Space, the final frontier. Or at least, it used to be.
Over a thousand years have passed since Nightmare Moon's defeat by the Elements of Harmony, and Equestria's denizens have now looked beyond the satellite moon that once contained her, leaving their homeworld to seek their destiny in the stars.
At first, this was a golden age of discovery, settlement, and optimism. Great civilizations born of the species of Equestria formed across the galaxy, and incredible feats of both science and magic were accomplished. Faster-than-light travel, artificial intelligence, and wondrous spells flowed freely between the stars. With Celestia and Luna still watching over all those who had left Equestria, nothing seemed beyond them.
It was not to last.
What they knew as dragons on their world were soon revealed as a minor offshoot of a race that lived beyond known dimensions. Wyrms: creatures of immense power from beyond the galaxy’s rim. Affronted by the growth of magical AI, something they saw as an exponential threat, they gave an ultimatum to the galaxy to end their use.
Their demands were met with a refusal, giving way to a devastating galactic war between the elder wyrm race and the united galaxy, one that plunged it into a dark age, destroying all they had built.
Even as the dragons finally relented and fell back to deep space, none could truly call it a victory. Entire civilizations were crippled, and after one last colossal spell by the wyrms, born of spite and desperation, the magic that powered both the automata and the ponies’ own abilities was stripped from the whole galaxy. Without magic - the source of all intergalactic technologies - the links between worlds collapsed, and almost every planet found itself stranded and isolated, alone in the black once again. The age of enlightenment...was gone.
With no magic but the barest levels of telekinesis and scant amounts to power advanced technology, it took three hundred years of redevelopment to recover and reconnect their shattered galaxy.
Forming new civilizations to replace the old, the darkest days are a thing of the past. Those of the modern day see a new and stable age at last emerging, even without the magic that had once empowered them.
There were still upheavals. A malignant force used the stress of those dark days to corrupt the seemingly immortal Princess Celestia, transforming her into the malevolent Empress Nightmare Star. Her presence broke Equestria’s space into a civil war between herself and Luna. In the aftermath, the Princess of the Night now leads the New Lunar Republic, a breakaway collective of systems housing those who fled Nightmare Star’s emergence. Both sides remain in a state of cold war, divided by the length of the galaxy and the presence of the other newly formed empires in the stars. The Crystal League, the Minotaur Confederacy, the Zebraha Caliphate, and Avalon’s deer rest side by side between these two old powers, acting as independent bulwarks between the warring sisters.
Across a galaxy, billions live out their own stories. Their own adventures. Their own dreams of what the stars offer them in this far future. Be it the harmonic ideals of a connected and broadly peaceful galaxy, or the darker machinations of those seeking to use the complexity and ancient secrets of a galactic civilization to their own ends.
Now, on one world in the Crystal League, a young hippogriff is trying to chase the same steps those of Equestria took a thousand years before, the same steps all those around her have taken to disappear into the sky away from her.
To reach, and live, among the stars.
* * *
“Cadet Tammani! Your assigned place of docking is training hangar four, change course immediately! Confirm!”
Breathing heavily, feeling her own breath wash back on her face inside the cramped and thoroughly uncomfortable helmet, Tami let go of one side of the control handles and tried to hit the 'send' button on the flickering communication panel. It took her a few attempts, the pressurised training suit making her movements feel clumsy and slow. The moment after she felt the button depress, she grabbed the controls again to continue wrestling with the high speed of the training shuttle. Wrenching the sticks back and to the right, she veered away from the bonsai-tree shaped orbital station ahead of her, seeing stars whirl incomprehensibly in the front of the shuttle's thick windows, before a huge shape loomed from one side.
The reflected light from the terminator line of the planet below shone across the bow of the ship and blinded her as she sought to re-angle on the station. Enormous rings, shining like diamonds, suddenly dominated the horizon behind the colossal station.
Her voice was gasping, breathless. She was travelling at a speed she'd never even realised the bulky shuttle was capable of.
“You...you said it was hangar three before!”
The shuttle rattled as she fired the retro thrusters to slow her speed and reorient on a new approach. The g-forces slammed her forward and then down, straining the bulky suit against her restraints, until she pushed the thrust control forward again to launch into a new orbit of the station.
“Plans change, Cadet. You must be prepared to adapt.”
The faint, static-backed voice being so difficult to hear was a reminder of just how battered and bare bones these shuttles were. Designed as mock ups of VIP yachts or transports, they held none of the sophisticated systems, comfort or aesthetic. Instead, it was all replaced by dented bulkheads and reams of training and observation instruments. Her every motion, every press of a button or flip of a switch, was being recorded for post-flight analysis. Whether she corrected a mistyped frequency before she had hit send or not, they'd know. They'd made that clear. Everything was on the individual in Chrysolite's VIP Pilot Academy program.
But it promised so much if one could do it. If you could, then you could lay claim to a dream of touring the stars in the lap of the high end of society.
The weeks she'd spent here had put more pressure on her shoulders than she had ever imagined, as heavy as any emergency turn and burn. Now, with all eyes on her performance, her heart felt like it was about to burst out of her suit. Every limb felt stiff and ready to freeze up at any second. Her eyes couldn't sit still, glancing at every single corner of the pilot display consoles to her front. She'd come to rely terribly on the information they provided her, using every ounce of data they put out to help her keep up with the demanding program.
It had been tough lately. Several nights ago she'd been unable to sleep at all, and just lay in her bunk aboard the station gripping a pillow and trying to stop silently weeping after an instructor had torn her out over messing up the order of a start-up routine.
She shook her head, forcing all that back down as the station roared by the right hand side of the cockpit window. Picking up speed again, half squinting from the neon glow of various landing approach beacons floating amongst the black to guide pilots in, Tammani wrenched the control sticks and rolled the shuttle back on itself to re-angle its front toward hangar four. Drifting sideways during the manoeuvre, she used the remaining velocity on a transversal turn, spinning the shuttle on its own axis until it lined up with the new hangar on the opposite side of the station. The glittering and flashing multicolored lights streaked across the cockpit windows until it came into view, its shape highlighted by the bright white of the Chrysolite system's star obscured behind it.
It was a brief, beautiful moment that reminded her of why she was doing all this: a love of what was up here. The tranquil beauty of the stars. Others just called it 'space', but Tami saw it differently. She saw a place of wonders on a scale that no single planet could ever offer.
She had yearned to reach it. That was why she was here.
“I understand, approaching now!”
The roar of the powerful engines set the hull rattling, vibrated the pilot's seat, and set her heads-up-display rocking so badly that she could barely read anything from its thin lines and rapidly changing numbers. Despite being in an endless void, she felt claustrophobic within a tight suit, within a small cockpit, surrounded by lights, sound and a view filled with an enormous station. The hangar bounced all over her vision as she fought to remember everything about docking at speed.
“Warning,” a monotone female voice from the console intoned, “proximity alert. Object approaching at collision velocity.”
“I know, I know!”
Now the ship was pressuring her too. Tami slapped the button to turn it off. Pilots of the quality they wanted had to be able to launch, navigate and dock at higher speeds than normally accepted by the on-board software.
Daring to look away from the flight control display, she turned to her side and started trying to go through the landing procedure on the panels above and to her right. Grunting as she tugged heavy switches, she looked back up every half-second to pull the shuttle back on track while doing mental math and twisting archaic numerical dial-pads. The retro thrusters were primed. The landing struts were mid-way through deploying. She could hear their grinding hum below her. The physical and mental effort was making her sweat inside her suit.
The young hippogriff's talons gripped the sticks again, and she stared back into the flashing red of the flight control display. She could see the distance to designated landing zone. She could see her velocity. Everything she needed.
She could do this. She knew she could fly well, she just-
The flight control flickered, and then went dead.
The entire panel shut down with a low hum of fading power. Staring at a black monitor, then looking up at the rapidly approaching monstrosity of metal and neon lights, a void to match the vacuum outside opened in her gut.
She had no numbers to rely on. No way to understand what she was seeing. No pilot assistance meant no guiding automation or projected routes!
Tami felt her entire body clam up.
“No...no, no, no!” She reached out and hit 'send' again. “Central, do you read? Central! I have a major malfunction and-”
The harsh voice broke across the comm-unit's speaker.
“This is not a malfunction, we have disabled your pilot assistance modules. Fly it in manually. We've taught you how.”
She almost screamed. The shuttle began to wildly shake around as its previously planned route began to falter from micro-adjustments on account of her shaking hands, threatening to go into a three-dimensional spin if she lost track of the station itself. The controls felt heavy and unresponsive in her grip, but every tiny movement made the metal station and stars veer wildly outside.
She had no idea what the engines were doing. Manual flying in the event of a pilot-aid system loss was all about remembering the details from before, and understanding what controls added what numbers to your velocity or angle of approach. In a moment of horror, she realised she couldn't remember them.
Every second, they felt harder and harder to picture. Fear began to grip her, clouding her mind with clammy, insidious worry. She was hyperventilating, feeling a sense of vertigo overcome her, as the ship pitched, weaved and bobbed on its heading. Every time she tried to adjust it, the nose would fly even harder in the other direction away from the rapidly approaching hangar. Everything she touched was making it worse and worse.
“I can't!” she yelled aloud, barely thinking of how it sounded to her instructors. The hangar was rapidly blurring, as her shuttle started to move near-sideways toward it rather than in a direct path. In a panic, she hit the retro thrusters to slow herself down.
The sudden deceleration rocked the training shuttle, tossing her in her seat with a cry of pain as it spun away from facing the hangar entirely. The angle! She'd forgotten the angle! Seeing the station only once every second flying across the cockpit windows, the terror-stricken hippogriff grabbed the controls and wrenched hard in the opposite direction.
“Cadet, control your spin!”
Her fighting with the shuttle only seemed to make its flight path become more chaotic, the turnspeed growing out of control.
“Cadet, you're panicking! Control yourself and react accordingly!”
Tears forming in her eyes, she could barely remember knew what to do. Suddenly, starkly, the fear for her own life broke through the pressure, as the thought of slamming into the hangar and disintegrating into a thousand burning pieces shot through her. Screaming, she threw the sticks forward and threw every ounce of power the shuttle had into the engines, hoping against hope that she could throw the shuttle far enough that it'd miss the station and drift off until recovery.
The engines roared, then cut as the rash move threw a compressor stall through them. With a loud bang, the interruption in the outlet’s flow blasted the shuttle into an accelerating spin on a separate axis to the previous one. She smelled smoke. The ship spun and spun, her body was getting weary as the g-forces tore at her. A klaxon on board the ship rang out with a final proximity warning.
