• Published 22nd Sep 2019
  • 913 Views, 126 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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The Last Promise

Author's Note:

This story was written after one of the darker periods in game, as an introspective on how Tami, an otherwise energetic and bright character, was getting on with the horrors she was encountering in the game. (Thanks, Games Master!) As it was approaching Halloween last year, I decided to return blending to a genre that I absolutely love writing...

This one is a bit more connected with the tabletop story, but I've tried to offer the best context I could to account for new characters, and a change in the point in time.

During their time in the black, the crew unwittingly became involved in the search for a mysterious ‘Project Snowdrop’. This was a secret program that turned out to be owned by the Sidewinder Syndicate, a super-corporation with a very dark, organised criminal underbelly of black secrets and wetwork agents.

The elusive secret project, it seemed, was attracting the attention of several interested parties all the way up to entire governments, all of whom interacted with, allied with, or fought and hampered the crew in some way.

To fight against this, the Sidewinder Syndicate sent in one of their operatives to try and protect their project: a ruthless batpony known by the nickname ‘Cascavel’ who was tasked with hunting down all those trying to find it.

The Solar Empire sent Tundra Gem, an investigator of the mysterious Æther Corps, a group of unicorns with the rare gift of still having magic abilities. His intellect and friendly charm came to aid the crew greatly, with Hair Trigger even falling into a relationship with him before long.

And lastly, the New Lunar Republic. Unwilling to let the Solar Empire investigate this alone, they sent one of their own stoic, focused agents. Whisper Step: a quiet, often stern mare of lethal covert talents that Tami quickly came to look to in awe as someone bearing the cool confidence she never had herself.

Finding themselves allied with Whisper and Tundra (despite the difficulties of their opposed allegiances), the crew thus were at odds with Cascavel and Sidewinder, being attacked several times.

Tami in particular grew to fear the dangerous batpony, for he always seemed to influence and attack even where she felt safest. Be it encountering him after a massacre aboard the derelict ship Starweaver, a Sidewinder systems hack forcing Claudia into an almost fatal jump, or through the threats and attempts to murder her friends.

This was to take a turn for the horrific, after Cascavel and his agents captured and interrogated Whisper Step. The first knowledge of this was harshly known in a call to Tami, as she heard the electric shocks and screams first hand.

Cascavel and Sidewinder brutally tortured Whisper over the course of weeks for information on their goals until, after a nerve shredding race against time, the crew were able to rescue her with the aid of Tundra Gem. Whisper, free of her bonds, killed Cascavel herself. Ramming the same implement he’d used on her into his eye socket in a defiant revenge, she made a vow to hunt every one of them down.

Even so, the events left lasting scars on all of them. Whisper worst of all, leaving everyone uncertain of just what damage to her composure she was hiding below the intense - and at times reclusive - stoicism. Tami meanwhile, after being shot and injured by Cascavel in the firefight, felt her terror of him only grow. It was illogical to feel that still, what with his death, but after Cascavel himself promised that he had planned the same horrors for her as he had done to Whisper, she found it difficult to let herself feel safe.

He was dead, and yet the fear just wouldn’t leave her.

Some weeks later, after a terrifying mishap with Tundra’s magic, one that pushed the crew to face some of their worst fears in a waking dream, Tami found everything she had worried about brought to life in front of her again. Only this time, it was her at the mercy of Cascavel, about to enact his promise.

The escape from that nightmarish illusion did little to settle her. Even if she didn’t fully remember it, in the way dreams quickly fade, a hazy shadow of fear remained.

And out in the black, there is a lot of empty space and slow time for worries to fester and grow into something worse…


The Last Promise

* * *

Within the spiralling stars of a galaxy, there were gulfs of darkness, far greater in distance and relative size than any map or travel schedule would have anyone believe.

And within that great darkness, known as the black to those who traversed it, there was a ship.

Silver-grey, highlighted in dark off-blue panels, it gently turned in a slow spiral of its own, completing its rotation once only every hour. Alone. Alone in the black, caught in the dark between stars, a gulf so vast that a sane mind could scarcely grasp the true scale of it, let alone that of the galaxy beyond.

And every time it turned, on the hour, every hour, the faint lights of its hull illuminated its name.

Claudia.

Those same lights, even if they could reach those worlds that might see them, would have taken years to arrive.

Having stopped between jumps in this great emptiness to rest from her efforts, Claudia was alone to a degree that defied simple understanding.

Upon her hull, above those telling letters, the glass of her bridge turned with her. The reactive tinting of the windows was at its lowest setting this far from light, leaving little sense of any difference between the void outside, and the dark, empty bridge behind them.

Two seats stood before an elaborate cluster of darkened screens, their standby modes active, and small photos stuck onto their rims, visible only as muddy shapes. The hammock behind them was unoccupied, its blankets hanging untidily off of it. The patterns and colours on the fabric were scarcely discernible in the faint aura of a multiband’s blinking light upon the floor below them, the flashing battery icon indicating that it was reaching critical battery levels.

The door to the bridge was open, revealing the way to the so called 'main street', the dorsal corridor that led from the bridge to engineering.

At this moment, engineering was only a vague hint, as light from the reactor core within it gave a dull ambience to the relatively distant compartment and highlighted the two ladders before it that led to the cargo bay.

And in there, within the hold, was near silence. Large containers filled either side of a primary hatch on the deck itself, looming quietly in their lightless hold. Between them, the hatch was slightly ajar, the trails of LEDs within it revealing the small cockpit of an attached ship. A tiny speck of light that nonetheless became like some form of a beacon.

Past them, from beyond two closed and sealed doors, was the source of the only noise in the cargo bay.

Behind those doors: an oasis of light, and sound, and warmth.

* * *

“For crying out loud, he doesn't even have his unit badge on the right side of his tac-vest! That one didn't exist till years later, either!”

Hair Trigger rolled her eyes, lifting a bit of popcorn from a bowl below the common room's sofa to toss with her magic at the source of the interruption. She'd have used her hooves for the satisfaction of hurling it, had they not been tightly wrapped around a comfortably fluffy unicorn.

“For the twelfth damn time, Swan! It's just a movie!”

