• Published 22nd Sep 2019
  • 1,506 Views, 154 Comments

A Home in the Black - FuzzyVeeVee



In the space-faring future of Equestria's galaxy, the unwitting crew of the cargo vessel Claudia set out to find a home in the space between worlds delivering goods. But of course, the galaxy always has trials to throw at those who venture forth

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One Of Those Days

Author's Note:

The events described in this story's introduction concern Session #31 to roughly Session #83, which can be read in the Session Summaries document. However, knowledge of these is not required for this story. One Of These Days is not part of the tabletop game's story, taking place at an indeterminate time between sessions and (other than the crew) the characters who show up in person are of my own design.

In effect, this is the first adventure I wrote for the crew of the Claudia that was independent of the game they originated from, and marks the largest thing I wrote since ending MN7. Hence the size. This is a full and proper story this time.

I hope you enjoy. This one was an absolute delight to put together.

Quickly becoming firm friends, Claudia's crew truly began their lives in the black. Running cargo for legal and occasionally less-than-legal reasons, transporting ponies to where they needed to go, and generally all the jobs they could manage to put together to make ends meet.

There were more than enough unusual encounters along the way. From dangerous clashes with pirates, minefields, and crime syndicates to intriguing meetings with an NLR spy (a stoic field agent known as Whisper Step, who Tami quickly began looking up to in fangirl-like awe), pirate royalty (whose name was almost as long as her bank balance) and even a mysterious unicorn who still retained the use of magic spells...

But between each adventure, there was always the next job. The next job meant next month's pay. It meant the fuel to jump into the extradimensional realm of magic space for FTL speeds, and repairs needed to keep flying. Altogether it meant opportunity, and opportunity, just like the next job, could come from anywhere.

Now, after receiving an invite for a new job in the Confederate system of Kavala, Claudia has set a course to meet their contact for the unknown task ahead...

Claudia's route from Port Medusa to Kavala (Green line)


One Of Those Days

* * *

The quiet droning of a starship was something that any spacefarer got used to in time. That distant, bassy rumble of a fusion-core reactor sounded more or less the same no matter where you were on board, and after so long in the black anyone could be forgiven for getting so used to it that lacking it meant for restless nights.

But while aboard and in your own bed, it could also be the most relaxing, reassuring reminder that you were somewhere comfortable and warm, held cosy and safe inside a metal hull away from the void with nothing for unthinkable miles around to disturb you.

It meant deep sleeps and low stress levels, especially to those who had been born off-world that had grown up with such sounds all their life.

This easy aura of dozy serenity also happened to explain Hair Trigger's incalculable hatred of her multiband's furious beeping as it tried its hardest to shatter that very bliss and wake her up.

The keening sound penetrated every level of comfort, amplified by the sheer metal walls and sloped ceiling into an echoing, painful lance of irritation that speared deep into her slumber, dragging her consciousness kicking and cursing into the waking world.

Her eyes didn't open at the same time. Instead, they took an uneven, alternately blinking route that never quite made it all the way to the eyebrows. She was facing the wall at the rear of her quarters, the dull mixture of grey and brown just a gentle hint in the lightless room. It felt like every shrill alarm was bouncing off it and somehow hammering into her retinas rather than her ears.

"Mmrrr!?"

Her eloquent question as to the multiband's gumption to ring this early went unanswered, other than for the automatic snooze setting to increase the volume even further, before sharply cutting off.

Groaning, dragging hooves that weighed as much as one of Claudia's nacelles up to rub at her face, Hair Trigger closed her eyes. The covers were too warm to want to move. Too close. Too inviting. The depression in her bed she usually slept in was too form-fitting. The world could wait. It'd have to. By the time that even the closest thing you could call a world light years away would be able to reply to her mentally projected message to get stuffed, she'd have gotten the extra sleep she felt she richly deserved.

This, she concluded, was a captain's privilege.

The logic was sound to the fuzzy-headed unicorn, and she let her straining body collapse back down into the bent pillow with a long exhalation.

Disappointed that it had been ignored, the multiband - a normally wrist-worn smart device - on the desk at the far end of the room decided in its infinite wisdom to try again, and thus a sharp, frantic buzzing again filled the almost silent room. Clearly, it figured, its owner must have just not heard it.

The sudden glow of telekinesis under the covers, and the grip of magic around the device that started to blindly and haphazardly attempt to hit the 'Stop' button against the desk made clear that there was a mighty disagreement with that conclusion.

Only vaguely certain she even had the right object by the sound of the alarm changing tone from being turned over and over, Hair Trigger fumbled and fought her sense of magic around the multiband, not able to feel or see it from under the covers clenched around her head. Drawing it this way and that, making the sound garble in ways that only further violated her sleep, she finally gave it a rough tug with her horn's imprecise magic, sure that she had the stop button on the side depressed now.

Instead she felt her sleepy magic falter, and the sense of an object held in it suddenly disappeared.

A second later, she heard the polymer screen of the multiband crack on the metal floor.

"Oh fer f-" The expletive didn't even get to finish before a long groan overtook the word, growing into a frustrated growl. Finally, the realisation that she'd have to get up slammed home like a harsh dose of reality, and she didn't enjoy it one bit.

Muttering and sighing, Hair Trigger pulled herself upright - or at least tried to. Eight attempts later, she finally got her top half up and slumping forward, just to sit idly for a couple minutes more. Her mane drooped, hanging over her face and neck even without her cap to push it down, while her muscles rebelled at being asked to perform such a horrendous action as 'moving'. Even the loose shirt she wore to bed felt clingy and sweaty all of a sudden. Rubbing her cheeks, she glanced over and saw the glint of the multiband's broken screen still functioning, but with half of it displaying a corrupted image.

"Oh, you stupid idiot..."

Muttering to herself in annoyance at her own clumsiness and swinging the covers off her, Claudia's captain finally forced herself to get up and deal with it. A bad wakeup was just another thing to push past; a good shower would see things right.

Pausing at every step, she nodded repeatedly to psyche herself up for leaving bed, crammed her hat on her head, and hopped off the side.

"Right, let's-"

Her right hind-hoof, unfortunately, managed to unerringly locate the multiband’s upturned charging plug with all her weight behind it, and the device exacted its revenge via proxy.

For the second time that morning, the relaxing drone of the reactor was interrupted by a very loud - and this time very angry - scream, an even louder set of curses, and a crash of dividing screens being knocked over.

Thrashing, tossing the fallen screens off of her and beating her foreleg on the bed in anger, Hair Trigger seethed at the lancing pain that fired up her hind leg. It had gotten right into the soft tissue at the very edge of the frog. Throbbing, stinging, arching up and down, she yanked herself up, reeled off a dozen words she'd never repeat around the crew in quick succession, and picked up the offending object.

"It's gonna be just one of those mornings, isn't it?"

She snorted at the plug, hurled it onto her bed in frustration, and limped painfully for her desk, wincing on every step. It felt like stepping on a nail every time her hoof touched the deck.

Hair Trigger hadn't even gotten halfway to the door after setting the multiband on the desk before her personal ('Captain's', she would insist) ship terminal began its own blooping and bleeping, followed by the sound of a beer can being opened.

Stopping on the spot, Hair Trigger ran a hoof down her face and scowled. It meant mail. The can opening sound had been her choice of the default set of alert sounds, but it was quickly beginning to lose its appeal. Perhaps, she figured, it was less to do with the exact sound and more to do with what it represented. Who else but a certain someone would be sending mail at this hour of the morning?

Collapsing into her chair, gasping at taking the weight off her hoof, she awkwardly bent over to tap the hoof print recognition panel. While waiting for the computer to log her in and bring up her mail app, she pulled her hindleg up to get a look at it, flicking the lights on with her magic as she did so.

There was a nasty red mark, right between the sole and the frog - one that stung to touch and radiated a swollen heat already.

"Ngh, damn it!" she muttered again, still trying to pull her thoughts together. The broken multiband sat like a trigger point reminder of everything already going wrong this morning, and the rapid series of pop-ups informing her of how much mail had been received weren't helping.

[Rota] Maintenance and Cleaning, followed by a date, and the time, sent by Volatility Smile a few minutes ago.

Volatility Smile had to be the only pony Trigger had ever known who'd send out a work rota for a crew of four people and one drone first thing in the morning. And looking further down at last night’s mails from after Trigger had gone to bed, clearly the only one who would send a daily report each evening as well, containing details for “Captain Hair Trigger's attention” on the things that Captain Hair Trigger herself had done.

Opening the rota out of morbid curiosity more than anything, she saw it contained four schedules. One for each of those aboard at the moment. Its contents were intrinsic, covering general cleaning tasks for the kitchen and common room and then a series of more specialist jobs such as bridge system checks for Tami, reactor limit drills for Kerfuffle, account revision and approaching market assessment for Smile herself, and ship tours and appraisal for Hair Trigger. With times. To the hour.

Not for the first time, Hair Trigger wondered just who ran this ship sometimes.

Tabbing down through each mail, she saw a third one marked by a red exclamation mark, with the astonishing inclusion of the dreaded letters 'KPI' in it, accompanied by individual documents for every crew member, including Patch.

"Okay, nope. Fuuuuuck that."

Pain or not, she quickly got up, grabbed the closest mug in her magic, and hobbled her way to the door instead.

Coffee and shower. That would do.

At least the morning couldn't get any worse.

* * *

Claudia’s common room still bore the untidy aftermath of the night before. Empty bags of crisps and half finished salsa tubs were dotted amongst a scattering of plastic bottles with only dregs remaining in them on the main table and around the sofa. So lay the aftermath of movie night - a not insignificant part of the reason why the crew had bunked down so late, despite the early start they knew they had.

Yet that was not the first thing that Hair Trigger felt herself made aware of.

That honour belonged to the thumping, allegedly invigorating beat of music with seemingly only three lines to its lyrics encouraging everyone to get up and move coming from the cargo hold. Having just escaped the shrill beeping of her broken multiband, this new racket was enough to make her pause, close her eyes and make a strained sound through her frown, before moving fully out of her room.

Stepping over a few fallen cushions from the table's chairs, remnants of a crew too tired to clean up before collapsing to sleep, she made her hesitant and painful way to the kitchen top at the far side of the room. Every step sent a spike up her hind leg, making her curse that it hadn't even had the grace to be a foreleg; at least those you could limp moderately well without.

Dropping her mug on the worktop, Trigger held her hind leg off the ground and set about finding what coffee she could muster from the cupboards. They were covered in papers, mostly containing whose job it was for cleaning that week, suggestions for movie nights, and one smaller list marked 'Systems we don't go to any more'.

Naturally, every system’s inclusion on that list had a story behind it to tell curious passengers.

Grabbing the handles, she found the first cupboard was empty of any caffeine

The second one joined the first in its rebellion against morning ponies.

Sighing, Trigger lit her horn and spun the rotating carriage on the wall, mostly used to store herbs or spices. If it came to it, instant coffee would have to do.

So focused was she on the search for packaged enlightenment, that she failed to hear the trotting near to her over the pounding music.

"Unfortunately, someone didn't remember to mark coffee as low last week."

Hair Trigger didn't turn away from her task, tossing packets side to side to get a look right into the back, her still sleep fuddled mouth gnashing and recalling the power of speech.

"Smile, if you're trying to softball me that we're out of coffee..."

To Hair Trigger's side, the crystal pony dabbed her towel on her head, still dressed in her sporting wear and, judging by her laboured breathing and sheen of sweat on her glinting body, was less than a couple minutes off of having finished her routine. Tilting her head to the side with a glance at the cupboards, she took a second to get her breath for another sentence, before continuing.

"Well in that case, we're out of coffee, because someone-"

She was interrupted by the hard dunking sound of horn-on-kitchen-top and the clinking of metal and plastic the impact caused. Volatility Smile was straight talking, but she knew when to adjust her words when needed. Smiling softly, she drew back her tone.

"Because someone else here, namely me, went through this exact hunt earlier this morning, and came up fruitless."

Hair Trigger spoke with her face plastered onto the worktop. "Well saved."

"I haven't a clue what you're referring to." Volatility Smile gave a brief wink, despite Hair Trigger's current staring contest with the polymer worktop restricting the captain from paying her any visual attention. "Regardless, I'm certain we can pick some more up today in Kavala. Confederate coffee, strong enough to build a factory on."

The small unicorn turned her head to Smile, before dragging her head backwards and standing up with another groan. "And by then, it won't be morning any more." She looked vaguely at the electronic clock on the hanging screen upon the wall, and narrowed her eyes. "You win this one, waking hours."

Volatility Smile nodded with a brief snort, rubbing a hoof under her own right eye. Coming from the normally prim and properly upright crystal pony, it was an unusual sign of lethargy. "We can win the war with extras and caffeine shots tonight to pep you up then. Because frankly, Captain, you look like hell this morning. Wrong side of the bed?"

Hair Trigger could only yawn and make a motion somewhere between a nod and shake, accompanied by a glare at her leg.

"Just the one with a damn charging plug waiting in ambush..."

Volatility Smile chuckled, quickly picking up the reason for her captain's limp. She wandered back to the cargo bay door and flicked off her exercise music.

"Well don't let Patch see it. Last thing I need to hear before I have some hot drink in the morning is his voice, and he's already bothered me about my posture. Mind if I take the first shower?"

She nodded toward the bathroom door beside the kitchen, and Hair Trigger idly waved a hoof. "Sure, I'm gonna go check on the rest. Got to do the rounds sometime."

Smile wandered to the table, picking up a folded washing towel she'd left there, and gave Hair Trigger a curious look as she tugged her mane's ties out to let it fall loosely about her head.

"Already? They'll still be getting things together, I think. That's why I pencilled the morning tour in for an hour from-."

Trigger snorted. "What am I going to do? Stare a coffee mug to death in the meantime? I'm going to the bridge, gonna see how long till we arrive. Enjoy the shower."

The unicorn turned, hobbling and cursing her way to the panelled stairs after dumping her mug by the kettle. The thin metal steps clapped and bounced under her on her route, until she disappeared above decks.

Behind her, Volatility Smile watched her grouchy captain go. Hair Trigger was usually a bit grumpy in the mornings, and she had long learned to give the captain a little space in such times. Content that it meant going for a shower, Smile dabbed her forehead with her dry towel and made to open the bathroom door.

Today hadn't been going well at all for her, owing to a frozen laptop update, an encounter with Patch mid-exercise, and no coffee. And now it threw yet another curveball.

The latch turned, but the door refused to slide aside. A thick clunk and only a tiny shift in its weight were all that the pull accomplished. She rattled it a few more times, to no avail. It wasn't locked. It was just jammed.

Her workout clearly wasn't done yet. The normally poised businessmare dropped her towel and grabbed the handle with two hooves to tug at again and again. Finally, her increasingly annoyed yanking bumped the lock up a little and the door sprang open, almost throwing her off her hooves. Smile staggered backward and dropped next to the kitchen on her haunches, banging her head on the edge of the worktop. Grumbling, she rolled her eyes.

"Oh, stars above...this morning."

* * *

Hair Trigger willed her way to the top of the stairs via the unbridled power of a grumpy mindset, one that didn't want to let one ambushing inanimate object inhibit her day. Coming up to the main street, she quickly reached for the heavy handle to the bridge.

After all, if there was one person on board she could trust to cast a ray of happiness onto a dismal failure of a morning, Trigger knew where to find her. Lifting her injured hoof off the ground, she tensed her shoulders and tugged at the sealed door.

Only to find it refuse to move.

"What."

The flat tone in her throat was matched only by the flat lack of reaction from the bridge door. She tried again with a little more force. Unlike the disagreement between accountant and accessway she could hear below decks, this was not a jam. The bridge door was well and truly locked shut.

Somehow, Hair Trigger didn't feel too surprised at this point that the morning had yet more to throw at her, but this particular detail was unexpected. They'd never had a locked bridge policy before. Especially not one locked to the captain.

Yet behind the locked door’s heavy metal, she could hear noises. Familiar ones that no-one on board Claudia would be unfamiliar with after at least a few days. Still with half-lidded eyes she leaned closer, her ear to the metal.

Music.

Taking a long breath, Trigger reached up and thumped her hoof on the door.

"Tami? Tami!"

She knocked it again, giving the door a few proper whacks.

"TAMI!"

The music dropped in volume, and she heard the scrambling of someone inside the bridge. Soon enough, she heard the clunk of metal and the click of a lock signalling the bridge-side security lock being undone, and the way inside was pulled open by just a little.

The first thing to escape was the sugar-sweet, hyperactive pace of colourful music, and the second was the soft, heart shaped face of Claudia's pilot poking through the gap. Tami's big eyes blinked, and she smiled brightly while clutching the door, her so-called 'triple-p patterned-pink-pyjamas' still clad around the visible arm. Behind her, the kaleidoscope of magic space whirled in the bridge's windows, providing an eye-straining visualiser backdrop to the high pitched lyrics and relentless bouncing beats that assaulted her thrice attacked ears this morning.

"Oh! Morning, Captain!"

Hair Trigger's face barely changed from a squinted clench. Even confronted by someone she naturally felt predispositioned to be gentler with, part of her still felt like it was sunken into her bed downstairs.

Taking a slow breath, feeling her very brain thudding away with the happy bumps in the tune, Hair Trigger formed her words with strained care. "Tami, why was the bridge locked?"

The hippogriff pursed her lips, clearly giving the answer a little bit of thought. Her visible talons gripping the door tapped in time to the music out of nerves. "Well...most of you lock your quarters at night, y'know? I'm just doing the same. Privacy!"

She smiled sweetly. Sleepy or not, Trigger knew she'd been wording that one in her head for a while.

"This is the bridge, Tami."

"Yeah, and I stay here, and the place someone stays is their quarters so..."

It took a monumental level of effort to keep her voice steady. The last thing she wanted to do was snap at anyone this morning, least of all the one in front of her now. "We don't lock the bridge, it's not a private quarters."

"But I'm sleeping here. I mean, you can just knock and then I'll know 'cos I might be getting dressed and-"

"Just-" Hair Trigger put a hoof on the frame of the door, her voice spiking upward a little. She was having to listen to her home's quiet hum being interrupted for the third time, and this time while speaking through a crack in the door to her own ship's bridge. It took her a second, before dropping back down to the grumpy morning tone she knew even Tami was used to by now, accentuating the words with a hoof motion in the air. "Just leave the bridge unlocked, okay?"

"Aye, Captain."

"Good girl. Besides, we've all walked in on you dancing before anyway. Nothing we haven't seen. All good?" Trying to offer a smirk, her mouth instead contorted into more of a twisted grimace. Thankfully, Tami seemed content with the tease, at least by her standards.

"I-I wasn't! And we should be transferring out to sub-light to Confederacy space in an hour, I was just-"

"Just listening to that song for the fiftieth time. Believe me, I think even I know the lyrics by now. But...okay, get dressed and clean up whatever paints you spilled that are making you hold the door closed like this to try and hide it. I'll go check on Kerf and get a shower first. Get readied up. And no more bridge locking, okay?"

"What? Paint? Noooo, no no."

Hair Trigger angled her head, raising one eyebrow.

Tami gulped. “Really!”

Biting her lip, the hippogriff just smiled wider, until her captain finally nodded, turned, and stumbled away down the main street.

Tami waved meekly at the departing unicorn and shut the door rapidly so she could turn back to her dilemma, only now resuming her panting breaths and grabbing more rags from her bag. That had been close.

Republic Blue was not an easy colour to get out of decking, or pyjamas.

"Oh, this is the worst morning..."

* * *

At every turn, Hair Trigger was beginning to recognise a pattern emerging now, and approached the engine room with a resigned expectation to whatever might be next.

Its doors were open already. Inside, she found the big griffon hunched behind the primary drive system at the back, half hidden away. He was busy at work, as diligent and reassuringly predictable as ever.

She stepped over the frame of the heavy bulkhead to the engineering section; one that could be shut and sealed more securely than any others that weren't an airlock, and found herself slowing down until she was standing still.

Inside, Hair Trigger had finally found what she was looking for.

That hum. The sound of a ship. Here, she found its source. To others it may have just been white noise in the engine room itself. But after an encounter with shrill alarms, overly motivated beats, and tooth rotting sugar in audio form, the simple mechanical sounds of a happy ship felt like the crooning of a meditation room.

Slowly, she felt her eyes close again, and a very pleasant tranquillity begin to rest in her mind after the conga line of aggravation thus far - one that was happy to let her rump drop to the deck and take the pain off her hoof.

"Oh. Mornin' Cap'n."

Opening an eye, she saw the calico coated griffon peering over the reactor at her, his gentle voice barely disturbing the atmosphere.

"A'ight." She nodded. "Nothing noisy is about to happen in here, is there?"

The griffon's head tilted sharply. "Don't rightly think so..."

"Any sudden slams, loud music, sharp objects, missing things or spillages?"

Kerfuffle thought about that for a few seconds, scratching at his feathers with long talons. "Nothing more than just myself and Claudia having a quiet morning here, Cap'n. Why're you sitting on the deck all quiet?"

Hair Trigger finally let a small smile creep onto her face, and closed her eye again.

"Happy place, Kerf. Always have a happy place."

Kerfuffle wasn't certain what to make of the comment, but Hair Trigger's obvious contentment reassured him. He turned back to his work on the core’s secondary coolant inlet. He’d been up all night already, trying to get it to line up after it had jolted loose during the emergency drill he and Tami had run the day before.

He had thought it would be a ten minute job, and stayed up after bedtime to finish it.

That had turned into a sleepless night of wondering just how in the world it had ever fitted at all, because it certainly wasn’t any more. Rubbing his tired eyes, he went back to his laborious task. This was not the kind of morning he preferred. It never was if Claudia wasn’t working how she should, and it unsettled him to think he couldn’t fix her on his own.

Unaware of the resigned stress behind Kerfuffle’s impenetrably calm face, his Captain let her mind and temper settle with nothing but the ship and the quiet griffon. Finally, Hair Trigger spoke up on her own. "Tami says we'll be there in an hour. Anything we need to be aware of before then? We got a job on arrival, not looking for any surprises."

Kerfuffle didn't look up, pulling a small locking tool from his slung belt. He set himself to bang it into place, before pausing, remembering the Captain's look, and instead gave it a gentle wiggle to slide over the lug instead. "She'll make it there, Cap'n. Gotta run a hyperdrive technical stripping before long though."

