Chapter Twenty Nine - Earth and Whiskey
New York, New York, United North American States, Earth
April 16, 2183

When Apple Bloom had been told that she'd have to sleep on a pullout couch, there was a large part of her that had been extremely disappointed. After all, how often did the chance to stay at one galaxies most famous hotels come along? Not often, according to that nasty Diamond Tiara.

She had to actually look up whether the Ritz Carlton was as famous as Diamond claimed. To her satisfaction, it was. To her dissatisfaction, she learned that night that she'd be sleeping on a pull out couch.

She hadn't voiced any of her complaints to her brother or sister though. The Apples might have been well off, but there wasn't any need to waste money, especially when the hotel had been provided by the competition they had been invited to.

Half under the covers, with her head propped up on three pillows, Apple Bloom stared at the holoscreen hanging on the wall, its volume kept so low that it was basically impossible to hear what was happening on the screen. She was flipping between dozens of channels, most of them cartoons, but none of them were worth watching. She sighed in annoyance as she switched to another channel again. "Ugh…"

Rolling over, Apple Bloom buried her face in the pillows, slapping her hoof on the remote.

"-essia. Our very own Naelsu Myvo was on the scene to speak with Empress Celestia." With the volume so low, Apple Bloom had to strain to hear what was being said, but she'd gotten used to it over the last hour. She rolled herself back over, looking at the holoscreen. She was just in time to see the news program switch to footage from a live cam floating over the shoulder of a pretty young asari maiden, the reporter. She watched as she pushed past the Equestrian security, running to the boarding ramp, where Celestia was walking up to her ship. "Empress! Empress! Naelsu Myvo with Westerlund News. I have a few questions."

"Ma'am, you're going to have leave, or you're going to be in big trouble." One of the security ponies shouted at her, but it didn't seem to cause any concern to the reporter.

Celestia turned to look at the camera, holding up a hoof to the security ponies. They took a step back, but it was obvious that they we're ready to move at a moment's notice to protect the Princess.

"Ask your questions," Celestia said, her voice low, with more than a hint of danger.

"Why did you come to Thessia? You've spent three days here, but you haven't spoken to any of the Matriarchs." The reporter paid no mind to the danger or trouble she might be putting herself in, asking her questions as quickly as possible.

"No." Celestia didn't elaborate beyond her one word answer.

Naelsu blinked in surprise, waiting a moment to see if Celestia would continue.

She didn't.

"Well…" Naelsu gathered her thoughts, pushing forward with her surprise interview. "Is there any reason for that?"

Instead of dismissing her and boarding her ship, Apple Bloom was surprised to see Celestia actually thinking the question over, her eyes narrow as she stared down at the reporter. She stomped a hoof on the ground, a fire burning in her eyes. "Yes."

She stood tall, folding her wings regally against her barrel.

"Yes." Celestia repeated, sure of herself and what she wanted to do. She looked every inch the dangerous Empress that every race thought of her as. "My faithful student, and Equestria's Celestial Emissary was kidnapped and brutally tortured."

Naelsu took a step back, startled. This was the first she was hearing of that, obviously. It was the first Apple Bloom was hearing about it, and she felt her heart drop in surprise.

"I have a message for the perpetrators of her attack," Celestia continued.

"Please, go ahead Empress." The reporter wasn't in control anymore, but she tried to keep up the semblance.

"You may believe that Equestria is a quaint, backwater planet." Celestia looked right into the lens of the camera, and it zoomed in on her face until she almost filled the entire screen. Her eyes raged, and Apple Bloom was glad that she wasn't the subject of her ire. "I swear this to you, though. I will tear apart any who get in the way of protecting my little ponies. I will end worlds if I need to to protect them. What happened to Twilight Sparkle will never happen again, not if you know what's good for you."

Without nothing else to say, Celestia turned and stormed onto her ship, dismissing the reporter with a flick of her tail.

Apple Bloom sat up, pushing her covers away, eyes wide in confusion and more than a little bit of fear.

"Applejack?" She called out. "Big Mac?"

No response from either of the two bedrooms of her older siblings. She realized that her voice wasn't louder than a whisper.

"Applejack! Big Mac!" Apple Bloom tried again, shouting this time.

"Apple Bloom…" Applejack's sleepy voice could barely be heard from behind her closed door. "What in tarnation?"

Big Mac grumbled from in his room, and Apple Bloom's ears flicked back against her skull. She wondered for a moment if she'd down the wrong thing, but no… they needed to know this. It was the type of things adults needed to know, after all.

Despite their grumbling, neither of her siblings took much time to come out and check to see what had their little sister in such a twist. Neither of them were wearing their traditional clothing (Applejack sans her hat and hair ties, and Big Mac sans his yoke). Both of them were obviously tired, their eyes drooping, and their manes and tails messy.

"Apple Bloom," Applejack drawled, deep bags under eyes as she searched the darkened room for her sister, until she landed on the couch. "Sugarcube, what are you shouting for? It's…" Looking at the clock, Applejack blinked in surprised when she saw that it was nine in the morning. "Huh... well. I guess that's a reasonable hour."

"Apple Bloom?" Big Mac looked far better than Applejack did, but he still carried an air of lethargy about him. "What's wrong?"

Apple Bloom simply pointed, and the two of them followed their little sister's hoof, just in time to see the headline appear on the news channel: Equestrian Celestial Emissary Tortured.

"Oh my…" Applejack's face paled, and her eyes shrunk to tiny little pricks, her ears swivelling towards the screen, trying to catch as much of the report as possible.

