“World war three, when are you coming for me?
Been kickin' up sparks, set the flames free
The windows are locked now, so what'll it be?
A house on fire, or rising sea?”
-Arcade Fire, “Windowsill”
On the cold, overcast afternoon, wind blew through the trees surrounding the outdoor stage, rustling leaves and whistling shrilly under Starlight Glimmer's stump speech. A cluster of ponies with gleaming eyes screamed encouragement back at her, to make up for the lack of enthusiasm from the rest of the crowd.
“Equestria's first settlers did not want to live in Unicornia under kings and queens, nor in the Pegaponnese under military dictators, nor in Hoof Herden under foolish ponies who lost sight of the needs of the common folk. Theirs was a land -- nay, vision -- of true equality, for you and me."
Applejack scoffed and rolled her eyes, but the hoofful of Clovenists at the base of the stage roared like a roost of dragons. They were all dressed identically, in neatly-pressed white button-up shirts with thin black ties and had slicked back hair. Prim and proper to a fault, every one of them.
From her vantage point atop her sister's back, Apple Bloom asked, “What does that mean?”
“Just some crackpot idea going around.”
“And yet,” Starlight said. She let the words linger. “Look what Celestia made of that promise. Her posse of ivory-tower unicorns weeded their way into every facet of our lives.” She gestured behind to Flim and Flam, standing behind her.
Applejack and Apple Bloom booed loudly. Other townsfolks joined them, though not as harshly as she liked.
“I'd like you to meet Flim and Flam,” Starlight said.
“We met!” Applejack shouted.
Effortlessly, Starlight ignored her. “When these two gentlecolts developed a process that radically increased cider output, did the princess of Equestria welcome their ingenuity? No, the political processes of Equestria bent over backwards to establish farming subsidies to accommodate failing farms.” With a careful smirk, she glanced at Applejack, who blushed and dug her hooves into the dirt. “How can our great nation ever have true equality if the ponies in charge play favorites? Does that seem fair to you?”
“The townsfolks ain't gonna agree with her, are they?” Apple Bloom asked her sister.
“Ah doubt it,” Applejack said glumly. “But they know Flim and Flam. But t'other towns Starlight will visit ain't had that pleasure, Ah reckon, and these elections are fer the whole nation.”
“Why's Celestia doin' this, AJ? Why can't she jes' keep bein' princess?”
“A'cause she said that, and Ah quote, all power comes from the ponies, and if'n they want an election she'd stand as a candidate or else it wouldn't be fair.”
“But she'll win, right? Ah mean, she's always been good ta everypony. And from what ya'll said about this here Starlight, she's a liar and a cheat.”
Applejack glanced at the band of ponies huddled at the stage. “That she is, Bloom. But she's got her little flock ta support her, and they're gettin' more wild every day. Not ta mention more plentiful. Nothin' we say's gonna make a difference ta them.”
As if on cue, Starlight called out, “Don't be fooled by biased parties so afraid of my message of equality they must spread lies. In the quaint little village I called home, my policies worked. I have the facts and figures to prove it. My equalized testing initiative achieved an unprecedented one hundred percent success rate in school test scores. Can you say the same for your town, where ivory-tower unicorns pigeonhole your foals through dishonest political manipulation and lies about cutie marks magically setting a pony's occupation in stone?” Warmly, she said, “Come on out here, Tiara.”
Apple Bloom hissed through her teeth as Diamond Tiara, who stood with her father next to Flim and Flam, moved to join Starlight. She walked with a precise awkwardness, calculated to win sympathy from the crowd. The Clovenists obnoxiously let loose with a chorus of 'Awws', making Apple Bloom growl louder.
“You already know this sweet little filly. But I've told Tiara the Editor's story from Baltimare to Tall Tail, and her plight struck a chord with folks just like you, chafing under the reins of Celestia's reign. I met Tiara through her father, Filthy Rich. We became fast friends in my tireless quest for equality for the hardworking folks of this nation. Tiara was once the editor for her school newspaper, and in short order she managed to make the circulation numbers skyrocket. She gave ponies news they wanted to hear.”
“She did not!” Apple Bloom shouted, but the Clovenists shouted her down.
“By all accounts, she was the best editor-in-chief the Foal Free press ever had. But did Celestia's posse reward this? No! A certain Miss Cheerilee, town employee and product of Celestia's cutie mark-driven spoils system, stripped her of her position and appointed a less qualified editor. The paper's circulation promptly dropped back to its pre-Tiara numbers. This is how skill is rewarded in Celestia's Equestria: with a kick to the door. Of course, that's how it must be; in a truly equal society, fillies like Tiara the Editor would be allowed to shine. But when you have a self-appointed 'sun goddess' shining so brightly in your eyes from atop her ivory tower, how could you ever make out anything else?”
