. The yellow one.” Rarity had pulled back slightly to look Applejack in her eyes. Her eyes were still slightly wet. A sober Applejack would have realised how close they were in that moment. She could smell the fruity smell of the cocktail on Rarity’s breath. “This is nice too though. It’s fluffy.”
Biting her lip, Rarity ran her hoof up Applejack’s mane, throwing it all out of place. She giggled at some internal joke the cowpony wasn’t privy to, the laughter broken by the occasional emotional shiff. That’s when Applejack realised the cause of Rarity’s behaviour. It was obvious.
She was drunk. Well and truly drunk.
Applejack pulled back slightly, causing Rarity’s ears to visibly drop, indicating her disapproval. “I’m gonna grab us another drink,” Applejack explained. Water this time, for both of them.
Rarity whined wordlessly, then added “But I haven’t finished this one.” Her voice was distractingly flirtatious. She pushed the drink forward. “I’ll let you share.” Applejack once again noticed the lipstick at the end of the straw.
Gulping, Applejack took a few steps back, nearly tripping over herself. “I won’t be a second. I promise.” The drink had gotten to her head just as badly. Unusual thoughts danced through her head. Leaving the sulking Rarity, Applejack made her way back to the bar.
The floor swam as she pushed through the customers. Yeah, she had been drinking way too much. There was something far too tempting about forgetting her troubles with alcohol. Drunken, flirty Rarity was riskily fun to talk to, so long as she didn’t drink too much herself, and do something she’d regret. Like take it seriously.
The bartender was happy to serve her, his good mood unwavering. Hopefully Rarity wouldn’t question Applejack’s ability to buy drinks without any bits. It was far easier to get a drunk pony to drink water when you disguise it as alcohol. There was the tricky job of getting them back to the table without telekinesis. Leaving one behind, she balanced the second in her hoof, and stumbled back. This plan, in her inebriated mind, was flawless. She was almost back to her table when she took the chance to glance up, taking her eyes off the glass.
Somepony had taken her seat. That somepony was a unicorn, a stallion, possibly around Rarity’s age. He had his arms around the mare, who appeared to be giggling playfully. All the sadness seemed to have left Rarity’s features.
Gravity took that moment to notice a drunken earth pony was trying to walk with a glass balanced in her hoof, and promptly knocked it off. The deafening smash it made as it hit the floor alerted everyone in the vicinity, including Rarity and her new friend. Applejack, in the classiest manner befitting a pony such as herself, turned and ran for the exit, her emotions going haywire. Who was that stallion? Well, whoever it was, Rarity was clearly far more interested in him than she had been with Applejack. As a friend, of course she was frustrated by that. As a friend.
Bursting out into the street, into the cool night air, she gave herself a moment to think, but found her brain refusing to work. Alcohol numbed all sense of reason and logic, and only highlighted the incomprehensible anger she felt.
Behind her, she heard the bar door swing once again, and a familiar voice rang out. “Applejack. What’s wrong, darli-”
“No, don’t!” Applejack snapped, facing away from the bar and her friend. “Don’t darlin’ me.” She heard a faint mumble of confusion. “Don’t ya have a stallion to get back to?”
“W- what? Him?” There was genuine confusion in her voice. She didn’t even realise what she’d done. “I don’t know who he is.”
“Oh good. And here I was, hopin’ that it was yer cousin or somethin’. But no, turns out Rarity’ll cosy on up to any ol’ stallion that comes her way.” What was she even saying? This didn’t sound like her at all! The words just tumbled out, overriding any common sense.
“Applejack.” Rarity’s voice had gone icy cold. “I do so hope you aren’t implying what I believe you’re implying.” Applejack’s silence was enough of an answer. “How dare you! I had no idea who that colt was. Forgive me for hoping I could humour him long enough for my companion to return, and give him a piece of her mind.” Applejack swung round, the lights of Riverside spinning past, blurring her vision. It slowly focused on a furious white unicorn. “Instead, she jumps to such absurd conclusions, and storms out.” Wasn’t Rarity supposed to be drunk? “How utterly immature.”
“Immature!?” Applejack snapped, becoming defensive. She was in the wrong here, and she was fully aware of that. But in some small corner of her brain, a little voice was convincing her to not back down. She’d gone too far now to just admit defeat and apologise. “Sorry I can’t be as old and wise as you. We ain’t all unicorns!”