"E'Yep," Big Mac agreed, his voice mournful. How could anyone do that to someone else? He could barely even conceive it.

"That's awful." Applejack voiced everything that Big Mac was thinking. For all their differences, the two older Apple siblings had very similar moral compasses. "How could anyone do such a thing?"

Applejack shook her head, turning off the holoscreen. "Come on, Apple Bloom, you don't need to be watching that. Go on and get ready."

Apple Bloom grumbled as she clambered out of bed and trudged towards the bathroom. Shower time. She might have been told she was too young for something, but at least she liked her morning routine.

As soon as she was gone, Applejack and Big Mac shared a pointed look. The galaxy was definitely not a friendly place, not when you're used to Equestria. It was a sharp reminder to stick together and keep any eye out for anything wrong.

###

Before anyone even knew about the sphere, the Apple family owned a small, but moderately successful apple farm by the name of Sweet Apple Acres. Ever since Ponyville had been founded, it had been a cornerstone of the town's economy.

When Celestia had cracked the sphere, burning a hole through it with her sun, Sweet Apple Acres had gone from a small town farm to one of the biggest exports of the entire planet. Cider, apple whiskey, juice, jams, and jellies, all of them could be found on planets across Citadel space. As the Apples of Ponyville had always known, there's no apple like an Equestrian apple, and it appeared that the rest of the galaxy agreed.

Applejack was the current owner of Sweet Apple Acres, though Big Mac had run the place for a short amount of time while she was in Manehatten trying to discover herself. Under her watch, the farm had grown almost three times its original size and as such, they'd been forced to hire more ponies to help with the day to day activities.

She wished that ma and pa were still alive to see what had become of their life work, but she had the feeling that they'd be proud. This was everything and more that they'd dreamed of. It was too bad that they hadn't been around to see it.

With the amount of attention that their once little farm was now achieving, it had become common for requests and invitations for appearances from across the galaxy to appear in their mailbox. Depending on whom the invitation was from, and the size of the event, Applejack or Big Mac would go to represent the farm, occasionally both would go, leaving Granny Smith in charge of the farm and Apple Bloom.

Applejack had never imagined when she'd first started at the farm, she'd never imagined that it would lead to her travelling to Thessia and Sur'kesh, to colonies all across System Alliance space, and to the Citadel itself. It wasn't very often that an invitation from Earth came though.

When the letter had arrived at their house, delivered by the faithful mailmare in Ponyville, Ditzy Hooves, it was certainly a surprise. They had been invited as guests of honor to the Whiskey Fest on Earth, all expenses paid by the company hosting the festival, Cord-Hislop Aerospace. After a very short discussion with Big Mac, Applejack had informed her little sister that all three of them were going to Earth.

Apple Bloom's reaction had been… ear-shattering.

They had flown out on the Wave Runner II, the nicest ship out of Equestria, arriving on the Citadel were they caught a cruise ship to Earth, where they were brought by limousine to the Ritz Carlton in New York.

Needless to say, they appreciated the level of comfort that they were being afforded, even if they felt a little strange about it. Sweet Apple Acres was doing well for itself, but they didn't tend to spend their money on frivolous things. The opening of the sphere had done wonders for the Apple family, and they no longer struggled on their farm, which had eased things immensely for them.

Stepping out of the lobby, the three Apples left the hotel and stepped out onto the streets of New York. The three of them wore Sweet Apple Acre's polo shirts, each of them wearing a simple but durable pair of pants. Of course, Applejack was wearing her hat and hair ties, Big Mac his yoke, and Apple Bloom her bow.

On the street they were met with a cacophony of noise and smells, all blending together into the unique signature of the city. It was more than a little intimidating for the ponies, being so much shorter than the ponies. Even Big Mac, one of the tallest ponies that most ponies ever met, only stood as the tall as the Average man's chest.

"Right then." Applejack pulled her hat tighter onto her head, a little nervous, but unwilling to show it. "Big Mac, you lead the way."

Big Mac opened his omni-tool and quickly pulled up a map to where they were headed.

"Stay close, AB," Applejack said to her sister. Apple Bloom didn't even complain, sticking closer to her big sister, not willing to argue when it would be so easy to get lost.

They weren't in any hurry to get where they were going, which made it easy for them to stick together. Big Mac would stop every so often to make sure his sister's were still behind him. They garnered more than their fair share of second glances, but Apple Bloom was always ready with a wave and a smile for anyone friendly.

Safely assured that her sister and big brother were keeping her safe and close by, Apple Bloom took the time to look around in wonder at the amazements of one of Earth's most impressive cities. The towers were taller than anything that Equestria had even dreamed of, reaching miles into the sky, and it was very easy to tell that they were all designed and built by different people.

The humans were just as diverse as their city. They were every race and every color, in all sizes, speaking more languages than her translator could keep up with. At even their most average, all humans towered over ponies by at least two feet. Apple Bloom being a filly who still had to look up to talk to her sister and brother, was absolutely gulfed by even by human children.

"This place is awesome!" Apple Bloom cried, not at all put off by her diminutive size.

"It certainly is, Apple Bloom," Applejack agreed, before pulling her sister out of the way of a well dressed man talking on his omni-tool, paying no attention to where he was going. "Careful! Ya' almost trampled my little sister."

The man didn't so much as stop, nor did he give any indication that he even heard what Applejack said.

Glaring after him, Applejack pulled Apple Bloom closer to her. "Stay close, Apple Bloom. Humans might be nice, but there's always a few bad apples in a bunch." Even Equestria had those few ponies that left a sour taste in your mouth.

