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Act II - 10 - Convergence

Act II:
“The Journey Begins”

Chapter Ten:
“Convergence”

“Ms. Applejack Apple,” the grumpy looking white unicorn said, pushing his reading glasses up the bridge of his nose slightly as he spoke. “This is going to be a rather simple question and answer test. The questions I’m about to ask you are to see if you have the right kind of thinking skills to be the leader of a group of soldiers. Understand?”

Applejack nodded slightly, giving the unicorn a smile and a salute. “Yes, sir, I understand.”

The unicorn smiled a smile that could best be described as half-hearted, as he seemed to be in a perpetual status of grumpiness. He shifted his weight, scooting his braced leg to the right a little and wincing as he did so.

“Don’t expect your eagerness to aid you in any manner during this test, Ms. Apple. I for one, do not expect much success from you, but that’s not my decision in the end,” he said, lighting a cigarette and taking several draws from it. “Now, onward with the questions.”

He opened the notebook and looked down at the page.

“Question One: You and your unit find an enemy soldier who is alone, and seemingly critically injured. What do you do?” he asked, looking up from the sheet of paper and directly at Applejack with critical eyes.

Applejack furrowed her brow slightly, honestly having not expected such a morally ambiguous question so soon.

One part of her was quick to remember that the soldier, while injured, was an enemy soldier, that, if the situation were reversed, would most likely kill her and move on without a second thought. But another part of her still felt sorry for the soldier. He was most likely abandoned by his own unit, and left to fend for himself, alone in an environment that was far from pretty. To just leave him behind, left to die on the side of the road, made Applejack feel terrible. Of course, she couldn’t just let him escape either; he might somehow get back to his unit or his superiors, and tell them all about Applejack’s unit and their position.

She took a breath, hoof on her chin, and nibbled her lip slightly before finally answering, “I feel that tha best decision would be ta take him wit’ us, an’ patch him up. Then, drop him off at tha nearest friendly base an’ then move on. That way he’s not left ta die like an animal, but he can’t tell on us either.”

“And what if he meant to be caught? What if he has armed himself with an explosive device so he can blow himself up along with your unit?” Dr. Belle countered with a cocked eyebrow.

Applejack could have sworn that his tone had become ever so snide with the additional question. His question also brought Applejack to bite her lip and squirm in her seat with a mind at a complete loss for the appropriate answer. Her ears drooped when the grouchy unicorn snorted in disgust, and rather than making any noise of disappointment, she decided it was best to swallow the rock-like lump in her throat instead.

“Of course you have no answer,” he scoffed sharply as he jotted down Applejack’s answer.

Applejack felt the urge to give him a good slap across the face, if only to wipe that arrogant smirk off of his muzzle, but that would just get Applejack into trouble for no good reason.

Just focus on tha test, AJ. Not yer fault he's a total son of a bitch.

"Is something wrong, Ms. Apple?" came Dr. Belle's voice, the tone just as sneering as before, snapping Applejack out of her grumbling thoughts.

Applejack subconsciously flexed her hooves in frustration, noticing that she must have been mumbling under her breath.

“No sir,” Applejack replied flatly, shifting in her seat slightly. "Ain't nuthin' wrong."

Dr. Belle eyed her skeptically as he turned the page. “Question Two," he began, peering down at the page. "You and your unit have been ambushed, and several of your troops have been wounded. Your attackers have retreated, but have left an easily followable trail. What do you do?”

He looked back at Applejack from the paper, the same arrogant look on his face.

Applejack set her jaw, not about to let this arrogant unicorn belittle her sense of right and wrong. “Take care of tha wounded. I ain’t ‘bout ta abandon my troops ta follow somethin’ that just might be a trap. I’d rather make sure I can save as many troops as I can, than abandon them when they need me most.”

Dr. Belle arched his eyebrow slightly, and leaned back in his chair. “And what if they took one of your soldiers captive?” A slight smirk appeared on his face. “Would you pursue them, then?”

Applejack furrowed her brows. “Of course I’d go after them. I’d use whatever troops I could spare ta get ‘em back.”

“So, you are telling me that if you had a group of fifteen soldiers under your command, and you got ambushed with half wounded and one taken, you would abandon your wounded and send the seven plus you to get that one person back?” Dr. Belle pressed, motioning with his pen.

Applejack’s eyes narrowed. She was really starting to loathe this stallion and his morbid, cynical and mean spirited questions. “I ain’t gonna leave the wounded undefended. I’d leave a few ta guard the injured while me and tha others went ta save the captured.”

Dr. Belle nodded, his expression still unimpressed. “I see. Putting the need of one over the need of many. Even if the path could lead to your death, and the death of all those you are so willing to throw away.”