The Clovenists thundered out a roar of approval and stamped their hooves on the ground riotously. They began to chant, “Starlight for princess”.
The mare in question smiled warmly at them from the podium. “I pledge,” she declared over the adoring cheers, “that if I am elected to the office of princess, I will dismantle this cult of corruption and usher in an era of true equality, where foals are judged on their merits on equal testing and enterprise is judged purely by its success. And I pledge that, with my partners standing equally at my side, we will usher in a new dawn for Equestria!”
The words hung in the air, and the crowd gradually dispersed. The princess chatted with her supporters while the townsfolk returned to their homes.
“I'm scared, Applejack,” Apple Bloom said as she clutched her big sister. “With Flim and Flam going into business with Filthy Rich, what if they try and take the farm again? What'll we do without it?”
“It'll never happen. Flim and Flam there have caused way too much trouble in Equestria to be taken seriously, and asides, ponies everywhere will see right through Starlight Glimmer. They're too smart to fall for it.”
“You really think so?”
“Ah don't think so,” Applejack said uncertainly, “Ah know so.”
The only sound in the cramped dining room was the slow, solemn tick of the clock hanging on the wall: a plain white circle with a solid black frame. It didn't need frills; all it needed was to do its job, to constantly move and yet, locked in its circular path, never go anywhere. No future, just more and more of the present. There was something mocking about the dull thump each time a leg moved. Another nail in the coffin lid, maybe.
Apple Bloom knew that was a very morbid thought, but she'd done a lot of growing up lately. She wasn't the little filly she used to be.
The urge to tear the clock off the wall was irresistible. She remembered the day they bought it. From Barnyard Bargains, of course.
There used to be a little clockmaker's, Canterlot Clock Creations, around the corner, but the craftspony had closed his doors for the last time. Dust built up in the empty display window, filling in the clean spots where standing clocks used to be. Apple Bloom imagined what the clocks had looked like by the shape of their legs, confident they had had more heart and soul than the solid rows of identical boxes with identical pictures of identical clocks lining the aisle of the nearest Barnyard Bargains. She wanted to smash those boxes, but they would surely get deducted from her sister's wages. If Applejack didn't make manager, their rent would most likely be behind for the third month running.
Apple Bloom sighed loudly at her unappetizing prepackaged tray of apple slices with hay fries. They were from Barnyard Bargains as well; Apple Bloom begged her family to shop at the little grocer's around the corner, but as always Applejack refused, on account of their higher prices. So the grocer's shop slowly went the way of Canterlot Clock Creations, while Barnyard Bargains crept like kudzu over the city.
During dinner, the four Apples avoided looking at each other or speaking; Big Mac had given them the idea, surely.
What was there to say? Not much good news anymore. Apple Bloom struggled to remember the warm, happy times back in Ponyville. Life had once been a garden, but now was only weeds. The sense of community from the joyful festival nights and idyllic days with her best friends were gone. Scootaloo's and Sweetie Belle's parents were chasing jobs, but the Apple family had settled, and it angered Apple Bloom to no end. Her sister worked her way into Barnyard Bargains' management. Her Granny had to stand at the doors of that awful place and welcome ponies inside, where it could suck the life out of them. Her brother toiled away on an F&F assembly line, too happy to suffer in silence.
The doorbell rang. All four Apples were forced to look at one another, silently begging each another to answer it instead.
“I'll get it,” Apple Bloom said to get away from that ticking clock.
She trudged down the hallway to the front door of their tiny little apartment and threw the door open. “Yes?”
At the door was a Clovenist, wearing the informal uniform of a well-pressed white shirt and tie with a slicked-back mane. “May I take a moment to tell you about the reasonable draughter who created ponykind and delivered unto them true and lasting equality?”
“No thanks,” Apple Bloom said with a sneer. “Ah hear enough about all that baloney in school.”
She slammed the door before letting him get a word in edgewise; there were a growing number of Clovenists at her school. She had long ago learned it was no use talking to them. They made a big deal about the power of reason, yet the only reasoning they cared to hear about was their own, and their line of reasoning lost Sweet Apple Acres, so Apple Bloom wanted no part of it.
“Who was that?” Applejack asked when Apple Bloom returned.
Apple Bloom reseated herself at the table. “Just another pony tryin' ta sell us somethin' we don't need.”
