• Published 3rd Aug 2020
  • 901 Views, 104 Comments

The Black Between the Stars - Rambling Writer



Applejack is trapped aboard a disintegrating, alien-infested space station, monstrous creatures hounding her every move. She's alone. She's confused. She's tired. She's scared. And she's not going down without a fight.

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1 - Alone in The Void

The overpowering stench of uncleanliness assaulted Applejack’s nostrils, bullying her back into consciousness. She groaned and rolled over. The ground shifted uncomfortably beneath her and any exhaustion vanished in an instant. She opened her eyes. Blackness surrounded her, so deep it didn’t even look black anymore. Where was she? What had she been doing? Why was she still wearing her CelesTech uniform? Applejack blinked her weariness away and pushed herself up. Or tried to; one of her hooves slipped on cardboard (cardboard?) and she fell back down, biting her tongue. She blinked again, clicked on her suit-mounted flashlight, and forced the world into focus.

She was sitting on top of a pile of garbage: used plastic tubing, copper wire, banana peels, fried circuit boards, and Celestia knew what else. Sheer metal walls surrounded her on all sides and her flashlight cast a harsh glow on everything. It wasn’t a large room, maybe twenty feet by twenty feet, but it was tall. She looked up; there was a circular hole the ceiling, several yards out of reach. “Hoo-ee, AJ,” she muttered, “whatcha doin’ in the heat melt compactor?” She didn’t even have her hat.

She swept her flashlight around the walls. At least the maintenance hatch was clearly labeled. Applejack wobbled to her feet and awkwardly stumbled down the pile. It was a very porous heap and objects kept slipping out from under her. More than once, she lost her grip entirely and faceplanted. But she made good tim-

Clunk. Whrrrrrrrr…

Applejack froze at the sound of humming machinery. The pile began to rumble. Scraps fell down it in tiny avalanches. And the walls began moving inward.

She scrambled across the trash as best as she could, fighting through the scraps. She couldn’t hear anything except for the roar of the motors. Her light flicked back and forth, alternately showing and hiding the hatch. She reached the ladder; the level of trash began rising as it was forced into a smaller and smaller space. The ladder was shaking enough to almost dislodge her as she climbed.

The walls were three feet away and still advancing when she reached the hatch. “Sun blast it,” she cursed as she forced the lever up. The hatch hissed open, but Applejack couldn’t hear it over the walls. She forced herself into the tiny space as trash threatened to swamp her.

Two seconds after Applejack was in, the walls stopped with a thud, a mountain of trash compressed between them. Applejack lay in a crawlspace barely large enough to fit her and stared at the solid wall of crushed trash, panting. What was going on? Was that a murder attempt? Who’d want to kill her? Like that? At least she was safe for the mo-

Wait. Maybe not. There was another stage to the heat melt compactor…

Applejack pulled herself forward through the crawlspace frantically as the temperature in the compactor started to rise. The exit hatch was only a few yards ahead. The metal grew uncomfortably hot beneath her hooves. Sweat trickled down her face. She touched the handle and immediately pulled away from the heat. She swallowed, forced the handle up (burns be damned), nearly headbutted the hatch open, and tumbled out into the maintenance hall. The cool air on her face felt like wine.

“What- in- the blazes-” she panted, “happened- to- the safeties?” She dragged a hoof down her face, trying to rein in the shaking of her entire body. Her heart pounded in her chest like a piston, no matter how she willed it to slow. She could barely even think straight without getting her mind yanked back to the compactor.

Breathe, AJ, she told herself. Breathe. Breathe. In. Out. In. Out…

Applejack looked up to get a handle on where she was, but that wasn’t any help. She was in some maintenance area she’d never seen before, all tight corridors and steel struts and exposed piping and bare metal flooring. Most of the lights were off, except for a few red warning lights that spun around and around and around. A low alarm blared incessantly in the background.

“Hey!” yelled Applejack. “Anypony out there? Helloooooooooo!

Only the alarms wailed back, like some techno dirge. Where was everypony?