“A person is a person. Not a number, Doctor,” Applejack countered sharply, putting special emphasis on the last word. “An' I’m pretty damn sure ya’d like an army ta come and save yer sorry flank if HYDRA got ahold of ya.”

“Yes, but I’m a valuable resource,” Dr. Belle smiled arrogantly with his hyper-critical expression, but a small twitch under his eye betrayed his thoughts. Applejack, in the meantime, simply slid back in her seat, crossing her arms over her chest and narrowing her eyes, watching as he uncapped his pen. “And my inventions have saved lives dozens of times over. A single pony cannot accomplish that.”

"An' just so ya know, iffin I had ta, I'd just go after tha bastards mahself, so that way tha rest of mah unit ain't in any unnecessary danger. Might want to write that little bitty bit of info down wit' yer fancy pen, there."

Dr. Belle simply inhaled deeply, cigarette in mouth, letting the smoke out forcefully through his nostrils like a dragon, his eyes narrowing to mirror Applejack’s. He then flipped the page unceremoniously, keeping his gaze focused on Applejack.

“Question Three: You have broken an enemy code and are now faced with a choice. Act on the information you have and use it save a town of innocents that holds little to no tactical importance. Doing so, however, will alert the enemy to the fact that you've broken their code. Or, do you do nothing, let the town be captured, and instead try to gain as much intel as you can before they notice the code is broken?”

Dr. Belle finished by resting his hooves on the table top and leaning back in his chair.

Applejack simply blinked, shifting herself in the seat slightly. "I'd save tha town. They got nopony else ta protect 'em, an' they'd most likely get killed iffin tha enemy took over. It'd be like leavin' a kid alone in tha woods, surrounded by timberwolves. An' that ain't right."

Dr. Belle tilted his head slightly. "Even though by sacrificing the town, you could save countless more lives? Are the couple hundred in that village really that important?"

The smirk was still there, Dr. Belle seemingly taking pleasure out of trapping her in a moral corner. Applejack clenched her fists. She'd had enough of this unicorn's arrogance.

"Okay, Doc, I'm gonna be honest with ya. Yer really starting to piss me off," she snarled as she sat up right and aimed her hoof at his chest. "I don't know what self-centered part of Hell ya crawled out of, but here, where ponies live, we don't see 'em as numbers. Iffin ya can go an' abandon a town in need because ya'd rather wait around twiddin' yer thumbs ta see what goodies ya can find, then yer no better than tha dirty cowards that are doin' tha invadin'."

Dr. Belle silently stared at Applejack, eyes narrowed and jaw tight while his pen remained stagnant on the paper. Applejack met the Doctor's harsh gaze with one of her own. Dr. Belle then slowly exhaled, the smoke from the cigarette coming out like a dragon's breath.

"The part of Hell you believe I came from, Ms. Apple, is better known as Canterlot. And really, its not so much Hell as a place filled with myopic, servile ponies who constantly spout greeting card sentiments in an attempt to assuage the world's woes. I, on the other hooves, prefer to see the world how it is: cold and calculating, where logic controls our motions, and triumphs over your misplaced, self righteous and short-sighted excuse for morals. And, aside from that, while you seem to believe in saving a person, and not numbers, I feel I should remind you that numbers are, in fact, made of many people," he then sighed. "It's with that knowledge that I decide to live my life. If that's too much of an issue for you, you can kindly leave. The test is over, and you're excused."

With those words said, Dr. Belle looked down at the paper and jotted something down with hard strokes. Applejack, on the other hand, resisted the urge to go flying across the table and punch him, and instead, stood up and walked out without a word.

/////////////////////////////

Apple Bloom walked along, enjoying the morning air. Since she’d spent her entire life on the farm, getting up early was just a normal part of everyday life for her. However, this morning was different, since, not only was it an especially crisp morning, it was also the beginning of the rest of her life. She finally had gotten her cutie mark, and it made her feel as if everything that was going to happen in the future would be better and better than anything that had happened before.

As she walked along, she passed a clutch of recruits talking amongst themselves in grumpy tones, and one stallion’s words in particular caught Apple Bloom’s ear.

“I can’t believe that stupid digger got the flag…” one said, receiving voices of agreement from the others.

Apple Bloom halted mid stride and perked up her ears. Were they talking about what she thought they were talking about?

“Yeah, and did you see how skinny she was? What’s she even doing here? She should go back to whatever backwater farm she came from,” said the other stallion, earning him a series of approving murmurs.

Apple Bloom began to feel her blood boil. No one could say that about her sister! Her sister was just doing what she could to help the family. Apple Bloom found herself spinning on her heels, stomping in the direction of the voices.

“Hey you big jerks!” she called out, catching the attention of the group, which consisted of four well built stallions. The one who said Applejack should go back to her ‘backwater farm’ turned and raised an eyebrow critically. Apple Bloom noticed he had a somewhat bruised eye.