Rarity took a step back, as if she had been shot. The ramifications of what Applejack had just said slowly dawned on the silly pony. “You… After all I’ve…” Rarity stumbled backwards, tears springing to her eyes once again. “You certainly know how to make a lady feel special, Applejack.”
“Rarity, no. I didn’t-”
The white pony spun her head in rejection, taking her eyes off Applejack. “I think you know your way home.”
“I’m sorry!” Applejack tried, her voice breaking, but her words were disregarded. With a kick of her back legs, Rarity was gone, galloping down the street. Applejack was left on her own, head hung low, with her spinning head and guilty conscious. She had no one to blame but herself, and her stubborn argumentative nature. Glancing back up, determined to follow her companion, she found the street empty. “I’m sorry,” she repeated to the night air, her voice a whisper.
The morning was off to an abysmal start. Having been forced from her distraught slumber after what felt like less than an hour, and dragged out into the crisp morning air, Applejack now found herself surrounded by a throng of earth ponies preparing for the day’s work. A cacophony of sound from horns whistling, and alarms ringing, to the constant clop of hooves on cobblestone, and boisterous ponies loudly greeting friends assaulted her ears in an unrelenting barrage. The constantly moving crowd swam before her vision in a sickeningly blurry mess as she followed the charcoal stallion leading her, and any glance to the east was met with the blasting light of the morning sun, forcing her sensitive eyes to retreat back under cover. Her fur stood on end, doing its best to protect her skin from the day’s early chill; skin that cried out for the warmth of her bed. Securely sitting on her forehead sat a dirty pair of metal goggles that Glen had insisted she wear, accompanied by a faded red bandana around her neck, irritating her oversensitive skin. Her stomach too, urged her to cease her unsteady, stumbling march though Blueblood Industrial Park, lest it expel the contents of her hurried breakfast.
To put it simply, Applejack had a hangover, and a fierce one at that.
“Buck up, lass. We’re almost there.” Glen had slowed down to Applejack’s side, his pace matching hers. A similar pair of goggles on his head caught the sun, flashing into Applejack’s eyes in what felt like an intentional jibe. “You’ve only got yourself to blame, you know.” Why did he have to shout?
Raising her head as little as she could, she shot Glen what she hoped was a glare so harsh that his face would melt in horror. Glen chuckled. Feeling her motivation for the day sinking away, she replied with an eloquent “Yeah, well… don’t matter. Jus’ keep walkin’.”
Glen’s voice lost its playful tone. “Oh boy, I can tell you’ll be a barrel of laughs today.” He glanced around, his eyesight easily clearing the sea of pony heads. “Before we get to our destination, there’s something I wanted to show you. It may make you more … amiable.”
Grumbling, Applejack returned her head to its low, dejected position. Somewhere nearby, she could hear Idared. While Applejack had volunteered to join Glen, Idared was here against her will. But, as Glen figured, if he was showing Applejack the areas outside the city, he may as well take Idared, killing two birds with one stone. The filly had been as loud and boisterous as ever since she woke up, either excited or apprehensive, and had run off as soon as they entered the industrial section of the city. Unlike the barriers between the other city districts, the gates from The Mile, and Blueblood were unguarded and open. Maybe that’s why Idared seemed to know her way around this intimidating area. Glen wasn’t concerned, so Applejack ignored her nagging worries. Worries for the filly’s safety, worries for where their mission would take them today, worries over a certain white unicorn. The less she had to think about right now, the better. Oh how she missed her bed.
But her bed was miles away, and this mess of a district was the last place Applejack wanted to sleep. She, and hundreds of other ponies hurrying to work, were crowded on a raised catwalk, wide enough for at least thirty ponies abreast. Below them, stretching far below the natural level of the city, were deep, dark chasms surrounded by metal walls, and dotted with the faint glow of windows. More catwalks ran from openings in the walls, made visible in the dark by the flashing red lights that lined their precarious edges. These walls were the lower floors of black, metal towers, rising far above her head, the highest levels looking like the skeletons of real buildings. Huge cranes hung over her head, already steadily working. Applejack cringed as they precariously moved their heavy loads far overhead. While she didn’t spot anything but earth ponies at street level, the occasional flash of metal in the sky told of the constant pegasus surveillance. Pipes crisscrossed the spaces between the buildings, the odd crack in their surface blasting steam into the already grimy air, or dripping water on unsuspecting ponies below. At least Applejack hoped it was water, especially when one such droplet hit her square in the muzzle. She shuddered as she wiped it off, discovering it to be far greasier than water. Occasionally she would pass a large vent that connected to the buildings, the air around her increasing in temperature suddenly. She learnt after the first time to hold her breath whenever this happened.
