• Published 15th Sep 2018
  • 1,370 Views, 90 Comments

Fire & Rain: Applejack and the Queen of Knives - Limbo Theorem



The fate of the world hangs in the balance and its potential savior is a mysterious figure known only as The Queen of Knives. But who is she? That's what Applejack has to find out.

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PRETZEL DRAGONFLY

MEDITERRANEAN OCEAN
091630ZJUL30:

The USS Enterprise (CVN-80) steamed silently through the waters of the Mediterranean. One of the last surviving carriers in the world, it was a beacon of hope and a vital global asset in the war against the Others.

Surrounded by a convoy of ships from various nations, some of which that had once been allies and some that had once been foes or rivals, there was no such thing anymore – not with the threat to humanity.

At the moment, US Navy, US Marine Corps and Royal Navy jets flew from the steel decks, the latter complement of aircraft having been added to the ship’s arsenal after the recent sinking of the UK’s last carrier, HMS Prince of Wales.

Within the hull of the ship itself, a crew of American sailors, augmented occasionally by personnel from other services or nations, kept this bastion of freedom afloat and running, not just for the sake of the United States, but now for the world itself.


In the center of the aft weight room, a young woman pushed herself to the limit. Lifting weights via machine, she continued to do reps, sweat sliding down her taut and toned muscles, her blonde hair hanging around her face limply. Part amazon and part model, the combination of both gave her an alluring look even if she really didn’t care about that.

Finally done, she sat up, picked up a small towel and wiped the stinging sweat from her eyes. As she did, she noticed appreciative glances from various men and women in the room. In another time, she probably would have appreciated the gesture and even responded in kind to some of them. But here on a warship, there was no room for romance or relationships – especially when fraternization regs were still in place.

Near thirty, no love prospects and working out on a ship she barely understood: that was her life, and for Lt. Applejack Apple, United States Navy, it was just the way things were.

There you are.” She looked up and standing there, lurching over her in wash khakis was her friend, Lt. Tempest Shadow. With deep brown skin, intense opal eyes and a taller, lither figure than Applejack, the pair were a study in contrasts, especially given Tempest’s dourer and more serious demeanor. The two had met years ago at OTC, and were virtually tied at the hip ever since.

“Couldn't sleep, so I decided to burn off the extra energy,” Applejack admitted. “What's up?”

“Was looking for you,” she said. “Captain needs to speak to you; he’s waiting in the ready room.”

“Okay, tell him I gotta hit the shower and I'll be up in five.”

Tempest shook her head, her magenta locks of hair battering the sides of her head. “Nope; now means now.”

“Seriously?”

“He had me run around the ship looking for you instead of grabbing a yeoman,” Tempest insisted. “He even said, and I quote, ‘Even if you have to pull her out of the shower. But if you do, make sure she's got enough soap covering her so I don’t have to see the apple tattoo she's got by her twat.’”

Applejack frowned. “You just had to tell him about that, didn't you?”

“Jackie, you were drunk. You told everybody,” Tempest reminded her. “Seriously, that is the last time I’m letting you drink that much.”

“Fuck you, Fizzlepop Berrytwist.”

“You just had to go there, didn’t you?” Tempest accused. When Applejack's response was a gleeful nod, the taller woman sighed. “So glad my parents renamed me after I was adopted. Being raised by two gay dads was hard enough at times, but growing up with a name like that would've been a playground death sentence.”

The two wordlessly went up two more decks and towards the ship's bow, Applejack ignoring the continual stares at her somewhat revealing sweat-soaked PT attire. Fortunately for her, she at least was not wearing a white t-shirt.

After a few more seconds, the two reached the ready room in question. Tempest opened the door and the two went in.

“Well, you two sure took your sweet time, didn't you?” a man with dusky skin and a thatch of mulberry-colored hair said as he leaned against the table, occasionally brushing his fingers against his wash khakis. Older than either of them, he was reedy thin, with a dapper pencil mustache that gave him the traditional “Latin Lover” look. Still, his slight movements gave him a feline demeanor, like a lion on the verge of pouncing if he caught you unawares.