“Who the fuck are you?” sneered the bruised stallion.

Apple Bloom puffed her chest out slightly in confidence. “I’m Apple Bloom Apple an’ nopony talks ‘bout mah sistah like that! Just ‘cause she got a silly flag before ya don’t mean she’s stupid. You’re all just sore losers! Iffin’ ya weren’t such big mean bullies, ya’d maybe be happy fer her.”

The group of stallions burst into laughter and the one with the black eye, who just so happened to be the largest of the bunch, stalked over to her, growling and cracking his knuckles. The closer he got, the more massive his size appeared and Apple Bloom felt a very uneasy lump go up in her throat as her eyes trailed up his obnoxious build. She could see his muscles past his fatigues and while she was worrying that she might have landed herself in a huge mess, she convinced herself to stay put. Applejack had helped her and defended her her whole life, and she could at least stand up to these bullies smearing her sister’s name and the dignity of the Apple Family in the mud.

The stallion with the black eye was now towering over her, using his build to intimidate Apple Bloom, but not enough to have her run off screaming. Barely.

“What are you going to do about it? You’re just a filly,” he said, emphasizing his words by giving her a sharp prod, sending her rather lanky frame stumbling back a little and a burst of pain in her shoulder.

“You tell her, Ballpark!” said the one closest to the leader.

The group howled with laughter again while the big guy smiled viciously at Apple Bloom as she rubbed the sore spot, glaring back at the stallion. Her glare looked more like a pout though, and only served to add fuel to the group’s teasing.

“HA! Being a skinny wuss must run in the family! One little poke and I nearly knocked her over!” Ballpark cackled, and Apple Bloom’s glare intensified with tears in her eyes. The stallions continued laughing.

“Daw, look, the little baby’s mad!” one pointed towards Apple Bloom, before leaning down in a condescending manner. “Aw, little baby feeling mad? Maybe she wants a bottle? Or maybe a diaper change?”

“I ain’t a baby!” Apple Bloom countered, taking a step forward and clenching her fist and teeth. The stallions merely responded with an over the top hoot that made Apple Bloom quiver with the rage replacing her fear.

“You stupid little filly. You ain’t got no business here!” said the stallion harshly. “You’re just a little upstart who happens to know how to put a fancy gun together. So take you and your filthy digger sister and go back to your whoring mommy on that muddy shithole where you belong!”

Right about here, something inside Apple Bloom snapped and her eyes narrowed and before she could process what was happening, her right hoof lashed out on its own and grabbed the stallion’s wrist. He barely got a word out before she used his larger body as leverage to spin around, twist his arm behind his back and use her own body weight to push against the now unstable stallion, sending his face smashing against the pavement with a loud thud and a painful grunt.

The rest of the group swore and took a couple of steps back while Apple Bloom growled through her clenched teeth and twisted his arm until it was awkwardly pinned behind his back. He tried to buck her off, but she only tightened her grip and bent the arm at a bigger angle, causing some cracks and pops to sound out.

“Ya’ll take back what ya said ‘bout my sista and ma!” barked Apple Bloom with angry tears clouding her vision and rage fueling her strength. When he refused with silence, she gave his wrist a sharp twist that made him yowl in pain and release a string of harsh expletives. “TAKE IT BACK!”

"No!" he snarled, his red, puffy eyes snapped up to his friends and blood dripped from his muzzle as he screamed at his friends. "Get this stupid little bitch OFF OF ME!"

At first his friends were simply too stunned to move, but seconds later, one took a few very large steps towards Apple Bloom and grabbed her shoulder. Apple Bloom’s reaction was quick and a blur to everyone as her hoof released to twist the assailant’s wrist. There was a loud snap and the stallion bowled over, howling in pain and clutching his now limp hoof tightly.

Ballpark tried to get up when Apple Bloom broke his friend’s wrist, but as quickly as her hoof left, it was back on him, this time on the back of his neck while the other returns his arm to its painful position. Apple Bloom felt him tense up, but she did not relent and tightened her grip on the back of his neck and twisted his arm again, creating more sickening snaps and a cry of pain from Ballpark.

"I want ya ta take back what ya said, ya big jerk!" Apple Bloom repeated. She heard a scuffling sound and whipped her head around to see the remaining stallions turning tail and running as fast as their legs could carry them.

The struggling stallion beneath her however, beckoned for her attention and she once more put pressure on his wrist.

"That didn't sound like an apology ta me," snarled Apple Bloom, adding more pressure and making Ballpark swear up a storm before glaring out her out of the corner of his eye, sniffing blood back up his nose.

“I’m not going to apologize to any digger! EVER!” he shouted.

"What the fuck is going on here?!" came a rather gruff, but very authoritative female voice.