“Cadet! Use your-”
She couldn't hear the rest. Letting go of the controls, she covered her visor, curling up as best she could in the seat like a frightened child.
The rear of the shuttle impacted at speed on the side of the hangar. The tough training vessel absorbed the impact, bending around the station's superstructure before spinning and drifting away from it. Shattered panels and sparking wires erupted from the point of collision, and red alarm lights flared all over the hangar floor.
On board, Tami felt her body violently slammed and crushed back into her seat as the cockpit crumpled around her. The impact had been like someone hitting her in the back with a sledgehammer. The shrieking engines sounded like howling demons, firing inconsistently and pumping smoke into the trapped pilot’s cockpit. A dozen alarms were blaring and flashing lights at her from all sides. She couldn't even hear herself wailing in terror.
“Cadet! Come in!” The fading speaker broke into static. They were trying to establish contact, but her forelegs felt heavy and dead, unable to reach out to reply.
An eternity of stars, the ones she loved so much, began to turn to nothing but black in her vision.
* * *
The humid and still air of Chrysolite held none of the usually invigorating radiance that returning to planetside often had. Normally, after time in the black, the rush of colour was a pleasing sensation.
Not this time.
Almost soundlessly on its electric drive, the starport's connecting transport pulled away on the tarmac, wheeling around a smooth turn until it could once again repeat its endless cycle to and from the terminal building. Departing in a cloud of thin dust, it left only a single passenger standing by the empty road.
Tammani stood quiet and still below the metal sun shelter by the road with her scant luggage, her eyes not even raising enough to see the seemingly endless fields of wheat and corn that stretched out from the opposite side of the road. They, conversely, shifted restlessly, filling the still air with a low rustle. Their movements were driven by a sluggish wind that she couldn't even feel.
She hadn't felt a lot of anything the past few days.
For perhaps the hundredth time, she pulled the crumpled slip from her breast pocket, gingerly moving her left arm in its sling to hold it before her eyes. For the hundredth time she read it, hoping against hope that she'd missed some singularly important detail.
And for the hundredth time, she was crushed.
The past two weeks had been naught but recovery. A broken left arm, whiplash, and a concussion had been the lucky escape's leftovers. The shuttle, her suit, and the in-hangar response teams had saved her life; not that she'd seen any of it. She'd first woken up in the medical ward, but after the first week they had brought the news she had dreaded, and they'd handed her the slip.
Six days later, she now stood here in the sun, beside an impossibly straight road that divided the wheat before her from the one place that connected her to the stars.
They hadn't even given her time to go back to her bunk first.
Staring at the slip, feeling her still healing arm start to ache from shaking, Tami hurriedly stuffed the paper back in her pocket and screwed her eyes shut. She could feel the bitter frustration and anger welling up inside her stomach again. Like it was balling up and twisting over and over.
That was all she'd wanted. It was what she'd spent years reading every book she or her parents could afford about space flight, about the stars, and about all sorts of ships. It was why she'd focused all her chosen classes toward it. Why she'd worked so hard in basic flight school to earn the required credit for such an opportunity. Why she'd spent more time staying up into the early hours simply to look up and hope for a cloudless night. To go there, to see that boundless dreamscape. To fly amongst the colour, the grandeur, and the unthinkable. That had been her mission. She had been one of the few her age that had known exactly what she wanted to do in life.
And now that one opportunity was gone.
Tami felt her head pound, the stress and horrid craving for this outcome to stop joking and reveal itself as a mistake had been making her dizzied and sore state take much longer to heal than it normally would. She couldn't stop turning the issue over and examining it from every angle. Her breathing started to stutter as she began to hyperventilate again, just like during the crash.
What had gone wrong? She had put all that effort in. The books, the schools, the study. The shuttle had worked perfectly. The course had been everything she'd been told to expect. The instructors had given her every resource. The area around her had been empty of other traffic or any significant distractions.
There was just one thing had gone wrong.
Shivering violently, feeling her eyes well up as the crushing silence of being forced back to the ground kept becoming ever clearer because of the one thing that had failed.
Standing on all three good limbs, Tami stood and felt wretched, knowing it to be the truth. She had failed. She had ruined her own life's dream. There was no-one else to blame.
In that moment, she felt a creeping sense of anxiety in her head, telling her that she simply hadn't been good enough.
Overwhelmed by the last two weeks finally catching up to her, she wept and sniffed, a sense of inadequacy and shame entering her mind, one so strong that she didn't even notice the noise of another vehicle pulling up. Or the sound of the sleek and blonde griffon who got out moving around it to her.
His heart broke at the sight of his daughter and he immediately clasped her in his arms, carefully pulling the smaller hippogriff to his chest and stroking her mane gently and endlessly.
“Come on, let's get you home.”
* * *
Compass Rose closed the door to Tammani's room with a soft click and wiped her eyes with the edge of a wing. She had done her best to appear in control of everything until she could hide her eyes from her child, but the moment she had left the young hippogriff to rest off her injuries, Rose’s emotions had become impossible to keep down.
It had taken everything to not immediately turn back once again.
Rounding the landing on the upper floor of their home, she turned off the lamp in the hallways window as she passed to the stairs. It was night, and their quiet, rural town on the fringes of wide farmland was silent. Chrysolite's star was but a dull, light haze over the very edge of the horizon. F-class, Rose briefly reminded herself. Old navigator habits died hard. They led her to always looking to understand where she was, and how to move to the next place.
Yet right now, she just wished she could find some direction for her daughter.
Trotting downstairs, she spotted her husband. Gaius was still poring over the summary discharge documents Tammani had brought back with her. The griffon sat hunched on their front room's sofa, barely lit by the fire. His normally confident and bright demeanour, that spark of humour and genial roguishness that had so caught her attention decades before, now looked sullen.
Rose knew that look. It was the same he'd worn when they'd thought they had no way out: when Gaius took a determined mood to try and pull them all out of the fire. When their ship had lost her nav-unit in deep space. When they had been caught without FTL in a system with the Empire's navy scourging for every signal they could spot. When the Confederacy had impounded the ship and seized all their belongings. Every time, he would wear that look until he had a solution.
This was the first time she had seen that look about him since their retirement. They’d settled here on Chrysolite to raise their daughter in a more stable and peaceful environment. After spending so many years not seeing him as a captain, it was unusual to see that sterner side of him re-emerge.
Shuffling to the bottom of the stairs, she reached out and clicked on the light to their living room. With a start, Gaius looked up at her, as though not having heard her approach.
“How is it?” Rose kept her voice quiet, treading across the soft carpet to sit alongside her husband.
Gaius sighed, almost pressing the paper to his forehead, before swapping hands and running his talons through his plume.
“It's...” He hesitated, looking around the room as though for distraction. Homely, simple, and comfortable, their small house still bore remnants from their ship dotted around. Their old bridge seat covers decorated their sofas now. The toolkit they kept around was the same, still bearing tools they'd never need. Even their kettle came from the old ship. On the wall hung a section of battered hull plating, bearing the painted name and symbol of what had been their home for over fifteen years. The voyage that had permitted their early retirement in their forties to raise a child.
The Tammaran, and its symbol: a set of overlapping griffon and pegasus wings. Their symbol they had chosen. One that, by fate and some chance genetics, stood for something very different today in both their minds.
The choice of name had been all too easy for them when she had been born.
“Hun?” Rose prompted him, seeing the far-away look in Gaius' eyes.
He blinked and shook his head, bringing up the document again.
“It's not good. Not good at all, Rosie.” Gaius sighed, indicating the larger text marking both the title and the final paragraph of the VIP Pilot Academy's final report on Tammani. “Dismissal without chance of appeal, and removal of all pre-obtained qualifications on their ground. They don't want anything attached to them that isn't a full graduate.”
Rose had guessed as much, but still gently wrapped her forelegs around Gaius' arm.
“There's other ways, though? We could try and get the funds together to help her qualify as something else. The cruises? Maybe even the Pioneer Science Division? She's got as good a head for numbers as I do, or-”
“That's the problem.” He finally looked at her rather than the paper, before handing it to her. “The crash has been labelled as a category A incident.”
“Meaning? I'm an independent navigator, hun. Not a League pilot.”
Gaius' voice was patient and apologetic, “An incident that either resulted in a loss of life or, in this case, an excess of ten million credits damages. No-one but Tami was hurt by the crash, but a category A incident goes on a pilot's permanent record. These days, everything is connected. Even Republic or Confederacy interviews would check the League pilot records now.”
He sighed and let the paper drop onto the coffee table before them.
“There's not a flight career around would ever accept a pilot with a category A on their record. Even though she's more than qualified for training on most of them, that's all they'll see.”
There was a pause between the two, as husband and wife, father and mother, looked to one another.
“I can't...Tammani wants to...”
Rose took up the document, not wanting to believe the same words. Her eyes scanned the digital print from the Academy's Chancellor. She saw the 'must inform', the 'undue risk' and the 'cannot accept' throughout, and felt an anger bubble within her. That someone had willingly locked her daughter away from what they'd all knew was meant to be for her felt so frustratingly, gut wrenchingly unfair.
“Oh, Tami...” she whispered, feeling her eyes well up again. “There has to be...isn't there anywhere that-”
“Not with this.” Gaius got up and paced back and forth, restless and defeated, until he sank back down beside his wife and felt her wrap her smaller wing around his back.
Above them both, upon the upper floor in the darkness of the mezzanine, Tammani sat against the centre pillar of the house and eavesdropped. She didn't look down, but simply stared through the window at the darkening sky and listened.
She'd known everything her father had known. She'd known it from the moment she had woken up. But she'd always hoped that perhaps they'd see something she didn't. He'd been the captain of a starship for fifteen years. She'd been a navigator for just as long. They'd been up there. They'd always seemed like bastions of knowledge and advice to her. They'd encouraged her from the first day, and their support had cultivated the talent she'd needed.
Not enough talent, she reminded herself. She'd not only let herself down, she'd wasted the investment and time they'd poured in to help her.
She couldn't listen any longer, and quietly pulled her battered body up. Limping, she slid back into her dark room.
It had never ceased to be a 'clean but untidy' mess even in the time she'd been away. Her sheets half fell from the double bed when she'd sneaked out. Piles of books were stacked by the bedside and on desk and drawers. Astronomy, electronics, programming, aerodynamics, physics and space-art. The messy easel sat with a half finished quasar beside her prized telescope, a tenth birthday gift that her father had taken on a brief stint of post-retirement jobs to afford. The large window at the back that it stood before was open against the summer heat, its glass looking out over the rolling low hills.