“It’s just over here,” murmured Glen, his voice now mercifully quiet. He was scanning the sky as he effortlessly drove through the crowd, Applejack following as best she could. In brief glances through the pony bodies she saw the catwalk brush against two mammoth towers, the shadowy gap between them large enough to fit a single pony though. Glen, heading straight for that opening, did just that, disappearing in a blink of an eye into the darkness. Fearful of becoming lost, Applejack dove after him, the rumble of voices and hooves cutting off almost immediately.
Hurrying after the steadily swaying copper tail, Applejack noticed a faint orange glow ahead, barely visible on the black walls either side of her. Then, all at once, the passage widened into an eruption of space, a huge chamber hidden in the darkness of the two buildings. From the high ceiling hung crude metal chandeliers, wax dripping from the old fashioned candles they held, giving the hall a faint smouldering smell. The buildings had combined overhead, completely enclosing the room. The flickering light lit up the few dozen earth ponies standing around, muttering quietly amongst themselves as they viewed the various plinths that dotted the floor. None of them even glanced up at Glen’s entrance. Applejack’s eyes could faintly make out the far end, distant as it was. This cathedral like place, which must have taken up the entire bottom few floors of the buildings it occupied, seemed miles away from the chaotic bustle Applejack had just left.
“Where are we?” Applejack dared to ask, her voice echoing faintly in the gloom. She flinched at the sound, afraid she had disturbed the almost unreal serenity of the hall. However, so deep was the concentration of the other ponies present, not even an annoyed flick of the ear could be seen.
“It’s been a while since I’ve visited here,” Glen replied, his voice soft and respectful. “Nopony’s quite sure why this area was built into these buildings. There are no earth pony records kept on the construction of the city, and it’s completely unknown to the other races, which is thankful considering its current role.” Glen began to slowly trot further into the chamber, his hooffalls a strange soundtrack to the scene. “Mementos are kept here. Mementos that the unicorns would rather we forget. This museum is the last place in Nova Equestria that holds the legacy of earth ponies.”
Applejack’s eyes glances at the plinths with a new admiration as they passed them. Some held objects, great inventions by the earth ponies of old. Some displayed pictures, the flag of the ancient earth pony tribe. Some were simply busts, outspoken leaders of Applejack’s race. Glen paused at a wall of names, bowing his head before quickly carrying on. As Applejack passed she glanced at the same spot, catching a familiar name among the hundreds craved into the metal. Laphroaig.
“This is what I wanted to show you.” Glen’s voice broke Applejack out of her thoughts, his words emotionless. Following his gaze, she found herself faced with a larger than life statue of a pony, an earth mare, made from what looked like smaller chunks of metal melted together. The detail, despite the crude material used, was incredible. The mare, depicted as middle aged, was rearing up on her back legs, a wide grin on her face. Applejack couldn’t tell if her tail was supposed to look a mess, or if it had been an error in the artwork. Her mane looked like it was pulled up into a bun, but it was rather hard to tell considering the large metal Stetson that rested on her head.
Realisation dawned on Applejack as her mouth slowly opened to ask, but no sound came. Glen supplied the answer for her. “Your sister, Apple Bloom.” Applejack could feel his eyes on her, looking for a reaction maybe. “Firefly told me everything. About where you came from.” The statue swam before her. “I’m … sorry.” His tone was understanding.
“Her-” Applejack’s voice cracked as she started to speak. She hadn’t noticed the tears falling from her eyes. “Her cutie mark?”
“Records don’t say,” Glen replied. “but we do know she was an amazing inventor. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for her. Some of her greatest creations are still used today, though …” He paused, the rest of the sentence hung in the air. He eventually continued, his volume lower, barely audible above Applejack’s choking sobs. “Though this is the only place in the city you will read her name.”
Applejack finally noticed the plaque at the statue’s base. Apple Bloom – The Forgotten Pioneer.
“You’re an ass, y’know?”
“I’m sure,” Glen absentmindedly replied, ignoring the furious filly opposite him. The three of them sat in the filthy train’s caboose, Applejack and Idared having taken two opposite window seats, with Glen sitting next to the orange mare, his concerned eyes on her. The carriage was mostly empty, and all the carriages excluding the caboose and engine were empty hopper cars for transporting coal back to the city. It was bound for a single destination, Salt Lick City, situated next to the largest coal mine on the continent. The mine was shared by the griffons, and the ponies, meaning it was also the prime spot for any cross species diplomacy to take place, a necessity ever since the war ended seventy years ago. This made it, by far, the most dangerous place to work on the planet. Needless to say, the scant few miners that lived in the city would have taken a far earlier commuter train to Salt Lick, before the sun had even begun to illuminate the sky.