Trigger nodded. "We'll make the time. They've got a proper dock there in orbit."

The big mechanic seemed pleased by that, momentarily patting the side of the reactor housing. While she didn't hear what he said, Hair Trigger was certain she saw him whisper something to the ship through her peeking open eye. Her smile slowly grew a little more. Trust Kerfuffle to be the one steady, reliable source of zen on a morning like this.

Even then, her watchful gaze saw an uncharacteristic sluggishness in his movements. The big griffon was exhausted, and she made a mental note to order him to take the afternoon off if they had time.

Slowly, she got up, grunting as her back leg came down. "Better go get ready. Prep her for sub-light, Kerf, and thanks for the quiet. Gonna go get a shower soon as Smile's done, then we'll see about getting everyone together."

She turned to wander out, hoping against hope that Patch wouldn't find her before she got back to her quarters to wait on Smile. She was in no mood for a drone prodding at her hoof.

This was, however, an improvement. The edges that every other stop had sharpened were now softening, and she felt a more genuine smile finally coming to her face as she started to rationalise everything in a stream of calming thoughts.

Another day. Another job. Just a rough wakeup, that was all.

She just needed a nice. Warm. Shower. That was all she needed to rid herself of this. Just a shower. Warm water. That was all. Forget everything else. Just that. Just. That.

She had only just got out of the engineering section when she heard Kerfuffle shuffle over to the door behind her.

"Oh, Cap'n, you might wanna know there's no-"

From downstairs, there came the shriek of a very surprised - and very cold - crystal pony, followed by the crash of a curtain railing.

"-hot water. Thermal regulator threw a fuse..."

Hair Trigger stopped on the spot, eyes wide and staring at absolutely nothing. Her pupils contracted and her eyebrows hardened.

Kerfuffle looked at the trapdoor the sound had emerged from, and then back up at the now still unicorn halfway down the main street corridor. Her neck behind her mane started to tighten as her head tilted, with one eye twitching.

"And we'll need to dock first if we want to-”

"FOR FUCK'S SAKE!"

Any sense of comfort and quiet was broken by the frustrated, angered cry of utter exasperation, before the still loudly complaining and ranting captain stormed her painful way down the stairs once again, leaving the tentative griffon behind to slide back into his own happy place, and this time close the door.

* * *

Back on the bridge, Tammani finally put the finishing touches on her plan of obscurement until she could purchase a supply of paint thinner for a large area. It wasn't the greatest one, but it'd have to work.

"Right...there!"

Patting down the adjusted blanket, she stood in her stained pyjamas, stared at it, and tried to control her breathing the way Volatility Smile had shown her. Slow inhalations and exhalations. Each one measured to eight seconds. A competitive shooter's trick for bringing down the heart rate after swimming for miles, one Smile had learned from that unusual combined sport.

Smile had said to do it for a few minutes, but really, Tami wasn't much capable of being still that long. Not when she was so close to the endpoint of an FTL jump. Instead, she took to her more favoured method of calming down and hit the play button on a patterned music device sitting on the centre console of the bridge.

Soon enough, the soothing energy of Lady ZaZa's seasonal release was filling the bridge once more, while Tami took the opportunity to get dressed, repeatedly casting her eyes back at the warping colours out the bridge's slanted windows. The drifting shapes out there were starting to wobble and ripple in more intense waves, like a stone slammed hard into water, just unthinkably large and only growing in rapidity.

Tammani always loved this part. As much as the thrill of breaking into the otherworldly rift of magic space was an adrenaline rush, the transfer back to the known universe held an oh-so-satisfying feeling of accomplishment. To see just how accurate you'd been, and if you came out on the correct alignment. She and her friends back in basic flight school had always sought to be the one who could come out with as few adjustments needed on each axis after a jump.

This was particularly the case with their destination in Kavala. Smile's receipt of their job from the client had demanded extremely specific exit coordinates, down to a zone of space no more than a few hundred kilometres in diameter only just outside of a standard moon's orbital distance from a planet. The message had been quite explicit. Miss the job distance, and you don't get in.

It had puzzled Tami all trip as to why. She'd been through this system before, but to approach Kavala III there were all these extra demands. Smile had been doing research on it, but so far no answer had emerged. It wasn't a significant problem. She knew she could send Claudia into an area half the volume in a system populated with translation beacons to help them out, but it was unusual all the same.

Shrugging it off, and tugging her rainbow leggings on while sitting on her hammock, Tami kicked her legs and hummed along to 'Ovation'. Verbena, her new friend on Port Medusa, had provided her with the song, despite Tami's already knowing of it. She'd never owned it before though, and had spent the last few days getting to know every beat.

She glanced down, spotting her hoop lying where she'd left it last night.

A small smile came to her face. ZaZa's video had the Lady Ykina herself dancing with props. Not to mention, the zebra had worn bright striped colours. With a glance at herself, her leggings without the overalls certainly qualified.

Besides, hooping while exiting FTL with that colourful surreality backdrop? Even the pop star herself had never done anything that cool in a video! Real magic space!

With a nervous glance to the unlocked door Tami hopped off the hammock, took up the hoop, and felt a thrill of excitement fighting with embarrassed nerves.

“Aww, whatever. Let's do it.”

Giggling away to herself, she stepped into it, tapped her hoof, waited for the big drop into the chorus...and then let the beat take her over. The flow, the glow, and the unrelentingly confident singing surged into her, driving Tami to move from slow, uncertain movements until she was half hopping, half shuffling...and threw the hoop out to catch on her own body's movements.

“Woah, haha! Aw yeah!”

Soon enough, the (literal) blues of the morning were being forgotten.

Half humming lyrics she barely heard, waving her wings out for balance while wiggling and feeling the hoop roll round and round her midsection (with only a small cheat by holding the PA system above her for balance) she lived her own music video, as magic space joined her in its cascade of neon and flickering like a backdrop amid the hyperdrive's efforts to break back through into the galaxy.

The pilot panel pinged, barely audible over the music.

'APPROACHING MAGIC TRANSLATION.'

Claudia's voice echoed through the bridge, and Tami heard the slightly delayed repeat from outside.

Grinning wildly, Tami turned her shivering and excited self toward the window, rolled the hoop around and around, and watched. The sudden break of the psychedelic into the thick black and soft colours of real space to see where you'd gone was what she lived for, and what a conclusion it would be with the song winding down.

Outside the windows, magic space folded in on itself, and a bright white glare erupted across the ship, even as the final note hung and faded.

“Oh wow, that was -hehe- that was great. I gotta do that ag-”

'PROXIMITY WARNING. EMERGENCY MANEUVERS REQUIRED.'

“Huh!?”

The white flare of translation to the black snapped away, being replaced with the looming shape of a mass conveyor vessel in their flightpath, Claudia’s huge exit velocity bringing it so close that its ends exceeded the edges of the windows.

A wailing klaxon erupted throughout the ship, while three separate master warnings on the consoles lit up the entire board with intense buzzing and alternating red and yellow texts.

Tami screamed, diving forward into her chair, the hoop clattering across the bridge. She didn't even get to sit down before grabbing the control sticks and simply yanking back on them as hard as she possibly could.

A harsher, more immediate alarm rung out, making her cry out as half a million tons of metal darkened the windows with its approach, the turn struggling to affect their velocity.

'COLLISION WARNING. EMERGENCY MANEUVERS ESSENTIAL. BRACE BRACE BRACE!'

“No, no, no, no, NO!”

She frantically reached for the vector controls, hearing herself screaming a second time.

* * *

Downstairs, Hair Trigger had been midway through a most uncomfortable cold shower by the time the first alarm went off. By the second, she was mid-way out of the door, wrapped in a towel to find the others getting up from their late breakfast to head for the bridge.

“What the hell is going-”

Their world turned by ninety degrees.

Every light in Claudia switched off for a second, then suddenly began flickering madly. Hair Trigger's gut twisted on the spot, and she was thrown forward across the common room by the sudden shift in gravity. Trigger briefly saw Kerfuffle grabbing Smile, before she slammed into the pool table and skidded off of it with the sting of carpet burn. Wheeling through the air, she painfully clanged against the far door back first. The air was driven out of her, the wall feeling like the floor from the crushing forces. An ill-fittingly harsh and dominating voice rattled through the rumble of the ship's hull and whining reactor, and she saw Patch pin-balling from stairs to table to ceiling, alerts and bloops reeling out of his speaker as much as his requests for assistance.

“User assistance for Unit PATCH required! Gravitational anomaly interfering with gyroscopic stabilisers!”

She barely got to catch her breath before everything inverted once more, and she went flying toward her own room amidst a cloud of soaring utensils, cereal and empty bottles, the sharper edges of the stairs approaching fast. Crying out, she tried to turn her head away from them.

From below, a huge clawed hand grabbed her out of the air and yanked her down into a soft, cushioned embrace. She could see the glittering of Smile's coat beside her, as Kerfuffle held them both down below him, bracing his legs under the stairs and couch to keep them still as small objects bounced off of his back. He made a grasping attempt for Patch, but the aggressively complaining drone whirled away in a rapid series of warbling bleeps to crash through the strung up laundry.

“What in the blazes is going on out there!?” Smile's voice rang about the cacophony of every object unnaturally dropping to the floor again, no matter what velocity it had once had. She felt sick to her stomach, and her ears were whirling with imbalance.

Hair Trigger didn't bother replying, instead clambering out from under the griffon and rushing her damp and ever more pained body upstairs to the bridge. Everything was shaking, like great winds were blowing at the ship, and Trigger could hear the vector engines rattling in their housings. Her hooves felt loose on the deck. The artificial gravity was still off kilter.

Throwing open the door, she found a scene of utter chaos.

Claudia's bridge windows beheld a blur of motion. A colossal metal object filled the entire right and bottom, hurtling by them as though they were soaring low over an orbital station. Claudia veered away from it sharply, and another proximity alert rang out; not even getting half way through the alarm before a third joined it. Tami screamed, and Claudia spun again, the main engines roared with the effort of dodging something completely unseen to those without the information a pilot’s station granted them.

Dragging herself along the floor against the g-forces trying to press her into the wall, Trigger looked at the screens on her side of the console for the source of the alert signals. She saw the two kilometre vessel they'd just pulled away from dominating the display. The other, a rapidly moving transport ship, had just buzzed within fifty meters of Claudia’s underside.

The sensor screen was covered in so many indicators that Hair Trigger couldn't even count them. Looking back up, she saw a second enormous vessel coming into view, turning on full burn toward them to evade the first one they'd just pulled away from. The viewpoint of the windows suddenly twisted away from it, and Trigger felt more than saw the flying town rumbling overhead of them, and the concussive impacts of engines as wide as Claudia thumping into them as they passed its flightpath.

“What in all the damn galaxy is going on? Tami, did we just jump into a damn fleet engagement!? Did we hit something?”

“NO! No-it's...NO! Can't talk!”

Claudia banked and wheeled around, turning on her head before inverting and pointing out towards an area notably not filled with gigantic metal objects. Tami, sweating profusely, grabbed one side of the controls with both hands to hurl the yoke over and hit the thrust stick to its maximum with a wing. Even past the artificial gravity, Trigger felt her empty stomach lurch at the three-dimensional turn, something that would be impossible in an atmosphere without breaking the ship apart.

Behind them, Smile and Kerfuffle came running up after Trigger, the griffon carrying Patch with him.

Claudia powered forward for almost thirty seconds, only slowing once Tami fired the retrothrusters. The jarring deceleration rippled through the ship, and the angry beeping of alarms began to settle down. Breathing hard, Tami let go of the yoke and slumped over her controls, not even bothering to arrest the lazy spin the hard burn had given the vessel.

“Oh geez...”

Slowly, Claudia drifted. Glancing over at the shocked hippogriff, Hair Trigger reached forward and used a wet hoof to pull the control switching lever. Assuming pilot control of Claudia, she started gently easing the ship around to try face the way they'd come.

“You okay?” she quietly asked, glancing over at Tami in concern. The poor hippogriff was only partially dressed, shivering all over.

Taking slower breaths, Tami just nodded, before looking up at the windows. Hair Trigger reached over to pat her shoulder, and felt Tami’s hand settle over her hoof to hold it there.

“What did we hit?” Volatility Smile glanced from screen to screen, rubbing the side of her neck, yet there was no indication of damage to Claudia.

“Nothing.” Tami turned to the others, shrinking back on seeing them all nursing bruises. “I had to do a fully angled vector-turn while we were still transitioning back to normal space, and we passed through the magnetic field of a mass conveyor during it. Y'know, all those electromagnets holding containers on its hull? The uh...the artificial gravity didn't like that much. Went a bit, well, selective? S-sorry if anyone got jostled about a bit...”

The three who had been downstairs of them glanced at one another. Hair Trigger in particular was still wringing out her neck.

Kerfuffle eventually spoke up, looking back at them from the diagnostic screen, his concern for Cladia’s wellbeing paramount. “Better than losing all gravity hitting a conveyor.”

“Improper environmental conditions for possession of Unit PATCH may result in denial of warranty in the unlikely event of crew members seeking insurance cover. Transgression has been added to logs,” added Patch, a brand new dent in his casing just below the star sticker.

Kerfuffle hefted the drone up to stare into his visual receptors, momentarily tracing a claw around the dent, analyzing it. “Now that ain't nice to say. Wasn't us who parked a big cargo ship right there, was it now?”

From over the bridge, Hair Trigger twitched the controls a little more, then hit the retrothrusters to slow down their spin. Staring out, she narrowed her eyes and sat back.

“Looks like it wasn't just them. Or us. Damn...that's a crapstain of a mess out there.”

Hair Trigger’s careful control of the vessel brought Claudia around to a new heading, passing by the chaos of panicked ship movements breaking out before them. Yet moments after, a sudden flare of light from the system’s sun flooded into the bridge, illuminating the scene before them.

They had landed in the right spot. Nothing about the jump had been off. Before them lay a planet: their destination.

Kavala III.

The hazy gold and orange of a predominantly dry-to-temperate planet lay before them. They could see the shifting clouds and tan landmasses, indicating their jump point had brought them out at an unusually closer distance than most jumps did for a planet arrival. Normally planets were distant little balls, but not here. Here, they were nearly in a high orbit already, with all its details visible to the naked eye through a window.

Yet surrounding it was something that drew the attention all the more.

Asteroids. Countless asteroids, forming a near-spherical field of dark rocks and minerals all around the planet itself, rather than in rings. It was deep, from near orbit to out past the limit of one very notable feature amongst the field itself.

A broken moon.

Shattered of almost a third of its volume, the natural satellite hung like a giant parent of the asteroids, keeping watch over its millions of children as they spun and drifted in lazy orbits around both itself and the planet. Within the colossal field there were flashes of light, like fireflies at night. Sensor pings were clearly marked on Claudia's overlay, revealing those lights to be a vast orbital infrastructure anchored in the larger - safer - gaps of the asteroid field. Stations, drydocks, refineries, and vast mining motherships hanging in orbit populated the entire side of the planet they were facing.

Their jump location had been mere minutes’ flight short of the enormous rocks. On it, they saw what had caused their chaotic near miss, and what had attracted Hair Trigger's colourful comment. A traffic jam.

Of all things in space, they were witnessing a traffic jam.

Dozens of ships fled in all directions away from the crush. Some out toward Claudia, others drifting into the empty black away from the asteroids. Some stubbornly tried to make position at the gap in the field where the largest orbital station resided. Security cutters were darting around the first mass cargo ship that Claudia had missed, no doubt reprimanding and trying to direct the motionless - perhaps malfunctioning - ship away from Kavala III's crowded jump-in point before a tragedy occurred.

Even as they watched, an industrial class miner broke through to real space and recreated Claudia's own panicked turn, spinning away with flickering engines.

Wandering around the chairs, Kerfuffle pressed his beak against the glass and frowned at the number of ships already being towed after collisions. “Now why they gotta go make a jump point they tell everyone to go to and make a mess like that?”

Behind them all, Volatility Smile cracked her neck out, releasing some of the tension from the havoc downstairs, and tapped at the bridge's spare computing console. “Why, I am very glad you asked.”

Grinning at the chance to show what she'd been researching, the crystal pony reset her mane with a hoof, waiting for their attention to turn. They were a motley bunch at the moment. Tami was only quarter dressed, Hair Trigger still dripping from her mane onto the deck, and Kerfuffle looking like he'd gotten in a fight with a mane curler and lost.

Of course, Volatility Smile left herself out of the mental regarding of the messy situation they'd had to live through this morning. She coughed into her hoof and indicated a map of the system she'd drawn up on the console.

“Kavala III isn't part of the Confederacy.”

The line had just the impact she'd hoped for. Raised eyebrows and confused looks. Oh, how she loved to pause after such a look, and let others wonder for just a second.

“See, back during the war against the dragons, this system was used as a testing ground for many of the WMDs the various galactic nations were using as part of joint research. Records however show the legality of such weapons meant they could not be detonated on planets or orbital bodies by anyone but the owning sovereign nation. So, to allow all allied nations to test here, the owning government agreed to make Kavala III a neutral world within the borders of what would eventually become the Confederacy.”

Hair Trigger, having clearly seen the tone Smile was taking, grabbed one of Tami's towels after a glance for approval from the pilot, and started dabbing down her mane. “Fighting dragons of all things, and they still went by the letter of the law to have to make this place neutral first so other civilizations could test their bombs on it?”

Volatility Smile shrugged. “More or less. Rewriting the legality wasn't exactly top priority at the time, so they started testing even before the law was in place. Eventually, anyone who was anyone was throwing WMDs at the moon in this place to try them out first. It was here that it's believed the largest arcane explosion ever created by a non-dragon race was carried out. The allies were so impressed, they decided to stockpile the weapons on the moon itself, until they could develop a delivery mechanism for them.”

Hair Trigger's eyes moved to the window again, casting a glance at the distant, though still enormous, moon. Her eyes rested on the section of it that had been wholly torn out. “Let me guess, they stored hundreds of these uber-bombs underground on the moon, and then...”

Volatility Smile nodded. “And then the dragons decided that they weren't about to let such things ever be used. They attacked, and their magic detonated the stockpile. All at once.”

She gestured to the window.

“And that's why the moon's missing nearly a third of its mass.”

Tami whistled lightly, using the camera on Claudia's hull to get a closer look at the shattered moon. “Explains why the field's such a weird shape around the whole place. Was only a few hundred years ago; gravity hasn't had time to turn it all into rings yet. Hey, you can even see where they're starting to form.”

Beside her, Kerfuffle scratched his head. “So why insist we jump in so close?”

Smile clapped her front hooves together. “And that, I am delighted to explain, is the best part!”

Trigger raised an eyebrow. “Their reason for shitty jump coordinates is a bigger part then dragons destroying a moon?”

“I was just as surprised as you are, but listen to this.” Smile had not a hint of anything but truth in her voice, as she changed the page on the console, bringing up what looked like a legal document. Behind her, Trigger rolled her eyes with a grin at Tami, making the hippogriff giggle into her hands.

“Remember when I said Kavala III, even within its own system, was considered neutral territory? Well, after the war when the minotaurs formed the Confederacy, they certainly didn't bother with this place. Too dangerous to mine from, too chaotic among the asteroids. With no magic, they all had bigger fish to fry before dealing with this wreck. Only, the push to make this a legal place to test WMDs had left a loophole when lawyers finally dug up the records to formalise the Confederate territory. A pretty big one, in fact. They hadn't cosigned Kavala III as a legally binding neutral and unclaimable territory. Only unaligned.”

“Oooh...” Tami tapped at the back of the chair with her talons. “So someone-”

“That's right,” Smile cut in, determined to not have her own moment of the reveal guessed ahead of time. “Someone came along before the Confederacy and claimed it. Didn't do anything with it, just left it for decades and decades. Fought off legal wars, built a few cities of free trade, appointed a successor to their corporation, and then died of old age. Now the successor, she had different ideas. See, while we don't have automata like long ago, newer models of remote drones can now handle the dangers of mining an unstable asteroid field like this one.”

Her hoof waved to the screen hanging between Trigger and Tami's chairs.

“And that's the infrastructure you see there. The biggest independently owned mining site in the entire sector! Enough orbital infrastructure to support dozens of mass transports and hundreds of drone miners out of a fleet of hub-ships controlling them. All the profit, none of the danger to pony life. Think of it like a wholesale full of rare goods suddenly opening up in your backyard and being able to price them without any investor skimming.”

“But...” Tami hesitantly tried to speak up again, “that still doesn't explain why they're getting everyone to jump into this stupid small spot.”

Volatility Smile had been leaving this for last. The cleverness of it had left her grinning for an hour last night. It was the deceptively sneaky part, just the kind she loved.

“Because that tiny point over there? That's the only safe, regularly asteroid-free spot within Kavala III's tiny borders that doesn't cross over from the Confederacy. If we went even a fraction of an AU further out, we'd be entering Confederate space and get tagged by long range scans. We'd lose our licence to operate here because we crossed from Confederate space into a contested territory.”

The blank looks staring at her showed they clearly hadn't realised it yet.

“But we did cross into minotaur territory...” Kerfuffle was glancing at the map, wondering if he'd missed something.

“And that's the beautiful loophole. No, we didn't.” Smile grinned, nodding at Tami. “Did we?”

“Well we left Jealousy, which is Republic space, jumping to Kavala, which is Confederate space, but we...ooooh.”

Smile grinned widely. “We entered it from magic space directly. And the Confederacy doesn't own magic space now, does it?”

If she had hoped for them to act excited over such an elegant evasion through a legal loophole, she was disappointed. The trio just mouthed, nodded and tried to work it out. They could be so blind to the art of it all sometimes, Smile thought. The simple deviousness, using a specific magic space transition to jump the border and get around a Confederate denial of trade contract. How could you not love that?

It was perfect.

Behind them, through the window, there was a sudden flash of light. The engine nacelle of a transport erupted in flames after colliding with an asteroid while trying to evade a supertanker that had just jumped in.

Well, almost perfect.

Hair Trigger finally sighed, grinned, and gestured at Smile. “Is school done, Miss? Can I go on recess now?”

Tutting, Smile closed off the terminal and made for the door. “I'm going to get cleaned up. And by the way, that successor I mentioned, the one who started all this mining? That's our client. So, best looks everyone.”

Leaving the bridge, she headed downstairs to clean up and get ready.

