• Published 3rd Aug 2020
  • 907 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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11 - Short Fuse

How many stories had they gone down? Seven? Then Applejack really really really really really… really really missed elevators.

Behind her, Trixie was filling Blueblood in on the… details. “-going to try and get the security systems back up and running.”

“We are,” Blueblood said, a bit skeptically. “And that will help repel the… the changelings, will it?”

“Well… not really, no,” admitted Trixie. “Not directly, anyway. But it’ll help us track their movements! That’s really important!”

“Ah-ha.”

Applejack continued loping down the stairs, each step clinking loudly and rebounding up and down the metal walls of the stairwell. It was a lonely sound and Applejack couldn’t shake the feeling that, in spite of being on a space station, she was burrowing deep into the bowels of the earth to be swallowed whole. At least Blueblood wasn’t complaining (much); she’d expected him to be whining the entire way about how much his legs ached or something stupid like that. But, no, he was quiet, like he was thinking about something. But since when did Blueblood think?

Speaking of Blueblood, he trotted down to Applejack and coughed. “So, ah, do either of you know if… there are any survivors besides us?”

“Nope,” said Applejack. “Dunno.” Pause. “Well, I’m real sure Twilight’s still kickin’.” Was she still in habitation? Or had she moved? They ought to check the crew system again.

“Then maybe don’t you think we should find her first?” asked Blueblood. “Or- any other crewmembers?”

“Sure. Fine. And where would we start?”

“In- uh…” One of Blueblood’s ears went down. “The… ah… crew quarters?”

“The place where everypony already was when the changelings got out?”

Blueblood didn’t look at her.

Applejack stopped at a landing and rubbed her hat. “Look,” she said. “I, I wanna find survivors, too. I keep prayin’ somepony’s still alive out there. But this station’s a big place and I ain’t got a flippin’ clue as to where to look. I know gettin’ the cameras workin’ ain’t much, but it’s somethin’. ’Sides, we’re nearly there.” They’d just passed the 2.

“I… see.” Blueblood nodded slowly. “I suppose holing up in whatever computer labs the power plant has is out of the question?”

“Eh.” Applejack shrugged. “We’ll see.”

“If they have a security checkpoint,” added Trixie, “-which they should! — that would be a better place, but points for having an idea. Now let’s keep moving. Trixie is ready to melt.”

They exited onto level 1 at one end of an unassuming metal corridor just like the one above. It ran fifty feet to a door labelled Power Plant, but before that, along one wall, was a large, glass-paned room marked Reactor Monitoring.

“That one,” Trixie said immediately, pointing to Monitoring. “Trixie doesn’t want to walk any more and there’ll probably be computers set up inside.”

“Right.” Applejack brought her gun up. “I’ll go first.”

No protection by either keycards or keypads. When Applejack crept into the room, it looked like a wild bachelor party had been thrown in it, with tables flipped and the ceilings missing tiles and paper scattered everywhere, but it wasn’t too bad. As long as you overlooked the mare who had been strangled with a length of spare cable.

“Oh, Celestia,” gasped Blueblood when he saw the body. “What sort of monster would do something like that?”

Applejack and Trixie glanced at each other. Not necessarily a changeling.

The monitoring station’s computers were still working, so (after a quick look-over to avoid any suspicious duplicates) Trixie took a seat at one and began slicing in. But just as she got past the login screen, Blueblood tapped her on the shoulder. “Um. Maybe we should… search through location services and find where everyone is? So we’re not running around aimlessly?”

Trixie brushed the hoof away. “Later. We can do that after we get the cameras back up. Or after we fail to get the cameras back up. Whichever.”

“And how long will that take?”

“I don’t know, I’ve never used these programs before.” Trixie flexed her hooves. “Give me a minute.”

Applejack pulled up a chair and was ready to sit back and let Trixie do her thing, but Blueblood pulled her off to the side. “Are we really doing this?” he asked. “It seems…” He kneaded his hooves together and looked away. “What if this is more than we can handle?”