Apple Bloom reflexively released Ballpark’s wrist and spun off him to a full stand, leaving his arm to flop on the ground and him to moan more colorful words as he massaged his injury. Apple Bloom’s anger quickly dissipated and fear returned when she saw a female griffin in a Drill Sergeant’s uniform staring at them, eyebrow arched and arms crossed. Even though she was rather short for a griffin, she still was big compared to most ponies and her talons looked like they could slice a limb clean off if she wished it.

"Answer my question soldier!" the griffin ordered, her eyes darting down to the stallion. "Why are you pinned to the ground by a teenager?"

"She attacked me and my friends, Sarge!" the stallion groaned.

The Sergeant scanned the area in a mockery of his claim and looked down on Ballpark again, frowning. “What friends? I just see you alone getting your ass handed to you by a digger.”

Apple Bloom’s eye twitched, but she remained still as the griffin approached, and the filly didn’t know if she was still on an adrenaline high because everything seemed amplified. She heard the gravel crunching under the boots, the extra heartbeats and the steady breaths of the newcomer and the irregular ones of the fallen stallion.

When the griffin kneeled next to Ballpark, she whipped off her sunglasses and put them in her breast pocket. “So, so sad. Poor little Ballpark, in only three days, gets his ass handed to him by a buch of girls. I wonder if I should tell everyone about this. Or maybe I should just send you home because here, I do not like sore losers or little shits who think they are better than someone else. Especially when a piece of shit has a god complex but can’t even fight a filly!”

The Sergeant slapped him over the head with a sharp flick of her wrist, and while the stallion yelped, she yanked him to his hooves using his collar and shoved him away from Apple Bloom.

“Get out of here and get yourself cleaned up, you fucking loser!” barked Gilda.

Ballpark started running, and he looked over his shoulder and his eyes bulged and he tried running faster when the griffin gave chase. However, he was too slow and got a swift kick in the butt that sent him crashing into the outlying grass.

“Run faster!” hollered the griffin.

“Yes, ma’am!” cried Ballpark.

Apple Bloom swore she heard his voice crack, and a small smile stretched across her muzzle as she watched the bully run with his tail literally between his legs. With her body now relaxing, everything returned to normal and she didn’t process as much as before. She relaxed slightly, letting her shoulders rest. The Sergeant turned around, a slight smile on her face.

“So… you managed to pin that guy all by yourself?” she asked, and Apple Bloom nodded slightly.

“Uh, yes, yes ma’am. Am I in trouble?” she asked tentatively, her hooves idly fidgeting. The Sergeant put a talon to her chin, tapping it slightly.

“Well, you did kick the ass of a uniformed soldier…”

Apple Bloom swallowed dryly, preparing herself for some sort of harsh punishment. However the griffin’s expression lightened somewhat, and her smile grew noticeable.

“But I’ve been trying to get that idiot off his high horse for three days now, so really, I think what you did wasn’t bad,” the griffin strode over, putting a talon on Apple Bloom’s shoulder. “Not bad at all. What’s your name kid?”

Apple Bloom stammered briefly. “Uh, I’m-I’m Apple Bloom Apple, ma’-”

“Sir,” she interrupted. “I’m not old enough to be a ma’am and I’m still wearing my bars. Call me sir, or sergeant Gilda.” She gave Apple Bloom a slight tap on the shoulder. “An Apple? You look familiar, too. You related to the stick figure?”

Apple Bloom nodded slightly, her confidence returning slightly as things seemed to warm slightly. “Uh, yes ma’am. She’s mah older sistah.”

“We might get along after all,” Gilda paused, moving to tap her chin again. “Your sister’s got balls, kid.”

“She’s a mare…”

“Balls,” Gilda joked with a smile, evidently having a good day. She reached into her breast pocket and pulled out a cigar, setting it alight. “Well, thanks for the laugh kid, but I gotta get back on the grind. These dweebs aren’t gonna train themselves.”

Gilda turned and started back the way she came, idly whistling a random tune. As Apple Bloom watched, she noticed a pair of young colts standing aways back, looking very apprehensive as Gilda headed in their general direction.

“How old are they?” Apple Bloom blurted out, waving towards Gilda.

Gilda paused and looked over her shoulder, eyebrow raised. “Who?”

Apple Bloom pointed towards the two colts. “Them, ma’am.”

Gilda glanced in the direction Apple Bloom was pointing. “Eighteen.”

Apple Bloom’s eyes widened. “What? They look youn’gr than me!”

Gilda cocked an eyebrow. “Oh they’re eighteen you can be pretty damn sure of that. I don’t tolerate any child soldiers here.” There was something strange about the way Gilda said the last sentence, as if she were recalling it with a bitter taste. “Don’t get any ideas, girlie.” Gilda added with a humorous wink, seemingly brushing off her previously serious demeanor.