Behind her, waiting till she was gone, Hair Trigger spun and sat back down, staring at the colossal sight before them. The radiant planet, the collapsed moon, the spherical field of spinning rock, the enormous structures and guiding beacons hanging in orbit to coordinate vessels, and the lines of ships attempting to weave in from the chaotic jump point. At the base of it all somewhere, there was one person waiting for them.

“You know those cartoons you watch, Kerfuffle? The ones where the creatures turn into different ones as they get stronger?”

The griffon sheepishly nodded. “S'better than it sounds, really...”

Hair Trigger didn't respond directly at first, other than a calming nod, before glancing back at the planet and its bizarre surroundings.

“I think we're about to meet the later version of Smile down there.”

* * *

Over the next few hours, and with the disaster of a jump point slowly being cleared of its titanic obstacle by a series of tugs launched from the planet, Claudia began to slowly drift its way into the marked lanes approaching the field itself.

Flickering beacons created highways in space, held in place by a networked series of small thrusters to maintain their position relative to the gaps in the field. Between them came ships of all sizes, directed into lanes befitting their class and role.

Kavala III was busy. Very busy.

Buoyed by traffic from the still developing Republic and the ever hungry for precision margins merchant fleet of the League, the planet was being swarmed. Millions of tons of freight traffic was either compressed into tight areas of safety that had been carved out amongst the asteroids, or lingered in high orbit of the planet just beyond the field itself. Several service platforms, like gigantic square plates in space, attracted most of the enormous super-class vessels, while countless other ships were directed into holding patterns. Here they would wait, sometimes for days according to Smile, making use of the small stations and their services until a landing spot on the planet finally opened up, or one of the refineries had a spare docking port.

It was into one of these areas, with a League-pattern station at its centre, that Claudia was instructed to go.

On the bridge, Kerfuffle had been avidly observing the unusually cramped spatial environment as they passed into the field itself. With a gap of perhaps only two kilometres for small ships to pass through in this section of the mining and market infrastructure, the colossal operations were visible to the naked eye.

It wasn't the station shaped like a bonsai-tree ahead of them, or the drifting rows of hundreds of cargo ships - including some identical in class to Claudia herself - that caught his attention. Nor the spiralling platform of thin arms that reached out among them to act as a refuelling probe to twelve ships at a time. It wasn't even the enormous boards of flickering holographic light that advertised stock prices - and how much lower Kavala III's were compared to the Confederacy - bolted between asteroids.

He was watching the techniques of mining operation itself.

Not far out from the sheltered waiting areas for ships, he could see streaks of light biting into the mineral and rare metal asteroids. Swarms of blocky ships moved in coordinated groups ahead of lumbering excavation barges. Automated drones, driven by a simple intelligence to discern the shape and composition of an asteroid, then burn away its crust with powerful thermionic beams, leaving behind the valuable deposits. Even as Kerfuffle watched, he saw one asteroid torn into rubble by the hornet-like attack of twenty drones biting to its core in mere minutes, before immediately moving on. Behind them, a second wave of small miners followed them up, making more advanced movements that betrayed remote piloting as opposed to automated flight. Moving within the shattered remains of the asteroid, they began smaller scale, more precise cuts, grappled what they cut off using diamond-edged blasting hooks, and towed the valuable minerals back to the dirty yellow barge following the whole operation.

Kerfuffle had witnessed a dozen instances of it occur over the two hours it took Claudia to lazily edge its way in behind ship after ship to her assigned 'parking spot', as Tami had put it. Organic and synthetic intelligence working in harmony; it was enough to make the quiet griffon smile to himself.

Yet with a sudden flare of light, he witnessed the other side to why drones were being utilised in such numbers. A fragmenting chunk of moon impacted on another, resulting in a small chain reaction. Caught within chaotically tumbling rocks, six of the drones were shattered into their component parts. Immediately, a salvage party broke off from the hull of the excavator. Drones collecting drones, to repair and send them back in again.

The smile quickly disappeared. “Now that ain't right...”

“Nothing about this morning much has been so far, big guy.”

Hair Trigger limped into the bridge, giving Tami a pat on the shoulder to let the hippogriff go and get something to eat. Watching Tami go for a moment, she slumped down into the chair beside the griffon. Kerfuffle tilted his head as he saw the unicorn floating a mug of steaming brown liquid with her.

“Thought there wasn't any coffee, Cap'n.”

Trigger didn't look up as she transferred control to her side, and kept Claudia steadily rumbling toward a flickering beacon that had been marked on the main screen. She took a sip, scowled, and shrugged. “S'not. Just warm water with some brown food colouring, whitener, and sugar. Figured I might as well try to at least trick myself into thinking I've had some.”

She stared directly ahead of them at the planet itself, running over everything that had happened since she'd pulled herself from her bed. Already she knew this was a day to be in a foul mood. Pulling up her hind-leg, she rubbed cautiously at the plug-attacked frog of her hoof.

“Son of a...” She followed it with a harsh mutter. “Better not be walking anywhere down there. Great idea! Get out and immediately stand on a damn plug. Limp all over the place in front of a client who owns a planet. Aren't I set to be the utter example of a professional captain today, huh?”

Kerfuffle had been looking at the drones again, eagerly hoping the recovery operation would grab one of the ones he'd seen spiral off out of sight. Yet at the small rant behind him, he turned and shook his head.

“She probably couldn't do what you do, Cap'n. That'll be why she wants you. So even if you've got an injury, don't mean she's gonna turn you down.”

The unicorn didn't take her eyes off the angrily swollen feeling section of her hoof. “Just always full of the simple bright side, aren't you?”

“Mama always said that was what Lena did. Figured that meant I should too, is all.”

Hair Trigger stopped for a second and looked up. She hadn't expected an actual answer from her sense of rhetoric, until reminding herself just who she was conversing with.

“Lena… Sister that was, yeah? Galena?”

“Mhm.” The griffon nodded slowly, glancing back on the window again.

“Well...carry on with it then. Besides, our collective asses are gonna need a bright side if any more goes wr-oh hello...”

The last comment had been directed to a sudden blip on her co-pilot console’s top panel. An automated transmission was being beamed to them from the communications beacon lingering in the void above their holding area's station. Hair Trigger reached out for the ‘receive’ icon on the touchscreen, grumbled briefly as her hoof failed to reach the large control’s (minotaur designed) height, and hit it with a telekinesis-propelled mug instead.

“They sure do got a lot of stuff running on automatic out here...” Kerfuffle mumbled, glancing over the edge of the seat...and Hair Trigger's head.

If the grumpy unicorn noticed his shadow bearing over her, she didn't say, instead activating the message to play through the bridge speakers. The clipped, electronic voice was as emotionless as it was rapid and to the point.

“For attention: Captain Hair Trigger of the Claudia. Sender: Chief Executive Officer Asset Margin of Kavala III mining and wholesale facilities. Message Body: Arrival detected and logged, proceed within the hour from holding area nine to high orbit infrastructure pattern. No free landing platforms at facility on surface. Automated shuttle will approach and dock, permitting flight to visitor drop off at Corsinica Headquarters as replacement. Scheduled appointment is sixty four minutes behind schedule due to unexpected jump traffic incident. Shuttle will require manual flight to building at attached coordinates. Staff will instruct upon arrival. End of line.”

There was a second chime as the coordinates referred to were dumped directly into Claudia's incoming data buffer.

Trigger sipped her not-coffee and furrowed her brow. “Getting the impression this client isn't all about having a lot of employees...guess we better get going then. If she's as anal about this job as she is about her messages being that specific then we'd better not be too late.”

Reaching out with her magic, she grabbed the PA system handset and yanked it down to her mouth, depressing the button. “Call to work just came in, everyone. Stow up, pack up, and get your asses ready to hit planetside. Tami, we've got permission for an orbit, let's see you up here in ten. Kerf...oh.”

Kerfuffle angled his head down, having been so quiet that Hair Trigger had thought he'd left.

“...never mind. Step to it, and lets get our payday done. Captain out.”

She let go of the button, and hung the handset back up.

“Get her ready for a long orbit, Kerf. If Asset's as long winded as Smile can be, we'll be here a-”

Hair Trigger paused, suddenly hearing her own voice still echoing back to her from the speakers just behind the bridge, and slapped a hoof into her face.

“Son of a bitch?”

Half a second later, the speakers asked her the same question right back. How had she missed that? Fiddling with the handset, she checked the button depression only to find it was indeed in the 'off' position.

“I swear if one more thing decides to break or go wrong this morning...”

The PA system was still active, transmitting every frustrated grunt she made as she reached up and whacked the side of the system housing itself.

“Will. You. Turn. Off. You. F-”

Hair Trigger's catharsis-delivering hoof stopped in mid-air, clutched in a griffon's hand.

“Cap'n, that ain't goin' to help.”

Trigger breathed in sharply at the griffon's hasty reprimand, before feeling the anger bubble away inside her. She knew her temper had gotten shor-

She paused, and reworded it in her mind.

-had gotten limited in record time today. And now it fought with embarrassment and regret at having to be told to calm down by the normally neutral engineer.

“Yes...yes. Just fix it, Kerf. I'm fed up of this already.”

She got off the chair and attempted to make the galaxy's angriest hobble toward the door. Smile was coming up the stairs as she departed.

“PA system seems a little 'long winded', Captain.”

Hair Trigger paused and shot a glare at the crystal pony, muttering a quiet but sharp 'don't', before making her way downstairs, not even turning her head to look at the sofa below her as she spoke.

“And you can stop giggling away down there as well, Tam!”

“Snrk...aye, Captain!”

* * *

Though Kerfuffle and Tami both put off their morning routine and spared some prep-time to investigate, the PA system's fault couldn't be located. After twenty minutes or so, it finally decided the joke had stopped being funny and shut off on its own.

Soon after, under Tami's gentle control, Claudia was given permission to leave the holding area and pass deeper into the rocky field. To the hippogriff's perception of the distances, it almost felt like flying the ship through a series of caves to close deeper in toward the planet. Yet as they reached the permitted orbital layer, it finally began to ease off.

Even in this more open inside gap between the spherical field and the planet itself, there was little ease in the sensation of being in a crowded sky. Lines of ships at various station points waited for their turns to drop to the planet's few starports, and there was a secondary layer of engineering hubs and logistics stations dotted around the planet. In total, Tami had counted an awe-inspiring twenty six stations of habitable scale, from a few dozen personnel to a couple with hundreds. There were a few dozen other automated platforms out there too.

Easing into the final orbit path, snuggling Claudia between a Trandex class liquid transporter and a despondently ugly looking Confederate basic transport, little more than a near featureless block in space, Tami set the autopilot to hold their path. Within minutes, she spotted the approaching remote shuttle making its way toward their assigned speed and vector. To her surprise, it docked on the starboard port of Claudia without much of her own input required, rocking the ship lightly as the airlocks sealed.

Getting out her seat, Tami hastened to the door and shouted down the stairs to the others. “Good for planetside!”

Below her, Hair Trigger stopped holding the ice pack against her hoof and waved up at the hippogriff.

“All right. Let's get going, everyone.”

* * *

The whole crew gathered around the airlock in the cargo hold, carting their belongings with them. Hair Trigger was glancing at her multiband, tapping a hoof on the edge of the crate she sat on.

“Right, route looks fine. So, plan is: Smile, Kerfuffle, and myself will head down there and meet with Asset. If it's all legit, we handle the job then and there. Far as we know it's all planetside. So that's why I want you staying here, Tami.”

The hippogriff looked up in surprise, having been checking the battery in her taser. “On Claudia?”

Hair Trigger nodded. “Exactly. New client, new territory. I'd rather have an ace card in the figurative sleeve ready to move up here.”

Volatility Smile handled her own rifle, ensuring it was unloaded before stacking it into the shuttle. “Expecting trouble?”

“Why else would someone who makes more money in a day than we will in our lives want an independent crew if there wasn't a little twist to it?”

“Fair to note. Although...” Smile leaned on the shuttle's door and ran a hoof through her mane. “Speak for yourself on your life's ambitions.”

Hair Trigger made a small snort of amusement. “Point made, now go get the shuttle fired up. You'll be on helm, you've done more atmospheric work than I have.”

Behind the two ponies, helping Kerfuffle with the packs of provisions to last a day or two's journey, Tami couldn't deny that the news was quite welcome. She tossed her own medical supplies to him.

“Actually kinda glad I don't gotta go down there...”

Grabbing her thrown medkit, Kerfuffle turned and laid it beside the shuttle's door for the Captain to pick up and take inside. He cocked his head curiously. “Why's that, Miss?”

Tami paused, indicating herself. She was still somewhat frazzled all over, after having spent the better part of the morning resetting the artificial gravity software to account for the confused mess of a reaction earlier.

“Because with all the nonsense this morning, I haven't even had the time to do anything! I still haven't finished breakfast, or done my coat, or my mane or...or my tail. Look at it! My tail looks like I just threw it in an ice-cream mixer! And it's still got paint in it! How could I meet someone who's like a planet's leader like that?”

Kerfuffle blinked and waited a moment, then smiled. “Now that ain't right, Miss. Your tail looks fine. The Cap’n thinks so too.”

Tami paused in her ramble. “She does?”

“I do?” Hair Trigger chimed from behind them, raising her head up from the multiband.

Happy with his deduction, Kerfuffle nodded. “Yup. Why else would she look at it and smile a little sometimes when you turn around? And she did it this morning too when you left the bridge, so don't worry.”

Smiling, the big engineer stood proudly, before wondering why Tami suddenly started blushing. Behind him, he heard the slap of a hoof on a forehead.

“Thanks, Kerf...”

“You're welcome, Cap'n. Can't always be you keeping us all cheered up.”

Satisfied with his efforts, he leaned down to grab and hug Tami goodbye, before ducking his head down to clamber into the shuttle through the airlock, leaving Trigger and Tami on the deck to glance quietly at one another. From within the small ship, they could hear the hum of it powering up as Smile got to work at the controls.

Picking up her rucksack and shoving her pistol into its holster, Hair Trigger chuckled. She reached out to clap the hippogriff on the shoulder.

“For the record, he ain't wrong.” She winked, before continuing. “Bit of paint in the tail does look cute, come to think of it.”

Tami’s wide cheeks didn't much change from their reddened state, and she held the hoof on her shoulder with a hand. “If you say so, Captain. Good luck down there.”

“You going to be fine up here on your own?”

Tami nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, don't you worry about me, I got my plans already! Nothing but a quiet orbit with plenty of sights up here and...oh! I should paint that moon! And-and-and I can see what they've got available on the streaming service from the beacon; I've missed so much out here.”

Behind Hair Trigger, Smile appeared at the airlock. “Shuttle's primed, we're good to go!”

Trigger let go of her pilot and wandered into the airlock itself. “Just keep Claudia warm for us. Enjoy the time.”

Giggling, Tami patted the music device clipped to her belt. “I will! Got a whole bunch of music to catch up on too. I'd offer to put it in the shuttle for you all but uh...maybe not your thing. Some of it's pretty, y'know, obscure or...whatever.”

Smile laughed as she set the airlock to start closing behind them. “Tami, your idea of obscure music is something that was number one for less than a month. I think we'll be fine. Take care up here.”

“I will! Have, uh, have a good job! Hope things go better than this morning!”

She saw the crystal pony and unicorn smile at her as the airlock door slammed shut and locked, its bar spinning in place from the other side to activate the pressure seal on all sides. Within a minute, she heard the gentle thump of the shuttle departing, and flew back up to the bridge to watch them on the external camera.

The sloped, gently gleaming silver shuttle turned away from the larger Claudia, taking a route away from the planet at first to get clear of the orbiting ships. Finding a way through, it began arcing back down and around to make headway for the largest continental landmass.

As soon as they were away, she turned back to the bridge at large; and by extension the whole of Claudia.

Hers.

Grabbing her paints and an easel, scrolling through her device's long list of music, Tami concluded that today, despite its start, was going to be a good day.

* * *

Today, Hair Trigger had concluded, because of its start, was not going to be a good day.

Already the banging and tossing of the shuttle on re-entry to Kavala III had knocked her hind leg off the co-pilot position consoles three times, and the stark brightness of the sun over the terminator line had spent all of the journey thus far beaming right into the shuttle's main windows. Tinted glass or not, it was making her eyes hurt.

Smile fought with the controls, muttering and sighing at its ill-configured presets. “Getting the feeling they don't have it manually piloted very much. Ack, this sun! Come on...”

Smile was normally too composed to rant, but enough irritation would draw out even her bitter, snappy tone.

Eventually, mercifully, they passed low enough into the atmosphere for the sun to dip to a merely rising state, and the bumpiness of the ride finally eased off.

“In-atmo,” Smile muttered gratefully, switching the autopilot on - after a few false starts - to carry them to the facility. “Good enough reason as any to ask Raw Deal for a shuttle if we ever get one, and not Asset for a surplus.”

Kerfuffle wandered around in the back, now free of the restraining straps used during re-entry, and cast his eyes into every nook and cranny of the shuttle's small passenger and cargo section behind the dual-seated front. It could only carry around three or four large crates. Or, apparently, two passengers and one enormous griffon.

“Don't know about that, she's a fixer-upper. Maybe give the engine cowlings some realignment, or flush out the fuel-lines. Few weeks of care ought to do it.”

Smile glanced over her shoulder. “You can't be serious. We're not buying a shuttle off someone who can't even keep its piloting software up to date.”

“Then we can update it, give her a new lease on life that ain’t just being used for less than she's worth.”

Hair Trigger threw up a hoof sharply. “All right, enough! We haven't even met her yet, and we're not buying anything. At least not this time. I'm not trusting a damn thing more today.”

She threw off her restraints and hopped her way into the back to the larger seats, getting the ice-pack out again. She leaned back, and held it against her hoof with a pained hiss of inadequate relief.

“Sure it's been a bad mornin', Cap'n, but maybe it'll-”

“No!” Hair Trigger stopped him mid sentence with a sharp look up, then threw another barbed glance at Smile. She wasn't angry at the pair, but they were the only living objects in proximity and would have to endure her built up vitriol. “Nothing more today! The rate things are going this whole thing's going to go pear shaped just to match up, I'm telling you now.”

“You think so, Trigger?” Smile turned the seat around, leaning back in it with a gestured hoof.

“I know so,” she snarled, before gasping sharply and hurling the ice-pack across the shuttle as turbulence made her squeeze it too hard onto her hoof. “I can't even get up out of bed without shit happening, then when I DO get out of bed, shit happens all the more.”

Exasperated, any true anger dying to a sardonic groan, Hair Trigger slumped in her chair, swinging her forelegs in small circles.

“Add in all the stuff going wrong, almost jumping into a damn freighter, and I'll tell you what's going to happen next with that luck. We're going to go down there, and she's not going to have any late morning coffee on hand for guests. And I'm probably going to hate her, and yet I'll need to listen to her for a long time. And then we're going to start the job and head out to pick up whatever it is she wants gotten to call a crew like us - which is of course going to be through a fucking storm en-route because why wouldn't it be at this stage?”

“I think you're being a little over the top, Capta-”

Smile didn't even get to finish, as Hair Trigger's voice suddenly swelled up again, and her hoof waving only grew in intensity.

“And then! After a long flight we're going to arrive wherever it is, we'll realise that it's actually something super illegal and morally bankrupt that she's asking us to get and we'll have to all sit there and have the usual debate about whether to do it for the money or not!”

“Captain, seriously-”

“AND THEN! Just as we thought all the bad shit had gotten done, we're going to get betrayed! Mrs Asset's going to slam on floodlights having flown ahead of us somehow, and laugh like a stars damned supervillain from a balcony flanked by flames about how this was all just a big fucking test!”

Smile's brow furrowed at the ongoing, expletive-filled rant, not even trying to interrupt the unicorn now. Hair Trigger wiggled a hoof around in a circle near her head, talking half as much at the ceiling.

“And then all hell is going to break loose, because we failed the test by not taking the illegal crap because she's probably into funding pirates, or the snakes, or some...some crap like that! And I bet one of us gets shot. And I bet it's in the ass. And I bet we'll have to go home with nothing but new scars and then I'll have to listen to Sweet Ass oh-so-nicely tell us we shouldn't go to other independents outside of her all over again. And I bet we don't even get any damn coffee before we need to make the journey back because anything going right would be too much to ask, would it?”

She sat back with a huff, forelegs crossed. And hind legs.

After a few seconds, Smile finally ventured, “You done?”

“Oh, I'm done. I am very done.”

The crystal pony rolled her eyes, turning back to the controls. “Now look, Asset didn't get to where she is by doing things like that. She's made a lot of enemies even on this world. She controls much of it, but anywhere with a city you'll never run it all, and she's the biggest target. You ought to watch out more for who wants her, that's who I'm worried about; because it's them we'll undoubtedly need to be going against in this case.”

“No coffee; shit cargo; fucking betrayed.” Trigger's voice was muffled below the hem of her hooded top.

Dropping her forelegs by her sides, Smile groaned aloud at the nearly petulant reply, rolling the shuttle upright as they descended through thick cloud.

“All right, I get it, you had a bad morning! We all did, okay? I had to do our charting costs for the Republic exit on a notepad because my laptop's broken! And it wasn't just you that got tossed around by that damn jump! If anything is going to go wrong, we're going to have to deal with a very bad mess. We're the canaries here; we're the ones getting sent to deal with something she can't show face at or risk going to. The more I read about this planet, the more I'm convinced you were right about one thing: there's going to be a twist to this. She's got four corporations alone trying to buy up stock in her mining company lately. She might be the head honcho of the planet, but she's still fighting to keep that position.”

Hair Trigger snorted, a bit put out from her own over-the-top rant. “So what, someone's going to try and pay us more, or we get sued?”

“More that whoever is going after her is going to bring a few stallions in suits to persuade us to do whatever they want instead if we don't keep aware of who we're meeting. Remember, Asset doesn't need to follow us up if we disappear. And I promise, their suitcases won't be full of contracts. Corporate warfare's a nasty business in independent systems, or planets in this case.”

“Great. You know, I think I prefer my one, actually. At least it has less pliers and broken kneecaps.”

Throughout the barbed conversation, Kerfuffle had quietly occupied the majority of the shuttle's passenger section, hunched down from the ceiling despite sitting on the deck itself. Rather than stare at the two grouchy ponies, he instead watched the window as the darkness of space began to transition to the upper reaches of the sky.

