A Home in the Black

by FuzzyVeeVee

First published

In the space-faring future of Equestria's galaxy, the unwitting crew of the cargo vessel Claudia set out to find a home in the space between worlds delivering goods. But of course, the galaxy always has trials to throw at those who venture forth

In the far future of Equestria's history, ponies and the other species of their world have ventured out to live in all the wondrous corners of their sparkling galaxy. Now, the spiral arms hold both the borders of six great civilisations and vast unclaimed regions of glittering stars.

Starships of all shapes, designs, and sizes now carry their crews as they seek adventure, fame, fortune, curiosity, or for some...to discover the secrets of the galaxy's turbulent past. But to many others, it's simply their day-to-day job to haul cargo and make a life in the space between worlds. To be one of the thousands who keep the galaxy running.

To be one like the cargo ship Claudia.

The crew of the small vessel all came from different places, desiring different things. Whether it was their wish to do this to prove themselves, their need for the money to save a loved one, their ambition to make a name across the stars, or having to make do with a path in life they hadn't expected to find their dream. But no matter their mixed origins, no matter their unassuming nature, they have one truth of the galaxy to discover.

That the black leaves few without trials if they wish to find a home within its both beautiful and foreboding expanse.

Glass Ceiling

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Space, the final frontier. Or at least, it used to be.

Over a thousand years have passed since Nightmare Moon's defeat by the Elements of Harmony, and Equestria's denizens have now looked beyond the satellite moon that once contained her, leaving their homeworld to seek their destiny in the stars.

At first, this was a golden age of discovery, settlement, and optimism. Great civilizations born of the species of Equestria formed across the galaxy, and incredible feats of both science and magic were accomplished. Faster-than-light travel, artificial intelligence, and wondrous spells flowed freely between the stars. With Celestia and Luna still watching over all those who had left Equestria, nothing seemed beyond them.

It was not to last.

What they knew as dragons on their world were soon revealed as a minor offshoot of a race that lived beyond known dimensions. Wyrms: creatures of immense power from beyond the galaxy’s rim. Affronted by the growth of magical AI, something they saw as an exponential threat, they gave an ultimatum to the galaxy to end their use.

Their demands were met with a refusal, giving way to a devastating galactic war between the elder wyrm race and the united galaxy, one that plunged it into a dark age, destroying all they had built.

Even as the dragons finally relented and fell back to deep space, none could truly call it a victory. Entire civilizations were crippled, and after one last colossal spell by the wyrms, born of spite and desperation, the magic that powered both the automata and the ponies’ own abilities was stripped from the whole galaxy. Without magic - the source of all intergalactic technologies - the links between worlds collapsed, and almost every planet found itself stranded and isolated, alone in the black once again. The age of enlightenment...was gone.

With no magic but the barest levels of telekinesis and scant amounts to power advanced technology, it took three hundred years of redevelopment to recover and reconnect their shattered galaxy.

Forming new civilizations to replace the old, the darkest days are a thing of the past. Those of the modern day see a new and stable age at last emerging, even without the magic that had once empowered them.

There were still upheavals. A malignant force used the stress of those dark days to corrupt the seemingly immortal Princess Celestia, transforming her into the malevolent Empress Nightmare Star. Her presence broke Equestria’s space into a civil war between herself and Luna. In the aftermath, the Princess of the Night now leads the New Lunar Republic, a breakaway collective of systems housing those who fled Nightmare Star’s emergence. Both sides remain in a state of cold war, divided by the length of the galaxy and the presence of the other newly formed empires in the stars. The Crystal League, the Minotaur Confederacy, the Zebraha Caliphate, and Avalon’s deer rest side by side between these two old powers, acting as independent bulwarks between the warring sisters.

Across a galaxy, billions live out their own stories. Their own adventures. Their own dreams of what the stars offer them in this far future. Be it the harmonic ideals of a connected and broadly peaceful galaxy, or the darker machinations of those seeking to use the complexity and ancient secrets of a galactic civilization to their own ends.

Now, on one world in the Crystal League, a young hippogriff is trying to chase the same steps those of Equestria took a thousand years before, the same steps all those around her have taken to disappear into the sky away from her.

To reach, and live, among the stars.


Glass Ceiling

* * *

“Cadet Tammani! Your assigned place of docking is training hangar four, change course immediately! Confirm!”

Breathing heavily, feeling her own breath wash back on her face inside the cramped and thoroughly uncomfortable helmet, Tami let go of one side of the control handles and tried to hit the 'send' button on the flickering communication panel. It took her a few attempts, the pressurised training suit making her movements feel clumsy and slow. The moment after she felt the button depress, she grabbed the controls again to continue wrestling with the high speed of the training shuttle. Wrenching the sticks back and to the right, she veered away from the bonsai-tree shaped orbital station ahead of her, seeing stars whirl incomprehensibly in the front of the shuttle's thick windows, before a huge shape loomed from one side.

The reflected light from the terminator line of the planet below shone across the bow of the ship and blinded her as she sought to re-angle on the station. Enormous rings, shining like diamonds, suddenly dominated the horizon behind the colossal station.

Her voice was gasping, breathless. She was travelling at a speed she'd never even realised the bulky shuttle was capable of.

“You...you said it was hangar three before!”

The shuttle rattled as she fired the retro thrusters to slow her speed and reorient on a new approach. The g-forces slammed her forward and then down, straining the bulky suit against her restraints, until she pushed the thrust control forward again to launch into a new orbit of the station.

“Plans change, Cadet. You must be prepared to adapt.”

The faint, static-backed voice being so difficult to hear was a reminder of just how battered and bare bones these shuttles were. Designed as mock ups of VIP yachts or transports, they held none of the sophisticated systems, comfort or aesthetic. Instead, it was all replaced by dented bulkheads and reams of training and observation instruments. Her every motion, every press of a button or flip of a switch, was being recorded for post-flight analysis. Whether she corrected a mistyped frequency before she had hit send or not, they'd know. They'd made that clear. Everything was on the individual in Chrysolite's VIP Pilot Academy program.

But it promised so much if one could do it. If you could, then you could lay claim to a dream of touring the stars in the lap of the high end of society.

The weeks she'd spent here had put more pressure on her shoulders than she had ever imagined, as heavy as any emergency turn and burn. Now, with all eyes on her performance, her heart felt like it was about to burst out of her suit. Every limb felt stiff and ready to freeze up at any second. Her eyes couldn't sit still, glancing at every single corner of the pilot display consoles to her front. She'd come to rely terribly on the information they provided her, using every ounce of data they put out to help her keep up with the demanding program.

It had been tough lately. Several nights ago she'd been unable to sleep at all, and just lay in her bunk aboard the station gripping a pillow and trying to stop silently weeping after an instructor had torn her out over messing up the order of a start-up routine.

“I-”

She shook her head, forcing all that back down as the station roared by the right hand side of the cockpit window. Picking up speed again, half squinting from the neon glow of various landing approach beacons floating amongst the black to guide pilots in, Tammani wrenched the control sticks and rolled the shuttle back on itself to re-angle its front toward hangar four. Drifting sideways during the manoeuvre, she used the remaining velocity on a transversal turn, spinning the shuttle on its own axis until it lined up with the new hangar on the opposite side of the station. The glittering and flashing multicolored lights streaked across the cockpit windows until it came into view, its shape highlighted by the bright white of the Chrysolite system's star obscured behind it.

It was a brief, beautiful moment that reminded her of why she was doing all this: a love of what was up here. The tranquil beauty of the stars. Others just called it 'space', but Tami saw it differently. She saw a place of wonders on a scale that no single planet could ever offer.

She had yearned to reach it. That was why she was here.

“I understand, approaching now!”

The roar of the powerful engines set the hull rattling, vibrated the pilot's seat, and set her heads-up-display rocking so badly that she could barely read anything from its thin lines and rapidly changing numbers. Despite being in an endless void, she felt claustrophobic within a tight suit, within a small cockpit, surrounded by lights, sound and a view filled with an enormous station. The hangar bounced all over her vision as she fought to remember everything about docking at speed.

“Warning,” a monotone female voice from the console intoned, “proximity alert. Object approaching at collision velocity.”

“I know, I know!”

Now the ship was pressuring her too. Tami slapped the button to turn it off. Pilots of the quality they wanted had to be able to launch, navigate and dock at higher speeds than normally accepted by the on-board software.

Daring to look away from the flight control display, she turned to her side and started trying to go through the landing procedure on the panels above and to her right. Grunting as she tugged heavy switches, she looked back up every half-second to pull the shuttle back on track while doing mental math and twisting archaic numerical dial-pads. The retro thrusters were primed. The landing struts were mid-way through deploying. She could hear their grinding hum below her. The physical and mental effort was making her sweat inside her suit.

The young hippogriff's talons gripped the sticks again, and she stared back into the flashing red of the flight control display. She could see the distance to designated landing zone. She could see her velocity. Everything she needed.

She could do this. She knew she could fly well, she just-

The flight control flickered, and then went dead.

The entire panel shut down with a low hum of fading power. Staring at a black monitor, then looking up at the rapidly approaching monstrosity of metal and neon lights, a void to match the vacuum outside opened in her gut.

She had no numbers to rely on. No way to understand what she was seeing. No pilot assistance meant no guiding automation or projected routes!

Tami felt her entire body clam up.

“No...no, no, no!” She reached out and hit 'send' again. “Central, do you read? Central! I have a major malfunction and-”

The harsh voice broke across the comm-unit's speaker.

“This is not a malfunction, we have disabled your pilot assistance modules. Fly it in manually. We've taught you how.”

She almost screamed. The shuttle began to wildly shake around as its previously planned route began to falter from micro-adjustments on account of her shaking hands, threatening to go into a three-dimensional spin if she lost track of the station itself. The controls felt heavy and unresponsive in her grip, but every tiny movement made the metal station and stars veer wildly outside.

She had no idea what the engines were doing. Manual flying in the event of a pilot-aid system loss was all about remembering the details from before, and understanding what controls added what numbers to your velocity or angle of approach. In a moment of horror, she realised she couldn't remember them.

Every second, they felt harder and harder to picture. Fear began to grip her, clouding her mind with clammy, insidious worry. She was hyperventilating, feeling a sense of vertigo overcome her, as the ship pitched, weaved and bobbed on its heading. Every time she tried to adjust it, the nose would fly even harder in the other direction away from the rapidly approaching hangar. Everything she touched was making it worse and worse.

“I can't!” she yelled aloud, barely thinking of how it sounded to her instructors. The hangar was rapidly blurring, as her shuttle started to move near-sideways toward it rather than in a direct path. In a panic, she hit the retro thrusters to slow herself down.

The sudden deceleration rocked the training shuttle, tossing her in her seat with a cry of pain as it spun away from facing the hangar entirely. The angle! She'd forgotten the angle! Seeing the station only once every second flying across the cockpit windows, the terror-stricken hippogriff grabbed the controls and wrenched hard in the opposite direction.

“Cadet, control your spin!”

“I-”

Her fighting with the shuttle only seemed to make its flight path become more chaotic, the turnspeed growing out of control.

“Cadet, you're panicking! Control yourself and react accordingly!”

Tears forming in her eyes, she could barely remember knew what to do. Suddenly, starkly, the fear for her own life broke through the pressure, as the thought of slamming into the hangar and disintegrating into a thousand burning pieces shot through her. Screaming, she threw the sticks forward and threw every ounce of power the shuttle had into the engines, hoping against hope that she could throw the shuttle far enough that it'd miss the station and drift off until recovery.

The engines roared, then cut as the rash move threw a compressor stall through them. With a loud bang, the interruption in the outlet’s flow blasted the shuttle into an accelerating spin on a separate axis to the previous one. She smelled smoke. The ship spun and spun, her body was getting weary as the g-forces tore at her. A klaxon on board the ship rang out with a final proximity warning.

“Help me!”

“Cadet! Use your-”

She couldn't hear the rest. Letting go of the controls, she covered her visor, curling up as best she could in the seat like a frightened child.

The rear of the shuttle impacted at speed on the side of the hangar. The tough training vessel absorbed the impact, bending around the station's superstructure before spinning and drifting away from it. Shattered panels and sparking wires erupted from the point of collision, and red alarm lights flared all over the hangar floor.

On board, Tami felt her body violently slammed and crushed back into her seat as the cockpit crumpled around her. The impact had been like someone hitting her in the back with a sledgehammer. The shrieking engines sounded like howling demons, firing inconsistently and pumping smoke into the trapped pilot’s cockpit. A dozen alarms were blaring and flashing lights at her from all sides. She couldn't even hear herself wailing in terror.

“Cadet! Come in!” The fading speaker broke into static. They were trying to establish contact, but her forelegs felt heavy and dead, unable to reach out to reply.

“Cadet!”

An eternity of stars, the ones she loved so much, began to turn to nothing but black in her vision.

“CADET!”

* * *

The humid and still air of Chrysolite held none of the usually invigorating radiance that returning to planetside often had. Normally, after time in the black, the rush of colour was a pleasing sensation.

Not this time.

Almost soundlessly on its electric drive, the starport's connecting transport pulled away on the tarmac, wheeling around a smooth turn until it could once again repeat its endless cycle to and from the terminal building. Departing in a cloud of thin dust, it left only a single passenger standing by the empty road.

Tammani stood quiet and still below the metal sun shelter by the road with her scant luggage, her eyes not even raising enough to see the seemingly endless fields of wheat and corn that stretched out from the opposite side of the road. They, conversely, shifted restlessly, filling the still air with a low rustle. Their movements were driven by a sluggish wind that she couldn't even feel.

She hadn't felt a lot of anything the past few days.

For perhaps the hundredth time, she pulled the crumpled slip from her breast pocket, gingerly moving her left arm in its sling to hold it before her eyes. For the hundredth time she read it, hoping against hope that she'd missed some singularly important detail.

And for the hundredth time, she was crushed.

The past two weeks had been naught but recovery. A broken left arm, whiplash, and a concussion had been the lucky escape's leftovers. The shuttle, her suit, and the in-hangar response teams had saved her life; not that she'd seen any of it. She'd first woken up in the medical ward, but after the first week they had brought the news she had dreaded, and they'd handed her the slip.

Six days later, she now stood here in the sun, beside an impossibly straight road that divided the wheat before her from the one place that connected her to the stars.

They hadn't even given her time to go back to her bunk first.

Staring at the slip, feeling her still healing arm start to ache from shaking, Tami hurriedly stuffed the paper back in her pocket and screwed her eyes shut. She could feel the bitter frustration and anger welling up inside her stomach again. Like it was balling up and twisting over and over.

That was all she'd wanted. It was what she'd spent years reading every book she or her parents could afford about space flight, about the stars, and about all sorts of ships. It was why she'd focused all her chosen classes toward it. Why she'd worked so hard in basic flight school to earn the required credit for such an opportunity. Why she'd spent more time staying up into the early hours simply to look up and hope for a cloudless night. To go there, to see that boundless dreamscape. To fly amongst the colour, the grandeur, and the unthinkable. That had been her mission. She had been one of the few her age that had known exactly what she wanted to do in life.

And now that one opportunity was gone.

Tami felt her head pound, the stress and horrid craving for this outcome to stop joking and reveal itself as a mistake had been making her dizzied and sore state take much longer to heal than it normally would. She couldn't stop turning the issue over and examining it from every angle. Her breathing started to stutter as she began to hyperventilate again, just like during the crash.

What had gone wrong? She had put all that effort in. The books, the schools, the study. The shuttle had worked perfectly. The course had been everything she'd been told to expect. The instructors had given her every resource. The area around her had been empty of other traffic or any significant distractions.

There was just one thing had gone wrong.

Shivering violently, feeling her eyes well up as the crushing silence of being forced back to the ground kept becoming ever clearer because of the one thing that had failed.

Her.

Standing on all three good limbs, Tami stood and felt wretched, knowing it to be the truth. She had failed. She had ruined her own life's dream. There was no-one else to blame.

In that moment, she felt a creeping sense of anxiety in her head, telling her that she simply hadn't been good enough.

Overwhelmed by the last two weeks finally catching up to her, she wept and sniffed, a sense of inadequacy and shame entering her mind, one so strong that she didn't even notice the noise of another vehicle pulling up. Or the sound of the sleek and blonde griffon who got out moving around it to her.

“Tam...oh, Tam...”

His heart broke at the sight of his daughter and he immediately clasped her in his arms, carefully pulling the smaller hippogriff to his chest and stroking her mane gently and endlessly.

“Come on, let's get you home.”

* * *

Compass Rose closed the door to Tammani's room with a soft click and wiped her eyes with the edge of a wing. She had done her best to appear in control of everything until she could hide her eyes from her child, but the moment she had left the young hippogriff to rest off her injuries, Rose’s emotions had become impossible to keep down.

It had taken everything to not immediately turn back once again.

Rounding the landing on the upper floor of their home, she turned off the lamp in the hallways window as she passed to the stairs. It was night, and their quiet, rural town on the fringes of wide farmland was silent. Chrysolite's star was but a dull, light haze over the very edge of the horizon. F-class, Rose briefly reminded herself. Old navigator habits died hard. They led her to always looking to understand where she was, and how to move to the next place.

Yet right now, she just wished she could find some direction for her daughter.

Trotting downstairs, she spotted her husband. Gaius was still poring over the summary discharge documents Tammani had brought back with her. The griffon sat hunched on their front room's sofa, barely lit by the fire. His normally confident and bright demeanour, that spark of humour and genial roguishness that had so caught her attention decades before, now looked sullen.

Rose knew that look. It was the same he'd worn when they'd thought they had no way out: when Gaius took a determined mood to try and pull them all out of the fire. When their ship had lost her nav-unit in deep space. When they had been caught without FTL in a system with the Empire's navy scourging for every signal they could spot. When the Confederacy had impounded the ship and seized all their belongings. Every time, he would wear that look until he had a solution.

This was the first time she had seen that look about him since their retirement. They’d settled here on Chrysolite to raise their daughter in a more stable and peaceful environment. After spending so many years not seeing him as a captain, it was unusual to see that sterner side of him re-emerge.

Shuffling to the bottom of the stairs, she reached out and clicked on the light to their living room. With a start, Gaius looked up at her, as though not having heard her approach.

“How is it?” Rose kept her voice quiet, treading across the soft carpet to sit alongside her husband.

Gaius sighed, almost pressing the paper to his forehead, before swapping hands and running his talons through his plume.

“It's...” He hesitated, looking around the room as though for distraction. Homely, simple, and comfortable, their small house still bore remnants from their ship dotted around. Their old bridge seat covers decorated their sofas now. The toolkit they kept around was the same, still bearing tools they'd never need. Even their kettle came from the old ship. On the wall hung a section of battered hull plating, bearing the painted name and symbol of what had been their home for over fifteen years. The voyage that had permitted their early retirement in their forties to raise a child.

The Tammaran, and its symbol: a set of overlapping griffon and pegasus wings. Their symbol they had chosen. One that, by fate and some chance genetics, stood for something very different today in both their minds.

The choice of name had been all too easy for them when she had been born.

“Hun?” Rose prompted him, seeing the far-away look in Gaius' eyes.

He blinked and shook his head, bringing up the document again.

“It's not good. Not good at all, Rosie.” Gaius sighed, indicating the larger text marking both the title and the final paragraph of the VIP Pilot Academy's final report on Tammani. “Dismissal without chance of appeal, and removal of all pre-obtained qualifications on their ground. They don't want anything attached to them that isn't a full graduate.”

Rose had guessed as much, but still gently wrapped her forelegs around Gaius' arm.

“There's other ways, though? We could try and get the funds together to help her qualify as something else. The cruises? Maybe even the Pioneer Science Division? She's got as good a head for numbers as I do, or-”

“That's the problem.” He finally looked at her rather than the paper, before handing it to her. “The crash has been labelled as a category A incident.”

“Meaning? I'm an independent navigator, hun. Not a League pilot.”

Gaius' voice was patient and apologetic, “An incident that either resulted in a loss of life or, in this case, an excess of ten million credits damages. No-one but Tami was hurt by the crash, but a category A incident goes on a pilot's permanent record. These days, everything is connected. Even Republic or Confederacy interviews would check the League pilot records now.”

He sighed and let the paper drop onto the coffee table before them.

“There's not a flight career around would ever accept a pilot with a category A on their record. Even though she's more than qualified for training on most of them, that's all they'll see.”

There was a pause between the two, as husband and wife, father and mother, looked to one another.

“I can't...Tammani wants to...”

Rose took up the document, not wanting to believe the same words. Her eyes scanned the digital print from the Academy's Chancellor. She saw the 'must inform', the 'undue risk' and the 'cannot accept' throughout, and felt an anger bubble within her. That someone had willingly locked her daughter away from what they'd all knew was meant to be for her felt so frustratingly, gut wrenchingly unfair.

“Oh, Tami...” she whispered, feeling her eyes well up again. “There has to be...isn't there anywhere that-”

“Not with this.” Gaius got up and paced back and forth, restless and defeated, until he sank back down beside his wife and felt her wrap her smaller wing around his back.

Above them both, upon the upper floor in the darkness of the mezzanine, Tammani sat against the centre pillar of the house and eavesdropped. She didn't look down, but simply stared through the window at the darkening sky and listened.

She'd known everything her father had known. She'd known it from the moment she had woken up. But she'd always hoped that perhaps they'd see something she didn't. He'd been the captain of a starship for fifteen years. She'd been a navigator for just as long. They'd been up there. They'd always seemed like bastions of knowledge and advice to her. They'd encouraged her from the first day, and their support had cultivated the talent she'd needed.

Not enough talent, she reminded herself. She'd not only let herself down, she'd wasted the investment and time they'd poured in to help her.