As Glen had explained before they left, Rainbow Dash had secured a meeting with the griffon ambassador. Through what means, Applejack hadn’t been told, but Idared suspected The Specialist had been involved. These kinds of things usually went through that mysterious benefactor.
“No, really. A total ass,” the filly whined. “How was I supposed to know where you’d gone?” Her voice was beginning to irritate Applejack. Not only was the sharp tone doing awful things to her head, but they cut down any internal thoughts Applejack was trying to have. She stared intently out the window, at the city slowly rolling past. The small industrial station had looked similar in design to the rest of the district, and as she watched the buildings flashing through her view, she concluded that aesthetics were not the most important thing for Blueblood Industrial Park. This seemed to be a recurring theme for primarily earth pony populated areas.
“You knew we were coming to the station, Idared,” Glen groaned. He had obviously noticed Applejack’s annoyance, and dropped from the chair to his hooves. “Come on, let’s go to the balcony.” Her jerked his head to the rear door. “You can bellyache all you like out there, and not even I will give two shits.”
“Why would I-” Her voice cut off as she noticed Applejack for the first time, her tearstained eyes and clenched jaw. “Right. Yeah.” She gave Glen a long, confused look while she slipped off her seat. “Balcony.”
As the caboose door slammed shut, the rushing wind cutting off instantly, Applejack breathed a sigh of relief. It appeared that the stale, dusty air had been circulated out of the carriage. More important however, was the tranquil quiet that followed. The steady clacking of the train the only sound to break the peaceful silence. She could feel her tension slowly slipping away. Tension that had been eating away at her since Glen had led her from the secret museum. The anger, the unbridled resentment directed towards those who ran this hellish sprawl of mismatched buildings they called a city, had infected her thoughts. Her tears, like her sister, were long gone. Why cry for one who was long since dead, and, Applejack narrowed her eyes at the thought, forgotten?
Twilight would have to answer to this. Applejack would see to that. The questions she had were piling up. Questions she would want answered before even thinking of asking for a way home. Applejack’s excuses for Twilight’s actions were beginning to dwindle, and a disturbing theory was clouding her judgement. She had known Twilight for a little over two years. Who was she to say she knew the unicorn better than any other? That short a time couldn’t have revealed whatever darker motives lay in her mind, which time and greed would feed, blossoming into the twisted alicorn that now ruled this city. But that was an outlandish theory that Applejack was quick to dismiss. Twilight would have the answers, she was positive. There was surely some explanation for all of this.
There had to be.
As her thoughts returned to her sister, a friend of hers once again grew to dominate her mind. A friend that, like her, had also lost a sister. Rarity’s face, tears in her eyes, was reluctantly pulled to the forefront of her memory yet again. She dropped her head to the cool glass, squeezing her eyes tight as the goggles pressed into her forehead. Yes, she knew she’d messed up. Why did she have to constantly remind herself? Was this her own punishment she thought she deserved, for hurting the kindest pony she knew in this world? Every time she saw that face guilt swelled up inside her. She could always blame the alcohol, but she knew that excuse wouldn’t sit well. No, the fault lay with her own actions. She wasn’t about to start lying to herself.
Feeling the light on her eyelids dramatically change, she pried them open, squinting at the glare. It did a wonderful job of making her headache ten times worse. Thankfully, with the sun behind her, her eyes accustomed quickly to the light, and she realised what she was seeing. The train had left the city.
Facing forward, the city behind her, the rolling, red wasteland stretched out as far as the eye could see. The rocky, dry ground had a haphazard, broken feel to it, with large crevasses in some places, and tall mounds of dust and broken bricks in others. Dead trees dotted the landscape, standing in groups like statues, silently watching the train pass. Mountains could be vaguely seen on the horizon, tinted a deep orange by the swirling, choking dust that hung in the air. The constant orange glow of the Nova Equestrian sky now made complete sense to Applejack. The foundations of buildings zipped past the train, either the signs of abandoned construction, or razed homes. Adding credibility to the latter theory, skeletons littered the ground, half buried by the sands. Both griffon and pony skeletons, earth, unicorn, and pegasus, all a variety of gender and age. A number of pegasi had died in their armour, their skeletal wings protruding from the rusted carapaces. Carriages, too, lay buried in the sands, and other more advanced vehicles Applejack didn’t recognise. A large bunker, long metal cannons peering out, had become a home for the only sign of life Applejack cold see, a pair of vultures. In the distance, Applejack could see buildings still standing, though dilapidated and lifeless as the rest of the scene. A broken, lonely barn passed, similar in size to Sweet Apple Acres’ barn. Its roof was caved in, the walls black from fire.