She stared down at her plate and half-heartedly got to work on her dinner, but when Applejack said, “So,” Bloom looked up from her plate, wondering what had spurred this break from the routine.
“How was school, Apple Bloom?”
“Terrible.” She missed the quaint little schoolhouse back in Ponyville, and how warm and funny and kind Miss Cheerilee was. How could they fire her? They said she was biased, but the Clovenist they had replaced her with had been every bit as biased as they claimed Cheerilee was, only the new teacher was biased against Celestia, so that somehow made her less biased. Or something.
“It's important ta do well in school,” Applejack said wanly.
“In Ponyville it used to be interesting. Now it's just equalized testing, every second of every day.”
A'course, she thought, a pony ain't got ta know much else ta work at Barnyard Bargains.
Applejack said, “Wouldn't be fair ta th' other foals who didn't have a knack fer the same sort a'stuff, now, would it?”
Aghast, Apple Bloom let her jaw drop open. “Ya'll may have ta follow that Clovenist garbage when yer tryin' ta get a promotion at the store, but don't ya dare say such a thing in our home!”
“Well, we may not like it, Apple Bloom, but we have ta live with it now.”
“Ah remember when ya had a spine, Applejack,” Apple Bloom said viciously. She felt a petty, cruel pleasure in the way her sister folded her ears against her skull. “Ya never wouldn't stood fer this when Twilight was still a princess.”
Broken and battered by the words, Applejack said plaintively, “It hasn't been easy fer us since Glimmer won the election--”
“SHE DIDN'T WIN!” Apple Bloom roared so loudly that Big Mac and Granny Smith flinched. “Celestia never should'a let Flim and Flam make them voting machines! They were rigged, Ah know it.”
“That ain't never been proven,” Applejack muttered.
“Even so, they were mighty confusing,” Big Mac added. “Had ta stare at it fer a full minute ta tell which button voted fer who. And Granny, why, she never did figure it out.”
Across the table, Granny blushed and muttered into her plate.
“Ya voted fer Starlight Glimmer?!” Apple Bloom shouted.
“Why, Ah didn't mean ta! But all them buttons were so confusin' ta look at! Ah tried ta vote fer the right pony, but mah eyes ain't what they used ta be, and all Ah can do now is kick mahself.”
“Ah'm sure Starlight Glimmer will be more'an happy ta do it fer ya,” Apple Bloom said coldly. “Even if ya did vote fer her.”
Applejack said, “That ain't fair ta yer Granny....”
“Don't ya dare act like ya got a spine now,” Apple Bloom spat. “Life ain't fair, if'n ya hadn't noticed. We used ta have a farm, and a happy home ta go with it. Now we ain't got a thing.”
“We've got each other,” Applejack said softly.
Apple Bloom gave her a sharp stare, then said, “Now Ah remember why we stopped talkin' ta each other at dinner.”
Once more, the four of them lapsed into silence and continued eating their meals, and for a minute it was fine, but then, for the second time in one night, Applejack broke the silence.
“The reason Ah asked....” She took a steadying breath. “The reason Ah asked, Apple Bloom, is....well....we're behind on the rent, and seeing how yer old enough ta work in Canterlot, and seeing how we got an opening fer a junior stockpony, Ah figured....”
“Nuh uh! No way! Ah am not workin' ta make Filthy Rich and Diamond Tiara richer. Not after everythin' they did ta us. No way, no how.”
Applejack sighed. “A.B., don't be like that. Rent's past due. We're gonna be evicted.”
“We moved here just fine after Flim and Flam fired ya from Sweet Apple Acres. We can manage it again.”
The doorbell rang again, and this time Apple Bloom nearly leapt off her chair ta answer it.
“They always ring right in the middle a'dinner,” Big Mac said to nopony in particular.
When she reached the front door, Apple Bloom threw it open. “Yes?”
A tall stallion with stubble around his chin grinned at her. “Ma'am, would you like to buy an F&F Fine Goods-brand vacuum? Our products get deep into the surface of your carpet to clean up dirt twenty percent harder than competing brands!”
Apple Bloom slammed the door in his face, then stormed back into the dining room, where silence greeted her. Silence, except the ticking clock, each tock like a dagger in Apple Bloom's eardrums. She slowly walked over, tore it down, and smashed it onto the edge of the dining table. Its inner mechanism broke apart and flew everywhere, but still Apple Bloom kept beating the ruined frame against the wood until it twisted apart and fell.
“Apple Bloom,” Applejack shouted, “jes' what do ya think yer doin'?!”