It was a cloudless night out there, and already the dazzling twinkle of the deep black was starting to filter through the light pollution. Others just saw white light, but she saw so much more. The gentle red hues, off-yellow sparks, and brilliant silvers were hidden in plain sight to those who hadn't spent so long looking upwards.
In utter silence, she stared at them, lit by moonlight in her own room, until she could bear it no longer.
“Why wasn't I better?” she asked the empty sky, feeling stupid for even speaking aloud to herself. “What's wrong with me?”
Cheeks running wet and eyes stinging, she choked back a sob and dropped back into her bed, lying on top of the sheets. Head into the pillow, her shoulders shook and her wings drooped.
From the darkness at the back of her room, however, something shifted. It had watched her quietly, its energy having been spent since originally seeing Tami return a couple of hours ago. Yet now, over time, it was beginning to sense that something was amiss.
The Tami it recognised was here, but the Tami it knew had not returned.
Something was wrong.
As Tami struggled with wanting to sleep, but not wanting to face what the future would now bring, she didn't hear it approaching her bed, until a soft weight hopped up from the floor, bringing itself into view in the moonlight.
Orbit was his name, her golden retriever. Bought for the family, but in the end really connected to her, he now padded across the bed to her side and furiously dug and buried his head under her wing. Pausing to listen every few seconds, he eventually drove himself up alongside her body and pushed under a foreleg, until he could snuffle and prod his nose at her neck and face.
Orbit didn't know exactly what was wrong. Orbit didn't care.
Orbit just knew what made him feel better, and pushed in deep against the hippogriff. The same she'd done for him whenever the lightning had come. He'd felt safe and happy with her hugging him close. Now he sensed by instinct that he had to do the same.
Feeling her arm wrap around him and tug him in, he licked at her cheek and knew he'd done good.
And if he could have understood her, he'd have recognised the weak sound of a choked laugh, and a quiet 'thank you' as she curled up with him to sleep away the remainder of the horrid day.
* * *
“Driver nineteen? Tammani? Your next assigned fare is the Four Club, change over from the Tristarant job immediately. Twiddle will handle that. Confirm?”
Breathing heavily, feeling her breath simply impact on the humid air in the cramped cab, Tami let go of the control handles with one hand and hit the 'send' button on the radio panel. Her movement to depress it was lazy and limp.
There was no need to do anything fast here.
No reply came, only the click of someone shutting off their end. She didn't mind; talking on the radio made her nervous. Every other taxi unit tuned in could hear the communication on their very limited system.
Sitting back with a sigh of frustration, Tami rolled her eyes and made to finish off the quick meal she'd grabbed from the suburb market. A pre-made sandwich was about the most she could squeeze in between fares, although she'd ensured to spare enough time to treat herself. A tonka bean and orange oil ring doughnut. It was Friday, a day she always permitted herself one of the fancy treats from the little cafe beside the store.
In the two years since she'd gotten this job, she'd gotten to first name basis with the owner and made a point of sampling all his individual hoofmade treats each week.
Pausing for a few seconds, she held it in both hands, admiring the glistening coat of orange icing and patterned chocolate drizzled over it. A few nuts were formed into the shape of a bow on one side. Her heart beat a little faster as she anticipated the taste itself, and she closed her eyes even as her mouth opened.
The tangy explosion of orange in her mouth was more than enough to make her forget about the monotony of the job, if only for the few minutes it took to savour the pleasure of a sugary delight.
And there was a lot to want to forget. In the two years since her return, this job had been all she'd been able to get. She'd tried other piloting routes, of course. She'd even looked at in-atmo roles, but it seemed they had access to the same details, and she hadn't even made the interviews. Reputation meant everything in the League with your career, and they hadn't wanted hers attached to them.
Unable to escape the world, and unable to fly its skies, she had turned to what would let her move, and found this. Working the night shifts five days per week driving home party goers, air and starport arrivals, and those who'd gotten stuck for one reason or another.
It was, in a word, boring. Unfulfilling, stressful, and with no scope for advancement even at this lowest rung of the profession. The kind of job most people her age did until they could get their real career started, and for those who had become stuck needing something that took in anyone. At twenty, she was by far the youngest of that latter group.
Crumbling up the remains of her meal's packaging, she tossed it into the needless passenger seat beside her, regretfully raised the windows and went through the wholly unsatisfying startup sequence of an electronic automobile. Three steps. Three dull little steps to get moving.
Switching the LED board on the roof to 'Reserved', she pulled away from the street-side and slowly eased her way back into the quiet roads. The taxi itself, a family model like some toy imitation of a cargo hauler, was effortlessly smooth on the road and made little noise. The heads-up-display cast her route onto the windscreen, and she began the ten minute journey there.
The world felt empty at this time of night. As she passed further into the city from the outskirts, the streets bore only a few wandering parties, trying to find an unoccupied club. The real hustle would begin in a couple of hours. Neon signs flickered above the taxi, making her flip down the sunshield to not aggravate her vision. The journey wasn't hard, just one straight line through the centre, then a few side street turns.
Nothing so much as a nice country road with a few gentle turns to tackle. The taxi even had an autonomous mode for quiet street driving. Something she found painfully ironic was the fact that she had elected to stay manual, in an attempt to squeeze some form of interaction with life out of the work.
Five nights of neon signs, drunk and laughing public who couldn't care for her at all, and then if she was lucky and not too tired, two days to spend with her parents or the scant few friends she'd kept since returning.
Tami winced and felt a hurtful feeling shoot through her. 'Friends', only in the loosest sense. When she couldn't do most of what they wanted due to the working hours of her job, it rather put a hard limit on how close they could be with how tired and boring she knew she was. By this point, she suspected they were just entertaining her and didn't have the courage to send her away.
It was beyond frustrating. All her memories of Basic Flight School prior to the VIP Academy felt so far away now, like an old dream. The days when she would cry laughing with her friends, go on holidays between semesters, and hug at least a few different people every day between classes and exciting flights. Daytime, filled with colour, and her not feeling quite so tired all the time.
She had felt like the person she wanted to be. The bright and bubbly cute friend. She had loved being that for them. She had been close to them, knew all their lives; and they'd known hers.
They were all gone now. Vantage Vair to the League Navy; Poppy to the cruise industry; even Olivine had gotten a job with Basalt Industries right out the gate. They were off-world. They'd gotten to leave.
Pushing those thoughts from her head, she focused on her driving instead, and wound away from the bar streets to a more classy side of the city centre. Clubs here generally weren't so rough. If she was lucky, her fare might not even be-
“Aw, no...” she muttered, and thumped her head on the steering wheel. Her newly regrown mane flopped down around her as the automated navigation activated and pulled her to a stop beside the ponies she was due to transport.
The collection of mares by the roadside whooped and waved to her.
They were drunk.
Hooves battered against the side of the taxi before she could even collect herself and unbolt the locks. She wasn't worried about contact -the front of the taxi had a shield that barred them from her- but she hated these fares most of all.
Finally, the door whizzed open on silent hydraulics.
“OH! OH MY GOSH! IT'S A GRIFFON!”
“I win the bet!”
“No, it's not! Look, she's a hippo!”
Tami winced. The city's game of betting the final round payer on what species the taxi driver would be had never been amusing enough to even need to get old. It was simply annoying.
“Half and half then! Half and-”
The voice stopped, as seemingly for no reason the unicorn burst into shrieking laughter, joined by the others. Tami simply closed the doors, focused ahead, and began driving. She already had their destination from the reserved fare entry on her heads-up-display. Thankfully no need to interact with them.
The soft whirr of the taxi was drowned out by their laughter. Screeching jokes and yells as though they thought the taxi was a light-second wide led to a headache developing before Tami even reached the lights out of the side road at all. Gripping the wheel as tightly as she could, she took the taxi out onto the sliproad to the motorway.
The faster she could get them home, the faster she could hope for a quieter fare. The money be damned.
Arcing up and around the slip road to the elevated motorway itself, Tami tapped the touchscreen a few times to increase the cruise control to the now unlocked speed limit. It felt horridly restrictive; she couldn't exceed it even if she wanted to. Every taxi was fitted with an area recognition limiter.
Only now could she finally put the engine to work, and take the party going on right behind her somewhere she could be rid of them.
As the vehicle hit its stride on the motorway, travelling through the empty night, she did however feel something inside. A dull melancholy creeping up from down low. The mares clambering over one another and taking pictures with loud screams began to fade away in her mind. Tami's eyes focused on the unfurling road ahead, before creeping upwards.
She didn't mean to. She knew what this was. It happened every few weeks.
She started to think about what could have been.
It was a mistake, but feeling the sense of motion around her, while transporting others, and sitting behind the controls of anything; it just brought it all up in a deceptively enticing way. It would feel relaxing, a moment of escape to ward away the dullness. But she knew what would happen. It invariably turned to just upsetting her.
On her parents' insistence, she had visited a therapist after their worry for her had grown. For half a year she had gone and talked out her frustrations, until the slot was finished and she was sent home with piles of paper containing information on self-esteem, changing one's viewpoint, and post-traumatic stress.
She hadn't felt it had helped. What she felt she needed to fix herself wasn't what they could offer.
Tami had seen a dream before her, with her very eyes.
She had sat in cockpits and bridges of starships that had soared throughout the system, and even once beyond it to Turquoise. She had travelled at hypersonic speeds, and seen the glint of beacons, asteroids and stars slowly move across the window. She had been intending to carry the most important, refined people in the galaxy from wonder to wonder.
Yet now, she sat in a stuffy cabin of a banged up taxi, never moving further than the city within an hour of her home. She travelled now at her maximum speed, nought-point-nought-nought-nought-nought-nought-nought-six AU per hour, watching only dull streetlamps and headlights of other vehicles pass by the windscreen. She carried people who threw up in her taxi, screamed abuse through the cabin barrier, and only ever wanted to go to some dark home street or to another hideous club.
That was it. That was what she'd always knew that feeling did.
It always turned around and reminded her. Two years separated, months of therapy, and a loss of what she even used to have down here, with no future she wanted laid out for her...all because of her own stupid lack of talent at the helm.
Tami gripped the wheel and drove on into the black, hoping they wouldn't ask her anything. Right now, she couldn't have answered; this was not the black she had longed for.
* * *
It was the early hours by the time Tami got off the last bus and reached the quiet neighbourhood of her home. Finding the door still open she stepped inside without a word, so as not to disturb her sleeping parents.
Inside, she could now see the glow of an orange lamp from the living room, heavily indicating that caution was at least partially unwarranted.
Dropping her bag, she glanced through and saw the hunched shape of her mother silhouetted by the desk's lamp. Stacks of booklets and brochures lay around her, while the screen of a datapad sat inactive on a screensaver.