Apple Bloom did as Applejack said, practically gluing herself to her sister's side. New York was intimidating, and she had absolutely no desire to get lost.

It only took a few more minutes for the Apples to make it to the festival grounds, a large open area of ground large enough to fit ponyville and all of Sweet Apple Acres inside. It sat surrounded by buildings on all sides, though it didn't overshadow the grounds. It actually added to the quiet beauty, the architecture of the buildings flowing into the trees that ringed the space.

The festival started the next day, the contestants were still arriving, making sure that everything was perfect for the next day. The grounds were filled with all manner of tents, and was just starting to fill up with the owners of distilleries from across the planet, There were a few aliens scattered amongst the masses, and their tents promised to have a large number of customers eager to taste exotic alcohol from strange new places.

Big Mac led them up to the main entrance, towards the smaller of the two entrances with a sign at the front reading: Contestants. It was maybe fifteen people deep, and it was moving quick. Before they even had a chance to get bored, they were at the front of the line.

"Welcome to the New York Whiskey Fest, brought to you by Cord-Hislop Aerospace," the ticket man greeted them, completely unphased to see Equestrians in front of him. "Can I see your tickets please?"

Holding up his omni-tool, Big Mac transferred the tickets over to the man.

Satisfied, the ticket man nodded to them and waved them through the turnstyle. "Thank you. Your tent has been set up and all of your supplies brought over. Just follow the directions."

"Thank you." Big Mac nodded waiting for his sisters to follow him through, before they all headed into the grounds together.

Following the directions on Big Mac's omni-tool, they were able to make their way through the labyrinth of the festival to the tent that Cord-Hislop had provided. It was larger than most of the other contestants' tents, open-sided, with the top made of red and deep yellow cloth. A discrete air-conditioning unit hung from the top. Tables were set up all around the tent, with an extra long one at the front to display their products to everyone passing by.

"This is so exciting!" Apple Bloom practically vibrated out of her bow, a smile on her face so wide that it almost hurt her jaw.

"It certainly is, Apple Bloom." Applejack looked over their tent in satisfaction. It would be a nice place to spend their three days, and who knew what it might lead to? "Come on, AB. Let's get set up."

Their supplies had already been brought over by Cord-Hislop, everything kept in large coolers stacked at the back of the tent. Together, they started setting up. They had already decided their roles on the flight over. Big Mac was going to be in charge of selling the alcohol (cider and apple whiskey), Applejack was going to be in charge of selling her cooking (fritters, pies, and such), and Apple Bloom was in charge of looking cute and drawing in the customers.

Most of the products would be left in their coolers until tomorrow, but they were able to get up the designs and signage up before the main rush.

As Big Mac was pulling the signs out of the boxes, and Applejack the table cloths and white boards, Apple Bloom watched as the contestant owning the tent directly across from them arrived.

Wearing an outfit starched so heavily that it looked like it could cut through diamond, an Asari strode into her tent with a haughty look on her face, a small entourage following her. They stopped, heading into the tent while the Asari stood outside, folding her arms across her chest.

As her people started unpacking, the Asari glanced over at the Apples' tent. She looked over the three of them, turning her nose up at them and sniffing dismissively as she watched Big Mac hoist up a sign proudly proclaiming that they were Sweet Apple Acres. She was not at all impressed.

Deciding that they weren't worth her time, the Asari turned and started ordering her entourage around, as apparently they were doing everything wrong. Two of them set up ladders, climbing them to set up a sign of their own. The Radarius Reserve.

From inside their own tent, Applejack and Big Mac shared a grimly amused look.

"She looks like she's having a bundle of fun," Applejack said, shaking her head. How you could work at making drinks and be so unhappy about it, she couldn't understand.

"Eyup." Big Mac agreed.

Apple Bloom wasn't listening to her siblings as she trotted over to the Asari's tent. She had only seen a few aliens in passing on the Citadel and on the Wave Runner, and she was excited to meet one that made her living the same way her family did. The Asari didn't even notice her as Apple Bloom sat back on her haunches and waved.

"Hey there!" Apple Bloom chirped.

Pausing mid-sentence, the Asari looked down, a single brow raised. That brow lifted even higher when she saw Apple Bloom sitting in front of her. She turned a deeper violet, shifting uncomfortably on her feet. "What?"

"I'm Apple Bloom!" She didn't flinch under the icy stare of the Asari. "My brother and sister are over there at our tent." She pointed over at her tent.

"Sweet Apple Acres," the Asari read, her translator working nearly instantaneously.

"That's us!"

"Hmm…" Glancing at Apple Bloom, then at the sign, then back down at Apple Bloom, a tight smile passed over her face. She bent at the waist, until she was looking down directly at her. "I have a message for your sister."

"Yeah?" Apple Bloom tilted her head to side, her bow flopping over.

"Tell her that I shall win this competition, and there is nothing that she, nor your quaint little ways can do about it." Standing back up, she straightened her jacket.

Apple Bloom blanched, her face paling as she scurried back to safety.

Back at the tent, Applejack corralled Apple Bloom out of the Asari's line of sight and deeper into the tent. "What's wrong, AB?"

"She's not very nice." Apple Bloom actually pouted a little at that.

"Just stay away from her, AB." Applejack rubbed her back encouragingly, shooting a glare at the Asari's tent. "We'll show her. Those judges won't know what hit 'em when they taste our whiskey. We'll get all the awards, you'll see."