“Then, I dunno, we’ll try lookin’ for survivors,” said Applejack. “Have you seen what’s goin’ down? Bein’ able t’handle it ain’t really on the table right now.”

“But-” Blueblood flicked his ears. “If we… go get…” His voice dropped. “…somepony else…”

“Yeah?” snapped Applejack. “Like who?” Her patience was rapidly getting ground down. Ditching this clueless, pampered git was slowly looking more and more appealing.

“I… There must be…”

“There ain’t!” Applejack yelled, barely restraining herself from smacking Blueblood upside the head. “Most o’ the ponies I know are dead! Most o’ the station’s dead! And I ain’t gonna just sit back and hope that somepony else happens t’fix it for us! Maybe y’got servants waitin’ on you hoof and tail, but in the real world, sometimes you’re somepony else’s servant.” She groaned. “Don’t y’ever get outside the palace?”

“Sometimes,” Blueblood said petulantly. “Mother rarely allows me to leave Canterlot.”

“Gee, I wonder why,” Applejack muttered.

Blueblood’s jaw immediately tightened and he folded his ears back. “Now see here,” he hissed venomously. “If I-”

“Huh,” said Trixie.

Applejack and Blueblood both snapped to look at her. “What sorta ‘huh’?” asked Applejack. “Good ‘huh’? Bad ‘huh’?”

“I… I honestly don’t know. I ran a scan just to see and it doesn’t look like there’s anything wrong with the main reactor. Not to any great extent, anyway.”

“So what happened? Why’d the power fail?”

Trixie turned to look Applejack in the eye. “It was shut down.”

It was like finding a centipede in a butterfly display. Golden Oaks was falling to pieces, getting torn apart by aliens rampaging through it… and yet the reactor wasn’t damaged, but was shut down? Even with everything, the idea was wrong. Like a little catastrophe within a bigger catastrophe. Weren’t things catastrophic enough already?

“I know, right?” Trixie said, guessing at what Applejack was thinking. She turned back to the computer. “The quick scan I ran didn’t return any obvious errors, but the reactor still wasn’t reacting, so I looked into the logs, and there it was: a shutdown command.”

“Why can you turn a reactor off?” muttered Blueblood. “That seems-”

“Maintenance, mostly. We’re still a decade away from free energy,” answered Trixie. “But turning the main reactor off automatically turned the auxiliaries on, so there’s a stroke of luck.”

“Everythin’ runnin’ okay?” asked Applejack.

“Looks like it. And based on the current mana consumption, we still have at least a week before the power dies again.” Trixie snorted. “As if we’ll last a week. But…” She bit her lip. “I’m having trouble figuring out how to get power running to the mail servers again… and…”

Applejack really didn’t like the tone of that “and”. She held her breath.

“And the main reactor is missing its mana crystal,” Trixie admitted. “If we want to start it up again, we’ll need to go down there and load it manually.”

Hmm.

Applejack’s engineering neuromod had included some facts about Golden Oaks’ reactor. She’d never be able to do any intensive maintenance, but she knew mana rods. They were big, thaumatically soaked, and not too hard to mount and unmount into the reactor with a bit of oomph (something earth ponies had in abundance). The hard part was making them, which was why the manufacturing process took place on Equus and the crystals got shipped up by drone.

Could she do it? Get the reactor working again, all by her lonesome? There were a lot of unknowns: any changelings around, the condition of the mana rods or any spares, whether Trixie’s scans were even accurate. She might reach the reactor and find out there was nothing to be done.

But if she could do it…

Well. In for a bit, in for a bridle. “Bet I can load it,” Applejack heard herself say.

Blueblood’s jaw dropped and Trixie sighed as if she’d been expecting that response. “Of course you can,” Trixie muttered.

“No, really.” Applejack cleared her throat. “I, uh, I got some engineerin’ mods shot into me, and I know a little bit ’bout mana crystals. Loadin’ ’em ain’t that hard. Heck, it’s near automatic. So if I go in there…” Her voice trailed off.