A wave of horror rolling over her, Applejack shut her eyes once more, curling up in her seat. As foreign and cruel as the city seemed, it was nothing to the desolate, dead scene outside the train window. This seemed like the perfect time to catch up on her much needed sleep.
Stepping out of the train onto the dusty platform of Salt Lick City station, Applejack felt herself hitting a wall of heat. She had been getting used to the cool, yet musty air of the train in the four hours they had been traveling. The moisture on her lips seemed to instantly evaporate, and she furiously blinked her eyes in pain. The midmorning sun, now far from the horizon in its steady journey through the sky, assaulted the earth pony with its unrelenting force.
“Woah, okay.” Idared stumbled as she dropped to the platform. “Nopony told me we were traveling to the world’s largest oven.”
“It’s only a little hotter than the city,” Glen noted, following her off the train. “But it’s dryer.” He glanced up and down the platform. Having departed from the last carriage, they stood the furthest from the station. Behind them the station disappeared, and the endless expanse of desert began. “Much dryer.”
“Right, right.” While Applejack was lazily cracking her back, having just woken up, Idared was scanning her surroundings apprehensively. “It’s really… well, it’s really open, isn’t it?”
“Good eyes.” Glen’s tone was sarcastic as he started down the platform. “Don’t worry, past the station is the town.” Casting one last glance behind her, Idared scampered to catch up with Glen.
Applejack had almost forgotten this was the filly’s first time outside the city. For the older mare, this environment was nothing new. Sure, it was hotter and more lifeless than she was used to, but overall it was quite similar to the lands that surrounded Appleloosa. When it came to Idared, who had presumably never left the city, she could understand where the nervousness came from. Not only was it significantly emptier, but also quieter. In the city, the distant sound of voices and hooves could always be heard, but once the train quietened down, the three ponies were plunged into eerie silence. Only their hooves could be heard on the wooden platform.
They passed through the station, and entered the town proper. Applejack’s first thoughts were of Appleloosa once again, only larger in size, and more drab in colour. Dull wooden houses, devoid of paint, lined small streets that stretched through the desert. The roads were simple dirt tracks, not a flower or tree to be seen. From what she could see, the town stretched a few miles in each direction. To the west, directly in front of her as she exited the station, stood a small mountain, the last few houses clinging to its base. Not a soul appeared to be out, aside from a single brown earth stallion standing meters from the station, watching the group carefully. He had deep navy hair that fell about his head like a dirty mop.
“And here I was thinkin’ the city was the most depressin’ place I’d laid eyes on,” Applejack mumbled.
“Careful,” Glen whispered back as the stallion approached. “That kind of thinking’ll have you seeing The Mile in a positive light.” Breaking out into a crooked smile, Glen raised his voice. “Girls, this is our contact, Dusty Hooves.” He raised a hoof, which Dusty cordially bumped his own on. “While not an official member of our group, he’s a valuable aid.”
“Sup,” Idared greeted him, casually saluting. “I’m Idared.”
“Name’s Honeycrisp.” Applejack tipped her head as she supplied her pseudonym. “Pleasure t’meet ya.” Upon rising, she was met with a shocked face. Dusty took a slight step back, his eyes widening in surprise.
Glen’s eyes narrowed. “Dusty?”
“Oh, sorry.” The stallion blinked, his expression returning to normal. “I thought I recognised your friends. My mistake.” That voice. Applejack recognised it from somewhere. “Anyway, as Glen said, I’m Dusty Hooves.”
Ugh, this was going to bug her until she re... oh.
“It’s good to meet the two of you.”
“Right,” Glen slowly continued, jerking his head towards the mountain, his suspicious eyes not leaving Dusty. “How about we get moving then. Day’s getting on.”
“Yes, yes. Of course.” The party began their march through the dead town, Dusty leading. Applejack kicked herself into a stumbling start, her mind reeling in astonishment. “Diamond sent me to escort you, after I recommended myself.” His eyes kept flicking to Applejack as he turned to talk. Her surprise must have been apparent on her face. “Why are you here anyway, Glen? Something big happening?”