“Ah won't let this be mah life,” Apple Bloom said, rounding on her sister. “All this.” She gestured haphazardly around them, at the apartment and everything in it. “Not me, no way. Not this.”
“We ain't got a choice,” Applejack said, tears shining in her eyes. “We all got ta make do as best we can.”
“No,” Apple Bloom said fiercely. “Ah don't believe ya'll. There has got ta be somethin' that's got a shred of life left in it yet. Somethin' that means still somethin'. Ah ain't gonna settle fer Barnyard Bargains, not like ya'll did.”
“Well,” Applejack said sarcastically, “when ya find out what it is, make sure an' let us know, ya hear?”
“Ah'll be sure an' do that.” Apple Bloom stormed towards the door, in need of some crisp night air to clear her head. She blew through the doorway and, before the door shut behind her, called over her shoulder, “Soon as Ah find somethin' worth doin'.”
Somethin' that's still got some adventure and excitement left in it, she thought as she stepped into the cool, still Canterlot night.
FIVE YEARS LATER
The desert stood as wide as the horizon and as tall as the sky could possibly be, consuming everything in sight. The sands underhoof blazed and shimmered in the sweltering heat, set alight by a harsh and unforgiving sun.
Apple Bloom swayed in place. She pushed her helmet back, tilted her head back, and poured what was left in her canteen over her face. The all-too-brief waterfall sent crisp, cool hooves spreading over her cheeks. She shook her head, letting the water fly away in a spray and out of her eyes, then recapped the empty canteen and let it hang from the strap across her combat armor, right next to the long, thin metal tube of her shoulder-mounted hoofcannon. She started to walk again.
Behind her, Barebones continued to yammer. On his dog tags he was listed as Remember-You-Are-But-A-Single-Component-In-The-Design-Of-The-Reasonable-Draughter Bareford, but for obvious reasons nopony called him by his first name. They couldn't tell if he was aescetic or if he just had a wasting disease, but either way the nickname 'Barebones' stuck.
“Nothing is beyond the power of our reasonable draughter,” he said as he kept pace with her.
Ah doubt even with all her power she couldn't shut ya up fer two minutes, Apple Bloom thought. She pointedly did not look at him as she said, “Barebones, we're a'possed ta be on patrol. Ya mind, ya know, patrollin'?”
The area hadn't seen much activity for a while, so their patrol was mostly for show with the locals. But Apple Bloom had a rising conviction that if Barebones didn't stop talking, and quickly, there would soon be a very, very one-sided firefight.
“Everything will be alright, Apple Bloom,” Barebones said.
“Ya know that fer a fact, do ya?”
“Our reasonable draughter has preordained all of her creation, and the equalized market is the litmus test of who has her salvation. Before I enlisted, I managed to triple the profits of my father's business. Triple them! So you see, that means I am predestined for saving, no matter what happens here.”
Geez, Apple Bloom thought, Starlight Glimmer was mighty careful ta keep quiet about this side a'Clovenism when she was runnin' fer office. And no wonder; if'n regular folks had got wind a'this earlier, they might'a realized how crazy she was.
“What did ya do?” she asked, with caustic indifference.
“Oh, it was a carpet exporting business, handling some very prestigious overseas clients.”
“No, Ah mean, what did ya do ta triple profit?”
“Oh, well, I....you see, we....Well, the plan was already in place when I got the position. But it was a very good plan already, and I carried it out as best as it could be done.”
“So, ya didn't actually do anything but keep doin' what the pony before ya did, and then take all the credit fer it?”
Flustered, Barebones said, “It was my state of salvation that allowed the business to be a success.”
“We never would have achieved such prosperity while the meddling hoof of Celestia was interfering with our equality. Keeping failing businesses afloat and shoving righteous ones like ours down.”
Apple Bloom gritted her teeth so hard it felt like they would shatter into pieces.
“Only in a truly equal world can the righteous rise to the top, as it was preordained,” he said pompously.
She glanced sidelong at him, as if she could make him wither to dust with a look. He trotted alongside her decked out in identical gear to her own. Same helmet, same armor, same boots. It was one of the things that annoyed her the most, them all wearing the same gear. Being identical. It reminded her of the clock that used to hang on her dining room wall, and the rows of identical clocks in their boxes in Barnyard Bargains' aisles.
“An' what if Twilight Sparkle wins the election?” she asked.
Darkly, he said, “She won't. The ponies of Equestria would have to be fools to give up the prosperity Princess Starlight Glimmer has brought them.”
“Suppose she does, though.”
“Well, not that I think it will happen, but should she win, then civil war isn't out of the question. We've only just gained equality. If the righteous need to bear weapons to keep ivory-tower unicorns from stealing it away again, we will.”
