• 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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5 - Dear Future Self

Applejack would’ve screamed if she’d had any air left in her lungs. The black blob was strong, constricting her body so tightly she could barely think, let alone breathe. Applejack grabbed at the thing, but it was so slick and smooth she couldn’t get a grip. Acting on instinct, she slammed herself into the sharp edge of the desk as hard as she could.

As she rebounded and breathlessly toppled to the floor, the blob chittered in distress and let go of her. When it landed on the ground, it looked like a giant, four-legged spider bigger than her head. It began scurrying away. Applejack grabbed the stool she’d been sitting on, rolled over, and slammed it into the floor hard enough to shatter, but she missed the spider. It skittered away with a sort of slurred clicking and headed out of sight around a shelving unit. It left black ichor in its wake.

Applejack froze for an instant, then lunged for a discarded wrench. She didn’t know what that thing had done, but she’d be damned if she let it jump her again. She twirled it around, feeling the heft, the weight. Yes, as a weapon, this would do nicely. Holding the wrench above her head, keeping her back against the wall, Applejack inched to one side so she could see around the corner.

But the thing had vanished. Its ichor trail stopped in the middle of the floor next to a toolbox.

That… No, that couldn’t be right. Could it? Applejack crept forward, still keeping the wrench high. She looked this way and that, into the corners around the shelves. Nowhere the thing could hide. It was just… gone.

The leg holding the wrench went slack. “You ain’t losin’ it, are ya, girl?” Applejack whispered. She wasn’t sure of the answer. She walked closer to the shelves. Still nothing jumped out at her. She looked over them just in case. Coils of rubber tubing, copper wire, containers for nuts and bolts, a toolbox, some fire extinguishers-

Applejack twitched in recognition and looked at the toolbox again. The exact same toolbox, right down to all the little nicks and scratches, as the one sitting on the floor.

The one the blood trail led to.

…Who would leave a toolbox sitting out in the open like that?

Maybe it was paranoia. Maybe it was a little subconscious nudge. Maybe Applejack was losing her mind. Maybe she was pissed off and wanted an excuse to take it out on something.

But she swung that wrench at that toolbox like it had tried to kill her.

Turned out, it had.

The second the wrench made contact, the toolbox screamed. Before Applejack could react, its shape had unraveled into the four-legged spider thing — thankfully still. Its central orb had been caved in by the impact of the wrench and its legs twitched feebly. That didn’t stop Applejack from hitting it again, then again, just in case. Then again, because she felt like it. Black blood flew, splattered her face. She didn’t care.

She brought the wrench back in case the thing moved again. It didn’t. Swallowing her bile, Applejack leaned in as closely as she dared to examine it and quickly got lost. The thing was oily, slimy, looking more like it was a liquid held in a vaguely spider-y shape than a body. When she looked at one of its legs, it looked like several tentacles wrapped around each other. She didn’t see anything like eyes or mouth; the surface of its… central node was as smooth and featureless as could be. It didn’t look like an animal at all, more like a foal’s sketchy drawing of a spider.

“You couldn’ta done it,” Applejack said to the… tetrapod. “Could you?” It didn’t look that dangerous on its own… But it had turned into flawless copies of a coffee cup and a toolbox, so if it could turn into other things, too, then… And if there were more of them…

A lot more… Enough to kill everypony in the arboretum…

There’d be an alert. Right? A stationwide alert, sent to everypony over every messaging system available. Golden Oaks had such an alert system; it was tested every moon. There was no way the things could take over that quickly. Right?

Applejack tried looking at her TranScribe, but her hooves were shaking so much she couldn’t press the right buttons. She stumbled back to the computer in a confused haze, flinched again at the list of dead ponies, and tapped her way to her mail. Sure enough, the second line was highlighted in the red of an important message. She opened it.

ALERT! UNKNOWN HOSTILE ENTITIES ARE ABOARD THE STATION! SEEK SHELTER IMMEDIATELY. WE WILL UPDATE YOU AS THE SITUATION PROGRESSES.

Applejack blinked and reread those few words. Unknown hostile entities — seek shelter. Those things? (She quickly looked at the shelves again. The tetrapod was still there, still dead.) Seek shelter? Where? Golden Oaks didn’t have any sort of protective shelter in case something went wrong. It shouldn’t have needed them. Besides ponies, there wasn’t anything else on board the station except for the researchers’ very-much-inanimate experiments.

Right?

Sighing, she leaned back in the chair and stared into the harsh glow of a lightstrip. The scientists up here were researching neuromods and… She didn’t know what else, if anything. She’d heard rumors about reactors, weapons, computer interfaces, whatever. She didn’t care. She didn’t need to know. She just grew her plants and kept the oxygen levels high. But if they’d been researching aliens, of all things, then-

No. What they had been doing didn’t matter. What mattered was that now, there was something aboard the station.

Applejack groaned and wiped her mane down. Still no hat. Where could it be?