This was Captain Capper Dapperpaws, Commanding Officer of the Navy’s legendary DEVGRU – SEAL Team SIX, the best of the best. “The Old Cat”, as Capper was nicknamed, was an old school operator – one of a dying breed, he often said. And in the business they were in, he very much typified the adage about why one should fear an older man in an occupation where youths died on a regular basis.

“Reporting as ordered, sir,” Applejack told him.

“Hey, Jackie, have a seat. You too, Temp. Bet you two are wondering why I called you for this little shindig, right?”

Applejack leaned forward in her seat the moment she sat down. “Does this have anything to do with PRETZEL DRAGONFLY?”

“Well, sorta. It has to do with your report,” he said, still focused more on his fingernails than her.

“Sir, I stand by what I put in my after-action. We engaged the Octos in Rome, as ordered and managed to evacuate as many as we could from the city before it was overrun. We were asked to back up the 9th Regiment, and we did so.”

“I know and I have no qualms with that, Lieutenant. But, you see….” He paused. “There’s that supplementary report from Chief Shipshape that I’m curious about.”

Tempest couldn’t help herself. Rolling her eyes, she said, “Oh, great – we’re going to talk about that.”

Capper looked at his other subordinate. “Do you have anything to add, Lt. Shadow?”

“Yes, sir. As much as I completely trust Lt. Apple, I highly disagree with her assessment. I certainly didn’t see anything and several of our junior woodchucks didn’t either.”

“I know what I saw,” Applejack stated. “I put it in my report and clearly, based on her report, so did Shippy.”

“Was that before or after you got dizzied by that plasma blast that threw you into a wall?” Tempest argued.

“I know what I saw,” Applejack repeated, gritting her teeth as she said it once more. She’d taken enough shit about it, but she wasn’t going to back down from the truth. “You know I don’t lie.”

“I know you don’t – sometimes I think you’re a little too honest for this job, Jackie,” Capper told her. “But you’re one of the best operators I have and I want to know.”


“As would I,” a new voice stated. At the sound of said tones, the three officers in the room stood up, just for the speaker to say, “As you were.”

“Well, hello, sir,” Capper stated smoothly. “Was just going over with my folks the after-action report.”

“I know. It’s why I’m here too. I want to hear this fun,” he said.

Applejack and Tempest briefly looked at one another; neither had expected this level of attention to the report. The pair looked at the speaker, who had jauntily grabbed a chair and sat down, reverse style, leaning forward against the seat’s back.

The person in question was Vice Admiral Storm King, Commander of Task Force 831, the international flotilla moving around Europe both as a strike force and to survive. Nicknamed “Wildcard”, he’d been a fighter pilot since the days of the First Gulf War and was known for his unconventional style. Surprisingly, it had actually managed to get him promoted up the ranks, whereas a lesser person would have likely been drummed out of the service at that point.

The admiral produced a folder. “You know, I’ve been reading this fascinating little piece of fiction here. Lt. Apple, you should have been a novelist.”

“Admiral, with all due respect,” Tempest interjected.

“I wasn’t asking you, Lieutenant,” King cut her off with a grin that implied a firm tone. “I was asking our little storyteller here.” He then turned back to Applejack. “Personally, I’m…curious…as to the full story. Wouldn’t you say so, Capper?”

Capper reached over and picked up a copy of the report, nodding. “It does bear a listen through, sir,” he agreed.

Applejack sighed; she didn’t want to talk about it. She wasn’t even really sure she believed it herself. But she knew what she saw – and clearly so did one of her own fellow operators.

She sighed. “Well, sir, it’s like this….”

***

When she had been younger, Applejack had always wanted to see Rome. During the summer where she lived with her aunt and uncle in Manhattan, she had been regaled of tales from their trips to Europe and Rome, in particular. Back then, during that small time in her life when she dreamed more of being a princess than a girl whose family owned a small farm outside the Canterlot city limits, she always imagined that her prince would sweep her off her feet and carry her to the Trevi Fountain, where she would kiss him and love him forever.

Well, she finally made it to the Trevi Fountain after all these years.