Applejack groaned. She had a splitting headache and one of her eyes wouldn’t stop watering. She flexed her legs, one at a time. Nothing hurt too much. She stood up and stretched. Again, nothing too bad.

Out of reflex, she woozily got up to stumble to a window to get the time. She was several yards down a hallway by the time she remembered that looking outside was useless for telling time in space (if there was one thing from terrestrial Equestria she missed besides the farm, it was the slow beauty of sunrises and sunsets), she didn’t know where any windows were, and the maintenance sections probably didn’t have many windows, anyway. Poop. She slouched against a wall and glanced at her watch instead (2:23 AM; figured), but did a double-take when she saw the date. March 15? That couldn’t be right. She was missing almost a week if that was true. She could’ve sworn that just a few minutes ago, she was sitting in the Yellow Tulip Bar a day or so after Princess Twilight’s arrival to the station, and she knew that the princess had come on the eighth.

“What the holy haybasket is goin’ on?”

Only the alarms responded, and those responses weren’t useful. She’d need to find answers on her own. So: left or right? Applejack looked left. She saw a dark hallway with exposed infrastructure and metal flooring, illuminated only by warning lights. She looked right. She saw a dark hallway with exposed infrastructure and metal flooring, illuminated only by warning lights, that took a sharp turn about twenty feet down. Left it was. At least she wouldn’t get surprised by something jumping out from around the corner.

The world had stopped spinning by the time Applejack got to her feet. One of her legs twinged a little, but she pushed on through. She kept her ears up, desperate to hear somepony, anypony else, and was sorely disappointed. She was stuck in a part of Golden Oaks she didn’t recognize with nopony around and a hole in her memory. Maybe the parts she did remember would help her figure out what went wrong. Applejack turned back time in her mind, trying to find the gap.


“Alright, turn ’em on,” Applejack hollered to Rose. Rose hollered back, and a few moments later, the sprinklers came on in the greenhouse. Applejack squinted through the artificial rain as she walked up and down the aisles, closely examining which rows of sprinkler heads were and weren’t spraying water. “One’s good,” she muttered. “Two’s good… Three’s good…”

Keeping the greenhouse’s sprinklers up to snuff was quietly one of the gardeners’ most important jobs; all the fresh fruits and vegetables in Golden Oaks came from the greenhouse. No sprinklers meant no fresh food, which meant the station’s researchers would have to fall back on prepackaged stuff. Researchers without good enough food got cranky and did subpar work. Subpar research work meant funding getting slashed, which would eventually mean no more Golden Oaks. So those sprinklers better stay fixed. (Or at least, that was what Applejack liked to joke. In reality, planting the seeds and caring for them personally was satisfying enough for her.)

Up and down and up and down and a few minutes later, Applejack was giving her report to Rose. “Six’s workin’, but only barely. Twelve an’ thirteen’re completely shot. But other’n that, we’re all good. Fourteen’s just fine, so I’m bettin’ the problem with the last two’s got somethin’ t’do with the heads themselves, not the pipe.”

“Six… twelve… thirteen,” muttered Rose, typing the numbers into the greenhouse’s computer. “Do we still have hydration coverage on those areas?”

“Ain’t no problem for six, but I can’t say for the other two. Want me t’start checkin’ it this evenin’?”

“If you could, that’d be great. Aaaaand…” Rose tapped in a last few words and tapped the Send button. “Bing. Repair request sent. How long do you think it’ll take Engineering to get to it this time?”

“Two days,” said Applejack.

“Oh, come on, two days? That’s crazy. It took them four days last time!”

“Yeah, ’cause the airlock in Hardware was messed up and that was their prior’ty!”

Rose shrugged. “Eh. Maybe, but with the VIPs arriving tomorrow, I think we’ll be lucky. Anything else we need to do tonight?”

“I don’t think the tomatoes’re ready to be picked, d’you?”

“Oh, no. Definitely not. Give them another week.”

“Then no, not ’sides loggin’. We’re good.”