Up there, surrounding Kavala, was the Confederacy where he'd grown up. His home, the Labyrinth mining colony, was just two systems away. This whole planet he was now descending to, though, was a strange anomaly. Despite his proximity to it, he hadn't known it existed outside vague mentions of a competing mining corporation in the sector. That in itself wasn't unusual; not much information about other planets got into Labyrinth that didn’t concern relevant details.

But he knew the Confederacy, and he knew they didn’t approve of Kavala III. The border controls were one example. The lack of a through-signal from this planet to Confederate space to let him send a short range message to his sister even just two systems over was another.

Now, however, he was just beginning to hope they weren’t about to see just how far the Confederacy’s distaste with Asset's little oasis in their space extended.

* * *

After around two hours of flight in Kavala III's atmosphere, the away party's shuttle pinged that it was approaching its destination. For the last thirty minutes since they'd come in from across a dried up ocean bed they had been flying above enormous canyons of golden rock. Briefly, Smile had wondered if the lack of water had been a result of the moon's shattering long ago, but the real reason quickly became apparent. The canyons were not empty.

Instead, they were populated by the colossal wrecks of ancient ship designs. Boneyards; ship graveyards, where hundreds of vessels of all sizes had been deorbited or crashed into the canyons. Rolling the shuttle to bring it into view of the windows, Smile could see everything from haulers, to warships, to even the behemothic carcass of a luxury cruise liner broken across a turn in the largest canyon. Its skeletal remains only barely betrayed its once splendid shape. While Smile wasn't the type to recognise exact ship classes, she knew pre-Wyrm War designs with their organic, magically crafted hulls when she saw them.

They bore old colours of long dead nations; once bright, but they had long faded into worn grey from powerful dust storms weaving between the hulks far below the shuttle’s altitude, like the tide was still coming in across the coast. Only now it was a dry, weathering surge that twisted in little eddies among the exposed ribs of old carriers, or spurting out the missing top panels of a crumpled colony ship like a whale’s blowhole. Some were unintelligible piles of torn metal, where a wreck had come screaming out of the sky and fallen upon the rest. Others were held by supports embedded into the rock walls, more gently landed and shockingly preserved. Even then, she could see where many of them had collapsed over time.

The old world had ended up buried here, isolated from the decades-long cleanup that had happened on more populated planets. All this barren dryness had been from the impact of ships never intended to enter an atmosphere being struck down here from orbit to gather dust. A hundred miles of deep impact scores, blackened rock, and mountains of fragmented ships strewn through entire canyon systems, three or sometimes four wrecks deep. It had changed the entire climate of what had once been a coastline.

A telling reminder of the scale of that war.

Behind her, Kerfuffle squeezed his bulk until he could put his head sideways on the passenger door and peer with one eye through its porthole.

He looked aghast at what he was seeing.

Watching the griffon, Hair Trigger reached out and nudged his shoulder.

Well, his elbow, really.

“Chin up, big guy. Someone's gotta be the bottom of the list to help restore 'em. They'll have their time. Metal's patient.”

Kerfuffle shook his head. “S'not that, Cap'n. They've got remote vessels down there stripping them apart. Ain't right. Just ain't right. Deserve their retirement after what they saw back then. Oughta just leave those ones in peace to rest.”

Hair Trigger shuffled up to the cockpit, peering down. Kerfuffle wasn't wrong; there were small moving objects among the hundreds of wrecks littering the canyons. Flat table-like vessels were having salvaged components dropped onto their hulls by the articulated arms of vertical-take off scrapper drones - the same sort she'd once seen tear one of her family's oldest ships apart on its decommissioning.

“Y'know, I'm with Kerf on this one.”

Smile glanced again, but didn't reply. Instead, she swept the flatscreen of the pilot interface aside after the ding of a received message. The curt message displayed in small text, along with a number.

“Docking permission. They've seen us coming. Should be just around-oh my stars...”

The shuttle veered around the edge of a cloud-scraping mountain, before finally coming into sight of Corsinica Headquarters, but that was not what they saw to begin with.

The barren, rocky canyons had given impressions of an entire planet formed of nothing but crevasses, dry air, and scrap metal. The canyons formed part of a continental wall against what had once been an ocean. Beyond them, however, was something else entirely.

The five hundred metre heights they soared over suddenly dropped away, revealing much greener pastures. A pale, patchy type of vegetation perhaps, but nonetheless still fertile land sheltered from the apocalyptic drops of orbital wreckage by the high mountains bordering the canyons they had just passed. But what drew the attention of all three in the cockpit was an expanse of salt cliffs that sharply dropped away on the far side of the range. Glistening white, they reflected the enormous sun out of mirror-like pools staggered down the six mile long slopes in a strange stepped formation. Naturally formed, miles wide, and stretching down into the plains beyond the heights.

In these plains lay one of Kavala's old cities. Once evacuated before the use of its moon for superweapons, it had now been rebuilt by those seeking a life free of the larger galactic nations. To their surprise, skyscrapers already protruded, a symbol of the shocking growth that Asset's predecessor had sparked on this once lonely world. Its modern glass-panelled structures glimmered brightly in the morning sun like a host of fireflies in broad daylight, interwoven with the hot, hazy endless rows of lights surrounding heavy industry and colossal spacecraft factories. Closer to the shuttle, small villages at the city’s outskirts expanded into the green lands, up to the salt cliffs themselves, where chairlifts promised a certain hope as a holiday destination someday.

Smile gave a small smirk, muttering quietly to herself. ”Good luck getting holiday insurance risk assessment past that jump zone up there.”

Their shuttle received a harsh automated communication, demanding their adherence to the flight lanes, and Smile pulled back the sticks to fall in with scant few other small vessels that filtered in from the eastern side of the city itself. As they fell in step with the marked path, she could see much busier lines of drones at lower altitudes, filtering in and out of factories or the numerous scrapyards. Perhaps half a million population, Smile estimated, the outcome of the still ongoing boom period she'd read about, followed up by Asset's mining bringing in several thousand more representatives from worlds all across the surrounding sectors. In short order, they all had begun wanting a slice of rare metals without needing the Confederacy's tax levies. Most corporations, of course, based their operations in the orbital stations, but any serious infrastructure always had a planetary basing in some form, and this was the result.

Yet the route took them past the city itself, passing only through its one-way flight system. Corsinica Headquarters lay beyond.

Another colossal step of cliffs behind the city dropped off for another few hundred metres, casting the height above sea level of their previous route into being much higher than any of them had predicted. This one was empty, but for one building.

“And here we are, Captain.”

Hair Trigger had already been gazing in wonder at the city, but she suddenly found the cockpit area cramped as Kerfuffle squeezed up to take a look as well. Crushed in together, the trio watched the home of their client grow closer.

Cream and silver, it shone with smooth curves, overhanging the very edge of the cliff itself on long struts and wires. Rounded corridors were suspended in mid-air, while a sail-like shape sheltered it from the direct sunlight. It could have been mistaken for a combination between a trillionaire's home and a sailing ship of ancient times.

Dropping into the canyon, Smile brought the rattling shuttle up underneath the strange facility, directed by the nav-unit to a sheltered dock for small vessels. Slowing to a hovering speed, they pulled into the shade of the great sail, and eventually under the 'roof' of the dock itself, before a small drone buzzed up to direct their path onto the landing pad.

As they turned and committed to the always agonisingly slow landing procedures of an occupied dock, they could see various visiting vessels. A mining command ship riddled with radars for drone networking was just departing. Beyond that the far half of the area was dominated by the sleek curves of a large stellar yacht. Twice the size of Claudia, made of gleaming silver metal and bronze highlights, it hovered above the drop on reserve power, gangplanks running up to its smooth surfaces. The lifestyle of the rich. To her surprise, Trigger could see a few retracting doors pulled back, revealing three self-defence autocannons being maintained.

Clearly, Asset knew there were some looking to get her at any opportunity.

With a rough thunk, the shuttle dropped onto the smooth metal and spooled down its engines. Giving the hull a moment to cool, Smile hit the lock for opening the side door. Immediately a stuffy heat washed into the cooled interior, as the reason for the sail-shade became very clear indeed.

Hair Trigger didn't even get to the door before she saw smartly uniformed engineers galloping forward to fix the shuttle in place and start refuelling procedures. Even more formal was the suited security team approaching. Noting they were made up mostly of earth ponies, she lightly cursed at their height as they circled the shuttle. Opening the hatch with a hiss, she saw at their centre a dark red hippogriff; his weathered face somehow managed to twist around a vicious scar to offer a polite smile.

“Captain Hair Trigger, welcome to Kavala III. I am Security Director Garwyn, and I'll be escorting you to the Director's office. However, I will require your armaments. No weapons are permitted off of the docking area.”

“Straight to business”, muttered Trigger, as she floated out the combined weaponry of their team to lay onto a trolley that was wheeled forward. Her pistol, Kerfuffle's shotgun, and Smile's rifle were all tagged and barcode scanned, before being taken to a security office at the back of the bustling hangar bays.

Garwyn smiled again, his mouth doing strange things every time he did. “Miss Asset Margin is waiting for you. She apologises for things running behind schedule, and for the incident in orbit with that freighter losing propulsion out of its jump. It has been a trying morning for us down here.”

Hair Trigger's shoulders relaxed, a sense of strange calm overcoming her at the casual tone. “Tell me about it. Let's go.”

The team formed up around Trigger, Smile, and Kerfuffle, taking an easy pace between pads full of identical shuttles. Relatively few technicians worked on them, supported by tracked robots that followed them around and clunkily handled fuel lines or off-board generators.

Ahead of them, the doors quietly swept open to take them out of the noisy hangar and into a spotless world of smooth metal and, mercifully, functioning air conditioning. As they passed through a quiet reception toward a series of glass elevators that moved on the exterior of the building, Hair Trigger glanced at the crisp lines of the security ponies and the lavish smoothness of the curved roof and rounded doorways around them. She regarded her own frayed top with its loose hood, and muttered quietly to the others.

“Get the feeling we're under-dressed?”

“Speak for yourself, Captain.” Smile grinned, smoothing down her suit, before her face hardened. “If you don't mind, I think I should do the talking here.”

“Carry on, Smile. We're in your world now.”

The elevator doors shut around them, and the magnetic rails swept them upwards, toward the executive level.

* * *

Six hundred kilometres above the city, Claudia maintained her orbit in complete silence.

Within her quiet rooms, little moved, and one could have been forgiven for thinking a fight had broken out with the amount of belongings scattered upon the floor after the gravity fluctuations that morning.

Yet up the stairs, and into the bridge of the vessel, there was sound. Beyond its door, bouncy pop music reigned, drifting out into the quiet main street, and in the centre of it stood a concentrating hippogriff.

Tammani lightly bobbed her shoulders up and down, legs bending in time to her light humming, even as she held a paintbrush an inch from a canvas. Greys and blacks had been swept over it; forming a backing layer in the vague shape of Kavala III's moon, the same fractured satellite that shone into the bridge itself in her view.

“Hmm, hmm...somethin' I can dance to...”

Gently singing the few words she actually knew, Tami made a few light, wisping strokes. Just lines, curves, shapes...the usual, but it always brought a bit of life to her face to see it forming. Things were good, but in the quiet of the ship, her excitement for this day had started to wane slightly. Things just felt muted up here alone after a few hours, or at least felt like she wasn't making use of the opportunity she had available.

“Somethin' I can...ooh, come on. Is that all you've got, speakers?”

Turning her paint-stained cheeks, she glanced at the small speakers sitting on the nav-unit between the bridge chairs. They did her fine when her ears eventually got sore from the earphones, but they really weren’t the best quality. Tinny, and never as loud or as impactful on the beat as she'd like.

And when alone on Claudia, she really had wanted the chance to turn it up a little.

Sighing, she wandered over to the twin speakers after putting her paintbrush behind an ear, and began fiddling with the volume settings. Dropping into the pilot's seat, Tami found it to no avail, and instead idly flicked through the music device's playlist a good four times for something that'd get things moving, for something energetic enough to feel worthy of this rare home alone scenario.

“C'mon, gotta be something, I can't waste this.”

Looking around, Tami eventually paused, and then looked upwards. Her eyes fell upon the PA system's handset, and gently pulled it's wire free from the PA system with a careful, nervous tug.

It was the same kind of input plug as her music device used to connect to speaker systems.

Slowly, she began glancing from her device to the PA system's input port and back again. Rather quickly, an idea dawned on her.

Tami's lips began to turn upwards into a mad, excited smile.

* * *

If the Silver Dome ever wanted a fancy connection between its land-of-the-rich buildings, Hair Trigger thought, they'd need to speak to whoever designed Asset's Corsinica Headquarters.

In theory, they were walking through a small corridor four ponies wide with little furniture. Nothing to write home about.

Only the corridor had no walls or ceiling. After exiting the elevator and passing by a second security gate, they had entered this. A suspended glass tube of a hallway between two sections of the building arching out over the edge of the cliffs with nothing but the multiple hundred metre drop below. If it hadn't been for the criss-cross pattern of the great sail's shade reflecting off of the glass itself, she doubted they'd have even seen it around them. Above them and to their right lay the angles and curves of the patterned building holding a multitude of offices visible through arched windows. They were occupied by a frantic looking workforce nestled around several holographic displays. Drone controls, Trigger presumed, given the quantity of them in Asset’s service.

Yet she couldn't help but notice half the seats were empty. That had described much of this place. Despite its lavish construction something about it made her feel like she was walking around a place still being advertised to be bought. It felt hollow.

Truthfully, though, she was more focused on the constant battle to not wince, grunt, and limp with the long walk through this elaborate building. Her hoof was stinging and aching in alternating times. The half-broken multiband hardly completed the best look for meeting a client.

The remainder of the guards had stayed behind when they exited the hangar, leaving the trio with only Garwyn directing them. He tapped the wall of the suspended corridor.

“It's a single piece, same polymer composition that ship windows use. Not really glass no more. But I've seen it take hurricane season; always fun taking the newstarts through here when it starts swaying.”

His voice had changed. Dropping the disciplined tone, he instead betrayed an accent not too dissimilar to Kerfuffle's own drawl, punctuated by a chuckle at some memory of light hazing.

Hair Trigger smirked, appreciating the drop of formalities. “We used to drop gravity to the cargo hold while newbies were in there, asked them to go get a free-float from the storage.”

Garwyn laughed openly. “The classics. Right, game faces on. That's us here.”

Stopping for a moment to check over his own uniform, he hit the switch for the doorway at the end of the suspended corridor, which opened into what could only be described as the third level of reception in one building. Plush seating sat curved around synthetic plants, while a giant display rolled the galactic market across it in a pattern of numbers and arrows to their right, partially warped by the fish tank sitting between them and it. The room looked like it could seat twenty, but not a single person else was there. To the right of a gold embossed door at the back, a very bored receptionist suddenly perked her head up from behind a tall desk. A young pegasus, no more than her low twenties, and coloured a light pink with purple hair. Hair Trigger grinned, seeing her shocked face and frantic clicking as she attempted to close something on a monitor behind the level of the desk before anybody approached too close.

“O-oh! Oh, hello there! Would this be Miss Asset's nine o'clock?”

Garwyn didn't stop, moving over to tap the pony's desk with his talon. From the angle of his head, he clearly winked at her. “The nine o'clock at ten thirty, just typical for this morning. Still, it's a little better to get to come say hi to you, Pearl.”

She blushed, putting a hoof at her lips, before playfully tossing a pen at his chest. “Oh, you scoundrel. Yes, she is running rather late, thank you for bringing them. Ah...Captain Hair Trigger, Miss Volatility Smile, and Mister Kerfuffle, I presume?”

Smile gently laid a hoof on Trigger's shoulder, and the unicorn stepped to the side. This was the crystal pony's wheelhouse. “That would be us, Ma'am. It's a delight to be brought to her office itself, very generous of her to see us so privately.”

Pearl regarded Smile with surprise, picking up her pen again and shooing Garwyn's hand from her tabletop, before glancing at the glowing blue screen before her.

“Oh, 'us'? I'm sorry; that won't be necessary. This was booked as a one to one.”

She glanced past Smile.

“With the Captain.”

Smile's mouth twisted somewhat, and she backed off with a polite nod, leaning down to quickly whisper to Trigger. “I've seen this. She's done her research, and this is very deliberate if she knows you have a business savvy pony with you. Be careful.”

Without taking her eyes off the doorway beyond the reception, Trigger replied under her breath. “Any quick tips?”

“Just focus on what you want, and be comfortable. She'll lose a lot of time to get someone else; you've more on your side than it might seem. Act natur-”

She paused, thinking that one through.

“Maybe just the first bit.”

Trigger snorted, trotting forward. “Thanks for the warm endorsement of my personality.”

Pearl looked back up from her screen. “Captain? If you'd like to go in, the door is unlocked and on automatic.”

Hair Trigger shook out her neck, reasserted her hat, and trotted forward past Pearl. “Like pretty much everything else here, huh?”

“Quite, Captain.” The pegasus smiled sweetly. “Miss Asset is rather fond of taking as much work out of others’ hooves as possible. Your friends may wait out here.”

Nodding and approaching the door, Trigger found it swept soundlessly open in a curving motion. Each section twisted as it disappeared into the housings either side, to reveal another wall behind it that curved around to the right. Glancing back to see Kerfuffle sit down to stare at the fish, and Smile watching after her directly with a put-out look at being denied, Hair Trigger took a breath and entered.

The moment she stepped through, the door swept shut behind her just as quietly.

The sunny, open transparency of the building behind her disappeared, leaving her in the dark. And upon turning her head to look into the office itself around the curve, she realised why.

She was back in the black.

Enormous fragments of the collapsed moon arced around her, passing above her head on their endless dance. Mining drones chased them, swarming out from the bulk transports. Further out from where she stood, she could see the colossal refinery stations in orbit glowing away from their hundred meter tall heat vents.

Only after a few seconds did Trigger realise the entire office was made up of seamless video panels. A jet black floor beneath her cutting off the images where it met the walls was the first clue, and a turn of her head confirmed the route she'd come through was another gap in the virtual space-expanse. At its centre, a curved table of dark marble was scarcely visible, punctuated by a glossy red chair behind it, and two simpler black ones in front.

A red glow to her left drew her eyes, and she saw the shape of a unicorn's horn lit against the wall-panels’ dark video footage. A tall, slender mare of unknown detail and colour stood in the darkness with her back to the door, her head following a greenish asteroid as it was towed and sheared apart. Her magic was working with something on the desk: a small remote.

Seconds later, one quarter of the wall switched to display another angle. This time of a stricken mass conveyor being towed into a maintenance area.

“I was pondering, Captain, how much I ought to charge them for this.”

Her voice was smooth and rich, deeper than the lithe frame implied.

Hair Trigger remained where she was. No sense in pushing the formalities into unknowing by assuming where to trot. Instead, she just let her eyes fall on the freighter; the first chance she'd had to pause and look at the culprits.

“Well, whatever you decide, you can throw in the cost of a new platinum superconductor for the one we burnt out fixing the artificial gravity, three mugs, and a new multiband screen if you'd like to get them to pay me as well for what they did to my ship.”

Trigger glanced at her multiband's warped display. What the hell, it was worth a shot.

The mare before her broke into a short laugh. “And here I thought I asked the Captain to enter, rather than the one in the suit. I'll see what I can do. Welcome to Kavala III, Captain Hair Trigger.”

“Appreciated, and it's good to meet you too. So what do I call you? Director? I know one owner of a large business that likes that.”

Asset Margin finally turned, as the screen filling shape of the moon gave a glimmer of white light across the office and illuminated her from one side. She was a hazy cream, with a two-tone green mane. It was short, not even hanging behind her head but bunched into a tiny ponytail. The front bore two long strands that hung in front of her face from where the mane parted on her forehead. Behind them, two eager red eyes regarded Hair Trigger with a curious interest.

Asset Margin was prim and proper in her suit, but as she trotted back to her desk there was a more casual look to her step. She dropped into her comfortable looking chair, its back coming to well above her head, and folded her white shirted forelegs over her dark waistcoat. “Please, Captain. Asset will do. And my apologies for the incident in orbit. Our jump zone has little room for error, and they made perhaps the largest error I've seen here. Now, coffee? It's been a hell of a morning for me sorting it out, and from the looks of that limp on your way down the corridor here, you've had one as well. I trust not from the evasion?”

She indicated something Hair Trigger had neglected to observe: a silver urn with still steaming vapour coming from the top. At Asset's beckoning, she sat down. Clearly, the businessmare had seen the desiring look in her eyes, for she was already pouring two cups.

Hair Trigger smiled more openly. Finally, someone that got how to respond to an angry space captain's bad day. “Much as I'd love to say it was heroically pulling a crewmember away from danger during it, not quite. Meeting the CEO of an entire planet's orbital infrastructure and mining operations while limping from standing on a plug hadn't been my intended way to go about a first impression.”

Taking the cup, Hair Trigger paused to smell it and then gratefully raised it to her lips to taste. Asset rolled her eyes, and took the chance to speak as the unicorn drank.

“Having to watch my security director flirting with my receptionist in front of you wasn't mine either. You know he has a wife? Can't take him anywhere. Or, for that matter, watching said receptionist trying to buy and sell shares of competing companies from every business savvy visitor I've gotten in the past week that has to wait there more than five minutes. I'd replace her if she wasn't so damn good at her job.”

Hair Trigger raised an eyebrow over the cup. “Is she now?”

Asset floated her own cup up to knock against Trigger's, allowing herself to smirk. “Including ones belonging to the rival corp I'm looking for you to help me with.”

Rolling the still full coffee around, Hair Trigger thought for a second, before holding up a hoof. “If you would excuse me for a second, Asset.”

She turned in the seat, pointing her mouth toward the closed door.

“SMILE! Sit down!”

In the silence of the office, as Asset Margin stared with confusion at the sudden shout, both unicorns heard the sound of hooves and then the crumple of one of the seats outside being sat in heavily.

Both eyebrows remaining high, Asset perched her hooves together and chuckled. “And they say a CEO must know her employees.”

Hair Trigger waggled her eyebrows. “Just as a Captain needs to know her crew.”

Asset smiled warmly. “I think we'll get on quite well, Hair Trigger. You're refreshingly at ease when most think I'm going to be some sort of tyrant. Not all trillionaires are. Promise.”

