• Published 20th Oct 2012
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Out of Touch - ToixStory

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And The Stars Did Wander Darkling - II

I noticed that we stood on a large, dark circle covered in a grid of green lines. A teleportation circle, and a big one at that. One that would have been large enough to transport a few tons of cargo at a time, by the looks of it. Or several shuttles.

The room itself stretched far out in the distance as a maze of pipes and wires along the ceiling met heavy machinery that I assumed to be the titanic engines large enough to power a ship of that size. They glowed a faint blue with magical energy moving through their cylindrical drive cores.

I also noticed, as I clung to Twilight’s side, that some of the ponies in the crowd around us carried makeshift weapons of scrap metal sharpened to whatever points they could find. Most of the ponies wielding them, however, did so with the skill—or lack thereof—of an amateur.

Twilight’s eyes played over them just the same as they would a rocket launcher or railgun.

“More weapons, I see,” she growled.

The bearded pony wrapped in a coat of soft gold and a mane in ivory held up his hooves and tried to put on a calming smile.

“They are only for self defense,” he said quickly. “We mean you no harm.”

“Then why are the weapons still up?”

The pony sighed. “My crew are very . . . jittery about new arrivals. But please, honest, if you do not mean to hurt us then we are at peace with you already.”

Twilight didn’t look ready to stand down, so I decided to step in. Literally.

I walked in front of Twilight and placed myself between her and Mr. Beard. Considering we were surrounded on all sides, it must have looked ridiculous to the ponies in the crowd in that I was trying to protect Twilight from them. They didn’t know, of course, that I was trying to protect them from Twilight.

“Twilight,” I said, “can’t we just calm down? I mean, these ponies don’t seem to really be trying to do us any harm. Plus, they even saved us from that solar flare; without them, we’d be hot plasma drifting away from the star.”

She glared at the ponies around us, but eventually sighed and dropped out of her fighting stance. “I guess you’re right.”

The ponies around us, however, made no move to relinquish their weapons.

“You say that we saved you from a solar flare?” Mr. Beard asked.

I nodded. “Yeah, it was coming right up at us.”

He looked around at his comrades and they all shook their heads sadly. There was sorrow in their eyes. Then, before we could make a move, he whipped out some sort of box device and mashed a button on it.

At first there was nothing, but then suddenly the gel suit around my hardened until it felt like somepony had welded steel to every inch of my body. I couldn’t move, and could hardly even breath. The suit kept me upright, if unmoving.

The stallion with the beard walked over to Twilight and I’s still forms and sighed. “I’m sorry about this, I really am,” he said. “We just can’t take any chances, not now. Not after the past few times.”

“What . . . what are you talking about?” Twilight grunted as half her mouth had gone solid.

“That ship you came from, the Venture?” the pony said. “It is a . . . a dead ship. What is left of the crew are crazed, and howl over the intercom all day and night, so much that we have had to permanently severe our connection. And that Captain, it is their leader, their priestess of madness.”

Twilight glared at him. “You’re lying. We were just over there, and it was perfectly fine. At this point, you are the one that’s sounding crazy.”

“If you won’t believe me, then perhaps you’ll believe the data.” Mr. Beard nodded to one of the crew who activated a vidscreen on the wall that showed a live picture of the sun. “Rewind to shortly before our new guests’ arrival.”

The image backed up and zoomed in, and I could see Twilight and I floating along in space. Suddenly, Twilight’s magic bubble went up, popped, and we were teleported away. The whole time, however, nothing from the sun tried to burn us at all.

“That’s impossible,” Twilight moaned.

Mr. Beard waved and the screen switched off. His voice grew grave. “I was afraid of this . . . you two do not seem crazed, and yet seem to be under the same control as the others that have tried to float over here in the past.”

“But do you know who’s under nopony’s control?” came a voice from within Twilight’s suit. “Me.”

