by: Sergeant Buck
Chapter 1: Night Terrors
Smoke trailed from the burning remnants of Ponyville as Applejack and Spitfire crept from building to building. The frontal assault on the Silver Knight platoon went swimmingly until they brought in their tanks. Outgunned and surrounded, the only chance that they stood was to sneak out of the town and into the hills. Their ragtag battalion was either dead or had deserted by now. Applejack had hoped that the Celestial Resistance would be made of tougher stuff.
"How you holdin' up, Spitfire?" Applejack asked the pegasus.
"I'm okay, you?"
"Just glad to be alive."
Heavy metal boots slammed upon the ground as a Silver Knight fire team passed by their hideout. Applejack gripped her shotgun tightly as she waited for them to pass. When the marching passed, she popped up and looked around before spotting an anti-air emplacement on the hill overlooking the square. Last that they heard, the Knights had a bomber inbound to wipe out what remained of the Resistance.
"Spitfire, you think you could make it to that AA cannon if I can distract 'em?"
Applejack stood up from behind the crumbling low wall and let out a holler before opening fire on the enemy infantry. "You want me, buncha dumb Silverheads? Come and get me!"
Spitfire dove out the back door and shot into the sky, raining lead on the AA nest with her assault rifle as her squad mate pelted the infantry with buckshot. As the pegasus rotated the machine gun to face the hostile infantry pinning her friend down, she saw a large aircraft approaching above the horizon, no doubt a low-altitude bomber looking to make a pass over the ruined village.
She aimed the cannon skyward and opened fire, washing the aircraft with high velocity anti-vehicle rounds. The pegasus cheered as one of the aircraft's engine's burst into flame, sending it plummeting to the ground in a ball of blue fire. Applejack let out a happy yell as the bomber's payload detonated, intensifying the explosion.
As the hostile fire team turned to run, Applejack fired at them again. All four of the armored ponies dropped, one still rasping as he began to slowly bleed out.
"Well, it looks like I got y'all," said Applejack to the dying stallion. "Mind tellin' me if there's any other friends of yours runnin' about?"
"You can't win," the Knight coughed. "Lady Millennia will take this land from you and your country ilk, and she will reign supreme over all of ponydom."
She pressed the barrel of the shotgun to his chest. "They teach y'all that in the army, Silverhead? I ain't gonna ask again. Where'd your friends go?"
The knight pointed a shaking hoof off to the east. Applejack's stomach twisted into a knot when she realized the soldier was pointing towards Sweet Apple Acres. Home.
A single shotgun blast penetrated the air and Applejack shouldered her weapon, galloping towards her farm as fast as she could.
They may have taken Ponyville from me and driven my friends away, but I ain't lettin' 'em take my farm.
"AJ, where are you going" Spitfire shouted after her. The orange earth pony didn't stop running. She kept going, her mind racing with everything single thing that those damned Silverheads could be doing to her farm. It wasn't long before Spitfire was flying beside her.
"What's with you all of a sudden?" Spitfire asked.
"They sent some troops to Sweet Apple Acres," Applejack replied. "We gotta stop 'em!"
As she approached the gate to the farm, she slowed down and drew her revolver. Everything seemed too quiet, too perfect. Maybe that Knight gave her that tip to throw her off? Her fears were confirmed when the barn erupted in flames. She made out some figures silhouetted against the light of the fire, a team of Silver Knight firebugs, heading towards the north field of the orchard.
"Spitfire, go up high and give me some air support! They're gonna try torchin' the trees!"
"Aye aye, Sergeant!" the pegasus replied. Applejack moved towards the Knights, pointing her sights at the one in the middle. A pyro should know better than to let his friends surround him, especially while wearing a fuel tank.
The earth pony took careful aim and fired, her shot answered by an explosion and the cries of stallions coated in napalm. As she moved forward, Spitfire finished off the the stragglers with a burst from her assault rifle.
"See any more?" Spitfire called out.
"Nuh-uh," replied Applejack. "But they won't be comin' back anytime soon! Radio the Commander and tell him we got the farm and Ponyville locked down and the rest of the troops can move up."
Applejack surveyed what remained of her farm. The barn was torched, which would be expensive to replace but not impossible. The small house she'd grown up in was still intact, and she was damn lucky that the Silverheads didn't get to her apple orchard. If that went up in smoke, it was all over.
"Uh, Sergeant, I have some bad news," said Spitfire.
"What is now? Reinforcements ain't comin'?" Applejack frowned. Spitfire held up the radio, which was broadcasting a single transmission on loop.
"To all Celestial Resistance soldiers, you are hereby ordered to lay down arms and surrender to the Silver Knights. Canterlot has fallen. I repeat, Canterlot is under the control of Millennia..."
Applejack's heart dropped like a lead weight. No, it can't be over. Not like this.
"It ain't fair!" Applejack shouted "You and I singlehoofedly wiped out the Silverhead battalion and just like that, we're done? It can't be!"
Back towards Ponyville, thunder shook the ground as three more Hurricanes passed over Ponyville, reducing what remained of her home to smoldering ashes. Tears welled up in her eyes as Applejack thought about everything she'd lost. Her family and friends were gone, scattered across Equestrian Space in a now-futile attempt to avoid Millennia's iron hoof.
"What do we do now, Sergeant? Give up?"
"No," said Applejack. "We run."
...Three Years Later...
Applejack leaned against the open cargo bay of her Firesprite-class ship, the Reprisal. Her grassy green eyes scanned the bustling crowd of the Harvest spaceport for the three ponies with her delivery. She'd been waiting on them to arrive for almost an hour now, and if there was one thing she hated it was delayed shipments. Late shipments meant late departures, and late departures meant less money coming to her crew. She went back to her chair and threw on her midnight blue duster.
Spitfire hovered up beside her. "Still waiting on the shipment to come in?"
"Yeah," said Applejack. "Ten minutes and then we're pullin' out. Trixie can find somepony else to deliver her stolen apples."
Stolen apples, Applejack thought. Why in the hay would Trixie need to steal a shipment of apples? I guess the freeze dried stuff that they get on Solstice just ain't cuttin' it.
"With all due respect, Captain, she's paying us a lot just to get these three crates of fruit to her."
She couldn't argue with Spitfire there. It was no secret that they'd been hard up for bits, especially after Twilight had to replace those engine parts.