Her mind not much more than a stew, Applejack absently tapped back to her mail. Her gaze flicked up to the top message, then she sat up straight like she’d been hit by lightning. It wasn’t an emergency alert, but that wasn’t what caught her eye. No, what caught her eye was the sender: herself. Then the arrival time: Mar. 15, 2:06 AM. Less than twenty minutes before she’d woken up in the compactor.

Had she known she was going to lose her memory?

Between a lack of better options and simple curiosity, she opened the message. Nothing but a video file with a strange name: Watch me. When you were young you nearly got Big Mac’s leg amputated. Nopony else on the station knew that. This had to have come from her. She tapped the Play button. A second of buffering, then the player filled the screen.

There she was, sitting in a room she didn’t recognize. The Applejack on screen was dirty and disheveled, but held herself bright and alert. She even had her hat. “Hey, AJ,” she said. “Sorry, but… y’ain’t gonna like what’s comin’ next.


Amnesia. Getting dumped in a trash compactor. Getting attacked by some strange creature that could shapeshift. And now, a message from herself that she couldn’t remember making.

This was a very weird day for Applejack.

I don’t know how much y’remember,” continued Screen Applejack. “Maybe everythin’. Maybe y’don’t need me at all. But the time right now is 2:01 AM, March 15. An’ four hours ago, somethin’ took over Golden Oaks. It- It-

Want me to handle this part, Applejack?” a familiar voice asked, making Applejack twitch. Princess Twilight’s voice. What in Tartarus was going on?

Sure.” Screen Applejack scooched aside and Twilight herself walked into view. She was definitely the worse for wear, if only relatively speaking; her crown was gone, her mane was messy, and she was covered in grime. But, like Screen Applejack, she didn’t look tired or overly nervous.

Before Applejack could register the sight, Twilight was already talking. “There have been ALIENS aboard the station for the past four months and I WASN’T TOLD!” she yelled. “Aliens! ALIENS!

Twi-!

Sorry! Sorry.” Twilight cleared her throat. When she spoke again, her voice was much more controlled. “About four months ago, researchers aboard Golden Oaks discovered aliens during a routine spacewalk. They were small, roundish, with four legs and no sensory organs. When they took these aliens in for study — WITHOUT properly notifying the Crown! — the creatures proved to be capable of mimicking the appearance of a similarly-sized item in the vicinity. The researchers ‘creatively’ called them changelings.

Applejack glanced at the shelves. She knew that already.

Twilight was still talking. “I guess it’s a bit better than ‘mimic’. Anyway, these changelings didn’t seem all that aggressive or dangerous, so the researchers contained them. However, four hours ago — that’s about 10 PM, March 14, remember — the changelings on board the station suddenly broke free of their holding cells and… and…

The picture was clear enough for Applejack to see the pain in Twilight’s eyes, see the tears slowly gather there. For being a princess, Twilight had always been able to make time for just about anypony. She was Friendship, after all. Applejack had felt numb after seeing all her colleagues dead. How much worse would it have been to have actually been there while it happened? When you knew the name of just about every dead pony on the station? It was a miracle Twilight was keeping it together as well as she was.

M-most of the crew is dead,” Twilight said. Her voice trembled, despite her best efforts. “Over seventy-five percent, I think. The changelings killed them. And there are… other things out there. The researchers don’t recognize anything besides the regular changelings, but they’re hostile and VERY aggressive. They’re hunting down Golden Oaks personnel like animals.” She took a deep, shuddering breath, then burst out, “They even ruined Pi Day! I’m sorry if it seems my priorities are all out of whack, but it’s PI DAY! One of the only true nerd holidays ever!” She put a hoof to her face, breathed in, then slowly let the air out. “Sorry. Catharsis.

That was Twilight, alright, hiding her worries with a bad nerd joke. At least whatever was going down hadn’t completely gotten to her yet.

Screen Applejack pushed her way back into view. “But we got a plan. Sorta. Not really.” She grinned nervously and shrugged. It’s so crazy you pr’y wouldn’t believe Twilight if she said it. But you’d listen to yourself, right? You better. Anyway, we’re in the neuromod labs. Twi here thinks that, with the same stuff we use t’make those things, ma-

Abruptly, the screen started pixelating, like the quality was dropping. The video stuttered and screen Applejack’s voice started skipping: “-ybe we c-ybe we c-ybe we c-” Then the player closed itself, replaced by a plain blank message:

YOU DO NOT HAVE PERMISSION TO VIEW THIS ITEM. PLEASE CONTACT YOUR SYSTEM ADMIN.

“Don’t have-?” Applejack spluttered. “It’s my flippin’ email, you goldang-!” She nearly ripped the computer from its stand and hurled it across the room. Even with that under control, she almost broke the touchscreen as she closed the message, went back to her inbox, and stabbed at the email again.

YOU DO NOT HAVE PERMISSION TO VIEW THIS ITEM. PLEASE CONTACT YOUR SYSTEM ADMIN.