She winked and clicked her mouth, finishing her coffee in one rather improper gulp.

“Now, I believe you'll be wanting to know more about what I'm looking for you to do. Fun as having someone to chatter to who's had an equally shitty morning is, I am rather behind schedule already and need to press on.”

The sudden curse caught Trigger off guard. The word sounded unusual from Asset’s refined tone, but the little bile below it held a genuine bitterness. Briefly, Trigger wondered just what else had happened to the mare this morning.

“Well, don't let me hold you back. You gave me coffee after all, I'm all ears to drink and listen. See what we can do for you.”

“Then let's get started.”

Asset leaned back, fiddling with her controls, until the pleasantly dark and quiet space-scene switched on half the room, instead displaying what looked like a CCTV from the roof of a tall, brown and silver metal building overlooking a heavily dusty city. To its right, a portrait of a griffon overlayed the scene - red feathered with white highlights. He looked past his prime, and was looking away from whatever covert camera had taken the photo.

To its left lay footage of a smoking wreck, looping every few seconds. Hair Trigger recognised it as one of the scrapper drones from the piled wrecks of ships over the plateau behind the city.

Asset Margin used her magic to propel her chair over to the screen, pointing to the wrecked drone. “One week ago, I had something stolen from me. You flew over the boneyard on the way here, so you've seen where much of my salvage income emerges from. Well, this drone found something a bit more valuable than just components or rare alloys. Mid-way back, boom! Goes down. I send Garwyn out, and he comes back with the report that it was shot down. And this here, I know, is the one who did it.”

She pointed to the griffon. Hair Trigger edged around the desk, staring at the huge avian and the bristling anger in his eyes.

“Doesn't much look like another man of business. More the sort of guy I'd see in the periphery stalking ships.”

Asset smiled and nodded. “Because he is. You're not the only off-worlder the corps here are hiring, Captain. That is Kreer, a pirate turned corporate wet work operative. Someone got him to do a job, and that job was stealing from me. The drone was carrying a relic from the wreckage of a Wyrm-era ship we'd found three layers down into the pile. News had gotten out we were moving in on something. Guess some rival took a shot, literally, to get it without even knowing what it was.”

Trigger rubbed her cheek, finished her coffee, and leaned on the desk to watch the smartly dressed unicorn. “All about the drones with you, isn't it? They're all I've seen everywhere I look. Might have figured it involved one of them.”

If Asset found the presumption anything but a compliment she didn't show it, spreading her hooves. “Of course, Captain. How else could we mine the field above? Far too dangerous for piloted vessels to go into the dense sections, and the cost savings from an automated, ceaseless force in tandem with this being effectively a tax haven? I fell in love with the approach. We now have over eight hundred automated platforms in service, and a high degree of autonomy within our refineries in the black. No-one on this planet even comes close to our net profits because of that.”

Hair Trigger smirked; her theory on why this place seemed so devoid of organic employees was beginning to be justified. She pointed at the griffon. “And that's why he's here. They're all out to get you when you're the top dog on this world. Because everyone outside sees you as this planet's ruler, and they want the brand.”

“Corporate warfare, Hair Trigger. It's made for ugly work. Share wars, buying up property, corporate sabotage...plenty of stallions in suits looking to persuade people away from investing in me. And their suitcases-”

Trigger leaned back in the leather chair. “-aren't filled with contracts? I'm guessing that's a saying in the business world; heard the same from Smile on the way down. So, what do you want us to do in this?”

Asset's hoof moved to tap the glass wall on the image of the city.

“Shining Reach. An inaccurate name for that dustbowl if ever there was one. It's around six hours away by shuttle. I've learned that an engine signature from the site of the crash went to a warehouse I know is used by Kreer. They took my find there, Captain. I want you to retrieve it. I can't risk using one of my own assets, not with every other corporation waiting to dive on a story of 'Corsinica attempts theft of rival's assets'. My own name would go well with the headlines, of course. Even on a planet with only a few million inhabitants that sort of thing can bring you down.”

Hair Trigger nodded slowly. She'd never really grasped the press. Living off-world all your life naturally removed you from the papers, the debates, and the politics. All the same, she knew their power. “So we're the unknown factor. Far as Kreer and his client will know, we were just any old thief. Same way he got it from you.”

“Now you're catching on.”

Asset got out of her chair, and trotted over to her desk without it to stand and face Trigger. “For this, I can pay you two hundred thousand for the safe recovery of the relic. Three hundred thousand if you can remove Kreer from the game. I don't care how. Pay him off, convince him, recruit him, kill him...whatever. As I said...”

Her eyes showed a flash of a serious, cold nature.

“Corporate warfare is ugly work. It's not impossible he might be there still.”

Hair Trigger wanted to whistle, but kept quiet. She'd expected to barter for even six figures; this was double that. After a second, deciding not to hedge her bets, she leaned over and shook Asset's hoof. “We're not murderers, Asset; don't expect a corpse coming back with us. But we'll do it.”

Asset's shake was a firm one, business standard. Beaming with delight, she clapped her hooves together and moved around the desk. After a second, Trigger realised she was being ushered to the door and got up quickly to limp her way there.

“Excellent, Captain. Excellent. Now, I have prepared a shuttle for the job, and you'll find codes to the warehouse I had my cyber defence experts, hm, acquire. Automated coordinates are installed to take you to Shining Reach, and we fished it out of the junkyard last night so it's completely off the record, even to you. No threat to your own ship being traced. I've even had Garwyn leave you all a packed lunch for the journey.”

Nearing the door, Hair Trigger paused, holding her sore hoof off the ground after an irritated glance at it. She looked back, momentarily amused. “You got your security director making lunches?”

The corporate mare only smiled. “One downside of a drone workforce is you tend to start asking people to do things the robots can't. Good luck, Captain.”

Hair Trigger nodded, pulled her cap on tighter, and walked out the door. “We'll be in touch soon enough. See ya.”

The door gently closed behind her, and Hair Trigger took a slow breath. That had gone well. She caught the eyes of Kerfuffle and Smile as they got up, the former from staring at the aquarium, the latter putting down her multiband. She grinned.

“We got ourselves a job.”

* * *

Garwyn was waiting for them by the shuttle, leaning on its engine housing and swinging a rucksack from his talons. At the sight of the ponies and griffon approaching, he nodded to the interior.

“Weapons are already stowed for you, Shining Reach preplanned in the nav-unit, and...”

He sighed, looking at the bag before tossing it to Hair Trigger.

“And packed lunch. Have fun at school. Courtesy of Miss Mother upstairs.”

Trigger caught it in her telekinesis. “Surprised you actually did it.”

“The hell do you think I am? Course I didn't. Told the new guy he had to, and I'm pretty sure he told the interns.”

The two shared a knowing smirk, as the three clambered back into the shuttle and Smile started to get it fired up. The hippogriff also tossed another device to Trigger: a small pad with a locked screen.

“Password's with four zeros, it'll have the package unlock app ready. Tap it on and off to locate the box, it'll beep like a car. Should help you find it.”

Closing the hatch over behind them, Garwyn paused, and gave them a harsher look. “No matter what she says, be careful. If Kreer's around...well, I have this scar for a reason.”

Checking her pistol over the moment she got inside, Hair Trigger holstered it and nodded. “I'd rather he not be. We'll be in and out.”

“With any luck.”

He didn't say goodbye, slamming the hatch closed and thumping its side. Hair Trigger turned back to the shuttle at large and shifted up to the front, sitting in beside Smile. Curiously looking into the rucksack, she spoke without turning her head.

“Kerf, send a message to Tami; we'll be back early in the morning, maybe half a day.”

“Sure thing, Cap'n.”

Unpacking the lunch they'd been left as the shuttle roared and lifted from the floor, Hair Trigger found multiple foil-packed objects. On them lay the name 'Garwyn'. She snorted; clearly the interns had their revenge for the passing of the buck.

Curiously, she unwrapped them, finding a small stack of tomato sandwiches. Nothing else. Trigger sighed at the lack of variety. It'd have to do. Maybe they could stop for something in the city.

Smile turned the shuttle around to face the horizon opposite the sun.

“We're free to move, Captain.”

“Make it so, Smile.”

* * *

Still six hundred kilometres above the city, Claudia maintained her orbit much the same as before.

Only now, at least internally, there was no such thing as complete silence.

The bridge beeped with the notice of an incoming message, then relayed it to the intended multiband.

That, too, beeped.

Neither was heard.

Every room, every crevice of Claudia, was part of the happiest time possible. The entire PA system thumped and blared with the most sweet-toothed, spring-stepped music that the pop genre had ever created. Lyrics of dates, kissing, holidays, fun, and playing in the sun turned all of Claudia into a gigantic party of sugar-pop, the bass sending reverberations through every deck.

She had danced in the bridge. She had danced in the main street. She had danced in the engine room, and the common room, and the shower.

Then she had moved to the cargo hold, the biggest area to fly, spin and hop from leg to leg around containers. Sliding backwards between them, or surfing the grav-cart. Music echoed in there, making it sound like a live event. Her smile had been unending, her laughter lost in the volume and tempo.

Eventually she'd not been able to keep the happiness to herself, finding a reluctant dance partner to swing around in her hands.

“Unit PATCH requests that Crewmember Tammani refrain from interfering with intended path of gryostabilisation mechanism.”

“You're so into it! You're wiggling your gyros! It's adorable!”

She leapt up, flapping out her wings to spin them both, before letting him go with one hand to let him extend out and whirl, and drawing him back him to grip with both hands.

“Warning. Excessive volume may result in tinnitus. Documenting fifth warning to record.”

“What!?”

Over the noise, the sudden buzz of the airlock snapped her attention away. Patch took the chance to quickly fly away to the main street above them both as the hippogriff suddenly squealed and bounced her way toward the door itself. Hitting the lever to open it, she found the small space between the doors soon occupied by a pressure-suited deer holding an atmosphere sealed container, with a shuttlecraft's small door locked onto the other side. The sudden volume of the music made him shake his head with shock.

“Uh...two pizzas, one garlic, one hot and spicy, with soda and Billionaire Cake? Delivery for an...Admiral Tammani? You're a...”

She snorted with laughter, quickly tabbing through her multiband to the contactless app. “I didn't think that'd actually get accepted on your site. I didn't even expect the orbital stations even did deliveries for food!”

The deer grinned. “People wait here for a spot, people want their pizza. We make it happen. Party can't wait!”

“Best. Idea. Ever.”

“I know! Enjoy, Admiral!”

Tapping her multiband onto the offered tablet with a beep, Tami scooped up her feast and gave him a sweet smile. “Thank you!”

Seeing him out, she looked up to see a very disapproving looking Patch still at the join between the hold and the corridor.

“You want any?”

“Affirmative. Unit PATCH requests possession of all sustenance to prevent imminent threat of over-consumption and stomach ache. Prevention is better than cure. Ninety-nine percent of non-privatised doctors agree.”

“Greedy so-and-so!”

Tami stuck out her tongue at him, skipping and hopping side to side on her merry feasting way to the common room.

* * *

Shining Reach had looked like a rough, dusty place on Asset's CCTV footage. She'd said it hadn't deserved the name.

Trigger, Smile, and Kerfuffle were finding that image very incorrect at the moment.

Their journey had shot them ahead of the sun's terminator line, bringing them into the cover of night. But the moment they had dropped below the clouds, a thick slurry of rain had begun pelting the shuttle. Like snow, it slapped on and dragged up over the top from the craft's velocity, leaving streaks and blurry colours of the approaching city itself below as the only things visible. A heavy storm was assaulting the city and the viewpoint of the shuttle shuddered and bucked as the not-so-aerodynamic vessel fought with the winds.

Hair Trigger instead concerned herself with the thin lines of a wireframe map of the streets on the console itself, using a hoof to drag the image around and zoom in toward the address of the warehouse. Every few seconds she would grumble and mutter as the bumpy ride made her accidentally tap and bring up the 'What's here?' window that would then take ten seconds to close and reload the map again.

“Oh fer...okay, looks like there's space to land maybe half a block away. Sheltered by a hab-building for the workers. Should be quiet.”

She shovelled another bite of the sandwich in her magic into her mouth, chewing with distaste. The fad food had been fun on Medusa when Crazy D had first brought it up, but six hours with only it to eat in stale bread was wearing on her patience.

Kerfuffle, despite the rain, was sitting behind the two front seats and staring into the clouded mess of the window, following the bright lights of the city as they closed in.

“Should be easier at night. Miss Margin sure thought this through for us, didn't she? Making sure we'd arrive in the dark.”

At the controls, Smile fought with the winds, finally bringing the shuttle to the city's own level with a whine of decelerating engines as she navigated through the storm in near darkness. She grimaced and squinted, trying to fly by numbers as much as sight. ”Clearly, she's very thoughtful to send us in during this time right now.”

The griffon nodded without an ounce of irony. “Sure is.”

Rolling her eyes, Smile dropped the nose, finally getting the ship in amongst the buildings. Shining Reach was much smaller than Corsinica: formed of tall prefabricated buildings assembled by orbitally dropped construction modules, and thus ultimately had little spread or suburban area. It looked like a full city condensed into a tiny area, maybe only a few kilometres in rough diameter. Buildings, mostly of Confederate design, were little but dark shapes in the storm, but bright neon signs and holograms lit up on their surfaces. Massive billboards showcased everything from corp logos, to financial data, to sultry ponies aiming their two frame animations at any passing ship.

Hair Trigger couldn't suppress a chuckle at the sight of Kerfuffle politely waving back at one of their animated hooves.

Slowing to the pace of most ground vehicles, Smile took the shuttle the long way around, using the blocky and top-heavy shape of the habitat building Hair Trigger had indicated as cover from the target warehouse. With the hull's flashing lights illuminating the dull concrete of an abandoned car park, she finally let the wearisome ride through the elements end with a shuddering landing on the hard surface.

Weapons ready, and donning their protective armoured vests, the trio gathered in the passenger section of the shuttle. Hair Trigger hit the release latch.

“We get there, use the code on the door, get in, beep the box and just get the hell back out. No waiting around, no taking anything we aren't contracted to. Move quick as we can, at the gallop until we're near it, okay?”

With the pair nodding, Trigger slung the door of the shuttle back and let the freezing air and slurried rain in. It swept around the shuttle, broken only briefly as the huge shape of Kerfuffle dove past and ran out into the streets, closely followed by Smile galloping alongside him. The sparkle of her coat quickly dulled in the dark atmosphere.

Slapping the shuttle closed, Hair Trigger turned to move on herself, finding the other two with their long strides already further ahead than she could reasonably catch up to, disappearing into the night. She grumbled under her breath, and began unsteadily limping and stumbling along after them in the rain.

“Quick as we can, I said...real smart today, aren't I?”

* * *

Smile rounded the corner onto the warehouse's street, her hooves slipping on the wet asphalt, until she could slow down and get a look over what was ahead.

Five seconds later, she hastily moved into cover of the alleyway she just left, and held out a hoof to stop Kerfuffle going past her. The griffon looked strangely deflated in the rain.

“Mrs Smiles?”

“Shh.”

She was aware that her sparkling coat and mane were not the easiest things to try and hide in a dark city, especially with the neon and colour fifty metres above them. Holding her hood around her head, she peeked around the corner.

The street itself was actually more of a promenade, laid against a river rather than a coastline - if you could even call it a river. The edge opposite her went to what looked like a forty foot drop before the filthy water even started. From the looks of it, the unusual drop was simply to keep the city level with its modular construction on higher ground elsewhere. The city was unrelentingly flat at ground level.

Smile had always hated places like this. For all it made financial sense, even she could appreciate a living area that didn't look like it was made out of a mathematician’s wet dream for uniformity. Idly, she wondered how Asset's predecessor had even gotten Confederate construction materials onto a planet the Confederacy denied access to.

Yet right now, her true focus was on what was ahead through the harsh rainfall.

Down the street, under the dull orange glow of street lamps, two hover-vans were offloading goods to the very warehouse they'd expected to approach. An enormous shutter door, coloured red, was still dropping down behind them, with a dozen ponies and griffons dragging the last boxes up the ramps and inside. Others were shutting up the vehicles.

“Looks like they're about ready to leave.”

Above her, Kerfuffle's entire head poked out from around the corner until the crystal pony reached up and nudged him back by a few inches, her eyes not leaving the convoy.

“Mrs Smiles, ain't that the griffon the info on the shuttle had?”

“Smile. And what? Where?”

She caught Kerfuffle's hand about to point around the corner, and saw the red plume come into view. Kerfuffle had to have spotted it from higher up.

Kreer moved harshly, his head whipping back and forth to stare with beady eyes at anyone in the immediate area. A bulletproof vest was tightly wound on his barrel-like torso, and Smile could spot a squat, vicious-looking carbine on his back - more of a cut down service rifle than a light weapon.

Under the flashing of signs above the dark warehouse - itself a wide and thickly walled metal building - Kreer banged the side of one of the vans, giving it the signal to flex its engines and roar off into the space above the river. Rain spray and litter from the pavement blew up in cyclones around it. Soon enough the second one joined it, the whine of hover-pads deadening behind the scathing rain as soon as it dropped out of sight.

The sound of hooves behind Smile alerted her to the Captain approaching, and she waved frantically for Hair Trigger to slow down.

The unicorn had her hood up over the ever-present hat, but it already looked soaked through. Cautiously, she crept forward to look around the corner, filling in the gap below Smile as all three faces peered at the red griffon.

“Ah, crap,” Trigger muttered, watching Kreer move off with two pony guards, one a pegasus and the other a unicorn. The three moved to a metal set of stairs fastened to the side of the building that let to the upper levels of the warehouse, disappearing inside to the offices upstairs.

Dropping back into the alleyway, Hair Trigger fought to urge to whack her head off a broken drainpipe.

“I've already had my fill of brutal wet work operatives with rifles lately, so of course he had to be here, didn't he?”

Kerfuffle looked at the street again, then shrugged. “He's going upstairs. Maybe what we need is downstairs on the main floor? Most things in warehouses back home were. And we don't often go in Claudia's cargo bay.”

Checking her rifle, Smile wiped the water from her face and held it under her body to shelter the mechanism. “You know, you could be right. We have the code after all. In. Out. Before they even realise someone's come inside. Like you said, Hair Trigger. And the shuttle's just a few minutes away.”

Water dripping from the brim of her hat, Trigger looked about as downright miserable as she ever had today, before finally shrugging. “Well if you're wrong, it'll be you dealing with Patch's resupply demands to heal us. Let's go.”

All three hustled out into the rain, sticking close to the porches and overhangs of the other warehouses leading up to their target.

Mid-way there, Hair Trigger and Smile paused behind a low brick wall, keeping an eye ahead. The warehouse’s heavily misted windows let them see occupied rooms with lights and the faint shadows of moving bodies. Below them, thin vents and another layer of half smashed windows indicated the bottom level itself was still in the dark. There weren't any obvious cameras. Indeed, if it weren't for the lights above, it would be easy to think it abandoned.

There was a worryingly familiar feeling of hidden danger about this to Hair Trigger. The quiet darkness of a grey warehouse in a shady part of town felt all too similar to a rescue from a certain building not too long ago. One she preferred to not think too much on.

After a couple more seconds, Trigger realised the rain had stopped, only to look up and see a gigantic wing held above her head, with the other over a similarly bemused Smile.

Kerfuffle hunched between them, as subtle as a rhinoceros hiding behind a lamppost, his wings flitting in the wind as she stared down the street at the objective.

“Appreciate it, big guy. But little time to hang around.”

She darted forward again, delighted in that it only took her a couple seconds of thrashing her hind legs in the air to get over the wall (and trying to ignore the graceful hop and roll Smile used to get over in one bound) before cantering as fast as she dared to the warehouse itself. A service door was facing them from its front, and Hair Trigger pressed her body into the metal of the wall beside it, squeezing herself in tight to get out of view from the windows above. Her heart was thumping hard enough enough that her head pounded as much as her hoof. The adrenaline from the moment was nulling the pain, as they neared a hostile area.

“Always for the big pay days...” she muttered, as Smile and then Kerfuffle fell in beside her.

Above her head, at the height a minotaur would design something, she could see a touchpad with a fading glowing panel. It read 'LOCKED', with a key slot just below it.

“Kerf, you're up.”

“Aye, Cap'n.”

Shimmying out from the wall, the griffon shuffled up and drew out the code they'd been given. Imprinted on a small card, it slid into the reader easily.

The panel, however, flashed a 'DENIED' at them.

Hair Trigger swore, and Smile, behind her, held her rifle ready while looking over her shoulder. “Come on, you two; can't hang around here.”

“Workin', Miss...” Kerfuffle muttered and tried again.

'DENIED'

“Aw hell, they must have changed it.” Trigger bumped the side of her head on the wall, wishing Tami were down here with her tech-kit right about now. “Any ideas?”

“Hang on a minute, Cap'n.”

Kerfuffle hadn't taken his eyes off the reader, and then traced them to the door itself. Scratching the wet surface of his beak with a talon, he started running his other hand around the frame. The metal wall was flash-welded on, likely by a gigantic line-beam for rapid construction on new worlds. But to insert a reader, they'd have had to make a hole into the original template. He could see the newer welds surrounding the reader from where they'd cut into the prefab material.

That gave him an idea.

Grasping either side of the reader, he made a low grunt, tugging back sharply, the often underappreciated musculature usually hidden underneath his feathers flexing and powering through the movement. The entire reader itself popped out of its socket, attached by wires that ran to a hollow between the wall’s outer and inner layers.

“The hell?” Trigger breathed as she watched the griffon work. “Kerf, you sure we-”

“Hold this, Cap'n.”

A second later, she found herself in possession of a brand new card reader, while the griffon fought to fit his head into the gap itself. After a second or two, he emerged and dug into his toolkit for a screwdriver. Uncomfortably pushing his arm within the gap, he started adjusting things hidden from view, switching tools a few times.

Upstairs, the sound of hooves on metal became louder, and they heard an outer door open.

“Kerf...” Trigger hissed, drawing her pistol in her magic, while Smile aimed at the bottom of the stairs that Kreer’s goons had gone up.

“There we go.”

Taking the reader back from her, he re-inserted it into the wall and tried the card again.

'OPEN'

The reader bleeped, and there was a sound of the door's lock clunking back into its housing. Without much waiting, Hair Trigger pushed past him and threw herself inside. Smile followed, pausing to tug the griffon after her; he'd stopped to correct and smooth down the angle the reader had gone back in at.