And as she pulled the body of a dead Italian special warfare operator – a member of the Italian Army’s famed 9th Paratroopers Assault Regiment – away from the firing line, she wondered if that little girl she’d once been had ever thought that the ageless, beautiful work of art would ever be destroyed and smoking, its pool stained red with blood, its volume once littered with coins from well-wishers now filled with the bodies of dead soldiers.

Tracers and thin beams of white energy filled the air, the former from her own side and the latter from the strange weapons carried by the Octos – a dysphemism for the Others, based on their generally cephalopodic bodyframes. In many ways, they resembled something like the alien weapons once described in the old book The War of the Worlds…but this was real life, and there was real death occurring here in Rome, one of the very few major cities left on Earth that had not been attacked by the Octos.

Until today, that is.

Four million civilians, crowded into the capital of Italy and the de facto stronghold of Southern Europe – and now the Octos were slaughtering everything they came across. Both NATO and UNIF – the United Nations Interdiction Force, a multinational organization made of nations that were not a part of already-standing military alliances – responded, and the Italian Army, immediately backed by NATO, American and Russian forces, struck back in a desperate attempt to evacuate the city and maybe save the so-called “Eternal City” from being turned into a smoking abattoir.

It was into this that DEVGRU Platoon Alpha, codenamed “the Amazons”, were sent in. They were known as the Amazons because due to the generally mostly-still male bastion that was SPECWAR, the Amazons were an all-female SEAL Team developed by the Navy. Whether due to political correctness or a genuine attempt to let women prove themselves, the initial unit, SEAL Team Four Detachment ONE soon proved itself above and beyond what people had expected, and was soon redesignated as the first platoon in a rebuilt DEVGRU, with Applejack given the slot of platoon Officer in Charge.

And now they were ordered into Rome to bolster the other forces present. Their orders were to play hard and nasty and that because the Octos weren’t playing fair and were killing everyone in sight, the Geneva Conventions were now in the past. Anything human, from the vilest criminal to the saintliest child, were to be protected at all costs. Any Octo that had given anything but an indicator of total surrender – and so far that hadn’t happened – was to be dealt with, with extreme prejudice.

And so they were sent into the hellish battlefield under the name of Operation PRETZEL DRAGONFLY, a stupid name created by stupid mission planners who selected operational titles based on the intent to not offend.

Because clearly that was the most important thing when the survival of the human race was at stake, Applejack mentally snarked.

“Doc, what’s the prognosis?” Applejack asked absently while she slammed another magazine into her M110A2. Around her, her fireteam returned fire. She’d been separated from Tempest’s group a while back and she hoped her friend was still amongst the living. The radios were already set for reduced communications, so it wasn’t like she could start an Instachat with her buddy.

The corpsman, a young petty officer by the name of Redcross, looked at Applejack. “Well, L-T,” she said, looking down at the cadaver with disgust, “I could’ve saved him if the Octos hadn’t put one of their laser blasts straight through his heart.”

“Fuck. Okay, you did what you could, Doc,” Applejack told her. “Let’s see if we can get the fuck somewhere safer.”

“Safer? In this fuckhole?” Redcross asked, disbelieving.

Despite the situation, Applejack laughed, leaning behind the remains of what had once been an automated taxi. “Hey, we’re at the Trevi, okay? You throw three coins in the fountain and it gives you good luck!”

“Who the fuck uses physical money nowadays?” was the reply. “All I have is my debit card!”

Footsteps came up as a voice said, “There’s an exchange machine by the fountain. You stick your card in and it’s like five euros to buy three tokens to symbolically toss in.”

Applejack looked over and saw her fireteam’s chief petty officer, Shipshape, moving towards her. Shipshape had originally been Army Infantry (an irony, she admitted, given her name), but had switched services when the Navy organized its first female SPECWAR team. Needless to say, she had a lot of experience she brought to the group and more than once, Applejack had tried to convince the grizzled older woman to “go mustang”, only to be told that she didn’t want to be saluted for a living.