"Fine then, we'll make that another hour," Applejack said. "Could prob'ly find somepony to fill that spare bunk of ours, make us a little extra money. I'm gonna go out for a mug of cider, so you're in charge 'til I'm back, 'kay? Gimme a holler if somepony takes us up on the bunk."
"Aye aye, ma'am."
Applejack joined the throngs of ponies in the spaceport and wandered for a bit, thinking about how her friends, now the hard-working crew of her ship, had defaulted to calling her "Captain." She never recalled making any decision to be the captain of the Reprisal, but she guessed that Spitfire just got so used to calling her "ma'am" from the war that the title stuck. Rainbow Dash was the pilot, so in her mind it made more sense for Dash to be the captain.
She ducked into a bar and passed a few Silver Knights loitering outside. They gave her duster a look but never went after her. Applejack took a seat at the bar, soon to be greeted by a scruffy looking stallion cleaning out a glass.
"What'll it be, missy?" he asked her in a gruff tone.
"Tall mug o' cider, double."
The stallion went to the end of the bar and filled a mug with cool, foamy cider before sliding it down to her. The earth pony stopped the mug with her hoof and tipped it back, downing the drink in one gulp. Still didn't beat a mug of the stuff she used to make. Behind her, a drunken young colt tapped on his glass.
"Everypony, if I can just git yer 'tenshun pleeze," he slurred around a hiccup or two. "I'd like ta porpoise a toast to da three year ann'versry of Lady Millennia crushing them damn Resistance...uh...losers!"
A hearty round of applause resounded throughout the bar. Applejack ignored the drunk and slid her mug back, motioning for a second drink. As the bartender returned the drink, the colt staggered over and intercepted it. Applejack stared at the bar, trying her best not to buck this foolish colt in the face.
The drunken pony eyed her suspiciously. "Yer wearin' one 'a them jackets. Yer a Nightcoat, ain't ya? A lowlife, scumsuckin' Resistance vet sore over havin' yer flank kicked to Canterlot by a reel milit'ry, right?"
"Do yourself a favor," said Applejack as she took her second drink. "Shut up."
"Why?" he challenged. "Make me shut up, Nightcoat!"
Fair enough. Applejack jumped down from her stool and turned around, presenting her hind end to him as she began to walk away. The inebriated colt began following her.
"Hey lissen, Nightcoat! I'm talkin' ta ya!"
Applejack's legs shot out from beneath her duster, catching him squarely in the jaw. The entire bar fell silent as the colt hit the polished wood floor, out cold from the force of her powerful kick. She placed her tab's worth of bits on the bar and walked out.
"I told you to shut up," she said to the unconscious pony. "It ain't it that hard to listen."
A lone mare, white coat with her powdery pink mane tied into a bun, emerged from the crowd towards the cargo bay of the Reprisal and made her way towards Spitfire, who was happily taking a nap in a folding chair.
"Pardon me," the earth pony said softly. Spitfire opened one eye and let out a yawn as she stretched her wings.
"What can I do for you?" the pegasus asked. "Looking to leave Harvest?"
"Yes, I am," the white mare replied. "I need a large ship to accommodate some precious cargo of mine, then I need to get to Equinox as soon as possible. I can pay whatever the fee is for passage, I just need to get away from here."
Spitfire stood up from her chair. "What size of cargo are we talking?"
"Oh, not large. A few bags and a large crate with some...personal effects."
"Sounds good to me. We're still waiting on a shipment to come in, but we'll be glad to have you aboard, Miss..."
"...Redheart. Nurse Redheart, actually."
Applejack returned to her ship just as the stallions were dropping the crates she'd been waiting all day for.
"Took y'all long enough, didn't it?" she snapped. "I've been here all day and now you show up. What kept y'all?"
"Take it easy, Captain," Spitfire said as she secured the crates of apples. "They only just showed up. Apparently, they had a bit of a hitch with security but the guards laughed at the idea of stolen apples. They're all here, three boxes of a hundred Red Delicious apples vacuum-sealed for delivery to Trixie on Solstice."
"Finally, we can get off this damned rock. I'll give Dash the order to take off. You go check with Twilight to make sure she got those spare parts ordered. We're supposed to get those when we land in the next port."
"Can do, Captain. Oh, and we picked a up a new passenger, a nurse from Ponyville. Does the name 'Redheart' sound familiar to you?"
Applejack stopped, tapping her hoof against her chin. "Name rings a bell, but in any case if she's a refuge from Ponyville she's welcome aboard my ship. Where's she at? I wanna say hi."
"She's in her bunk taking a nap at the moment, but she should be awake later."
"Alrighty, then. I'll be on the bridge. Holler if you need me."
The earth pony made her way to the bridge to find her cyan friend lounging in the pilot's chair.
"Okay then, RD," the Captain said. "We're all set to take off. Crates are loaded and the door's locked up."
"Ugh, finally!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed. "I've been laying here all day waiting for those bums to bring those boxes in. Solstice, here we come!"
The ship quaked as the jets began to warm. Applejack hoped Twilight had ordered those parts while they were still planetside. The radio always tended to get choppy once they left a planet's orbit. A new comms system probably wouldn't be a bad thing to invest in either.
In a matter of minutes, the Reprisal left Harvest's spaceport, rising up and into the black of space with a course for Solstice. If all went as planned, they'd be there in four days, maybe three if they burned an extra hundred gallons or so of fuel. More money spent that they didn't have, at least not until they had the apples dropped off. It'd be nice to have some bits in the bank for once in a long while.
As the Reprisal broke Harvest's atmosphere, a small blue light began pulsing on the ship's antiquated communications array.
"Incomin' message?" Applejack said aloud. "Who in the hay is callin' us already?"
Applejack queued up the video system to see the smug grin of their employer beaming at her. "Oh, it's you."
"Applejack!" the powder blue unicorn exclaimed as she ran a brush through her mane. "It's been quite a while since we last exchanged words."
"What is it this time, Trixie?" she asked. "We got the shipment you wanted us to pick up, so what's the call for? Forget your magic wand or somethin'?"
"I was just calling to see how soon you'd get here. I'd like those apples as soon as possible, if you wouldn't mind. They don't keep forever, but of course you'd know that. You are the Apple Expert, after all."
"According to the nav it'll be four days before we hit Solstice," Rainbow Dash chimed in. "Good enough for you?"