“But-”

“Not important, come on!”

Shutting the door behind them, they hid down in the darkness of the warehouse, finally free of the heavy rain, to let their eyes adjust. Outside there was the brief sound of hooves - of someone having a smoke where they had just been.

“Too close,” Smile whispered, squinting to see through the blackness. With only a hint of light passing through the misty windows above them, she could only get a vague sense of the piles of crates, shipping containers, and walkways all around them. “Hope Tami's got Claudia ready if we need to make a break for it at this rate.”

Trigger nodded. “Just take it easy, they haven't spotted us yet. Nicely done, Kerf.”

Grinning widely, hidden only by dint of the darkness, Kerfuffle bashfully shrugged his shoulders. “Not a problem, Cap'n. And don't worry.”

As the other two began to creep forward, he looked up through the skylight, past the rain clattering on its suffering glass.

“Miss Tami's good at what she does. She'll be all ready at the controls if we need her.”

* * *

Objects floated gently in the air around Claudia's cargo bay, spiralling and lightly bumping against one another before taking different routes. Art canvases floated past empty pizza boxes and the cases of already-watched movies. The PA system broadcast the calming sounds of the cosmos, a relaxation suite of soft strings and gentle percussion, designed for those who loved to stargaze.

Upside down, with her arms, legs, and wings splayed out as she idly let her body go wherever it wanted, Tami concluded with the most content-of-content smiles that there was no better way to spend a food coma than floating in zero gravity.

Eventually her multiband beeped, and her eyes sprung open. Gazing down at her forearm, she saw with all delight that her download had finished.

The HugePilot remix of one of her favourite songs had released even as she'd eaten. Slow and heavily firewalled connection to the greater SpaceNet or not, she'd picked it up on the spot.

The most dance-worthy, heart-pumping, fun-sung, mood-lifting, high-tempo, happy-causing, and happy-sounding song she owned, remixed by an artist known for amping up the bass and momentum of tracks into intense, cheerful bursts of skin-shivering beats?

Now she could be in zero gravity, with a brand new remix, with max volume over the whole ship's PA system?

As she transferred it to the PA system's stored buffer and hit play, she felt herself tense up (and slightly squeak) in anticipation.

Tami knew nothing could ruin this day now.

* * *

The interior of the warehouse was as dark as they'd expected and hoped.

They’d come in on an elevated side section to the main floor, behind a set of railings that divided it from a large concrete area. After letting their eyes adjust, it had become clear that Garwyn's device would be essential for locating the box.

The place was filled to the brim.

Shipping containers were stacked beside wooden crates. Metal strongboxes lay in formation beside loose piles of electronics and junk. Rows of shelving passed under metal walkways that criss-crossed above them, impossible to see in any detail. They led around to the occupied room, which sat directly above the main shutter door to where the vans had departed.

Yet aside from the hum of a few automated dust sweeping robots shuffling around the main floor, their red lights blinking gently, it was motionless.

“Do it, Smile.” Hair Trigger whispered the words, and kept her eyes on the piles of boxes.

Beside her, Smile tapped the key code into the tablet and hit the giant 'unlock' button on the touchscreen. For a second, nothing happened, and then - distantly - they heard a small magnetic lock being disabled from somewhere in front of them.

Smile tapped it to lock the container once more, and again the sound echoed in the dark warehouse.

“Louder than I'd like. Let's not use it too much.”

Moving down the ramp onto the main floor, Hair Trigger limped her way toward the closest pile of boxes to the direction of the sound. She had her pistol back in its holster, not trusting the glow of telekinesis. She kept angling her head up, watching those lit windows and hearing deep voices from behind them. The shuffle of her hind leg and the clumping of the big griffon behind her were wearing on her nerves. She felt vulnerable. Exposed. In theory, they were standing in the open, were it not for the darkness.

“Again.”

Smile tapped the button and Hair Trigger heard the sound to her left. Turning, she stumbled around some cardboard boxes, spotting a grav-sled sitting near the entrance.

“Think this is it. Once more...”

A heavy briefcase atop the grav-sled clunked.

“Got it! Unlock it, let's get it and get the hell out of here, and then-”

The sound of metal-on-metal grabbed her attention and she lit her horn, swinging her pistol up to the rafters. Smile dropped the tablet and lay her rifle over a box, while Kerfuffle's shotgun was held loosely in his hands.

Up top, on the walkways, they immediately saw the blinking lights of a fire-prevention drone making its way around on patrol. The clunky, hard square machine was, other than the lights, difficult to see, but the chugging of its tracks on the unsteady metal was ringing out in the quiet of the building and making its route obvious. It had to have been idle when they came in, only starting its automated patrol now.

“Shitting...” Hair Trigger muttered, shaking her head and holstering again. “Smile?”

The crystal pony, holding her clothing around her gleaming body as best she could, tapped once more, and the briefcase popped.

Daring to light her horn just a little, Hair Trigger lifted the top as she and Smile finally got a look at what they'd been sent to collect.

Inside was foam casing, designed to hold a single object nice and still. At its centre was a clear polymer bottle. Thickly reinforced, with a triple lock neck and several warning signs on it in languages Hair Trigger didn't recognise. All that was clear in any format she could understand was a name.

“Methylphosphonic dichloride,” she muttered.

Beneath it, a white crystalline substance filled the bottom third of the container - so fine that it almost looked like sand.

The container looked old, though. Very old.

“The hell is this?” she muttered, as Smile tapped on her multiband, bringing up a translator app, and swept it over the bottle.

Smile went rather pale as she searched for the meaning of the translated words.

“Stars above...”

Behind them, Kerfuffle looked back over at the exclamation while Hair Trigger turned to the crystal pony. Volatility Smile slammed the briefcase closed, and hit the lock for it rapidly.

“Smile? Again, the hell is this? What are you-”

Smile shook her head sharply enough to quieten even the Captain.

“That's Wyrm-era language. Warnings for toxicity. Extremus level.”

Her wide eyes betrayed the seriousness before her harsh tone even emerged again.

“That stuff is the catalytic mixing agent for chemical contagions, Trigger. Asset must have dug it up from the old boneyard - some of those ships must have come down from the weapons testing when the moon was destroyed.”

“...fuck.” Hair Trigger breathed the word with more meaning than any irritation-induced curse had held all day.

Smile turned away from the container and ran a hoof through her mane, even under her hood. She had expected an ancient relic, maybe. Some form of reaction formula or document on creating materials, or even just an expensive piece of history.

She had never expected this.

Behind her, Hair Trigger eyed up the briefcase with distaste. Everything about today had been plunging her mood deeper, and now this was one hell of a moment to just want to be done with it all. She heard Smile approach again, and the crystal pony's smooth tone came to her ears.

“They're fighting over the means to create a chemical weapon, Trigger. This is more than just profit now.”

“I know...”

Kerfuffle shook out his shoulders anxiously, more than uncomfortable with this. Solid, physical things he knew, but unseen, lethal chemicals made his skin crawl. He shook his head. “Ain't right, Cap'n. Stuff is buried for a reason.”

“I know!”

Thumping her hoof on the boxes beside the briefcase, Hair Trigger looked up sharply.

“I know, all right? So here's what we're going to do.”

She turned to the others, a grim look upon her face. “We take it. We steal it like she wanted, and then we toss this thing in the closest and deepest ocean we can find. We get to Claudia, and then we get the hell out of here. Maybe we tell her we got chased off, maybe we tell her it's been destroyed. Maybe we rat her to the Confederates. I don't know yet. But we're sure as hell not giving this to her or whoever she's taking it from. Shit...damn her! Damn that smiling, suit-wearing bitch! I have had it today!”

Her hoof thumped a second time. “After everything that happened today already, I am not going to be used like this!”

A smooth voice broke through the quiet warehouse.

“Oh I assure you, you were not being used, Captain.”

Floodlights thumped, and blinding white light seared into the trio's eyes. All three yelled aloud at the intensity, their night vision ruined. Hair Trigger whipped her head away with a hiss, before prying an eye open and feeling her blood boil.

The vague shape of a pony stood out between the beams upon a walkway high above. Either side of her, two fiery laser weapons sparked and erupted into life with deathly hums, aimed by two figures.

Kreer and Garwyn.

Between them, with an amused chuckle, Asset Margin stepped forth into the light and winked. “But you were being tested.”

Squinting, looking up, Smile winced and shielded her eyes with a forehoof. Her rifle rested in the other across a box, but the sight of those two burning energy weapons pointed their way kept her from aiming it. Hearing the Captain's low growl to her right, she desperately hoped Hair Trigger could keep a lid on that temper.

Asset looked down on the three of them with absolute smugness. The CEO rested her head back in a casual tilt to raise her nose at the crystal pony's look. With a short chuckle, her glare returned to Hair Trigger.

“And I'm sorry to say, but with that little declaration there, Captain...you failed.”

Smile kept her hoof on her rifle, but didn't dare raise it. Hair Trigger's teeth were bared, and Smile could see the unicorn's body starting to tense up. There was an explosion imminent, if Hair Trigger got to talk.

Volatility Smile quickly stepped in. “There was no theft, then.”

“Correct!” Asset's voice was chirpy.

“And it was all a lie to see if we were the kind who wouldn't care what it was? To see who we really are?”

Asset's mouth twinged up in amusement. “I prefer the term 'observed interview', myself. After all, I can't just talk openly about this in a publicly traded office now, can I? By the way, I suggest you don't move too far; I assure you, these two brothers are quite accurate.”

Hair Trigger's anger was boiling over. Her teeth hurt from clenching them, and her hoof throbbed as hard as it ever had that day. The sight of that smirking face didn't help. The crystal pony and griffon with her could see her whole face turning into a barely held back rictus mask of absolute fury starting to mount up.

Hastily, Smile kept talking. Anything to avoid being gunned down by lasers for another few seconds. “I suppose we should have guessed by all the automated things in here.”

Surprised, Asset's eyebrows raised, and she looked at the dust-drones on the ground level and the fire-prevention robot whirring slowly behind her on the walkway. Asset made a neutral sound, as though realising they could have been a clue for the first time, before giving a dismissive shrug, permitting Smile to go on.

“And this is why you wanted a shuttle for us, so your shiny yacht we saw could overtake us. I mean, I can't deny that it's impressive. Maybe if-”

Asset shook her head, the two strands of hair in front of her face swaying around as she raised a hoof with a single-shouldered shrug and interrupted.

”Disappointing is the word I would choose, Miss Volatility Smile. Please, I'm not in it for negotiation or re-runs at this point. Actually, I'm quite dejected that it turned out this way. A crew known to work with Sweet Alyssum? Whose ship transponder when traced on the black-navs even included Countess Karmelita's territory? Who somehow got into and out of prison in Avalon within a day through some obviously organised influence? For goodness sake, I thought I'd struck gold with you lot. I had such a nice contract ready for the delightful materials industry I've uncovered in this old place. What a pity.”

Kerfuffle shook his head sternly, the shotgun held at the low ready, but with a very serious look to his normally soft eyes. “Sorts stuff they were testin' here back then ain't delightful, Miss. Ought to be forgotten. Ain't right. Lot here ain't right. Been saying it all day.”

She actually rolled her eyes at him.

“It's right by me so long as they pay me and don't use it on my planet. And believe me, on the side, I have happened to wind up with a very interested buyer already. I just needed a crew off the record to transport it. Such a pity that I'll need to put out another job offer.”

Briefly, Asset ceased her conversationalist tone, leaning her forelegs on the railing of the walkway and glancing down. Her comfortably pleased grin turned to Hair Trigger.

“Captain...you've been unusually quiet. ”

One of Hair Trigger's eyes was larger than the other, twitching and shaking with her solid facial muscles. Her whole mouth was twisted out of alignment, as she felt something deep down fire up with the force of a supercarrier's reactor going critical.

“After all, you seemed so talkative and up-front before; so very...expressive. Before we see this sorry business done, don't you have anything to add?”

Hair Trigger's baleful gaze suddenly whipped up toward her so quickly that Asset actually recoiled an inch or two from the bloodshot eyes.

“Yes! I! Do!”

Pursing her lips, Asset turned sideways and waved a hoof near her ear.

“Oh? And that is-”

Hair Trigger instead whipped toward Smile, her entire head moving on every word.

“I FUCKING CALLED IT!”

The meaty pistol in Trigger’s holster flew out in a spark of magic and fired a single, completely blind shot toward the walkway, guided by nothing but sheer anger.

It was an impossible shot. An impossible chance. But she hadn't once dared think it wouldn’t work. Today had been just too much of an infuriatingly horrendous day for her to dare let one bullet not do exactly as she WILLED it to do.

The round whipped past Garwyn's mane and slammed into the fire-prevention robot passing behind him, where it ricocheted off the pressurised extinguisher on its chassis with a sharp ping of metal and buried itself into the side of Asset's flank.

Eyes bulging wide, her smug tone turning to a high pitched shriek of shock and pain, the composed mare went down in an undignified heap, her griffon and hippogriff guards momentarily too stunned to even realise what had happened.

And behind them, an eerie whistling sound suddenly grew louder.

“Oh...” Garwyn's eyes widened as he saw the gas venting from the extinguisher and heard the high pitched sound growing louder.

“Shit!” His brother finished for him.

The entire walkway exploded in foam and mist, drowning out Asset's thrashing, cursing and furious moaning. There was a sharp crack as the robot's lithium batteries detonated, sending a plume of sparks high above the foaming cloud. A deafening alarm bell sounded as the warehouse’s fire system kicked in. Seconds later, sprinklers activated all over the building, bringing down a monsoon that created a damp, vision-obscuring mist in all directions.

“And fuck that dirt-shit you called coffee this morning too!”

Hair Trigger glared into the mists, seeing red, then turning to the others, finding their bewildered stares looking between her and the walkway, which was rapidly disappearing behind a cloud of foam.

“Well? Let's get the hell out of-”

A red beam lanced out of the white and grey clouds, striking the ground near Hair Trigger. The intense delivery of light and heat exploded the concrete into shrapnel; and Trigger felt bits of stone ping off of her armour and skull.

“Get down, Cap'n!”

A claw reached out and tugged her away - a second beam slapped down and left a second six inch crater of erupted stone on the floor. These were nothing like the precise needles of energy fired by Cascavel's rifle. These were raw and wasteful blasts; a crude imitation of plasma armaments for those who couldn't acquire them. Hair Trigger could hear the weapons’ exposed dynamos hissing and sparking in the damp from somewhere ahead of her.

Out of it all, they could hear Asset's voice frantically screaming at someone to 'get down there and kill them', followed by an impressively blue-collar series of curse words and a groan of pain.

Trigger, Smile, and Kerfuffle fled across the width of the warehouse, Smile stopping only to grab the briefcase en-route. Three more snaps of the laser weapons zapped out of the depths of the mist. Guided only by the sound of their targets' hooves, the shots flashed wildly by. One of them flared when it struck and melted a steel railing inches from Kerfuffle’s side.

Above them, a gigantic red shape loomed down, the laser rifle in his hands charging up with a fierce glow.

Hair Trigger gasped, then waved frantically. “Scatter!”

Diving to every side, they heard Kreer's shot blast apart a crate behind them, throwing a cloud of fabric and textiles into the air.

Smile stumbled on her hooves, running directly into the shelving that bordered the way out. She'd gone further into the warehouse in her rush to get out the way, losing her sense of direction in the mist. Hair Trigger fell in beside her and quickly gave her a shove to dodge the chasing griffon's second attack. The shelving's foundation exploded, its supports collapsing and bringing the three layers of stacked goods crashing down. Rolling on her side, trying to get her rifle up and on target, Smile saw Hair Trigger trip on her hurt hind-hoof and look up at the shelving coming down.

“Aw, crap...”

The resigned groan gave way to the captain hurriedly curling up, hooves over her head, her horn lighting up just as she was buried under half a ton of broken wood and metal.

“Trigger!” Smile cried aloud, giving up her aim to try and rush forward to help the stricken unicorn. A hot flare of red streaked down her side from above, scalding and stinging her exposed coat on a near miss, and she again threw herself away, scrambling madly to get behind a wooden crate.

“Find cover, find cover!” she muttered to herself, bunching up behind it.

Two seconds later, a blast of red energy tore right through the crate, missed her face by inches, and blew a hole in the ground behind her. She stared at the gap in the crate with wide eyes.

“Find better cover!”

Smile got her sore legs powering forward again, deeper into the warehouse, chased by the flying attacks every few meters until ducking into the rows of shelving still standing near the back. Fighting down a sense of panic at being chased by a flying, mostly unseen assailant, she galloped down line after line looking for anywhere she could try and wait in ambush. The sprinklers were making it into a nightmare, blurring her vision as if she were lost in an urban fog. The warehouse felt twice the size it actually was, and yet claustrophobic all at the same time.

She yelped as another laser whipped through the shelving to her left, followed by a semi-automatic burst of them that had her diving to the ground to let them go above her head. With a crunch of metal, she felt a hard impact on her ribs and cried out in pain.

“What the...?”

She'd landed on pipes. Two pipes that gurgled and throbbed with running water. Following them to the side, chasing the sound, she saw a large tank against the back wall - open-topped with a rain filter draining into it. It was a cheap, crude reservoir for the sprinkler system the size of a business class garbage container, only five times longer to reach all the outlet pipes that led up to the roof.

Hearing a griffon's weight landing on the shaking shelves above, Smile didn't bother thinking and threw herself up and into the chilly water, falling beneath the surface with a practised breath.

Seconds later, that same griffon landed heavily on the concrete where she had just been, crunching some fallen debris below him.

Kreer shouldered his rifle, feeling the warm haze of the dynamo's energy built up inside the welded housing of the rifle tingling his cheek. His feathers felt slick and drawn under the mist of the sprinklers, and his eyes stung as red as his body and rifle from the foam of the extinguisher drone. Hard-faced, he swept the weapon’s hissing, steaming muzzle around each shelving corner, straining to look for the telltale sparkle of a crystal pony. Stalking the rows, his side to the reservoir, his big griffon eyes stared and scanned for any motion. The unicorn was done for, and he trusted Garwyn to handle the other one.

This was the moment he lived for: the hunt. The prey running. It appealed to his baser instincts to hear the panting as their hearts raced. Now he saw she had disappeared, and grinned as he looked at the reservoir.

“Really...come now,” he purred, flapping his wings to lift up and point his rifle down at the water. The pumps working to feed the sprinklers were making the surface thrash and churn. Starting at one end, he started to fly down it, always watching.

He hadn't thought for one moment that a pony could swim as fast as this one could.

At the opposite end, much farther than he'd anticipated, the drenched form of Volatility Smile powered out of the water and rolled onto an inspection plate at the top of the tank itself. The fluid, smooth motion of an athlete used to having done this a thousand times. She came to lie on her belly, rifle already aimed, its water-resistant seals holding up as they always had.

Kreer only had time to open his beak in bewilderment, before the thin crack of Smile's rifle echoed in the vapour fog and flashed its report over the water.

The round slammed into the dynamo on the side of his rifle, shattering the casing and sending a spark of scalding energy across his face. The smashed dynamo spat red arcs and streams of energy in all directions, with an unsettling - and intensifying - whine of uncontrolled power. The weapon shook and rolled in Kreer's grip, its unstable systems powering out of control, and he hastily tried to hurl it away.

Smile watched from down her sights with a squint as the laser rifle exploded in mid air, four feet from Kreer, the loud crack of the explosion drowning out his panicked scream. Regaining her vision from the blinding crimson flare she saw him lying on the floor, moaning and incapacitated.

“Still got it.”

She allowed herself a small grin, before dragging her tired and drenched body off the reservoir and toward the sounds of a vicious fight nearby.

* * *

Dust from shelving and wood splinters were dry and prickly in Hair Trigger’s mouth, almost as uncomfortable the rest of her complaining body.

With her muscles protesting, she got her forelegs under the metal panel she'd pulled over herself to protect against the collapsing metal shards of the broken shelf stands and pushed. It scarcely moved. The frame had protected her from most of the weight, but it was pinning her down.

“C'mon...you stupid...” Gritting her teeth, twisting until she got her shoulder against it, Trigger heard the clatter of fragments falling off the pile. Through her hazy vision, she saw droplets of water falling down and crawled her battered body toward them. One foreleg at a time, Hair Trigger pulled herself from out under the rubble that had almost crushed her.

The moment her top half was out, she felt a talon grasp the back of her hooded top with aggressive intent.

“Oh, gimme a fuckin' minute heeeere!”

Her deadpan was driven into a sharper cry on the last syllable, as she was dragged out and hurled head over flank into a second shelving unit. Careening through the cardboard boxes, she fell out on the other side in time to see Garwyn whip around the stands.

Half the hippogriff’s body was covered in a white stain from the foam, and he'd lost his rifle somewhere in the explosion. His hands were balled up, and he was using his wings to help him balance to fight. The crooked scar on his face twisted his grin in strange ways.

“This oughta be a bit more fun than the single shot I expected.”

Hair Trigger spat out a wad of dust and blood, finding her lip split. She began pulling herself to her hooves, lowering her head to get her horn between him and her. Her weary grin seemed to catch him by surprise.

“C'mon then. Been looking for something to take some aggression out on after today. Got plenty of it stacked up.”

Garwyn chuckled. “Mildly annoyed then? Not a lot of room to stack it.”

Trigger's grin disappeared on the spot.

“Oh you fucking-!”

She never finished her sentence, charging forward with bared teeth and ducking below his awkwardly descending punch. Throwing her every bit of weight into his thighs, her horn careened into Garwyn's armoured stomach. The pair collapsed in an untidy heap together, with the smaller pony clambering and lashing out with her hooves toward his face, straddling over his chest to stomp down again and again.

The delicious wave of satisfaction every time she connected drove her to draw up her hoof time after time - striking down hard - until she suddenly felt his whole weight shift.

“Sneaky little shit!” he cried out, his face already bruising from Trigger's unexpected dive, as he used his wings to hurl his whole body around and grab her mane.

She yelped at the sharp tug, her whole head yanked backward. She reached with her hooves to knock and fumble with his tightly clenched fingers, wrestling back and forth, her hat flying off her head.

Below her, Garwyn drew back his other fist and sent it crunching into Hair Trigger's exposed underbelly, knocking the lighter pony clean off of him. Keeping hold of her mane, he dragged her by it, and spun to slam her into the fallen stack of shelves again, then back around in the other direction into the ledge up to the way the crew had entered the warehouse.