Applejack poked her head over the ruined carbon-fiber hood of the taxi and loosed several shots into the distance before ducking back; a split second later, lasers filled the space where her head had been. “How do you know about that?”

“My first assignment was here in Italy back when I was a private,” Shipshape admitted. “Ended up sleeping with some artist I met here. One-night stand, fun times. Ah, the memories,” Shipshape chuckled.

“That’s nice, Shippy. So what’s up?”

Shipshape pointed north. “Octos are starting to corral us in. Comms are still down, but word’s being passed that we’re pulling back across the Tiber. They’re already setting up the Vatican as a hotzone for evac.” The look in Shipshape’s gray eyes were one of frustration. “We lost, Jack.”

“Fuck.” She didn’t even want to think of how many were going to be left behind, or how many dead whose bodies wouldn’t be buried. Thousands of people, whose only remembrance would be the smoking pit of what had once been the virtual capital of the world.

A second later, one of the petty officers spoke up. “Comms just came through, Lieutenant. We’re being pulled back to the Vatican. We’re going to get air cover soon enough, but we’re going to have to pull back soon.”


Applejack didn’t have time to respond to her radio operator, as a second later, there was a blinding flash of white light, and she felt herself lifted up by some unknown force. The wind was knocked out of her and her weapon was forced from her hands. A second later she felt the painful impact of herself being slammed against something hard, and a second later the spray of water. She blacked out for a second, feeling the same way she had when she’d been accidentally kicked by one of the horses on her family farm when she had been thirteen. Back then, she’d gotten a broken arm and a lecture from her grandmother on being careful not to spook the horses.

Now, she didn’t feel like she had been injured, but as her head spun from the blow and her eyes were recovering from the flash blindness she’d just received, her vision hazy and unable to see more than a few inches in front of her. She guessed by the fact that she was soaking wet that she’d been thrown into the fountain. She also guessed, given that she couldn’t see a thing and that she had no idea where her rifle was, that she was as good as dead the moment an Octo drew a bead on her.

Automatically, she went for her sidearm. If she was going to go down fighting, she was going to give as good as she got. She would never see her family again, but at least the Navy would tell them she went down doing her duty to the last.

“Okay, you sick sons of bitches,” she hissed, pointing her gun in the direction she hoped the Octos were. “You fuckers want to take me down? I’m not going down that easily you bastards!” she shouted.


It was then she felt a gloved hand on her own, gently pushing the gun down. “Let me take care of this,” an androgynous voice said. As Applejack’s vision began to clear, she looked at the person with her…and she couldn’t believe her eyes.

A figure, about the same height as her, stood there, dressed in what could only be described as a sort of modern take on medieval armor. A facemask covering the figure’s features, she (Applejack assumed it was a woman, based on the person’s bodyframe) had on what appeared to be a carbon-fiber body armor that covered her arms, torso and legs. She also wore a bright red cloak, giving her a strange appearance between a knight and a superhero. If Applejack didn’t know better, the figure looked as though she had stepped out of that sci-fi shooter game that she and Rainbow Dash played regularly back when they were teenagers.

Applejack opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out. Still, her lips formed the phonemes: what the fuck?

The figure chuckled. “I’m here to help,” was all the stranger said, and then with a flourish, turned to face the Octos as they came into Applejack’s cleared vision.

The pictures she’d seen of dead Octos didn’t do them justice. Shaped vaguely like cuttlefish, the creatures walked on eight legs, their six eyes covered with goggles of some kind. Unlike earth cephalopods, the arrow-like appendages on their heads pointed forward, as if they had some sort of demented mechanism that urged them onward. Their bodies were covered in some sort of coral growth that served as plate armor, and in their long, noodly tentacles they carried long silvery sticks that had a pulsating crystal, which she was sure were their weapons. She recalled hearing somewhere that attempts to reverse engineer captured copies of the weapons had backfired spectacularly; that the Chinese had attempted to do so, and there was now a massive crater in Tibet where a research lab had once been.

The Octos immediately saw the figure and opened fire, filling the air with silvery beams. Applejack had enough presence of mind to dive back into the bloody waters of the Trevi just before she became another casualty, but she watched the figure as she moved – no, danced – forward.