"No, that's just too long. Could you possibly make the trip in two days? Maybe even tomorrow?"
Applejack rubbed at her temple as Trixie's lilting voice grated on her nerves. "You listen to me now, Trixie. Distance is distance and there ain't no way of gettin' around that. If we're gonna be doublin' our speed, you better have a nice bonus waitin' for us to compensate for fuel."
"Very well, if that's how you're going to play it. How's this for a bonus then? If you're not here in two days maximum, you won't be paid. You know how I am, Applejack. I always get what I want."
Without another word, the video cut into static. Applejack stood silently, staring out into space before giving the console a swift kick and denting the metal plating.
"Hey, careful!" Rainbow Dash said. "You remember how long it took to fix the last panel."
"Stuck up, selfish, no good..." the earth pony mumbled. "Who in Luna's name does she think she is, changin' our schedule like that and makin' us burn more fuel? I hope she chokes on one of the apple cores or gets cyanide poisonin' from the seeds."
"No sweat, AJ!" said Dash. "I can get us to Solstice in two days easy. It's not like I've never pulled an all-nighter before."
"I ain't worried about you," Applejack said. "It's the Reprisal I'm worried 'bout. We've been barely scrapin' by on parts for the last year. Twilight's been doin' her best to keep her fixed up and all, but it ain't gonna be long before somethin' important somewhere burns out."
The earth pony began walking towards the door. "I think I'm gonna go lie down. Call me if somethin' comes up, would you?"
Dash raised her hoof in a mock salute. "You got it, Captain."
Applejack kicked open the hatch to her bunk and tossed her Stetson on the hanger before discarding her duster on the bed. She stared back at herself in the mirror, running a hoof through her blonde mane before rubbing her cheek and laying on her bed, her mind slowly sinking back to the war and how she ended up becoming a smuggler instead of a farmer. A picture of the Apple family sat on her nightstand and she gazed longingly into her lost younger sister's orange eyes. The earth pony let out a sigh and closed her eyes.
Applejack was at home on the family farm, her mother and father sitting beside the fireplace watching her baby sister crawl after the ball she'd be bouncing around for a few minutes now. She couldn't believe that Apple Bloom had been with them for only a month now.
"Mamma," she said. "Where's Mac? Doesn't he wanna come play with Apple Bloom?"
"Jackie, your father had a few chores for him to do."
"But it's gettin' dark out."
"Don't worry," her father said as he hung up his Stetson hat. "He'll be along soon enough."
As the orange filly went back to playing with her little sibling, a hoof tapped on their front door. Her father stood from his chair and went to the door. He froze as the doorway revealed a stallion in a black hat and cape. An eyepatch bearing a skull and crossbones and a black bandana obscured his face.
"Russet Apple," he growled. "We got some business to talk about."
"Autumn, take the fillies upstairs," he said harshly.
"What's going on, dear? Who's at the door?"
"Autumn Gold, do as I say."
As their mother hurried them up the stairs, Applejack couldn't help but wonder what was happening. Their mother herded them into Applejack's bedroom.
"Now listen to me, Applejack," her mother said sternly. "You need to stay here with Apple Bloom, okay? Don't come out until I come and get you two."
"Mamma, what's going on?" she asked. "Who's that strange stallion downstairs?"
"Just stay here," she said. "I love you three very much and I don't want anything to happen to you."
"What about Mac?"
"He'll be okay in the barn, just stay here and keep Apple Bloom safe."
Her mother kissed Applejack on the forehead and gave little Apple Bloom a peck on the cheek before closing the door behind her. Applejack held her sister tight, listening for her mother's hoofsteps on the hardwood floor. She heard three voices arguing about something, picking out the sounds of her mother and father but the third voice sounded unfamiliar. What were they arguing over?
Suddenly, the three voices fell silent and Applejack though she heard a click. A shot echoed from downstairs, causing the filly to grip her sister tighter as her mother let out an ear-piercing shriek. A second crack of thunder later, the scream was cut off. Her stomach twisted into knot as she slowly crept towards the door.
"Stay here, Apple Bloom," she said with a trembling voice. "I'm gonna see what's going on."
Worry was written all over the pony's face as she descended the stairs, her voice no more than a whisper as she called for her mother.
"Mamma? Papa?" she said, voice shaking. Only a breeze through the open door answered her.
She rounded the corner and stopped. Her brother stood in the doorway, jaw agape as he nuzzled the arm of his motionless father. Applejack slowly walked towards her mother and lay beside her. Her vision grew hazy as the room began to blur into a mess of green, yellow, gold, and red. Her muzzle touched the cheek of her lifeless mother, a foreign cold greeting her instead of a warm, soothing feel.
"Mamma," she pleaded between sobs. "Wake up. Please, wake up."
Applejack lay in bed, cold sweat drenching her orange coat. She rubbed at her eye with one hoof, trying to blink away her flashback. That was the second time in a month that she'd remembered the night of her parents' murder.
I'm sorry, Apple Bloom, she thought. I thought I could keep you safe until that damned war. I just hope you're doin' okay with Granny Smith.
She ran a hoof through her mane before reaching for her hat. How long had she been out for? More importantly, how was Rainbow Dash holding up? As she went through the door to check on her rainbow-maned friend, she heard giggling coming from the galley.
I guess I missed dinner. A meal wouldn't hurt before I check on Dash.
The orange pony trotted into the dining area to find Twilight Sparkle and Fluttershy at the kitchen table flipping through a magazine. Twilight was still in her dirty coveralls from two days prior when she had to replace some of the wiring in the Reprisal's starboard engine. It seemed like the lavender unicorn hardly ever changed out of those coveralls, let alone quit reading.
"Hey, Applejack!" said Twilight. "You missed a great dinner! Fluttershy made fresh apple-and-cinnamon-oatmeal."
"With real oats and apples, too," the yellow pegasus said.
"Real oats, huh? Not that bland, dry, just-add-water stuff?"
"There was a merchant out in the port selling fresh grains and fruits, so I thought that a fresh meal would be a nice change from all the processed stuff. I'll get you a bowl."
As Fluttershy went to the kitchen to a retrieve a meal for her friend, Applejack took a seat at the table and rubbed at her eyes again.
"You alright, AJ?" Twilight asked her. "You look like you didn't sleep all that well. Did you have a nightmare or something?"