“Finally.” Rose stood up and stretched, from her nose to the tip of her tail. “Urrffh! Sorry, it’s just been one of those days for me. Cherry Berry had me running back to her lab every ten minutes since she’s been… Well. You know her.” She rolled her joints, each one producing an audible pop.

“If it’s that bad, want me t’get everythin’ set for the night?” Applejack asked. “I can get it done in a jiffy.”

“That’d be great, thanks. I’ll be in the clearing.” Rose didn’t quite waddle out of the greenhouse, but she was definitely stiff.

After over two years of working on Golden Oaks, Applejack knew the proper logging procedures like the back of her hoof. It only took her five minutes to record everything in the system and lock the greenhouse up. She wiped the worst of the dirt off her face and looked up. A dome of titanium latticework and yard-thick glass reached out far above her, holding in the air of Golden Oaks from the vacuum outside while still providing a good view. The glass even had anti-glare enchantments on it to keep it from being mirrored by the brightness below and the blackness above.

She looked past the glass, at the stars beyond, trying to stargaze. She’d done it numerous times before, but she could only manage a few long moments before the vertigo hit. The blackness of space was so vast, so thought-defying, that it felt like it was going to swallow her up. She tried handling that, but then she remembered how big the space she wasn’t seeing was. She was a microscopic dot near Equus, which was a microscopic dot in their terrestrial system, which was a microscopic dot on a microscopic dot on another-

Applejack pulled her eyes away and put a hoof on her chest. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. A worker on a space station who was afraid of space, even after over three years of working there. Who’da thunk?

Once her heart slowed down and the floor was level again, Applejack walked away from the greenhouse, deeper into the arboretum. The cobblestone path (real stones, too!) wound its way through the miniature sort-of forest, with very little obvious artificiality. If Applejack closed her eyes and breathed deeply, the only thing keeping her from being back on Equus was the slightly echoic quality of the sounds and perhaps fewer birds than she would’ve liked. There was even enough dirt to satisfy earth pony magic. She could spend all her time in the arboretum if she had the option.

After a deliberately-slow minute, the trees gave way to a hallway of metal burrowing into a hillside, the stones merging into tiles. One wall was taken up by a security checkpoint, manned by Rainbow Dash. Except that Rainbow was engrossed in a magazine; her eyes were practically glued to the epaper. Applejack didn’t try to hide her footsteps as she walked up, but she still didn’t get Rainbow’s attention. She took a breath as quietly as she could. “RAINBOW!” she yelled.

Rainbow didn’t flinch. “AJ, if I was that inattentive, I’d’ve been thrown out my first week.” She looked up, grinning cockily. “And I mean that literally. Nice try, though.”

“Eh. Figures.” Applejack shrugged, then reached into one of the pockets on her uniform. She put a plastic bag holding an apple on Rainbow’s desk. “Anyway, the latest apple type ripened today. Lemme know what you think.”

“Already? Nice!” Rainbow tossed her magazine away and practically ripped the apple from the bag and devoured a quarter of it in a single bite. She nodded to herself as she chewed. “Mmhmm. Mmhmm. Mmm! Dff tfftf whwwy ghh.”

“…Huh?”

Rainbow swallowed some of the apple in her mouth. “I fed ih taytff guh!” she said indignantly.

“Pardon?” Applejack asked, tilting her head.

Another swallow, this time complete. “It’s good!” protested Rainbow. “Really good!” She took another, smaller bite and chewed slowly. “It’s juicy, but not too juicy. It’s crispy, but not too crispy. And the taste…” She swallowed and smacked her lips. “I wish I could say something besides ‘it’s good’, but trust me, it’s good.” Another bite.

“Great. I’ll let Cherry know and maybe we can get ’em added to the fruit. Thanks for tryin’ it, and-”

“Wait. While you’re over here, could you also look at the door? It’s been screwy recently.” To demonstrate, Rainbow hit a button in the booth. The door to the booth slid open a few feet, then stopped. She smacked the frame and it opened the rest of the way. “See? Like that.”