Apple Bloom grinned with her sister. There was no alcohol like Sweet Apple Acres alcohol after all, not that she'd know… Nope.

"Go help Big Mac with that sign." Applejack swatted her on the rump. "He's gonna break his head if he keeps up with that."

Eager, Apple Bloom galloped over to help him, already forgetting the Asari's glare. Applejack looked across at the Asari, who was smiling evilly at her, a hand jauntily placed on her hip. Applejack raised a hoof to her eyes, then pointed it at the Asari, glaring.

###

Sitting on one of the stools set up at the back of the tent, Apple Bloom sighed in boredom as she rolled a cup back and forth with her hoof. It had been hours! She hadn't expected set up to take this long, and she wanted to do something else. Anything else!

In the front, Applejack and Big Mac argued quietly by themselves, trying to figure out the placement of the products. Needless to say, they were heavily opinionated in the exact opposite directions.

Apple Bloom sighed.

Then she sighed louder.

Applejack and Big Mac didn't notice, their argument growing even more heated.

With no other choice, Apple Bloom sighed even louder.

Nothin'.

"I'm bored." Rolling her eyes, Apple Bloom swiveled in her stool. Ugh. Whatever they were doing, it was not so important as to make them ignore their little sister. "I'm bored, and hungry, and we've been here for hours, and ya'll are still arguing over whether you should put the cider on the right or the left."

Nope. Nothing.

"Hey!" Apple Bloom gave up all pretenses of subtlety and just shouted at her siblings.

That did it. Pausing their argument, Applejack and Big Mac turned to look at Apple Bloom, finally noticing that she was trying to get their attention.

"We're sorry, Apple Bloom." Applejack apologized, blushing a deeper red than her hair-ties.

"Eyup." Big Mac agreed, though you couldn't see his blush through his red coat.

Applejack trotted over and nuzzled Apple Bloom, who squirmed but didn't pull away from her sister. "We just want everything to be perfect."

"I know," Apple Bloom grumbled. She sighed, staring down at the ground.

"Why don't you go on down to the food stalls and get a snack." Applejack dropped some credits on the table for her. "We're only gonna be a few more hours, and then we'll all go get dinner somewhere."

"Yeah, alright." Taking the credits, Apple Bloom jumped down from her seat, and nuzzled Applejack back. She did the same with Big Mac, and he nudged her rump out the tent with his muzzle.

Trotting out of the Sweet Apple Acres' tent, Apple Bloom only gave a short glance to the Asari's tent before heading towards the gathering of food stalls on the other end of the festival grounds. She was hungry after all, and a quick snack was sounding more and more like a good thing.

Everywhere she looked, humans were getting ready for the festival tomorrow. The few that noticed Apple Bloom smiled and waved at her, and she was quick to wave back, her mood lightening. Just as there were always a few bad apples, there were also the apples who stood above the rest.

She hummed to herself as she came to the line of food stalls, two long rows that smelled equally wonderful, and stomach turning. She was a pony after all, and she could only eat about a third of what was there. Ponies were herbivores after all, and humans were not.

She browsed the stalls, immediately passing by the barbecue and other meat vendors. She didn't even look at them, and tried not to breath, or even think about what they were serving.

Much to her relief, it wasn't hard to find the vegetarian/pony friendly section of the food stalls, and Apple Bloom grinned, trotting over.

It wasn't hard to make her decision. The best looking stall was one named "Seitan's Disciples," and the smells wafting from it made Apple Bloom's stomach growl. Trotting over, she looked over the menu.

"Well hey there, little filly." The woman at the register leaned out to look at her. "Aren't you a cutie!"

"Thanks!" Apple Bloom beamed.

"What can I get you?" The woman asked.

"I'll have the deluxe black bean burger with the sweet potato fries and the lemonade!" It all sounded absolutely amazing and tasty, and Apple Bloom was looking forward to it.

"You're in for a treat." The woman said as she typed in the order on her omni-tool. "Our burgers are the best in the continent."

Apple Bloom handed over her credits, took her receipt and order number, and then went to stand and wait for her food to be prepared by the stalls tables.

Sitting on her haunches at one of the tables, her tail swished back and forth behind her as she watched over the few people eating at the stalls. She had to look away quickly when she saw a man greedily picking at ribs slathered in barbecue sauce. it made her stomach turn, flipping and flopping uneasily.

"Hey!"

The shout was angry and seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Apple Bloom looked around for the source. She found it pretty quickly in the form of a security guard stomping towards her, an angry scowl on his face.

"What are you doing here?" He shouted, a glare etched into his face. "You're too young for a place like this."

Apple Bloom looked around, wondering who the Security Guard was talking too. She blinked in surprise when she realized that it was her.

"What?" She asked, tilting her head in confusion.

"I've told you kids a million times, you're too young for this place!" Before Apple Bloom could even ask what he was talking about, the Guard yanked her up by her mane and escorted her back towards the entrance of the park. The jerk of him pulling her from the table knocked her omni-tool off her foreleg.

"Hey, my omni-tool!" Apple Bloom shouted.

"I'm not falling for any tricks again," the Security Guard growled. "I've already been yelled at by my boss already. It's not happening again."

"What are you—"

Before she could even finish her sentence, the Security Guard tossed Apple Bloom out of the festival grounds.

"Go home, kid. This place isn't for you."

Apple Bloom stared up at him, blinking in surprise. How was she supposed to answer that? Before she could even think of something to say, the Security Guard was already gone and she was left alone. Getting over her surprise. she went up to the gate and opened her mouth to explain—

"Get lost." The ticket man said, not even looking at her.