They reached the edge of the town, and the lonely rows of yellow brick buildings with dusty barred windows. The place brought back memories of Appleoosa, back home in Equestria. And Appleoosa reminded her of the best friends she'd ever had, Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo. The memories brought a smile to her face. She hadn't seen those two in close to a decade. What they were up to? she wondered. Were they living the good life, wherever they were? Were they happy?
Keep it together, Bloom, she thought. Jes' a'cause this place ain't seen action in forever don't mean ya should start slackin' off. That's usually when life blindsides ya.
She noticed a foal staring at her from the dusty corner of the unpaved road. She smiled broadly, but he -- she thought it was a he, but sometimes it was hard to tell with Saddle Arabians -- just stared blankly. She approached him slowly, and when he made no move to flee, ruffled his mane. Wide-eyed and slack-jawed, he stared up into her eyes. She distracted him with one hoof while magically pulling an apple granola bar from his ear with the other. She grinned and held it out to him. For a long moment, his eyes flicked between her face and the food, as if he thought it was poison. Then, he nimbly darted forward, swiped it, and retreated six feet to stare at her some more.
“You're welcome,” she called, though she suspected it was a lost cause.
The foal's mother barked from a doorway, and he immediately snapped to attention and trotted to her. She cast an angry glance at Apple Bloom and Barebones, then ripped the granola bar away from him and threw it to the dirt before ushering him inside and slamming the door shut.
Barebones spat into the dirt. “Clearly, she was not one of our reasonable draughter's chosen, or she would have been more greatful about the equality we brought her.”
'Because Ah want ta bring equality to Saddle Arabia'. Her words in the Equestrian Army recruiting office. Of course she had actually been thinking, 'Because Ah don't want ta work fer Barnyard Bargains', but that didn't seem quite so impressive.
Even though the evidence tying Saddle Arabia to the tragedy was pretty sketchy, the brand-new Equestrian Army -- created by an act of Princess Glimmer in response to the Chrysalite threat -- still needed boots on the ground. Apple Bloom found the idea of not only breaking out of rut her life was in but also getting a steady paycheck to do it too tempting to pass up.
They continued to walk through the town, while the horses of Saddle Arabia stopped what they were doing and watched from a safe distance as they passed.
“They're so ungrateful,” Barebones said, sneering. “But without being elected for saving, that's to be expected.”
“Come on, Ah see the construction site up ahead.”
The half-finished building was situated at the other end of the town. The overseers and the equipment were from an Equestrian firm, getting tax breaks from the princess to take part in reconstruction, but the laborers were all Saddle Arabians. They worked on the inside of the criss-crossing metal girders, while concrete blocks built up from the ground, sealing them inside. More ponies from their platoon stood on guard duty, but the town's relative peace and quiet had made it an ideal place for the reconstruction to start, and none of them looked particularly tense.
The paused to rest and watch the building rise higher. Equipment whirred and hammers thumped as it slowly inched towards completion. She watched the Saddle Arabians working, obeying orders from their Equestrian overseers, and said to Barebones, “Saddle Arabians are jes' regular folks, a'scared 'bout the future, like all them normal ponies in Equestria are.”
She almost added, 'Scared getting money for their families', but decided not to tempt him with incindiary words like those.
An' if'n they ain't got money fer their families, and the Chrysalites offer it, then they're more'n happy ta work fer them.
She remembered the one and only time she had met Chrysalis, when she was just a filly, and sighed. How durn cocksure it all seemed back then, she thought morosely. How invincible we all felt, an' how quick that feeling went away. The Changling Queen was thankfully locked away, but her followers carried on the fight in her name. She idly wondered why a pony would choose to do that, but told herself she wasn't being paid to figure out the mysteries of equine nature. However, she doubted they 'hated equality', like the princess said.
As they started moving again, to check in with their commanding officer, Barebones fiercely said, “Just so you know, I'm not scared of the future.”
“Ain't nothin' normal 'bout you,” Apple Bloom said, rolling her eyes.
That's when the Saddle Arabian caught her eye. She stopped in her tracks when they met eyes. Even at a distance she didn't like what she saw in them. He quickly ducked his head, nervous. He wore a construction uniform and busied himself with a company cart full of equipment, in the shadow of the building, so that the sun threw a grid of girders across him, the cart, and the street.
“Hey there,” she called as she approached him. “How's it going? Ya speak Equestrian?”
Barebones, tense and gaunt, hung back and ambled around to flank the Saddle Arabian, who was rooting around in the cart.
