• 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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6 - Equine Elements

There was light in Neurothaumatics. That was good.

What it revealed? Less so.

It seemed the maintenance halls had only escaped damage because they were out of the way. Neurothaumatics had been ravaged. Gashes cut into the walls, exposing the infrastructure beneath. Black blood was smeared across the floor — with very little red, Applejack noticed. Flickering lighting fixtures dangled from the ceiling. If it wasn’t nailed down, it was usually overturned; in one corner, test tubes were scattered out from a smashed cart like some bizarre flower. The same alarms that had been blaring downstairs sang the song of their people up here as well. There were more than a few shell casings lying about.

And, of course, the body, only a few yards from the door.

The stallion was wearing a security uniform and was sprawled out like he’d been tackled while running away from something. But after that… what? Applejack swallowed and took a few steps forward. No wounds. Nothing out of the ordinary from what she could tell. Like the janitor, he’d just died. His mouth hung open in a silent scream.

“Sorry,” Applejack muttered. She closed the corpse’s eyes. It seemed right.

Her eyes fell on the pony’s shotgun. It looked like a regular model and was strapped to the inside of his front leg. Applejack didn’t know much about guns, but protection was protection. Although it made her skin crawl, she unhooked it from the dead pony and attached it to her own leg. The second she clinched the last strap into place, a small, shapeless pressure began pushing on her thoughts, giving the feeling of a switch.

Applejack was mostly used to telepathic controls like that, so it didn’t bother her too much. The ammo counter said there was only a single shell left. Good for testing, although she’d need to raid a security checkpoint. Now, if she pointed the gun that way and just poked the thing like this-

BANG. The gun went off and slammed into Applejack’s shoulder like a sledgehammer, driving her back a step. The sound of the report was forced back in on itself over and over in the tight space until it nearly deafened her; even when the echoes died off, her ears still rang. The counter flickered and spun over to 0.

Well. At least the trigger worked.

Was the gun supposed to be as light as it was? Maybe. Maybe not. Applejack took a few steps, then a few trotting steps. It wouldn’t hamper her, at least. She could even swing her wrench with that leg if she needed to.

Her heart didn’t feel any lighter, but it did feel better-protected. Applejack wiped some black slime off a sign opposite the maintenance door. To the right: Neuromod Removal Chamber. Applejack had heard something about neuromods and memories once upon a time. If that wasn’t a starting place, nothing was. She set off.


Even with the alarms and wreckage, Applejack was more comfortable in the main hallways rather than maintenance. She didn’t know the layout, but the familiar design of the floors and walls let her pretend she did. She walked with her head high and her wrench close.

But the sights she saw slowly chipped away at her demeanor. Applejack knew the labs ought to be clean and pristine, but these resembled a warzone. Walls were ripped apart, vents hung open, and the lights kept flickering. She passed by several labs, all of them large glass-walled chambers. Yet in one case, the glass, a full inch thick, had been broken and left gigantic shards scattered across the floor like the world’s most hazardous confetti. Broken from the inside out. A pony rested against the opposite wall, her back crushed and scored by more shards. Yet other than that, she was just as strangely woundless as the other bodies.

Applejack kept an eye out for suspicious duplicates of objects, but she never saw any. She kept her ears peeled for suspicious noises, but she never heard any. Which made her even more on edge. There could be a changeling right behind her and she wouldn’t know. She patted her wrench. Still there.

Luckily, it didn’t take long for Applejack to spot a sign pointing to a door labelled Neuromod Removal Chamber — Authorized Personnel Only. It was, like the other labs, glass-walled, so Applejack galloped up to the window and peered in. The first thing she saw: her hat! It was resting on the floor, clean and intact, so close and yet so far. She stared longingly at it for a few seconds, then surveyed the rest of the room. A chair rested in the center of the room, its headrest fitted with something that had the uniquely nasty aesthetic of medical tools. A computer was hooked up next to it and next to that was a small table — almost a bedside table, really — for whatever the doctors needed. It wasn’t much larger than a doctor’s office, with enough room for only three or four ponies willing to get a little cozy. Most of the other stuff in there was various bits and bobs of debris. If it hadn’t been for her hat, Applejack would’ve walked away and forgotten about it.

But there was her hat. She’d been here. Why? She needed to get in.