She couldn't listen any longer, and quietly pulled her battered body up. Limping, she slid back into her dark room.

It had never ceased to be a 'clean but untidy' mess even in the time she'd been away. Her sheets half fell from the double bed when she'd sneaked out. Piles of books were stacked by the bedside and on desk and drawers. Astronomy, electronics, programming, aerodynamics, physics and space-art. The messy easel sat with a half finished quasar beside her prized telescope, a tenth birthday gift that her father had taken on a brief stint of post-retirement jobs to afford. The large window at the back that it stood before was open against the summer heat, its glass looking out over the rolling low hills.

It was a cloudless night out there, and already the dazzling twinkle of the deep black was starting to filter through the light pollution. Others just saw white light, but she saw so much more. The gentle red hues, off-yellow sparks, and brilliant silvers were hidden in plain sight to those who hadn't spent so long looking upwards.

In utter silence, she stared at them, lit by moonlight in her own room, until she could bear it no longer.

“Why wasn't I better?” she asked the empty sky, feeling stupid for even speaking aloud to herself. “What's wrong with me?”

Cheeks running wet and eyes stinging, she choked back a sob and dropped back into her bed, lying on top of the sheets. Head into the pillow, her shoulders shook and her wings drooped.

From the darkness at the back of her room, however, something shifted. It had watched her quietly, its energy having been spent since originally seeing Tami return a couple of hours ago. Yet now, over time, it was beginning to sense that something was amiss.

The Tami it recognised was here, but the Tami it knew had not returned.

Something was wrong.

As Tami struggled with wanting to sleep, but not wanting to face what the future would now bring, she didn't hear it approaching her bed, until a soft weight hopped up from the floor, bringing itself into view in the moonlight.

Orbit was his name, her golden retriever. Bought for the family, but in the end really connected to her, he now padded across the bed to her side and furiously dug and buried his head under her wing. Pausing to listen every few seconds, he eventually drove himself up alongside her body and pushed under a foreleg, until he could snuffle and prod his nose at her neck and face.

Orbit didn't know exactly what was wrong. Orbit didn't care.

Orbit just knew what made him feel better, and pushed in deep against the hippogriff. The same she'd done for him whenever the lightning had come. He'd felt safe and happy with her hugging him close. Now he sensed by instinct that he had to do the same.

Feeling her arm wrap around him and tug him in, he licked at her cheek and knew he'd done good.

And if he could have understood her, he'd have recognised the weak sound of a choked laugh, and a quiet 'thank you' as she curled up with him to sleep away the remainder of the horrid day.

* * *

“Driver nineteen? Tammani? Your next assigned fare is the Four Club, change over from the Tristarant job immediately. Twiddle will handle that. Confirm?”

Breathing heavily, feeling her breath simply impact on the humid air in the cramped cab, Tami let go of the control handles with one hand and hit the 'send' button on the radio panel. Her movement to depress it was lazy and limp.

There was no need to do anything fast here.

“...all right.”

No reply came, only the click of someone shutting off their end. She didn't mind; talking on the radio made her nervous. Every other taxi unit tuned in could hear the communication on their very limited system.

Sitting back with a sigh of frustration, Tami rolled her eyes and made to finish off the quick meal she'd grabbed from the suburb market. A pre-made sandwich was about the most she could squeeze in between fares, although she'd ensured to spare enough time to treat herself. A tonka bean and orange oil ring doughnut. It was Friday, a day she always permitted herself one of the fancy treats from the little cafe beside the store.

In the two years since she'd gotten this job, she'd gotten to first name basis with the owner and made a point of sampling all his individual hoofmade treats each week.

Pausing for a few seconds, she held it in both hands, admiring the glistening coat of orange icing and patterned chocolate drizzled over it. A few nuts were formed into the shape of a bow on one side. Her heart beat a little faster as she anticipated the taste itself, and she closed her eyes even as her mouth opened.

The tangy explosion of orange in her mouth was more than enough to make her forget about the monotony of the job, if only for the few minutes it took to savour the pleasure of a sugary delight.

And there was a lot to want to forget. In the two years since her return, this job had been all she'd been able to get. She'd tried other piloting routes, of course. She'd even looked at in-atmo roles, but it seemed they had access to the same details, and she hadn't even made the interviews. Reputation meant everything in the League with your career, and they hadn't wanted hers attached to them.

Unable to escape the world, and unable to fly its skies, she had turned to what would let her move, and found this. Working the night shifts five days per week driving home party goers, air and starport arrivals, and those who'd gotten stuck for one reason or another.

It was, in a word, boring. Unfulfilling, stressful, and with no scope for advancement even at this lowest rung of the profession. The kind of job most people her age did until they could get their real career started, and for those who had become stuck needing something that took in anyone. At twenty, she was by far the youngest of that latter group.

Crumbling up the remains of her meal's packaging, she tossed it into the needless passenger seat beside her, regretfully raised the windows and went through the wholly unsatisfying startup sequence of an electronic automobile. Three steps. Three dull little steps to get moving.

Switching the LED board on the roof to 'Reserved', she pulled away from the street-side and slowly eased her way back into the quiet roads. The taxi itself, a family model like some toy imitation of a cargo hauler, was effortlessly smooth on the road and made little noise. The heads-up-display cast her route onto the windscreen, and she began the ten minute journey there.

The world felt empty at this time of night. As she passed further into the city from the outskirts, the streets bore only a few wandering parties, trying to find an unoccupied club. The real hustle would begin in a couple of hours. Neon signs flickered above the taxi, making her flip down the sunshield to not aggravate her vision. The journey wasn't hard, just one straight line through the centre, then a few side street turns.

Nothing so much as a nice country road with a few gentle turns to tackle. The taxi even had an autonomous mode for quiet street driving. Something she found painfully ironic was the fact that she had elected to stay manual, in an attempt to squeeze some form of interaction with life out of the work.

Five nights of neon signs, drunk and laughing public who couldn't care for her at all, and then if she was lucky and not too tired, two days to spend with her parents or the scant few friends she'd kept since returning.

Tami winced and felt a hurtful feeling shoot through her. 'Friends', only in the loosest sense. When she couldn't do most of what they wanted due to the working hours of her job, it rather put a hard limit on how close they could be with how tired and boring she knew she was. By this point, she suspected they were just entertaining her and didn't have the courage to send her away.

It was beyond frustrating. All her memories of Basic Flight School prior to the VIP Academy felt so far away now, like an old dream. The days when she would cry laughing with her friends, go on holidays between semesters, and hug at least a few different people every day between classes and exciting flights. Daytime, filled with colour, and her not feeling quite so tired all the time.

She had felt like the person she wanted to be. The bright and bubbly cute friend. She had loved being that for them. She had been close to them, knew all their lives; and they'd known hers.

They were all gone now. Vantage Vair to the League Navy; Poppy to the cruise industry; even Olivine had gotten a job with Basalt Industries right out the gate. They were off-world. They'd gotten to leave.

Pushing those thoughts from her head, she focused on her driving instead, and wound away from the bar streets to a more classy side of the city centre. Clubs here generally weren't so rough. If she was lucky, her fare might not even be-

“Aw, no...” she muttered, and thumped her head on the steering wheel. Her newly regrown mane flopped down around her as the automated navigation activated and pulled her to a stop beside the ponies she was due to transport.

The collection of mares by the roadside whooped and waved to her.

They were drunk.

Very drunk.

Apocalyptically drunk.

Hooves battered against the side of the taxi before she could even collect herself and unbolt the locks. She wasn't worried about contact -the front of the taxi had a shield that barred them from her- but she hated these fares most of all.

Finally, the door whizzed open on silent hydraulics.

“OH! OH MY GOSH! IT'S A GRIFFON!”

“I win the bet!”

“No, it's not! Look, she's a hippo!”

Tami winced. The city's game of betting the final round payer on what species the taxi driver would be had never been amusing enough to even need to get old. It was simply annoying.

“Half and half then! Half and-”

The voice stopped, as seemingly for no reason the unicorn burst into shrieking laughter, joined by the others. Tami simply closed the doors, focused ahead, and began driving. She already had their destination from the reserved fare entry on her heads-up-display. Thankfully no need to interact with them.

The soft whirr of the taxi was drowned out by their laughter. Screeching jokes and yells as though they thought the taxi was a light-second wide led to a headache developing before Tami even reached the lights out of the side road at all. Gripping the wheel as tightly as she could, she took the taxi out onto the sliproad to the motorway.

The faster she could get them home, the faster she could hope for a quieter fare. The money be damned.

Arcing up and around the slip road to the elevated motorway itself, Tami tapped the touchscreen a few times to increase the cruise control to the now unlocked speed limit. It felt horridly restrictive; she couldn't exceed it even if she wanted to. Every taxi was fitted with an area recognition limiter.

Only now could she finally put the engine to work, and take the party going on right behind her somewhere she could be rid of them.

As the vehicle hit its stride on the motorway, travelling through the empty night, she did however feel something inside. A dull melancholy creeping up from down low. The mares clambering over one another and taking pictures with loud screams began to fade away in her mind. Tami's eyes focused on the unfurling road ahead, before creeping upwards.

She didn't mean to. She knew what this was. It happened every few weeks.

She started to think about what could have been.

It was a mistake, but feeling the sense of motion around her, while transporting others, and sitting behind the controls of anything; it just brought it all up in a deceptively enticing way. It would feel relaxing, a moment of escape to ward away the dullness. But she knew what would happen. It invariably turned to just upsetting her.

On her parents' insistence, she had visited a therapist after their worry for her had grown. For half a year she had gone and talked out her frustrations, until the slot was finished and she was sent home with piles of paper containing information on self-esteem, changing one's viewpoint, and post-traumatic stress.

She hadn't felt it had helped. What she felt she needed to fix herself wasn't what they could offer.

Tami had seen a dream before her, with her very eyes.

She had sat in cockpits and bridges of starships that had soared throughout the system, and even once beyond it to Turquoise. She had travelled at hypersonic speeds, and seen the glint of beacons, asteroids and stars slowly move across the window. She had been intending to carry the most important, refined people in the galaxy from wonder to wonder.

Yet now, she sat in a stuffy cabin of a banged up taxi, never moving further than the city within an hour of her home. She travelled now at her maximum speed, nought-point-nought-nought-nought-nought-nought-nought-six AU per hour, watching only dull streetlamps and headlights of other vehicles pass by the windscreen. She carried people who threw up in her taxi, screamed abuse through the cabin barrier, and only ever wanted to go to some dark home street or to another hideous club.

That was it. That was what she'd always knew that feeling did.

It always turned around and reminded her. Two years separated, months of therapy, and a loss of what she even used to have down here, with no future she wanted laid out for her...all because of her own stupid lack of talent at the helm.

Tami gripped the wheel and drove on into the black, hoping they wouldn't ask her anything. Right now, she couldn't have answered; this was not the black she had longed for.

* * *

It was the early hours by the time Tami got off the last bus and reached the quiet neighbourhood of her home. Finding the door still open she stepped inside without a word, so as not to disturb her sleeping parents.

Inside, she could now see the glow of an orange lamp from the living room, heavily indicating that caution was at least partially unwarranted.

Dropping her bag, she glanced through and saw the hunched shape of her mother silhouetted by the desk's lamp. Stacks of booklets and brochures lay around her, while the screen of a datapad sat inactive on a screensaver.

Compass Rose looked up at the sound of the door closing, and pushed a smile onto her tired face.

“Hi, hun.”

The hippogriff tried to force a smile back, hanging her coat beside the stairs.

“Hi.”

Rose looked back to the papers, and stood up with a stretch. “Long night, then?”

Tami nodded quietly, and Rose quickly caught the obvious mood her daughter was in. She'd seen it enough times. Often the morning after when Tami got up, or whenever she stayed up late to be there for her daughter returning, like now.

“I've been trying to see if there's any openings about; got a few things we can look over in the morning?”

“Mhm...”

Tami's voice was dreary, and Rose clicked her tongue.

“That bad, huh?”

She moved forward and sat on the bottom the steps, facing her daughter. Gently, she reached out and hooked a stray strand of Tammani's thick mane behind an ear. She had been happy to see her grow it back out from that Academy short-standard to help her look past it.

“There, now I can see you proper, huh?” She tried to smile, to keep herself seeming relaxed, but she saw little reaction on Tammani's face. Sighing, she leaned her head on the banister and took the hippogriff's shoulder, feeling it shaking. “What's wrong, dear? Please, talk to me.”

Tami's eyes shot open for a moment, before she quickly shook her head. “No, no, just...I'm just tired. It was a lot-”

“Hun, I know there's more than that. Ever since...” She took a breath and paused. They'd been down this road enough times that she knew not to bring it up. “It's rough shifts, I know. But even when you're with your friends you're just not...you.”

“I just don't see where I'm going, mum!” The words were sudden and blurted, and she tore away from Rose, wandering back into the living room. “I can't get a job I want, I'm not good enough for the other ones that are like what others are getting, and my friends aren't really...”

She paused, and Rose heard a quiet sob. Something had clearly been playing on Tami's mind all night. Padding through after her, she found Tami sitting on the side sofa near the window.

“We just need to keep trying to find you some-”

“There isn't anything!”

The sudden rise in her volume caught them both by surprise, until Tami lowered her voice and continued.

“We've looked at everything! And...and I can't get any of them! There's nothing else I can find with that huge mark on every record they look at! No-one wants the hippogriff who crashed something and who can't even stay calm enough to talk to anyone important in a job! That's why my 'friends' just don't want to be around me, 'cos I'm just a failure, okay? I work a trash job and missed my chance! And I-”

“It's not your job that worries me, Tammani!”

Compass Rose' own voice drowned Tami out. She surged over to her, staring her daughter right in the eye, barely keeping the anger and frustration that had been building up inside her in check to hear her daughter talk that way. Tami's eyes bulged wide, and she recoiled enough that Rose felt a pang of guilt, checking the shout to a quieter, but stoic tone.

“It's not your job. It's not you finding a job. It's not about what's next. It's what I see right here! It's you. I'm worried about you! I see you constantly putting yourself down, and talking about how you're a failure at everything every time this comes up. That's not true!”

“It is!” Tami protested.

Rose's hooves took both of the hippogriff's hands and squeezed them tightly.

“It. Is. Not! I won't have you talk about yourself that way! One mistake doesn't ruin your life. I thought… I thought we'd helped with this a year ago. The therapy about the accident?”

Eyes reddening, Tami just looked away and shook her head.

“I couldn't even speak in the groups! And one to one th-they couldn't fix what-it wasn't just that, I-I don't know what I'm...”

“Tami...” Rose rubbed their hooves and hands over one another, trying to warm them as she felt how cold the sudden chill at night on this planet had made Tami on the walk home. “Finding you something you want to do just takes time. And we will. I won't stop looking till I do, but what I can't abide is seeing you do this to yourself. Honey, you're hurting yourself. Diminishing what you've done. I remember you telling me about how you broke Basic Flight's orbital transition record. How you had so many friends there. You can do that again. And we'll help you. You just...you just need to believe in yourself a little more.”

“I'm just being honest with myself...” Tami muttered.

Compass Rose let go of her sharply, stood upright, and sighed. The sigh quickly turned to a frustrated groan of annoyance.

“No you are NO-”

Her hoof stopped inches from the table it had been about to hit, and the brief fury quickly abated. Seeing Tami staring up at her with wide eyes, she simply sank down, and pulled her into a close embrace.

“I'm sorry, hun.”

Mentally chiding herself for letting her mounting frustration at his daughter's problems over the past years get the better of her, she simply held onto her, stroking Tami's mane with her hoof over and over. She could feel her gripping tightly back.

“I'm sorry I'm letting you both down, mum...”

Compass Rose couldn’t think of anything more to say that wouldn't make herself break on the spot, and so she just squeezed her daughter tightly.

Afterwards, she let Tami sit in peace as she got her a hot drink, and despite feeling an urge to go over possible avenues of life she had researched, instead decided to leave it for now. Perhaps she had been doing it too much, pushing these possible routes in life on a tired young girl in her determination to solve the issue. Tami wasn't like her husband, who preferred things so direct. Tammani had her mother's approach when something was bothering her, and Rose knew the issues she'd had with that sort of thinking in the past.

Seeing her off to bed, Rose watched her head upstairs. After a full minute on her hooves, staring at that door, Rose returned to her desk, feeling completely helpless and worried, beginning to doubt herself much in the same way. The sense of failure at not being able to fix things for her daughter was starting to root in deep.

It would be morning before her husband would find her still at her desk, slumped over it, with some of the papers below her head still damp.

* * *

“Tam?” Gaius called upstairs. “Tam?”

He heard the sound of a door opening, and Tami's head poked around the top of the mezzanine, her long mane arranged in a crazed mess. She was likely only just up.

“Could you fly down to the store? We'll need some more milk and some food for Orbit. Just a pickup, I called ahead.”

Tami rustled her mane, and nodded. “Sure, just lemme get dressed. Hey, Orbit? Walk!”

There was an excited bark, and the sound of four paws rushing madly around the room. Gaius could see the top of their pet's blonde head moving in circles around Tami. Even before she was back in her room to dress, the golden blur came rocketing down the stairs past Gaius, nearly headbutting the front door. Orbit sat up, his tail thumping hard against the entrance to their home twice a second.

Forcing a smile upon his face, he ruffled Orbit's head, and waited on Tami to hustle down after the canine. Her movements were slower and lethargic, not the excited flurry of wings he remembered her usually making to take her dog out.

“Won't be long, dad.”

Her voice was a bit brighter, and Gaius appreciated that she was still trying, but he could see the dark shapes under her eyes. Tami had not slept well at all, and he could sense his daughter was riding a knife edge of another mood crash again. Gaius felt tense, too tense to do much more than just weakly smile to her as he watched her get ready. He knew they had plenty of milk and dog food in the house already. The called order had another purpose.

Before long, the hippogriff and dog had both left. Only then did Gaius reopen the living room door and go back to his wife.

She was sitting at the dining room table through the back of the archway toward the kitchen, tissues in her hooves, and a small stack of used ones to the side. Sobbing and shaking, she blew her nose and leaned on a hoof, staring at the wooden criss-cross pattern of the heavy table.

Gaius hadn't wanted Tami to see this, and hadn't wanted his wife to have to be seen either.

“Rosie...” he started, and then realised he didn't know how to follow it up. Sitting beside her, he put an arm around her, gripping the pegasus' shoulder tightly.

“What went wrong?” Rose gasped and heaved the words out, hiccuping and screwing her eyes shut. “Gaius, I...I can't do this anymore.”

He squeezed her to his side, resting his cheek atop her head. “We've been th-”

“No! Don't even-” She nearly threw him off, tossing the tissues away to stand up and pace restlessly about behind him instead. Her voice raised, accompanied by heavy steps that knocked on the panel floor. “This isn't like then! We had ways out, and it was just ourselves and the crew! This is...this is so much worse! It's been two years, Gaius! Two years I've had to watch my daughter be upset and full of pain! We've been 'trying' all this time, always thinking the next thing might work, but it's not! It's not, Gaius! It's like some rival we can't even see. Like some fault that we don't understand!”

Gaius got up, trying to move over to her, but Compass Rose stormed past, still aimlessly wandering and knocking his hand away. His eyes narrowed, feeling shocked, even offended by her casting off his attempt to hold her. His voice raised to match hers.

“Rosie, we just need to get her to believe in herself! We've got to!”

“We've tried that for two years, Gaius! Look how far it's gotten us; she's worse than ever! Barely goes out because she thinks everyone's looking down at her, like she doesn't belong! Every time I find her coming home from a shift at that horrid job, she's like someone else!”

Rose stood up straight, shouting directly to her husband, looking him in the eye from the front. To his own shock as much as hers, he felt himself sighing and rolling his eyes.

“We've been through this every other week for that whole time, Rose. What else can we do but try to support her and help her look for something better? That Cat A on her record isn't going away!”

Compass Rose's wing grabbed and pulled his head back to face her.

“And it's not working!” She spoke sharply. “And it's tearing us up as well as her going through this each time she has a low mood! Because I can't do it this way any longer! I can't bear seeing her like this!”

“Well what else CAN we do?” he bellowed in return, knocking her wing away and sinking down into the chair behind him. “What? What else, Rose?”

“Something! Anything!” She spread her front hooves wide, an open invitation for something to emerge to help this, her cheeks soaked. “Because seeing her like this...Gaius, I'm going to need help too. I'm failing my daughter! I can't help her!”

He leaned forward, taking a short breath to calm himself, and holding her shoulders. “That's not true.”

Rose simply sniffed, the volume in both their voices having dropped. “Do you know what she said to me last night? That she was sorry. Sorry for disappointing us.”

She spluttered, gripping Gaius' claws on her.

“What kind of parent can I feel like if my child believes I'm disappointed in her?”

Gaius had to pause. The weight of what she'd said was slowly landing home. His gut turned and clenched, and he felt just what Compass Rose had the previous night.

“I'm going to go shower,” she muttered, and pushed his hands off of her. “I just...I need to be alone for a moment. Gaius, why can't we fix this? What was it you said? Back when we had four interdictors hunting us, when we knew Tami was coming? When it looked like there was no way out?”

Still reeling from hearing what Tami had said, he could only whisper in response. “That I'd move stars to keep her safe and happy, if I had to...”

Rose wiped her eyes and nodded. She got up, shuffling away to the living room.

“Why can't we both do it now?”

Taking a deep breath, she moved to the stairwell and left Gaius behind with his thoughts.

After some minutes listening to the sounds of the shower upstairs in the background, Gaius finally, slowly, edged his way into the living room and sat beside the fire.

His eyes found the desk littered with job applications and career event pamphlets, but he couldn't bring himself to sit there. Not yet.