Applejack sighed. “Really, Rainbow? Nothin’ I do’ll make it last as long as havin’ Engineerin’ fix it.”

“C’mon, you know they take super long to get to anything!”

“Alright. Fine.”

Applejack had never opened an engineering manual in her life. Never attended any relevant college courses (or high school courses, for that matter). Never gone through any apprenticeships. Never dreamed she’d be doing any mechanical or electrical work beyond what Sweet Apple Acres needed, which Granny would teach her.

And yet, the second she stepped into the booth, before she’d even looked at anything, she knew what the problem was from the smell of crisping plastic. “Was the door not workin’ earlier and you figured you’d jus’ fix it yourself rather’n wait?”

“No,” said Rainbow promptly. Pause. “Yes.” Pause. “It was my idea but I wasn’t the one who fixed it.” Pause. “Okay, I helped a little in the actual fixing.” Pause. Pause. Done.

“Right. Wirin’ problem?” Applejack glanced meaningfully at the cup on Rainbow’s desk. “From water damage?”

“No!” Pause. “Grapefruit soda damage.”

“Great.” Applejack sniffed her way through the booth. She quickly found a panel three-quarters of the way up the wall. She screwdrivered the panel off and hacked at the smell of charred plastic. Melted insulation, long since re-solidified, had dripped down the inside of the panel and gotten smeared around. More troubling was a tiny bit of molten copper dribbling down the inside from a thin strand that had obviously been added later and would barely qualify as a wire in a world of mice. “Consarnit, Rainbow,” Applejack muttered to herself, “don’t you know anythin’ about wirin’?”

“Nope.”

“Y’need thicker wires’n this. Volts melted it like ice on a hot day.”

“The repair kit doesn’t really have any thicker wires…”

“Then we’ll hook ’em up in parallel, spread the voltage out. It’ll do ’till you get it fixed. For real. You got any solder?”

“Sure, hang on a sec…”


Neuromods. The way of the future. Instant expertise in a needle. Just one quick shot of the right arcanochemical mix, and bam! You could have whatever skills you wanted, your brain literally rewritten to make it as if you’d always had it. What skill did you want? Computer programming? Mechanical engineering? Biotechnology? Singing? Ballet dancing? Painting? You name it, CelesTech probably had it. Or at least they would, once the mods were mass-producible. They could sell such mods to the rich right now, but Sun Queen Celestia IV was adamant about getting the cost down to the point that the poorer-than-the-average pony could afford it. The scientists complained until Celestia started signing off on every grant that was pushed in front of her. Money was to researchers what pacifiers were to babies.

Such a thing was obviously too good to be true, right? About a year into her contract as gardener, Applejack had voiced her worries saying so in the Yellow Tulip Lounge. And, through a complicated series of events that involved being overheard by one of the researchers, some intense union negotiations, and a side bet with a princess, every worker’s bonus that year had included a free neuromod of their choice as proof that what they were doing was working. Applejack, not taking it all that seriously, had gone with mechanical engineering, in case she ever needed to fix some of the harvesters back home once her contract was up. (Not that she really wanted anything to do with those darn machines.)

Before the mod, Applejack couldn’t take apart a messenger drone with the manual in front of her. After the mod, she could take one apart and put it back together blindfolded.

It was surreal. Applejack had barely ever touched mechanical stuff, yet now she knew it all inside and out. Forget fixing the harvester; she could build her own, and probably make it run better, too. Applejack had never liked being lied to, and now she knew for certain that the work she was abetting was real.

(Of course, while neuromods worked all the promotional materials about them had been vague enough to not mention a few things: That the spells needed a direct connection to the brain to rewrite synapses. That the “connection” had been found via the optic nerve, the nerve with the shortest distance to the brain. That installing a neuromod therefore necessitated stabbing yourself in the eye with a needle holy mother duck. Just a minor detail, really. Applejack totally hadn’t had nightmares about it for a week after the injection.)