At that, Gilda turned and strode over towards the two colts, who seemed to shrink with every step closer. When she finally reached them, Apple Bloom heard her squawk harshly, “Now that that’s cleared up, DROP AND GIVE ME FIFTY SOLDIERS!”

Apple Bloom watched without saying a word as the two colt dropped to the ground as if they were made of lead and started straining to obey Gilda’s barked orders. For earth ponies, they seemed awfully scrawny.

I could go faster than that, she thought bemusedly. She watched for a few more minutes before things became too embarrassing to withstand. She quietly turned and walking away, the sound of Gilda’s constant sarcastic criticisms towards the two colts filling her ears as she walked away.

Wonder how they got here… she thought, pensively looking around. A part of her felt strangely out of place here, among the recruits and soldiers, all either marching about or doing some other sort of training exercise. It felt like some strange counterpoint to the playground at school. Colts and stallions climbed over various obstacles and obstructions, which all looked like playground equipment anyways. Maybe it was because almost all of the recruits were seemingly only a few years older than her. Ponies who most likely only just left high school, their futures now tied with the actions of a faceless menace miles and miles away.

Slowly but surely, Apple Bloom felt something like guilt curling in the pit of her stomach. She’d seen the newsreels. Read the newspapers. She wasn’t as naive as Applejack always seemed to think she was. They’re gonna go ta war. she thought darkly. An’ I’m just gonna be send back home...back to where I’ll be put down just like any other earth pony…treated like I’m dirt.

She rubbed her thigh, tracing along the edge of where her cutie mark was. Maybe she didn’t have to be treated like that. She had a gift right? A thing that made her unique from everypony else. But what was her gift? The Professor had told her that hammers could build and guns could hunt. But what was she going to build? What was she going to hunt? She knew full well that at her age, and in a town where earth pony mechanics were a time a dozen, she’d be likely treated like a little foal, someone out of their depth and worthy only of belittlement. Especially at the hooves of that stuck up horn-headed Mrs. Belle. So that left only hunting. But what was there to hunt? Ponies were mostly plant eaters anyways. Stuff like grass and wheat. Not like you could hunt wheat right?

She let out a groan. She had finally attained her dream, finally gotten the one thing she’d hoped for more than anything, and she was still as useless as ever. She angrily kicked a stone, sending it tumbling away. She looked around, wondering where she was standing now. She’d walked quite aways, her mind too wrapped up in her existential crisis to notice where she was going. She spotted a sign indicating that the building in front of her was the registration office.

But in the army…

Apple Bloom eyes widened slightly. Where was the place where she had finally had a sense of fitting in? The place where ponies had actually respected and appreciated her talents? It was here, among the guns and rifles and uniforms. She’d felt like she’d actually moved forward in her life here, that she’d truly accomplished something. She’d made a difference. Done something good.

She felt her heart hammering in her chest. She knew if she went home, whenever she went to the movies, whenever she saw one of the dozens of posters pinned about town, she was would always be reminded of the stuff going on at the borders of the country. Things Applejack would be working to solve and all these other foals too. It felt so powerfully wrong to stay at home while everyone else she knew was going out there, fighting and dying so that she could stay at home safe and sound. And stagnant. And Apple Bloom didn’t want to be stagnant anymore.

Back at home all they’ll ever let me be is exactly what my sisters and my parents and their parents were. Nothing will change for me ever. I’ll wake up every day and paw at the same dirt my granddaddy did. But if I do this, it’ll be like the stories in the drugstore, I’ll make my fortune just like the heroes did.

Apple Bloom looked up, steeling herself and walking up the wooden stars up to the door. The words “Register” were directly in front of her in bold, almost challenging lettering.

Applejack will kill me. she briefly thought, biting a corner of her lip slightly. But she made a sacrifice without asking me or Purity. Because she knew it was for the best. This will be for the best.

The door unexpectedly swung open, almost hitting Apple Bloom in the nose, and a young mare with a pale blue coat and glasses stood the doorway. “Do you need something, Ms. Apple?” she asked in a clipped voice, eyeing Apple Bloom suspiciously.

Apple Bloom blinked. “H-how diya know my name?” She blurted out, taking a step back and self consciously grabbing her tail. The blue mare let out a slight sniff, pushing her glasses up her nose.

“You’re the one who assembled those rifles, everypony knows who you are, Ms. Apple.”

Apple Bloom’s eyes widened slightly, and she took a step back. News traveled that fast? A sudden feeling of self awareness swept over Apple Bloom, and she felt as if she had been shaken out of a haze. What I do now?

“So, do you need anything Ms. Apple?” the mare asked again, her voice now with an annoyed inflection as she pushed her glasses up her nose again, narrowing her eyes as she did so.