Moving with a grace that shouldn’t have been possible for what she wore, the stranger immediately started flinging burning knives of flame towards her opponents, each one flying through the air with impossible precision and burning through the armor of the Octos. Each knife that connected set its target aflame, causing a gurgling, unnatural scream that rang in Applejack’s ears. Within seconds the stranger had taken out six of the Octos and was pushing forwards, throwing the blades with abandon like some flamboyant ninja from Japanese comics.

Applejack immediately remembered that game she and Rainbow used to play and there was a class of fighter in the game, a mix of rogue, ranger and archer, that used a combination of various weapons, both modern and medieval, to vanquish alien foes for the sake of mankind. Though it had been well over a dozen years since she’d played any kind of videogame, at that moment, Applejack felt sixteen years old again and almost for a second wondered where she’d put her Dualshock.

That feeling intensified when she felt something tug within her soul, something she hadn’t felt in a long time. Something so ephemeral, it almost made her wonder if it had actually happened, except for that that she knew it had. She looked down in her hand, and in it was a mote of orange light, faint but present.

She looked up at the vanishing figure, and her mind swam with the possibility.

A word finally came to her lips.

“Sunset?”


“C’mon, Lieutenant, we gotta go!” The moment ended as quickly as it came, as she felt Shipshape pull her to her feet. “We gotta get out of here while we still have the chance! Doc’s dead and half of our own gals are down!”

Applejack pulled from her grasp. “But we—”

“Look, Jack, I don’t know what the fuck just happened,” her fellow SEAL told her, “but whatever did just saved our fucking bacon and I’m taking that as a sign to get the fuck out while we still can!”

Applejack looked at the ruined scene, the dead Octos and some of her own troops grabbing the bodies of the Italian soldier and Redcross. As a general rule, Americans didn’t leave their dead behind and that wasn’t about to change now, especially when “the dead” included fellow human warriors.

“Let’s go,” Applejack said, feeling the moment – and the magic – pass as quickly as it had come.

***

As she finished her story, King looked at her quietly for a second and said, “You know, when I was a kid, I loved the Lord of the Rings. Filled with tales of knights and elves, magic and swords, that kind of shit. That’s the same thing I’m hearing now, Lieutenant.”

“With all due respect, Admiral, I stand by what I said.” Applejack told him. She, of course, had left out the magic part, as well as what she had said. In hindsight, there was no way it could have been Sunset. The last known place where she’d been had been at the portal, which meant that she’d probably gone back to Equestria. Given that in the years since the portal had been closed and that Princess Twilight had never tried to contact any of them, that was probably the reason why.

Besides, Applejack knew that of everyone that had backstabbed her, it had been her betrayal that had been the worst. Of all people that Sunset – if it had really been her – could save, Applejack’s name would probably be somewhere beneath that of murderers, slavers and worse.

“I know you do,” was all King said.

The two looked at each other, with Tempest and Capper looking at both of them before Applejack finally found the words to ask a second later: “So what now, sir?”

King gave another mirthless smile. “In an hour there will be a COD here to drop off intelligence and pick up passengers headed off the ship. You’re going to be on that plane.”

“So, I guess you plan to relieve me for cause?”

“No,” the admiral replied. “You’re going to the Mountain.” He then dug into a pants pocket and pulled out something, tossing it to her. “Oh, and you’re going to need these.”

Applejack caught the object – a small box – and opened it. Inside were two golden oak leaf collar devices – the symbol of a United States Navy lieutenant commander.


A few hours later, Applejack sat in a seat onboard a Royal Navy CMV-22B Osprey headed towards HMS Cormorant, the British base at Gibraltar. From there, she would take a helicopter to the US Naval Station at Rota, Spain, then to the US mainland. She was now dressed in wash khakis, the only uniform she had that would accommodate the pins of her new rank.

She was leaving her platoon behind, though thankfully not for long. They would ultimately rejoin her stateside, as both Naval Special Warfare Command and US Special Operations Command believed that it was not in the best interests for the platoon to change commanders just yet. But for now, she was alone on the aircraft, headed back to a home country she hadn’t seen in three years.