The popcorn bounced off the mane of an irate hippogriff sitting at the far side of the room by the table, an ex-Solar Empire soldier hired to bolster security aboard. Swan, grumpy and picky as the day they’d met him, dropped the bottle from his mouth and held up his other hand, palm-open, at the screen.

“Details! What schmuck did they get as advisor? Some FNG who only stayed in for the warm meals and called himself a damned vet despite only fighting with the barracks fridge? Look! That one's got a Kalsen Mark Eight-Oh-Two! Those were only issued a year ago!”

The common room's large flat-panel screen gave a good view of the clean, finely crafted rifle in the hooves of a menacing looking civil war-era Empire soldier. He stalked through the ruins of a burning, rustic village, with the shot panning to reveal the frightened face of a slit-eyed batpony just barely hidden from her assailant.

Swan sighed. “Why isn't he using his heat-scanner? We all had them for counter-insurgency to root out the Lunatics being that slippery. And where's his guardian angel? We always moved in twos and-”

Volatility Smile, sat on the opposite side of the table, made a loud groan and clamped her hooves to her face, slipping down in her chair in utter exasperation.

“Because absolutely no-one cares!”

“I care!” Swan countered, looking back around just in time to catch the end of the batpony having managed to pull the pin on one of the unicorn's grenades, and diving out of the homestead just as it exploded. Relieved and triumphant music slid in, tinged with a mournful bittersweet violin as she was able to be picked up by a ship that had been looking for her and her child, the last evacuees off world.

At the sight of static text before the credits noting how many supporters of Princess Luna had died on that world prior to evacuation during the war, Swan just went back to his drink with a grumble. “Empress-damned propaganda...”

Across the room, upon the sofa, Tundra Gem rubbed a hoof through his short beard as though thinking for a moment. “Actually, while it was a League production, I believe those numbers are quite close to reali-”

Hair Trigger's hoof tapped on Tundra’s mouth, and she shook her head with a grin.

“Isn't worth it, sweetie. Isn't worth it.”

The tap turned into a little stroke at his beard, and she caught the flush of red on his cheeks as he tried his best to confidently smile it off. She did like that look on his face. The 'trying so hard to look all at ease that it turns obvious' look. Hair Trigger had been developing ways to make it happen, and thus far had enough material that she figured a book entitled 'Wizards and How to Startle Them' wouldn't be too tall an order.

“Yes, probably.” Tundra moved her hoof down with a grasp of his stronger magic. “Besides, it's quite late. Too late for digging out sources and conflicting evidence, I suspect.”

“If that's your way of trying to hint for us to get into bed, Gemmy-boy...” Trigger waggled her eyebrows.

Tundra coughed, his eyes rapidly looking past her shoulder, as though hoping the others hadn't heard it.

“Well, I just meant you've got an arrival back at Medusa tomorrow and-”

“Hey, I'm not complaining if it is.” Hair Trigger smirked. “It's a step up from me needing to spell out that I was wanting you to-”

“Okay, okay! I get it!” Tundra rapidly interjected, his eyes perpetually looking past his marefriend, before giving her a playful nudge. “You know they trained me to confront the surreal unknowns and mysteries of the galaxy, and yet you take the cake for catching me unaware.”

“You know it.” Hair Trigger let herself be shoved, not letting up on her smile, before turning to the rest to announce them turning in. Even before she spoke, she could see Volatility Smile and Swan were grabbing the rubbish from the night's snacks.

Yet closer, Kerfuffle and Tammani sat together at the bottom of the stairs. The enormous griffon was hunched over, sat on one of the steps. Trigger couldn't see which underneath his thick feathers.

Below him, Tami sat on her beanbag, her back resting on Kerfuffle's chest.

They both looked tired. Kerfuffle's head was hung, his arms limp by his sides. Only his talons lightly toying with the edge of the steps gave an indication he was awake.

Tami, however, was looking woozy. Her upper body was wavering, her eyes staring blankly into the floor.

“Tam?”

There was no reply. Hair Trigger raised her voice a little.

“Hey, Tam!”

This time, the hippogriff snapped upwards, blinking rapidly.

“Oh? Oh, uh, Captain?”

Patting Tundra's hoof with her own as she got up, Hair Trigger lowered her tone and wandered closer to her pilot.

“Snooze cruise? You look ready to keel over.”

On cue, Tami yawned. Hair Trigger had seen them before, and remembered them well. Tami had quite a dramatic yawn when she was exhausted. Her mouth opened wide, her wings stretched out to the sides, and she emitted a quiet little groan, before it all sharply sank down, like the will had just gone out of her muscles.

“Jus' tired, Captain...”

Giving Kerfuffle a rub with her hoof to stir him as well, Hair Trigger moved gently and slowly. It’d only been a few days since they had all gone through quite an experience back on Medusa on Tundra's ship, and she'd seen how rattled the pair before her now had been.

That, in fact, had been the reason she'd accepted this low profit pickup job. Get everyone back out in the black for a bit. Get them working, get them time around one another away from everything else. A quick trip to help them reset, and a couple extra movie nights to boot.

In truth, she'd needed it herself as well; but the crew had to come first.

“Reckon it's late for you two now, Tam. Report to bed and hammock. That's an order.”

Kerfuffle spluttered and shook his head. “Aye-aye, Cap'n.”

“Aye, Captain...” Tami muttered from below, rubbing her eyes.

There was a quick sound behind them: a metal door opening and shutting. Turning her head, Hair Trigger caught side of a dark earth pony moving out of the door beside the sofa. Tall, wiry, moving with purpose, and bearing two piercing golden eyes, Whisper Step exited what had become her quarters.

Hair Trigger gave her a quiet nod and saw a fraction of the same in return. Hair Trigger regarded the stern, dangerous mare for a moment as she watched the agent move past them toward the kitchen, before turning and winking at Tami.

“And if Whisper's up, then you know it's past bedtime for all of us. Go on, shoo.”

Giving the pair of them an overacted ushering, she was pleased to see the small smirk it got from the pilot. Hustling her crew away, Hair Trigger finally turned and lit her horn, grasping Tundra's beard to 'encourage' him over.

“C'mere loverboy, need a fuzzy chest as a pillow.”

Cantering over with his chin poked out from the magic, Tundra just scoffed, before his own horn lit instead.

“If you're going to test me with telekinesis...”