What Rose had said was bothering him. She was right.

They had tried everything else. Science foundations, observatories, ship design, programming houses and everything more. Yet each time, any interviews had turned up negative. And while it hurt him to think of his daughter in such a way, he was convinced that half of the issue was Tammani herself.

He had seen her leave for the Academy, and he had been the first to see her on return. Sometimes, he felt like they'd sent him the wrong girl back. That nervously eager confidence she had grown up with seemed to have been stripped from her. Tammani had always been skittish, but since she had returned it had been like her confidence in herself had all but gone.

After her return he had written to the Academy to demand an appeal interview with her instructors, but no reply had been forthcoming. In desperation to restore some of his daughter's spirit, he had even tried to contact some of her old friends. He knew she and Vantage Vair had been close in Basic Flight, but every message he'd tried to send had been returned as unsent. Wherever the navy was keeping him, it was out-with his reach.

Last month, he'd even proposed a return to space to his wife. To try and locate a freighter wanting an experienced pilot and navigator. If they had to go back to the black and live on the move once again to try and help Tammani find something to believe in, they would. But such a search had shocked him. Advances in bridge systems to assist pilots had rendered navigators in the manner Rose had trained for almost obsolete, while his own credentials were twenty years out of date. Piloting was a whole different beast these days, and even designs he recognised had been refitted to do things he could only have dreamed of.

At some level, that only increased his anger at this whole scenario. Tammani was likely better qualified than he was now, and yet he could not help her.

And now it always nagged at him. Even if he found a way for her to get on a ship’s bridge, he worried that she was still so hurt inside that she would defeat herself in the attempt.

He needed a way to make Tammani believe in herself again. There was no quick fix, but even just enough to get her a chance to show herself what she could do.

Gaius sat back, yawned, and rubbed his claws through his plume. As he often did, he stared at the hull segment of his old ship and tried to think what he'd have done, had he still possessed the resources he once commanded.

Blinking, he paused and thought for a second. The resources he'd had? What resources? They'd been an old ship still operating on analogue components for most of their time. They hadn't had any mounted weaponry. They couldn't outrun much.

What had he done instead?

Staring at that hull section, and remembering the cause of every scuff, burn and bump, he knew only one answer.

Anything.

He'd done anything.

How many times had he thought that in these two years, after two decades of being out of that life? How much had life here softened him to the realities of survival out there?

Back then, to protect his love and his crew, he'd have gone to the ends of the galaxy. That was what he’d told himself to do, if he had to. To do the stupid. Do the insane. Do the impossible. Do anything.

No matter how outrageous it seemed.

Denial shot in immediately, but he forced it back. Now wasn't the time to be cautious. Restless, he surged up and strode in a circle.

Anything. Anything.

How far could anything go?

And in that moment, he had one last, insane thought. Reaching for his datapad, he began a search.

Eventually, after numerous mugs of coffee started to pile up, he finally entered a single series of numbers into his multiband, waited for the pick up, and began to speak.

“I'd like you to send a message for me to your boss. Yes, yes I am aware of who she is. Tell her that I knew her father, and leave the name Captain Gaius of the Tammaran with her. I'd like you to pass along a request for a ship search on her station's records...”

* * *

The next few months proved to be very busy.

Gaius had a lot to do. Thankfully, being retired left him plenty of time to do it.

He'd told Compass Rose his plan that night, and to his delight she had grabbed and embraced him, offering all she could help with. He was grateful; he'd need her.

He'd need her for more than just getting things organised. He hadn't said it, but Tami's collapse in mood over the past years had been wearing hard on him too. Captains often didn't let such things out easy, and the old habits were stubborn. All that had kept him going was seeing what was happening around him. His daughter was in pain, and now his wife was faltering too.

If he'd let himself fall to the same nightmare and oppressive feelings, well, the thought of what would happen to him and his family was too much to bear even imagining.

And so he set to work. This wouldn't happen quickly, and he had to keep it a secret. Much as he wanted to tell Tami right away out of a wish to give her hope, the timescale before being able do it made him worry that her mind would twist it with anxiety and denial until it would no longer work.

In the days after sending his message, he waited anxiously. During that time, he and Rose drafted a very particular message, and studied shipping records for Chrysolite itself.

By weeks end, they had registered with Chrysolite's goods shipping industry as temporary distributors. Rose had always taken care of short term contracts, and Gaius stood with pride behind her in the signing to see his wife talk up what they needed. A single issue contract licence; one to carry a shipment from Chrysolite to any registered buyer. Rose got the agreement in hoof, sorting through the mountains of League bureaucracy to ensure its validity.

They could send one shipment off-world.

It took them three months more, but after spending all their days and nights, they finally found some borderline obsolete cooling units for sale. They had been dumped by a corporation entering liquidation into scrapyards seven hundred miles north. They were being sold for almost nothing, and Rose had located a parts dealer two systems away willing to buy them for a price that would leave no profit, but also no lost expenses.

For any other seller it would have been pointless, but they had other reasons.

Gaius finally picked them up a month later. Lacking the budget to hire a logistics branch, he had travelled across the country to meet an old friend of theirs that he'd learned was still in business. Borrowing a mass transporter from them, he drove the goods himself, masked as going off on a 'guys holiday' with his old pals. Arriving back to where he had first seen Tami after all this nightmare began, he booked them into a storage facility.

While there, he also paid a visit to the control tower. He'd checked many records of faces he'd once known, finding where they had gone. Some envelopes changed hands, and well wishes were exchanged.

Some tricks of the trade, no matter how long he was out of it, never went out of fashion.

By the time they were finished, and after turning down eager -but confused- offers from various ship captains, Gaius and Rose finally got a response from the original message that had been sent.

Together, they peered at the monitor on their living room desk and read the short correspondence.

‘She's on her way. That uses up the favour my father owed you for the Empire job. We're done. S.A.’

Husband and wife looked to one another, and each saw the other's mouths brim upwards. Hand in hoof, they shivered, as an excited glee came over both of them.

She made to hug him in her joy.

She instead yelped in surprise as he, just as delighted, scooped his love of nearly forty years up off the sofa instead, and stopped her laughter by kissing her for a very long time.

* * *

Two months later, Tami was sleeping.

She'd come back from her shift only to find her parents still up and informing her that they all had to go help a friend of the family move house. Tami had tiredly complained, but they had been insistent that she could sleep in the car on the way.

Quiet and morose, she had done just that, curling up in the back with Orbit.

Her parents had been all over her lately. Taking her to dinners, trying to get her re-involved in old hobbies, and spending more time with her. She appreciated it, but felt like a holding pattern. Like short term smiles. Tami knew she was failing, and just didn't know how to address the problems she had.

As such, her dreams remained restless and anxious. Unable to find a deep, full sleep from the quiet rumble of the vehicle, she drifted in and out on their journey several times. The sun slowly rose, and let its searing warmth start to heat the open fields again. While she would never hear it from inside, the wheat began to rustle once more in the winds.

The same wheat she had stood in front of almost three years before.

The car rocked as it rode over a speed bump, and Tami jolted awake. Orbit was out cold, idly kicking his forelegs while leaning on Tami's chest.

The sky was bright through the windows, and she lazily pulled herself up. Chrysolite's rings were faded in the sky, arcing from one side of the car to the other.

Then she did a double take as she saw where they were.

They were driving over an enormously wide and paved area, littered with equipment, terminals, logistics vehicles and brightly uniformed ponies running to and fro around the objects that dominated the view.

Starships. Spacecraft. So many of them.

An enormous New Republic passenger-liner dominated the view and blocked the rising sun. Backlit, its azure blue-topped hull shone and glistened like sapphire. In front of it, organised rows of vertical take-off business shuttles stood ready. They were all identical, all built right within Chrysolite itself. Yellow and black, they differed only in their numerical identification on the sloped nose. Even their waiting pilots looked the same in their uniforms and coat colours. Steam rose from the crude, but monstrously powerful nacelles of a squat, powerful looking Confederate frigate to the right of their car, kept isolated behind tall fencing and security checkpoints. Minotaurs stomped around it, ripping a damaged hull plate off with their arms alone to begin repairs. It looked like an object had collided with it. Its crew were hazy, the ambient heat of their ship making the air blurry around them.

They paused to let a series of buses whirr past, and Tami watched two unicorns rushing with a coolant pipe to the underside of what she guessed was an Endeavour class mining unit. Not a ship unto itself, but one that mounted on the hull of the actual mining vessel, like a phoretic fish that held onto a whale for protection during travel. Under its armadillo-like armour to resist asteroid impacts, she could see the crystal tip of the mining laser surrounded by collapsed servo-arms. It wound past as Gaius started moving again, disappearing behind the corner of a low, but wide terminal building.

It was the starport. The same one she'd arrived back home at.

“Wha? Mum? Dad? What...what are we doing!?”

Compass Rose made a short, surprised sound, and turned to face her from the passenger seat. “Good morning, hun. Just in time.”

“What are we doing!?”

Gaius didn't look, but threw a thumbs up between the seats. “Honestly didn't think you'd sleep that long.”

“What. Are. We. Doing!?”

Orbit answered her with a sleepy shake of his head and a quiet, muffled bark. He'd watched the plans. Unfortunately, it wasn't the most descriptive answer. He'd mostly paid attention to the treats he got while keeping Gaius and Rose company during it.

Her mother just smiled, and reached out to pat Tami's thigh.

“Well, we didn't entirely lie. We are going to help someone move something.”

She looked over her shoulder and saw something that Tami couldn't. Gaius began to smile more warmly than Tami could ever remember, picking up from his wife’s line of thinking to speak up.

“And we definitely are going to see an old friend.”

Tami squeezed forward and peered between the front seats.

And she gasped.

Directly ahead of them, coming into view between a fuel truck and the lean hindsection of a police interceptor, she saw a ship that she knew. One she'd never seen in person, but would have recognised anywhere within seconds.

It was built, as any cargo ship was, around the main hold itself. The top half of the vessel was a smooth, angular shape like the armour of a beetle, stretching from the bridge to the housings of the vectored fusion engines at the rear. Beige ceramic composite plates were segmented over the black hull, inconsistent in sections where re-entries had torn the plates off. A second level rose above the hull, surrounded by thin windows to what she knew their common room. Below the ceramics, metal grey and treated black paint made up the less aesthetically shaped underside of the ship. The huge hold projected from down there like a big rectangular box to the rear, with the engine housings just above the rear cargo door. Traversing thrust units were kept in four places to the left and right of the hull, angled down from the recent landing.

Landing struts strongly held its weight off the concrete from six points, three either side of the hold. At the front, the bridge projected forward from the ship itself, and a metal wireframe held the feature she had always loved most about it.

The bridge itself was almost entirely contained within a stretched glass bubble. Wider than it was high or long, the windows formed almost all of the front and sides like an observatory suspended in space. Some of the window panes she knew had thin monitors mounted in them, connected to cameras on all sides. Only the very underside and part of the roof were made of thick mounting units, giving it unparalleled visibility, and had earned the class acclaim for its ease of docking and close area navigation.

It was a specialist transport class ship, meant for high value goods, but commonly seen as an ideal, comfortable home for those who preferred to live life off-world. It was manufactured in the Crystal League for its hordes of ongoing trade deals. It was an old design, over fifty years by now, but had kept the model chugging on through countless refit programs.

It was a Gleaner RB-Eight class transport, but as she saw the repainted iconography on the hull plating, she knew it was more than that.

It bore two wings overlapping one another.

It was the Tammaran.

And Tammani, seeing the place she had once been but had never visited, the ship that had inspired her own name, felt her heart beat faster than it had in years, and gaped.

* * *

The moment they got out of the car, Gaius began striding over the many cables and fuel pipes littering the ground to connect to the Tammaran. From its open cargo door, another figure began doing the same as they closed to one another.

He was a hippogriff, a deep brown and black one, but possessing a brilliant white smile. He and Gaius met below the engines, and there was a firm grasping of hands.

“Captain.”

“Captain.”

There was a moment of pause, before they tugged each other's hand in and grasped in a firm embrace.

“Good ol' Captain Gaius! Damn, it's been too long since you've come to see the old girl.”

“It's good to see you again, Aileron. How's she holding up?”

Aileron backed off and waved a hand over the Tammaran. “Good as she ever has! Vector manoeuvring is as clean and agile as ever, especially since we got the fibre optics in the bridge replaced a couple years back during the systems overhaul. You could make her roll with a single finger these days. Totally different bird to fly with that; you'd probably not even recognise the pilot's position.”

Gaius nodded with a small smile, casting his eyes over his old home. It was like going back to your old school, casting a sense of time lost and offering a whole new perspective. He could still remember the origin of those knocks and marks on the underside, alongside some he didn't recognise. Life had gone on for her since he'd given Aileron the captaincy upon his retirement.

Beside him, Aileron spread his arms and wings.

“Compass! Come here!”

Rose and Aileron met in a tight embrace, each exchanging kisses on the cheek.

“Nav-system still showing false event horizon warnings every so often?” She chuckled, holding onto him for a few seconds.

Aileron just laughed. “We've replaced that damn nav-unit twice now. The refit even replaced the core level code. In theory, whatever was causing that is scientifically impossible to still be in there now...but they still turn up every so often to spook any new crew. Guess she just has her own little quirks that'll never go away. Likes to keep us on our toes, does our Tammaran. Speaking of...where's the adorable namesake herself?”

Gaius and Rose both turned, as though to introduce Tami to their old friend...only to find she wasn't there.

“Where has she-” Rose began, before a rapid, excited barking caught their attention.

Orbit was living up to his name, bounding in circles around the Tammaran, weaving underneath its landing struts and leaping into the air. His head was angled up.

Gaius, Rose and Aileron all let their heads do the same, to catch a glimpse of the cream and orange shape flying at speed around the ship above wherever Orbit was.

Tami couldn't contain herself to simply looking at it from the ground. Feeling a surge of excitement, she simply had to see it from more angles. Now, flying low above the hull, she soared around it to take in everything that it had to offer. She finally looked at how the ceramics were patterned up close. She stared into the engines. She peered through the windows to the cosy living space, built up over decades of use. But most of all, she looked into the bridge. Its energised tinted glass left her frustratingly unable to see the exact details. They'd presumably left that enabled against the sun on planetside, but it meant she could only see the vague shape of two chairs and the hanging monitors.

There was a flutter, and she felt her mother's hoof on her back. Hovering in the air beside her, Rose giggled and rubbed Tami's mane.

“It'll be easier to see from the inside, right?”

Tami gasped, “Really?”

“Well, duh?” Rose chuckled, kissed her daughter on the cheek, and began to lead her down. “Come on, you technically lived here for a number of months, so you've as much right as anyone here to-”

Tami was already gone, and Rose felt a relief she hadn't known in years begin to settle home.

* * *

As they passed into the cargo hold, and up the gantry steps to the living levels, Tami observed the rest of the crew passing out. Each of them stopped and paid respect to Gaius and Rose on the way, even those that Tami knew were too young to have worked alongside them.

Soon enough, other than Aileron, their party was alone within the ship.

Aileron was talking about recent jobs and answering questions on how the ship was getting along, while Tami simply looked around. The common room was stuffy and warm with the air conditioning turned off, but it was crowded with hanging drapes to cover the hull and pillows strewn around a games table and kitchen, transforming it into a colourful, comfortable space to meet within. It looked well used and untidy, but something about its personality really stood out to her.

She could see the same passion in her parents. They looked as excited as she felt, with big smiles, laughter and eager recountings from the strangest of little findings. Live for fifteen years in one area and every inch of it will eventually have a memory associated with it, Tami figured.

Briefly, through the excitement, she felt a pang in her gut. Much as she hated to admit it, everything she was seeing here made her envious. It was why she'd stopped coming to watch ships at the starport since returning; it had been too much to bear whenever she'd have to inevitably go home again.

She began to feel like she'd made a mistake getting so worked up here. This would never be hers. As awesome as it was to walk within, and as much as she appreciated what her parents had arranged to try and cheer her up, she just wasn't sure if she wouldn't feel horrible again. The feeling always came back, no matter what. No matter how many times she'd tried going to movies, listening to music, painting or doing anything that wasn't to do with the big black out there, it always came back. Always. Like some spectre she couldn't banish that returned every time she started feeling like maybe she was starting to recover.

A heavy hand fell on her shoulder.

“C'mon, Tam. I know what you're really wanting here.”

Her father smiled down at her, reached out and hit the entrance key for the bridge door. With a loud grinding of its older hydraulics, the heavy metal gateway opened and revealed the short hallway to the glass-lined brain of the ship itself.

Well, she'd come this far. She'd regret not getting a peek at least.

“Sure.” She smiled as brightly as she could, forcing it out, and walking alongside him and Aileron to the bridge itself. Behind her, she could hear the ground crews starting to load something into the ship, presumably whatever it had come here to collect.

The gantry to the bridge was suspended above a cluster of wires and capacitor housings. Bridge systems took a lot of power to run modern FTL computation, and pushing all that energy into such a small section of the ship needed a lot of backups and electronic protection. At a glance, she could tell this one had to have already gone through the old changes from manual to automated navigation. Some of the conductors were too new for the class.

“Welcome home,” Aileron smirked, and let the final door to the bridge open.

Sunlight shone into the crowded passageway, even with the tinted windows. It made her squint, before she covered the sun with a wing and finally got to look inside.

It was where she'd have loved to live.

Open and spacious, the bridge had the whole crew interface on a lower level from where she was now standing. A short stairwell led down to it, with both pilot and co-pilot seats right next to one another, surrounded by a U-shaped series of terminal banks, modular function panels, and a rack of displays. Each of the colourful, animated flat-screens were clipped onto a window panel, projected over the window glass itself, or hanging on steady-arms from the metal struts between the panels.

Up above, surrounding her now, was an open space. Marks on the floor showed that some systems had been removed from one side, where she knew the navigator station had once been. Now, it was simply empty, but she could imagine hanging somewhere to sleep there, or placing her art in such a spot. Where she could look through the enormous windows on all sides at whatever was out there in the stars.

It was like getting to glance back into a dream.

Aileron nudged her from behind.

“Go on, Tami. Get a good look if you want.”

Nervous, feeling a little embarrassed, as though all the attention was on her, she flapped her wings and tentatively floated down into the pilot's seat.

“W-wow...”

The cushions were long flattened by whoever the pilot was these days. She guessed either another hippogriff or a griffin, given the height of the controls. But all the same, this felt...

Right.

In front of her, she could see a clear glass plane mounted on the metal of the crew suite. It wasn't active, but she could see the LEDs below to project the HUD right in front of the pilot's face without blocking their view of the windows themselves. A ship status screen to her left blinked and updated steadily with the ground crew's works. Rows of satisfyingly clacky looking switches lined her right. Most had taped notes denoting their purpose. Window tinting, door lock, and then rows for communication presets and master ignition startups. They weren't all in the default positions; the pilot must have customised the wiring.

Slowly, she put out her hands and grasped the much newer looking control sticks. The moulded plastic slid into her hands and flexed gently below them. To her side, the thrust lever was locked in place, but the main one in her hands shifted with ease. She yelped and nearly jumped as she heard the vectored engines outside moving; someone had left them active.

Aileron laughed. “Go ahead, look.”

He pulled down one of the suspended viewscreens, and Tami realised it contained the external camera's viewport, watching one side's engine outings shift, raising and lowering the ceramic shell around them to orient the outlets.

“They're so smooth.” Tami spoke lightly, rotating it around.

Aileron's mouth grew into a wide grin. “Roll rate increased by around fifty percent when the modern bridge got added. Responsiveness delay reduced by half a second in orbital conditions. The big switch from old to new. Had to get a lot of retraining done.”

Her father stepped down after her, leaning over the chair from behind. After a practiced glance over it all, he screwed up his face. “You don't say, I barely recognise any of this. Where's the FTL transfer panel gone?”

“Gone is the right word.” Aileron smirked. “Went out the same time navigators in ships like this got made redundant. It all feeds direct from the pilot control panel now. Right-”

“-there!”

Tami surprised herself, hearing her own voice cut in, as she pointed to the main pilot interface screen and drew up the FTL control tab. The blinking icons slid away and brought in a much larger scale map, along with a flashing OFFLINE note, given the state of landing.

“And look,” she continued, “there's the archive state for storing destination data, since the memory banks got large enough to-”

“-let us not have to put it in every single time,” Aileron finished, and winked at Rose. “And it doesn't send us to Kozani by accident neither.”

Compass Rose made a silent 'ha ha' gesture, and punched him in the arm.

Gaius meanwhile reflected on the new bridge system in silence, watching Tami point out this and that. The sight made him smile, and he was glad that his hunch had been right.

He turned and nodded quickly to Aileron and Rose.

The hippogriff returned the gesture and stood up again, “Well, I better go sort out the lads and ladettes their accommodation. That is the captain's duty after all.”

“And I'll go watch Orbit, I think. The ground crews must be wondering what he's doing here,” Rose added to that. “And you can tell me all about what's gone on.”

The pair turned to leave, but not before Rose bent over to kiss Tami's head.

Confused, the hippogriff looked up and around. “What? So what are we-”

The door to the bridge shut, and Gaius dropped into the co-pilot seat beside her with a grunt and began strapping himself in.

“Well, see...I've been missing getting up in this old girl for twenty years now, and I feel like another flight for old times’ sake. See, there's only one problem here. I haven't a clue how these new systems work. I need someone who does. Lucky for me, there's one sitting at the helm already.”

More words, questions and thoughts ran through Tami's mind than there were stars in existence. She made a strangled sound, mouth dropping open, and her hands letting go of the sticks sharply. Outside, feeling the loss in control, the thrusters all returned to their default position.

“Me!? Wait, but, I'm...I didn't, no, no, you can't mean-”

“I mean what I said.”