Compass Rose looked up at the sound of the door closing, and pushed a smile onto her tired face.
The hippogriff tried to force a smile back, hanging her coat beside the stairs.
Rose looked back to the papers, and stood up with a stretch. “Long night, then?”
Tami nodded quietly, and Rose quickly caught the obvious mood her daughter was in. She'd seen it enough times. Often the morning after when Tami got up, or whenever she stayed up late to be there for her daughter returning, like now.
“I've been trying to see if there's any openings about; got a few things we can look over in the morning?”
Tami's voice was dreary, and Rose clicked her tongue.
“That bad, huh?”
She moved forward and sat on the bottom the steps, facing her daughter. Gently, she reached out and hooked a stray strand of Tammani's thick mane behind an ear. She had been happy to see her grow it back out from that Academy short-standard to help her look past it.
“There, now I can see you proper, huh?” She tried to smile, to keep herself seeming relaxed, but she saw little reaction on Tammani's face. Sighing, she leaned her head on the banister and took the hippogriff's shoulder, feeling it shaking. “What's wrong, dear? Please, talk to me.”
Tami's eyes shot open for a moment, before she quickly shook her head. “No, no, just...I'm just tired. It was a lot-”
“Hun, I know there's more than that. Ever since...” She took a breath and paused. They'd been down this road enough times that she knew not to bring it up. “It's rough shifts, I know. But even when you're with your friends you're just not...you.”
“I just don't see where I'm going, mum!” The words were sudden and blurted, and she tore away from Rose, wandering back into the living room. “I can't get a job I want, I'm not good enough for the other ones that are like what others are getting, and my friends aren't really...”
She paused, and Rose heard a quiet sob. Something had clearly been playing on Tami's mind all night. Padding through after her, she found Tami sitting on the side sofa near the window.
“We just need to keep trying to find you some-”
“There isn't anything!”
The sudden rise in her volume caught them both by surprise, until Tami lowered her voice and continued.
“We've looked at everything! And...and I can't get any of them! There's nothing else I can find with that huge mark on every record they look at! No-one wants the hippogriff who crashed something and who can't even stay calm enough to talk to anyone important in a job! That's why my 'friends' just don't want to be around me, 'cos I'm just a failure, okay? I work a trash job and missed my chance! And I-”
“It's not your job that worries me, Tammani!”
Compass Rose' own voice drowned Tami out. She surged over to her, staring her daughter right in the eye, barely keeping the anger and frustration that had been building up inside her in check to hear her daughter talk that way. Tami's eyes bulged wide, and she recoiled enough that Rose felt a pang of guilt, checking the shout to a quieter, but stoic tone.
“It's not your job. It's not you finding a job. It's not about what's next. It's what I see right here! It's you. I'm worried about you! I see you constantly putting yourself down, and talking about how you're a failure at everything every time this comes up. That's not true!”
“It is!” Tami protested.
Rose's hooves took both of the hippogriff's hands and squeezed them tightly.
“It. Is. Not! I won't have you talk about yourself that way! One mistake doesn't ruin your life. I thought… I thought we'd helped with this a year ago. The therapy about the accident?”
Eyes reddening, Tami just looked away and shook her head.
“I couldn't even speak in the groups! And one to one th-they couldn't fix what-it wasn't just that, I-I don't know what I'm...”
“Tami...” Rose rubbed their hooves and hands over one another, trying to warm them as she felt how cold the sudden chill at night on this planet had made Tami on the walk home. “Finding you something you want to do just takes time. And we will. I won't stop looking till I do, but what I can't abide is seeing you do this to yourself. Honey, you're hurting yourself. Diminishing what you've done. I remember you telling me about how you broke Basic Flight's orbital transition record. How you had so many friends there. You can do that again. And we'll help you. You just...you just need to believe in yourself a little more.”
“I'm just being honest with myself...” Tami muttered.
Compass Rose let go of her sharply, stood upright, and sighed. The sigh quickly turned to a frustrated groan of annoyance.
“No you are NO-”
Her hoof stopped inches from the table it had been about to hit, and the brief fury quickly abated. Seeing Tami staring up at her with wide eyes, she simply sank down, and pulled her into a close embrace.
“I'm sorry, hun.”
Mentally chiding herself for letting her mounting frustration at his daughter's problems over the past years get the better of her, she simply held onto her, stroking Tami's mane with her hoof over and over. She could feel her gripping tightly back.
“I'm sorry I'm letting you both down, mum...”
Compass Rose couldn’t think of anything more to say that wouldn't make herself break on the spot, and so she just squeezed her daughter tightly.
Afterwards, she let Tami sit in peace as she got her a hot drink, and despite feeling an urge to go over possible avenues of life she had researched, instead decided to leave it for now. Perhaps she had been doing it too much, pushing these possible routes in life on a tired young girl in her determination to solve the issue. Tami wasn't like her husband, who preferred things so direct. Tammani had her mother's approach when something was bothering her, and Rose knew the issues she'd had with that sort of thinking in the past.
Seeing her off to bed, Rose watched her head upstairs. After a full minute on her hooves, staring at that door, Rose returned to her desk, feeling completely helpless and worried, beginning to doubt herself much in the same way. The sense of failure at not being able to fix things for her daughter was starting to root in deep.
It would be morning before her husband would find her still at her desk, slumped over it, with some of the papers below her head still damp.
* * *
“Tam?” Gaius called upstairs. “Tam?”
He heard the sound of a door opening, and Tami's head poked around the top of the mezzanine, her long mane arranged in a crazed mess. She was likely only just up.
“Could you fly down to the store? We'll need some more milk and some food for Orbit. Just a pickup, I called ahead.”
Tami rustled her mane, and nodded. “Sure, just lemme get dressed. Hey, Orbit? Walk!”
There was an excited bark, and the sound of four paws rushing madly around the room. Gaius could see the top of their pet's blonde head moving in circles around Tami. Even before she was back in her room to dress, the golden blur came rocketing down the stairs past Gaius, nearly headbutting the front door. Orbit sat up, his tail thumping hard against the entrance to their home twice a second.
Forcing a smile upon his face, he ruffled Orbit's head, and waited on Tami to hustle down after the canine. Her movements were slower and lethargic, not the excited flurry of wings he remembered her usually making to take her dog out.
“Won't be long, dad.”
Her voice was a bit brighter, and Gaius appreciated that she was still trying, but he could see the dark shapes under her eyes. Tami had not slept well at all, and he could sense his daughter was riding a knife edge of another mood crash again. Gaius felt tense, too tense to do much more than just weakly smile to her as he watched her get ready. He knew they had plenty of milk and dog food in the house already. The called order had another purpose.
Before long, the hippogriff and dog had both left. Only then did Gaius reopen the living room door and go back to his wife.
She was sitting at the dining room table through the back of the archway toward the kitchen, tissues in her hooves, and a small stack of used ones to the side. Sobbing and shaking, she blew her nose and leaned on a hoof, staring at the wooden criss-cross pattern of the heavy table.
Gaius hadn't wanted Tami to see this, and hadn't wanted his wife to have to be seen either.
“Rosie...” he started, and then realised he didn't know how to follow it up. Sitting beside her, he put an arm around her, gripping the pegasus' shoulder tightly.
“What went wrong?” Rose gasped and heaved the words out, hiccuping and screwing her eyes shut. “Gaius, I...I can't do this anymore.”
He squeezed her to his side, resting his cheek atop her head. “We've been th-”
“No! Don't even-” She nearly threw him off, tossing the tissues away to stand up and pace restlessly about behind him instead. Her voice raised, accompanied by heavy steps that knocked on the panel floor. “This isn't like then! We had ways out, and it was just ourselves and the crew! This is...this is so much worse! It's been two years, Gaius! Two years I've had to watch my daughter be upset and full of pain! We've been 'trying' all this time, always thinking the next thing might work, but it's not! It's not, Gaius! It's like some rival we can't even see. Like some fault that we don't understand!”
Gaius got up, trying to move over to her, but Compass Rose stormed past, still aimlessly wandering and knocking his hand away. His eyes narrowed, feeling shocked, even offended by her casting off his attempt to hold her. His voice raised to match hers.
“Rosie, we just need to get her to believe in herself! We've got to!”
“We've tried that for two years, Gaius! Look how far it's gotten us; she's worse than ever! Barely goes out because she thinks everyone's looking down at her, like she doesn't belong! Every time I find her coming home from a shift at that horrid job, she's like someone else!”
Rose stood up straight, shouting directly to her husband, looking him in the eye from the front. To his own shock as much as hers, he felt himself sighing and rolling his eyes.
“We've been through this every other week for that whole time, Rose. What else can we do but try to support her and help her look for something better? That Cat A on her record isn't going away!”
Compass Rose's wing grabbed and pulled his head back to face her.
“And it's not working!” She spoke sharply. “And it's tearing us up as well as her going through this each time she has a low mood! Because I can't do it this way any longer! I can't bear seeing her like this!”
“Well what else CAN we do?” he bellowed in return, knocking her wing away and sinking down into the chair behind him. “What? What else, Rose?”
“Something! Anything!” She spread her front hooves wide, an open invitation for something to emerge to help this, her cheeks soaked. “Because seeing her like this...Gaius, I'm going to need help too. I'm failing my daughter! I can't help her!”
He leaned forward, taking a short breath to calm himself, and holding her shoulders. “That's not true.”
Rose simply sniffed, the volume in both their voices having dropped. “Do you know what she said to me last night? That she was sorry. Sorry for disappointing us.”
She spluttered, gripping Gaius' claws on her.
“What kind of parent can I feel like if my child believes I'm disappointed in her?”
Gaius had to pause. The weight of what she'd said was slowly landing home. His gut turned and clenched, and he felt just what Compass Rose had the previous night.
“I'm going to go shower,” she muttered, and pushed his hands off of her. “I just...I need to be alone for a moment. Gaius, why can't we fix this? What was it you said? Back when we had four interdictors hunting us, when we knew Tami was coming? When it looked like there was no way out?”
Still reeling from hearing what Tami had said, he could only whisper in response. “That I'd move stars to keep her safe and happy, if I had to...”
Rose wiped her eyes and nodded. She got up, shuffling away to the living room.
“Why can't we both do it now?”
Taking a deep breath, she moved to the stairwell and left Gaius behind with his thoughts.
After some minutes listening to the sounds of the shower upstairs in the background, Gaius finally, slowly, edged his way into the living room and sat beside the fire.
His eyes found the desk littered with job applications and career event pamphlets, but he couldn't bring himself to sit there. Not yet.