Before Hair Trigger knew what was happening, she felt the tingling grasp of magic around her, carting her off to her own room. Wiggling her legs, she eventually crossed the front ones as she floated away with a look of indignation on her face.

“It's mutiny then.”

“And you always say I'll pay for it until someone gives you a really tight hug.”

The door closed behind them, leaving the deadpan expression of a spy rolling her eyes into her coffee.

* * *

Climbing the stairs out of the common room, Tami felt an odd sensation, like a shift in the atmosphere.

The 'main street' dorsal corridor was dark. A sharp and sudden contrast to the light coming from below her. With everyone else moving into their rooms, and only the generally silent Whisper Step left below her, any sounds of her friends talking were quickly deadened by inches of bulkhead.

She'd moved only a few feet vertically, and yet it felt so much further. Moving between decks in ships was always an unusual transition, especially when running on the night cycle with most compartments left on low level lighting only.

Pausing at the top of the stairs, she turned and glanced down the main street, spotting the heavy glow emitting from the reactor’s core at the far end. She could only barely see the shape of the walls and piping down the dorsal corridor in the darkness between her and engineering. Lit only by a couple of panels on the walls, the whole tunnel felt so much longer and deeper, like staring into the abyss. It held the same feeling of looking into a living room at night on the way to a bedroom; when one’s own home didn't feel quite as cosy any more out of the full light.

Normally, the feeling wouldn't have bothered her. Tami had gone on wanders more than once before through Claudia during the night cycle. Knowing Claudia was a sealed environment gave her a comforting sensation amidst the thrill of exploring the dark places on board.

As of late, in particular since a few days ago, those feelings had been harder to come by and she had slept restlessly. Often since the events in Tundra's vessel, she had woken drenched in sweat, feeling like she had just forgotten something the moment she'd opened her eyes. Forgotten something that made her heart clench tight, and left her wondering if she was lucky to not know. It was always the same sensation she'd felt when waking up on board the Lady of the Lake, like all the details were just inches away, concealed within a ghostly fog of memory that she could feel, but never describe.

Tami figured the others thought she was just being quiet and wanting peace. But in truth, it was simply because she was exhausted, having not caught much more than four or five hours sleep at any time-often less-in sporadic bursts. Once, Kerfuffle had come across her while she had been tearing up for no reason she could understand. Embarrassed, she had still held onto his neck as he had stood by her hammock and leaned in to cover her with a wing for a few minutes.

Feeling her eyes grow heavy, Tami turned away from the dark of the dorsal passage and eased herself into the bridge.

Here, at least, she felt safer.

The bridge was her true home. The moment she stepped into it, she felt her heart lift to see the sights. It was just as quiet and just as dark, yet darkness in here wasn't the absence of light, it was the presence of the cosmos, filled with its gentle colours that glimmered in the far distance. A serene and gentle vista. A view into infinity that helped her breathing remain steady and relaxed all her anxieties. It was a different black, not of unknown shadows, but of tranquillity.

All the same, she made sure to switch on several of the monitors, letting their 'dark mode' colours cast more light into the bridge with diagnostics, navigation data, and even just a few idle-screens of famous celestial phenomena she'd chosen. It gave the bridge some more illumination; made it feel more comfortable and familiar.

Briefly, Tami considered that if she felt the need to do that, then maybe there wasn't as much a feeling of safety on the bridge as she'd thought.

Instead, leaning on the back of her pilot's chair, Tami stood on her hooves and watched the void, imagining what every glint might be and spotting her favourite constellations. She'd always done it to calm down. Indulge in her truest love. To be out here. To stare at her dream from within it.

Finally managing to draw up the will to smile again, she dressed for bed, set her multiband on charge, and clambered into her hammock.

Under the soft hue of glow-in-the-dark stickers on the ceiling above her, Tami shoved the wall with a wing to set the hammock swaying, and cocooned herself in the soft thermal blanket.

“G'night, Claudia...”

Muttering the words, she knew they were pointless. Relaxed or not, it took her a long time to sleep now. It was frustrating to feel so tired yet so unable to just switch off.

There was always the anxiety. The dreaded worries. Worries about what she'd seen. Worries about why she felt so scared, vulnerable and unsafe. And above all, worries about why those feelings just wouldn’t let go of her.

And so she hazily dozed, drifting half into sleep before opening her eyes time and again.

She was waiting. Waiting for the time she'd open them and feel the grip at her chest and the sweat on every inch of her body. Waiting for the one restless waking up where she'd suddenly realise she had slept just long enough for some unknown terror to have gripped her, and then been forgotten again the moment she woke up.

Three nights in a row now.

Slowly, Tami felt the world become that bit more muffled, and her body that much more still. And as she felt her eyes close, there was one last creeping wash of dread.

She knew. She knew it would happen, and she couldn't stop it. Not herself.

Never hersel-

She gasped. So sharply and suddenly, that her whole body jerked, a violent spasm shooting through her. Feeling a sudden shock of cold run through her whole body, like she’d fallen in polar waters, Tami yanked the blanket in tightly, hunching herself as much as she could.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she realised she had drifted off for some indeterminate time and was now shaking terribly from icy temperatures.

“Wh-wh-what?”

Struggling to open her heavy eyes, she found everything blurry and sore to look at. The glare of screens, like hazy lens flares, made her squash them shut again. She could feel her heart rattling at multiple beats a second and dampness on her cheeks. An unseen, freezing hand ran beneath her skin with crooked claws and clutched at her heart.

She felt terrified. Terrified and cold. And she didn't know why.

Something was deeply wrong, and Tami fought against her sleepiness to try to force her numb body to awaken. She groggily wondered if temperature control had broken down in the night, and the ship had only now gotten cold enough to wake her.

“Oh gosh, right...right...”

She made to open her eyes, rubbing them to clear her sight.

And as she looked out from her hammock, every single source of light on the bridge suddenly cut.

She jumped in fright. A loud bang of powerful electronics sharply powering down thumped into the darkness around her; monitors shut to black and low-level lighting thudded off all at once. LEDs below switches disappeared, and the hazy glow of Claudia's external lights that eeked into the fringes of the bridge windows snapped away entirely. Even the emergency lighting didn’t trigger.