“Don’t you gimme that!” Applejack yelled. “It’s in my account!”

YOU DO NOT HAVE PERMISSION TO VIEW THIS ITEM. PLEASE CONTACT YOUR SYSTEM ADMIN.

“Son of a motherlovin’…” Applejack closed her eyes, grit her teeth so tightly she could practically hear them cracking, and forced herself to be aware of her breathing. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. In. Out. She was not going to break the computer. She was not going to break the computer. She was not going to break the computer.

And when she opened her eyes again, she did not break the computer. It was close, though.

She stared at the computer; it was something to look at, keep her mind straight. Shapeshifting monsters on board. She had a plan with Twilight. Somehow. A plan she didn’t remember. Twilight herself was nowhere to be found. So what now? Find Twilight? Break into the locked file (somehow)? Deduce whatever plan she and Twilight had come up with? Even if she settled on one plan, where would she even go to begin with?

…The neurothaumatics research labs. That was where the video had been recorded, according to her past self. She’d had her hat in the video. She didn’t have it now. She wanted — needed — her hat. As good an excuse as any. She was heading there just to get out of these maintenance sections, anyway.

So. Heading there alone. Unarmed.

Or was she?

She looked at the wrench she’d used to kill the first changeling. It’d felt good in her hooves, she needed a weapon, and she didn’t know enough about guns to use one well if she found one. She picked it up again and swung it experimentally. Even without adrenaline, it felt like a good, solid whack was enough to ruin something’s week. “I think you an’ me are gonna get along jus’ fine,” Applejack whispered to it. She stuffed it into one of her pockets. Thank goodness hers were so huge.

Still alone, but no longer unarmed. It was a minor relief.

And did she need to be alone? Maybe she could find Twilight through Location Services. Applejack reflexively went back to the Crew tab before she remembered that she only had access to the locations of the Arboretum workers. Security could look through all personnel, though. …Rainbow Dash was security. Applejack knew Rainbow well enough to guess her password, right? Applejack drummed her hoof against the desk and quickly came up with three options. She logged off and tried them one at a time.

User ID: rdash
Password: Aw350m3
INVALID CREDENTIALS

User ID: rdash
Password: aw350m3!
INVALID CREDENTIALS

User ID: rdash
Password: Aw350m3!
WELCOME, RAINBOW DASH

For someone who was part of the security team, it was amazing how much of a security risk that pony could be. Maybe that was why her clearance was pretty limited. There were a few commands she didn’t recognize (so not touching those) and she had access to every crew member in Location Services, plus an extra tab for guests. Open it up, and:

Blueblood — Prince — Healthy — Central Research
Lightning Dust — Bodyguard to Prince Blueblood — N/A — N/A
Spike Chrysophylax — Aide and bodyguard to Princess Twilight Sparkle — Wounded (mild) — Lobby
Thunderlane — Bodyguard to Prince Blueblood — Dead — Neurothaumatics Division
Twilight Sparkle — Princess — Wounded (mild) — Habitation Decks

Huh. Habitation? What was she doing all the way over there? Well, at least she could move. Too far from Neurothaumatics, though; Applejack would get back to her later.

Still alone. But she knew where to find Twilight. It was a start.

Applejack walked to the door on tiphooves, ready to rip out her wrench at a moment’s notice. She poked at the button to unlock the door and winced at the sound it made as it opened up. She looked in one direction, then the other. Nothing amiss. Nothing she spotted, anyway. She set off down the hall as quickly as she dared. The alarms still blared and everywhere was still cloaked in darkness, but it wasn’t as scary now that she had something like a goal.

This is crazy, she told herself in her head. Y’ain’t got anythin’ like a plan. You gonna just keep movin’ forward an’ hope it all magically comes together? The same plan that stuck you up here in the firs’ place?

Well, sure, she responded. What else am I gonna do? Sit an’ cry?

Wait for help. You ain’t a soldier, you ain’t cut out for this, you ain’t-

Applejack ignored that voice as best she could. She’d never been able to sit still for long. She loathed her farm’s harvesters, didn’t she?

One intersection later, the flat corridor turned into a staircase with a sign pointing up it: Neurothaumatics. The hair on Applejack’s back stood up even as she climbed. She wasn’t sure she wanted to see what was at the top, but she had to. It was her only way out.

A door loomed into view at the top of the stairs. Plain. Metal. Ominous. Behind it could be just about anything. A truckload of dead bodies. A wreckage of a laboratory. A pile of books, every one of them a changeling. Nothing at all, the entire wing wiped clean. Applejack’s mind raced as she reached for the button and her hoof shook. Then she took a few steps back, pulled her wrench out of her pocket, and reached forward with that. No sense in being any closer to the door than she had to be.

Clink. She hit the frame. Clink. Frame. She wiped a few beads of sweat off her face. Click. Button. The door hissed open.