“N-no, ma’am, nothin’. Thank yer,” Apple Bloom mumbled before quickly turning away and walking away as fast as she could. She wondered if the mare could guess what she was about to do. Casting one last glance over her shoulder, she rounded the corner, letting out a forceful sigh and running her hoof through her mane.

Crazy talk, yer thinkin crazy talk Apple Bloom! Singin’ up ta go get shot in some trench! Think of how worried Applejack and Purity would be ifin you did something so crazy…

She glanced at a group of colt milling about a tent, laughing about something she had just missed. They all looked so young…

I’ll bet their families are worried too. And they didn’t even have a choice to come here or not…

Apple Bloom shook her head but couldn’t shake off the guilt now festering in her belly.

/////////////////////////////

"Oh Celestia look at this mess," General Wing grumbled, motioning towards the line of recruits jumping jacks. Next to him stood the Professor and Night Light, who both were squinting slightly in the mid-afternoon sunlight.

"I see nothing particularly worrying." Professor Schultz stated simply, glancing towards the General who merely glared at him.

"Feather Face, I don't know what kind of happy pills you're on, but what I see is a line of barely trained recruits who're being trained by a beak faced girl who eats cigars like celery. I mean, just look at that mare." He motioned towards the wire thin frame of Applejack. "She's making me cry."

Night Light shrugged slightly. "Well, I'm not exactly wildly impressed with Miss Apple, but I don't see anything partially awful about her. She's a nice mare."

“Oh, well then I guess we can just invite the griffons over for coffee and cake, and she’ll be our hostess and convince them not to invade Equestria. There, war’s over,” General Wing rolled his eyes before turning his attention to a different recruit.

"Now, look at that guy, Ballpark. He's big, strong, follows orders. Sure he's a bit of a prick, but it doesn't get in the way of his following the rules. He's what we need, not some mare who makes scarecrows look like sumo wrestlers. Ain't that right Drill Sergeant?" he called out towards the griffin, who had been chanting out the number of jumping jacks rhythmically the entire time. She turned her head towards the trio, quirking an eyebrow slightly.

"What's that sir?" she called back, causing the general to beckon towards her. She walked over, muttering something unintelligible under her breath as she did so. She took her sunglasses off, and chucked her withered cigar to the side. "Whadda need?"

"Am I right, Sargent Martel, that you feel Ballpark would be the best choice for our needs?" General Wing said, an aura of pride sneaking into his voice. Gilda surprisingly shook her head.

"I'm sorry to say no to that, General. Of all of them, I'd vote Applejack. Mare's got spunk. Hutzpah."

"What do you mean 'hutzpah'?" General Wing inquired, giving Professor Schultz a quick glance as he did so. Sargent Martel simply shrugged.

"Like I said, spirit. A little daring do," as she spoke, she beckoned for a soldier to come over, silently grabbing a grenade from his belt. "Just watch." She spun around, tossing the unarmed explosive into the midst of recruits. There was a chorus of panicked yelps and girlish screams as every recruit turned tail and ran, except for the wire thin orange mare, who instead shouted at the top of her lungs as she dove for the weapon.

"GRENADE! TAKE COVER!" she curled herself in a fetal position around the grenade, as a bemused General looked on, his flat expression contrasting with the look of mild fear on Night Light's face, the pride on Schultz's and the smugness on Martel's.

"Okay, soldier. Just a dry run. You can relax now." Sargent Martel called out, striding over and nudging the still tensed Applejack off the grenade to pick it up. She leaned down to help the visibly confused mare up, before barking an order towards her to get back to her jumping jacks.

General Wing merely glared at the Professor, who simply grinned wildly.

"She's still skinny," General Wing countered half heartedly before walking away, his wings flexing in frustration.

/////////////////////////////

Brawny Gunner shifted slightly on his hooves. It was his turn on sentry duty, and that meant standing up on a high, open air tower, peering out into the darkness of the cold night. Gunner wasn’t exactly fond of the night, or the dark in general. He was always quick to remind ponies that he wasn’t afraid of the dark per say, but as a sharpshooter, he felt very uneasy being unable to see.

It didn’t help that their position, just a couple dozen miles south of Stalliongrad, meant the fort was surrounded by a mass of thick and sprawling forest, where strange sounds ebbed and flowed from the darkness, such as the random yowls of some kind of cat or some other creature.

Suffice to say he didn’t enjoy it in the slightest. It didn’t help at all that his only companion was Shale. Shale, much like his namesake, was a dense fellow, always shooting his mouth off, and possessing a temper that could best be described as a sleeping volcano.

As such, Gunner made a point of avoiding his watchmate, but strangely, tonight, Shale had taken it upon himself to apparently undergo a vow of silence, having barely spoken a word. As a consequence, Gunner went out of his way to have as little contact with the stallion as possible.