In the distance she heard the reactor emit a strangled, tortured scream, quickly winding down, before its ever-present hum disappeared entirely.

Within her single held breath, Tami was plunged into such pitch black that she could not even see her own hammock.

And through the windows, there was nothing. No stars. No colours.

Just black.

A suddenly very enveloping, and menacing, black.

* * *

Limbs frantically flailing to try and get feeling back into them, Tami fell from her hammock to an unsteady landing on her hands and hooves. The deck was biting and prickly, like a sheet of ice, while the thick and motionless air grasped at her. A feeling like she had fallen into a chilly lake sunk into her skin, and Tami shivered powerfully as she huddled and staggered toward the pilot's chair.

Panic was settling in. She was navigating by memory alone. A ship without power this far out had nothing like enough light to see anything inside it. The emergency lighting had failed, telling her this was no normal outage.

“Right, right...warn, assess, act.”

Reciting the mantra that all space-goers were taught, she fumbled around until she found her chair. Pawing her hands over it, she started reaching up until she found the PA system's handset. It was connected to its own power supply, purposefully disconnected from the rest of the ship.

Holding the button down, she instinctively looked out the windows.

Or at least, the direction where the windows mere feet away would be. Now, they hidden in the darkness, and she couldn’t tell where the bridge ended, and space began.

“Captain? Captain are you awake?”

Letting go of the button, she waited. Those few seconds of dead silence dragged longer and longer with every one of her rapid heartbeats. Quaking, holding her wings around herself for warmth, she pressed it again.

“Kiffie? Anyone?”

Only this time did she think to realise that she'd set it to broadcast in all compartments, and she couldn't hear it from the main street behind her.

The PA was dead.

Biting her lip, she heard herself make a strangled, fearful whimper. Tami rushed across toward her multiband. She couldn't see it, and found herself blundering into the hammock again while clasping around frantically. It had been on charge; it would be ready.

Yet as her hands found it to yank it up, pressing the power button resulted in nothing. Its screen was blank. She could still feel the cord attached, and began to wonder how long ago some systems had started cutting out. How long had she slept through it until the cold woke her up?

“Oh no, please...”

Grabbing her blanket down from above her, she wrapped it around herself and began trying to find her way to the door. She had to get the others up. If only to fight off the suffocating, alien sense of isolation creeping in at the edge, mixed with a growing concern as to just how bad this was. What it they couldn't reactivate the reactor? What if they were left to freeze in here?

“Nooo...”

Shaking her head, she located and pulled at the cold metal of the bulkhead door to the bridge.

Behind it was nothing but a black void.

The main street would normally have stretched out from her door, illuminated by the reactor at the far end and a couple of small lights. Now it was as though she'd opened a door from nothing...into nothing.

Tami stopped and gasped sharply. She could hear something.

Distantly, coming from somewhere far off, she could hear the sound of a bell. One similar to a shrill school bell, faintly and continuously ringing in the dark.

She didn't recognise it, but the sound set her nerves alight with tension and made her gut clench.

Leaving the door open, Tami carefully crept through, aware of stairs just in front of her. Using her wings as guides, she felt one brush against a railing and gripped onto it, gasping as the ice-cold surface shot up through her wing-stem. Descending step by step toward the pitch dark common room, Tami saw no further light down there either.

Quickly, a thought came to her.

“Whisper?”

She gasped the word by accident, before gulping and trying to get her chattering teeth to work with her.

“Whisper, are you still up? Whisper! Are-yah!”

She stumbled forward, tripping over her own beanbag. Landing hard on her side, Tami squeaked and flailed until she could get back up, feeling empty bottles and food packets slide out from under her. She hadn't even realised she'd reached the bottom until her hand hadn't found another step to land on.

The ringing was louder down here, hammering in her ears and distractingly loud, as though she were in direct sight of the source now. Turning around as she stood up, Tami realised she'd lost all sense of direction. The sound was coming from her right side, but she no longer knew what part of the common room that meant.

She felt numb from the cold shock. The adrenaline spike on waking up was being stifled and worn down. Frustratingly, her mind felt full of cotton wool, unable to think clearly.

Moving forward, she found a chair in the black void, but that meant nothing. Chairs had been everywhere last night.

Putting each step in front of another, slowly, spreading her wings out, she moved further in. Or away. Or back the way she'd come. Her hand came down into a sticky mess, likely left by a soft drink that had spilled, and soon her every step with hand and hoof was having to pull up with a little more effort.

Tami walked, and walked, until an impossible, irrational thought began to settle in her mind.

She had walked far enough that even if she'd started at one corner and gone toward the furthest one, she'd have found the other wall by now.

“What's going on?”

She vocalised the words, but they felt tiny - absorbed by the still air. Frantic, Tami began to theorise. Had she walked into the cargo hold by accident? No, the floor was still sticky. Ended up turned around on the spot? Improbable.

As each option presented itself, she felt her mind starting to rest on one far more terrifying possibility. One she immediately shut down and tried to forget about.

“No, no...I can't remember them every time. I don't ever feel them during it...”

Shaking her head, Tami rushed forward. At this point she didn't care if she hit or tripped on anything. She just wanted something, anything to tell her where she was. That ringing was getting painfully loud. She ran across the sticky floor, and suddenly barreled into the edge of the table. The lip struck her in the side, knocking her over with a pained yelp.

Lying on the floor, feeling wet all over her body and clothes from the syrupy puddles of spilled drinks, Tami curled up.

“Please! Someone wake up! WAKE UP! HELP!”

There was no reply. Her words echoed away into the nearby cargo hold, returning to her after an unusually long time as though the atmosphere around her had suddenly forgotten that an echo had to come back.

Feeling her whole body clamp up in terror, she grabbed the nearest chair and clung onto it, her claws scraping the thin metal. Anything to give her some sense of solidity in the pitch dark.

She felt alone. So very, very alone. More than anybody ever should with their friends mere feet away, seemingly unaware of the disaster unfolding on their ship.

Sniffling, Tami then noticed something at the edge of her vision.

Opening her eyes wider, she could see a hazy line. A white, glowing crack, like the underside of a door with a light behind it.

Someone was up!

Scrambling, pulling herself up, Tami took off and flew unsteadily toward it.

“Hey! HEY! Whisper, is that you? Whisper!”