Hair Trigger yelled and snarled, eventually wrapping her forelegs around his arm and pulling herself up to sink her teeth into his wrist. The hippogriff gasped, letting go before she could break the skin.

Rolling away, clutching her belly, Hair Trigger got back to her hooves, and faced him down with a glowing horn. For a moment they stood off, both panting.

“Had enough?” He winked, rubbing his wrist. “You look ti-”

The wooden crate Hair Trigger had tugged from the level above slammed into the back of his head.

Rushing forward, Hair Trigger didn't give him time to get back up before leaping at him again, hooves flying and her throat emitting an angry cry. His outstretched talons met her as the hippogriff floundered and thrashed. With hoof and hand they tussled and rolled, a brutal fight on the concrete. His hand caught her nose and set it bleeding - before she head-butted his mouth. His talons, blunter than a full griffon's, raked at her back until she jabbed a hoof under the jawline and into his throat.

Eventually, however, she felt his weight again surge up, and none of her strength could stop it.

Garwyn got a grip around her body, harshly lifting and slamming her down to the concrete. Hair Trigger made a strangled gasp and moan, the air being crushed out of her, fruitlessly pulling at the talons gripping around her neck.

He picked her clean off the floor and hurled her against the safety railings near the door out of the warehouse. Their metal poles dug into her back, and she dropped to the ground.

Twice more he picked her up, his arms keeping her swinging hooves at length, before dropping or punching her down.

Lying on her stomach, pain and dizziness washing over her whole body, Hair Trigger just groaned.

Bleeding across his face, Garwyn stood up in the damp fog of the sprinklers and spread his arms wide. A cocky, victorious stance. “It's over, short-stack. What can I say? There's always someone bigger than you.”

Trigger rolled onto her side, stared past him for a moment, and grinned.

“Got that right.”

Garwyn's momentarily confused look was quickly covered by an enormous taloned hand wrapping around his neck and mouth, muffling the shocked yelp, before he was yanked clean off of his hooves.

Kerfuffle hurled the security director to the side, slamming the much smaller hippogriff against the concrete wall with enough force to shake loose a cloud of dust. A second later, his head was crashed through the same crate Trigger had dropped. Bodily thrown, he smacked against the railings beside the unicorn, staggering back into a sweeping club of the griffon's forearm that actually back-flipped the hippogriff onto his stomach.

Making a staggered whimper of pain, Garwyn offered no resistance as he was effortlessly picked up off the ground, and found himself being hoisted up.

The last thing he saw before he went to sleep for the rest of the day was a door approaching at high velocity.

* * *

Outside the warehouse, the two ponies who'd been told to wait and cut off any escape had finally decided they should head in and help out. Assault rifles ready, they galloped up to the door, ready to flank and kill anyone they didn't expect to see.

They certainly didn't expect to see the door come to them.

Propelled off of its hinges by a deeply unconscious hippogriff, the metal entrance slammed into both of them and knocked all three of Asset's employees through the railing of the door's steps to crash in a heap on the rainy street.

Poking his head through remaining frame of the doorway, Kerfuffle looked either side with the same sort of innocence as a foal about to cross the street.

“Looks clear, Cap'n!”

Weaving back and forth behind him, Hair Trigger pulled her hat back onto her pounding head, getting it mostly straight. She tapped her bleeding lip, feeling like she had eight hooves to keep track of. “Nothing much is clear at the moment, big guy...”

The sound of hooves on concrete made her spin, only to see a familiar and soaking wet crystal pony galloping over from inside the building. After a moment, Volatility Smile tossed a familiar pistol to Hair Trigger. She had the briefcase on her back, taking a glance as she sighed and spoke.

“What was that about us leaving immediately?”

Looking up at Kerfuffle, Hair Trigger nodded - and then quickly regretted the motion.

“Fine, let's-”

A surge of red energy blasted into the doorframe, making the reader Kerfuffle had repaired spark and fall cleanly off. All three turned on the spot to see the red griffon limping toward them through the warehouse, aiming his brother's rifle for another shot.

“Oh, for fu-...come off of it!” Hair Trigger exclaimed, wishing she had the time to roll her eyes. The trio leapt off of the smashed hole in the railings, pursued by two more deadly blasts.

The moment Trigger landed, she felt her whole body drop below her. Her hoof, still sore from the early morning, slipped out from under her. Her head felt like it was everywhere. Groaning, she felt a clamping tightness at her stomach, until realising it was her being picked up.

“I got you, Cap'n.” Kerfuffle swept the smaller unicorn up, and then after a moment of thought grabbed Smile as well. Spreading his wings with a powerful snap, he took off for the ship, leaving the wounded Kreer firing ineffectually into the rain behind them.

The crimson feathered griffon scowled, letting the rifle's muzzle droop. His keen eyes picked out the targets disappearing around the corner, toward the shuttle. Below him, the unconscious form of his brother lay stricken.

How desperately he wanted to continue the hunt, but his right wing felt like something had broken in it and wouldn't extend fully.

Then, before his anger could take hold at allowing them to move without his pursuit, a shout called out to him from the warehouse, and he turned and limped his way back inside.

* * *

Asset Margin half-limped and half-fell down the gantry stairs to the rapidly pooling water on the floor of the warehouse. Her short mane had come loose from its tie, hanging untidily about her head, and her waistcoat and shirt were both drenched and muddied from hitting the dusty floor of the walkway.

And of course, her backside felt like a solid chunk of hot metal had been buried in it.

Mostly because one had.

“Kreer! Get your red ass back in here and help me! Kreer!”

Asset pulled herself up, limping on three legs in a fashion annoyingly similar to that of a certain unicorn that had limped up to her office that morning. She had smirked while watching her then; things felt very different now, and Asset felt that sting more than the wound itself. She gasped sharply, stumbled again, and held a silk handkerchief over the oozing red hole in her flank.

The griffon came bounding over, pulling off his pack to find a medi-seal gel dispenser. After a minute of hissing, swearing and beating her hoof against the metal railings, Asset felt the numbing effects take hold.

Kreer’s voice was short and to the point. “They got away, Ma'am.”

“I sorta' bloody figured on account of you not dragging that irksome midget's corpse back in with you! AND for my briefcase disappearing!”

“It was just frozen baking soda in the container, Ma'am. Real deal's secure.”

“But it WAS a really nice briefcase! Get this strapped up, we've got-argh, damn it...”

Kreer held a dressing over the furious unicorn's hindquarters, trying his best to not open himself up to a slap about the face for putting his talons where they ought not to be. He matched his employer's angry glare for just a second. Even to a hardened ex-pirate like him, he knew it would be a mistake to let himself get frustrated her berating him. Asset had many plans in the event she didn't come back from somewhere, and Kreer valued having wings. Wounded or not. Besides, she paid well for little work in a place no law ever hunted him, and he didn't imagine Karmelita would much let him go back to his old stomping grounds any time soon.

Pulling the dressing tight, he heard her seething in pain, and watched Asset testing her leg's range of motion. Noticing her obvious discomfort, he hit her with an added shot of local anaesthetic to the leg, and picked her up.

“Don't worry, Ma'am. Garwyn got the immobiliser fitted last night. Their shuttle's not going anywhere. Soon as you're evac'ed and I get him up, we'll go hunt them down. They don't know the city.” He let the predatory grin come back to him. “They aren't going anywhere.”

Asset let herself be lifted up onto his back, as he himself limped to the doors. She could hear the hover-vans returning to pick them up outside. After a moment, she shook her head and insistently dropped down to limp and gasp in pain instead. She wasn't about to let the others all see her being babied out.

On emerging, two earth ponies ran up to her, ones she recognised as having been the trackers for the shuttle. Standing in the rain, her leg still belting with pain, she let her hard gaze find their obviously apprehensive faces.

“What. Happened?”

They looked to one another, the two mares seemingly holding a telepathic argument over who should pass on the news.

Thankfully, neither had to, as the sound of a shuttle's engines blasted across every block for two miles and the off-red afterburners of a very familiar ship rocketed into the sky past them.

Asset's mouth twisted into an indistinct, but very exasperated shape.

“HOW!?”

* * *

Kerfuffle turned the odd device over in his hands a couple times.

Really, it was a wonder why anybody would want to fit an immobiliser into such a silly location. All it would do was interfere with the startup motor's flow of power and make the shuttle have to work overtime to get anywhere.

Confidently happy that he just brightened the shuttle's day, he dropped the offending piece of machinery into a maintenance drawer in the back and settled back to nurse his stiff wings.

Up front of the shuttle, behind the glass showing the night sky slowly turning to a more complete darkness as it climbed back to orbit, Smile rubbed her torso with one hoof and set the autopilot with the other.

To her left, Hair Trigger continued the expletive ridden rant she'd kept up for the last ten minutes.

“-have to just get screwed up right at the last damned minute! Every! Time! Didn't I call it? I damn well called it! Called! It!”

Beginning to weary of the sound, Smile couldn't hold back a snarking tone. “If I remember, you said 'no coffee, shit cargo, fucking betrayed.' Well, she gave you coffee. But two out of three isn't bad.”

Throwing a dangerously explosive look back at the crystal pony, Hair Trigger instead went back to holding her head in her hooves, trying to fight the headache that was waging war with her hoof for which could produce the worst throbbing.

Volatility Smile, content that she'd at least put an end to the shouting, breathed out and focused on finding Claudia amongst the cluttered orbital layers of Kavala III on their nav-unit.

The mining infrastructure filled most of the screen with yellow dots, and Smile wasn't certain how to actually filter it for just Claudia. She could vaguely see the lines of orbiting ships highlighted in reds and blues, yes. But it was proving difficult with a touchscreen intended for minotaur fingers to actually get her hoof on target to check the names of each of them. She could actually see some of them ahead of her now, glinting in the sky like a ring around the planet. Beyond them, enormous chunks of moon were turning.

Then, just as the atmosphere finally broke and she heard the engines fall to silence in the vacuum of space, she saw something.

“Captain, did you see a spaceport big enough for a cruiser-sized vessel at Shining Reach?”

“No, why?”

“Nothing that might be big enough to support a cruiser-sized vessel there permanently?”

Hair Trigger gave up trying to figure out the instant-freeze ice-packs in her hooves, and glanced at the screen to see a red dot approaching from behind them, its designation marking a vessel of above fifteen thousand tonnes on the planet's navigational stream.

“Oh...”

It suddenly veered, and took a course heading right toward them.

“Shit.”

* * *

The luxury yacht erupted out of its escape velocity climb like a submarine surfacing at speed, its curved prow breaching into the void with a silent crash and a flurry of residual vector-engine vapour being caught in the sun's light. Almost as though it were on a two-dimensional plane, it dropped its nose, curling along the very outer edge of the mesosphere, before finally rolling itself the right way back up again. Its silver hull became a dance of colour from the stellar radiation affecting its chemically reactive paintwork, turning it a mix of white and cream in elaborate patterns.

Yet as beautiful and artistic as the gracefully curved vessel was, its movements held a menace, and a very defined purpose. It’s bow wound over, and turned to take a course after a fleeing spot of light.

The doors to its bridge slid open, and Asset Margin stormed through at an angry limp. She was filthy, with a matted mane and a flank streaked with dried blood under a hasty dressing. Holographic displays at the six crew positions were frantic with the crowded orbit of Kavala III, but every uniformed member kept their eyes smartly on their complex layouts.

They had gotten advance warning from Kreer that Asset was not in the mood for people staring.

She had only three words to growl.

“Where are they?”

Regretting his recent promotion, the bridge officer gulped, keeping his eyes firmly on the curved display screen ahead of them.

“Ten minutes out and closing, Ma'am. We're faster than they are.”

Asset narrowed her eyes, finally allowing herself to smile again.

“Ready tac-cannons; got a rogue asteroid to shoot down. Also, be a dear and get me drone command for the Secondis refinery...”

* * *

“Eleven minutes till intercept? C'mon, when will this day just END? Smile, how long till we make Claudia?”

Having finally located the right blip, Volatility Smile set it as the current destination, and waited a few seconds for the nav-unit to update with their estimated time out. “Seven or eight minutes.”

Hair Trigger bit her lip, then winced at the sharp reminder that it was still split and bleeding. “Better hope Tami can run an FTL from orbit in three minutes then.”

She reached forward and keyed the communication panel onto her own display. Entering Claudia's general frequency code, and then her Captain's authorisation, she opened a channel to the bridge.

“Tami? Tami I hope you-”

All three crew members in the shuttle were assaulted through the speakers by a wall of noise. Loud bass, high pitched synth instruments, and a female vocalist exploded into the shuttle so suddenly that even Kerfuffle behind them covered his ears with a wince at the audio feedback.

Hair Trigger yelled in shock, before slamming a hoof into the 'send' button, setting it to play through all available speakers on the ship.

“Tami! TAMI! What the hell is-”

* * *

Dropping to the floor of the cargo bay with a squeal, a dozen objects tumbling down around her, Tami regretted her hasty resetting of the gravity on the spot.

She could hear the vague sound of the Captain's voice somewhere below the lovey pop-lyrics and the clatter of boxes and cases striking the metal deck, and Trigger had that ‘on the edge’ tone that always implied a lot of things had given her a reason to sound like that.

Scampering madly, Tami raced into the common room and up the stairs, shouting toward the open mic even before she got to the pilot's seat, half expecting to see a Changeling invasion in the space around her by the sound in Hair Trigger's voice.

“Captain! I'm here! I'm here! What's going-I mean, what do you need me to-”

“What I'm needing is an imminent getting the fuck out of this system!”

Drawing up her map, overlaying the communication's sender onto it with a few quick swipes of her fingers, Tami quickly spotted the shuttle coming in at speed, closely followed by a much larger ship.

“Tami!?”

“I-I'm on it, Captain! I'm on it! Just get here!”

The comms clicked, ending the link.

Tami frantically began throwing everything out of idle mode and within ten seconds Claudia's reactor was starting to wake up to a ready state for all ahead full. Yanking the FTL panel across, she paused only to reach up to the PA system playing the deafening music and click it to 'off'.

The button went down.

The ship-wide music, blasting out of every speaker it could, did not cease.

Clicking the switch up and down a couple times to no avail, then suddenly remembering the incident this morning with the same function, Tami held her mouth open for a moment.

“Uh oh...”

* * *

With a hard and hasty docking that made all aboard wince at the dull clang of hull on hull, the shuttle attached to Claudia's right-side airlock. They'd come in at such a speed that for the first time, Smile started to understand some of Tami's persistent nervousness when it came to piloting.

Hair Trigger didn't waste time in pressurising the lock and throwing the doors open, immediately recoiling at being reunited with the same track that had minutes before filled the shuttle. Hip shaking energetic beats and lyrics about a prom night filled the ship, reverberating from the walls of the cargo bay.

“What was she even doing up here?”

Realising no-one even heard her question, she rapidly stumbled and hopped her way into her ship and limped up toward the bridge. Finding the door ajar, she spotted the thick mane of the hippogriff at the controls.

“Tami what is going on with this-”

The pilot whipped around suddenly, her hands already up and waving, shouting to be heard. “I'm sorry, Captain! It won't turn off! Same issue, and I can't fix it, and-”

Closing her eyes with a growl of frustration she'd normally suppress around the skittish pilot, Hair Trigger waved her off. “Nevermind, no time! Just get us out of here, Tam! Go, go, go!”

Grabbing Claudia's control sticks, Tami wrenched the ship around in a one-eighty and reoriented onto the longest stretch of empty space she could find in the gap between the asteroids and the planet itself. Reading down to her side, she threw the thrust-stick forward.

Both the main outlets on the rear of the ship and the vector controls along the side shifted their metal plates, opening up or angling in, before erupting with light. Her entire frame creaking, Claudia powered forward and headed directly away from her monstrously larger pursuer.

Accompanied by the height of the pop world's remix charts, Claudia committed to the chase. Straightening her out, Tami fought down the growing pressure in her breast at the ongoing thump of music and every slightly-too-lovey lyric blaring into the crew compartments with her friends around her. Hands dancing on the touchscreen, she keyed in the easiest jump vector she could think of and got the drive spooling.

“We'll be gone ahead of them!”

“What!?” Hair Trigger shouted above the song.

“FTL NOW!” Tami screamed back.

There was a pitch shift in the whine of the reactor, a sense of rising tension began to creep through all aboard the vessel. Ahead of them, space seemed to begin folding and thickening.

And behind them, the yacht's prow had opened up.

* * *

“Activate!”

At Asset’s barked command, the two specialists at the front of the vessel keyed in the final signal. Behind them, Asset grinned.

“You don’t get to leave yet, Captain!”

* * *

There was a silent flash. A white beam, flickering like a giant strobe-light, spat out from a dish on the front of Asset's ship and lit Claudia up from behind.

Sensitive systems inside the bridge of the Pioneer class transport suddenly grew very hot and erupted like a firecracker below Tami's hooves. The hippogriff leapt up from her seat with a shock at the flash below her, smelling smoke. To her left, the FTL display flashed red.

'TRANSLATION ERROR'

“What happened!?” Hair Trigger leaned over the console, as she saw the familiar surge of the ship’s jump rift suddenly collapse in front of them. Like a hazy-edged crack in a window repairing itself, the rift twisted itself out of existence in an eruption of twisted rainbows, leaving them with nothing but a hostile system and a singer extolling the delights of a first kiss.

Scrambling over her screen, Tami gaped in horror. “She's got a jump scrambler!”

“A what!?”

“A jump scrambler!” Tami repeated, then a second time as her voice was muffled by the sudden drop of bass inside the ship.

“What IS that?”

Tami was already clawing at the floor panels, pulling them away as smoke belched out into her face.

“It's a-” She coughed from the acrid smoke. “It's used by police forces! Most FTL systems have some form of wireless connection for commands somewhere in their electronics. A scrambler projects fake signals to us that gives it the wrong stuff, makes them overload!”

Volatility Smile ran up into the bridge, having felt the FTL's vibrations cut. “What's going on? And can't you turn that music off!?”

Tami threw up her hands from unscrewing the panel. “I'VE TRIED! The PA system is-”

Trigger tossed her hat onto the screen in front of her in frustration, spinning around on both of them. “Drop it! Less arguing about the song! More fixing the FTL before they-”

* * *

“Fire?”

The officer's query to his boss told all. They were in range, and they had the tac-cannons ready. Mainly intended to ward off pirates and stray asteroids, they would be more than enough against an unarmed vessel.

Asset Margin purred in response. “Oh yes, please do...”

* * *

Claudia rattled heavily, throwing every crew member off their hooves. The concussive impact sent the ship's window view whirling through stars and asteroids, as Claudia veered and reacted to the sudden force impacting near her.

Through the windows, Trigger, Smile and Tami all witnessed several other shots hurtling through space and erupting into yellow flares ahead of them, missed rounds reaching their maximum limit before self-detonating.

Under the cover of Tami's music, the crew staggered up, and Hair Trigger groaned. “I was gonna say tackle and board us, but come the hell on!”

She hopped back into the Captain's Chair and transferred control to her side, pointing at Tami. “You and Kerf fix the FTL! Do whatever you have to!”

Tami gaped at the window, then at her Captain preparing to fly. “D-do you even know how to evade fire!?”

“Nope! But I'll do what my dad told me to do for when you’re flying a ship and can't do the right thing!”

She ratcheted the thrust stick as far forward as it could go and threw the controls over to steer Claudia in toward the asteroid field.

“The wrong thing, but very enthusiastically!”

Gunning the engines once more, Hair Trigger set Claudia onto a long curving arc to get away from the firing lines of those guns, diving in toward the closest chunks of moon she could. Microfragments started pelting off of the bridge window, reflected by the tough minotaur design and adding a strange snare drum-like tone to Tami's music.

With an oddly fitting build and hit-after-hit of big tempo beats, Claudia dropped her nose like the music dropped the bass and hurtled at speed into the asteroid field. Rolling and banking, Hair Trigger flew her behind every bit of cover she could spy out there, feeling and seeing rather than hearing the concussive thumps of vicious flak-rounds slamming into the chunks around them.

The yacht soared in after them, the two frontal tac-cannons spitting their high-velocity rounds again and again. The cannon mountings lacked automated guidance, but spat out a rapid stream of exploding munitions that followed Claudia, lighting her pale hull from every direction, and turning the musically propelled ship into a mad rave of exploding rock and flickering space. The gleaming yacht powered through chunks of debris and space-rock, its hull absorbing and denting but remaining strong with its dual-layer design.

On the yacht's bridge, scowling at her prey evading her in the tightening density of the field, Asset stormed with an angry limp to the communications officer. “Hail them! I want to speak to that idiot! Hack into their PA system...I want them all to hear.”

“Aye, Ma'am!”

Asset narrowed her eyes at the transport making hasty, panicked turns and committing to the ugliest manoeuvres she'd ever seen a fleeing target do. Were it not for the asteroids constantly blocking her gunner's solutions, they'd have been fragments by now.

“Ready to commit, Ma'am! I have control, opening channel to their internal PA in three, two, one...”

Asset put on her most calming voice. “Captain Hair Trigger, I think you-”

Then she screamed, covering her ears along with the rest of her bridge crew, as a loud voice pleading her to 'love her like it's prom night' cut her off and belched through the entire bridge, accompanied by a rapid fire series of synth and chiptune at the maximum possible volume. The ship's course wavered away from Claudia as the helmsman lost control in shock.

Screaming, Asset whirled to the comm-panel. “WHAT THE EVERLOVING HELL IS THIS!?”

“Ma'am!” The comms officer yanked off his headset. “They appear to have some form of sophisticated electronic defence suite! I...I can't cut it! It's like their system is locked open to us!”

Asset Margin grabbed the headset up from the floor and screamed into the microphone. “Listen here, you little shit! I've had enough of this! I've had enough of this day! There is no way you're leaving this system! You've cost me too big a loss profit margin for me to let you get away now!”

After a few seconds and a fumbling sound from the other end, Hair Trigger's taunting voice came back through the speakers, fitting into a gap between the irritatingly hyperactive lyrics. “Get the hell off my bridge speakers, Asset Margin! The only 'margin' you'll get is the one I gave you earlier in your Ass-ets, and you'll fucking love it!”