What Rose had said was bothering him. She was right.
They had tried everything else. Science foundations, observatories, ship design, programming houses and everything more. Yet each time, any interviews had turned up negative. And while it hurt him to think of his daughter in such a way, he was convinced that half of the issue was Tammani herself.
He had seen her leave for the Academy, and he had been the first to see her on return. Sometimes, he felt like they'd sent him the wrong girl back. That nervously eager confidence she had grown up with seemed to have been stripped from her. Tammani had always been skittish, but since she had returned it had been like her confidence in herself had all but gone.
After her return he had written to the Academy to demand an appeal interview with her instructors, but no reply had been forthcoming. In desperation to restore some of his daughter's spirit, he had even tried to contact some of her old friends. He knew she and Vantage Vair had been close in Basic Flight, but every message he'd tried to send had been returned as unsent. Wherever the navy was keeping him, it was out-with his reach.
Last month, he'd even proposed a return to space to his wife. To try and locate a freighter wanting an experienced pilot and navigator. If they had to go back to the black and live on the move once again to try and help Tammani find something to believe in, they would. But such a search had shocked him. Advances in bridge systems to assist pilots had rendered navigators in the manner Rose had trained for almost obsolete, while his own credentials were twenty years out of date. Piloting was a whole different beast these days, and even designs he recognised had been refitted to do things he could only have dreamed of.
At some level, that only increased his anger at this whole scenario. Tammani was likely better qualified than he was now, and yet he could not help her.
And now it always nagged at him. Even if he found a way for her to get on a ship’s bridge, he worried that she was still so hurt inside that she would defeat herself in the attempt.
He needed a way to make Tammani believe in herself again. There was no quick fix, but even just enough to get her a chance to show herself what she could do.
Gaius sat back, yawned, and rubbed his claws through his plume. As he often did, he stared at the hull segment of his old ship and tried to think what he'd have done, had he still possessed the resources he once commanded.
Blinking, he paused and thought for a second. The resources he'd had? What resources? They'd been an old ship still operating on analogue components for most of their time. They hadn't had any mounted weaponry. They couldn't outrun much.
What had he done instead?
Staring at that hull section, and remembering the cause of every scuff, burn and bump, he knew only one answer.
He'd done anything.
How many times had he thought that in these two years, after two decades of being out of that life? How much had life here softened him to the realities of survival out there?
Back then, to protect his love and his crew, he'd have gone to the ends of the galaxy. That was what he’d told himself to do, if he had to. To do the stupid. Do the insane. Do the impossible. Do anything.
No matter how outrageous it seemed.
Denial shot in immediately, but he forced it back. Now wasn't the time to be cautious. Restless, he surged up and strode in a circle.
How far could anything go?
And in that moment, he had one last, insane thought. Reaching for his datapad, he began a search.
Eventually, after numerous mugs of coffee started to pile up, he finally entered a single series of numbers into his multiband, waited for the pick up, and began to speak.
“I'd like you to send a message for me to your boss. Yes, yes I am aware of who she is. Tell her that I knew her father, and leave the name Captain Gaius of the Tammaran with her. I'd like you to pass along a request for a ship search on her station's records...”
* * *
The next few months proved to be very busy.
Gaius had a lot to do. Thankfully, being retired left him plenty of time to do it.
He'd told Compass Rose his plan that night, and to his delight she had grabbed and embraced him, offering all she could help with. He was grateful; he'd need her.
He'd need her for more than just getting things organised. He hadn't said it, but Tami's collapse in mood over the past years had been wearing hard on him too. Captains often didn't let such things out easy, and the old habits were stubborn. All that had kept him going was seeing what was happening around him. His daughter was in pain, and now his wife was faltering too.
If he'd let himself fall to the same nightmare and oppressive feelings, well, the thought of what would happen to him and his family was too much to bear even imagining.
And so he set to work. This wouldn't happen quickly, and he had to keep it a secret. Much as he wanted to tell Tami right away out of a wish to give her hope, the timescale before being able do it made him worry that her mind would twist it with anxiety and denial until it would no longer work.
In the days after sending his message, he waited anxiously. During that time, he and Rose drafted a very particular message, and studied shipping records for Chrysolite itself.
By weeks end, they had registered with Chrysolite's goods shipping industry as temporary distributors. Rose had always taken care of short term contracts, and Gaius stood with pride behind her in the signing to see his wife talk up what they needed. A single issue contract licence; one to carry a shipment from Chrysolite to any registered buyer. Rose got the agreement in hoof, sorting through the mountains of League bureaucracy to ensure its validity.
They could send one shipment off-world.
It took them three months more, but after spending all their days and nights, they finally found some borderline obsolete cooling units for sale. They had been dumped by a corporation entering liquidation into scrapyards seven hundred miles north. They were being sold for almost nothing, and Rose had located a parts dealer two systems away willing to buy them for a price that would leave no profit, but also no lost expenses.
For any other seller it would have been pointless, but they had other reasons.
Gaius finally picked them up a month later. Lacking the budget to hire a logistics branch, he had travelled across the country to meet an old friend of theirs that he'd learned was still in business. Borrowing a mass transporter from them, he drove the goods himself, masked as going off on a 'guys holiday' with his old pals. Arriving back to where he had first seen Tami after all this nightmare began, he booked them into a storage facility.
While there, he also paid a visit to the control tower. He'd checked many records of faces he'd once known, finding where they had gone. Some envelopes changed hands, and well wishes were exchanged.
Some tricks of the trade, no matter how long he was out of it, never went out of fashion.
By the time they were finished, and after turning down eager -but confused- offers from various ship captains, Gaius and Rose finally got a response from the original message that had been sent.
Together, they peered at the monitor on their living room desk and read the short correspondence.
‘She's on her way. That uses up the favour my father owed you for the Empire job. We're done. S.A.’
Husband and wife looked to one another, and each saw the other's mouths brim upwards. Hand in hoof, they shivered, as an excited glee came over both of them.
She made to hug him in her joy.
She instead yelped in surprise as he, just as delighted, scooped his love of nearly forty years up off the sofa instead, and stopped her laughter by kissing her for a very long time.
* * *
Two months later, Tami was sleeping.
She'd come back from her shift only to find her parents still up and informing her that they all had to go help a friend of the family move house. Tami had tiredly complained, but they had been insistent that she could sleep in the car on the way.
Quiet and morose, she had done just that, curling up in the back with Orbit.
Her parents had been all over her lately. Taking her to dinners, trying to get her re-involved in old hobbies, and spending more time with her. She appreciated it, but felt like a holding pattern. Like short term smiles. Tami knew she was failing, and just didn't know how to address the problems she had.
As such, her dreams remained restless and anxious. Unable to find a deep, full sleep from the quiet rumble of the vehicle, she drifted in and out on their journey several times. The sun slowly rose, and let its searing warmth start to heat the open fields again. While she would never hear it from inside, the wheat began to rustle once more in the winds.
The same wheat she had stood in front of almost three years before.
The car rocked as it rode over a speed bump, and Tami jolted awake. Orbit was out cold, idly kicking his forelegs while leaning on Tami's chest.
The sky was bright through the windows, and she lazily pulled herself up. Chrysolite's rings were faded in the sky, arcing from one side of the car to the other.
Then she did a double take as she saw where they were.
They were driving over an enormously wide and paved area, littered with equipment, terminals, logistics vehicles and brightly uniformed ponies running to and fro around the objects that dominated the view.
Starships. Spacecraft. So many of them.
An enormous New Republic passenger-liner dominated the view and blocked the rising sun. Backlit, its azure blue-topped hull shone and glistened like sapphire. In front of it, organised rows of vertical take-off business shuttles stood ready. They were all identical, all built right within Chrysolite itself. Yellow and black, they differed only in their numerical identification on the sloped nose. Even their waiting pilots looked the same in their uniforms and coat colours. Steam rose from the crude, but monstrously powerful nacelles of a squat, powerful looking Confederate frigate to the right of their car, kept isolated behind tall fencing and security checkpoints. Minotaurs stomped around it, ripping a damaged hull plate off with their arms alone to begin repairs. It looked like an object had collided with it. Its crew were hazy, the ambient heat of their ship making the air blurry around them.
They paused to let a series of buses whirr past, and Tami watched two unicorns rushing with a coolant pipe to the underside of what she guessed was an Endeavour class mining unit. Not a ship unto itself, but one that mounted on the hull of the actual mining vessel, like a phoretic fish that held onto a whale for protection during travel. Under its armadillo-like armour to resist asteroid impacts, she could see the crystal tip of the mining laser surrounded by collapsed servo-arms. It wound past as Gaius started moving again, disappearing behind the corner of a low, but wide terminal building.
It was the starport. The same one she'd arrived back home at.
“Wha? Mum? Dad? What...what are we doing!?”
Compass Rose made a short, surprised sound, and turned to face her from the passenger seat. “Good morning, hun. Just in time.”
“What are we doing!?”
Gaius didn't look, but threw a thumbs up between the seats. “Honestly didn't think you'd sleep that long.”
“What. Are. We. Doing!?”
Orbit answered her with a sleepy shake of his head and a quiet, muffled bark. He'd watched the plans. Unfortunately, it wasn't the most descriptive answer. He'd mostly paid attention to the treats he got while keeping Gaius and Rose company during it.
Her mother just smiled, and reached out to pat Tami's thigh.
“Well, we didn't entirely lie. We are going to help someone move something.”
She looked over her shoulder and saw something that Tami couldn't. Gaius began to smile more warmly than Tami could ever remember, picking up from his wife’s line of thinking to speak up.
“And we definitely are going to see an old friend.”
Tami squeezed forward and peered between the front seats.
And she gasped.
Directly ahead of them, coming into view between a fuel truck and the lean hindsection of a police interceptor, she saw a ship that she knew. One she'd never seen in person, but would have recognised anywhere within seconds.
It was built, as any cargo ship was, around the main hold itself. The top half of the vessel was a smooth, angular shape like the armour of a beetle, stretching from the bridge to the housings of the vectored fusion engines at the rear. Beige ceramic composite plates were segmented over the black hull, inconsistent in sections where re-entries had torn the plates off. A second level rose above the hull, surrounded by thin windows to what she knew their common room. Below the ceramics, metal grey and treated black paint made up the less aesthetically shaped underside of the ship. The huge hold projected from down there like a big rectangular box to the rear, with the engine housings just above the rear cargo door. Traversing thrust units were kept in four places to the left and right of the hull, angled down from the recent landing.