Nearly colliding with the door itself, recognising it as Claudia’s bathroom, she frantically grasped at the handle, twisting it down and giving it a strong pull, throwing it open. The light cascaded over her, hurting her eyes, but bearing a relieving ambience to it after the dead space behind her.

Standing in the doorway and squinting hard, Tami endured the stinging glare of the light source until she could get a look at what was there, desperate for another person or even just a place of illumination.

Yet, as her vision adjusted, she instead gasped.

She wasn't looking at Claudia's bathroom.

It took her a few seconds to recognise it, but eventually she knew. She knew all too well.

Before her, through the door, lay the captain’s quarters of the Starweaver. Equipment and beds were strewn around, with fallen utensils and ripped bandages. The wall, the floor, and everything within it caked in a slick red.

Blood.

Blood, but no bodies.

Feeling her voice stolen from her, Tami stared into it with a gradually mounting whine caught in her throat. It was impossible. It was beyond impossible, and it lent power to the theory she had been suppressing and deeply hoping would not be true.

“No...no...no, Captain!”

Fully intending to rush right into Hair Trigger's quarters, she turned back to the common room - and screamed in horror until she fell back and collided with the kitchen unit behind her. Tami’s eyes remained locked on to what lay ahead of her, even as plates collapsed over and around her, shattering on the ground.

The door she had opened lit up the common room, exchanging total blackness for more varied - yet darkened - colours. She could see the doors of all of her friends’ quarters, all of them with a sickly, red liquid slowly oozing from below each door of a room that she knew would be occupied.

“No, no!”

Choking on her voice, she could see the puddles of it had reached where she'd been, leaving a trail of it near the table. Looking down at her stained hands, hooves, body and blanket, she realised she had been wrong about spilled drinks the whole time.

Tami knew she was right now. She knew this wasn't a power loss, or sabotage, or an event horizon being crossed.

She knew what she was trapped in now.

Fighting back to her hooves, she backed away from the bleeding edges of the doors. Nothing now could have made her dare approach them, and instead she fled into the cargo bay.

The moment she passed into it, the bell grew to a horrendous, unbearable volume. Its sound warped and twisted, as though sensing her coming closer. It was coming from a singular red light at the centre, on the control panel for the crane and floor airlock. The crimson aura it emitted mixed with the white light from behind her, dimly casting eerie, two tone rays across the hold.

Looking all around her, holding her head with bloodied hands from the thumping noise, Tami paused to try and get her breath. Every sucking of air felt laboured and painful. Her lungs felt numb, and yet the freezing air stabbed at them on every inhalation.

“Please let this end! End now! Just end!”

Tami knew where she was. She knew what had happened. Knocking her own head or body hadn't worked to break it. Knowing what it was hadn't helped. In a single, immature and desperate moment, she came to an insane conclusion to get back to her hammock. Would it even help? She'd never felt one this vivid, this self-realised. This was the stuff of-

Well, yeah.

She was struck by the sudden and dread-filled thought that perhaps she would have to live it all through. Endure whatever horrors it threw at her. Just like before...

Feeling her cheeks start to dampen, Tami dropped her red-stained blanket on the deck, hardly even realising she’d somehow kept hold of it, and paced back and forth.

Hammock. Bed.

It was the only thing she knew she could do, if she even had a choice in the matter any more.

Looking ahead of her, she saw one of the two ladders leading up to the main street. From there it was a straight run to the bridge.

“Okay...okay!”

Urging her legs into motion, she ran toward it.

Before she was even halfway, a deafening voice broke through the bell's painful volume. Electronically tinged, coming from every speaker throughout the ship, speaking as the ship itself.

“CARGO BAY AIRLOCKS OPENING.”

The female voice was not Claudia. But she did recognise it from the other end of a call long ago. Mocking and smug, it had once preceded her overhearing Whisper’s agony.

Stopping briefly in shock, Tami looked up, and then around her as she heard the metallic bangs of locks being disengaged. Stark fear ran through her as the bell that had been running suddenly cut, and was replaced by the blaring of a depressurisation alarm. Red lights flashed from the roof of the cargo bay. Screaming, Tami willed her limbs into operation and galloped for the ladder.

“Stop! Stop! I'm in here still! STOP!”

The doors to either side of the cargo bay rolled open with two violent clangs. Seconds later, so did the large one in the floor, before the gigantic main door followed suit. A sharp hiss gave way to the bassy roar of rushing air. Tami screamed, grabbing around the ladder as tightly as she could, feeling her clothes, mane, tail, and wings blown backwards and forwards as air whirled in an indecisive cyclone around the bay as it fought for which open door to blast out of. Daring to look back, she saw the black through them all, as Claudia's internals were exposed to a nebulous vacuum. Her ears popped, her skin felt like it was burning, and yet she summoned all she could to keep climbing.

Tami fought to grip tight, and to yank herself up the ladder, feeling air tearing at her body. Her wings were thrown painfully back, threatening to rip her from the rungs. Her own mane blinded her, its size like a great hand around her head trying to drag her back down. Back toward one of the doors. Cold tendrils, wrapping around any part of her they could reach, tugging her, constricting her attempts to escape, trying to capture her and drag her out there with them.

The roar of rushing air grew to a peak. Alarms, wind, bells, and the clattering as boxes and the small gym were all sent tumbling across the floor and ejected into the void assaulted her senses. Her hands felt loose on the searing icy cold ladder, slipping from sweat and blood as she pushed up rung after rung.

Squealing, she slipped, and her lower body was immediately pulled away from the ladder, leaving her hanging by the grip of her talons.

"ENGAGING EMERGENCY JUMP."

“NO!”

Familiar terrors quickly returned, spurring her to strain forward and grasp the ledge of the hatch at the top of the ladder. A mounting whine, and crackling of unnatural magical energy began to build around her as she pulled, got her hooves on the rungs again, and yanked herself through the hatch.

Crying aloud with the pain and the effort, she turned, moving to slam it shut. Yet even as she looked back down, the hurricane of air blasting out of Claudia began to settle. Below her, she could see stars through the floor airlock, and realised the impossible logic that she could still breathe, even after all the air had been blown out.

As though whatever that had been only cared about getting her.