On Shale’s side of the watchtower, he was simply enjoying the silence of the night. It had been a long day, and at least this job meant getting something resembling rest. Of course, being so close to such a massively important tactical location as the steel mill filled Stalliongrad meant that ‘rest’ was a relative term, something strange and foreign that was only briefly acquired between shots of coffee and the odd cigarette.

“Ah don’t hear nothin’,” Gunner called out, his southern drawl dragging out across the silence.

Shale sighed. “Yeah, I noticed that. I kinda liked it.”

“Ah, but somthin’s wrong,” Gunner persisted, his tone growing suspicious. “At night, ya always hear sumthin’ out there. Bugs flyin’, ‘possums out forgin’... maybe the odd coon out frickafrackin’. But tonight?” he paused, letting the silence speak for itself. “Ain’t nuthin but us. Were all ‘dem varmints at, tonight?”

Shale shrugged, trying to ignore the increase in paranoia that Gunner’s observations brought. “So? Maybe they’re all asleep. What? You scared of the dark or something?”

All he got was a muffled swear from Gunner.

“Oh come on,” Shale grumbled, stomping a hoof. “It’s not like some weird monster is creeping around, watching us and waiting to eat us. What do you think is going to happen? Some freak gonna jump out an--”

Shale didn’t even get to finish his sentence, when, as if supernaturally summoned, came the bedraggled and scarred figure of what looked somewhat like a young stallion. Both Shale and Gunner instantly drew their rifles, aiming at the figure, who instantly cried out, waving his hooves in front of it.

“Wait! Please don’t shoot!” he cried, his voice sounding cracked and fragile.

“Who goes there?” Gunner called out, the sound of his rifle cocking emphasizing his words. “Identify yerself or we’ll hafta shoot ya.”

“Spear!’ the soldier got out. “M-my name is Private Gilded Spear!” The stallion staggered forwards, before falling down. He was breathing so hard he could barely speak. “I-is this… an… Equestria… base?”

Looking closer, Shale could see that that there light scars all over his body, most likely from thorns and other plants. He was malnourished, and could barely talk. His eyes were wide open, and kept moving, constantly looking for danger. Most of his right ear was missing, and the wound looked like it was infected. Shale shouldered his weapon and moved forwards to help, motioning for Gunner to cover him. “Yes. This is an Equestrian Base. I’m Private Shale Kraft. What happened?”

The soldier wheezed, “I… came… from… Stalliongrad.”

Gunner and Shale exchanged glances. Stalliongrad was at least five miles to the north, quite a distance to move on foot through wild forest.

Not good. Shale thought, looking over the soldiers wounds and obvious exhaustion. “Why are you here?”

Gilded Spear was starting to catch his breath. He looked around suspiciously, like there might be something in the shadows that would jump out at him. “I have… a message. The city… has fallen.”

Shale and Gunner did a double take. “Fallen? How?” Shale demanded. “How many soldiers are there? How far away are they?”

Gilded Spear simply shook his head, holding up a single hoof. “Not an army. One.”

Shale looked on in horror. “Are you saying,” he said slowly, “That one pony came in and took an entire city by himself?”

Gilded Spear shook his head. “Not a pony… a griffin. Couldn't hurt ‘im. Bullets just bounced off.” He jumped at a loud noise from inside the barracks. Clearly, some of the other soldiers had heard. Gilded Spear scuttled back away from the gate. “I have a message,” he said again. “HYDRA is coming. Equestria… is at its end.”

He fainted.

So did Gunner.

/////////////////////////////////

“So what you’re telling me is that one griffin managed to take the most strategically vital fort this side of the White Tail River, and I wasn’t told?!” General Wing barked into the phone, pausing to hear whatever it was the pony on the other end was saying. “Well, it would have been nice to wire me directly…” he paused, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “What about Project Rebirth?” Another pause, and his expression grew inscrutable before growing frustrated. “Well sir, again, I would have been greatly blessed by this information yesterday rather than today. Yes. Yes I’ll ask. We’ll get it ready on time. Goodbye.” He then hung up the phone, grumply leaning back in his chair. In front of him sat Professor Schultz, Dr. Belle and Night Light, all of whom wore varying degrees of curiosity.

“Well, what’s the news?” Night Light asked, leaning forwards in his chair slightly. General Wing sighed, taking off his hat and lighting up his cigar.

“Apparently, as you heard, a griffin managed to take the fort in Stalliongrad. Apparently by himself. On top of that, HYDRA forces moved in the next day, and the town fell. which means we’ve just lost the main steel producing city in Equestria,” he puffed, taking a moment as his expression grew more sour. “In civilian terms, that means we’re very much screwed. On top of that, it seems that the suits up in Canterlot have grown impatient, and, in light of the loss of Stalliongrad, wish that whomever we chose for Project Rebirth is ready for the treatment. If not, they’ll cut the funding entirely and mothball the program. Apparently, and I’m quoting here, they wish to have ‘full taxpayer confidence in the operation’.”