Ears plastered flat against her skull, Apple Bloom scrambled away, her heart falling. She was alone in New York, on Earth, without any way to contact her family and tell them what had just happened.

With nothing else to do, she whimpered

"A-A-Alright, Apple Bloom…" She said to herself, gulping. "You can do this. We just need to get back to the hotel, and then e-everything'll be okay."

She nodded to herself, trying to build up her courage. "Y-Yeah. Okay."

She looked around at all the buildings, and realized she didn't recognize anything. It was all completely unfamiliar, and she realized just how big of trouble she was in.

"N-Now…" She tried to remember the way, but she drew a blank. "Where is it?"

A Systems Alliance dreadnought lifted off from the docks on the Hudson, and started a burn towards orbit.

###

When Solar One had arrived nearly a day ago, Twilight had decided to take a different approach to her search than she had so far. Instead of just going out and searching for the next pony they needed to find, she wanted to search for any sign of their presence on the planet. They had kept the ship in orbit, ready to land anywhere they needed to.

They'd been looking ever since then for any sign of Fluttershy or Applejack. There was nothing overt in any of the newspapers or publications that Twilight had searched through, and none of the others had had any luck.

Sitting in the conference room on the main deck, Rarity was sitting between Sweetie Belle and Gilda, idly searching through the ship manifests in North America with her omni-tool. It was going surprisingly quick, thanks to the fact that ponies had evolved a completely different naming convention than the rest of the galaxy. Only ponies had names like Photo Finish, Doctor Horse, and Blueberry Frosting. It made it very easy to pick out the ponies from the humans and other aliens.

Despite that easiness, there was still no sign of either of the two ponies.

Sighing, Rarity looked up from her omni-tool, over at Pinkie at the end of the table. The earth pony was staring right through the table, not even pretending to be looking for anything, her mane flat, draped over her legs. They'd be getting no help from her.

No surprise there, Rarity sniffed to herself. It was too be expected.

Directly across from her, Gilda was looking through her own omni-tool, rubbing Twilight's back with her left claw absentmindedly. Twilight herself had her face buried in her forelegs, frustrated groans coming from her every so often.

"You okay there, Twilight?" Gilda finally asked.

"Ugh," was Twilight's muffled reply.

"Uh-huh." Gilda nodded, flipping to another page on her omni-tool. "That's very interesting, Twilight."

Looking back at her own omni-tool, a jolt of excitement coursed through her and she sat up. Everpony looked at her, waiting to see what she had to say. "Oh. Oh! I might…"

Reading deeper into the manifest, her expression went from excited to sullen and finally disappointed once again. She sighed, sitting back in her chair. "Never mind."

They all gave a collective sigh.

With that little bit of excitement and subsequent disappointment behind them, they all went back to looking. Sweetie Belle and Spike have devolved into playing a game of hockey with a crumpled up napkin he found, batting it at each other, using Rarity between them as the centerline.

Twilight finally sat up, flipping to the next page of the Journal of Friendship, trying to find any hint of where to find Applejack.

"You'd think there'd be something in that big book that would say: X marks the Applejack." Pinkie Pie said, not bothering to look up from the table she was staring at.

Twilight growled in agreement, a sound that made Gilda giggle at the absolute adorableness of it. Ponies were not made for anger, and it was always absolutely off when they tried to emulate the predators of Equestria.

Done speaking, Pinkie looked down when her omni-tool vibrated on her hoof. Activating it, she pulled up the notification, a news report on the impact of Smile Inc going public.

Needless to say, it was big. Very big.

Smile, Inc. had shaken the entire stock market, and everyone was falling over themselves trying to snatch up as many shares as they could.

Shutting her omni-tool, she returned to staring at the stained wood of the conference table.

"You okay there?" Gilda asked.

Pinkie blinked, looking up at Gilda. "Hmm?"

"You okay?" Gilda asked again.

"Yes. I'm fine." Done, Pinkie got back to her staring.

"Okay…" Gilda stared at her for a moment longer before getting back to her omni-tool.

###

The Tenth Street Reds had found their place on Earth, providing a place for the orphans and malcontents to make something of themselves in the world. Of course, that was just the sales pitch. In reality, the Reds had their business in more illegal activities than most could even imagine. There was of course the typical gang activities: drugs, smuggling, prostitution, slavery, and the like, but they participated in far more than that. The government agencies responsible for looking into them were aware that the Reds dabbled in assassinations, bribery, blackmail, extortion, and even identity changing, though they had no actual evidence.

New York was the home of the Reds, and as such, it had the largest population on the planet of members. They were a plague on the city, and they were constantly at odds with the police and the Alliance, though the Reds were always careful to make sure such conflicts didn't devolve into any violent conflict or other illegalities.

It was simply a matter of time before things boiled over. It was a miracle that they hadn't so far.

Hulo Jenson had joined the Reds on his eleventh birthday, and he'd been a loyal member ever since. By his seventeenth birthday, he'd already heavily involved himself with the smuggling operations in and out of the city. He'd seen the strangest things because of it. Turian fruit, highly illegal forms of asari child pornography, slaves of all races, and much, much more. He'd risen up through the ranks until he ran the operations of the entire midtown of the city.

Being in the Reds was one of the best decisions that Hulo had ever made, he'd decided that long ago. It brought him more money than he had imagined when he was just a kid. It was how he was able to entertain all his friends whenever he wished, not that he always paid whatever bar they'd decided to make their home for the night.