As a nice bonus, now that she could do mechanical work, she could get paid for doing mechanical work. She’d been made an official honorary engineer for the arboretum, occasionally fixing or diagnosing minor issues that didn’t require anything more than what you could find in a toolbox and making money for it: frayed wires, jammed gears, leaky pneumatics. And sometimes, if she liked the pony who needed help, she’d do a little bit of extra work on the side for free.

Like helping friends fix grapefruit-soda-damaged door circuits.


“So,” Applejack asked as she soldered in another wire, “how’d you manage gettin’ this bit wet?” (Clear speech with a soldering iron in her mouth had, to her astonishment, been among her neuromod-provided skills.)

“I… really don’t remember,” said Rainbow, her ears back. “I think — I think — it involved Spitfire and a reployer. Somehow? Maybe? I can’t really remember.”

Was that enough solder for that wire? Probably not. Applejack snipped off another length of solder. “I probably don’t wanna know.”

I don’t wanna know. Except what the heck a reployer was doing there.”

Applejack positioned the last wire and readied her iron. “Those things end up in the strangest places. Never got ’round t’askin’ Engineerin’ what they do.” She squinted at the wires. Good? Good. She punched the Close Door button; it slid shut without any problems.

“Awesome!” said Rainbow, grinning so brightly she was practically a second sun. “Thanks, AJ. You’re a lifesaver.” She smacked the button twice; open, shut.

“Meanin’ it ain’t gonna last forever and y’gotta find a better fix soon.” Applejack shut the panel. “Seriously, Rainbow, shoot an email t’Engineerin’. I did my best, but this’s a fire waitin’ to happen.”

“Eh.” Rainbow shrugged. “I’ll let the next gal get it.”

Rainbow!

“Whaaaaat? Shifts are getting rotated this weekend anyway! I’ll be gone in three da-”

Applejack glared at Rainbow, frowning fiercely.

“Alright, I’ll do it,” grumbled Rainbow. “Now get outta my checkpoint.”


Applejack found Rose at her usual spot, a clearing off the paved path in the arboretum. There was no bench, no amenities, absolutely nothing in the way of artificial comforts. Yet Rose was stretched out on her back, lying on the grass, gazing up at the stars. She waved as Applejack entered the clearing.

Applejack lay down on the far side, on a certain not-quite hill, and wiggled into her usual groove. The grass was nice and cool against her head (the only part of her not covered by her uniform), and if she closed her eyes, she could, for a few moments, imagine she was back on Equus.

She rolled over and idly, instinctively looked up to cloudgaze, only to get yanked out of her reverie by the black void of space. Something Rose still seemed charmed by, somehow. Applejack swallowed. “Y’ever think about what’s out there?” she asked. “Not way out there, like aliens, but… just a mile or two?”

Rose’s voice was easy, conversational. Definitely not full of vacuum-induced existential dread. “Applejack, we’re in space. There’s nothing out there.”

“Exactly! Nothin’! Not even air! And that don’t scare you?”

“No. It’s the same up here as it was down there. Just a bit closer.”

Applejack wasn’t so sure. It was the same reason she got seasick: sure, one could know the ocean was miles deep, but it was another thing to be on a ship with no land on the trackless horizon, look over the edge, and see nothing but deep blue all the way down. If she went over, she’d never be found. And space was infinitely larger than that. Literally. At least you’d stop sinking once you reached the abyssal trenches of the ocean. Not so in space, where she’d keep drifting forever.

Having the vacuum be closer, with constant reminders of how close it was — airlocks, shuttles, spacesuit drills — only threw how dangerous it was into sharp relief. Whenever she thought about it too much, it seemed more and more likely that a small failure in some trivial system would spell doom for all of Golden Oaks. There was nothing out there, less than a driveway away, and it was much more dangerous than something.

But Applejack wasn’t sure Rose got that. Knew how little really stood between her and the void. No, the arboretum was safe right now, meaning the oblivion outside didn’t matter.

And so Applejack stayed quiet, staring into the stars as much as she dared.