"Yeah, sorta. I don't really wanna talk about it."
"You sure? Talking about your dreams is a great way to keep them from coming back."
"Nah, it's nothin'. Just a memory that got a little...messed up."
"Alright then," the unicorn said. "I'm going to head back to my bunk for a bit of light reading on jet engine compression systems. Good night, you two."
The two ponies bid Twilight a good night as Fluttershy set a steaming bowl of oatmeal on the table. Applejack took a deep breath of the cinnamon scented steam and stared longingly into the bowl, her mind starting to wander back to the Sweet Apple orchard. She cleared her thoughts and downed the meal, all the while failing to notice Fluttershy hovering beside her.
"Did I do okay?" she asked softly. "How did it taste?"
The captain set her bowl down and smiled at her winged friend. "Shy, that was prob'ly the best oatmeal I've had in a long time. Thanks for savin' a bowl for me."
"Oh, good. I was worried it might not have enough apple."
"You didn't use any of the apples from the crates in the hold, did you?"
Fluttershy's eyes widened. "Oh no, of course not! Spitfire told me that those were for Trixie so I left them all alone. I don't get into something that isn't mine."
Applejack only nodded in approval. As long as everyone stayed out of those crates, nopony had anything to worry about. "Did you meet our new arrival? She's supposed to be gettin' off planetside on Equinox."
"You mean Nurse Redheart? She's spent most of the night in her bunk. I saw her at dinner but after that she went back to sleep. Poor thing looked a little worn out and worried about something. I tried to talk to her at dinner but she didn't seem to hear me."
Applejack chuckled. "With your voice, Fluttershy, sometimes it's a wonder I can ever hear you at all. How was Rainbow Dash?"
"She seemed fine at dinner, but that was a few hours ago. I brought her something to drink earlier and she seemed a little tired."
"I'd better go check on her then," Applejack replied. "Been too long since she's had to make a four-day trip in half the time. Get yourself rested up and I'll see you in the mornin'."
"Okay then. Good night, Applejack."
Fluttershy made her way to her bunk while Applejack headed for the bridge. Rainbow Dash sat in the pilot's chair staring out the windshield, hooves locked to the steering wheel.
"You okay, Dash?" Applejack asked. "Need me to take over?"
The cyan pegasus' head snapped to face her friend, staring at her with bloodshot eyes. "Huh, what? Oh, it's only you. Nah, I think I'll be okay."
"You sure about that? How long you been flyin' for?"
Dash's eyes went up and to the left as if looking at an invisible calculator as she did some clumsy artithmetic. "Let's see, we left port at about...dinner was at...I think, about eight hours now including the ten minutes of autopilot for dinner."
The earth pony shook her head. "Let me take over for you, give you some rest. You could at least use the autopilot and get yourself some shuteye. Can't have my pilot fallin' asleep at the wheel."
"No, no, I switch to the autopilot and we'll be late. It gets all wonky when we try to use it at high speeds. Remember when we tried to make a one day flight out of the three day trip to Firenze? Took us an extra three days to get back because the AI kept saying the planet was dead ahead even though we flew right past it! I can do this. I've flown for a day straight without stopping before and I can do it again."
Applejack stood on her hind legs and crossed her hooves. "Dash, I'm orderin' you to take a break. If you don't wanna leave the helm, fine. I can get you a chair and bring it in here so you won't be leavin' the bridge. But you're gonna need your sleep. I might be needin' you to pick us up when we drop off the merchandise."
The pale blue pegasus shook her head. "I don't care about your orders, I'm not leaving the bridge."
The captain opened her mouth to protest, then she spotted three empty mugs by Dash's feet. Fluttershy must've brought her a few mugs of coffee to keep her alert. Wired was more like it.
"Fine then, but I'm gonna at least stay and talk with you. Everypony else is asleep anyhow." Applejack took a seat in the co-pilot's chair, where she usually sat when Dash was behind the wheel. As long as they kept up a conversation, Dash would stay awake. The two ponies sat in silence for a while before the pilot pony spoke.
"So, I've been meaning to ask you something, AJ?"
Dash turned to face her captain. "What made you take the job from Trixie?"
"Money's money, Dash. Ain't that enough of a reason to take a job?"
"She had her thugs put a bullet in your shoulder. Big Macintosh had to carry you back to the ship, remember?"
Applejack shrugged. "Negotiations went a little south, that's all. I promise it won't happen again...at least, I won't be the one makin' things difficult."
` "Maybe I could go with you on this next run? Leave the ship in the hangar with the crew? I'm tough."
The earth pony smiled at her friend. "I think you're better off here. They put a bullet in your shoulder and we ain't goin' anyplace. I can't fly her half as well as you can. You know how Reprisal handles better than anypony else."
Rainbow Dash went back to staring out the windshield of the ship. "I don't remember you being this...suicidal? No, crazy, until you joined the war."
"You coulda been just as crazy, Dash, but I guess the Air Force fit you the best."
"That's not my point. Before, you seemed more rational and level-headed. Now, you're jumping back into a deal with a pony that's tried to kill you."
"We gotta get money somehow, and Trixie was the only one with a good payin' job. I ain't one to take a job and walk away without a good reason."
Dash tried to stifle a yawn. "Yeah, well, it's gonna get you into trouble. I think I'll actually follow that order of yours and head to bed. You think you'll be able to fly her?"
"I'm wide awake," Applejack replied. "You get some rest. She's in just as capable hooves as yours when I'm flyin'."
As Dash went to her bunk, Applejack activated the autopilot and made for the galley. A mug of hot coffee sounded good right about now.
It was six in the morning according to the nav system's clock when Rainbow Dash returned to the bridge. Five hours alone in the cockpit seemed like an eternity of silence to Applejack. The rainbow-maned pegasus knocked on the doorway before she entered.
"Hey, Captain," she said. "I'm back."
Applejack ignored her, lost in thought about the night her parents were killed. What she wouldn't give to see the face of that stallion, to look into his eyes as she pressed the trigger of a gun to his head, giving him the same mercy that he wrought upon her family.
"AJ, you there?" Dash's voice snapped the earth pony out of her trance.
"Oh, you're back. Have a nice nap?"
"Yeah, I did! Thanks for coming and relieving me."
"No problem, partner. I think I'll make a quick trip to the galley and see if anythin's cookin'."