Landing struts strongly held its weight off the concrete from six points, three either side of the hold. At the front, the bridge projected forward from the ship itself, and a metal wireframe held the feature she had always loved most about it.
The bridge itself was almost entirely contained within a stretched glass bubble. Wider than it was high or long, the windows formed almost all of the front and sides like an observatory suspended in space. Some of the window panes she knew had thin monitors mounted in them, connected to cameras on all sides. Only the very underside and part of the roof were made of thick mounting units, giving it unparalleled visibility, and had earned the class acclaim for its ease of docking and close area navigation.
It was a specialist transport class ship, meant for high value goods, but commonly seen as an ideal, comfortable home for those who preferred to live life off-world. It was manufactured in the Crystal League for its hordes of ongoing trade deals. It was an old design, over fifty years by now, but had kept the model chugging on through countless refit programs.
It was a Gleaner RB-Eight class transport, but as she saw the repainted iconography on the hull plating, she knew it was more than that.
It bore two wings overlapping one another.
It was the Tammaran.
And Tammani, seeing the place she had once been but had never visited, the ship that had inspired her own name, felt her heart beat faster than it had in years, and gaped.
* * *
The moment they got out of the car, Gaius began striding over the many cables and fuel pipes littering the ground to connect to the Tammaran. From its open cargo door, another figure began doing the same as they closed to one another.
He was a hippogriff, a deep brown and black one, but possessing a brilliant white smile. He and Gaius met below the engines, and there was a firm grasping of hands.
There was a moment of pause, before they tugged each other's hand in and grasped in a firm embrace.
“Good ol' Captain Gaius! Damn, it's been too long since you've come to see the old girl.”
“It's good to see you again, Aileron. How's she holding up?”
Aileron backed off and waved a hand over the Tammaran. “Good as she ever has! Vector manoeuvring is as clean and agile as ever, especially since we got the fibre optics in the bridge replaced a couple years back during the systems overhaul. You could make her roll with a single finger these days. Totally different bird to fly with that; you'd probably not even recognise the pilot's position.”
Gaius nodded with a small smile, casting his eyes over his old home. It was like going back to your old school, casting a sense of time lost and offering a whole new perspective. He could still remember the origin of those knocks and marks on the underside, alongside some he didn't recognise. Life had gone on for her since he'd given Aileron the captaincy upon his retirement.
Beside him, Aileron spread his arms and wings.
“Compass! Come here!”
Rose and Aileron met in a tight embrace, each exchanging kisses on the cheek.
“Nav-system still showing false event horizon warnings every so often?” She chuckled, holding onto him for a few seconds.
Aileron just laughed. “We've replaced that damn nav-unit twice now. The refit even replaced the core level code. In theory, whatever was causing that is scientifically impossible to still be in there now...but they still turn up every so often to spook any new crew. Guess she just has her own little quirks that'll never go away. Likes to keep us on our toes, does our Tammaran. Speaking of...where's the adorable namesake herself?”
Gaius and Rose both turned, as though to introduce Tami to their old friend...only to find she wasn't there.
“Where has she-” Rose began, before a rapid, excited barking caught their attention.
Orbit was living up to his name, bounding in circles around the Tammaran, weaving underneath its landing struts and leaping into the air. His head was angled up.
Gaius, Rose and Aileron all let their heads do the same, to catch a glimpse of the cream and orange shape flying at speed around the ship above wherever Orbit was.
Tami couldn't contain herself to simply looking at it from the ground. Feeling a surge of excitement, she simply had to see it from more angles. Now, flying low above the hull, she soared around it to take in everything that it had to offer. She finally looked at how the ceramics were patterned up close. She stared into the engines. She peered through the windows to the cosy living space, built up over decades of use. But most of all, she looked into the bridge. Its energised tinted glass left her frustratingly unable to see the exact details. They'd presumably left that enabled against the sun on planetside, but it meant she could only see the vague shape of two chairs and the hanging monitors.
There was a flutter, and she felt her mother's hoof on her back. Hovering in the air beside her, Rose giggled and rubbed Tami's mane.
“It'll be easier to see from the inside, right?”
Tami gasped, “Really?”
“Well, duh?” Rose chuckled, kissed her daughter on the cheek, and began to lead her down. “Come on, you technically lived here for a number of months, so you've as much right as anyone here to-”
Tami was already gone, and Rose felt a relief she hadn't known in years begin to settle home.
* * *
As they passed into the cargo hold, and up the gantry steps to the living levels, Tami observed the rest of the crew passing out. Each of them stopped and paid respect to Gaius and Rose on the way, even those that Tami knew were too young to have worked alongside them.
Soon enough, other than Aileron, their party was alone within the ship.
Aileron was talking about recent jobs and answering questions on how the ship was getting along, while Tami simply looked around. The common room was stuffy and warm with the air conditioning turned off, but it was crowded with hanging drapes to cover the hull and pillows strewn around a games table and kitchen, transforming it into a colourful, comfortable space to meet within. It looked well used and untidy, but something about its personality really stood out to her.
She could see the same passion in her parents. They looked as excited as she felt, with big smiles, laughter and eager recountings from the strangest of little findings. Live for fifteen years in one area and every inch of it will eventually have a memory associated with it, Tami figured.
Briefly, through the excitement, she felt a pang in her gut. Much as she hated to admit it, everything she was seeing here made her envious. It was why she'd stopped coming to watch ships at the starport since returning; it had been too much to bear whenever she'd have to inevitably go home again.
She began to feel like she'd made a mistake getting so worked up here. This would never be hers. As awesome as it was to walk within, and as much as she appreciated what her parents had arranged to try and cheer her up, she just wasn't sure if she wouldn't feel horrible again. The feeling always came back, no matter what. No matter how many times she'd tried going to movies, listening to music, painting or doing anything that wasn't to do with the big black out there, it always came back. Always. Like some spectre she couldn't banish that returned every time she started feeling like maybe she was starting to recover.
A heavy hand fell on her shoulder.
“C'mon, Tam. I know what you're really wanting here.”
Her father smiled down at her, reached out and hit the entrance key for the bridge door. With a loud grinding of its older hydraulics, the heavy metal gateway opened and revealed the short hallway to the glass-lined brain of the ship itself.
Well, she'd come this far. She'd regret not getting a peek at least.
“Sure.” She smiled as brightly as she could, forcing it out, and walking alongside him and Aileron to the bridge itself. Behind her, she could hear the ground crews starting to load something into the ship, presumably whatever it had come here to collect.
The gantry to the bridge was suspended above a cluster of wires and capacitor housings. Bridge systems took a lot of power to run modern FTL computation, and pushing all that energy into such a small section of the ship needed a lot of backups and electronic protection. At a glance, she could tell this one had to have already gone through the old changes from manual to automated navigation. Some of the conductors were too new for the class.
“Welcome home,” Aileron smirked, and let the final door to the bridge open.
Sunlight shone into the crowded passageway, even with the tinted windows. It made her squint, before she covered the sun with a wing and finally got to look inside.
It was where she'd have loved to live.
Open and spacious, the bridge had the whole crew interface on a lower level from where she was now standing. A short stairwell led down to it, with both pilot and co-pilot seats right next to one another, surrounded by a U-shaped series of terminal banks, modular function panels, and a rack of displays. Each of the colourful, animated flat-screens were clipped onto a window panel, projected over the window glass itself, or hanging on steady-arms from the metal struts between the panels.
Up above, surrounding her now, was an open space. Marks on the floor showed that some systems had been removed from one side, where she knew the navigator station had once been. Now, it was simply empty, but she could imagine hanging somewhere to sleep there, or placing her art in such a spot. Where she could look through the enormous windows on all sides at whatever was out there in the stars.
It was like getting to glance back into a dream.
Aileron nudged her from behind.
“Go on, Tami. Get a good look if you want.”
Nervous, feeling a little embarrassed, as though all the attention was on her, she flapped her wings and tentatively floated down into the pilot's seat.
The cushions were long flattened by whoever the pilot was these days. She guessed either another hippogriff or a griffin, given the height of the controls. But all the same, this felt...
In front of her, she could see a clear glass plane mounted on the metal of the crew suite. It wasn't active, but she could see the LEDs below to project the HUD right in front of the pilot's face without blocking their view of the windows themselves. A ship status screen to her left blinked and updated steadily with the ground crew's works. Rows of satisfyingly clacky looking switches lined her right. Most had taped notes denoting their purpose. Window tinting, door lock, and then rows for communication presets and master ignition startups. They weren't all in the default positions; the pilot must have customised the wiring.
Slowly, she put out her hands and grasped the much newer looking control sticks. The moulded plastic slid into her hands and flexed gently below them. To her side, the thrust lever was locked in place, but the main one in her hands shifted with ease. She yelped and nearly jumped as she heard the vectored engines outside moving; someone had left them active.
Aileron laughed. “Go ahead, look.”
He pulled down one of the suspended viewscreens, and Tami realised it contained the external camera's viewport, watching one side's engine outings shift, raising and lowering the ceramic shell around them to orient the outlets.
“They're so smooth.” Tami spoke lightly, rotating it around.
Aileron's mouth grew into a wide grin. “Roll rate increased by around fifty percent when the modern bridge got added. Responsiveness delay reduced by half a second in orbital conditions. The big switch from old to new. Had to get a lot of retraining done.”
Her father stepped down after her, leaning over the chair from behind. After a practiced glance over it all, he screwed up his face. “You don't say, I barely recognise any of this. Where's the FTL transfer panel gone?”
“Gone is the right word.” Aileron smirked. “Went out the same time navigators in ships like this got made redundant. It all feeds direct from the pilot control panel now. Right-”
Tami surprised herself, hearing her own voice cut in, as she pointed to the main pilot interface screen and drew up the FTL control tab. The blinking icons slid away and brought in a much larger scale map, along with a flashing OFFLINE note, given the state of landing.
“And look,” she continued, “there's the archive state for storing destination data, since the memory banks got large enough to-”
“-let us not have to put it in every single time,” Aileron finished, and winked at Rose. “And it doesn't send us to Kozani by accident neither.”
Compass Rose made a silent 'ha ha' gesture, and punched him in the arm.
Gaius meanwhile reflected on the new bridge system in silence, watching Tami point out this and that. The sight made him smile, and he was glad that his hunch had been right.
He turned and nodded quickly to Aileron and Rose.
The hippogriff returned the gesture and stood up again, “Well, I better go sort out the lads and ladettes their accommodation. That is the captain's duty after all.”
“And I'll go watch Orbit, I think. The ground crews must be wondering what he's doing here,” Rose added to that. “And you can tell me all about what's gone on.”
The pair turned to leave, but not before Rose bent over to kiss Tami's head.