She turned to the door, only to withdraw, gagging. In her excitement, she’d managed to miss the pegasus lying slumped facefirst against the door. Blood was smeared down the door, as if he’d been dragged, and one of his wings had been broken. His head rested at a grotesque angle. Swallowing, Applejack reached forward and delicately poked the body to push it away from the door. The pony fell over and toppled onto his back.

It was Thunderlane, the bodyguard she’d met barely a week ago. His face was battered and bloody, like he’d been smashed against the door repeatedly, with a broken jaw rendering him horrifically uncanny. Applejack clapped a hoof to her mouth and turned away as her stomach heaved. She clamped her jaws shut and breathed through her nose. In. Out. In. Out.

“You can do this, girl,” she muttered. “You can do this.”

Swallow. Eyes open. Nothing she could do for Thunderlane now. Keep on track. Keep moving. Applejack wiped the (still warm) blood from the doorframe, looking for either a card reader or a keypad.

Unfortunately, what she found was a keypad, four places for ten digits each. It was probably too much to ask for it to be something simple, but Applejack tried anyway: all the same digits, variants on 1-2-3-4, even a few random entries. Each attempt was met with an angry failure beep from the pad. Unless she found a convenient sticky note with the code written on it, she wasn’t getting in.

Through the door, anyway.

Applejack squinted through one of the windows again and looked up. A large vent cover was set into the ceiling — big enough for a pony to crawl through, if she was lucky. Maybe… She trotted to the room on one side, marked as Storage. It was protected by a card reader, but her janitor card opened it straight up. “If I get outta here,” Applejack muttered, “I’m gonna give every janitor I ever see a kiss. No matter what.”

The inside of the storage was relatively bare, mostly neatly-organized shelves and lockers and a few crates. The scientists must’ve been real sticklers for organization. Applejack examined the ceiling and quickly spotted it: another vent cover that matched the one in the neuromod chamber. If the vent was as large as the cover — about three feet by three feet — she’d be able to crawl through and come out inside the other room. Thank Celestia for the necessity of HVAC. Applejack planted her shoulder against a crate to push it beneath the vent.

“Excuse me.”

Applejack spun around at the sudden voice, bringing her gun up. “Who’s there?” she yelled. “Show yourself!” She didn’t aim the gun as much as point it vaguely in what she hoped was the right direction. It was hard to tell which direction the voice was coming from; it sounded like the speaker was inside something.

“Not just yet. Trixie thinks you might hit her with panic fire. If you please lower your gun, Trixie will come out slowly.”

Lower her gun? Even with her limited knowledge of firearms, Applejack didn’t want to do that. It was the only thing resembling ranged protection she had. And if this Trixie referred to herself like that, could she be trusted? Or was she crazy?

But Applejack’s options were so limited that, inch by inch, she put her leg back on the ground. “Alright,” she said. “It’s down. C’mon out.”

“Excellent.” A few metallic clinks, and one of the lockers opened a foot. Applejack twitched but kept her feet on the ground. A blue hoof poked from the locker and waved. “See? Here. Trixie is coming out now, so please refrain from becoming trigger-happy.”

The locker opened completely and a light blue unicorn with a long, pale mane toppled out. She got up with a serene… not exactly indifference, more an “I meant to do that” look. She brushed herself off — she was wearing the uniform of a volunteer — and looked at Applejack with a sort of cool but nonhostile confidence. “Greetings.”

Applejack’s leg twitched. “Uh… Hey. Name’s Applejack.” She gestured at the locker with her unarmed leg. “What were you doin’ in…?”

“Trixie was hiding, obviously,” huffed the unicorn. “She has been hiding for the past several hours. Or did you miss the alien invasion in progress?” Her horn glowed as she levitated a tube of hairspray and a lighter out of the locker. She gave the lighter a few experimental clicks to see if it still worked and nodded to herself. “What are you doing here? I thought I locked the door.”

“Janitor’s skeleton key.”

“Ah. Yes, that would do it nicely.” Trixie glanced at Applejack’s gun. “At least you- Wait.” She marched up to Applejack and wrenched her leg from the floor to look at the gun. Applejack pulled away, but Trixie had apparently seen all she needed to see. “You were pointing your gun at me while it was empty?”

“Ehm…” Applejack looked at the ammo counter. 0. “I… guess?” She’d completely forgotten about using up her last shell.

“I don’t know who you are or what you want,” Trixie said, boggling, “but you need to mod yourself up with guns. All the guns. Right now.” She grabbed Applejack’s tail in her magic and stomped out of the lab.