Applejack left the bridge and went back to the kitchen. Rarity sat at the table in an elegant indigo silk robe, one hoof wrapped around a steaming mug of tea and the other on her chin. For a pony who obsessed over beauty, she looked rather disheveled after she woke up.
"Morning, Applejack," she said around a yawn.
"Hiya, Rarity. I forgot to ask how business went yesterday."
The unicorn scowled at the earth pony. "Come now, Applejack, you can't be serious. Harvest's spaceport is no place to find an up-and-coming fashion designer in need of a good critique. Nothing there but bars with cheap booze and merchants moving cargo. You should know that by now."
"I just figured you mighta been able to snag a little extra income or somethin'. Ain't no harm in askin'."
"Yes, well..." Rarity's voice trailed off and she took a sip of her tea. "Anyhow, where are we going now?"
"Well, we gotta stop off in Solstice to drop off the apples for Trixie, then after that we're takin' Redheart to Equinox. I'm hopin' we can pick up somepony at the next stop to fill our last empty bunk. You know we could use the extra bits around here what with repairs and all."
Rarity stared into her half-empty mug. "I don't mean anything personal by this, Applejack, but why not save up and invest in a new ship?"
The captain's eyes narrowed as she glared at the fashionista. "You mind repeatin' yourself there, Rarity?"
"Well, the Reprisal is a nice ship and all but she just seems so...aged. You're always spending money trying to keep the engines fixed or replacing panels on the hull. Wouldn't it be much nicer to have a brand new ship to fly around in? I hear those Corvette models are very smooth rides in between atmospheres."
"Them damn Corvettes cost more than I could make in ten years, Rarity. We simply ain't got the right income to be flyin' around like the Regalia elite, and she was the best ship on the lot. Besides, she means something to me and you of all ponies should know that. Not to mention that most places in Republican space always seem so hesitant to take on an ex-Nightcoat."
"And why wouldn't they? You're a war veteran, just like everypony else that served on either side of the war. What makes a Nightcoat so different?"
"I dunno, Rarity, but whatever that reason is prob'ly why you're stuck here with me on the Reprisal instead of some giant city sellin' your clothin'."
The two friends started at each other, caught in an awkward silence. Rarity finished her tea and stood up, going towards the door. "I'll be in my shuttle if you need me, Captain."
Applejack sat back in her chair and watched the unicorn walk away. As much as she admired Rarity's eye for detail, she never found something she couldn't whine about and she always had some sort of problem with the ship. One day it would be rust on one of the rails, another she'd complain about the odor of engine fuel that had become dead to the rest of the crew. If she could go a single day, no, a single hour without a complaint, Applejack could die a happy mare.
Hoofsteps sounded on the metal floor in the direction of the bunks, and Applejack turned to see Nurse Redheart rubbing the sleep from her eyes as she stumbled into the galley.
"Oh, you must be Captain Applejack," she said softly.
"I reckon you're Redheart, the nurse."
"Yes, that's me." She took a seat across from the captain and looked at her nervously. "Is something the matter?"
"Nah, nothin'. Just debatin' on if I should ask you if you'd like to stay on board as our doc."
The white earth pony looked surprised. "You're asking me to join your crew? I haven't even been on this ship for a whole day and you trust me that much?"
"Well, I'll be honest with you," Applejack said. "Fluttershy is a decent doctor but in the experience I've had with her she's not one to hang 'round blood. She's patched us up for one or two jobs, but I usually have to leave her alone for about three days, poor girl. For a pegasus with such damn shaky nerves, she's got very steady hooves."
"I remember quite a few med students at the academy that were like that. Couldn't stand the sight of their own blood, yet they were perfectly calm around anypony else's. It's strange when you think about it."
Applejack smiled. Redheart didn't seem like such a bad pony. "So, any interest in my offer? I can't really give you a pay estimate now since I gotta figure a few more things out regardin' money."
Redheart broke eye contact. "I'm not sure, Captain. I was thrown out of the last hospital I worked at."
The smile on Applejack's face vanished. "Thrown out? A doctor dudn't just get thrown of a hospital for nothin'. What'd you do to screw up that bad?"
"I sort of...well...I...broke medical protocol to...ah....save a patient."
"That dudn't sound like such a bad thing. Hell, you shoulda been given a raise or somethin'."
Redheart smiled back at the earth pony. "Saint Avalon is too steeped in medical codes and traditions, it seems, to simply regard even basic medical practice. I was recommended there after I graduated from medical school, but it wasn't long before I gave up on their lack of common sense."
"How long was it 'fore you got bucked out?"
"Seven months. I've been wandering the galaxy for the last two months just trying to find a quiet job on a clinic or as a doctor in a small town. I'm not exactly of high repute so recently after being expelled."
"Well, maybe you'll find somethin' on Equinox. We'll be touchin' down tonight and you can probably make some calls while we're out and about."
"I appreciate the offer, Captain, but I've...um...already got something in mind for when I reach Equinox."
Applejack stood and went to the cooking area of the kitchen. "Anythin' I can getcha while I'm here? Tea, coffee, water?"
"Oh, no thank you. I'm perfectly content with waiting for Fluttershy."
"Alrightly, then. You need anythin', just holler and one of us will come runnin'." She turned to face Redheart. "One more thing: The only rule I've got for guests aboard my ship is that you stay outta my way and I'll stay outta yours. You follow that one rule and I guarantee we'll be gettin' along just fine."
"Very well, Captain."
Applejack walked out of the galley, ignoring a groggy greeting from Spitfire. What in the hay are you hidin', Redheart? I know liars when I see 'em and there's somethin' you ain't tellin' me.
Twilight Sparkle sat in her bed surrounded by a multitude of engineering manuals and books on machines and mechanical theory. Engines had been a puzzle to her before she left Ponyville, but after spending three years a motor was just as fascinating as the magic she'd been studying for her whole life. She knew the Reprisal's insides better than Applejack did and there was almost nothing she couldn't fix. She hardly ever changed out of her greasy coveralls, usually spending her days alternating between eating, reading, and repairs. Sleep had always been an afterthought to Twilight.
As she finshed the last page of her third book on compression systems and reached for a book on the inner workings of jet combustion, a small scrap of paper slipped from between the stacked books. She pulled the paper to her with a levitation spell, assuming it was little more than a misplaced note or a reminder to go to sleep at a certain hour. Her eyes locked with the scrap when she saw it was a small portrait of Spike, her missing assistant.