“Hah, no. I wish.” He sighed dramatically. “Just a little clean up after what happened when Firefly was here last.” Applejack had asked about what Rainbow had done since she had overheard it. Nopony had been willing to explain.
“Oh, geez.” Dusty winced. “I’d tried to forget about that incident.”
“Well, the griffons sure haven’t. They’re refusing to co-operate with us, blocking all communication. Playing with old war wounds only got them so far on our side, it seemed. And then Firefly had to go and-” Glen shut his eyes, shaking his head. “Needless to say, I’m here to fix that.”
“What are the chances of it working?”
“The Specialist couldn’t win them over.” There was a name that seemed to pop up all over the place. “I have no idea what Firefly thinks I can achieve.” He kicked at the ground as he walked, a cloud of dust bursting from his hoof. “She seemed sure though, so here I am.”
“Can’t say no to her, huh?” Dusty laughed dryly, glancing back at Applejack once again. “And the other two?”
Idared loudly tutted at the question. Glen chuckled “Well, this is their first time outside the city, and I’d rather they go sightseeing on a relatively quiet mission like this, especially in the little annoying one’s case.” Glen raised an eyebrow, giving Idared a teasing grin. “Knowing her, she’d jump head first into any dangerous situation, and need me to save her hide.”
“I hope you remember where you’re taking these mares then,” Dusty enigmatically said, ignoring Idared’s raspberry she blew in Glen’s direction. “Danger has a way of finding these mines, one way or another. Be it the working conditions, the close proximity of the griffons, or…” He trailed off as his pace slowed, his head on the northern horizon. Whatever he had planned to say, Applejack was sure she didn’t want to hear it.
“Or what, Dusty?” It would seem Glen did, however.
“We’ve had some… complications recently.” He slowly turned his head down, resting his gaze on the ground, eyes following the dirt road. “Security’s pretty tight at the moment.” He glanced up, remembering his company. “Not that it’ll be a problem for you. Diamond will have that covered, if she’s willing to play along.”
Glen looked confused. “It isn’t the separatists, is it? Are they still a problem?”
“A problem is putting it lightly. Their attacks have been increasing over the last year. It almost became a weekly occurrence for a while. Then, a month ago, it stopped. No more raids, no more abductions, nothing. Not a single sign of their presence.” Applejack felt a shiver run down her spine at Dusty’s tone. “They’re up to something. It’s got the entire mine on edge.”
“This sounds like paranoia,” Glen dismissed. “They’ve probably realised their attempts were in vain.”
Dusty sighed dejectedly. “I wish it was paranoia, honestly, but both the griffons and Diamond have sent teams to where we believe their camps lie. Simply to see what’s going on. Neither returned.”
Splendid. Just what Applejack wanted to hear.
“Hey, uh-” Idared coughed loudly. “Sorry to cut in, but mind filling us in? I have no Luna-damned idea what you’re talking about.” Applejack had started working it out, but some confirmation would be nice.
“Idared!” Glen snapped. He didn’t like her using Luna’s name like that outside of the base. It was a sure-fire way of getting yourself arrested.
It did the job though. Dusty smiled warmly. “Where are my manners? I completely forgot that it’s your first time out here.” Applejack didn’t doubt that. Like her, he probably had more important things on his mind. “The separatists are a group of griffons that, unlike their leaders, disagree with the peace between them and us. It’s common knowledge that while the ceasefire was agreed upon by both nations, it was The Chancellor that pushed for the end of the war. I’m sure you know what griffons can be like though. If they think the end to the war was a pony idea, they’ll be eager to prolong it. There’s a lot of tension between us, on top of that.” He paused to scratch his forehead. “Unlike some of us, these griffons refuse to forget the atrocities of the war.”
“The tricky part is that their view isn’t wildly radical,” Glen continued. “The mainstream griffon view is still very anti-pony. A favour we’re known to return when we’re momentarily distracted from the internal hate. But that’s how they strike. By focussing entirely on the ponies at Salt Lick, they hope to drive the two species even further apart.”
“But still, Salt Lick City isn’t all bad.” Dusty seemed eager to drop the topic. “Everypony’s at the mine right now, but the nightlife can be fun.” There was a pause after this. Applejack had been expecting a list of positive features, but it seemed there was only one.
“Between the griffons, the mine, and the droughts, I’m surprised they have the energy,” Glen noted. “This is pretty much the worst place you can find yourself living.” It was worth volunteering, Applejack reminded herself. She needed to speak to Twilight. “And I haven’t even mentioned the damn dust storms.”