Gaius' voice was stern, but comforting and reassured. Now that they were alone on the bridge, he leaned closer and took her hands.

“Tam, I've struggled to get you to believe in what you're capable of for three years now. But there's nothing, nothing down here that can compare to what it is I know you love. To what I know pushed you to break records, graduate young, and get an acceptance to somewhere that few pilots can even get to in the first place. I've watched you, because I taught you. Remember when I hired that prop-plane for your fourteenth birthday to fly you around in, and I let you take the controls for a while even though I technically wasn't allowed to? Because I trusted you could do it?”

He gently put her hands back on the control stick.

“Just think of it as that, but on a bigger scale.”

Tami was frozen. From disbelief as much as worry. Her heart accelerated, thumping against her breast hard.

“Dad-but...I-the Tammaran?”

“What better?”

She bit her lip, looking at the controls. She couldn't believe this. It was beyond disbelieving. There were conspiracy theories about drives that could go through black holes that were more believable than this.

“I don't know if I can...”

“Of course you can, Tam. You're qualified. You passed basic flight training with flying colours. You know how, I know that.”

She screwed her eyes shut, taking several deep breaths. She wanted to. She dearly wanted to see it again, but every time she thought about it, problems kept coming up in her head. Bad outcomes. Failures.

“But the control tower-”

“Already looking the other way for Aileron not being present.”

“Th-the cargo he needs to do on time?”

“What do you think we're going to go and deliver?”

“But landing with the wrong pilot on another planet?”

“We're making an in space delivery direct to the client.”

“Without the rest of the crew? What if-”

“Only the bridge interface changed that much. I know this ship's every nut and bolt if I have to. And I have you for up here.”

He smiled, and continued before she had a chance to come up with another worry.

“Two systems away. Two days out in the black. Just the two of us to get you believing in yourself again. Pilot to pilot. All sounds fitting for a second chance to me, so...what do you say?”

Tami stared at him for a long time, feeling the sticks flex in her hands. Out of the front of the flat-spherical bridge windows, she could see Chrysolite stretching out before her. She could see the fields of wheat under the sun, and a small drop-off point for the starport’s bus service in the distance.

And when she looked up, to see the deep blue of the sky, that glass ceiling she'd been unable to do much but peer at through the nights. She could only just see the planet's rings through cloud and sun glare.

“I...I can't...”

Slowly, her hands came off of the control stick.

And instead moved to pull across the touchscreen monitor’s primary startup sequence checklist.

“I can't wait!”

The smile that broke upon her face was three years of hurt shattering apart to Gaius' eyes.

“Then take it away, helm.”

“Aye, Cap...uh...Dad!”

Gaius contacted the ground crews and received the okay from them. The Tammaran was refuelled, rechecked and ready to go. Aileron had already completed the safety walk around before they'd arrived; as attentive and borderline precognitive as a captain as he had been as a first officer.

And yet, as he watched his daughter go to work, he was astonished. She was hesitant and clearly overthinking some things, but the way her hands danced through the ignition checklist of a ship she'd only ever read about was that of someone with far more experience than she'd actually had.

She hit each switch for the reactor, and Gaius felt the rumble pass through the floor as it ignited. By the time she had finished resetting every bridge screen to navigational maps, her hand returned to initiate the main drive within seconds of the reactor building up the charge required.

He was watching a new era of pilot before him, as she handled both helm and navigation set up. He couldn't imagine having to learn both and not having Rose handling one side of it, but those of today’s generation, including Tami, did just that.

“Okay, I...” She hesitated, then began to test the thrust stick, making a harsh cough emerge from each side of the ship. “Pre-flight checks are done, route to Mocca via Erinite is planned, estimated time at most efficient route is thirty-eight ho-”

Her father shook his head and smiled. Feeling a tiny flush of hope in her chest, Tami chuckled.

“...forty nine hours, if including a few orbital passes of planets and celestial objects along the way.”

Gaius winked and grabbed the radio from his side, “Control tower check, Gleaner name ‘Tammaran’ ready for departure and requesting air clearance. Flight account keyword is 'belief'.”

There was a brief pause with faint noises, as though someone on the other side was talking just away from the microphone itself.

“Tammaran you are clear for takeoff utilising vector two-seven-nine from centre point with a thirty degree arc of freedom until above thirty-thousand, confirm?”

“Confirmed, tower. Many thanks.”

“Very welcome. Fly her safe, Captain.”

Tami's look of amazement was, he had to admit, entirely worth not having explained the plan ahead of time.

“How far did you go for this?”

“As far as I had to. It's that sort of thinking that took us to the stars off of Equestria in the first place, and it’s one both of us needed to remember. Now, I believe the tower told you that you can go?”

He grinned at her, and Tami looked back to the glittering colours, shapes and texts whirling around her station, and across the HUD before her.

And she understood it all.

Taking the safety off the main thrust, she cranked the stick to her side forward, and felt the enormous satisfaction of a ship's gaining power about her body. Her bones rattled, and her displays began to flash impressive numbers to her.

Then as she depressed the final step on the panel all four vector thrusters erupted into life on both sides of the ship. Through the windows, the fields of wheat began to move downwards, and the horizon began to expand outward into a gently increasing curve. Hands shaking on the stick, she took a deep breath, and gently urged the ship to the permitted facing. Using the pilot-aid to gain the correct vector, she pulled back to angle the nose...and finally felt the sensation of being at the controls of something truly powerful enough to make the trip to the black again.

“Okay, Tam, now just increase the main engines a little to-”

Her hand transferred the thrust stick from vectored to main engine power, and threw it forward.

Both father and daughter were plastered back against their seats, as the refitted Tammaran's new systems surged reactor power into the engines. Fuel flowed in greater quantity and mixed with the engine's internal chemicals. Science and engineering came together to create what amounted to a localised fusion reaction, enough to power a whole town on its own, and thrust every ounce of that energy out the back of the ship.

Out of the window, Gaius saw the crew, Orbit, and Rose looking on from far back, in the brief second before they became specks. Eyes wide, he looked back to the controls to see numbers that bewildered him.

The Tammaran roared forward, angled to the sky. Willing, eager, even desperate. Speeds of climb it had never been capable of in his time were setting the compartments in the bridge rattling around them.

The entire ship rolled over ahead of the stratosphere, positioning itself upside down even mid-climb. The sky began to darken, and Gaius heard the roar of the wind outside quieten. He realised his hands were gripping the inactive control sticks on his side of the bridge out of nerves. Never in his life had he seen her flown like this before. There was a keen, focused drive to that brutal acceleration and high-G movements to roll in the air.

Much of that could be put down to the refit, but as he strained his head to look over, and he saw the open eyed concentration of his daughter...he knew it was more than that.

* * *

The Tammaran erupted from the atmosphere like a homesick angel, vapour spreading off of her shell like ghostly wings until there was none left to spray. It broke into the black, where the deafening, eager roar of its engines gave way to a tranquil silence.

What had been rough and furious soon became smooth and silent.

The engines cut, allowing the ship to drift on its remaining velocity away from Chrysolite’s gravitational pull and enter the orbital pathways around the planet itself. Free of the sky, the bridge's bubble gave way to a dark void.

Breathing as though she'd just sprinted the whole way up, Tami let go of the controls and just allowed the ship to spin gently amongst the black. Her eyes wide, she looked around in a slow, astonished arc with an open mouth.

She saw the black, but that wasn't all she saw. Already, there were the soft colours of the stars she had only just been able to glimpse from the surface. But up here, like glitter on dark velvet, they shone so much brighter. Their personalities, their tones, and their beauty was all returned to her. Soft, drifting fields of microfragments wafted across space, being drawn from the planet's own gravity to each of the moons by their own strange, still only vaguely understood pull. They filled space with soft blues, greys, and silvers, transforming it from the oft believed empty void into a canvas full of cascading watercolours.

And just there, at the very top of the bridge's viewpoints, she saw the enormous rings of her homeworld stretching over twenty thousand kilometres in diameter. The scale, as ever, was impossible to describe to those who had not sat there to see it for themselves.

She couldn't help herself. For the first time in three years, she felt tears on her face that were not from the pain of failure and regret.

Gaius finally sat up out of his seat. Mouth open, he broke into a shocked laugh. “What...what was that, Tam? What kind of transition was that?”

She nearly didn't hear him, lost in her thoughts. It felt like all the crushing hurt had been left behind her aggressive ascent, and a wave of soothing, long-sought relief from the hollow moods and pain finally flowed into her. She'd been afraid of even booking a cruise, even if she could have afforded it, worrying that it would feel like a taunting that she couldn't stay. But now that she was here, Tami felt it all over again. The magic inside her heart beating away, the passion flowing through her every thought. The realisation of how much she'd needed this crashed down upon her.

“Tam?”

The sound of her father’s voice finally penetrated her transfixed stare. Heart in her mouth, she gulped, trying to control her emotions as she caught up with what he’d said, speaking without ever letting her eyes drift from those bright, long missed stars.

“It...it was just, y'know, standard? I mean, I figured that if you rolled on your back, then it means come the edge you're already in the right angle to accept the gravitational slingslot, right? Soooo...so you need to push it a bit more, maybe another couple hundred metres a second extra to account for it, which is what makes it faster?” She finally looked over and bit her lip. “Did I do something wrong?”

Gaius just gaped, and then laughed. He grabbed her hand with both of his and squeezed it tightly. “No! I...Tami, I've seen pilots with years of experience not leave a planet like that! To get the aerodynamic angles and timing right for arcing while at escape velocity is just...”

He had to fight to control himself, and leaned over into a hug, clutching the seemingly frozen hippogriff in his arms. “I've never gotten to see you fly a ship with my own eyes...you never told me you were doing things like that!”

She blushed, bashfully turning her head away even as his hug enveloped her. “I mean, I never thought much of it.”

He simply laughed. That was the daughter he'd missed. The one who had muttered that it had been 'no big deal' when she broke a record at Basic Flight's final. Opening one eye, he noticed the titanic rings on their slow dance across the orbital plane.

“Well then, why don't you show me what you know?”

She caught his eye and remembered something she'd always wanted to do. No flight academy, basic or VIP, would have ever permitted it.

She had watched those rings all her life, but she'd never gone near them.

Smiling, feeling a bolstering pride from her takeoff impressing her father, she leaned back, tightened her straps, and slammed the thrust stick forward.

With both of them grinning like idiots, the ship launched forward. Fusion engines casting a blue streak behind her, the cream and black metal vessel careened into the light blue haze of the drifting fields. It stood out against them, like a singular fish in a vast ocean, even though they were still hundreds of kilometres from the main bodies of the rings.

At the urging of her father to 'go wild', Tami let the excitement in her heart bubble over to her actions, and she made the Tammaran dance. Wrenching on the controls, she set the vector engines to whirr and turn, blasting their forces out at strange and oft unused angles to make the Tammaran jink and spin on its route. Roaring and curving around to submerge into the azure mists before ratcheting back up again. Cresting out of the dust and ice fields, trailing blue vapour from each edge until diving back among them again, Tami drove her family's ship deep toward the rings themselves.

The smile upon her face was held rigidly strong. Colours washed across the windows, with the micro impacts harmlessly deflecting and sparking around them off the hull. Gaius watched the velocity indicator climb until it bypassed the highest reading he'd ever known the Tammaran capable of. Its new engines were powering it to a full thirty percent higher manoeuvring velocity than their old limitations, and they showed no sign of abating their climb.

He held himself silent, as the rings suddenly spun upside down and Tami rolled, dove, and skimmed around the first enormous chunk of ice and minerals that made up Chrysolite's rings. Mid-way around, the ship righted and rolled the opposite direction, before he heard the hydraulics of the vector-engines scream. His gut churned, as the Tammaran lifted her back end, stood on her head, spun, and drifted 'downwards' and backwards until the fusion engines re-ignited and arrested the transversal movement.

Her eyes glued to the pilot-aid screen, Tami absorbed and factored in every proximity alert and every marker on the three-dimensional HUD holograms to weave, accelerate, turn and spin her way through the mass of slowly rolling objects.

Her face cast in the blue light of the rings, the joy in her eyes infectiously being taken up by her father, she let the Tammaran rocket around, above, below, and once even through the varied shapes drifting amongst those beautiful lines. Every so often, she would let the ship leap out of the top, before turning and diving back in, leaving an eruption of sparkling ice in her wake that drifted into the clouds surrounding them.

She felt the urges. The reactions. Dropping down, she brought the Tammaran to within fifty metres of an asteroid, blasting dust from its surface up behind her while veering between mountain-like shapes across its surface. To the awe of her father, she would spin and roll within those turns, her flying relaxed and precise. He had never learned these sensitive, fluid new systems. He was used to wrestling ships to and fro, but here he knew that the ship that had once been his had evolved beyond him. It was capable of things he could never have led it to.

And here, he had those new limits demonstrated to him by someone who could.

The thought of who it was doing it made him want to shed a tear with pride.

They spent thirty minutes in silence, before she pointed out something incredible. A green ice deposit, coloured by the ores held deep within its hard rock. That got them talking, directing with claws to the rainbow of colours they were finding in the outer rings. He spotted an ancient satellite that had somehow ended up there. They witnessed two asteroids colliding in a spray of debris, a field that he was stunned to find Tami flew towards and began rocketing through with fine angling and aggressive manoeuvring that had him gasping and holding the edges of his chair. The look on his face made her laugh.

Finally, as the ship began to flash overheat signals, she angled the Tammaran up, and rocketed out into the space beyond their world. There, she shut down the main engine to let it cool and lay back in the seat, sweating and giggling.

“Tam, I said it when you graduated Basic Flight, but you're a natural.” He finally breathed, feeling his hands still shivering. Those last spatial aerobatics had been astounding, and clearly the result of her VIP Academy training bringing out the gift she had, no matter how that had ended.

She had so many things to say, but instead she just launched out of her chair and hugged around his neck. Sobbing happy tears, laughing, smiling, and thanking him over and over.

They stayed that way for some time, as relief finally soothed the hurt. Eventually, as the emotional well began to finally run dry, they sat enjoying a small tub of ice cream he'd found in the fridge on board.

He had one more thing to bring up.

“Tam, we've been looking to find you a way to go...but we'd been thinking about it all wrong.”

That got her attention, and she looked up from her treat with curious eyes. “What do you mean? I mean, we know no-where-”

He waved a hand idly. “No, nowhere like that. See...obviously my first thought was Aileron taking you on. I know he would if he could, but he's registered now. He wouldn't be able to take you, same reason as before. But this ship, it wasn't always like that. Long ago, when we first started out, we were independents. We worked the fringes, not as part of a corp. Freelancers, self employed traders, whatever you want to call it. And it got me thinking...”

Tami felt her heart begin to race already. She figured she knew where he was going, but the thought hadn't ever occurred - at least not in any plausibility.

“See,” Gaius continued, “my problem was...you weren't you. I was afraid that if I sent you out like you were, then things might end up worse. I was afraid. But what I just saw there? Tami...you're not just a good pilot. You're an incredible pilot, when you believe in your own ability. It's all there, deep down, and when you're smiling - when you're going into it knowing you can do it, you do what you just did. That makes me feel that perhaps we can look farther afield. What you have has to fly, it's criminal to keep it down on the ground.”

“Wait, you mean-” She stopped and gasped.

He nodded. “There's places in the peripheries. Not quite safe, but not wholly lawless. Places you can find work. Places who would love a pilot like you. That would even love a person like you on board. It's not just your flying; it's who you are too. The periphery is free space, but that doesn't mean it's all pirates and crime lords like the vids imply. There are good people out there who simply prefer living that way, like I once did. To not have any shackles holding them down. Who can go where they want. Do what they decide. See what they want to see.”

He put down his tub and stroked her mane to hook it behind her ear.

“Port Medusa. An old independent station. I used to do jobs for its last owner during the war, and from what I know his daughter keeps it tightly controlled. They don't look at past records the way the League does here, not for the kind you'll be talking to. We could afford you a shuttle there. If you find people you're safe with and trust, then you might find what you're after. If not, come on home and we'll look at something else.” Gaius winked. “If you're up for a challenge again.”

Tami waited for a few solid seconds to process all that, before a singular little voice from years ago suddenly rose up, and she took a sharp gasp to answer.

“YE-ABSO-PLE-I-I-I...oh gosh, YES! I mean, yes! Yes! I'll give it a shot! At the very least I get to go to the periphery? Yes! Did I say yes? Sorry, I mean...oh gosh! YES!”

They embraced once more, with Gaius laughing at her tripping over a dozen thoughts.

“Now,” he teased, knocking her shoulder. “Come on, we've got a delivery to make, and a few sights to see.”

* * *

The starport was, for the fourth time in her life, a place of great change.

Tami stood with the same bags about her, only now carting her collapsible canvas stand with her, and far more items for personal enjoyment than before. Her crafts set, fancy treats, paints and her own blankets just for starters.

Standing at the edge of the terminal gate for the departure lounge, she was hugging her mother tightly.

“Try to send us updates on how you're getting on, okay? On who you find, and what ship, and where you're going.”

Tami giggled. “Yes, mum! Yes, yes, okay!”

She knew her mother was just teasing with the 'typical mother' routine, but Tami knew she wanted to send all those reports anyway. If anything just to show them everything she found out there.

Compass Rose gave her one last squeeze, making her stuffed bags rattle around her. Rose was trying to hold back the tears, not knowing if they were because Tami was leaving again, or if it were simply out of happiness to see her find a direction, or an avenue to one at the least.

“I knew you'd pull through, honey. I knew.”

Equally teary eyed, Tami looked her back in the eye, and up to her father too. She wanted to say thank you again and again, but she'd already done it at her going away dinner. And at new years. And while packing. And when her mother had bought her a tech-set to take with her. And when her father had given her all the advice she'd needed on what to buy on the stop off point before Medusa.

Even so.

“Thank you so much...” She could barely say it through a cracking voice.

If Rose had wanted to rush forward and hug her again, she was too slow.

Orbit got there first.

Rapidly barking, the golden blur slammed into Tami, knocking her clean off her hooves and feet with a clatter of dropped luggage. She fell laughing, grasping, stroking and hugging her lifelong friend.

“Haha! Thank you too, Orbit! You never gave up on me either, did you, boy? Good boy!”

Orbit's two favourite words had been uttered. He leapt up, bounding from front to hind legs, and conducted a five lap orbit of the entire group. He only saved the five lap ones for special occasions.

Behind them, the bonging announcement board flickered over and advertised the flight to Mothellum. The fringe Empire system before the periphery. She'd transfer to more local shuttles from there. The big transport lines didn't go any farther.

Trepidation threatened to overwhelm her. She, more than most, knew the distances involved.

But for once in her life, she gathered her resolve. From somewhere deep down, it emerged and pushed her to kiss her parents, hug her dog, collect her things, and depart.

Behind her, watching Tami depart for her second chance, Gaius and Compass Rose held hand in hoof.

They'd chosen her name for the ship that had brought them together, and thus brought Tammani to this world.

Somehow, they'd both known that this had to be how it was, to watch that name once again take to the stars.

* * *

Tucked into the shuttle, Tami watched the rings of Chrysolite once again.

Yet despite all the emotion she didn't feel like she was departing a place she belonged.

Looking out to the black, she was home.

Home was out here. She'd always known it. Always wanted it to be that way.

Some people considered their house their home. Others their town, or their country, or even their world.

But Tami didn't see it that way. She'd always seen her home as more than that. As a larger scale. This galaxy, and all of known space and its wonders, were her home. She simply saw her house as a lot bigger than most others.

And who ever wanted to stay in one room forever?

Feeling her gut churn at the shuttles transition into a surreal rift in its FTL spool up, it only fed her excitement to see the vessel being sucked into the surging colours of infinity. As the shutters closed, she sat back and kicked her hooves in excitement.

Now. Finally, she could say it was 'now'.

Now was the time to finally see what else her home had in it.

* * *

Tammani

(Note: The beginning of the tabletop game pre-dates the MLP Movie, as such the hippogriff design/naming scheme we know today didn't exist back then! Image by Kalemon)

Tami will be returning in another chapter of her story here very soon. In the meantime, if you would like to see what happened when Tami left to find a ship during the tabletop game (Named, amusingly, "Space Horse") between this and the next story , then please check out the "Space Horse Game Sessions Summaries" from Sessions #1 to #30. This doc by Snipehamster tracks all that happened, check it out!

Pilot's VLOG, Stardate: Sunday

View Online

Tammani's departure from Chrysolite marked a new stage in her life. Her journey to Port Medusa was fraught with more peril than had been expected, as her shuttle came under attack by pirates in the void of space while close to the old Port itself.

Tagging along with the other kidnapped people aboard, Tami thankfully escaped, even if she had to be carried out while nursing a wound to her shoulder. Fleeing to Port Medusa she fell in step with this new group for safety as she recovered, as she waited to see what kind of crew, or ship, Port Medusa might offer her.

As it turned out, she'd already found them.

Thrown together by chance in the attack, that very same group she had escaped with became a crew. Not long after that, and despite a few misadventures and distractions along the way, Tami made good on her promise to report home about what she'd found for herself out in the black...


Pilot's VLOG, Stardate: Sunday

* * *

The video took a few seconds to buffer, warping and tearing the image into a mess of colour and static. The playback was struggling, adjusting as best it could to display on a monitor designed and manufactured half a galaxy away from the device that had actually recorded the video in the first place.

Then, an image suddenly appeared upon the screen; a hazy shape of someone unidentifiable, before the footage began to play a half second after its initial appearance. Quickly, the quality improved and the image of a young, bright orange and cream hippogriff beaming a joyful smile into the camera became apparent. Her eyes widened with excitement, and the speakers erupted into a barrage of sudden music. Impossibly bouncy and sung by a young chart-topping female pop-star, it completely drowned out the hippogriff's voice.