She dropped her book as her ears folded back in sorrow. She and the dragon had been almost inseparable until the war. Although she didn't like to think about it that way, Spike was a son to her. She had raised him since he was an egg and for the last three years he'd been gone. It was strange that until now she hadn't given it much serious thought.
What in Equestria is the matter with you? she thought. It's been three years and you haven't tried to look for him? Don't even try the excuse that you've been busy. You've had all the time in the universe to look for him, you've got friends that are willing to look for him, and what have you done? Nothing. You're a terrible excuse for a parent. Celestia should have never given Spike to you to take care of...
As Applejack walked past Twilight's bunk, her ears twitched at the sound of crying. What about engine books could possibly make Twilight upset? She pressed herself against the door to Twilight's bunk and rapped her hoof against it.
"Twilight, you okay in there?" she shouted.
The crying continued, so Applejack pushed the door opened and poked her head in. The usual towers of tomes were scattered about Twilight's bedroom. The engineer's usually straight mane was frazzled and messy and she didn't even bother to look up at her captain. Applejack noticed she was staring into a small patch of paper. She waited for a moment before going in and sitting beside her.
"Hey," she said softly. "What's got you all worked up? I ain't seen you cry this hard in a while."
The mechanic didn't speak, responding only by suspending the portrait of the small dragon in front of her captain's face. Applejack reached her leg around Twilight's shoulders, gently rubbing them as she held the troubled unicorn.
"It's alright," she said. "We all miss him."
Twilight buried her face in Applejack's shoulder as she continued heaving with each sob. "He was mine. My baby dragon, not somepony else's. Princess Celestia ordered me to take care of him and look at me. Look at what I've done to him. I'm a failure."
Applejack rested her head on the grieving unicorn's forehead. "Quit talkin' like that. You ain't never been a failure to nopony. Spike's a smart young dragon and I reckon livin' with the smartest mare in Ponyville had to teach him somethin'. He's fine, probably with the Princesses on Regalia or somethin'. Definitely ain't stupid."
"How can you be so sure? It's been three years since Canterlot fell and I haven't seen scale nor snout of him." She burst into a fresh set of tears. Applejack pressed Twilight's head into her shoulder.
"Just let it out, Sugarcube. Let it all out. I ain't thinkin' less of you for cryin' in fronta me. We're all missin' someone because of the war."
Twilight looked up from the shirt she'd now soaked at her captain. "You still think about Apple Bloom and Granny Smith?"
"Every mornin' when I get up, Twilight. They're my family. I ain't gonna just abandon 'em. We'll find Spike, just like we'll find Apple Bloom. Granny Smith may be a few apples short of a bushel but she's got enough common sense to get around. Apple Bloom is in capable hooves until then."
The lavender unicorn dried her eyes. "I'm sorry, Applejack. I didn't mean to be a wreck in front of you, but I miss Spike so much."
"It's okay, Twilight. Just because you're flyin' with me doesn't you gotta be tough all the time. Did you 'member to get them replacement parts ordered?"
Twilight sniffed again. "Yeah, I did. There'll be a pony waiting for us when we land on Solstice. I'll get them from him before we leave."
"Alright then. I'm gonna go get Big Macintosh and we're gonna get the guns prepped."
Twilight's eyes grew wide. "Guns? But aren't you just gonna drop the apples off and be done with it? Why would you need to pack a bunch of guns with you?"
"You remember the last time I dealt with her? She tried havin' one of her thugs put me down but he ended up hittin' my shoulder. I ain't takin' chances again."
"Applejack, just because she tried to kill you once doesn't mean you need to meet her armed to the teeth. We're the bearers of the Elements of Harmony, for Celestia's sake! How can we be harmonious if you go around shooting first and asking questions later."
"I'm the Element of Honesty, so pardon me if I'm honest with you. If there's one thing I learned in the war, it's that bein' friendly ain't the answer to every problem. A smile ain't gonna disarm a stallion with a loaded rifle, but a bullet will."
Twilight stood up in her seat. "Yes, I know you've killed ponies in the war but that's not you! You know how Fluttershy and myself are when you pack guns to meet employers!"
The earth pony stepped towards the unicorn and placed a hoof on her shoulder. "Let me makes this clear: I ain't gonna kill Trixie. I may be a gunmare but I ain't no murderer. If I have to pull the trigger, it's because of something Trixie does, not me. I don't get off on pluggin' lead into folks, but if I have to do it then I will. Clear?"
Twilight nodded. "Just promise me you won't hurt Trixie."
Applejack didn't answer. She silently stepped through the door and into the hallway. "I can't make no promises, Twilight, but I'll do my best."
The Reprisal landed in the spaceport of Solstice an hour ahead of schedule. Applejack walked to the bridge and cued up the comms system as Rainbow Dash landed the craft in a public hangar bay. Once the ship touched down, she dialed in Trixie's contact number.
"Come on, " Applejack whispered to herself. "Pick up the damn call so I can get these apples off my ship."
The dial tone ended and a very sleepy Trixie let out a yawn before responding. "Hello?"
"Trixie's it's AJ. We just pulled in to port and we got your shipment. Where are we meetin' so I get rid of these things?"
Trixie yawned again. "I hadn't expected you to actually make that deadline, Captain. You really do never cease to amaze. Anyway, I'll get them from you tomorrow afternoon, alright? Now, if you'll excuse me it's three in the morning and I really need my sleep."
The blue unicorn hung up before Applejack could object. She looked over at Rainbow Dash, who was now leaning on the console of the ship. Her eyes were bloodshot from flying for a total of twenty hours in the last two days and she seemed more than welcoming of a night off. It was wonder she even managed to land the ship.
"Dash, you best be gettin' up outta that chair and into a bed," she said.
"No..." Dash groaned. "Just hand me a blanket and I'll sleep here. I don't think I can walk back to my bunk."
Applejack snickered as she fetched a blanket from the storage cabinet in the cockpit, draping around the pegasus' shoulders. The pilot pony was unconscious before Applejack stepped out of the door. Her brother, Big Macintosh, was already waiting for her.
"So, sis," he said as he cradled a lever action rifle. "We gonna go drop them apples off yet?"
"Nah, not yet. Trixie wants to get them from us tomorrow afternoon. You can put all the guns away now."