Neither unicorn objected, though. Blueblood looked torn up about something while Trixie was thoughtful. She leaned back in her chair and frowned at the computer, drumming her hoof on the legrest. After several long moments, she took a breath. “If you can load it,” Trixie mused, “Trixie can start the reactor again from here. She could even add some extra encryption to keep it from being shut down again.”

“You could? That fast?”

A smirk. “Trixie is a very good programmer, Applejack. Anyway, I-”

Outside, the door to the power plant hissed open.

Everypony, even Blueblood, immediately dropped like a stone and flattened themselves against the floor. Applejack strained her ears and the footsteps she heard had a different quality than the usual changeling ones, closer to rubber-on-metal than muffled-metal-on-metal. She made a “stay down” motion at Trixie and Blueblood and cautiously poked her head above the computer desk to look through the window to outside.

A pony in a CelesTech uniform — with a style Applejack only vaguely recognized — was leaving the power plant, looking over her shoulder, a shotgun strapped to one of her hooves. She was wearing a helmet, so Applejack couldn’t see her face. Then the figure turned back forward, and through the helmet’s visor, Applejack saw-

“Lightnin’ Dust?”

A twitchy Lightning spun around and fired, shattering the window; even though she escaped the worst of it, a few pellets scored Applejack’s face. She yelped and dropped below the desk. “Whoa, hey!” she yelled. “Don’t point that thing at me! We ain’t aliens!”

Lightning’s voice was tinny through her suit’s speakers. “What?” She paused. “Come on out slowly.”

Applejack slowly raised one hoof above the desktop, then began standing up. She hadn’t even gotten all the way up when Lightning gasped, “It’s you. How-”

“Pardon?” Trixie asked. She stood up just enough to glance over the desk. “Do you-”

On reflex, Lightning jerked to aim at Trixie. But in one movement and casting, Trixie ducked back down and wrenched Lightning’s gun to the side. “Would you kindly mind NOT shooting us?” Trixie screeched. “Being not shot is vastly superior to being shot, I think we can all agree!

“Well, excuuuuuuuuse me for being jumpy!” Lightning snapped. She pulled at her gun, but Trixie had a firm grip on it. “This whole place has gone to Tartarus on a tanning rack and-” She cut herself off and flexed her wings. “You know, what are you doing down here, anyway?”

“Getting the cameras back up! They failed after the auxiliary reactors turned on!” Pause. “And now Trixie would like to know what you are doing down here!”

“Let my gun go and I’ll tell you.”

“Fine.” And Trixie’s magic vanished.

Lightning flexed her leg to work out any crinks, licked her lips, and said, “After the, the lights went out, I… went down to the reactor to see if I could do anything about it. No-pe.” She popped the p. “Not without some sorta engineering degree. There were a lot of missing parts.”

“Really?” Trixie asked. Her eyes narrowed and one of her ears twitched.

“Well, that’s what it looked like. Look, I’m a bodyguard,” Lightning snapped. “I don’t get paid to understand gem-fired power plants or whatever this station runs on. I couldn’t understand that thing with the manual and a year to read it.” She gave her helmet a wiggle and popped it off her suit.

“Were there any changelin’s down there?” Applejack asked. SHe was already thinking: if the reactor was safe, if Trixie’s scans were correct-

“None I couldn’t handle,” said Lightning. One of her eyes was bloodshot; she gave it a rub, smirking a little. “Those punks didn’t know what hit ’em.”

Applejack and Trixie looked at each other. Trixie nodded and Applejack said to Lightning, “Bet I can fix it.”

Lightning blinked and her eyes twitched slightly. “You? But- How- You can’t-”

“Got some engineerin’ neuromods.” Applejack tapped her temple. “And if I can’t, oh well, right? Y’wanna come down and help me?”

Lightning blinked again, like she’d just been kicked in the teeth.