"HI! Ta-...here! I ju-...yo-...wait! I think…-o lou-!"

With her bouncy mane bobbing around her head, and an awkward panic coming over her, she fumbled around pressing several buttons behind the camera. The lens pointed right at her torso as she leaned over the device to try and fix something, before the picture cut out.

* * *

Seconds later, after a period of blackness, the video emerged a second time. This time the music had been cut, replaced with the light droning rumble of a running starship. The hippogriff took a breath, checked something on top of the camera, and sat down again in what was now clearly a hammock.

"Hi! Tami here! Sorry about that, I just thought it'd be cute to have some music playing to introduce this, but uh...I don't think this thing's set up for recording ambient noise too well. It's just a little thing I bought on Medusa! Anyway! Hi Mum! Hi Dad! Hi Orbit!"

Her wings flared out, and she lifted her overall-clad body off the hammock with a strong flap, picked the camera up and looked directly into it. Her enormous smile exploded onto her face, words spilling from her mouth as though she might run out of time to say them all.

"Sorry it took a while to do this, but I know you read my mails to see why. We've got a little time right now while flying back to Medusa from the Republic after a passenger transit, just gotta drop off some cargo en-route. Acid or something. I don't go near it. But I wanted to make this for you all, to get to show you Claudia, and the crew I found to live with! It's all turned out great, look at this!"

The camera's viewpoint whirled around, until it was looking at where she'd come from. The back end of a bridge, with a hammock strung up between a bulkhead and some personal workstations lined against the corner. Bags were strewn under it, along with a small pile of paints, and brushes in a jar. Paintings of nebulae, stars and other celestial objects were dotted along the plating behind it, while a blonde dog-looking soft toy half lay leaning off the hammock itself. Fluffy slippers were lined up below some cargo containers welded to the wall like makeshift shelving. Someone had put a great deal of effort into turning the ship's bridge into a cozy den.

"They let me live up here on the bridge! Technically I have a room, but I've not slept a night in there yet! I can just relax here, watch the black through the bridge windows, or even just get up and fly around when I need to. It's so relaxing up here, nothing but the hum of the ship and the occasional beep of the helm. Buuuut..."

The camera whirled around, looking up at her face. Tami teasingly winked at it, a newly rediscovered energy about her personality.

"I'll show you the workstation I have later, Dad. I know you'll be itching to see it! Aaaand if I do it now I'll talk for an hour. I wanna introduce you to people and show you the ship first! So! It's just turned day-cycle for us, so everyone's just getting up. When better to go meet them?"

Not a single word of her last sentence betrayed even a hint of sarcasm, and Tami excitedly hopped on the spot, making the camera's viewpoint bob and blur.

"I can't wait! I've been wanting to do this for so long! They didn't let me do one in Basic or the Academy, so this is the first VLOG I get to make for you both! It's like confirming I made it, right? C'mon! Let's go see who we can find!"

Tami turned the camera sharply, the viewpoint shifting to look ahead of her as she walked toward an already open metal door. It was heavy, clearly of minotaur design by its size and robustness. Immediately behind it, a set of stairs ran to a lower deck, but more prominent was the long passageway behind them that ran down, presumably, the spine of the ship. Tami hummed and (judging by the movement of the camera) skipped her way past the stairs to travel down the length of ‘Claudia’ instead.

"So this is sorta like the big corridor inside her. You can get from the bridge to the room closest to the stern from here, all the way down the dorsal. I call it the main street, 'cos its the single longest section of Claudia's crew areas there is. But also, it's the way you reach our first destination on the Claudia Tour! Engineering!"

At the very bottom, perhaps a few dozen meters from the bridge a double set of heavy doors were sitting open, and the camera's bobbing finally settled on the powerful shape of a ship's reactor behind them. The microphone buzzed with a lethargic chugging noise, one that only amplified as Tami hopped through the doors and into the room.

"And here's who I thought I'd find in here already! Hey Kiffie!"

Panning over the engineering section with the viewfinder, several thickly reinforced terminals could be seen still blinking into life, scrolling with power readouts, environmental statistics, temperature gauges, fuel line pressure, and maintenance rotas. The churning heart of Claudia in the middle of the room was also visible: a massive section of heavy machinery on struts that dominated the middle of the room with its magic-influx turbine, before Tami’s camera’s pan settled on the sole inhabitant of the engineering section.

An enormous griffon was hunched over with his head bend around a removed wall panel, surrounded by multiple bags of strewn tools. His calico body colours were contrasted by puffed out brown feathers that half enveloped his loose clothing and utility belt.

Not startled, but seemingly more bewildered by Tami's excited greeting, the griffon shimmied backwards and extricated himself from the wall.

As it turned out, this was not a rapid process. And it became even more apparent that his feathers had been compressed by the tighter space, as they now impressively resembled the look of a plush toy that had just gone through a wash and a hairdryer. It was punctuated by a curious tilt of his head, and an innocent look of curiosity.

"Oh, good mornin' Miss. What're you doin' with that?"

Panning upwards to look at his face, Tami waved in front of the lens.

"I'm filming for my parents! So! This is Kerfuffle! He's our engineer. Say hi, Kiffie!"

As though informed that he was suddenly at a formal event, Kerfuffle rapidly straightened out and widened his eyes, before waving a meaty talon toward Tami...and then only after a clear non-verbal prompt, a second time to the camera.

"Oh! Well, hi there Missus...uh...and Mister...uh..."

Kerfuffle blinked, before looking away at Tami again.

"Don't...remember their names. Were they asking anything? Only, never really recorded much before."

Tami's sweet laughter over-rode the chomping of the reactor's cycles, making the camera shake. She spoke loudly, trying her best to hold the camera still at a distinctly fidgety Kerfuffle.

"Oh, don't worry! Now, like I said. Kerfuffle's our engineer on Claudia. He keeps her running smoothly and fixes anything that's gone wrong. And he's real good at it too, like, he can just look at a machine and know what's wrong with it without even touching it. Like that cleaning bot you got, Dad? How we never could get it to turn properly so it just bumps into walls? Kiffie'd be able to see what's wrong, I'm sure of it. And-"

The big griffon's eyebrows shot up, his awkward stance finally letting his gaze come to the camera itself. He leaned in, a saddened look on his face as he took up the camera. He held it high in his own claws, looking upward at the lens.

"Oh, the poor thing's always bumping its nose into stuff? Has it got a broken traverse gear? Oh dear. Is it a Vectronix? A Cleaneasy?"

His look of genuine concern was contrasted by the sight of Tami sliding into view over his shoulder, holding both hands over her mouth and silently giggling away. Kerfuffle, however, continued his questioning. His voice throughout was unexpectedly quiet for someone so large, with a hushed little polite tone underneath it all. A gentle giant by any measure.

"If he's a Confederate RX type, then look under his bottom plate and see if he's got a misaligned chain. And...and let me know if it's an RT unit instead, because I have the manual here since he shares components with Patch. If you send a picture to Miss Tami I can have a look at it to help the little thing not be hurting himself all the time. Oh, and check the front sensor; he might have gotten clogged up if he's been over a lot of dust, he might be blind! And-"

Tami couldn't hold it any longer, her high-pitched laughter picking up as Kerfuffle's rambled through half a dozen known issues, repeatedly expressing his concern for the cleaning bot. The smaller hippogriff finally flew up to land on his back and take the camera.

"I'll make sure they do, Kiffie."

"Oh, oh that's good then."

He paused, going somewhat more silent as though realising his long amount of talking, until Tami giggled and briefly hugged around his neck from behind. Or at least that was what the odd movements of the camera implied.

"Hey, why don't you tell them a little about Claudia and what you're doing this morning?"

Kerfuffle clearly took a second to think, before finally smiling more openly. This was obviously a subject he was more comfortable with. Sweeping his large body to the side and turning them both, he indicated the missing wall panel with an outstretched claw.

"Well, y'see, Claudia's been having hiccups every time she transitions from turbine to fusion power. And she did it again last night just as I was goin' to bed even without a turbine cycle. So I thought I'd get up early and come give her a nice bit of attention until she and I can work out how to make her fly nice and smooth again. The hiccups were keeping me up, so I can only imagine..."

Tami made an 'aww' sound, dropping off of his back. She stepped back to show both Kerfuffle and the reactor, before swinging back to the panel as the griffon moved back over to it and picked up some tools. His voice might have been soft, but his movements certainly had weight to them. While not clumsy, it was clear he was used to working in minotaur-designed environments involving weighty levers and heavy materials. And there was plenty of that around him in the steamy engineering section

"So I figured maybe she's just got a little blockage in her transfer manifold. Lotta power for fusion, not nearly as much for turbine; so maybe some of its just getting dumped from capacitors hours after it got left as excess. Like when you get a cold and your nose runs for a long time after the illness is gone. So I'm just installing a relay to let her direct any excess to the heat sinks, and burn it all off. She don't deserve to be all stuttery just flying at night..."

Tami's hand reached out and patted Kerfuffle's shoulder. Her talons disappeared up to almost the wrist in his thick feathers. She grinned up at him.

"You'll put her right, you always do.” She turned to the camera. “See? Kiffie's super good at all this, 'cos he cares so much."

Kerfuffle looked down at her. He rubbed the back of his head, and bashfully smiled.

"I just don't like seeing her not right, is all. It's nothing big...if we get sick a doctor takes good care of us, right?"

"And if a machine needs help, the engineer helps her." Tami finished for him, as the viewpoint panned around. She had flown off him to land on the deck once more. "Hey, I'm gonna go see the rest of the crew, okay?"

Kerfuffle nodded, and sat back down near the wall panel.

"Okay, Miss Tami. I'll see you downstairs. Oh!"

He reacted suddenly, as though he'd forgotten something crucial, his wings and feathers fluffing up, as his eyes turned back to the camera.

"And bye to you too Missus Rose and Mister Gaius."

He smiled gently, even as Tami's surprised exclamation filtered into the camera's microphone, before shrugging and blushing.

"Just took me a second to remember."

Tami's hand again reached out to pat his forearm, before she upped and turned.

"Bye to you too, Kiffie!"

She got around four feet out of the door, before there was an urgent clattering of claws and a shocked gasp behind her. The camera spun rapidly to find Kerfuffle half out of engineering.

"I almost forgot! Bye to you too, Orbit!"

There was a pause, before the camera dropped to look at the floor, and Tami burst into laughter.

"Oh, Kiffie..."

Still laughing as the big griffon turned back to his workstation, she turned back to the 'main street' and skipped her way back down it. About mid way, the viewpoint turned until it was looking upwards at her face mid-trot. She was red in the cheeks and giggling, her lips curled into a permanent smile.

"He's just the softest, nicest thing. I know he seems a little slow or simple at times, but he's really really smart with machines, and polite to a fault. And...I think a lot of people underestimate him. Including himself. He's a lot wiser than he seems. When I've been upset over something, he always seems to know how to put things in perspective and make me think about it in a better way."

She stopped for a second to compose her words.

"I wish I'd had him around earlier in life sometimes. With, y'know...how I was."

Taking a deep breath, she looked away behind her, before rubbing an eye and smiling at the camera.

"Anyway! Let's go see who else we can find."

The video feed cut-

* * *

-and skipped to a different viewpoint. Looking down the stairs outside the bridge into what was clearly a common room. Tami was, owing to the lack of stepping sounds, flying her way down.

A table with a holo-display dominated the centre of the already well lived-in section of the ship, surrounded by metal seating topped with a variety of inconsistently shaped and coloured cushions to provide some comfort and colour to the otherwise hard and mundane chairs. At one of them, a young colt was sitting with cereal, watching cartoons on a digital screen upon the far wall above the modular kitchen unit.

"And this is where we all hang out or come to relax!" Tami's voice broke in, as she panned around. "We got a table, big screen, and look at all this!"

She turned in mid air, giving a full three-sixty view of the common room. Flanked with what were clearly crew quarters to every side, a room that had once been bare metal had, with a little decor, been turned into something quite homely. Name plates had been added above the doors; and a series of thick rugs brought colour to the floor. A pool table dominated the far side near one of the twin open doors to a much larger room, along with a worn but comfortable couch that resided below the stairs themselves. While clean, the layout bore all the hallmarks of a normal crew used to living around one another. Stacked food capsules and boxes were piled on the kitchen surface, breakfast's washing was still needing done by whomever's turn it was, and magazines were strewn on the table ahead of the colt. A washing basket of clothing ready to be hung up sat near one of the doors.

Aside from the colt, no-one else was present; his cartoons masking the noise of any others in the area.

Tami continued on, trembling as she went. "I do like it here sometimes, can just come and get some munchies, watch things together, or just to lie back on the couch if I need to. There's always someone here for some reason, so I like coming down just to see who's around if I'm free. Aaaand this time we get Jelly Biscuit!"

Tami flew down behind the colt's chair and pointed the camera to him. The colt turned briefly to look at her.

"What are you doing?" His voice betrayed an unexpected maturity for his age, despite his body still looking scrawny.

"Sending a video to my parents. They wanna see who I'm flying with, is all. So, this is Jelly Biscuit! We picked him up from a...uh...distress call a little while ago. We're still getting the meat back on the bones, huh?"

Jelly just stared at the camera, then Tami, then the camera, as though unsure what to say, before unexpectedly pulling a silly face, pulling the edges of his mouth apart and sticking his tongue out.

"Jelly! Don't do that!" Tami couldn't help but laugh as she ruffled his hair. "Say hi to them!"

"Hi 'huu 'hem!" He never changed his face at all, his tongue out giving his voice a lisping rasp.

"Be nice!" she chided.

"He nith!" he rasped.

"Jelly-"

"Helly-"

"-is silly!"

"-ith hilly-hey, wait!" He dropped the face, giving her a harsher look, only getting his mane ruffled again in response and wriggling to get her to stop. "Tami! Stop it!"

She only laughed and patted his back, even as the colt turned back to his cartoons again. "He's such a rascal...anyway! I know where I'll find someone fun before the first hour of the day cycle is up! This way!"

The camera whipped up, and its viewpoint moved to the other side of the stairs, bumping about as she hopped her way toward the door at the very back of the common room, gave it a rapid knock, and then walked right in.

"Hey, hey!" she chimed, coming into a large quarters. It was dominated by a set of patterned canvas panels obscuring the side of the room used for sleeping, and a large hanging monitor that covered the wall closest to the door. A quick pan brought the view to rest on a desk in the corner opposite the door. The quarters was hardly as tidy as the common room outside, stacked with a computer entry unit, various star charts, a chunky looking pistol, a veritable legion of post-it-notes, and a couple empty beer bottles acting as stationery holders. There were two ponies sitting on either side of it, both of whom looked up in confusion and bemusement.

One sparkled gently under the white LEDs of the ship lighting, both on her soft cream body and hazy orange mane: a lithe crystal pony. Every part of her seemed meticulously cared for. From her finely bunched mane, to the patterned eyelash directions, and even her smooth and clearly well exercised body under a pressed suit. She looked completely awake. Her thin, strict eyes betrayed a softer side as they arched up in questioning as to Tami's sudden intrusion.

The other sat behind the desk and seemed to be the polar opposite. Clutching a mug of steaming coffee within light green telekinesis on level with her sunken and tired eyes, as though to let its warmth seep into her still waking brain, sat a smaller-framed unicorn. A strong blue coat on her face was partially obscured by the drooping green mane, forced down by a trucker hat rammed tightly on her head. Her mouth was flat, and after one glance at the rabidly enthusiastic hippogriff skipping in, the unicorn looked at her coffee and, by the increased pace of her chugging it, clearly decided she needed to intake caffeine a lot more urgently.

The camera whipped back between the two, and Tami spoke up before either of the others could query.

"Good, you're both together, that makes it easy! I'm recording a VLOG to send home! So the crystal pony on the left there is Volatility Smile. She's like our business head; handles all the job contracts, border controls, route legality and accounts for the company. All the boring stuff, basically."

Volatility Smile was mid way through a small wave to the camera, but stopped and coughed politely. "Boring stuff?"

"Yeah," Tami brightly answered. "Like when you have to spend hours sitting there reading market share percentages and comparing them in spreadsheets to different systems' versions of the same things."

At that Smile pursed her lips, and gestured idly with a hoof.

"Tami, that isn't work for the company; that's just having fun with shares after work is done."

There was a pause in the room, both Tami and as of yet silent unicorn looking at the crystal pony. Smile spread her hooves as though they had just claimed that space was white.

"What? It's a thrill. Never know what you'll end up being able to do. But speaking of fun, will you be joining Niko and I for our morning aerobics session, Tami? You did say 'maybe later'. I'm sure your parents would appreciate seeing you getting fit with the crew."

"Uuuuuh..." Tami let her tone drone on, the camera shakily looking over at the unicorn, who only shrugged dismissively with a small grin that shifted the freckles on her face, briefly showing a sense of humour below the tired, gruff exterior in the morning.

Smile winked. "And you'd do well with the beat, with how much you dance about on the bridge-"

"I-I do not!"

Smile laughed, a curt and measured noise, with a look of utter incredulity. "One of these days we'll get you all in there with us. It's good for the body on long journeys! I'd ask Patch to bother you about it, if I could stand being around him."

"Maybe...maybe later," Tami muttered, and quickly turned the camera to face the unicorn, clearly seeking to change the subject. "And this is who I thought would be in here in the first place!”

The unicorn looked up, taking a long sip of her coffee, the edge of her mouth crinkling upwards slightly as she leaned back in her chair.

"This is Captain Hair Trigger! She keeps everything going in the right direction and gets us all together. Say hi to my folks, Captain!"

Hair Trigger finally let the long sip of her drink end, and leaned on her desk casually. A cheeky smile crept over her face as she fixed her eyes on the camera.

"A'ight there? Hey, has Tam told you about her new ‘boyfriend’ ye-"

"CAPTAIN!"

The camera whirled away in a frantic rush, the viewpoint spinning into indecipherable shapes, accompanied by the sound of Tami rapidly rushing out of the captain's quarters, accompanied by the unicorn’s raucous laughter somewhere behind her.

Shaking violently, it briefly looked at Tami's blazing red face as she moved through the common room, fumbling for the button to stop recording.

"No, see, it's not-she's just winding you up and...well, I m-mean I’ll likely never seen him again and I hardly know him an-wait, wait no...oh geez, c'mon!"

She finally found the button, and the footage cut.

* * *

The footage resumed on a blank door.

Tami's hand reached out and knocked on it three times.

"Hey, um, you up? Niko?"

After ten solid seconds of waiting, there was no answer. With a short grumble, Tami turned the camera to face her, the common room visible at the edges around her mane.

"Feels like he's never here sometimes. Okay, we'll, uh, we'll find something else. We'll go through the cargo hold to the bridge.”

She turned around, bringing the footage back to the common room itself, in time for Volatility Smile to come wandering out of the captain's quarters. The groomed pony briefly smiled at the camera.

"No luck with Nikomachos then?"

Tami sighed. "None. I think he's still sleeping."

Smile glanced at the door and looked somewhat disappointed, "And morning fitness was meant to start in a few minutes. Oh well, suppose I'll be alone for it. Unless-"

"I-have-a-lot-to-do-on-the-bridge!" The words exploded out of Tami's mouth.

"Okay, okay. Just remember we have our sit-down meeting later, all right?" Smile winked, and went into her room.

Tami hesitated for a moment, before beginning to wander back toward the doors at the other end of the common room, emerging into an enormous hold. Industrial shipping crates and metal containers dominated the middle, surrounding a hydraulic crane system. A ceiling height airlocked door was sealed at the far end, with a second one spread across the floor under the crane. Ladders dropped from above with a line of drying clothing strung between two of them. It wasn't particularly difficult to tell who each item belonged to.

"She'll be talking about doing stuff in here. Those two do a lot of aerobics and lifting all those things."

She zoomed in crudely to show a set of bar-weights and dumbbells stacked against the far wall around a lifting bench. A small music player sat waiting on a crate near them, and a few papers on the wall bore routines and personal records. Three columns of the listed five crew members were entirely empty.

She turned the camera around, briefly looking into it as she walked toward one of the ladders in the middle of the room. "Smile's pretty business first, but she's a nice pony, really. Get this, she helped me out with my student loans by showing me some things I could do, and got them completely written off!"

She hesitated with a single hand clenched on the ladder and bit her lip.

"Only, now I'm pretty sure I remotely own a company in an Avalon tax haven with two very bored employees. I guess that's what she wants to talk about..."

Turning the camera, she started climbing up, presumably tucking the device into a chest pocket.

"So we'll go up here, and we'll be back in the-woah!"

Kerfuffle’s large face suddenly popped into the hatch above her, staring down at her and the camera.

"Oh, sorry. Give you a hand, Miss?"

He stretched out his hand to hers, and effortlessly lifted her up and through to the main street again, just outside engineering.

"Thanks, Kiffie."

Kerfuffle shifted on the spot. "Just heard you coming up. I've been doing some reading and it's a good thing you're still recording. Because there was a Cleanmaster series that had that exact problem, and your homeworld only ever had them come in, so it's definitely a sensor issue. If they take the chassis off and help it out by clearing out the dust, it'll be fine. I guess it musta' been second hand to be like that already."

Tami was quiet for a second, before bursting into a fit of frantic laughter, pushing forward to hug the big griffon. The camera was momentarily nothing but feathers, until she pulled back and angled it.

"Oh, oh my. Thanks. I'll tell them. Gonna go show them the bridge."

"Okay, Miss. Let me know if its still not feelin' too well."

He nervously waved, and clambered back into the engineering section. Even in a minotaur ship he had to adjust his body to get through the door. In his wake, Tami held the camera below her face as she walked, cheeks red from laughter.