The Saddle Arabain didn't look up. Apple Bloom made a hoofsignal to the other soldiers, who nodded and tensed up as they drifted over, not making any sudden movements. The other troops, the ones watching the rest of the street, kept nervously glancing over their shoulders.
“Can ya hear me?”
Apple Bloom crept closer, wary of anything within his reach she didn't like the look of. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe he was just nervous about having armed soldiers patroling the streets he lived on, and afraid they were going to boss him around in his own home. But she didn't want to take that chance.
“Hey!” she shouted.
He could ignore her no longer. He stopped rooting around in the cart, but he didn't move. He just stood there, silent and still. The whole situation dug into her nerves like a rusty knife. A translator cantered over and swiftly issued instructions. The Saddle Arabian stared at him, deep and unknowable thoughts blazing behind his eyes, and for a long moment nopony so much as breathed. Then, like he was shrugging, stepped away from the cart.
Apple Bloom approached him and started patting down his uniform. He was sweating an awful lot, but that might just have been from the heat--
His eyes flicked up, to the rooftops across the street from the building. The action was minute, but Saddle Arabia had trained Apple Bloom to keep alert for the little things. She followed his eyes, and saw silhouettes running atop the buildings. For one instant, the only thing she could comprehend was the squeeze in her heart. Everything else was still and silent.
Then she shouted, “It's a trick--!” but it was too late.
The rockets came down on them like sledgehammers, blowing out chunks of the dirt road and the bottom of the half-finished building and sending concrete chunks and twisted metal sprawing everywhere. Ponies and horses shouted from all around, a thundering chorus that cried out a primal war chant. Despite the billowing clouds of dust stinging her eyes, Apple Bloom stumbled forward to grab the Saddle Arabian and tackle him to the ground before he could do anything.
The next thing she knew, his back hoof slammed into her muzzle, breaking it and sending her toppling to the dusty road. He pulled an ugly homemade blade from the cart, swung towards her, and took a menacing step forward. He raised the machete over his head. Apple Bloom groped for the cannon's strap, but she couldn't find it, so she kicked in the dirt to scramble away, but he was too quick, he was ready to swing it down into her, ready to end her--
“Apple Bloom!” Barebones burst from the swirling dust cloud and slammed into the Saddle Arabian. “Apple Bloo-”
His words gave way to a choked gasp as, with revulsion, Apple Bloom saw the machete's hilt sticking out of his chest, right between the seams. The Saddle Arabian roughly shoved Barebones backwards; Apple Bloom caught him as he fell.
“This can't happen,” he moaned. “Not t-to me!”
“Ain't nothing happened yet,” Apple Bloom shouted back.
She kicked at the dirt, away from the Saddle Arabian, dragging Barebones along with her. But the Saddle Arabian was gaining on her, still brandishing the machete. She couldn't get away quick enough.
He swung it down. Without thinking, she raised her foreleg to block it. There was a searing pain and a hot gush, and then her leg ended at the knee. She screamed in pain and looked to Barebones, but he only had eyes for the sky; they stared up, wide-open, yet seeing nothing.
She looked to the Saddle Arabian again. With a slowly spreading grin, he revealed that he was no Saddle Arabian. His coat melted away to reveal cold, black chitin, and he spread his tremulous wings. In her final desperate moment, she looked into his cobalt blue eyes, eyes burning with a mad passion, searching for a reason.
And she saw....
And understood. And that understanding filled with her wordless fury, a fury doomed to go unsatisfied as he raised the machete for the final blow. The last curtain call for poor little Apple Bloom.
She thought of her long-ago farm, its rolling green fields and crystal-clear skies. The quaint little farmhouse she and her family once shared. Probably gone now. Would she even recognize the place, after Flim and Flam had gotten their hooves on it?
She doubted it. The past was over now, and there was no future for her. Her, or her kind. Not anymore.
The Changling put all his power into swinging the machete down, and Apple Bloom relaxed.
What had Twilight Sparkle once said? What quote had she pulled out of her books?
'The greatest statues are still made of dust.' That was the quote.
All things must end.
In mid-swing, the Changling suddenly jerked. He bent backwards, his face contorted with pain. The machete fell from his fetlocks and landed in the dirt, and then so did he, toppling face-first onto the road, struck in the back by somepony unseen.
Panting heavily, Apple Bloom propped herself up on her good foreleg. She slitted her eyes and peered through the dust clouds. She couldn't see any of the ponies from her squad, but she heard their voices. It was getting very hard to hold her head up. Her eyes swam in and out of focus, and the sound slurred around her ears. She let her head fall to the ground, and then she fell through it.