Confused, the hippogriff looked up and around. “What? So what are we-”
The door to the bridge shut, and Gaius dropped into the co-pilot seat beside her with a grunt and began strapping himself in.
“Well, see...I've been missing getting up in this old girl for twenty years now, and I feel like another flight for old times’ sake. See, there's only one problem here. I haven't a clue how these new systems work. I need someone who does. Lucky for me, there's one sitting at the helm already.”
More words, questions and thoughts ran through Tami's mind than there were stars in existence. She made a strangled sound, mouth dropping open, and her hands letting go of the sticks sharply. Outside, feeling the loss in control, the thrusters all returned to their default position.
“Me!? Wait, but, I'm...I didn't, no, no, you can't mean-”
“I mean what I said.”
Gaius' voice was stern, but comforting and reassured. Now that they were alone on the bridge, he leaned closer and took her hands.
“Tam, I've struggled to get you to believe in what you're capable of for three years now. But there's nothing, nothing down here that can compare to what it is I know you love. To what I know pushed you to break records, graduate young, and get an acceptance to somewhere that few pilots can even get to in the first place. I've watched you, because I taught you. Remember when I hired that prop-plane for your fourteenth birthday to fly you around in, and I let you take the controls for a while even though I technically wasn't allowed to? Because I trusted you could do it?”
He gently put her hands back on the control stick.
“Just think of it as that, but on a bigger scale.”
Tami was frozen. From disbelief as much as worry. Her heart accelerated, thumping against her breast hard.
She bit her lip, looking at the controls. She couldn't believe this. It was beyond disbelieving. There were conspiracy theories about drives that could go through black holes that were more believable than this.
“I don't know if I can...”
“Of course you can, Tam. You're qualified. You passed basic flight training with flying colours. You know how, I know that.”
She screwed her eyes shut, taking several deep breaths. She wanted to. She dearly wanted to see it again, but every time she thought about it, problems kept coming up in her head. Bad outcomes. Failures.
“But the control tower-”
“Already looking the other way for Aileron not being present.”
“Th-the cargo he needs to do on time?”
“What do you think we're going to go and deliver?”
“But landing with the wrong pilot on another planet?”
“We're making an in space delivery direct to the client.”
“Without the rest of the crew? What if-”
“Only the bridge interface changed that much. I know this ship's every nut and bolt if I have to. And I have you for up here.”
He smiled, and continued before she had a chance to come up with another worry.
“Two systems away. Two days out in the black. Just the two of us to get you believing in yourself again. Pilot to pilot. All sounds fitting for a second chance to me, so...what do you say?”
Tami stared at him for a long time, feeling the sticks flex in her hands. Out of the front of the flat-spherical bridge windows, she could see Chrysolite stretching out before her. She could see the fields of wheat under the sun, and a small drop-off point for the starport’s bus service in the distance.
And when she looked up, to see the deep blue of the sky, that glass ceiling she'd been unable to do much but peer at through the nights. She could only just see the planet's rings through cloud and sun glare.
Slowly, her hands came off of the control stick.
And instead moved to pull across the touchscreen monitor’s primary startup sequence checklist.
“I can't wait!”
The smile that broke upon her face was three years of hurt shattering apart to Gaius' eyes.
“Then take it away, helm.”
Gaius contacted the ground crews and received the okay from them. The Tammaran was refuelled, rechecked and ready to go. Aileron had already completed the safety walk around before they'd arrived; as attentive and borderline precognitive as a captain as he had been as a first officer.
And yet, as he watched his daughter go to work, he was astonished. She was hesitant and clearly overthinking some things, but the way her hands danced through the ignition checklist of a ship she'd only ever read about was that of someone with far more experience than she'd actually had.
She hit each switch for the reactor, and Gaius felt the rumble pass through the floor as it ignited. By the time she had finished resetting every bridge screen to navigational maps, her hand returned to initiate the main drive within seconds of the reactor building up the charge required.
He was watching a new era of pilot before him, as she handled both helm and navigation set up. He couldn't imagine having to learn both and not having Rose handling one side of it, but those of today’s generation, including Tami, did just that.
“Okay, I...” She hesitated, then began to test the thrust stick, making a harsh cough emerge from each side of the ship. “Pre-flight checks are done, route to Mocca via Erinite is planned, estimated time at most efficient route is thirty-eight ho-”
Her father shook his head and smiled. Feeling a tiny flush of hope in her chest, Tami chuckled.
“...forty nine hours, if including a few orbital passes of planets and celestial objects along the way.”
Gaius winked and grabbed the radio from his side, “Control tower check, Gleaner name ‘Tammaran’ ready for departure and requesting air clearance. Flight account keyword is 'belief'.”
There was a brief pause with faint noises, as though someone on the other side was talking just away from the microphone itself.
“Tammaran you are clear for takeoff utilising vector two-seven-nine from centre point with a thirty degree arc of freedom until above thirty-thousand, confirm?”
“Confirmed, tower. Many thanks.”
“Very welcome. Fly her safe, Captain.”
Tami's look of amazement was, he had to admit, entirely worth not having explained the plan ahead of time.
“How far did you go for this?”
“As far as I had to. It's that sort of thinking that took us to the stars off of Equestria in the first place, and it’s one both of us needed to remember. Now, I believe the tower told you that you can go?”
He grinned at her, and Tami looked back to the glittering colours, shapes and texts whirling around her station, and across the HUD before her.
And she understood it all.
Taking the safety off the main thrust, she cranked the stick to her side forward, and felt the enormous satisfaction of a ship's gaining power about her body. Her bones rattled, and her displays began to flash impressive numbers to her.
Then as she depressed the final step on the panel all four vector thrusters erupted into life on both sides of the ship. Through the windows, the fields of wheat began to move downwards, and the horizon began to expand outward into a gently increasing curve. Hands shaking on the stick, she took a deep breath, and gently urged the ship to the permitted facing. Using the pilot-aid to gain the correct vector, she pulled back to angle the nose...and finally felt the sensation of being at the controls of something truly powerful enough to make the trip to the black again.
“Okay, Tam, now just increase the main engines a little to-”
Her hand transferred the thrust stick from vectored to main engine power, and threw it forward.
Both father and daughter were plastered back against their seats, as the refitted Tammaran's new systems surged reactor power into the engines. Fuel flowed in greater quantity and mixed with the engine's internal chemicals. Science and engineering came together to create what amounted to a localised fusion reaction, enough to power a whole town on its own, and thrust every ounce of that energy out the back of the ship.
Out of the window, Gaius saw the crew, Orbit, and Rose looking on from far back, in the brief second before they became specks. Eyes wide, he looked back to the controls to see numbers that bewildered him.
The Tammaran roared forward, angled to the sky. Willing, eager, even desperate. Speeds of climb it had never been capable of in his time were setting the compartments in the bridge rattling around them.
The entire ship rolled over ahead of the stratosphere, positioning itself upside down even mid-climb. The sky began to darken, and Gaius heard the roar of the wind outside quieten. He realised his hands were gripping the inactive control sticks on his side of the bridge out of nerves. Never in his life had he seen her flown like this before. There was a keen, focused drive to that brutal acceleration and high-G movements to roll in the air.
Much of that could be put down to the refit, but as he strained his head to look over, and he saw the open eyed concentration of his daughter...he knew it was more than that.
* * *
The Tammaran erupted from the atmosphere like a homesick angel, vapour spreading off of her shell like ghostly wings until there was none left to spray. It broke into the black, where the deafening, eager roar of its engines gave way to a tranquil silence.
What had been rough and furious soon became smooth and silent.
The engines cut, allowing the ship to drift on its remaining velocity away from Chrysolite’s gravitational pull and enter the orbital pathways around the planet itself. Free of the sky, the bridge's bubble gave way to a dark void.
Breathing as though she'd just sprinted the whole way up, Tami let go of the controls and just allowed the ship to spin gently amongst the black. Her eyes wide, she looked around in a slow, astonished arc with an open mouth.
She saw the black, but that wasn't all she saw. Already, there were the soft colours of the stars she had only just been able to glimpse from the surface. But up here, like glitter on dark velvet, they shone so much brighter. Their personalities, their tones, and their beauty was all returned to her. Soft, drifting fields of microfragments wafted across space, being drawn from the planet's own gravity to each of the moons by their own strange, still only vaguely understood pull. They filled space with soft blues, greys, and silvers, transforming it from the oft believed empty void into a canvas full of cascading watercolours.
And just there, at the very top of the bridge's viewpoints, she saw the enormous rings of her homeworld stretching over twenty thousand kilometres in diameter. The scale, as ever, was impossible to describe to those who had not sat there to see it for themselves.
She couldn't help herself. For the first time in three years, she felt tears on her face that were not from the pain of failure and regret.
Gaius finally sat up out of his seat. Mouth open, he broke into a shocked laugh. “What...what was that, Tam? What kind of transition was that?”
She nearly didn't hear him, lost in her thoughts. It felt like all the crushing hurt had been left behind her aggressive ascent, and a wave of soothing, long-sought relief from the hollow moods and pain finally flowed into her. She'd been afraid of even booking a cruise, even if she could have afforded it, worrying that it would feel like a taunting that she couldn't stay. But now that she was here, Tami felt it all over again. The magic inside her heart beating away, the passion flowing through her every thought. The realisation of how much she'd needed this crashed down upon her.
The sound of her father’s voice finally penetrated her transfixed stare. Heart in her mouth, she gulped, trying to control her emotions as she caught up with what he’d said, speaking without ever letting her eyes drift from those bright, long missed stars.
“It...it was just, y'know, standard? I mean, I figured that if you rolled on your back, then it means come the edge you're already in the right angle to accept the gravitational slingslot, right? Soooo...so you need to push it a bit more, maybe another couple hundred metres a second extra to account for it, which is what makes it faster?” She finally looked over and bit her lip. “Did I do something wrong?”
Gaius just gaped, and then laughed. He grabbed her hand with both of his and squeezed it tightly. “No! I...Tami, I've seen pilots with years of experience not leave a planet like that! To get the aerodynamic angles and timing right for arcing while at escape velocity is just...”
He had to fight to control himself, and leaned over into a hug, clutching the seemingly frozen hippogriff in his arms. “I've never gotten to see you fly a ship with my own eyes...you never told me you were doing things like that!”
She blushed, bashfully turning her head away even as his hug enveloped her. “I mean, I never thought much of it.”
He simply laughed. That was the daughter he'd missed. The one who had muttered that it had been 'no big deal' when she broke a record at Basic Flight's final. Opening one eye, he noticed the titanic rings on their slow dance across the orbital plane.