Flames burst out from the gel suit, dissolving the material as Discord popped forth in his tattoo form from underneath. With a quick sweep of his flames, Twilight and her cape were free.

The crew around us only watched in fear as Twilight now turned to Mr. Beard with anger flashing in her eyes. Some even raised up their improvised weapons.

“Okay, I want answers now,” Twilight said. “Why didn’t the Captain seem crazy to us and why did we see solar flares that did not exist?”

“Yeah, and why do those gel suits ride up in the crotch?” Discord added.

Mr. Beard backed up a little and started to quake in fear. “It’s . . . it’s the madness,” he said. “Some of us think it’s from staying out here for too long, and others say that the Captain had a deformed brain, but either way it went mad on our trip around this sun. And it’s madness spread.

“An army of insane ponies drove us to jetison the engineering section from the Venture. Here, we’ve waited for two years with dwindling supplies for some sort of help to come.”

Twilight eyed him curiously. “An army of ponies? There couldn’t have been more than ten guards from what we saw.”

“Oh no, there aren’t any left now, but the Venture was once a colony ship, filled to the brim with ponies on their way to the outer worlds.” He paused. “Many did not make it.”

Twilight’s mouth hung open a little as she processed the information. The empty rooms and corridors . . . the scratch marks in the halls . . .

“Okay, then why us?” she said. “Why would the Captain put up some charade and send us over here? You said that we were already being affected him or her or whatever? If we were already being affected by this madness, then why put up with all of this?”

Mr. Beard shook his head. “I do not know. Most likely, it was to get at us, the thorn in the Captain’s side. It is possible that if we had not decided to teleport you here where we could interrogate you, that ‘solar flare’ would have pushed you both over the edge.”

“But we’re not over the edge!” Twilight proclaimed. “You can all see we’re fine, so just let us go!”

“No, you are not fine,” he said with remorse in his voice. “In your state, our hasty teleportation has only staved off the worst for a little while. Shortly, you will begin again your progression into madness. We have seen this many times before.”

Twilight stepped toward him, her horn starting to glow. “There has to be a way to stop it. I have lived for far too long and seen too many things to be stopped now. Come on, ponies like you always have some sort of plan that you’ve thought up, but haven’t enacted yet.”

The stallion with the beard gulped. “Is it that predictable?”

“After a while, yes.”

“Well, yes, we do have a plan . . .” he gulped, “but it’s very dangerous. It is only a contingency in case our supplies finally run out before help can arrive from the Empire.”

“We’ll do it,” Twilight said. “Just let my companion go, and call off the ponies with the weapons.”

Mr. Beard hesitated, but eventually pressed a button on the control box from before and I felt the gel suit drip off me and land wetly on the deck below. He also took the time to call off his crew, who reluctantly began to drift off toward makeshift tents and hovels built in the shadow of the engine blocks a dozen feet away.

They all made sure to give me a few strange looks as I followed Twilight and the bearded stallion to the holovid screen against the wall. On closer inspection, it seemed to be a former workstation for the engineering section, but had been converted to a more general use in the time since they had jettisoned themselves from the ship.

When we arrived and I got what must have been the tenth stare, I decided to speak up.

“Okay,” I said, “what’s with all the weird looks I’m getting? What’s so weird about me when compared to her?” I pointed at Twilight.

“It’s your, uh,” Mr. Beard began, “well, um, your nudity. You see, I don’t know the customs of whatever colony you come from, but we’re ponies who wear clothes . . .”

Now that I noticed it, all the members of the crew were wearing some sort of get-up, whether it was simple dungarees or more complex jumpsuits with buttons and dials all over them. A few even wore a similar type of gel suit that Twilight and I had received.

“If I get some clothes, will that make them stop?” I asked.

“Most likely.” He motioned for one of the stallions near the tents and hovels, ordered him to get me something to wear, and then that same pony returned with a set of clothes for me.