"Isn't he such a sweetheart?"

The viewpoint rotated to look toward the bridge again, and Tami passed around the stairwell to reach it. While about to reach the bridge, she paused as a faint humming of rotor blades began to be audible in the recording.

"Oh, now look who it is."

Tami quickly turned to look downstairs, as a floating object came whirring up them to hover in the air before her. Robustly constructed, the drone's main housing was connected to two small rotary units and several extendable arms with multiple joints. It paused in its route, looking at Tami, before speaking in an ill-fitting booming voice, like that of a supervillain's robotic bodyguard.

"Crewmember Tammani. Commencing daily rounds. Delivering personalised medical advice in three...two...one."

It blooped and buzzed in the air.

"Ignoring breakfast is adverse to a healthy life. Return downstairs and acquire sustenance for optimum operation."

Tami snorted, and reached out to pat the drone's housing.

"Aaand this is the last one around. This is Patch. Kerfuffle rescued him from those pirates I told you about in my mail. We fixed him up, and now he's our on board doctor. Hey, Patch, say hi to my parents!"

Patch gently floated up again; the pats had disrupted his level flight, his small rotary units roaring away like the fans in a server.

"Request to connect for proxy-advisory approved. Medical duty requests that parental action is taken to reduce Crewmember Tammani's calorie intake and encourage accompaniment of Crewmember Nikomachos and Crewmember Volatility Smile in daily exercise."

Tami's hand instead rubbed at his chassis, as though the small drone was a pet.

"He cares so much about us all; sometimes a little too much. Besides, I do get exercise! I still dance when I'm alone to get some sweat going."

The drone bleeped. "Crewmember Tammani does not possess medical licence. Unit PATCH provided efficient tempo and collected playlist information for activity titled 'Dancercise' from databanks. Playlist was not accepted by Crewmember Tamanni."

Tami chuckled and wandered on past him. "Because that stuff was boring! No lyrics or fun!” She rolled her eyes into the camera. “See? He's got such a sense of humour for a drone."

The sound of rotary units accelerating as Patch moved off down main street came from off-camera, along with a fading voice.

"Record added. Crewmember Tammani music tastes for dance related programs updated to 'limited'."

Ignoring him, Tami wandered into the bridge, the clatter of her hands and hooves on the metal decking changing to a softer tread as she moved onto the rugs she had laid down to personalise it. Yet immediately ahead was the great void of space itself. Deep space, far away from solar bodies. Without the light pollution of any nearby stars to shine across Claudia’s angular windows, the endless black showed its true beauty. Countless far away dots, blinking lights, and hazy distant auras of colourful nebulas surrounded the ship. A sight that was as deep as it was dark.

The windows, misted at their corners, lay beyond the stations for the bridge crew. Two crew chairs at the very front were surrounded by a series of hanging screens, control levers, a yoke, several button panels, and a large touch screen each. A pack of choconuts lay open and clipped onto a display on the right hand side one, easily indicating which was Tami's side.

"And this is where I do all my things! She's a good ship to fly. Takes a while to get used to the weight, the minotaurs build them hard, and she’s a heavy cargo lifter. But hey! The vectors are good at compensating for it all and-oh, look!"

She shuffled forward, moving to sit in the pilot's seat. Before her, the ship was half way done with the morning diagnostic, flickering words too fast for any organic to follow across the screen as every system was scanned, pinged and -if possible- tested.

"So right here, I got my pilot display unit. It's got a direct link to the navigation, so I don't even need to look up to use that. Unless it's FTL, which is over here. Oh, but the external camera only displays up here..."

She proceeded to go through all the controls at length. The sort of explanation only someone who knew their parents were ship crew themselves could possibly give. She excitedly squealed with delight at getting to work with triple redundancy stick servos, and giggled at the 'silly' minotaur bridge layout of having environmental panel back behind her and not on the main unit, meaning she had to get up.

It went on for some ten minutes, including a demo of how to set destinations on the new automated navigational systems, and on demonstrating an FTL chart for a multi-system jump.

"Oh, and look at this! For such a ship as she is, her roll speed is really smooth. Look!"

With one hand around the yoke, she threw it thirty degrees up, sending the stars spinning wildly around in the window view.

"Sometimes I just love to do this on the night watches. Deep space, nothing to hit, nothing to worry about...just me and the ship. Veer around, try out old maneuvers. It's so relaxing!"

"So that's why the ship’s route-tracker on my terminal has little squiggles at times..."

Tami squeaked, as Hair Trigger's voice cut into the recording. She spun to look, and caught sight of the unicorn dropping into the other seat.

"Uh...y-yeah?" Tami's voice was hesitant.

"But I'm sure it's just good trials to ensure your skills are sharp, right? And that Claudia works fine?"

Hair Trigger winked with a smirk, laying a re-filled mug on the top of a display screen’s casing.

Tami gradually let her voice pick up volume in reply.

"...yeeeeah, that's it."

"Thought so. Still recording, then?"

Tami must have nodded, as no verbal reply was heard at first.

"Just showing them the bridge, Captain. And I guess now you're showing them where you sit up here a lot too. The Captain joins me for chats and seeing where we're going, sits in the co-pilot's chair a lot. It's basically hers now. When Jelly isn't using it."

Hair Trigger raised a hoof and coughed. "Ahem, not 'co-pilot's' chair. This would be the 'Captain's chair."

"That's what you said about the couch two nights ago when Smile was on it."

"A Captain must have a backup. And besides, you can't drink a beer on a metal chair. She needed a better supported surface for the stick up her ass anyway."

There were a couple of seconds of them looking at one another, before they both broke into childish little chuckles. Tami re-arranged the camera, sitting it atop the pilot interface to let it look across the bridge at both of them.

"I got real lucky with the Claudia here. Such a friendly crew, everyone's so nice to me, and the Captain here is really supportive and understanding. Not as much of a grump as she looks. Captain here is the best captain I've ever had."

Hair Trigger rolled her eyes and leaned over to knock Tami's shoulder. "I told you before, I'm the only captain you've had!"

Giggling for a moment, Tami didn't once take her eyes off the camera, before mouthing the word again. 'Best'.

Hair Trigger smirked, and got up from her chair. Wandering around, she quickly grabbed Tami from behind in a small hug, looking over the hippogriff's shoulder at the camera. Tami yelped in surprise, before leaning the back of her head into Hair Trigger’s chest as her Captain spoke directly into the lens.

"In which case, Mister and Miss whoever? Let me tell you straight, you raised one hell of a pilot in Tami here. Couldn't have asked for a better or brighter one to join us. Not failed us yet, have you, Tam?"

Tami blushed severely, looking over her shoulder at Hair Trigger, "Well...there was-"

"Not once, far as I see it, 'cos we're still flying."

The young hippogriff bit her lip and gently nodded. "And that's what matters. That's what you said, wasn't it?"

"That's what I said."

Hair Trigger clapped Tami's shoulder, went back to the 'captain's chair' to collect her coffee, and trotted to the door.

"Anyway, came to tell you that we're throwing something on the grill. Head down in a minute if you want a hot breakfast."

"I'll be there."

With a final grin at the camera Hair Trigger left the bridge, leaving Tami to sit alone. She looked after the captain, before finally turning back around to the camera and smiling.

"Time to get ready for the day. Got four jumps to make. I'll try and add something later on, but just know...I'm happy. I've found what I wanted out here. We're taking pretty mares on honeymoons, I got to visit the Republic, I saw a pulsar, and I've met some really cool people on desert planets and ancient stations. It’s...amazing! Thanks so much for getting me back on top, both of you. I feel like I did in this again."

She panned it around briefly, showing a photo stuck to the side of her console. In it, there was Tami herself while she was much younger, her proud parents, and a golden retriever happily sitting with his tongue out. Tami was hung between her parents, both of the holding her off the ground, with oversized aviator goggles around her head, and beaming with all the hope of a dream about to come true.

There was an indistinct shout from behind her, and Tami quickly panned back to her face as she got up.

"I'll try to send something again soon, but I'll still mail every few days! See you then!"

A few awkward seconds of figuring out the buttons again led to the video cutting.

* * *

The video emerged again on a scene of chaos. All six members of the crew were around the main table in the common room, drone included. Hair Trigger and Kerfuffle were eagerly stretching over to the laid out breakfast, lifting food from the veritable buffet they had laid out. Jelly eagerly stretched a hoof out from under the griffon, beating the much politer and slower reach of Smile to the last fruit pudding. Patch sat on the couch, partially inactive, but ultimately watching with a disapproving glare at the crew. Voices of varying accents clamoured over one another, mixed with laughs and shouts.

"Okay, I got it!"

Tami's voice cut above the din, as she ran from behind the camera into frame, joining them and trying to hustle the crew together.

"C'mon! Just one! Look over at it there! No, there, Jelly! C'mon Captain it'll still be warm! Smile? Okay, okay!"

Nearly diving amongst them, she pulled and pleaded to get them around one side of the table, squeezing into the middle of the assembled crew. Hair Trigger still bore her plate in her magic, while Smile had already sighed, grinned, and sat upright.

"And say...Claudia!"

"Seriously?" Jelly deadpanned.

"Claudia!" Kerfuffle eagerly began, pushing his very best school photo smile despite his hunched body, being followed by a chorus of sardonic, muffled, or willing repeats of the word. Surprisingly, Patch had even flown into frame again for some inscrutable reason.

And with that, the screen froze, pausing on a frame of them together. Tami squeezed between Hair Trigger and Kerfuffle. The former with a sausage half in her mouth, the latter staring directly ahead rather than into the lens. Her arm reached around Smile, tugging the normally upright pony sideways, half bending Jelly over between them. Together, as one crew; one family aboard a ship.

* * *

Staring at the frozen image, Gaius couldn't help but reach one of his long arms over and pull Compass Rose in tight against his chest, leaning down to kiss the top of her head.

"She got there in the end, Rosie."

Rose sniffed, having already been shedding a few tears at the sight of their daughter so happy. The banter she'd shared. The way they'd teased her, helped her with her problems, and supported her wants.

"Looks like she got a good crew faster than we did too; a lucky break. Goodness knows, she needed it by now..."

Gaius gazed at Tami's expression on the screen, knowing too well the honesty in that genuine joy.

"Not luck. She earned this."

They fell silent, just holding one another, before Rose chuckled.

"What's that about?" Gaius inquired, smirking at his wife's amusement.

Rose looked up to Gaius and kissed the end of his beak, winking at him. "Who do you think the Captain meant by boyfr-"

Gaius rolled his eyes. "Oh no, we're not getting into this again. She got her curiosity about other people's relationships from you, you know?"

"She did. And we most definitely are. So, who?"

Gaius sighed, chuckled, and shook his head.

He was in for a long next hour.

* * *

Captain Hair Trigger

A tiny yet gruff-looking unicorn mare. Trigger hails from a large family of spacers, and has spent almost her entire young life aboard one ship or another, before coming to command one of her own. Image by Kalemon)

Volatility Smile

An elegant and authoritative crystal pony mare. Smile is a businesspony from the Crystal League, travelling in search of profitable new ventures after her last job went south. Image by JellyBeanBullet)

Kerfuffle

A big, fluffy male griffon. Originating from a working class family on a Minotaur Confederacy mining colony, now seeking to earn money to send home by working on a vessel. Image by Floots)

All four will be returning in the next story, in the first full length 36k word adventure I wrote for them...

One Of Those Days

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Quickly becoming firm friends, Claudia's crew truly began their lives in the black. Running cargo for legal and occasionally less-than-legal reasons, transporting ponies to where they needed to go, and generally all the jobs they could manage to put together to make ends meet.

There were more than enough unusual encounters along the way. From dangerous clashes with pirates, minefields, and crime syndicates to intriguing meetings with an NLR spy (a stoic field agent known as Whisper Step, who Tami quickly began looking up to in fangirl-like awe), pirate royalty (whose name was almost as long as her bank balance) and even a mysterious unicorn who still retained the use of magic spells...

But between each adventure, there was always the next job. The next job meant next month's pay. It meant the fuel to jump into the extradimensional realm of magic space for FTL speeds, and repairs needed to keep flying. Altogether it meant opportunity, and opportunity, just like the next job, could come from anywhere.

Now, after receiving an invite for a new job in the Confederate system of Kavala, Claudia has set a course to meet their contact for the unknown task ahead...

Claudia's route from Port Medusa to Kavala (Green line)


One Of Those Days

* * *

The quiet droning of a starship was something that any spacefarer got used to in time. That distant, bassy rumble of a fusion-core reactor sounded more or less the same no matter where you were on board, and after so long in the black anyone could be forgiven for getting so used to it that lacking it meant for restless nights.

But while aboard and in your own bed, it could also be the most relaxing, reassuring reminder that you were somewhere comfortable and warm, held cosy and safe inside a metal hull away from the void with nothing for unthinkable miles around to disturb you.

It meant deep sleeps and low stress levels, especially to those who had been born off-world that had grown up with such sounds all their life.

This easy aura of dozy serenity also happened to explain Hair Trigger's incalculable hatred of her multiband's furious beeping as it tried its hardest to shatter that very bliss and wake her up.

The keening sound penetrated every level of comfort, amplified by the sheer metal walls and sloped ceiling into an echoing, painful lance of irritation that speared deep into her slumber, dragging her consciousness kicking and cursing into the waking world.

Her eyes didn't open at the same time. Instead, they took an uneven, alternately blinking route that never quite made it all the way to the eyebrows. She was facing the wall at the rear of her quarters, the dull mixture of grey and brown just a gentle hint in the lightless room. It felt like every shrill alarm was bouncing off it and somehow hammering into her retinas rather than her ears.

"Mmrrr!?"

Her eloquent question as to the multiband's gumption to ring this early went unanswered, other than for the automatic snooze setting to increase the volume even further, before sharply cutting off.

Groaning, dragging hooves that weighed as much as one of Claudia's nacelles up to rub at her face, Hair Trigger closed her eyes. The covers were too warm to want to move. Too close. Too inviting. The depression in her bed she usually slept in was too form-fitting. The world could wait. It'd have to. By the time that even the closest thing you could call a world light years away would be able to reply to her mentally projected message to get stuffed, she'd have gotten the extra sleep she felt she richly deserved.

This, she concluded, was a captain's privilege.

The logic was sound to the fuzzy-headed unicorn, and she let her straining body collapse back down into the bent pillow with a long exhalation.

Disappointed that it had been ignored, the multiband - a normally wrist-worn smart device - on the desk at the far end of the room decided in its infinite wisdom to try again, and thus a sharp, frantic buzzing again filled the almost silent room. Clearly, it figured, its owner must have just not heard it.

The sudden glow of telekinesis under the covers, and the grip of magic around the device that started to blindly and haphazardly attempt to hit the 'Stop' button against the desk made clear that there was a mighty disagreement with that conclusion.

Only vaguely certain she even had the right object by the sound of the alarm changing tone from being turned over and over, Hair Trigger fumbled and fought her sense of magic around the multiband, not able to feel or see it from under the covers clenched around her head. Drawing it this way and that, making the sound garble in ways that only further violated her sleep, she finally gave it a rough tug with her horn's imprecise magic, sure that she had the stop button on the side depressed now.

Instead she felt her sleepy magic falter, and the sense of an object held in it suddenly disappeared.

A second later, she heard the polymer screen of the multiband crack on the metal floor.

"Oh fer f-" The expletive didn't even get to finish before a long groan overtook the word, growing into a frustrated growl. Finally, the realisation that she'd have to get up slammed home like a harsh dose of reality, and she didn't enjoy it one bit.

Muttering and sighing, Hair Trigger pulled herself upright - or at least tried to. Eight attempts later, she finally got her top half up and slumping forward, just to sit idly for a couple minutes more. Her mane drooped, hanging over her face and neck even without her cap to push it down, while her muscles rebelled at being asked to perform such a horrendous action as 'moving'. Even the loose shirt she wore to bed felt clingy and sweaty all of a sudden. Rubbing her cheeks, she glanced over and saw the glint of the multiband's broken screen still functioning, but with half of it displaying a corrupted image.

"Oh, you stupid idiot..."

Muttering to herself in annoyance at her own clumsiness and swinging the covers off her, Claudia's captain finally forced herself to get up and deal with it. A bad wakeup was just another thing to push past; a good shower would see things right.

Pausing at every step, she nodded repeatedly to psyche herself up for leaving bed, crammed her hat on her head, and hopped off the side.

"Right, let's-"

Her right hind-hoof, unfortunately, managed to unerringly locate the multiband’s upturned charging plug with all her weight behind it, and the device exacted its revenge via proxy.

For the second time that morning, the relaxing drone of the reactor was interrupted by a very loud - and this time very angry - scream, an even louder set of curses, and a crash of dividing screens being knocked over.

Thrashing, tossing the fallen screens off of her and beating her foreleg on the bed in anger, Hair Trigger seethed at the lancing pain that fired up her hind leg. It had gotten right into the soft tissue at the very edge of the frog. Throbbing, stinging, arching up and down, she yanked herself up, reeled off a dozen words she'd never repeat around the crew in quick succession, and picked up the offending object.

"It's gonna be just one of those mornings, isn't it?"

She snorted at the plug, hurled it onto her bed in frustration, and limped painfully for her desk, wincing on every step. It felt like stepping on a nail every time her hoof touched the deck.

Hair Trigger hadn't even gotten halfway to the door after setting the multiband on the desk before her personal ('Captain's', she would insist) ship terminal began its own blooping and bleeping, followed by the sound of a beer can being opened.

Stopping on the spot, Hair Trigger ran a hoof down her face and scowled. It meant mail. The can opening sound had been her choice of the default set of alert sounds, but it was quickly beginning to lose its appeal. Perhaps, she figured, it was less to do with the exact sound and more to do with what it represented. Who else but a certain someone would be sending mail at this hour of the morning?

Collapsing into her chair, gasping at taking the weight off her hoof, she awkwardly bent over to tap the hoof print recognition panel. While waiting for the computer to log her in and bring up her mail app, she pulled her hindleg up to get a look at it, flicking the lights on with her magic as she did so.

There was a nasty red mark, right between the sole and the frog - one that stung to touch and radiated a swollen heat already.

"Ngh, damn it!" she muttered again, still trying to pull her thoughts together. The broken multiband sat like a trigger point reminder of everything already going wrong this morning, and the rapid series of pop-ups informing her of how much mail had been received weren't helping.

[Rota] Maintenance and Cleaning, followed by a date, and the time, sent by Volatility Smile a few minutes ago.

Volatility Smile had to be the only pony Trigger had ever known who'd send out a work rota for a crew of four people and one drone first thing in the morning. And looking further down at last night’s mails from after Trigger had gone to bed, clearly the only one who would send a daily report each evening as well, containing details for “Captain Hair Trigger's attention” on the things that Captain Hair Trigger herself had done.

Opening the rota out of morbid curiosity more than anything, she saw it contained four schedules. One for each of those aboard at the moment. Its contents were intrinsic, covering general cleaning tasks for the kitchen and common room and then a series of more specialist jobs such as bridge system checks for Tami, reactor limit drills for Kerfuffle, account revision and approaching market assessment for Smile herself, and ship tours and appraisal for Hair Trigger. With times. To the hour.

Not for the first time, Hair Trigger wondered just who ran this ship sometimes.

Tabbing down through each mail, she saw a third one marked by a red exclamation mark, with the astonishing inclusion of the dreaded letters 'KPI' in it, accompanied by individual documents for every crew member, including Patch.

"Okay, nope. Fuuuuuck that."

Pain or not, she quickly got up, grabbed the closest mug in her magic, and hobbled her way to the door instead.

Coffee and shower. That would do.

At least the morning couldn't get any worse.

* * *

Claudia’s common room still bore the untidy aftermath of the night before. Empty bags of crisps and half finished salsa tubs were dotted amongst a scattering of plastic bottles with only dregs remaining in them on the main table and around the sofa. So lay the aftermath of movie night - a not insignificant part of the reason why the crew had bunked down so late, despite the early start they knew they had.

Yet that was not the first thing that Hair Trigger felt herself made aware of.

That honour belonged to the thumping, allegedly invigorating beat of music with seemingly only three lines to its lyrics encouraging everyone to get up and move coming from the cargo hold. Having just escaped the shrill beeping of her broken multiband, this new racket was enough to make her pause, close her eyes and make a strained sound through her frown, before moving fully out of her room.

Stepping over a few fallen cushions from the table's chairs, remnants of a crew too tired to clean up before collapsing to sleep, she made her hesitant and painful way to the kitchen top at the far side of the room. Every step sent a spike up her hind leg, making her curse that it hadn't even had the grace to be a foreleg; at least those you could limp moderately well without.

Dropping her mug on the worktop, Trigger held her hind leg off the ground and set about finding what coffee she could muster from the cupboards. They were covered in papers, mostly containing whose job it was for cleaning that week, suggestions for movie nights, and one smaller list marked 'Systems we don't go to any more'.

Naturally, every system’s inclusion on that list had a story behind it to tell curious passengers.

Grabbing the handles, she found the first cupboard was empty of any caffeine

The second one joined the first in its rebellion against morning ponies.

Sighing, Trigger lit her horn and spun the rotating carriage on the wall, mostly used to store herbs or spices. If it came to it, instant coffee would have to do.

So focused was she on the search for packaged enlightenment, that she failed to hear the trotting near to her over the pounding music.

"Unfortunately, someone didn't remember to mark coffee as low last week."

Hair Trigger didn't turn away from her task, tossing packets side to side to get a look right into the back, her still sleep fuddled mouth gnashing and recalling the power of speech.

"Smile, if you're trying to softball me that we're out of coffee..."