“So what does this mean for us? That we have to choose the first test subject? Because I don’t think we really have chosen yet,” Night Light said, turning towards Professor Schultz. “Have we Schultz?”

“I have already expressed my decision, friends. I believe Miss Apple is the most suitable candidate. Her heart is true, her spirit pure. Simple as that.”

The General didn’t say anything, his eyes simply sliding towards Night Light. “What about you? Please tell me you’re not going to give me something so trite.”

Before Night Light could answer, Schultz held up a talon.

“How is what I said trite? Just because I believe we shouldn’t just thrust this amount of potential power into the lap of just anypony? I have already told you in the past, and I shall repeat it again: the serum’s task is to take what’s inside a pony, and enhance it. What’s bad becomes evil and what’s good becomes great. If we were to inject it into just anypony, we might cause a potential disaster. And if you feel my moral obligations are not sufficient to please you, my serum helps enhance mana. Miss Apple has low mana levels. Better to test it with small amounts then with larger amounts. Think of it like pouring vinegar into a bucket of baking soda.”

Everyone was silent for a moment, as a now visibly frustrated Schultz leaned back in his chair. Night Light wrung his hooves slightly before speaking.

“Well… basically, what Prof. Schultz said. I’d rather give it to a humble pony, and also, the serum’s effects are untested. And her mana levels are very low, which is good. That’s at least what we think.”

"And what about you, Dr. Belle, do you think she is suitable?" General Wing asked, looking towards Dr. Belle with lowered eyebrows.

Dr. Belle let out a grumbling sigh. "I am loath to admit it, but I agree with the Professor. The whole purpose of this program is create the 'perfect soldier'. And while I personally believe that Miss Apple is sickeningly optimistic about the nature of the world, I will admit that I'd rather have her injected then one those retarded ape-ponies outside."

"But why? Aren't you all about survival of the fittest?" Night Light asked, raising his eyebrows in surprise.

Dr. Belle nodded. "Yes. Yes I am. And in this case, it is better to simply sideline my beliefs for the good of the nation. We're in a war right now, and I'll be damned if I'm the one held responsible for stunting any military advantages we may gain..." he paused, glancing towards Professor Schultz with a critical eye. "No matter how insane they may seem on paper."

"What do you mean by that?" General Wing asked, raising an eyebrow.

Dr. Belle let out an exasperated sigh, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "Simply put, Ms. Apple's moral compass is something that the propaganda hounds up in Canterlot can use as a potent recruiting tool for the program. After all, this first test is more for the politicians than for us. They'll probably love how disgustingly homespun she is, and use it to our advantage. If the public likes Miss Apple, that will most assuredly vote for more funding for the program, and therefore assure more, better trained soldiers in the future. On top of that, she seems like the kind who would treat her soldiers well. Soldiers prefer a kind leader over a brutal one, and if Miss Apple is anything, it is kindhearted. And if her spirit is as strong as her words, then she will most certainly never leave a soldier behind. And troops admire that in a leader. That is why I support choosing her. Now if you'll excuse me, the wife has been writing me for my return, and I would sincerely wish to reacquaint myself with her charms. Farewell, gentlecolts."

And with that, Dr. Belle stood up and limped out of the general's office, leaving Night Light and Professor Schultz to trade glances.

"Did Dr. Belle just say what I thought he said?" Night Light asked.

Professor Schultz shrugged. "I suppose he did. But his reasons for choosing her are sound, despite his best efforts to make himself as distant as possible."

Night Light nodded. He turned and headed out the door. “I’m going to double check the equipment checklist again. We don’t want something to go wrong.”

Professor Schultz smiled. “Only twice? I thought you had gone over that thing more often than that by now.”

“I meant today of course,” Night Light answered, determinedly ignoring any implication of over preparation. “Goodnight, Professor.”

“Goodnight.”

The General meanwhile, simply sat in his chair, rubbing his temples slightly.

This was most likely going to go very badly for him.

Author's Note:

Well that took sixty years.

Again, damn writers block.

Also, I do apologize that this chapter didn't exactly move that far forward plot wise, but it's just as frustrating to me. Most likely, the next chapter is the last one of Act II, in order to keep each act around 10 chapters long. Helps with pacing.

Most likely, Act III will cover AJ's time as Captain Equestria, since really, I knew from the beginning that I'd have to only show the absolute highlights of her time as Cap. I know, it's really hella frustrating, but otherwise, this story would never really end. I will try to show things properly, and give everybody their dues, but, alas, not everything is perfect in life is it?

Oh well whadda gonna do.

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