She was drifting through the fields of Sweet Apple Acres now. Past their old prize-winning pigs. Around the zap apple orchards, in full bloom. Through the dinky little treehouse she and her friends had fixed up, to make their headquarters.
Home. It was still there. Waiting for her. Losing it had been nothing more than a terrible dream.
Out the window, Saddle Arabia looked calm. Peaceful. Orderly. At equilibrium, even. The vista out the hospital ward's window betrayed the tension roiling under the surface of the dusty desert land, as fighting broke out in every corner and so many factions they could only be kept track of with an association chart made alliances and broke them on a daily basis.
Apple Bloom found it harder and harder to care about with each passing day. No matter where she went, it was just more of the same. Was there a future for Saddle Arabia?
She pushed the thought away and let her mind go back to the simple days and simple ways of Ponyville. She was astonished to finally acknowledge how much time had passed since she had last seen that green and pleasant land.
Ah jes' wanna go home, she thought wearily. Fortunately, her medical discharge was on its way. Couldn't do much soldiering with a missing leg.
“Good morning,” the nurse said sweetly as she strode across the ward and next to the bed to check the medical machines. She was too peppy by far, as if she could hold back the pain and despair of the hospital and its patients by sheer willpower. “Well, Apple Bloom, aren't you just the luckiest mare? Looks like somepony is about to have a very special visitor.”
“Huh?” Apple Bloom asked, feeling like she had missed a beat.
The nurse stepped aside and nodded to the double doors at the front of the ward, which opened and let a crowd, buzzing amongst itself, spill in. Lots of suits, lots of prim and proper haircuts, lots of smiles. Camera bulbs exploded in a frenzy. The ponies seemed to be circling around some central pivot point, but Apple Bloom couldn't see what it was with all the others in the way.
And then the crowd parted, and there she was.
She moved down the rows of beds in the ward to grasp hooves with the injured ponies and exchange a few words with them. Always with a smile and a gracious eye directed at the camerastallion.
She wants ta use me an' the rest a'us ta get reelected. Apple Bloom thought, sinking deeper into the bed. Don't come over here, she thought desperately. She had sworn the oaths of fealty, had declared herself Glimmer's vassal for as long as her tour of duty lasted. The words were easy enough to say when there was a paycheck waiting on the other side. But now, after this, she wasn't sure she could control what she would say. And that scared her almost as much as the thought of another Clovenist being elected to the office of princess.
“Hello, soldier,” the princess said, stopping at her bedside. “Nice to meet you. I'm here on behalf of your nation to thank you, truly and deeply, for your sacrifice.”
Apple Bloom bowed her head in thought, and to avoid seeing the insufferable pretense of compassion on the mare's face. “....we met, actually. Well, more like exchanged some words.”
“Oh, really? When was this?”
“Long time gone. Years an' years.”
Ya'll might knew mah sister better: Applejack. Once showed ya up as a sham and a cheat and a liar. Now ya'll get her beat down like a dog.
“Durin' one a'yer campaign speeches,” she added.
“Well, I'm glad you're here now, to see that promise of true and lasting equality for the whole come alive. Because of you, Saddle Arabia will have an equalized market and equal election by the masses.”
Awful big words from a pony who weren't even elected, Apple Bloom thought viciously. “The pony Ah was on patrol with, he was one a'yer folks. A Clovenist. Barebones, he believed in all kinds of stuff about....how only some are predestined ta be saved. Is that what ya'll believe?”
Glimmer's smiled faltered the tiniest bit, but she expertly launched into a spiel: “The truly important part of Clovenism is that each of us finds ourselves in communion with the burning heart of the reasonable draughter and searches to find our places in her design.”
“He seemed so sure that he would make it back. He thought jes' a'cause he did so well in business it'd protect him. Like magic. But it didn't. It didn't help him a'tall.”
Thoughtfully, while her posse attentively scribbled her wise words down, she explained, “Look around at this building. From our small vantage point, can we see how it looked on the blueprints? All the different layers and interconnecting parts?”
“Ah guess not.”
“To those of us who hold close to the burning heart of the reasonable draughter, her designs are just as ineffable. But the beauty of an equal society is that you don't have to believe the same thing as I do. We can all live equally.”
What a load, Apple Bloom thought.
“That is why our enemies hold Equestria in such contempt,” Princess Glimmer said solemnly. “They hate the equality we have.”