“Oh?” Applejack flicked her eyes up, making a failed attempt to view her forehead. “I’m guessin’ that’s why we’re wearin’ these fancy goggles and scarves?”
“No, no. They’re for the mine,” Glen answered. “I have no intention of taking you down there, but it’s just a precaution in case we need to take shelter, or if the little one gets annoyingly curious.” Idared grinned, approving of the unintended suggestion. “The conditions down there are, as you can imagine, abysmal. The amount of miners that die every year from lung diseases alone are… well, I’m not taking any chances, let’s put it that way.” His head turned to the sky, eyeing the looming clouds to the south. “Trust me; if a dust storm starts, you find cover. A little piece of cloth and eye protection won’t be of use then.” Applejack’s eyes widened, a new fear creeping through her.
“Don’t worry,” Dusty assured them. “Dust storms aren’t common, so I’d be surprised if we had one today.” There was a subtly doubtful tone to his voice, and Applejack noted his eyes following Glen’s to the distant clouds. “We should be fine.”
By this point they had reached the edge of the town, and the path began to climb the mountain. Applejack was now fully regretting coming here. Her guilt with Rarity subsided a little, the unicorn being the entire reason she was at this appalling mine in the first place. There had to be safer ways to get a tiger’s eye jewel. In fact, considering the situation with the griffons, would she be able to secure the jewel here at all? As they terrain steepened, and the town fell behind her, she felt exposed. To her left, the rolling clouds, sweeping in the threat of a storm. To her right, a distant threat, their plans unknown. And before her was the mine, their destination.
However, there was another, much closer issue that she intended to deal with first. Dusty Hooves.
As the incline increased, the path begin to wind from side to side. Idared, in her impatience, shot past Glen and dashed ahead. With a resigned sigh, Glen made to catch up, his quickened trot catching up to her mad scramble. Applejack stayed behind, slowing her own pace even, and was pleased to notice Dusty do the same. There was a tense, understanding silence between them. Applejack focused on the crunch of hooves on gravel, and as soon as Glen left their hearing range, she immediately felt Dusty turn to face her.
“Applejack.” It wasn’t a question. His voice was dangerously tense. “I didn’t recognise you.”
“Right back at’cha,” she gave the stallion a meaningful look, her eyes flickering over his forehead. “Shinin’ Armor.”
Their pace continued for a moment, silence returning. Then Shining chuckled, a nervous laugh. “You don’t sound too surprised.”
“I reckon I’ve become desensitised to surprise, if ya consider mah past week.” Applejack could feel the questions ready to spill from Shining’s lips, so she interrupted with her own. “They’ve all been sayin’ yer dead. Killed in the war.”
He laughed again. “I may as well be. I was captured by the griffons.” He moved a hoof to uncover his forehead. An ugly scar cut across it, his coat doing little to cover. “Tortured.” He let the hair drop again, hiding the scar from view. “And then I escaped.”
Applejack found her voice gone. What do you say to somepony after hearing news like that? She settled on “Sorry t’hear that.”
“It was around ninety years ago. I’ve adapted.”
“And …” Applejack struggled to find the words to the question on her mind, so instead settled on a roundabout route. “You haven’t thought of returnin’?”
“Why would I want to?” His reply was filled with bitterness. “Cadence is dead. My own wife was killed by my sister. Why the hell would I want to return to that?”
Silence hung for a moment as Applejack tried to come up with a reply. She still doubted Twilight could do such a thing, that there was some other explanation. It seemed far too tactless to voice these thoughts however. “What was she like? Twilight, I mean.”
It took a while before Shining replied. The path was now curving quite violently to compensate for the mountain slope. The view behind Applejack, while vast, was filled with nothing but the town, and the vast, empty plains of dust, ruins and the long dead. “Before the war, she … she was …” Silence returned for a few moments. Applejack slowly ascended patiently. “She was different. Colder. I know, I know what she was doing was wrong. I saw as well as anypony, but … I don’t … .
“She just seemed bored. Sad. Before the war there was never any racial inequality like there is today. It was there, but it was just the result of neglect. Ponies worked together. The city grew, but she just didn’t care.” His voice grew softer, as if he was talking about a friend long dead. “She was still my sister. There were moments that shone through. I remember one night she came to my bedroom in the palace, curled up next to me like we would do when we were kids, and just cried. She cried all night. The next morning she was on her throne once more, the same blank, uninterested face.