To Hair Trigger's side, the crystal pony dabbed her towel on her head, still dressed in her sporting wear and, judging by her laboured breathing and sheen of sweat on her glinting body, was less than a couple minutes off of having finished her routine. Tilting her head to the side with a glance at the cupboards, she took a second to get her breath for another sentence, before continuing.

"Well in that case, we're out of coffee, because someone-"

She was interrupted by the hard dunking sound of horn-on-kitchen-top and the clinking of metal and plastic the impact caused. Volatility Smile was straight talking, but she knew when to adjust her words when needed. Smiling softly, she drew back her tone.

"Because someone else here, namely me, went through this exact hunt earlier this morning, and came up fruitless."

Hair Trigger spoke with her face plastered onto the worktop. "Well saved."

"I haven't a clue what you're referring to." Volatility Smile gave a brief wink, despite Hair Trigger's current staring contest with the polymer worktop restricting the captain from paying her any visual attention. "Regardless, I'm certain we can pick some more up today in Kavala. Confederate coffee, strong enough to build a factory on."

The small unicorn turned her head to Smile, before dragging her head backwards and standing up with another groan. "And by then, it won't be morning any more." She looked vaguely at the electronic clock on the hanging screen upon the wall, and narrowed her eyes. "You win this one, waking hours."

Volatility Smile nodded with a brief snort, rubbing a hoof under her own right eye. Coming from the normally prim and properly upright crystal pony, it was an unusual sign of lethargy. "We can win the war with extras and caffeine shots tonight to pep you up then. Because frankly, Captain, you look like hell this morning. Wrong side of the bed?"

Hair Trigger could only yawn and make a motion somewhere between a nod and shake, accompanied by a glare at her leg.

"Just the one with a damn charging plug waiting in ambush..."

Volatility Smile chuckled, quickly picking up the reason for her captain's limp. She wandered back to the cargo bay door and flicked off her exercise music.

"Well don't let Patch see it. Last thing I need to hear before I have some hot drink in the morning is his voice, and he's already bothered me about my posture. Mind if I take the first shower?"

She nodded toward the bathroom door beside the kitchen, and Hair Trigger idly waved a hoof. "Sure, I'm gonna go check on the rest. Got to do the rounds sometime."

Smile wandered to the table, picking up a folded washing towel she'd left there, and gave Hair Trigger a curious look as she tugged her mane's ties out to let it fall loosely about her head.

"Already? They'll still be getting things together, I think. That's why I pencilled the morning tour in for an hour from-."

Trigger snorted. "What am I going to do? Stare a coffee mug to death in the meantime? I'm going to the bridge, gonna see how long till we arrive. Enjoy the shower."

The unicorn turned, hobbling and cursing her way to the panelled stairs after dumping her mug by the kettle. The thin metal steps clapped and bounced under her on her route, until she disappeared above decks.

Behind her, Volatility Smile watched her grouchy captain go. Hair Trigger was usually a bit grumpy in the mornings, and she had long learned to give the captain a little space in such times. Content that it meant going for a shower, Smile dabbed her forehead with her dry towel and made to open the bathroom door.

Today hadn't been going well at all for her, owing to a frozen laptop update, an encounter with Patch mid-exercise, and no coffee. And now it threw yet another curveball.

The latch turned, but the door refused to slide aside. A thick clunk and only a tiny shift in its weight were all that the pull accomplished. She rattled it a few more times, to no avail. It wasn't locked. It was just jammed.

Her workout clearly wasn't done yet. The normally poised businessmare dropped her towel and grabbed the handle with two hooves to tug at again and again. Finally, her increasingly annoyed yanking bumped the lock up a little and the door sprang open, almost throwing her off her hooves. Smile staggered backward and dropped next to the kitchen on her haunches, banging her head on the edge of the worktop. Grumbling, she rolled her eyes.

"Oh, stars above...this morning."

* * *

Hair Trigger willed her way to the top of the stairs via the unbridled power of a grumpy mindset, one that didn't want to let one ambushing inanimate object inhibit her day. Coming up to the main street, she quickly reached for the heavy handle to the bridge.

After all, if there was one person on board she could trust to cast a ray of happiness onto a dismal failure of a morning, Trigger knew where to find her. Lifting her injured hoof off the ground, she tensed her shoulders and tugged at the sealed door.

Only to find it refuse to move.

"What."

The flat tone in her throat was matched only by the flat lack of reaction from the bridge door. She tried again with a little more force. Unlike the disagreement between accountant and accessway she could hear below decks, this was not a jam. The bridge door was well and truly locked shut.

Somehow, Hair Trigger didn't feel too surprised at this point that the morning had yet more to throw at her, but this particular detail was unexpected. They'd never had a locked bridge policy before. Especially not one locked to the captain.

Yet behind the locked door’s heavy metal, she could hear noises. Familiar ones that no-one on board Claudia would be unfamiliar with after at least a few days. Still with half-lidded eyes she leaned closer, her ear to the metal.

Music.

Taking a long breath, Trigger reached up and thumped her hoof on the door.

"Tami? Tami!"

She knocked it again, giving the door a few proper whacks.

"TAMI!"

The music dropped in volume, and she heard the scrambling of someone inside the bridge. Soon enough, she heard the clunk of metal and the click of a lock signalling the bridge-side security lock being undone, and the way inside was pulled open by just a little.

The first thing to escape was the sugar-sweet, hyperactive pace of colourful music, and the second was the soft, heart shaped face of Claudia's pilot poking through the gap. Tami's big eyes blinked, and she smiled brightly while clutching the door, her so-called 'triple-p patterned-pink-pyjamas' still clad around the visible arm. Behind her, the kaleidoscope of magic space whirled in the bridge's windows, providing an eye-straining visualiser backdrop to the high pitched lyrics and relentless bouncing beats that assaulted her thrice attacked ears this morning.

"Oh! Morning, Captain!"

Hair Trigger's face barely changed from a squinted clench. Even confronted by someone she naturally felt predispositioned to be gentler with, part of her still felt like it was sunken into her bed downstairs.

Taking a slow breath, feeling her very brain thudding away with the happy bumps in the tune, Hair Trigger formed her words with strained care. "Tami, why was the bridge locked?"

The hippogriff pursed her lips, clearly giving the answer a little bit of thought. Her visible talons gripping the door tapped in time to the music out of nerves. "Well...most of you lock your quarters at night, y'know? I'm just doing the same. Privacy!"

She smiled sweetly. Sleepy or not, Trigger knew she'd been wording that one in her head for a while.

"This is the bridge, Tami."

"Yeah, and I stay here, and the place someone stays is their quarters so..."

It took a monumental level of effort to keep her voice steady. The last thing she wanted to do was snap at anyone this morning, least of all the one in front of her now. "We don't lock the bridge, it's not a private quarters."

"But I'm sleeping here. I mean, you can just knock and then I'll know 'cos I might be getting dressed and-"

"Just-" Hair Trigger put a hoof on the frame of the door, her voice spiking upward a little. She was having to listen to her home's quiet hum being interrupted for the third time, and this time while speaking through a crack in the door to her own ship's bridge. It took her a second, before dropping back down to the grumpy morning tone she knew even Tami was used to by now, accentuating the words with a hoof motion in the air. "Just leave the bridge unlocked, okay?"

"Aye, Captain."

"Good girl. Besides, we've all walked in on you dancing before anyway. Nothing we haven't seen. All good?" Trying to offer a smirk, her mouth instead contorted into more of a twisted grimace. Thankfully, Tami seemed content with the tease, at least by her standards.

"I-I wasn't! And we should be transferring out to sub-light to Confederacy space in an hour, I was just-"

"Just listening to that song for the fiftieth time. Believe me, I think even I know the lyrics by now. But...okay, get dressed and clean up whatever paints you spilled that are making you hold the door closed like this to try and hide it. I'll go check on Kerf and get a shower first. Get readied up. And no more bridge locking, okay?"

"What? Paint? Noooo, no no."

Hair Trigger angled her head, raising one eyebrow.

Tami gulped. “Really!”

Biting her lip, the hippogriff just smiled wider, until her captain finally nodded, turned, and stumbled away down the main street.

Tami waved meekly at the departing unicorn and shut the door rapidly so she could turn back to her dilemma, only now resuming her panting breaths and grabbing more rags from her bag. That had been close.

Republic Blue was not an easy colour to get out of decking, or pyjamas.

"Oh, this is the worst morning..."

* * *

At every turn, Hair Trigger was beginning to recognise a pattern emerging now, and approached the engine room with a resigned expectation to whatever might be next.

Its doors were open already. Inside, she found the big griffon hunched behind the primary drive system at the back, half hidden away. He was busy at work, as diligent and reassuringly predictable as ever.

She stepped over the frame of the heavy bulkhead to the engineering section; one that could be shut and sealed more securely than any others that weren't an airlock, and found herself slowing down until she was standing still.

Inside, Hair Trigger had finally found what she was looking for.

That hum. The sound of a ship. Here, she found its source. To others it may have just been white noise in the engine room itself. But after an encounter with shrill alarms, overly motivated beats, and tooth rotting sugar in audio form, the simple mechanical sounds of a happy ship felt like the crooning of a meditation room.

Slowly, she felt her eyes close again, and a very pleasant tranquillity begin to rest in her mind after the conga line of aggravation thus far - one that was happy to let her rump drop to the deck and take the pain off her hoof.

"Oh. Mornin' Cap'n."

Opening an eye, she saw the calico coated griffon peering over the reactor at her, his gentle voice barely disturbing the atmosphere.

"A'ight." She nodded. "Nothing noisy is about to happen in here, is there?"

The griffon's head tilted sharply. "Don't rightly think so..."

"Any sudden slams, loud music, sharp objects, missing things or spillages?"

Kerfuffle thought about that for a few seconds, scratching at his feathers with long talons. "Nothing more than just myself and Claudia having a quiet morning here, Cap'n. Why're you sitting on the deck all quiet?"

Hair Trigger finally let a small smile creep onto her face, and closed her eye again.

"Happy place, Kerf. Always have a happy place."

Kerfuffle wasn't certain what to make of the comment, but Hair Trigger's obvious contentment reassured him. He turned back to his work on the core’s secondary coolant inlet. He’d been up all night already, trying to get it to line up after it had jolted loose during the emergency drill he and Tami had run the day before.

He had thought it would be a ten minute job, and stayed up after bedtime to finish it.

That had turned into a sleepless night of wondering just how in the world it had ever fitted at all, because it certainly wasn’t any more. Rubbing his tired eyes, he went back to his laborious task. This was not the kind of morning he preferred. It never was if Claudia wasn’t working how she should, and it unsettled him to think he couldn’t fix her on his own.

Unaware of the resigned stress behind Kerfuffle’s impenetrably calm face, his Captain let her mind and temper settle with nothing but the ship and the quiet griffon. Finally, Hair Trigger spoke up on her own. "Tami says we'll be there in an hour. Anything we need to be aware of before then? We got a job on arrival, not looking for any surprises."

Kerfuffle didn't look up, pulling a small locking tool from his slung belt. He set himself to bang it into place, before pausing, remembering the Captain's look, and instead gave it a gentle wiggle to slide over the lug instead. "She'll make it there, Cap'n. Gotta run a hyperdrive technical stripping before long though."

Trigger nodded. "We'll make the time. They've got a proper dock there in orbit."

The big mechanic seemed pleased by that, momentarily patting the side of the reactor housing. While she didn't hear what he said, Hair Trigger was certain she saw him whisper something to the ship through her peeking open eye. Her smile slowly grew a little more. Trust Kerfuffle to be the one steady, reliable source of zen on a morning like this.

Even then, her watchful gaze saw an uncharacteristic sluggishness in his movements. The big griffon was exhausted, and she made a mental note to order him to take the afternoon off if they had time.

Slowly, she got up, grunting as her back leg came down. "Better go get ready. Prep her for sub-light, Kerf, and thanks for the quiet. Gonna go get a shower soon as Smile's done, then we'll see about getting everyone together."

She turned to wander out, hoping against hope that Patch wouldn't find her before she got back to her quarters to wait on Smile. She was in no mood for a drone prodding at her hoof.

This was, however, an improvement. The edges that every other stop had sharpened were now softening, and she felt a more genuine smile finally coming to her face as she started to rationalise everything in a stream of calming thoughts.

Another day. Another job. Just a rough wakeup, that was all.

She just needed a nice. Warm. Shower. That was all she needed to rid herself of this. Just a shower. Warm water. That was all. Forget everything else. Just that. Just. That.

She had only just got out of the engineering section when she heard Kerfuffle shuffle over to the door behind her.

"Oh, Cap'n, you might wanna know there's no-"

From downstairs, there came the shriek of a very surprised - and very cold - crystal pony, followed by the crash of a curtain railing.

"-hot water. Thermal regulator threw a fuse..."

Hair Trigger stopped on the spot, eyes wide and staring at absolutely nothing. Her pupils contracted and her eyebrows hardened.

Kerfuffle looked at the trapdoor the sound had emerged from, and then back up at the now still unicorn halfway down the main street corridor. Her neck behind her mane started to tighten as her head tilted, with one eye twitching.

"And we'll need to dock first if we want to-”

"FOR FUCK'S SAKE!"

Any sense of comfort and quiet was broken by the frustrated, angered cry of utter exasperation, before the still loudly complaining and ranting captain stormed her painful way down the stairs once again, leaving the tentative griffon behind to slide back into his own happy place, and this time close the door.

* * *

Back on the bridge, Tammani finally put the finishing touches on her plan of obscurement until she could purchase a supply of paint thinner for a large area. It wasn't the greatest one, but it'd have to work.

"Right...there!"

Patting down the adjusted blanket, she stood in her stained pyjamas, stared at it, and tried to control her breathing the way Volatility Smile had shown her. Slow inhalations and exhalations. Each one measured to eight seconds. A competitive shooter's trick for bringing down the heart rate after swimming for miles, one Smile had learned from that unusual combined sport.

Smile had said to do it for a few minutes, but really, Tami wasn't much capable of being still that long. Not when she was so close to the endpoint of an FTL jump. Instead, she took to her more favoured method of calming down and hit the play button on a patterned music device sitting on the centre console of the bridge.

Soon enough, the soothing energy of Lady ZaZa's seasonal release was filling the bridge once more, while Tami took the opportunity to get dressed, repeatedly casting her eyes back at the warping colours out the bridge's slanted windows. The drifting shapes out there were starting to wobble and ripple in more intense waves, like a stone slammed hard into water, just unthinkably large and only growing in rapidity.

Tammani always loved this part. As much as the thrill of breaking into the otherworldly rift of magic space was an adrenaline rush, the transfer back to the known universe held an oh-so-satisfying feeling of accomplishment. To see just how accurate you'd been, and if you came out on the correct alignment. She and her friends back in basic flight school had always sought to be the one who could come out with as few adjustments needed on each axis after a jump.

This was particularly the case with their destination in Kavala. Smile's receipt of their job from the client had demanded extremely specific exit coordinates, down to a zone of space no more than a few hundred kilometres in diameter only just outside of a standard moon's orbital distance from a planet. The message had been quite explicit. Miss the job distance, and you don't get in.

It had puzzled Tami all trip as to why. She'd been through this system before, but to approach Kavala III there were all these extra demands. Smile had been doing research on it, but so far no answer had emerged. It wasn't a significant problem. She knew she could send Claudia into an area half the volume in a system populated with translation beacons to help them out, but it was unusual all the same.

Shrugging it off, and tugging her rainbow leggings on while sitting on her hammock, Tami kicked her legs and hummed along to 'Ovation'. Verbena, her new friend on Port Medusa, had provided her with the song, despite Tami's already knowing of it. She'd never owned it before though, and had spent the last few days getting to know every beat.

She glanced down, spotting her hoop lying where she'd left it last night.

A small smile came to her face. ZaZa's video had the Lady Ykina herself dancing with props. Not to mention, the zebra had worn bright striped colours. With a glance at herself, her leggings without the overalls certainly qualified.

Besides, hooping while exiting FTL with that colourful surreality backdrop? Even the pop star herself had never done anything that cool in a video! Real magic space!

With a nervous glance to the unlocked door Tami hopped off the hammock, took up the hoop, and felt a thrill of excitement fighting with embarrassed nerves.

“Aww, whatever. Let's do it.”

Giggling away to herself, she stepped into it, tapped her hoof, waited for the big drop into the chorus...and then let the beat take her over. The flow, the glow, and the unrelentingly confident singing surged into her, driving Tami to move from slow, uncertain movements until she was half hopping, half shuffling...and threw the hoop out to catch on her own body's movements.

“Woah, haha! Aw yeah!”

Soon enough, the (literal) blues of the morning were being forgotten.

Half humming lyrics she barely heard, waving her wings out for balance while wiggling and feeling the hoop roll round and round her midsection (with only a small cheat by holding the PA system above her for balance) she lived her own music video, as magic space joined her in its cascade of neon and flickering like a backdrop amid the hyperdrive's efforts to break back through into the galaxy.

The pilot panel pinged, barely audible over the music.

'APPROACHING MAGIC TRANSLATION.'

Claudia's voice echoed through the bridge, and Tami heard the slightly delayed repeat from outside.

Grinning wildly, Tami turned her shivering and excited self toward the window, rolled the hoop around and around, and watched. The sudden break of the psychedelic into the thick black and soft colours of real space to see where you'd gone was what she lived for, and what a conclusion it would be with the song winding down.

Outside the windows, magic space folded in on itself, and a bright white glare erupted across the ship, even as the final note hung and faded.

“Oh wow, that was -hehe- that was great. I gotta do that ag-”

'PROXIMITY WARNING. EMERGENCY MANEUVERS REQUIRED.'

“Huh!?”

The white flare of translation to the black snapped away, being replaced with the looming shape of a mass conveyor vessel in their flightpath, Claudia’s huge exit velocity bringing it so close that its ends exceeded the edges of the windows.

A wailing klaxon erupted throughout the ship, while three separate master warnings on the consoles lit up the entire board with intense buzzing and alternating red and yellow texts.

Tami screamed, diving forward into her chair, the hoop clattering across the bridge. She didn't even get to sit down before grabbing the control sticks and simply yanking back on them as hard as she possibly could.

A harsher, more immediate alarm rung out, making her cry out as half a million tons of metal darkened the windows with its approach, the turn struggling to affect their velocity.

'COLLISION WARNING. EMERGENCY MANEUVERS ESSENTIAL. BRACE BRACE BRACE!'

“No, no, no, no, NO!”

She frantically reached for the vector controls, hearing herself screaming a second time.

* * *

Downstairs, Hair Trigger had been midway through a most uncomfortable cold shower by the time the first alarm went off. By the second, she was mid-way out of the door, wrapped in a towel to find the others getting up from their late breakfast to head for the bridge.

“What the hell is going-”

Their world turned by ninety degrees.

Every light in Claudia switched off for a second, then suddenly began flickering madly. Hair Trigger's gut twisted on the spot, and she was thrown forward across the common room by the sudden shift in gravity. Trigger briefly saw Kerfuffle grabbing Smile, before she slammed into the pool table and skidded off of it with the sting of carpet burn. Wheeling through the air, she painfully clanged against the far door back first. The air was driven out of her, the wall feeling like the floor from the crushing forces. An ill-fittingly harsh and dominating voice rattled through the rumble of the ship's hull and whining reactor, and she saw Patch pin-balling from stairs to table to ceiling, alerts and bloops reeling out of his speaker as much as his requests for assistance.

“User assistance for Unit PATCH required! Gravitational anomaly interfering with gyroscopic stabilisers!”

She barely got to catch her breath before everything inverted once more, and she went flying toward her own room amidst a cloud of soaring utensils, cereal and empty bottles, the sharper edges of the stairs approaching fast. Crying out, she tried to turn her head away from them.

From below, a huge clawed hand grabbed her out of the air and yanked her down into a soft, cushioned embrace. She could see the glittering of Smile's coat beside her, as Kerfuffle held them both down below him, bracing his legs under the stairs and couch to keep them still as small objects bounced off of his back. He made a grasping attempt for Patch, but the aggressively complaining drone whirled away in a rapid series of warbling bleeps to crash through the strung up laundry.

“What in the blazes is going on out there!?” Smile's voice rang about the cacophony of every object unnaturally dropping to the floor again, no matter what velocity it had once had. She felt sick to her stomach, and her ears were whirling with imbalance.

Hair Trigger didn't bother replying, instead clambering out from under the griffon and rushing her damp and ever more pained body upstairs to the bridge. Everything was shaking, like great winds were blowing at the ship, and Trigger could hear the vector engines rattling in their housings. Her hooves felt loose on the deck. The artificial gravity was still off kilter.

Throwing open the door, she found a scene of utter chaos.

Claudia's bridge windows beheld a blur of motion. A colossal metal object filled the entire right and bottom, hurtling by them as though they were soaring low over an orbital station. Claudia veered away from it sharply, and another proximity alert rang out; not even getting half way through the alarm before a third joined it. Tami screamed, and Claudia spun again, the main engines roared with the effort of dodging something completely unseen to those without the information a pilot’s station granted them.

Dragging herself along the floor against the g-forces trying to press her into the wall, Trigger looked at the screens on her side of the console for the source of the alert signals. She saw the two kilometre vessel they'd just pulled away from dominating the display. The other, a rapidly moving transport ship, had just buzzed within fifty meters of Claudia’s underside.

The sensor screen was covered in so many indicators that Hair Trigger couldn't even count them. Looking back up, she saw a second enormous vessel coming into view, turning on full burn toward them to evade the first one they'd just pulled away from. The viewpoint of the windows suddenly twisted away from it, and Trigger felt more than saw the flying town rumbling overhead of them, and the concussive impacts of engines as wide as Claudia thumping into them as they passed its flightpath.