A wellspring of emotion was bursting forward in Apple Bloom's chest as memories of the day she lost her leg came rushing back. “Ah lost mah leg ta a'Changling,” she said, shifting onto her side so that she didn't have to stare at Glimmer. “Rocket attack, few weeks ago, at that there construction site. And as Ah was scramblin' away, a'fearin' fer mah life, Ah looked into his eyes. And in 'em, Ah saw something. Something that will rightly haunt me 'til the end of mah days.”
Her voice was hoarse and choked with pain, and the crowd quieted to listen to her.
“In 'em, Ah saw....Ah saw this burnin' urge ta spread and spread until there ain't a single thing in the world that ain't theirs. Ta take all they could, and leave nothin' fer the rest a'us. Ah well remember the fire in those eyes. The flames, burnin' everythin' they saw. They ain't never gonna step. They ain't never gonna leave us alone.”
“All the more reason why the sacrifice you and Barebones made was necessary,” she said firmly. “To defend our equality.”
The words came pouring out of Apple Bloom, faster and faster. “But there was somethin' else in those eyes. Somethin' more. I knew that look. It weren't the look a'somepony who 'hates equality', whatever that means.” She didn't care about causing offense anymore, because she had to get this off her chest. “It weren't the look of a Chrysalite. And it weren't no great evil, either. Ah looked into his eyes, and do you know what Ah saw?” She abruptly raised her head and stared Starlight Glimmer down.
“What did you see?” Glimmer asked, conscious of the cameras.
Sneering, she said, “A Clovenist.” She shook her head. “That's all. All it's ever been. Jes' Clovenism, over an' over again. Ya'll bunch a'implacable fanatics, makin' life miserable fer everypony no matter where ya go. Takin' everythin' ya can get yer hooves on, no matter if'n it's by law or by force, an' demandin' everypony do what ya'll think is the best way ta live.”
“In an equal society,” Starlight said, “there is no force--”
“Then Ah want mah farm back. Sweet Apple Acres. Ah want it back, right this minute.”
Starlight Glimmer's jaw worked as she stared Apple Bloom down; Apple Bloom fancied she saw a flicker of remembrance in the eye of the princess. “Well,” Starlight said, suddenly chipper, “it's a shame I can't depend on your vote, but that's how an equal society works. Let's move on, shall we?”
The princess's posse moved along to the next bed, but Apple Bloom called out, “One more thing. Princess.”
The princess turned back to her, waiting patiently without saying anything.
“That construction site. The one Barebones died ta protect. What is it goin' ta be?”
“A factory for manufacturing F&F Fine Goods. The store brand for Barnyard Bargains. It's part of a deal I brokered with Filthy Rich to boost the local economy for the next ten years.”
With that, the princess moved on to the next wounded soldier, leaving Apple Bloom to wallow as the waves of misery washed over her and crashed down on her. With a keening cry, she buried her face in the pillow and sobbed.
Apple Bloom's sobs finally subsided, and she raised her face from the dingy sink. In the mirror, she stared into the deep hollows under her eyes for a few seconds. Passable, she supposed. She splashed some water on her face, then took a step back and looked over her uniform. Perfectly orderly. Identical to the others, and how she hated it so. But what other choice did she have? She had heard all the excuses a pony could possibly hear:
“Filly, if it was up to me....”
“Filly, don't you understand now....”
“Filly, we just don't have the money for new hires....”
So this was it, then. End of the line.
'Our veterans went overseas with a purpose', the flier had said, 'and when they come home they should have that same sense of purpose. In their honor, we're creating one hundred thousand new jobs, all across this great nation.'
She stared down at the lump of wood where her leg used to be. In the name of equality, she mused.
Feeling hollow and bone-tired inside, she turned and left the dingy employee bathroom. Her fake leg thumped against the linoleum. She made her way to the front of the store, where an eager, fresh-faced young Clovenist in a nice button-up shirt greeted her.
“There you are,” he said. “Excited about your first day on the job?”
“Thrilled,” she said woodenly.
“Well, we're just proud to give something back to somepony who's given us so much for our equality. Well, any questions?”
“The orientation pretty much had it covered, thanks.”
“Alright, well, if there are any problems, you know where to find me. So, I'll leave you to it, but hey! After fighting against pure evil, the weekend rush should be a cinch, huh?”
She took her place at the doors and smiled at the first ponies who came. “Hi, welcome ta Barnyard Bargains. Let me know if'n Ah can help ya find anythin'.”
Every time she said the words a little piece of her died inside. And, truth be told, she was kind of looking forward to when it was all gone.
“The success of this military action has not yet been rated”
-Scott Sonneborn & Arie Kaplan, “Gulf Wars Episode II: Clone of the Attack” parody poster, MAD Magazine