“Whoa, hey!” Applejack dug her hooves into the metal floor as best she could. Earth pony strength beat unicorn magic and she stopped moving. “Bless your heart, but I ain’t doin’ any eye-stabbin’ today!”

Trixie whirled around and glared at Applejack like she had just said something earth-shatteringly stupid. “Listen, Applesnack or whoever you are-”

Applejack.

“Whatever. We are in the middle of what can be politely described as an absolute shitstorm and you don’t even know how to use your own weapon. If you don’t take a few seconds out for some educational eye-stabbing, whatever’s going to happen to you is going to be a lot worse than one puny neuromod.”

“Why don’t you do it, then?”

“I despise guns with a fiery, burning passion capable of levelling cities.”

“Ah.”

Trixie turned back down the hallway. “Trixie knows where the mods are stored and will deign to find the correct one for you. They’re just-”

“You go find ’em, but I need t’get in there.” Applejack pointed toward the neuromod removal chamber. “I think-”

Trixie whirled on Applejack like a magnet snapping to its pole and, her eyes wild, yelled, “No! NO no nooooo. We are not splitting up, not now.” Applejack opened her mouth to protest and Trixie wagged a hoof at her. “Ah bah bah! Saying something like ‘it’s only for a minute’ guarantees that something will go wrong. Unless we need to, we are sticking together. We have safety in numbers, you have Trixie’s magic, and Trixie has your… ah…” She eyed Applejack up and down. “…guns and legs.”

Applejack snorted. “Are y’always this paranoid?” she muttered.

“You aren’t? But if you agree to stick with her, Trixie will let you visit the neuromod removal chamber first. Even though I don’t why.” Trixie strode to the door like she was a model on a runway.

“Won’t work,” Applejack said, trotting after her. “Door’s locked.”

“And Trixie will so graciously unlock it for you.” Trixie inched the last few feet as she approached Thunderlane’s body, then levitated a small computer thing, not that different from a TranScribe, from her bags. She held it next to the keypad and stared at it as symbols Applejack didn’t know flashed across the screen. “Now then… Reveal to me your secrets…”

“Uh…”

“The Great and Powerful Trixie is interfacing with the lock,” Trixie said, not looking away. She tapped something on the screen. “It connects wirelessly to the mechanisms to open and shut the door, so if the signal is spoofed sufficiently, we can- Oh, there we go. 5150.” Another tap and the doors opened. Trixie turned to Applejack with a smug look on her face — one that, bizarrely enough, looked strangely fitting for her. Applejack rolled her eyes and stepped inside. Trixie stayed outside, looking this way and that, her hairspray and lighter at the ready.

First things first: Applejack scooped up her wonderful, wonderful hat and plopped it on. The weight of it, however slight, was familiar and reassuring. Just like that, her morale went up several points, then did so again. She had her hat back. The world was slowly coming together again.

“Normally, I’d say I hoped you wanted more than that hat,” Trixie said, glancing over her shoulder, “but it looks good on you.”

“Naw, it looks great.”

“…I’ll be honest. It does. …Did you want something in here besides that hat?”

Applejack shrugged. “I dunno. Lemme look.”

There wasn’t much else to see inside the room that Applejack hadn’t already seen. Bits of drywall knocked from the ceiling, glass shards that had found their way inside… Just trash. Well, and a neuromod. It was resting on the floor behind the chair. Since she wasn’t going to inject herself with an unknown neuromod, Applejack put the bricklike device on the table so she wouldn’t step on it. Maybe there was something on the computer? She tapped the screen to wake it up, and luckily, it hadn’t been long enough for the computer to lock.

Apparently Twilight herself was still logged in, and had been looking at a map screen for some reason. Applejack closed it and stared at Twilight’s desktop. Nothing obvious leaped out at her. No videos, no suspiciously-named files, not much of anything she couldn’t access herself. Nothing. A dead end with no extra branches to follow. Unless she struck out into Golden Oaks at random.

Although… Applejack glanced around the computer at Trixie. She was a volunteer for neuromod clinical trials. Volunteers had files on them. And if Twilight was overseeing the project in general, she’d want access to everything, including volunteer files, right? Maybe. It couldn’t hurt to look up who Trixie was. Just in case.