"What?" Mac asked. "I got the Vindicator all charged up and..."
"Just put 'em back, Mac. We won't be needin' to use 'em until we're there, and even then I'm hopin' we won't need 'em."
Big Mac shook his head. "You 'member what she tried to do to you the last time."
"Yes, Mac, I know she tried to kill me, but that don't mean we can't be civilized the second time around. I can tell you one thing, though: She takes a shot at me and she can find herself a new crew to smuggle gear for her."
Fluttershy opened the door to her bunk and stepped out, freezing when she caught sight of Big Macintosh holding a gun.
"W-What's t-that for?" the shy pegasus stuttered.
"Nothin', Fluttershy," Applejack said. "Don't be frettin' about what the gun's for. Big Macintosh was on his way to put it back, weren't you?"
Macintosh gave his sister an annoyed look. "Yes, AJ," he mumbled before lumbering off to the armory.
"Um...Applejack? Why do you need guns? I thought you were just dropping off apples to Trixie."
Applejack opened her mouth to remind her friend of what happened the last time. It was bad enough that Fluttershy was traumatized enough at the sight of blood. If anypony so much as mentioned it around her, she might as well drop into a catatonic state. And there was no telling what sort of lecture she'd get if Applejack told her that the guns were meant for killing ponyfolk. Then again, that's all guns ever seemed to do.
"It's a...uh...safety precaution." She hated lying, even if it was just a little white lie. "In case somepony tries to take 'em from us."
Fluttershy's expression changed from fear to puzzlement. "Who'd want to take a bunch of apples?"
Applejack couldn't help but smile at the pegasus. "Fluttershy, if there's one thing I've learned in the 'Verse, it's that there's no limit to crazy. But like I said before, it ain't nothin' for you to worry about. You'll be here on the ship, where it's safe."
"Oh, okay then. Promise me you won't come back from this next meeting with more bullet wounds?"
"I can't guarantee nuthin', Fluttershy, but I'll do my best not to get filled with lead."
Applejack walked over to the intercom switch and opened the mic up. "Just so everypony knows, we won't be doin' business until tomorrow. I think we should all get a few hours of shuteye so we can be all set for tomorrow mornin'. Consider that an order, everypony. And as long as we're planetside I don't want anypony off around the ship on their own, especially the cargo deck. It ain't that I don't trust nopony, I just don't wanna be takin' chances."
With that, the crew of the Reprisal went down for a few hours of rest, save of course for Twilight Sparkle who was still skimming manuals in her bunk.
It was long after everypony woke up that the Reprisal dropped her cargo hatch, offering passage to anypony that may need it. Applejack stood in the cargo bay with Twilight, scanning the crowd of ponies milling about in the port. Surely somepony could match their rather generous price of four-hundred bits per week?
"Wonder why we ain't gettin' any takers," Applejack said aloud.
"I can't think of it either," Twilight said. "We've got one bunk and compared to a lot of other ships we're offering a pretty good deal. It doesn't usually take more than a week or two to get anywhere in the galaxy unless you're trying to get out into the Verge. As if anypony would want to run that deep into space."
"Yeah. I'm gonna go get things prepped. We gotta leave to meet Trixie at that warehouse in about, oh, six hours. I figure if we can get one pony to take the bunk, we can just keep the bay locked up 'til we get back."
Only immediately after Applejack headed off to her quarters did Twilight spot a potential customer. A middle aged stallion, burly with a military cut, hefted his two bags towards the open door.
"Can I help you, sir?" Twilight offered.
"Huh?" the stallion said. "Oh, nah. My bags are good. I'm just looking for a ship that'll get me to Equinox."
"Well, you're in luck! We've got a passenger getting off there too! I'll radio the captain and let her know we got a taker on our last bunk. The fare is four hundred bits, coin or credits, and we ask for it up front."
The stallion reached into his pocket and produced five blue transparent slips, each roughly the size of a small disc. "Five hundred bits, Millennial creds. Fair?"
"That's a rather generous tip, sir."
"Don't mention it. I'm a generous guy. Mind showing me to my quarters so I can get rid of these bags?"
"Sure thing!" Twilight hit the switch to close the hydraulic doors, happy that they found a taker for their last bunk so quickly. She showed the stranger to his room and with a rather gruff "Thanks" he shut the door. As she made her way back to the cargo bay, she ran into Applejack.
"Great news!" the lavender pony exclaimed. "I found somepony willing to take the bunk! He paid five hundred bits in credits up front."
"Five hundred, eh?" the captain replied. "Well, I ain't much akin to dealin' with Millennial credits, but I'll take 'em if he's goin' past our askin' price. I need you to run below decks and check the engine, make sure everythin's in order in case we need to make a quick getaway."
"But why would.." Twilight began, but Applejack cut her off.
"I didn't ask for questions, I asked for a mechanic. I'm gonna make a quick trip to the bay and make sure everythin's locked down."
Twilight shut her mouth and did as she was told. Applejack always got a little gruff before a job went down, and if they were working for Trixie then she had plenty of reason to be.
Redheart poked her head in the cargo bay and looked around. No pony in sight. She could check on her package now. As quietly as she could, the nurse walked up to the control panel and examined it. Temperature was stable, internal conditions were normal. Everything was perfect. She turned about to walk back to her bunk and locked up when she saw Captain Applejack standing there.
"Whatcha got in that box'a yours?" Applejack said, taking a step towards her.
"Just some precious cargo," she replied. "Why?"
"'Precious cargo,' huh? Mind if I look inside?"
"I don't think that..." Redheart stopped when Applejack drew her gun.
"I wasn't asking. Step aside."
As the captain inched towards the box, she caught the sound of a hammer cocking. Applejack turned to see what she assumed to be the new passenger leveling a pistol at them both.
"Drop the gun!" he ordered. Applejack had half a mind to shoot him, but she'd have to cock the hammer on her revolver and aim first. That'd be plenty of time for the newcomer to shoot. She tossed the heavy pistol aside and raised her hooves.
"What in the hay is goin' on here?" she asked. "First passenger gets a mysterious shiny box and now the next one's startin' a damn mutiny."
"Captain, you're under arrest for aiding the escape of Redheart," the stallion declared as he advanced on the pair of ponies. Applejack bristled when she caught the faint gasp of Fluttershy from the second floor.