“Look, gettin’ full power back’s a big deal, right?” said Applejack. “And you already said it’s safe, so why not try? Trixie here and Blueblood can stay up here while-”

“Blueblood?” gasped Lightning. “He’s here?”

“Ahem.” Blueblood raised his head above the desk. “Yes,” he said tightly as he stared at Lightning. “I am here.”

“But- why didn’t- You were supposed to-” spluttered Lightning. “Why didn’t you-”

“Why didn’t you do your job?” Blueblood snapped. His voice had gained a layer of steel Applejack wouldn’t have guessed he had. “You were supposed to-” He cut himself and looked away from Lightning, his ears back and his lips pursed.

“Yeah?” snorted Lightning. “Well, if you’d had the guts to-”

“CAN IT!” screamed Trixie. “I don’t care about whatever stupid little quibbles you two had in the past, you-” She jabbed a hoof at Lightning. “-can escort Applejack into the reactor while I babysit the prince.” (Blueblood looked hurt, but said nothing.) “Then she can fix it, I can start it up again, and everything will be a little bit less in the toilet, okay?” She leaned forward a little. “Or are you just going to be a whiner who doesn’t care about anypony besides herself?”

Lightning glared at Trixie and flexed her wings. For all Applejack knew, that was the sternest reprimand she’d received in a while. She rolled her legs in their sockets, one after the other. “Fine,” she grunted. “Get a helmet, farmpone,” she said as she popped her own back on. “It’ll keep you from breathing any hexed air. Your suit should be good at keeping any lingering mana out.” She glanced at Applejack’s gun. “You know how to use that?”

“Like a dream,” said Applejack.

Lightning grunted. “There’s helmets right next to the airlock.” She pointed. “Pop right on.”

Indeed, right where Lightning had pointed, a row of helmets was hanging inside a cabinet. Several were missing; Applejack tried not to think about their wearers. She grabbed one of the spare ones and, with a bit of finagling, managed to get it over her hat. She’d only used one of these helmets in emergency vacuum drills before, but it still connected right onto her uniform automatically, complete with a heads-up display flickering to life on the inside. She recalled each and every one of the diagnostic tests it went through, right down to checking to be sure her own oxygen supply was still intact and full (it was both). Once all the tests passed, Applejack said, “Alright, I’m good.”

“Wait, hold on.” Trixie did something at the computer, and when she spoke again, her voice came through speakers in the helmet. “Can you hear me now?”

“Loud and clear.”

“Good. I’ve patched into your communications systems, so we can at least talk while you’re down there. The mics are voice-activated, so anything you say above a whisper will get picked up automatically.”

Lightning hiccuped, then coughed. “Great, great,” she muttered. Her voice was coming through the speakers as well. “Come on.” She pulled Applejack toward the power plant door.

As Lightning had said, the door was just one part of an airlock, a big, solid room consisting basically of vents and doors with plenty of space for both Applejack and Lightning with room to spare. But before either of them could activate it, Blueblood stepped forward, looking more than a little sheepish. “I. Um.” He cleared his throat. “I hope things go well for you.”

Probably a mighty effort, coming from him. Still, Applejack appreciated the thought. She nodded back to him. “Thanks.”

Lightning rolling her eyes was practically audible. “Yeah, yeah, shut up, we’ve got a job to do.” She smashed on the airlock’s Close button and the room sealed up.

“Kinda snippy, ain’t ya?” asked Applejack as they waited for the air to cycle. She checked the readout on her gun out of habit. Still 6.

“Well, gee,” Lightning said, “it’s not like I already checked the power plant and now I’m going back through it all over again. Pfft. No.”

“Doin’ work and walkin’. Oh no. What a dang effort.”

“You haven’t seen the power plant, have you?”

“No. Why?”

Lightning’s smile held no mirth. “Oh, you’ll see. This is no cakewalk. More like a cake… Heh. No. You’ll see.”

The air finished cycling and the door to the power plant hissed open.