Why pay when you could rough up the owner and take his money instead?

The Ninth Circle was their current haunt. Despite the trendy name though, it wasn't a place that the nicer crowds ever flocked to. Aside from the odd dock worker and down on their luck resident, the majority of occupants of the bar wore the Reds signature leather jackets, deep crimson scorpions embroidered on the back. They'd been growing progressively louder and more obnoxious the longer they had overstayed their welcome, downing glass after glass of cheap beer.

From behind the bar, the owner shot the tenth glare of the hour before going back to wiping everything down to an almost factory perfect shine. There was nothing he could do about them. They were paying customers, and they represented the largest amount of business that he'd received in more than a few days. To just outright kick them out would be the worst thing he could do.

He was just waiting for an excuse though.

That excuse came as Hulo downed his latest glass of beer, slamming the mug down hard enough onto the table that it shattered. The furniture wasn't exactly what you could call sturdy, and had exceeded any conceivable lifespan for such an object at least two times over.

There was the excuse.

"Hey." The owner shouted, pointing at them "Hey! you can't do that in here!"

Hulo froze, his knuckles turning white as he clenched them into a fist. He stood up, the rest of his friends joining him as he stalked towards the bar.

"You wanna start something?" Hulo asked, his words heavily tinged with a brooklyn accent.

"No." Shaking his hands, the owner held up his hands in surrender. "Just get out! Go. Leave. We don't want you here."

Hulo glanced back at his friends, and he could see that though they were willing to start a fight, none of them were really into it. They weren't drunk enough, and it was still early in the day. There were better things they could do.

"Yeah, sure." Hulo straightened his jacket and turned to his friends. "Let's get out of this shit hole."

They left the Ninth Circle without paying, knocking a few drinks out of people's hands as they left.

The door shutting behind them, Hulo pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pockets, the good kind, not the shit the rest of his friends smoked. He could afford them after all.

As he searched for his lighter, Hulo paused when he noticed a little pony creeping by on the opposite side of the street, jumping out of the way of everyone who didn't notice her. Its legs were trembling and it was obvious that it was scared out of its mind.

"Whoa!" Hulo held up his hand to his friends. "Hold up."

The group stopped, looking to follow Hulo's pointing finger. A pony was a rare sight on Earth, and a child was even more so.

"Benton," Hulo said, glancing at his best friend. "Tell me I'm not seein' things, am I?"

"Nah. That's a pony right there" Benton, Hulo's right hand man and childhood friend, shook his head. They had joined the Reds together, and they'd stuck close ever since. Benton hit Hulo on the shoulder, gesturing with his head down the street in the opposite direction. "Come on. Let's get back. I'm hungry, and there's this new…"

He trailed off when he realized that Hulo was glaring at him. "What?"

"That's a pony." Hulo said.

"Yeah." Benton cocked his head, confused. "So what?"

"That's a pony," Hulo said again, his voice slow as if explaining something to a particularly stupid child.

"We've established that, yeah." Benton didn't quite see where he was going with this.

Sighing, Hulo clapped Benton on the shoulder. "Is any of this makin' it through your thick little skull? That's a pony. We're the Tenth Street Reds. Come on, work that through your tiny, insignificant brains."

"Where're you goin' with this?" Benton was not getting it.

"That's a pony, and we're the Tenth Street Reds!" Hulo rolled his eyes, frustrated. "We go kidnap that pony, then ransom her for money!"

"Why not just sell her?" Benton suggested. They always made more money off the slaves than the few hostages that the Reds took.

"No!" Hulo just stared at Benton was crazy. "You been watchin' the news? You don't wanna get killed by one of the pony gods do ya'? They've done it before."

"What's different about what we're going to do?" Benton wasn't really seeing the distinction.

"We're just gonna ransom her," Hulo said. "Key difference. Ransom, not sell into slavery. They get it back in the end, not it disappearin' forever into the underworld. Ya' gotta think about these things if ya' ever wanna get somewhere, Benton."

"Got it."

"Let's follow it." Hulo motioned his friends forward after the little pony. It was just easy money waiting to happen after all.

###

Apple Bloom had to dart out of the way of another foot that came down almost directly on her head, trying to stay out of everyone's way. Brightly colored though she may have been, she was still out of the sight line of almost everyone on the sidewalk, and no one was paying attention to where they were stepping.

Without Big Mac to part the crowd before her, almost no one sees her as she scrambled between legs and away from bicycles.

Out of breath and scared out of her mind, Apple Bloom finally ducked into the doorway of one of the skyscrapers. It brought her out of the way of most of the crowd, but she was so totally lost that she had no idea where to even begin to make her way to safety. She'd never prepared for this.

Tears welling in her eyes, she hiccuped, starting to cry.

"Hey there," a voice said from behind her.

Apple Bloom looked up to find a scraggly looking man in an overbearing red leather jacket leaning against the building, staring down at her. There was a hungry look in his eyes, and it made her feel uneasy, her gut squirming inside her. .

"You lost?" The man drawled, his words thick with an accent Apple Bloom couldn't place.

"I shouldn't talk ta' strangers," she murmured, her ears flicking back against her skull. She said nothing else, instead diving back into the fray of the city.

Glancing back and having to look around her bow, Apple Bloom saw that the man was following her.

She started trotting faster.

Apple Bloom looked straight ahead, just in time to see someone dressed with the same jacket as the man step out in front of her.