"Oh my goodness!" Fluttershy exclaimed. "Please, don't arrest the captain! She didn't know the nurse was a fugitive! None of us knew!"
"I guess that's too bad for you all, then."
"A damn spy," Applejack said. "What you got to gain by arrestin' me?"
"Nothing, but Redheart is wanted for theft of valuable government property."
The spy turned on his heel to look at Big Macintosh, who was entering from the far door of the bay.
"Jackie, what in blazes is goin' on here?" her brother asked. "Who's this, a Silverhead?"
"If we could all just put our guns down and talk this out, maybe it wouldn't be so bad," Fluttershy suggested.
"You shut up!" the agent snapped. "I'm taking you all in for treason!"
"Nopony's takin' anypony in for nothin'," Macintosh stated as he took a step towards the agent. The stallion trained his gun on her brother.
"Not one more step or I will shoot, do you hear me? Not one more step!"
Twilight stepped in through the main door, oblivious to the situation. The agent spun to his right and fired, a look of panic on his face when he realized his gun went off. The lavender pony staggered backwards wearing a surprised expression before crashing to the floor. Macintosh charged at the stallion and knocked him to the ground, kicking his gun away before pinning him to the floor.
"You realize you're all going to prison for this?" the agent said to Big Macintosh. He chuckled at the agent's threat.
"Like I said, nopony's goin' anywhere."
Fluttershy was already on the floor of the cargo bay, her eyes wide as she stood over Twilight. The mechanic clutched at her wound with a hoof, staring up at the powdery yellow pegasus.
"What's wrong, Fluttershy?" she slurred. "Look like you watched somepony get shot."
Applejack picked her gun up and turned to Redheart. "You're a nurse, help my mechanic!"
"Fluttershy, go get Spitfire and the both of you take Twilight to the infirmary."
As the pale yellow pegasus flew to the bridge, Redheart knelt over the injured unicorn.
"She was lucky it didn't hit her heart. Looks like it missed everything vital, but she's bleeding. Captain, what do you have on board for supplies?"
"Fluttershy can tell you what we've got once you get her in the med bay." Applejack turned back to her brother, still holding the federal agent.
"As for you...Mac, take him in to his bunk and tie him down. And you ain't lettin' him outta your sight, are we clear?"
"Aye aye, sis," her brother said as he dragged the complaining spy off into the living area. Applejack followed the doctor to the medical bay where Twilight lay on the bed, flanked by a fretting Fluttershy and a concerned Spitfire.
"Are you gonna be able to fix her, Doc?" Spitfire asked.
"It's a simple fix, I just need everypony to clear out so I can work, okay?"
Fluttershy looked at the doctor, visibly holding back the tears in her worried eyes. "You have to save her! You can't just let her die! She's our friend!"
"Yes, I understand that," said Redheart. "I can save her, but I need you two out, alright?"
Reluctantly, Fluttershy and Spitfire left the bay before Redheart shut the medi-bay doors. The only sound that could be heard was the hum of the Reprisal's engines. It seemed so odd for them to be without their keeper.
"Come on, y'all," Applejack said. "Let's go to the galley and get us a drink, take our minds off this whole thing."
"But, Twilight..." Fluttershy stammered.
"'Shy, it's alright. If she says she'll fix Twilight, she'll do it."
As Spitfire escorted the weeping pegasus to the kitchen, Applejack made her way to the bunks. She had an important date with a Silverhead, and no way would she pass it up.
Untold minutes passed as Applejack and Spitfire stood outside the medical wing doors waiting for Redheart's response. The earth pony looked at her pegasus companion, wondering for the thousandth time how a Wonderbolt, a national celebrity and icon, ended up a soldier in Ponyville's trenches. The rusty creak of the medical bay doors broke the captain's concentration and she looked up to see Redheart running her hooves under the faucet.
"She's stable, Captain," the nurse said. "I've got her under sedation for now, just to kill the pain. She should be out for a few hours."
"is it bad?" Applejack asked.
"I've seen worse."
The rapid approach of hooves on steel grew louder as Rarity stepped into the medibay. The pale unicorn, still in her silk robe, held a hoof over her mouth as she spied her friend on the operating bed.
"I just heard what happened. Is Twilight alright?"
"She's fine," the nurse interjected. "She'll come around, I promise."
"And Applejack," the unicorn continued. "What's this about some sort of agent aboard the ship? I demand to know what going on!"
"I dunno, but it makes a pony wonder what you've got in that box."
Applejack had already started walking to the cargo bay by the time Redheart caught up with her.
"No!" the nurse protested. "Don't touch it!"
As Applejack entered the cargo bay, her elder brother stepped in front of the medical pony, barring her from reaching the captain. She tried to move underneath the heavyset earth pony but soon found herself clenched between Macintosh's forelegs in the equivalent of a chokehold.
"Where's that fed?" Applejack asked as she ran a rope through the handles of the box.
"Safe and sound, like you said. I got Fluttershy to keep an eye on him, but I reckon he won't be coming to for a little while."
"Please, leave it alone!" the nurse said again. Macintosh tightened his grip slightly.
The cowpony took the rope in her mouth and pulled the silver crate away from the wall of the cargo bay before disengaging the locks. A loud hissing erupted from the seal as cold clouds of nitrogen poured from beneath the lid of the box. Nurse Redheart struggled against Macintosh's forelegs, reaching for the box as though her life depended on it. Hoofsteps sounded behind her as Spitfire, Rainbow Dash, and Rarity all stood around the box. Applejack stomped up to the pale earth pony in her brother's grasp.
"You listen to me, Nurse," Applejack growled. "I had one rule on this ship, and you had to go and break it. You've stirred a pretty bit of trouble for me and my crew, and I figure it's only fair if I go and return the favor. So why don't we open up yer precious little shiny box and see what a mare like you would kill for."
Redheart let out a desperate attempt at protesting again as Applejack bucked the top away from the crate. A plume of cold gasses flowed from the open container as the captain peered into the box. A single pink pony sat at the bottom of the crate, curled up in ball with her fur and magenta mane matted from the rapidly condensing stasis fluids. Applejack's eyes shot to the pink pony's flanks as she examined the three balloons that made up the stranger's cutie mark.
Two balloons blue, one yellow.
Applejack looked up at the nurse in confusion, then back to the pony in the box.
"Huh, well what do you know?"