Head still hurting, she didn't even try to think about it, slamming the hatch shut and falling against the wall to hold her head in her hands. Her home felt dark and dangerous now, as the realisation of what she was stuck inside was fully beginning to land on her heart. Using her hands to shake herself, she pleaded and whispered over and over.

“Let me out...please, let me out...make it end.”

Even as the decks rattled and shook from the sensation of a jump to FTL speeds, she whimpered and shivered on the spot scarcely knowing what to do, or if she even could do anything.

"Let you out? So soon?"

Tami's eyes bolted open, her pupils becoming tiny pinpricks as she heard the voice. Male, calm and confident, tinged with just a little sense of playful amusement.

Her blood turned cold. Lowering her quivering hands, Tami turned her head to stare toward the engineering compartment's open door.

In the darkness within it, there were two vividly green eyes gazing at her, one of them warped and damaged, like something was blocking it. Around them, there was only a vague hint of an outline. A slender body with snapping bat wings, blacker than the shadows it was hidden within, bleeding and vague at its every edge, like dark ink running through charcoal.

"And I thought we were just starting to bond last time.”

From engineering, even in shadow, Tami could see a thicker, more complete darkness start to emerge. Crawling, slithering only at the corners of her vision, as the terrifying shape moved toward the doorway itself with malicious intent, its steps altogether too slow for how fast it was moving.

“It's just in my head! Tundra said the magic was gone! I'm just having a-a-”

She didn't finish, screaming aloud. Throwing herself forward, she slammed the door to the reactor shut and ran back toward the bridge. Within a couple seconds, she felt her right side erupt into a gripping, burning, and yet utterly familiar pain. She almost collapsed with a gasp, whole body travelling slower than she willed it, as though she were trying to run through an unseen mud that gripped at her every motion.

“Ngh! No! Come on! Please!”

Feeling dragged down, Tami nearly fell forward, feeling like she were having to draw and strain every one of her limbs. Gritting her teeth, she held her side and pulled herself toward a door that only seemed to keep moving away from her. There was nothing holding her back, but she felt weak. Trapped. Like half her body was suddenly made of lead.

And with every step she could feel, rather than see, a darkness coming up behind her. He was coming. He was coming for her. Just her. She had his full attention and no-one else to help her.

Running, then struggling, then pulling, then crawling. Digging her talons into the mesh sections of the floor panels, she pulled, and pulled, and cried, and pulled.

A dull, distant rumble of a void, like the wind in a cave opening, began to pass over her. She couldn’t even see the door to the bridge any more, and the sounds of his hooves on the metal were only getting closer, accompanied by an amused little chuckle at her fear. She whined, and haphazardly threw her body forward with as strong a flap of her wings as she could muster.

“NO!”

Finally grasping the railings around the stairwell. Tami tugged herself up by them. Hauling around them, she cried out at the sight of those same baleful eyes looking up at her from the black void of the common room below.

“And we never even got to what I'd promised you.”

Bleeding out of the dark, it came for her, rising up from the stairwell until it leered over her. Its transparent wings gave a leathery flap, the snap blowing a chill air and the smell of sweat, blood, and urine over her. Shrieking, Tami fell as she tried to back away from it.

Hitting the floor, she realised she’d fallen into the bridge, tripping on the frame of the door. Panting hard, sweating even in the frigid ship, Tami grabbed the door and tried to throw it closed. The door jammed inches before it shut, and the sickly-coloured eyes drew up only inches from her face, staring through the last remaining crack. Unblinking eyes surrounded by a shifting, melting face. Stainless white teeth - including two sharp fangs - made a cocky, almost flirtatious smirk.

“You do remember?”

In the distance, from down the stairwell, ghostly, helpless shrieks echoed. All of them familiar voices. The oily, dripping face blew her a silent kiss, as though seeing her distress at the torturous sounds.

“Don't you?”

Tami pushed the door closed, locked it with shaking hands, and then turned her back against it, clutching her searing torso. Her knees buckled from some unseen force, and she fell with a scream. Behind her, the door began to shudder and vibrate, as though coming to life all on its own. The locks that sealed it were moving all on their own.

“I want to wake up!” Tami shrieked the words as she fled from the door. She began pawing and clambering for her hammock, the only thing she could even vaguely think of. “Let me wake up! PLEASE! Let me wake up!”

Using her wings to lift herself, Tami finally lunged for the hammock. Getting into what had once been the safest place she could ever think of, childishly trying to hide beneath the blanket, she quivered and waited.

Waited.

She heard the faint rumbling of the locks coming undone and squeaked in terror, gripping her thin pillow so tightly that her claws dug into her own palms.

“Wake up...wake up, please, I want to-”

The door opened.

The rumbling grew until it was an ever-present, suffocating atmosphere about her. Enveloping her. She heard the soft sound of hooves on metal, echoing within a bridge that never normally echoed.

Tami closed her wet eyes tightly, whimpering as she heard it coming, and then squealing as her blanket was violently torn off of her.

Slowly, first hearing the skitter of metal on metal, she felt and saw thin wire cables slithering over the ground, reaching up and lashing tightly around every wrist and ankle. She was paralysed, unable to stop them winding around and around. She was unable to move at all.

“Just like I promised. Do not worry.”

A mouth with ice-cold breath began nuzzling its dry lips into the inner side of her ear. It spoke quietly, as though trying to be reassuring; an unseen hoof caressing its way through her mane.

"You'll be joining agent Whisper soon enough."

Eyes fully open, she stared directly forward as she heard a distant, helpless, and painfully familiar scream from somewhere in the darkness. The cables suddenly tugged hard, and her body was ripped from her hammock. Behind her, what had once been the pilot's seat rotated, now looking like a seat used for a much more malicious purpose, the wire dragging her frozen body toward it.

As she neared it, unable to move anything but her eyes, she saw the ends of the wire connected to a charged electric battery. She felt a very new, very terrifying reshuffling of priorities in her mind.

Don't let me remember this when I wake up.

Tami felt the cables tighten. They roughly dragged her into the chair. Tears rolled down her paralyzed, unblinking face.

Please, don't let me remember this.

A leathery wing stroked her cheek from behind. “Now, it’s your turn.”

Please...