Not knowing where to start, Applejack went to Location Services, just like before. Lo and behold, it had another tab she hadn’t seen before, for volunteers. She tapped on it, cringed at the long list of dead ponies, and found a Trixie Lulamoon who was still apparently healthy and in Neurothaumatics. Her entry had a link to her file; open it up… aaaand…

NAME: Trixie Lulamoon
ID: 0622
ARRIVAL DATE: 1007-05-05
CLINICAL TRIALS: Computer science skills (confirmed), programming (confirmed)

ASSESSMENT: Although Lulamoon is a convicted felon, her crimes solely involved theft of high-value objects; she has never been known to raise a hoof or fire a spell in anything other than self-defense and the worst injuries dealt were short-lived, if severe, headaches. It is believed that she suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder before her incarceration, but since being released, this seems to have dwindled to low-key narcissism. Although a braggart, she is surprisingly frank about her abilities or lack thereof, and what relationships she establishes are very much two-way. Since her parole, she has never been involved with the law again for so much as a speeding ticket. A close eye should be kept on Lulamoon, but it is highly unlikely that she will cause any problems aboard this facility.

ADDENDUM 1007-10-01: After she experienced success in clinical trials of some more advanced neuromods, Lulamoon took a brief white-hat role, exploiting security flaws in our network to send teasing emails to Time Turner about said flaws. Her computer privileges have been revoked pending further investigation. Removing her neuromods was debated, but Dr. Turner himself insisted that they be left in, largely because her analysis of the flaws was correct.

ADDENDUM 1007-11-11: Following persuasion by Dr. Turner, Lulamoon’s computer privileges have been reinstated and her payment as a clinical trial participant has been supplemented with a small additional fee as a computer consultant.

A bit stuck-up, but good with computers. Honestly, there were worse reasons for Applejack to join up with her. Maybe she could unlock the-

“Um. Applewhack?” Trixie asked quietly.

“Applejack.”

“Did… Did you move the body when you found it?” Trixie backed up into the room, keeping her not-flamethrower pointed out. “Because I’ve been… staring at it for a while and… and the bloodstains don’t make sense.”

“What?” Applejack’s head whipped up. “Show me.”

Applejack hadn’t paid much attention to the area around Thunderlane’s body, but when Trixie pointed it all out, it was obvious. There was an extra puddle of blood several yards away from the door. “And doesn’t it look like he was dragged to here?” Trixie asked. “Look at those smears.”

Unlike Trixie, Applejack was willing to take a closer look at Thunderlane. Sure enough, one side of his body had more blood smeared across it. Had he managed to drag himself to the door before getting attacked? Or had a changeling done it?

It didn’t make any sense. Applejack followed the trail to Thunderlane, didn’t find anything new, followed the trail back to the puddle. She examined it more closely, and- “Whoa, hang on. You seein’ this?” She pointed at a single set of bloody hoofprints, facing backwards and going off down the hallway. Even more traces of blood were smeared across the floor.

“Huh. Weird.” Trixie bent down to take in the hoofprints. “These aren’t even a full set, there’s not enough of them. Just front hooves or back hooves.” She tilted her head. She turned around so she was facing the same direction as the hooves and reared. She backed up, unsteady step by unsteady step, and each footfall matched closely with the hoofprints. “Maybe they were also dragging somepony,” Trixie said as she dropped back onto all fours.

“I dunno,” Applejack replied. “I guess… maybe, but-”

Hold up.

She’d made a plan with Twilight that might’ve messed with her memory. It’d involved the neuromod removal chamber somehow; why else would her hat be there? There was a puddle of blood outside the room where somepony had been dragged away. That somepony almost definitely wasn’t Twilight, who was in Habitation. So- Applejack managed to turn around and get a look at the edges of her rear hooves.

A few flecks of dried blood were still clinging to her uniform. Exactly where it’d collect if she’d been dragged through a puddle of blood.

“We’re followin’ these,” Applejack said resolutely. “Right now.” She didn’t have many other options, anyway. She set off down the hallway, her face practically glued to the ground. Beyond the bloody hoof prints, details leapt out at her one by one. There were a few blood smears… There was a trail through the bullet shells…

“I’m sorry, what?” Trixie galloped after Applejack. “You didn’t find anything in there, but suddenly you want to follow this one trail? Applejack, that pony is probably dead.”

“She ain’t dead. She’s me.”

“…I’m sorry, WHAT?! How do you miss that?”

“It’s complicated. You wanna know why I was tryin’ to get into that room at all?”