She paused, hesitating, before crossing the street, only to stop when she saw two more dressed in the same red jackets coming from both sides of the street, herding her towards the alley between them.

With no choice, Apple Bloom entered, practically galloping now, only to skid to a stop when she found a fifth man dressed in a red jacket standing in the center of the alley, grinning at her dangerously.

Apple Bloom turned to run back out, only to find that she was too late and the four others following her had boxed her in.

"W-What are you doing?" Apple Bloom asked, wincing at the waver in her voice. She sounded weak and afraid, and that's not how you were supposed to act against a threat. That wasn't the Apple way. You were supposed to be strong!

She wasn't feeling very strong at the moment, though.

"You look lost." The first man she had seen stepped forward from the group, crossing his arms over his chest.

Apple Bloom clammed up. She wasn't going to say anything else.

"No need to be like that, Red." The man said. "My friends and I can help ya'. We've got this little place just down the street where you can rest, get away from the crowds and the noise. That's gotta be awful."

"I-I'm just going back to the hotel." Apple Bloom cursed herself as she spoke. She couldn't help it!

"There's no need to lie to us, honey. We're the good guys."

They closed in on her, forcing her flight or fight instincts closer to the surface, but there was nothing she could do. There were five of them, and she weighed 65 pounds soaking wet. What's she supposed to do?

This was so bad.

Applejack would have known what to do.

###

Coming to Earth had turned out to be a bit of a mixed blessing for Carmel Breeze. She knew quite a few humans that she'd met during her schooling to be a chef that called Earth there home, and Solar One's presence over the planet offered her the chance to catch up with more than a few of them.

The downside to the situation was just how much danger Twilight was in. She had been assaulted on the most secure planet in the galaxy. How was she supposed to feel secure anywhere else, especially the homeworld of the one who tortured her?

There was nothing for it though, and Carmel was happy to have been given the time off by Twilight when she'd asked. She'd received an invitation from Hugo Augustine after he'd learned she was there, to meet over breakfast, and of course her answer was yes. She hadn't seem him in years! After she'd agreed, Carmel realized she had forgotten to ask either of her herd mates whether they'd like to join her or not.

Lucky Arrow, though he wished that he could have come, had already set the day aside for working on one of the engines that had been giving him nothing but trouble since leaving Thessia. Honey Dawn, though she wasn't particularly enthused, had agreed to come with her and even offered to pilot the shuttle down to New York.

That breakfast had turned into a lunch after Carmel's and Hugo's conversation had become edged into the afternoon. They hadn't lasted much longer after that, and Honey Dawn and Carmel were just leaving the restaurant, full, content, and having had a wonderful time.

Well, Carmel had a wonderful time. Honey Dawn just suffered through it. She'd also heavily regretted the fact that she'd decided to wear her dress uniform, wing guards included.

"Thanks for coming with me, Honey." Carmel nuzzled against Honey's side, giggling at her wife

"Yeah, yeah." Honey tried to pass off that it wasn't a big deal. It was. She had just sat through five hours of discussion that she could barely follow, all about food and cooking and cooking supplies, but thank Celestia, it was finally done.

They walked together down the street in silence for a moment.

"The food was great, Carmel, but I'm not sure it was worth the wait." Honey Dawn finally said after they had walked several blocks.

Carmel just lifted an eyebrow at her.

"It was supposed to just be a breakfast," Honey Dawn whined. "We just finished lunch at two in the afternoon."

Carmel winced. Honey was telling the truth.

"Sorry, Honey." Carmel apologized. "Hugo always was a—"

"Hey!" Honey Dawn shouted, pausing as she saw something rather disturbing down the alley they were passing.

Carmel was just in time to see a group of five humans turning to look at them, surrounding a little yellow filly.

"Get lost," one of the humans shouted, waving them away. "This don't concern you."

"It certainly looks like it concerns me," Honey Dawn said, stomping a foot against the pavement.

"I told you, get lost—"

"Let me explain this to you," Honey Dawn said, her voice steady and sure. "I have diplomatic immunity, and I could beat all of you to death and I wouldn't get so much as a slap on the wrist for it. It looks like the five of you are harassing that filly right there, and I certainly feel that it's my duty to step in."

"Alright, bitch, you asked for it," the man said. He motioned his thugs forward, and they stalked towards the two of them, ignoring the filly behind them who practically collapsed in relief at their attention leaving her.

"This'll just be a moment." Honey Dawn rolled her neck, shooting a smug grin at Carmel Breeze.

Before Carmel or the filly could react, Honey Dawn lept into action and she showed exactly why she was considered one of the best Wonderbolts to have ever been trained.

She used the thugs against themselves, springboarding off of the scrawny man's chest and using the decorative armor on her wings to bash another's face in. He dropped like a sack of rocks, and the rest soon followed.

Carmel sauntered past the fight, making her way over to the shaking little filly, who had gone practically catatonic. She sat down next to her, and spoke softly to her. "Are you okay? They didn't hurt you, did they?"

"N-No," the filly murmured, and Carmel had to strain to even hear her voice.

"What's your name?" Carmel asked, placing herself in front of the filly to keep her from seeing the fight.

"Apple Bloom," the filly whispered.

"That's a very pretty name, Apple Bloom." The name reminded her of something, and it took Carmel a moment to think of what. "You wouldn't happen to be related to a pony named Applejack, would you?"

"Y-Yeah, she's my big sister." Apple Bloom perked up at the name.

"Well, then this must be the will of Celestia, the two of us meeting you."

"Why's that?" Apple BLoom asked, her voice a little louder. She didn't sound as scared as she did a moment ago.