She closed her eyes, heard the searing crack of a static discharge, and jerked violently as she screamed and-

* * *

-fell, until the deck came up to meet her.

Hearing her own awful scream still echoing off the plate metal, she landed hard, collapsing in a heap. Tami flailed and spasmed in fright, fighting with her own blanket on the ground in blind terror.

Drenched in sweat, her throat feeling rough, Tami pulled herself out of the blanket, blinked and looked around at the dark bridge, her stomach feeling twisted and hollow. Twinkling stars and the idle screens of displays gave off enough light around her to see. It was still the night cycle.

All thoughout her body she felt gripped by fear, and yet she couldn't remember what from.

For a moment, there was silence.

And then she heard the sudden clatter of approaching hooves.

Pushing herself back from the entrance to the bridge, Tami felt her skin tighten in fear.

The door was knocked open, slamming loudly against the wall. A tall pony came barrelling through, rushing into the bridge with purpose and a submachine gun held at the ready.

“Tami!?”

Golden-yellow eyes swivelled around, and Whisper Step quickly spotted the hippogriff lying in a tangled heap with her blanket on the floor.

After a second, as the spy realised there was no true danger, the weapon was lowered, and Tami saw her aggressive, focused stance abate slightly.

“I heard you scream.”

“I...I did? I mean, sorry, I did...” Tami lowered her eyes away from the piercing gaze, before cradling her face in both hands, feeling tears still emerging.

Above her, the stoic agent stood in place, looking back at the door she'd come through, before making a quiet sigh. Hooking the weapon back on her suit, Whisper spoke quietly, yet her words were terse. “Are you all right?”

Habitual instinct made Tami want to nod, but after three nights of this, she simply lacked the energy to summon any real resistance to the query. Sniffling, she gently shook her head, her voice pitching up and cracking as she struggled for just one word.

“No...”

There was a long pause. Tami sat and held her head, feeling wholly embarrassed to sob so openly in front of a pony she looked up to greatly, while Whisper Step just stood still and looked around the bridge. Whisper looked behind her at the door a couple of times, as though impatient to get back to something.

Then, finally, after ten seconds of silence, Whisper took a slow breath and spoke up.

“Tell me.”

“What?” Tami gasped, looking up; her eyes glazed with dampness in the low light.

Whisper's face turned only partially toward her. She wasn't smiling. Her eyes were as piercing as ever, seeming to glow in the darkness.

“What's wrong. Tell me.”

Her mouth hanging open, Tami still took some seconds to process that. Even weeks into knowing her, Tami still felt apprehensive about exactly what she said to Whisper at any given time. Especially when alone.

Clutching around her blanket, Tami sat up properly and looked at the floor. Strangely, in an odd moment of realisation, Whisper's quiet pause struck her as unexpectedly comforting. Whisper wasn't forcing the issue, despite the stern tone. The spy was waiting for her, not rushing her to speak.

“I...” she began, before faltering and holding a hand to her face again. “Sorry...”

Whisper Step remained silent and serene in the low light of the bridge; half her face was illuminated by the spectrum of colours from a half hourly diagnostic beginning to flicker over the main display.

Tami tried again.

“I've been waking up at nights. Every time feeling...feeling scared, or screaming. Like something cruel was about to happen to me. I find stuff that was in the hammock with me spilled out, and I feel like I've been so terrified that my whole body's tense and sore, a-and then I d-don't sleep for the rest of the night. ‘Cos I'm too afraid...”

She sobbed, and grasped a portion of her own tangled mane in frustration.

“And I never remember what it was! Sometimes I think I know why b-but I just can't know and-”

Whisper Step cut through the babbling, not taking her eyes away from looking out the front of the ship.

“What do you think it is, then?”

Tami opened her mouth, and then sharply closed it. Anxiety flowed through her as she considered that question.

“I don't know...”

“You said you did. Or had an idea.” Whisper's voice was level. She turned her head back to Tami, even as she moved forward to lean against the back of the Captain's chair.

Panic was setting in. There was no way that Tami could bring herself to say it. She couldn't. Not now. Guilt was too ridden in her gut to dare broach the subject in present company, and she clammed up.

“S-sorry, I can't.”

It was a poor excuse. A telling one, to those trained to spot such things.

To those like Whisper Step.

“It's Cascavel, isn't it?”

The sudden opening of Tami's eyes to their fullest was an obvious confirmation of Whisper’s guess, and the hippogriff shook her head violently.

“No, no, it's-”

“And you're worried to say it is, because I'm here.”

If striking the real problem had been a target, Whisper would have scored a bullseye. Tami felt frozen in place all over again, uncertain how to even reply. How could she? After everything Whisper had been through, how could she sit here in front of the spy and cry about her own issues from those events with Cascavel? It felt wrong. Her own were less important than Whisper’s. Less intense. Tami knew she was only acting like this because she was weaker than Whisper, and it made her feel guilty.

Eventually, she just nodded in defeat.

“I'm sorry...”

She heard Whisper make a neutral sound in her throat, and the rustle of her clothing moving, even as Tami looked at the floor and felt ashamed.

“You had a rather traumatic accident a few years ago, didn't you?”

Tami's misty eyes crept open, hearing Whisper continue.

“One that badly hurt you, and not just physically. Correct?”

Feeling her heart skip, Tami swallowed, and meekly replied.

“...yes. How did-”

Whisper interrupted, “If Hair Trigger or Volatility Smile were to take the helm here, and collided with something that led either of them to harm, or to a loss in confidence...even if not to the same severity as your own experiences, what would you do?”

Licking her dry lips, Tami gulped and looked up at the spy. Whisper was half lounging against the side of Hair Trigger's seat, idly playing with the disabled flight control panel.

“I'd t-try to help them.”

Whisper's eyes suddenly moved to look at her, even though her head remained still. One eyebrow raised. It was a silent query, one Tami realised the meaning of after a couple seconds.

“O-oh...right. Sorry, I just didn't...” Tami trailed off, not knowing how to follow that up.

Eventually, Whisper let go of the yoke, letting it snap back into position, and turned more properly toward Tami.

“You're having night terrors. That much is obvious.”