Asset hurled the headset into the startled comms officer's face, turning to scream over the music at the rest of her crew. “Little...where the hell is drone command!?”

* * *

Hair Trigger had no idea what she was doing.

She was desperately trying to fly behind every asteroid she could lay eyes on to put more material between them and those cannons. She went with her gut, unable to see the yacht itself, instead guessing just from the direction of the shots whizzing past the bridge windows. Apparently, it was working, and she was very glad Asset's ship wasn't more agile than it was. From rock to rock, she sent Claudia on a mad race to stay ahead of the eruption of flak filling space behind them.

“That one!” Volatility Smile pointed sharply.

“I know! I know!” Trigger sent Claudia banking for the asteroid.

“Dodge more!” Smile cried as they went to a flat trajectory.

“I KNOW!”

Trigger threw the controls back and forth, sending Claudia into an erratic spin to squeeze between two asteroids. Briefly losing control, rolling more times than she’d intended, Trigger wrestled with the ship’s engines to arrest the spin and getting them pointing roughly the way she wanted to go. Back in control, she began jinking and weaving their flight path again. The ship rocked from another close impact, and alarms began blaring all around, adding another layer to the audio madness.

After a second, Smile knocked her on the shoulder.

“WHAT!?” Trigger barked up at her.

“Stop dodging in time to the music, they'll pick up on it!”

Realising her hoof was tapping on the bridge deck, Trigger could only sit and stare for a moment at the absurdity this day had come to.

“Oh, fuck me for ever bothering to get out of bed.”

She surged the main engines again, coming far too close to an asteroid, enough that the proximity warning sounded, drowned out by yet another easily dance-inducing chorus that set Trigger seething.

“How long is this song!?”

Tami's face popped up from the floor. “It's the extended version!”

Hair Trigger rolled her eyes as the pilot grabbed a new circuit-board from Kerfuffle, and got back under the bridge decking with a soldering iron.

Another shot flew over their heads, and Trigger threw Claudia away from it before the detonation; the controls bucked hard as the mechanical force carried down through its robust minotaur design.

After a second, she noticed a very worrying crack appear on the side window. Yet it was what was beyond it that drew her attention.

All the mining lasers of the drones in the industry field sections ahead of their flight path were cutting out. With a look at her console, she saw a swarm of fifty mining drones suddenly turn and start rushing toward Claudia to cut them off.

Asset Margin's furious, sneering voice managed to fight through the deafening music to make herself known on Claudia's bridge. It was distorted, with a repeated echo of the song behind her.

“Wanna know what happens when I tell my drones that you're an asteroid? I sure do.”

Out of the black, dozens of blinking red lights began powering toward Claudia. Much more agile than the clumsy yacht, they weaved and darted around the asteroids like a swarm of wasps.

“Oh hell no, no way I can out-fly them! Tami...Tami how long on that FTL?”

Tami's voice was muffled from the crawl-space below Trigger's own seat. “Few minutes! Just a few!”

Hair Trigger glanced at the surrounding field on the main screen, looking for any way she could evade the yacht's line of fire without going directly toward the drones. Only one way remained that held anything of a hope. With a moment of consideration, she knew she was going to regret this. And a lot of people were about to get very angry with her.

Throwing Claudia onto her side and twisting the vector nozzles as far as she dared, Trigger sent the ship on a crudely sharp turn, directing their route down toward the clearing through the asteroids. The one they had flown in through.

The one populated by a dense cluster of cargo ships.

The second Claudia erupted out of the field and dove into the midst of the carefully controlled lanes in the tight area, a dozen ships made sudden swerves to get out of the seemingly insane pilot's route. A dozen ship captains hailed Claudia's hacked-open speaker system to demand answers, and a dozen bridge crews were all immediately granted a streaming service to the barrage of sugar-high music spreading like a happy plague in the void above Kavala III.

A swarm of drones followed the reckless Pioneer, diving on their simple routines to buzz around and over the frantically evading supertankers and mass conveyors. One that had only just had its engines repaired after causing a nightmare earlier that morning now found its repaired intake suddenly in-taking a fifty ton drone, putting it right back out of commission and signifying the sudden choice of retirement of its chief engineer. Another had its entire bridge crew duck as Claudia missed their windows by only a hundred metres, followed immediately by a series of the compact drones that set their elevated bridge shaking on its frame.

Claudia banked, tried to turn, failed from excessive velocity, and then tried again with more success. Hair Trigger's teeth were clenched, along with at least one other portion of her body, as she evaded ships with frantic, violent movements. She was dodging by sight alone - precisely the sort of way you weren't supposed to fly in space.

To her horror, long mining beams sometimes spiked past them as soon as the drones felt they had a clear run to 'mine'.

“Captain, there's another problem.” Smile's voice picked up, leaning down to the intensely focused unicorn's ear.

“Go...ahead...Smile...”

“Even if we get FTL, she'll just use the scrambler again.”

“Then figure something out!”

Smile cocked her head. “Me?”

“Well I'M a little busy at the moment!”

Smile thought for a moment, wandering to the back of the bridge. What could she do? A rifle was hardly going to manage it. She'd need something they could launch that was a lot-

“...bigger.”

Amazingly, she realised she did have an idea, and ran out of the bridge.

It was at that point the yacht decided to return.

Given space by its authority on the radar of every ship in the area and driven clear of the asteroids by its more powerful engines, it powered along the top of the space-lane. Hair Trigger spotted it angling itself to cover the end of the lane out into open space.

“Tami, we're blocked in, please tell me you have something for me!”

“Few minutes!”

Hair Trigger couldn't hide the mounting worry in her voice. “You said that a few minutes ago!”

“It felt like seconds!”

“Cap'n!” Kerfuffle's steady voice was still oddly calm, as he looked around the ship's windows, more particularly off to the right, before gazing at the main screen. “Drones're smart-”

“I'D NOTICED!”

“-but they need to be near their mother to work right.”

Her anger born of adrenaline momentarily interrupted, Hair Trigger risked a look at the griffon. “What?”

“Further they are from the hulks they take off from, slower they get. Bandwidth only goes so far for that much data. And the control ships are all lining the field to our, uh...right, that those ones came from. And the hulks are pretty cautiously moving.”

“You mean slow?”

Kerfuffle looked awkward. “Slower...but I wouldn't insult them so much like-”

Hair Trigger didn't need told twice. For the third time, she committed the suffering ship to a hard turn and burn, pointing it back into the asteroid field opposite the mining control ships.

As soon as she got on target, she had to wave off and turn again as a colossal mobile refinery thundered into their flight-lane, sending an automated message that barked angrily in some language she didn't know.

Claudia spun out, her engines mis-angled, and no matter what Hair Trigger did, nothing could correct the unnatural vector she'd been thrown on. Forced to hit the retrothrusters to avoid an uncontrolled spin, Claudia slowed to a near stop.

On the screens, the drones swarmed in.

* * *

On her bridge, Asset had the tac-cannons take aim, and finally allowed her rigid, twisted face to smile again.

* * *

“Shit! Shit-shit-shit!” Hair Trigger beat at the side of the chair, trying to rework the vector engines to where she wanted them - while trying to make heads or tails of the spinning in the windows.

“I...we've got FTL back!”

A dirty orange mane and an oil-stained face poked back out of the floor with a triumphant shout and a wave of a soldering iron. Tami started pulling herself up, until Kerfuffle helpfully lifted her out by her overalls. She collapsed into her chair, just in time to see Hair Trigger switch the controls back to her side.

“Then get your three-dimensional mind working and get us out of here!”

Tami glanced at the controls, then the screens, and her mouth gaped.

“Is-what-Captain I didn't realise it wa-th-there's like fifty of them incoming a-”

Suddenly leaning over, Hair Trigger grasped the hippogriff by both shoulders, forehead to forehead. “Tami, Tami listen to me. Now really, really isn't the time to go back to that.”

“But Capt-”

“This is your wheelhouse, Tam. And I want to mail a picture of my notably not-shot ass to that bitch in the yacht after we get out of here just to rub it in, so I need you to do this.” She winked, “You flew Regulus like a foal bounding around at Hearthswarming. I've seen what you can do. Wouldn't it be a great thing for me to tell Whisper about this?”

Tami's eyes widened; she looked down at the waiting controls.

“I....”

Her hand reached out.

* * *

Asset Margin swiped away the ship's doctor for the third time, leaning on the bridge's railing like a psychotically invested sports fan as she watched the drones close in. She loved drones. She loved robots. Things doing things on their own. She loved watching them tear asteroids apart and imagining the credit signs popping out of them.

She'd never gotten to see them do it on a ship before.

The drones swirled around, dancing past the final ship in their way, and clustering about the Pioneer they'd been chasing. At this point she wasn't sure what she wanted more - Hair Trigger to die for shooting her in the ass, or that ship to die to shut that damned music off.

Thankfully, she could have both.

“Time's up. Time to mine!”

She gleefully laughed...until her giggling suddenly faltered as Claudia's engines fired.

The gunners with the tac-cannon firing solutions had their sights set ahead of the ship, waiting for its inevitable last try. The drone's AI was following the vessels slow forward drift.

Neither anticipated her to suddenly spin every vector engine and power off backwards.

Fifty mining lasers criss-crossed in a bright orange star of light where the ship had once been, their logic confused by their stationary target suddenly moving. Seconds later, the drones reengaged their protocols and spun as one to give chase.

Asset's mouth dropped in exasperation, as she saw Claudia pick up speed from a sudden burst of power to the vector-engines, catapulting and weaving in reverse ahead of the drones. Blazing from every outlet but the main ones, Claudia banked and spun. Keeping her bridge facing the tide of drones, she rolled to fit between ships, even once between the empty stems of a conveyor's cargo arms. Rapidly accelerating, evading even in reverse, Claudia quickly passed underneath the slower yacht and out of its weapon arcs.

Looking down, Asset grabbed her comms officer's mug and threw it at the helm officer to break her out of staring. It shattered on the ground, making the pony yelp. After a second, having spotted the comms officer out of the corner of her eye, Asset followed the throw by cuffing him across the ear to get him to stop bobbing his head to the music.

“What are you all staring at!? GET AFTER THEM!”

Drones and yacht surged forward as Claudia inverted, firing its vectors vertically to make a transversal jink, passing under a refinery ship and out of sight, moving in reverse for the asteroid field opposite the drone controllers.

With a last burst of her vectors, Tami blasted the engines on one side only, then from the other side after a quick re-angling of the engine nozzles. It threw Claudia into a smooth, rapid J-turn to make a flat spin, until caught by the retrothrusters to hold the whirling ship on a trajectory away from Asset’s drones.

With the crew inside holding on as the artificial gravity was strained to its limit, their stomachs churning, the main engines surged even before the turn was complete, Tami guiding it through a curved arc, moving as much sideways as forward. Finally finding her desired path amongst the cramped vessels, Tami threw every bit of power she had into the main drive, the complex three-dimensional maneuver finally bringing her to where she wanted.

Taking off like a rocket, Claudia powered forwards through the incoming traffic. With wide, focused eyes, Tami smoothly twitched and eased the control sticks to carefully steer with the vectors rather than by angling the main engine. Her fine-tuned manoeuvring sent Claudia on nerve-wrackingly close encounters with other ships. Skimming the surface of freighter’s shipping containers, she used a sudden blast from starboard to roll Claudia over one-eighty and drop down the other side of the massive vessel, putting it between them and the drones, and hurtled into the asteroids.

Already, thanks to the high energy escape, the drones were slowing. Their bandwidth was struggling to keep up this far from their motherships. Asset's yacht, however, had no such problem. Its tac-cannons swung onto station and opened fire as the larger ship surged after the transport, following it down the line of asteroids.

Shells slammed into the rocks, firing at maximum rate in a blistering wave of destruction that shattered asteroids and filled the air with heavy shrapnel and concussive waves. With the yacht flying parallel to Claudia everything between the ships was savaged by the violent broadside.

And yet, to Asset's continued frustration, none of their shots would just HIT.

She could see the camera zoomed in tracking that ship, as the Pioneer banked, rolled and made irritatingly smooth adjustments at speed to fly between asteroids, around the arcs of fire, away from the shockwaves, and once even through the still separating pieces of an asteroid her ship had just blown apart. The movements were aggressive and flowing, retaining momentum and allowing the ship to roll on its ends and sides in awkward directions, more telling of a trained evasion pilot than some random truckers.

Asset began wondering just where the hell had this piloting been a minute ago. Yet the end of the asteroid field was approaching, and she knew they only had so far to run. No cover and no amount of suddenly fancy flying would save them then.

“Ma'am! They're charging FTL! Scrambler coming online!”

* * *

Tami was panting hard. Sweat dripped down her face as her eyes flickered in different directions, sometimes independently of one another. The flashing of explosions and the whirling of rocks that she had to evade or had to rely on Claudia enduring impact with was like the worst of the tests she'd ever taken at the academy, where simulated mass obstacles were thrown at them to react to while answering basic questions.

Yet while her body and face were rigid and terrified, her hands were moving with grace and smoothness. Switching motion from vector to main engine housing with a preset, or changing velocity to pre-empt movements and turns, she led Claudia on a dance to match the song that she couldn't help but murmur along with under her breath in some vague attempt to stay calm. Possibly the only living person for one AU actually finding the climaxing music useful right now, she slaved both vectors to one control stick and used her other hand to prep the FTL. She idly sang to herself, a vain attempt to stay calm.

“Go down and take-”

“What?” Hair Trigger raised an eyebrow, gripping her seat tightly.

“Nothing! Okay, Captain? I hope you've got an idea for the scrambler, ‘cos we're ready to go! Just need some space, we gotta get out of the asteroids!”

On cue, Smile's voice came over the intercom, shouting to be heard. “Tami! Got an idea ready down here! I'm at the airlock with the emergency release ready, you understand?”

The hippogriff thought for a second, and then it clicked. “I-I got it! I'll tell you when!”

Hair Trigger gave her a curious look, then suddenly made an appreciative smirk. “Kerf? Might wanna close your eyes, big guy.”

* * *

Thumping her hoof on the railing of the bridge again and again, Asset had finally had it with these gunners. She'd already made the decision to fire them. To fire most of this crew. To fire her ship trackers. To fire her drone controllers. Anyone who'd failed her so utterly today.

The tac-cannons were firing slower, reaching their heat limit and being forced to fire alternately. Still that elusive lump of metal refused to be hit, and again she wished her love of automation had extended to being able to acquire military grade auto-locks.

“Captain, if you'd be so kind as to please stop wasting my ammunition. Remember who pays the bills.”

“We're...we're trying, Ma'am! Scrambler is ready! But the gun, their pilot must have been trained for partial manu-”

“CAPTAIN!” The helm suddenly cried up to them, and the sight of Claudia on their viewscreen changed significantly.

The ship fired its vectors and retrothrusters on the port side all at once, sending it on a crazed roll right toward the yacht itself, arcing up and above their line of fire, right toward them.

“What are they even-”

The ship wasn't getting any smaller, and it wasn't stopping.

“All stop! They're trying to ram us! FULL REVERSE, HELM!” the Captain bellowed, before everyone on board staggered at the powerful frontal thrusters cutting speed.

Claudia followed through on its long barrel roll, arcing upside down above the yacht, before suddenly dropping directly in front of it, completing the cylindrical manoeuvre.

Asset stared at the bright engines of the transport. She could see open black beyond them both, and the twisting of reality that signified Claudia's FTL charging.

“What are you-...SCRAM THEM!”

* * *

“NOW!” Tami screamed in to the handset.

Down below, aided by a reluctant Kerfuffle, Smile yanked down the heavy grade lock and activated the emergency decoupling.

On Claudia's side, the shuttle they had arrived in banged, air pockets exploding it off the hull into free space.

* * *

Asset Margin's eyes widened, as she took a moment to believe what she was seeing.

Her own shuttle, one she'd paid for, came arcing off the small ship and careened right back at her yacht.

As her crew panicked, shouted, and tried in vain to move the ship, Asset simply sat down in her chair and held her head in her hooves, beyond done with this day.

* * *

The shuttle crashed into the sensitive components of the scrambler, shattering its dish, and piledriving into the hull of the yacht itself. Twenty tonnes of metal buried itself three decks deep, knocking out generators and spiralling the larger vessel end over end from the transfer of momentum, leaving it spinning helplessly on the fringes of the space its owner took to be hers.

Ahead of it, space erupted into light, and then an unusual tear in the fabric of reality opened. Claudia, propelled by the closing notes of one very happy song, disappeared into it and left Kavala III in the far distance.

* * *

A few hours later, once someone had gotten Tami a bag to breathe into and they had let Patch take a look at them all, the crew had taken Claudia some distance from Kavala before doing anything else. They had arrived back in Jealousy, and only then allowed the ship to ease off on the reactor, safe in another civilization’s space.

Only then, after all that, had they finally gathered.

It had been set to be a celebration: a chance to sit down, meet, and let any lingering adrenaline out. Instead, they just sat in tired silence around the common room table as the exhaustion and painkillers set in, idly glancing at movie lists and board games with absolutely no energy left to try any of them. Smile had explained that the Confederacy had a reward out for information on Asset Margin's suspected activity, and they had made a tired cheer. Their payday would still happen, if substantially less than originally planned.

That, and Smile found she had a very fancy new briefcase.

Hair Trigger had rarely been more thankful to hear nothing but the tranquil hum of the ship's reactor, and nothing else. As the quiet between them all wore on, she knew it was expected of her to say something about it all. Not by the crew; she knew they wouldn't hold her to it. But she'd come to feel a duty toward her position. Being a Captain was more than just making decisions. As she'd grown into the role, she'd seen it was about taking care of your crew and bolstering them after hardship.

Trying to think about what to say, Trigger instead just got up and walked over to the kitchen. She idly added Kavala III to the 'systems we don't go to any more', and made to pour a cup of-

Hair Trigger paused, internally letting loose a tired curse as she remembered.

Yet somehow at this point, she just smiled. The smile quickly turned to chuckles, and then to laughter as she dunked the mug down and leaned on the kitchen.

“Nothing.”

The other three looked up at her in confusion, moreso when they saw her broad grin.

“Absolutely nothing.”

“Cap'n?”

Hair Trigger limped back toward them, and leaned on the back of a chair with a weary sigh. “Absolutely nothing went right for us today. Tech failed. Job was a bust. Ship got screwed up. Shuttle had an immobiliser on it. Got shot at. Got beat up. Got betrayed. Almost crashed a dozen times. Hull's scratched to hell. Had a crap morning. No coffee.”

She let her attention fall from Kerfuffle's still confused face, to Smile's curious one, and to Tami's mouth spreading even as she brought up the energy to smile back. Trigger hopped down and trotted around them to behind Tami, her back to her own room's door.

“Everything went wrong, and yet we came out of it. Y'know why?”

Tami looked over her shoulder. “Why, Captai-eek!”

Hair Trigger's foreleg hugged her from behind, pulling the back of the soft and quickly giggling hippogriff's head to her chest, the other one ruffling through her thick mane, before pointing at each of the crew.

“Everything went wrong, but even with that, there was this crew to fall back on when it all fu...when it all went to hell.”

Chiding her own curse, feeling the day’s anger begin to fade from her own words to not need to express it as much now, she let Tami go.

“Asset surrounded herself with automation. Demanded people do things. She hired skills, and ‘things’, not people. She didn't have what I have here. What we have here. Others to hold on when luck throws the worst at you. Friends you can rely on behind you.”

Smile lived up to her name, her head angled to the side in a casual glance. “How eloquent, Captain. But...accurate.”

Kerfuffle nodded along eagerly, an unspoken 'what she said'.

Hair Trigger felt her heart well up, and she patted Tami's shoulder.

The young pilot looked up, then squished her cheek into Trigger's hoof, speaking cheerfully. “S'what makes a crew different from a crowd, Captain, that's what my dad said.”

“Smart guy. Now, if you excuse me, I got beat up by a big nasty hippogriff, so I'm gonna go lie down and groan for a while. Advise you all get some rest. We'll head back to Medusa tomorrow...then just see whatever the black's got to offer us next. So...g'night.”

She gave a brief wave, then limped back to her room.

Inside, the screens were still on the floor, and she tossed her broken multiband onto the desk. Dropping off her hat and hooded top, she didn't even bother with her night shirt; and instead just wandered naked to her bed.

Finally, finally this day was over. Finally, things going wrong were done.

Eager to relax and return to slumber, she threw herself back first onto it with a sigh.

And landed directly on the upturned charge plug she'd tossed onto her bed in anger that morning.

* * *

In the common room, three heads perked up in unison at the sudden cry and barrage of swearing muffled by the thick doors.

Volatility Smile got up, unable to stifle a smirk of pure schadenfreude. “Well then, Captain's orders. Off to bed.”

She moved to her own room, the door closing behind her before her laughter got loud enough to be heard.

After a brief hug from the big griffon, Tami flew off upstairs, returning to her own 'quarters'.

Kerfuffle, now alone in the common room, was left to turn out the lights for the impromptu night cycle. One by one, he moved around to dull them in both decks, taking his usual tour of the ship before turning in. Making sure that all was good - that all was now fine - before returning to his own doorway.

Holding it open, he paused and gently patted his hand on the frame; on the wall of the ship. Leaning in, he whispered gently.

“Don't worry, she meant you too.”

He closed his door and Claudia fell silent, ending one more day.

One more day of a crew needing to come together, to rely on one another and to find a way around whatever the galaxy held in store. Even when chance tried its best to pull them down.

One more day reminding them why it wasn't easy to live in the stars.

But also one more day to remember that it was the spirit of working together in overcoming hardship that had brought all species off of that now distant single planet in the first place.

One more day for the difference between a crowd and a crew.

And between crew and family.

* * *

A system away by now, a ship drifted aimlessly in the black. Sparking and blackened about its nose, it turned over and over. And within its bridge, between the sparking remains of two bridge consoles, a very angry unicorn sat in a burnt suit, and mused.

Her backside hurt. The new second horn of a lump on her head hurt. Her pride hurt. Soon enough, her wallet would probably hurt too.

Around her, ponies ran in circles trying to regain some sort of control, but their employer was silent. Eventually, she reached out for a communicator and punched in a number back to Kavala III.

“Yes, Pearl? Cancel tomorrow. All of it.” Asset Margin paused, and glared through the cracked display screen to the stars outside. “And get me the special contractor list ready.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I'm not letting this go.”

* * *

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