“Well then, why don't you show me what you know?”
She caught his eye and remembered something she'd always wanted to do. No flight academy, basic or VIP, would have ever permitted it.
She had watched those rings all her life, but she'd never gone near them.
Smiling, feeling a bolstering pride from her takeoff impressing her father, she leaned back, tightened her straps, and slammed the thrust stick forward.
With both of them grinning like idiots, the ship launched forward. Fusion engines casting a blue streak behind her, the cream and black metal vessel careened into the light blue haze of the drifting fields. It stood out against them, like a singular fish in a vast ocean, even though they were still hundreds of kilometres from the main bodies of the rings.
At the urging of her father to 'go wild', Tami let the excitement in her heart bubble over to her actions, and she made the Tammaran dance. Wrenching on the controls, she set the vector engines to whirr and turn, blasting their forces out at strange and oft unused angles to make the Tammaran jink and spin on its route. Roaring and curving around to submerge into the azure mists before ratcheting back up again. Cresting out of the dust and ice fields, trailing blue vapour from each edge until diving back among them again, Tami drove her family's ship deep toward the rings themselves.
The smile upon her face was held rigidly strong. Colours washed across the windows, with the micro impacts harmlessly deflecting and sparking around them off the hull. Gaius watched the velocity indicator climb until it bypassed the highest reading he'd ever known the Tammaran capable of. Its new engines were powering it to a full thirty percent higher manoeuvring velocity than their old limitations, and they showed no sign of abating their climb.
He held himself silent, as the rings suddenly spun upside down and Tami rolled, dove, and skimmed around the first enormous chunk of ice and minerals that made up Chrysolite's rings. Mid-way around, the ship righted and rolled the opposite direction, before he heard the hydraulics of the vector-engines scream. His gut churned, as the Tammaran lifted her back end, stood on her head, spun, and drifted 'downwards' and backwards until the fusion engines re-ignited and arrested the transversal movement.
Her eyes glued to the pilot-aid screen, Tami absorbed and factored in every proximity alert and every marker on the three-dimensional HUD holograms to weave, accelerate, turn and spin her way through the mass of slowly rolling objects.
Her face cast in the blue light of the rings, the joy in her eyes infectiously being taken up by her father, she let the Tammaran rocket around, above, below, and once even through the varied shapes drifting amongst those beautiful lines. Every so often, she would let the ship leap out of the top, before turning and diving back in, leaving an eruption of sparkling ice in her wake that drifted into the clouds surrounding them.
She felt the urges. The reactions. Dropping down, she brought the Tammaran to within fifty metres of an asteroid, blasting dust from its surface up behind her while veering between mountain-like shapes across its surface. To the awe of her father, she would spin and roll within those turns, her flying relaxed and precise. He had never learned these sensitive, fluid new systems. He was used to wrestling ships to and fro, but here he knew that the ship that had once been his had evolved beyond him. It was capable of things he could never have led it to.
And here, he had those new limits demonstrated to him by someone who could.
The thought of who it was doing it made him want to shed a tear with pride.
They spent thirty minutes in silence, before she pointed out something incredible. A green ice deposit, coloured by the ores held deep within its hard rock. That got them talking, directing with claws to the rainbow of colours they were finding in the outer rings. He spotted an ancient satellite that had somehow ended up there. They witnessed two asteroids colliding in a spray of debris, a field that he was stunned to find Tami flew towards and began rocketing through with fine angling and aggressive manoeuvring that had him gasping and holding the edges of his chair. The look on his face made her laugh.
Finally, as the ship began to flash overheat signals, she angled the Tammaran up, and rocketed out into the space beyond their world. There, she shut down the main engine to let it cool and lay back in the seat, sweating and giggling.
“Tam, I said it when you graduated Basic Flight, but you're a natural.” He finally breathed, feeling his hands still shivering. Those last spatial aerobatics had been astounding, and clearly the result of her VIP Academy training bringing out the gift she had, no matter how that had ended.
She had so many things to say, but instead she just launched out of her chair and hugged around his neck. Sobbing happy tears, laughing, smiling, and thanking him over and over.
They stayed that way for some time, as relief finally soothed the hurt. Eventually, as the emotional well began to finally run dry, they sat enjoying a small tub of ice cream he'd found in the fridge on board.
He had one more thing to bring up.
“Tam, we've been looking to find you a way to go...but we'd been thinking about it all wrong.”
That got her attention, and she looked up from her treat with curious eyes. “What do you mean? I mean, we know no-where-”
He waved a hand idly. “No, nowhere like that. See...obviously my first thought was Aileron taking you on. I know he would if he could, but he's registered now. He wouldn't be able to take you, same reason as before. But this ship, it wasn't always like that. Long ago, when we first started out, we were independents. We worked the fringes, not as part of a corp. Freelancers, self employed traders, whatever you want to call it. And it got me thinking...”
Tami felt her heart begin to race already. She figured she knew where he was going, but the thought hadn't ever occurred - at least not in any plausibility.
“See,” Gaius continued, “my problem was...you weren't you. I was afraid that if I sent you out like you were, then things might end up worse. I was afraid. But what I just saw there? Tami...you're not just a good pilot. You're an incredible pilot, when you believe in your own ability. It's all there, deep down, and when you're smiling - when you're going into it knowing you can do it, you do what you just did. That makes me feel that perhaps we can look farther afield. What you have has to fly, it's criminal to keep it down on the ground.”
“Wait, you mean-” She stopped and gasped.
He nodded. “There's places in the peripheries. Not quite safe, but not wholly lawless. Places you can find work. Places who would love a pilot like you. That would even love a person like you on board. It's not just your flying; it's who you are too. The periphery is free space, but that doesn't mean it's all pirates and crime lords like the vids imply. There are good people out there who simply prefer living that way, like I once did. To not have any shackles holding them down. Who can go where they want. Do what they decide. See what they want to see.”
He put down his tub and stroked her mane to hook it behind her ear.
“Port Medusa. An old independent station. I used to do jobs for its last owner during the war, and from what I know his daughter keeps it tightly controlled. They don't look at past records the way the League does here, not for the kind you'll be talking to. We could afford you a shuttle there. If you find people you're safe with and trust, then you might find what you're after. If not, come on home and we'll look at something else.” Gaius winked. “If you're up for a challenge again.”
Tami waited for a few solid seconds to process all that, before a singular little voice from years ago suddenly rose up, and she took a sharp gasp to answer.
“YE-ABSO-PLE-I-I-I...oh gosh, YES! I mean, yes! Yes! I'll give it a shot! At the very least I get to go to the periphery? Yes! Did I say yes? Sorry, I mean...oh gosh! YES!”
They embraced once more, with Gaius laughing at her tripping over a dozen thoughts.
“Now,” he teased, knocking her shoulder. “Come on, we've got a delivery to make, and a few sights to see.”
* * *
The starport was, for the fourth time in her life, a place of great change.
Tami stood with the same bags about her, only now carting her collapsible canvas stand with her, and far more items for personal enjoyment than before. Her crafts set, fancy treats, paints and her own blankets just for starters.
Standing at the edge of the terminal gate for the departure lounge, she was hugging her mother tightly.
“Try to send us updates on how you're getting on, okay? On who you find, and what ship, and where you're going.”
Tami giggled. “Yes, mum! Yes, yes, okay!”
She knew her mother was just teasing with the 'typical mother' routine, but Tami knew she wanted to send all those reports anyway. If anything just to show them everything she found out there.
Compass Rose gave her one last squeeze, making her stuffed bags rattle around her. Rose was trying to hold back the tears, not knowing if they were because Tami was leaving again, or if it were simply out of happiness to see her find a direction, or an avenue to one at the least.
“I knew you'd pull through, honey. I knew.”
Equally teary eyed, Tami looked her back in the eye, and up to her father too. She wanted to say thank you again and again, but she'd already done it at her going away dinner. And at new years. And while packing. And when her mother had bought her a tech-set to take with her. And when her father had given her all the advice she'd needed on what to buy on the stop off point before Medusa.
“Thank you so much...” She could barely say it through a cracking voice.
If Rose had wanted to rush forward and hug her again, she was too slow.
Orbit got there first.
Rapidly barking, the golden blur slammed into Tami, knocking her clean off her hooves and feet with a clatter of dropped luggage. She fell laughing, grasping, stroking and hugging her lifelong friend.
“Haha! Thank you too, Orbit! You never gave up on me either, did you, boy? Good boy!”
Orbit's two favourite words had been uttered. He leapt up, bounding from front to hind legs, and conducted a five lap orbit of the entire group. He only saved the five lap ones for special occasions.
Behind them, the bonging announcement board flickered over and advertised the flight to Mothellum. The fringe Empire system before the periphery. She'd transfer to more local shuttles from there. The big transport lines didn't go any farther.
Trepidation threatened to overwhelm her. She, more than most, knew the distances involved.
But for once in her life, she gathered her resolve. From somewhere deep down, it emerged and pushed her to kiss her parents, hug her dog, collect her things, and depart.
Behind her, watching Tami depart for her second chance, Gaius and Compass Rose held hand in hoof.
They'd chosen her name for the ship that had brought them together, and thus brought Tammani to this world.
Somehow, they'd both known that this had to be how it was, to watch that name once again take to the stars.
* * *
Tucked into the shuttle, Tami watched the rings of Chrysolite once again.
Yet despite all the emotion she didn't feel like she was departing a place she belonged.
Looking out to the black, she was home.
Home was out here. She'd always known it. Always wanted it to be that way.
Some people considered their house their home. Others their town, or their country, or even their world.
But Tami didn't see it that way. She'd always seen her home as more than that. As a larger scale. This galaxy, and all of known space and its wonders, were her home. She simply saw her house as a lot bigger than most others.
And who ever wanted to stay in one room forever?
Feeling her gut churn at the shuttles transition into a surreal rift in its FTL spool up, it only fed her excitement to see the vessel being sucked into the surging colours of infinity. As the shutters closed, she sat back and kicked her hooves in excitement.
Now. Finally, she could say it was 'now'.
Now was the time to finally see what else her home had in it.
* * *
(Note: The beginning of the tabletop game pre-dates the MLP Movie, as such the hippogriff design/naming scheme we know today didn't exist back then! Image by Kalemon)
Tami will be returning in another chapter of her story here very soon. In the meantime, if you would like to see what happened when Tami left to find a ship during the tabletop game (Named, amusingly, "Space Horse") between this and the next story , then please check out the "Space Horse Game Sessions Summaries" from Sessions #1 to #30. This doc by Snipehamster tracks all that happened, check it out!