Tami blinked, confused. “Is that a Republic euphemism for nightmare because of what that word means to-”

“No.” Whisper's voice was firm, but calm, before softening. “No, night terrors are different from nightmares. In simple terms, nightmares you remember, night terrors you do not. There's more to it that I'm sure a medical student could bore you with, but that is effectively what the main difference is. Thrashing and screaming in the night? Waking up in a panic feeling terrified of something, but only a vague idea as to why? That's what it is.”

Tami listened intently, surprised to hear Whisper speak at such length on a subject not related to her work.

“How do you know that so off-hand?”

Whisper, surprisingly, grinned.

“Now that one IS a Republic thing where the association with the night makes up a saying. When they trained us, they told us to be night terrors, not nightmares.” She winked, with a dangerous, playful smirk that betrayed the real nature of her job. “Because something you don't even know the nature of coming after you is a hell of a lot scarier than what you can remember and describe. That's what we do.”

To her own surprise, Tami felt her spirits lift a little at the boast, before fading quickly as she looked back at her hammock, and felt a dull pain in her hip where she'd landed on her side.

“And here I am just being just a stupid coward that's afraid of someone who's dead...and having childish nightmares or...or night terrors or whatever and bawling b-because I...I...”

She heard movement, and squeaked as she found Whisper suddenly walking directly toward her with a purpose, leaning in sharply to look her sternly eye to eye, mere inches away. Her voice was much more serious, and tinged with a darker -and incredibly insistent- tone.

“They. Are not. Childish.”

Eyes wide, Tami stared back, feeling herself quiver, worrying she'd implied something she really shouldn't have in her own self-degrading ramble.

Yet as fearsome as it was, the conviction in Whisper's voice drove home a change in perception to Tami's mind. If someone as strong as Whisper could say that about such problems...

The forceful expression on Whisper’s face dropped slightly, and she sat back.

“Have you been staying awake after them every time?”

Gently, Tami nodded.

“Then that's the problem. You're building a schedule, Tami. What you need is a good night's sleep.”

“But-!”

Whisper cut the fearful complaint off. “To get back to bed and sleep it off. Break that cycle you're getting yourself into.”

Tami didn't like the thought of where this was going, shaking her head frantically.

“No, no I can't face all that again! It's-it's awful! I can't remember, except in a way I can a-and...I don't want it again! I keep waking up alone and not knowing if it's real and even those few seconds are so awful, I can't do this! I-I need to be up in like, a few hours to do the next jump anyway s-so I should just stay up, really...”

Whisper's turn of expression was curious. Her hard eyes softened, before she stood up and unhooked her submachine gun from its harness.

“Get into the hammock. And sleep.”

“Whisper?”

Tami stood up as the spy wandered back over to Hair Trigger's seat, slid it back as far as it would go and sat sideways on it. Her dexterous hooves turned her weapon over, made it safe, opened a panel to remove its strange, stubby form of round, and hit a latch that sprung open the two-tone receiver to reveal its complicated internals. Moving it from side to side, Whisper began disassembling it before Tami's eyes.

“Always preferred to do it by starlight. You don't mind?” Whisper turned her head to look at the hippogriff. “I can be quiet, I promise.”

Her mouth hanging open, Tami finally caught up with Whisper’s real meaning, and nodded.

Whisper nodded back, then turned back to her cleaning. “Thank you. Good night, Tami.”

Tami didn't know what to think, other than that the reassurance, the act itself, made her realise truly how tired she was. Whisper was right that she needed sleep. She was scared, but as foalish as it seemed, knowing someone as capable as Whisper was right there made it feel, well, easier. Safer.

Silently, she backed away, and with a clumsy flap of her wings, rolled back up and into her hammock. Reaching down to her multiband on the floor, she groaned, realising how little sleep she'd be getting even if she were to drift off now. Yet even as she put it back down, she couldn't avoid the words quietly being blurted out.

“Whisper, thank you.”

The moment she spoke, Tami heard the sound of the weapon’s springs and hinges cease and spotted Whisper's eyebrow raise again in her direction, her voice gentle.

“When I woke up after only an hour the first night back here, I saw a comforting sight by my bed too.”

Clutching into her blanket, Tami honestly didn't know what to say.

“Eyes closed, Tami. It generally helps.”

“O-oh, sorry...okay. G'night...”

Closing her eyes, Tami's thoughts were overridden enough that any fears were a far distant second in priority. Thoughts of what Whisper meant about this or that. Or the reassuring sounds of components being undone or clicking back into place from just nearby with expert regularity. A presence. A quiet reminder to latch on to.

Within a minute, her limbs went loose, and Tami was asleep.

* * *

After a minute more, Whisper Step looked up and saw the pilot fast asleep.

Staring at Tami for some time, she finished her work on the weapon; her hooves clicked and snapped the pieces back together without even looking at them.

Getting up, she winced, and glanced down at her hooves, at the chipped edges and scar tissue from electric wire burns. That gallop upstairs to the bridge had made them hurt again, and she'd done her best to not dare show it in front of Tami.

That little thing had more than enough worries on her mind already without the physical reminders as well.

Trotting closer to the hammock, Whisper stood over the hippogriff, momentarily considering the recent events from Tami's perspective, before quickly dismissing them. Such thoughts wouldn’t help her right now, and any good operative always had a finely honed crap-filter in their mind.

What mattered was dealt with, and it made her smile.

Looking around, her eyes caught sight of Tami's multiband on the floor. Silently, she leaned down to pick it up, casting a brief glance to the sleeping form before her. Entering Tami's password to unlock it, Whisper quickly navigated past the pop-rock wallpaper to the alarm clock app and disabled it.

Placing it back down, at precisely the same angle as it had been in, Whisper looked again at Tammani, and spoke quietly. Firmly.

“I promised I was coming for all of you, Cascavel.”

She leaned in, a hoof hovering above Tami’s head for a moment, before placing it on the hammock's side instead, setting it gently swaying with a soft push.

“That includes in there as well.”

Turning, she walked across the bridge to the door and locked it before finally moving toward Tami's own pilot seat.

Slowly, a grin came to her face as she slid around and onto the cushion the hippogriff had added to it. Whisper reached out and took the controls. She had a few hours to familiarise before the crew's next jump was scheduled.

“Well, I let you fly mine...”

* * *

Agent Whisper Step (Image by Kalemon)

Tundra Gem (Image by Kalemon)

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