“Then I went to fight. Around eighty-something bitter, blood-stained years I fought. What little news I could get from the city told me little about my sister, and nothing about my wife. When I escaped capture, my unit was eager to send the news home. But after hearing what happened to Cadence, I refused. I would have to face Twilight again if I did that, and I couldn’t. The war ended shortly after, and the news that followed just got worse. The increasing divide between unicorns and earth ponies, the pegasi used against their own ponies, I wasn’t going to return to any of that.
“And so, here I am. Dusty Hooves.” There was a drawn out, emotional sigh from the stallion. “I will aid The Resistance as well I can from here, but I refuse to act against my sister, no matter what she’s become. That won’t change.”
Applejack nodded, the only reply she could find for the moment. She understood his reasoning. She herself doubted some of the stories she was hearing of Twilight, and there was no way she would be able to raise a hoof against Apple Bloom, in whatever situation. “It’s good to see you again, Shinin’.”
He smiled weakly, which was quickly replaced with confusion. “Wait, you haven’t even explained how you’re he-”
His question was cut off by a shout from above. “Hey! Crisp! Get up here and check this out!” Idared was a little further along the path, peering down at them. From the looks of it, the path cut round the mountain, missing the peak.
“Later then,” Shining murmured. “For now, I’m Dusty Hooves, and nopony else. Okay?”
Reaching the top, the path levelled out, navigating along the northern edge of the mountain. From her view up here, Applejack could see nothing to the north. Idared skipped forward to where Glen was standing, the filly as impatient as usual. As they approached, Applejack noticed the path cutting to the left again, taking them to the side of the mountain opposite the town. Glen jerked his head, indicating the view behind him. “You can get a pretty good idea of the mine from here.” Applejack came to the corner, and stepped past him, seeing for herself. She gasped, her breath leaving her. Glen hadn’t been joking.
The west side of the mountain, unlike the steady incline of the east, was a sharp drop. This gave Applejack an amazing view of Salt Lick mine. A large brick wall surrounded the massive facility. Buildings of all sort filled the grounds, interspersed with the distant specks of machinery, and vehicles moving between them. Some sections were taken up by large pits. From her viewpoint, Applejack could see ponies moving around near the closest buildings. Cutting the facility in half was another large wall, its peak topped by multiple layers of barbed wire. This wall continued on either side of the mine, passing on far into the distance. On this side of the wall stood a tall flag post, a light blue flag rippling slightly in the building wind, a yellow sun in one corner, and a purple star in the other. On the other side of the wall rose a similar flagpole, a bright red flag featuring the yellow silhouette of a griffon.
In the very centre of the base, cutting the wall in two, sat the largest building. Its wall made entirely of darkened glass, its roof a slow curve of the same. “That building’s the Armistice Hall,” Glen pointed out. “All griffon pony diplomacy takes place there. Technically the mine, and that building are two separate facilities, but they’re both run by Diamond Pick.”
Two wide, raised roads ran through each side of the mine. The far road, passing through griffon territory, ended at a large red gate, barely visible to Applejack’s eyes. This separated the mine from the city that spread out beyond it, far larger than Salt Lick. Great glass towers stood at the centre, and modern, clean buildings spread out in a regular pattern. The difference between this city, and Salt Lick was staggering. “That’s Macaw.” Glen was quick to explain again. “It sprung up in a matter of years when we found coal here. That was a long time after the war was over.” Applejack’s eyes were drawn from the city to the sky above it. There, tinted orange by the vast distance from the mountain, floated a giant, elongated balloon. Hanging from that, dwarfed by the colossal envelope that it was attached to, was what looked like the body of a sailing ship, complete with deck. The lower ship was a rich brown, while the balloon was a bright red with the yellow symbol of the griffons emblazoned on the side. “And that monstrosity is the griffon airship, Níng Jìng. Pray you never face it in battle. The amount of ponies that died to that beast during the war …” Glen shook his head, a motion that paled in impact next to the harrowed look in Shining’s eyes as he looked out over the mine at the ship.
“This is insane,” Idared concluded. “And we’re going down there?”
“Only to the Armistice Hall. Griffon lands are closed to ponies. But first,” he motioned back to the path. It continued along the mountainside for a way, the left side a sheer wall of rock, the right a deep drop to certain death. The path ended at a building clinging tenaciously to the cliff side, an elevator dropping from its bowels to the mine far below. “First we pay a little visit to Salt Lick headquarters, and pray Diamond Pick doesn’t decide to execute us today.”