It wasn’t much, really: a white shirt whose sleeves went all the way to the bottom of my forehooves and long black vest with pockets on it. Comfortable, but not overly-heavy.

“So what’s the point of clothes, exactly, if my flank is still uncovered?” I said.

Mr. Beard smiled. “It’s more of a symbolic thing, really. We could cover up cutie marks, but then that would be hiding away our true talents and who we are. If that makes sense.”

“I’ll pretend like it does.”

“Alright, she’s not naked, great,” Twilight said. “Now, can we get down to whatever—certainly dangerous—plan you have before this madness thing sets in?”

“Oh, right.”

The stallion touched a red circle on the large vidscreen and the image transferred to a cross-section of the Venture. I noticed the big chunk of it that was colored black that must have been the former location of the engineering section, located near the back of the “spoon”.

“When we separated, the teleportation grid went haywire,” he informed us. “What we could set up was quickly lost as the Captain sought to shut us off from the ship, effectively stranding us here.”

Across the diagram of the ship, red circles highlighted the areas of the ship that were inaccessible by the teleporter. The cross-section quickly became a sea of red as just about every part of the ship was blocked off.

“As you can see, the Captain’s efforts were mostly successful.” He paused. “However, there are a scant few gaps in the blocked-off areas.”

Those few areas highlighted in green, though as small as they were, it was difficult to see them at all. Mr. Beard pointed to one that was along the top spine of the ship, about a third of a mile from the bridge.

“That’s the closest area to the bridge that we can teleport you to,” he said. “It’s not much, but the best we can do. It’s an area that we’ve kept from interfering with, too, so the Captain doesn’t know it’s open.”

“And what’s the catch?” Twilight said.

“Besides the fact that the entire ship, once you see it as it really is and not the illusion the Captain gave you, is dark and filled with insanity and madness?” He shrugged. “The spine of the ship that ran from the bridge to the bow was one of the first areas lost to ponies who had been turned. Most of the violence went on there. They’ve probably moved on since then, but don’t expect it to be a walk in the park.”

Twilight smiled ruefully. “I can take care of that. My big question is: what do we do once we get there?”

Mr. Beard bit his lip. Before speaking, he took a long breath and let it out. “That’s . . . that is the difficulty of this mission. You see, all of the madness seems to have stemmed from the Captain; the ship is the Captain and the Captain is the ship, so to speak. Removing the Captain from the picture may be the solution we’re looking for.”

“Well that’s not so bad,” Twilight said. “Killing that Captain shouldn’t be hard at all.”

“No, see, that won’t work. Suddenly severing the connection would only make things worse.” He paused. “To end this, you must fight your way to the bridge and hook up to the external neural link in the Captain’s obelisk. Find a way to bring down his mind, and you’ll break him.”

“But what if she just gets worse from that?” I said.

“That’s the reason why we have not tried sending over any of our own,” Mr. Beard said. “The Captain has a strong—if insane—mind. To break it would require intense mental strength and stamina.”

Twilight smiled. “Then it’s a good thing I’ve got both.”

Mr. Beard sighed, and nodded. “Alright, it you both feel that way, then step onto the teleportation grid once again and we’ll get you two over there. Best not to waste time: you’ve only got precious little of it until the madness fully sets in.”

Twilight turned to me. “You don’t have to come, you know. You’ll be flashed out of here at the end of the journey with me wherever you are, from what we’ve seen. You can just wait here and let me handle this.”

I shrugged. “The way I figure it, if you fail and I’m here, then they’ll kill me or dump me out an airlock or whatever. If I’m over there with you, at least I get a chance to fight for my sanity.” I smiled a little. “Besides, I think you can protect me.”

Twilight did not return my gesture, but neither did she protest when I followed her onto the teleportation grid. A pony dressed in a bright red jumpsuit stood near a console and pressed a button.

Suddenly, a tingling filled every inch of my body and the world turned white and we were gone.