"The pony I work for is looking for your sister," Carmel explained. "She's very excited to meet her."

The last of the thugs fell unconscious to the ground, and Honey Dawn sauntered over to Carmel and Apple Bloom, an inordinately proud smirk on her face.

"Amateurs, the lot of them," she said, scoffing. "Wasn't even a fight."

"Yes, wonderful work, Honey. You beat up a bunch of teenagers. You have made my knees weak and my heart has gone all aflutter," Carmel said in a flat voice, glancing at her wife.

Honey Dawn just rolled her eyes, huffing as she straightened her wings against her sides.

"This little filly here is Apple Bloom, the little sister of Applejack." Carmel explained.

"Huh…" Honey Dawn stared at Apple Bloom, and the filly shifted nervously. "What are the odds?"

"How about we get you back to your big sister?" Carmel smiled at Apple Bloom, and Apple Bloom smiled back, a nervous thing, but hopeful. She was back in safe hooves.

Apple Bloom nodded, then started to cry, and Carmel Breeze wrapped her in a big hug, rubbing her back with her hoof.

Honey Dawn just watched the two of them with a thoughtful look on her face. Carmel would make a good mother. Her eyes widened when she realized just what she'd thought.

###

After too many hours of frustration, Twilight had resorted to drinking quite possibly the largest thermos of coffee anypony had ever seen. Gilda promised herself that she'd have a long talk with Tiny Berry for enabling her. Still… Twilight did look like she could use some caffeine, mostly because she refused to have a long nap. There were deep bags under her eyes, and she'd been up for nearly a day, ever since they arrived at Earth the day before.

"Where's my Gordian solution to this problem?" Twilight asked, before burping.

"What?" Gilda wasn't sure what exactly she was questioning, but decided that it could work for Twilight's question, or her burp.

"Nothing." Twilight shook her head. Too much to explain on so little sleep. Before she could do anything else, her omni-tool rang. She answered it privately with a growl. "What?"

"Wait… Back up Honey Dawn." Twilight sat up when she heard what Honey Dawn was saying on the other end. "You just… stumbled on her?"

Twilight eyed Rarity and Pinkie Pie, and they shifted under the attention.

"Right, Commander." Twilight stared at the two of them a moment longer before looking away. "We'll meet you down there."

Twilight hung up, and then knocked back the rest of the thermos. Rarity couldn't wait any longer to hear what had just happened, and coughed.

"Honey Dawn and Carmel Breeze just stumbled on Apple Bloom, the little sister of Applejack, during an attempted fillynapping in an alley." Twilight explained, sighing and glancing to the side in annoyance.

"That's certainly…" Rarity searched for the right word. "Convenient?"

"And ironic." Twilight grumbled.

"How so?" Gilda asked, not getting Twilight's meaning.

"The Gordian…" Twilight trailed off before shaking her head. "Never mind. Doesn't matter."

Twilight jumped out of her chair and went to leave the conference room.

"Where are you going?" Gilda asked.

"To get dressed." Twilight said over her shoulder.

Gilda paused at that. Twilight already was dressed.

###

When Applejack and Big Mac had realized that Apple Bloom was missing, they'd both been ready to tear the festival grounds apart. A quick visit to the food stalls had resulted in them finding her omni-tool on the ground, the stall Apple Bloom had chosen to eat at, and the cook had been quick to explain what she'd seen.

A quick march down to talk to the festival security had confirmed their fears, that a security guard had thrown Apple Bloom out of the festival. After they'd finished yelling at him, they'd immediately called the police, until Applejack's omni-tool had gotten a call from a pony named Carmel Breeze.

Waiting in front of the front of the festival grounds with the security guard and his boss Applejack and Big Mac waited impatiently for the return of their little sister.

Applejack paced back and forth in the entrance, stopping every so often to take her hat off her head and worry at the brim. Big Mac sat stoically next to her, glancing over at her every so often, but the majority of his attention on the crowds walking past outside the festival grounds, waiting for any sign of Apple Bloom.

Her red bow was the first thing that he saw, and from there it was easy to make out Honey Dawn and Carmel Breeze escorting his little sister back to the festival grounds.

"Oh, thank Celestia!" Applejack cried when Big Mac pointed them out. She rushed forward and pulled Apple Bloom into a big hug, and the little filly collapsed into her big sister's forelegs with relief, sobbing out all of her fears.

Big Mac wrapped both of them in an even bigger hug, lifting them off the ground. "We were so worried, Apple Bloom."

Apple Bloom tried to speak, but she was unable to, sobbing way to hard, taking great gulps of air. She was a mess.

Big Mac lowered both of his sister's down to the ground, turning to look at Honey Dawn and Carmel. "Thank you for saving Apple Bloom."

"It wasn't a problem." Honey Dawn, the pegasus he figured, said. "Glad to help."

"She's a sweet little filly." Carmel smiled sweetly at the sight of Applejack and Apple Bloom.

"Eyup," Big Mac agreed.

"This was actually extremely lucky," Honey Dawn said, laughing to herself. "My boss happens to be on Earth because of Miss Applejack."

"AJ?" That couldn't be right. It didn't sound right.

"She can tell you more." Honey Dawn shrugged with her wings. "She's on her way here now."

"And your boss is…" Big Mac asked.

"Emissary Twilight Sparkle."

Big Mac blinked.

He blinked again, then looked back at AJ. She was looking at him, having overheard what Honey Dawn had just said.

It didn't seem real.