She closed her eyes, hoping to get some shuteye for the flight. She was going to need it.


Applejack climbed off the guy she’d just slept with. She didn’t know him other than that he was German, hot and available; she vaguely recalled him saying he was married, but she didn’t care and clearly neither did he. Maybe if the war hadn’t happened, then she would’ve cared. But when you were a special operator, you lived for today, because tomorrow might not come.

Relationships had become meaningless to her anyway, given that either he or she or both would be dead after tomorrow’s mission. They had to hit an Other stronghold just outside of Berlin, and it was a combined SEAL/KSM operation.

“But it didn’t go well, did it?”

Applejack sat up in bed and looked at the teenager standing across from her. “No. He got his head blown off by a heavy plasma blaster, I was told. And when I went to the funeral, his wife thanked me, even knowing I slept with her husband, for giving him one last moment of joy before he died. How’s that for fucked up?” A sad look came over her face. “And now, he’s as gone as you.”

“I’m still alive, AJ.”

“No, you’re not. I’m imagining that someone I loved like a sister is still alive, but it’s my mind working through the dream. For one, this is a lucid dream, so I’m in control. And two, you’re still a teenager.”

“Dreams can be like that, you know.”

“Yes, you’re right – and then I’ll be awake and you’ll still be gone. Assuming that wasn’t you that saved me the other day.”

Sunset didn’t answer that. “You were never this dour when I knew you.”

“I’ve also left a trail of bodies behind me, both the bad guys and the ones I cared about. The latter ones never came back. One of them even proposed, did you know that? I accepted…and then the next day he got his heart literally blown out of him by an ISIS sniper.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“So am I. But I’m still here, no matter how much blood I have on my hands. And you’re probably in a better place.”

Sunset gave her a smile. “Maybe, maybe not. But that doesn’t have to be that way – for you, that is. We can save the world, AJ. We did it before, we can do it again. The key is my old journal in Canterlot. It’s the first step in bringing us all back together again.”

“Yeah, as if that book is still intact. You do know that most of that area is an Octo stronghold? Everything from Minneapolis to Hamilton to Buffalo is under Octo control. Assuming that your book isn’t buried under that weird organic coral and crystal they use to build their structures, what makes you think that it’s still intact?”

“Because I know it is. I can’t tell you how I know, but I know it is. Just like I knew you still feel guilty about what you did to me.”

“I loved you like a sister, you know that? When we found out where you lived, I had you come live with us, because we had the room. And when I thought that you were Anon-a-Miss, I kicked you out despite Granny’s yelling at me. And to find out I kicked the wrong sister out of the house? And nothing I could do would bring you back?” Applejack looked at Sunset again, and while she wasn’t crying her face was one of eternal sorrow.

“Forgive yourself, AJ. Forgive yourself and join the fight.”

“Fighting is what I do best, Sunset. Forgiving myself? Not so much.”

Sunset went over and hugged her old friend. “Then forgive yourself for my sake. Find us all. Start with the book, and go from there.” Sunset reached over and kissed her friend on the forehead. “The journey of a thousand miles always starts with the first step.”


Applejack woke up with a start, realizing a second later that it had been turbulence that had brought her back, not anything else.

Calling back from the cockpit, the pilot said, “We’re on last approach to the Rock, Commander. If you have anything against turbulence, you may wish to strap yourself in.”

“Thanks, Letenant,” Applejack replied, using the RN’s pronunciation of lieutenant for the sake of the pilot. “How long do I have before my ride to Rota gets here?”

“Control says they landed an hour ago and are just waiting on you, ma’am,” he informed her.

“Thanks.” She reached for the strap and began to buckle herself in. Whether that dream – or her mysterious savior – was really Sunset or not, it didn’t matter for the moment. Applejack had a mission she had to accomplish and that meant going to the Mountain…and the fact that she actually had to go there filled her with a mix of anxiety, pride and dread.

Whatever was going on, it was well above her paygrade.

Maybe that’s why the admiral promoted her, she mused.

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