* * *

My senses returned and, once again, reported only blackness. That seemed to be becoming a trend on this little trip.

“Twilight, you there?” I whispered.

In response, a harsh purple light appeared a few feet away from me, connected at its brightest point to the familiar scarred mare with the cape and tattoo.

Her magic glowed even brighter along the wall, like she was searching for something. It eventually lighted upon a small box, and a little fiddling switched on the lights on the sloped ceiling above us, bringing them to flickering life.

They revealed that we stood in a massive corridor big enough for ten ponies to stand shoulder to shoulder, and that stretched on so far in both ways that I could see the curvature of the ship if I looked far enough.

It wasn’t easy to look too far, though, as most of the lights tended to flicker on and off at semi-regular intervals.

“Ooh, spooky flickering lights,” Discord said, rising up off Twilight. “Tell me again, why is inconsistent lighting scary?”

“Nice of you to show up again after that little stunt of yours,” Twilight said.

He shrugged. “I figured it was best to let you take over. That kind of exposition just bores me to tears.”

“Hey, uh, Discord?” I said.

He drifted his corporeal form over to me. “Hmm? Is our young companion really talking directly to me?”

“Well, I, uh, just figured since you were the Element of Chaos, that you might be able to tell us if this madness is really all that . . . real?”

He pointed to the wall behind me. “You tell me.”

I turned around to find the rough steel covered in the dark red color of dried blood. It was shaped into only one word: “HELP.”

There were little white dots on the word and, on closer inspection, I found them to be teeth embedded into the steel itself.

“I-I have a very bad feeling about this.”

“We all do,” Discord said. “That just means you two aren’t quite mad yet.”

“What about you?” Twilight said. “Since when are you excluded from the group?”

Discord laughed. “Honey, I’ve been mad for years. Some creepy blood messages and flickering lights aren’t enough to make me even a little worried.”

A startling groan that sounded two parts steel and one part pony echoed through the corridor, like it was racing up from behind us and in front at the same time.

“What about that?”

“Eh, I’d give it a five out of ten.”

Twilight shook her head and began to walk on toward the front of the ship. Her hoofsteps echoed through the corridor as they impacted the steel in an assured way. My own soft steps didn’t make as much noise, and for that I was thankful.

That was probably the strangest part of it: the silence. Besides the blood stains and scratches along the walls, the entire place was more like a ghost town than anything else.

It was then that another screech came from somewhere in the corridor. The hairs on my neck stood up, and I pushed past Twilight as she whirled around, her horn glowing and at the ready.

“Where’s that coming from?” she hissed.

The noise came again, but much louder this time. At least, it allowed us to find the source: right above us. I looked up, only to watch as the screeching got louder as a massive metal bulkhead descended from the ceiling, right between Twilight and I.

I scrambled toward her, but the door was too fast and I found myself banging on the hard metal to no avail.

“No!” I screamed. “No, no, no!”

I sank to my knees, and let the tears building at the edges of my eyes flow. I was trapped on this ship, and away from Twilight. All alone. Alone . . .

I looked away from the door and at the hallway stretching out in front of me. My heart began to beat as, off in the distance, a light went off. Then another. Another.

Slowly, the lights in the corridor went off one by one, crawling their way toward me until the one above me went off without a sound.

The dark . . . It crawled at me. Drowned me, suffocated me, tore me apart in its silence and nothingness. I was nowhere, I was everywhere, I was gone. I couldn’t see . . . couldn’t think. Swallowed up in the inky darkness.

But at least that’s all that it was: the dark. There was nothing scary about the dark itself; it was just the same corridor, but without light.

I tried to reassure myself with that thought even as I tried desperately to press myself further against the bulkhead door.

For a moment, I thought that telling myself that might actually work. Then the intercom turned on.

Like a phantasm drifting on the winds of fear that blew through the corridor, the voice of the Captain came to me.

“Tinker, Tinker, little star, how I wonder where you are . . .”

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