“What in all the damn galaxy is going on? Tami, did we just jump into a damn fleet engagement!? Did we hit something?”

“NO! No-it's...NO! Can't talk!”

Claudia banked and wheeled around, turning on her head before inverting and pointing out towards an area notably not filled with gigantic metal objects. Tami, sweating profusely, grabbed one side of the controls with both hands to hurl the yoke over and hit the thrust stick to its maximum with a wing. Even past the artificial gravity, Trigger felt her empty stomach lurch at the three-dimensional turn, something that would be impossible in an atmosphere without breaking the ship apart.

Behind them, Smile and Kerfuffle came running up after Trigger, the griffon carrying Patch with him.

Claudia powered forward for almost thirty seconds, only slowing once Tami fired the retrothrusters. The jarring deceleration rippled through the ship, and the angry beeping of alarms began to settle down. Breathing hard, Tami let go of the yoke and slumped over her controls, not even bothering to arrest the lazy spin the hard burn had given the vessel.

“Oh geez...”

Slowly, Claudia drifted. Glancing over at the shocked hippogriff, Hair Trigger reached forward and used a wet hoof to pull the control switching lever. Assuming pilot control of Claudia, she started gently easing the ship around to try face the way they'd come.

“You okay?” she quietly asked, glancing over at Tami in concern. The poor hippogriff was only partially dressed, shivering all over.

Taking slower breaths, Tami just nodded, before looking up at the windows. Hair Trigger reached over to pat her shoulder, and felt Tami’s hand settle over her hoof to hold it there.

“What did we hit?” Volatility Smile glanced from screen to screen, rubbing the side of her neck, yet there was no indication of damage to Claudia.

“Nothing.” Tami turned to the others, shrinking back on seeing them all nursing bruises. “I had to do a fully angled vector-turn while we were still transitioning back to normal space, and we passed through the magnetic field of a mass conveyor during it. Y'know, all those electromagnets holding containers on its hull? The uh...the artificial gravity didn't like that much. Went a bit, well, selective? S-sorry if anyone got jostled about a bit...”

The three who had been downstairs of them glanced at one another. Hair Trigger in particular was still wringing out her neck.

Kerfuffle eventually spoke up, looking back at them from the diagnostic screen, his concern for Cladia’s wellbeing paramount. “Better than losing all gravity hitting a conveyor.”

“Improper environmental conditions for possession of Unit PATCH may result in denial of warranty in the unlikely event of crew members seeking insurance cover. Transgression has been added to logs,” added Patch, a brand new dent in his casing just below the star sticker.

Kerfuffle hefted the drone up to stare into his visual receptors, momentarily tracing a claw around the dent, analyzing it. “Now that ain't nice to say. Wasn't us who parked a big cargo ship right there, was it now?”

From over the bridge, Hair Trigger twitched the controls a little more, then hit the retrothrusters to slow down their spin. Staring out, she narrowed her eyes and sat back.

“Looks like it wasn't just them. Or us. Damn...that's a crapstain of a mess out there.”

Hair Trigger’s careful control of the vessel brought Claudia around to a new heading, passing by the chaos of panicked ship movements breaking out before them. Yet moments after, a sudden flare of light from the system’s sun flooded into the bridge, illuminating the scene before them.

They had landed in the right spot. Nothing about the jump had been off. Before them lay a planet: their destination.

Kavala III.

The hazy gold and orange of a predominantly dry-to-temperate planet lay before them. They could see the shifting clouds and tan landmasses, indicating their jump point had brought them out at an unusually closer distance than most jumps did for a planet arrival. Normally planets were distant little balls, but not here. Here, they were nearly in a high orbit already, with all its details visible to the naked eye through a window.

Yet surrounding it was something that drew the attention all the more.

Asteroids. Countless asteroids, forming a near-spherical field of dark rocks and minerals all around the planet itself, rather than in rings. It was deep, from near orbit to out past the limit of one very notable feature amongst the field itself.

A broken moon.

Shattered of almost a third of its volume, the natural satellite hung like a giant parent of the asteroids, keeping watch over its millions of children as they spun and drifted in lazy orbits around both itself and the planet. Within the colossal field there were flashes of light, like fireflies at night. Sensor pings were clearly marked on Claudia's overlay, revealing those lights to be a vast orbital infrastructure anchored in the larger - safer - gaps of the asteroid field. Stations, drydocks, refineries, and vast mining motherships hanging in orbit populated the entire side of the planet they were facing.

Their jump location had been mere minutes’ flight short of the enormous rocks. On it, they saw what had caused their chaotic near miss, and what had attracted Hair Trigger's colourful comment. A traffic jam.

Of all things in space, they were witnessing a traffic jam.

Dozens of ships fled in all directions away from the crush. Some out toward Claudia, others drifting into the empty black away from the asteroids. Some stubbornly tried to make position at the gap in the field where the largest orbital station resided. Security cutters were darting around the first mass cargo ship that Claudia had missed, no doubt reprimanding and trying to direct the motionless - perhaps malfunctioning - ship away from Kavala III's crowded jump-in point before a tragedy occurred.

Even as they watched, an industrial class miner broke through to real space and recreated Claudia's own panicked turn, spinning away with flickering engines.

Wandering around the chairs, Kerfuffle pressed his beak against the glass and frowned at the number of ships already being towed after collisions. “Now why they gotta go make a jump point they tell everyone to go to and make a mess like that?”

Behind them all, Volatility Smile cracked her neck out, releasing some of the tension from the havoc downstairs, and tapped at the bridge's spare computing console. “Why, I am very glad you asked.”

Grinning at the chance to show what she'd been researching, the crystal pony reset her mane with a hoof, waiting for their attention to turn. They were a motley bunch at the moment. Tami was only quarter dressed, Hair Trigger still dripping from her mane onto the deck, and Kerfuffle looking like he'd gotten in a fight with a mane curler and lost.

Of course, Volatility Smile left herself out of the mental regarding of the messy situation they'd had to live through this morning. She coughed into her hoof and indicated a map of the system she'd drawn up on the console.

“Kavala III isn't part of the Confederacy.”

The line had just the impact she'd hoped for. Raised eyebrows and confused looks. Oh, how she loved to pause after such a look, and let others wonder for just a second.

“See, back during the war against the dragons, this system was used as a testing ground for many of the WMDs the various galactic nations were using as part of joint research. Records however show the legality of such weapons meant they could not be detonated on planets or orbital bodies by anyone but the owning sovereign nation. So, to allow all allied nations to test here, the owning government agreed to make Kavala III a neutral world within the borders of what would eventually become the Confederacy.”

Hair Trigger, having clearly seen the tone Smile was taking, grabbed one of Tami's towels after a glance for approval from the pilot, and started dabbing down her mane. “Fighting dragons of all things, and they still went by the letter of the law to have to make this place neutral first so other civilizations could test their bombs on it?”

Volatility Smile shrugged. “More or less. Rewriting the legality wasn't exactly top priority at the time, so they started testing even before the law was in place. Eventually, anyone who was anyone was throwing WMDs at the moon in this place to try them out first. It was here that it's believed the largest arcane explosion ever created by a non-dragon race was carried out. The allies were so impressed, they decided to stockpile the weapons on the moon itself, until they could develop a delivery mechanism for them.”

Hair Trigger's eyes moved to the window again, casting a glance at the distant, though still enormous, moon. Her eyes rested on the section of it that had been wholly torn out. “Let me guess, they stored hundreds of these uber-bombs underground on the moon, and then...”

Volatility Smile nodded. “And then the dragons decided that they weren't about to let such things ever be used. They attacked, and their magic detonated the stockpile. All at once.”

She gestured to the window.

“And that's why the moon's missing nearly a third of its mass.”

Tami whistled lightly, using the camera on Claudia's hull to get a closer look at the shattered moon. “Explains why the field's such a weird shape around the whole place. Was only a few hundred years ago; gravity hasn't had time to turn it all into rings yet. Hey, you can even see where they're starting to form.”

Beside her, Kerfuffle scratched his head. “So why insist we jump in so close?”

Smile clapped her front hooves together. “And that, I am delighted to explain, is the best part!”

Trigger raised an eyebrow. “Their reason for shitty jump coordinates is a bigger part then dragons destroying a moon?”

“I was just as surprised as you are, but listen to this.” Smile had not a hint of anything but truth in her voice, as she changed the page on the console, bringing up what looked like a legal document. Behind her, Trigger rolled her eyes with a grin at Tami, making the hippogriff giggle into her hands.

“Remember when I said Kavala III, even within its own system, was considered neutral territory? Well, after the war when the minotaurs formed the Confederacy, they certainly didn't bother with this place. Too dangerous to mine from, too chaotic among the asteroids. With no magic, they all had bigger fish to fry before dealing with this wreck. Only, the push to make this a legal place to test WMDs had left a loophole when lawyers finally dug up the records to formalise the Confederate territory. A pretty big one, in fact. They hadn't cosigned Kavala III as a legally binding neutral and unclaimable territory. Only unaligned.”

“Oooh...” Tami tapped at the back of the chair with her talons. “So someone-”

“That's right,” Smile cut in, determined to not have her own moment of the reveal guessed ahead of time. “Someone came along before the Confederacy and claimed it. Didn't do anything with it, just left it for decades and decades. Fought off legal wars, built a few cities of free trade, appointed a successor to their corporation, and then died of old age. Now the successor, she had different ideas. See, while we don't have automata like long ago, newer models of remote drones can now handle the dangers of mining an unstable asteroid field like this one.”

Her hoof waved to the screen hanging between Trigger and Tami's chairs.

“And that's the infrastructure you see there. The biggest independently owned mining site in the entire sector! Enough orbital infrastructure to support dozens of mass transports and hundreds of drone miners out of a fleet of hub-ships controlling them. All the profit, none of the danger to pony life. Think of it like a wholesale full of rare goods suddenly opening up in your backyard and being able to price them without any investor skimming.”

“But...” Tami hesitantly tried to speak up again, “that still doesn't explain why they're getting everyone to jump into this stupid small spot.”

Volatility Smile had been leaving this for last. The cleverness of it had left her grinning for an hour last night. It was the deceptively sneaky part, just the kind she loved.

“Because that tiny point over there? That's the only safe, regularly asteroid-free spot within Kavala III's tiny borders that doesn't cross over from the Confederacy. If we went even a fraction of an AU further out, we'd be entering Confederate space and get tagged by long range scans. We'd lose our licence to operate here because we crossed from Confederate space into a contested territory.”

The blank looks staring at her showed they clearly hadn't realised it yet.

“But we did cross into minotaur territory...” Kerfuffle was glancing at the map, wondering if he'd missed something.

“And that's the beautiful loophole. No, we didn't.” Smile grinned, nodding at Tami. “Did we?”

“Well we left Jealousy, which is Republic space, jumping to Kavala, which is Confederate space, but we...ooooh.”

Smile grinned widely. “We entered it from magic space directly. And the Confederacy doesn't own magic space now, does it?”

If she had hoped for them to act excited over such an elegant evasion through a legal loophole, she was disappointed. The trio just mouthed, nodded and tried to work it out. They could be so blind to the art of it all sometimes, Smile thought. The simple deviousness, using a specific magic space transition to jump the border and get around a Confederate denial of trade contract. How could you not love that?

It was perfect.

Behind them, through the window, there was a sudden flash of light. The engine nacelle of a transport erupted in flames after colliding with an asteroid while trying to evade a supertanker that had just jumped in.

Well, almost perfect.

Hair Trigger finally sighed, grinned, and gestured at Smile. “Is school done, Miss? Can I go on recess now?”

Tutting, Smile closed off the terminal and made for the door. “I'm going to get cleaned up. And by the way, that successor I mentioned, the one who started all this mining? That's our client. So, best looks everyone.”

Leaving the bridge, she headed downstairs to clean up and get ready.

Behind her, waiting till she was gone, Hair Trigger spun and sat back down, staring at the colossal sight before them. The radiant planet, the collapsed moon, the spherical field of spinning rock, the enormous structures and guiding beacons hanging in orbit to coordinate vessels, and the lines of ships attempting to weave in from the chaotic jump point. At the base of it all somewhere, there was one person waiting for them.

“You know those cartoons you watch, Kerfuffle? The ones where the creatures turn into different ones as they get stronger?”

The griffon sheepishly nodded. “S'better than it sounds, really...”

Hair Trigger didn't respond directly at first, other than a calming nod, before glancing back at the planet and its bizarre surroundings.

“I think we're about to meet the later version of Smile down there.”

* * *

Over the next few hours, and with the disaster of a jump point slowly being cleared of its titanic obstacle by a series of tugs launched from the planet, Claudia began to slowly drift its way into the marked lanes approaching the field itself.

Flickering beacons created highways in space, held in place by a networked series of small thrusters to maintain their position relative to the gaps in the field. Between them came ships of all sizes, directed into lanes befitting their class and role.

Kavala III was busy. Very busy.

Buoyed by traffic from the still developing Republic and the ever hungry for precision margins merchant fleet of the League, the planet was being swarmed. Millions of tons of freight traffic was either compressed into tight areas of safety that had been carved out amongst the asteroids, or lingered in high orbit of the planet just beyond the field itself. Several service platforms, like gigantic square plates in space, attracted most of the enormous super-class vessels, while countless other ships were directed into holding patterns. Here they would wait, sometimes for days according to Smile, making use of the small stations and their services until a landing spot on the planet finally opened up, or one of the refineries had a spare docking port.

It was into one of these areas, with a League-pattern station at its centre, that Claudia was instructed to go.

On the bridge, Kerfuffle had been avidly observing the unusually cramped spatial environment as they passed into the field itself. With a gap of perhaps only two kilometres for small ships to pass through in this section of the mining and market infrastructure, the colossal operations were visible to the naked eye.

It wasn't the station shaped like a bonsai-tree ahead of them, or the drifting rows of hundreds of cargo ships - including some identical in class to Claudia herself - that caught his attention. Nor the spiralling platform of thin arms that reached out among them to act as a refuelling probe to twelve ships at a time. It wasn't even the enormous boards of flickering holographic light that advertised stock prices - and how much lower Kavala III's were compared to the Confederacy - bolted between asteroids.

He was watching the techniques of mining operation itself.

Not far out from the sheltered waiting areas for ships, he could see streaks of light biting into the mineral and rare metal asteroids. Swarms of blocky ships moved in coordinated groups ahead of lumbering excavation barges. Automated drones, driven by a simple intelligence to discern the shape and composition of an asteroid, then burn away its crust with powerful thermionic beams, leaving behind the valuable deposits. Even as Kerfuffle watched, he saw one asteroid torn into rubble by the hornet-like attack of twenty drones biting to its core in mere minutes, before immediately moving on. Behind them, a second wave of small miners followed them up, making more advanced movements that betrayed remote piloting as opposed to automated flight. Moving within the shattered remains of the asteroid, they began smaller scale, more precise cuts, grappled what they cut off using diamond-edged blasting hooks, and towed the valuable minerals back to the dirty yellow barge following the whole operation.

Kerfuffle had witnessed a dozen instances of it occur over the two hours it took Claudia to lazily edge its way in behind ship after ship to her assigned 'parking spot', as Tami had put it. Organic and synthetic intelligence working in harmony; it was enough to make the quiet griffon smile to himself.

Yet with a sudden flare of light, he witnessed the other side to why drones were being utilised in such numbers. A fragmenting chunk of moon impacted on another, resulting in a small chain reaction. Caught within chaotically tumbling rocks, six of the drones were shattered into their component parts. Immediately, a salvage party broke off from the hull of the excavator. Drones collecting drones, to repair and send them back in again.

The smile quickly disappeared. “Now that ain't right...”

“Nothing about this morning much has been so far, big guy.”

Hair Trigger limped into the bridge, giving Tami a pat on the shoulder to let the hippogriff go and get something to eat. Watching Tami go for a moment, she slumped down into the chair beside the griffon. Kerfuffle tilted his head as he saw the unicorn floating a mug of steaming brown liquid with her.

“Thought there wasn't any coffee, Cap'n.”

Trigger didn't look up as she transferred control to her side, and kept Claudia steadily rumbling toward a flickering beacon that had been marked on the main screen. She took a sip, scowled, and shrugged. “S'not. Just warm water with some brown food colouring, whitener, and sugar. Figured I might as well try to at least trick myself into thinking I've had some.”

She stared directly ahead of them at the planet itself, running over everything that had happened since she'd pulled herself from her bed. Already she knew this was a day to be in a foul mood. Pulling up her hind-leg, she rubbed cautiously at the plug-attacked frog of her hoof.

“Son of a...” She followed it with a harsh mutter. “Better not be walking anywhere down there. Great idea! Get out and immediately stand on a damn plug. Limp all over the place in front of a client who owns a planet. Aren't I set to be the utter example of a professional captain today, huh?”

Kerfuffle had been looking at the drones again, eagerly hoping the recovery operation would grab one of the ones he'd seen spiral off out of sight. Yet at the small rant behind him, he turned and shook his head.

“She probably couldn't do what you do, Cap'n. That'll be why she wants you. So even if you've got an injury, don't mean she's gonna turn you down.”

The unicorn didn't take her eyes off the angrily swollen feeling section of her hoof. “Just always full of the simple bright side, aren't you?”

“Mama always said that was what Lena did. Figured that meant I should too, is all.”

Hair Trigger stopped for a second and looked up. She hadn't expected an actual answer from her sense of rhetoric, until reminding herself just who she was conversing with.

“Lena… Sister that was, yeah? Galena?”

“Mhm.” The griffon nodded slowly, glancing back on the window again.

“Well...carry on with it then. Besides, our collective asses are gonna need a bright side if any more goes wr-oh hello...”

The last comment had been directed to a sudden blip on her co-pilot console’s top panel. An automated transmission was being beamed to them from the communications beacon lingering in the void above their holding area's station. Hair Trigger reached out for the ‘receive’ icon on the touchscreen, grumbled briefly as her hoof failed to reach the large control’s (minotaur designed) height, and hit it with a telekinesis-propelled mug instead.

“They sure do got a lot of stuff running on automatic out here...” Kerfuffle mumbled, glancing over the edge of the seat...and Hair Trigger's head.

If the grumpy unicorn noticed his shadow bearing over her, she didn't say, instead activating the message to play through the bridge speakers. The clipped, electronic voice was as emotionless as it was rapid and to the point.

“For attention: Captain Hair Trigger of the Claudia. Sender: Chief Executive Officer Asset Margin of Kavala III mining and wholesale facilities. Message Body: Arrival detected and logged, proceed within the hour from holding area nine to high orbit infrastructure pattern. No free landing platforms at facility on surface. Automated shuttle will approach and dock, permitting flight to visitor drop off at Corsinica Headquarters as replacement. Scheduled appointment is sixty four minutes behind schedule due to unexpected jump traffic incident. Shuttle will require manual flight to building at attached coordinates. Staff will instruct upon arrival. End of line.”

There was a second chime as the coordinates referred to were dumped directly into Claudia's incoming data buffer.

Trigger sipped her not-coffee and furrowed her brow. “Getting the impression this client isn't all about having a lot of employees...guess we better get going then. If she's as anal about this job as she is about her messages being that specific then we'd better not be too late.”

Reaching out with her magic, she grabbed the PA system handset and yanked it down to her mouth, depressing the button. “Call to work just came in, everyone. Stow up, pack up, and get your asses ready to hit planetside. Tami, we've got permission for an orbit, let's see you up here in ten. Kerf...oh.”

Kerfuffle angled his head down, having been so quiet that Hair Trigger had thought he'd left.

“...never mind. Step to it, and lets get our payday done. Captain out.”

She let go of the button, and hung the handset back up.

“Get her ready for a long orbit, Kerf. If Asset's as long winded as Smile can be, we'll be here a-”

Hair Trigger paused, suddenly hearing her own voice still echoing back to her from the speakers just behind the bridge, and slapped a hoof into her face.

“Son of a bitch?”

Half a second later, the speakers asked her the same question right back. How had she missed that? Fiddling with the handset, she checked the button depression only to find it was indeed in the 'off' position.

“I swear if one more thing decides to break or go wrong this morning...”

The PA system was still active, transmitting every frustrated grunt she made as she reached up and whacked the side of the system housing itself.

“Will. You. Turn. Off. You. F-”

Hair Trigger's catharsis-delivering hoof stopped in mid-air, clutched in a griffon's hand.

“Cap'n, that ain't goin' to help.”

Trigger breathed in sharply at the griffon's hasty reprimand, before feeling the anger bubble away inside her. She knew her temper had gotten shor-

She paused, and reworded it in her mind.

-had gotten limited in record time today. And now it fought with embarrassment and regret at having to be told to calm down by the normally neutral engineer.

“Yes...yes. Just fix it, Kerf. I'm fed up of this already.”

She got off the chair and attempted to make the galaxy's angriest hobble toward the door. Smile was coming up the stairs as she departed.

“PA system seems a little 'long winded', Captain.”

Hair Trigger paused and shot a glare at the crystal pony, muttering a quiet but sharp 'don't', before making her way downstairs, not even turning her head to look at the sofa below her as she spoke.

“And you can stop giggling away down there as well, Tam!”

“Snrk...aye, Captain!”

* * *

Though Kerfuffle and Tami both put off their morning routine and spared some prep-time to investigate, the PA system's fault couldn't be located. After twenty minutes or so, it finally decided the joke had stopped being funny and shut off on its own.

Soon after, under Tami's gentle control, Claudia was given permission to leave the holding area and pass deeper into the rocky field. To the hippogriff's perception of the distances, it almost felt like flying the ship through a series of caves to close deeper in toward the planet. Yet as they reached the permitted orbital layer, it finally began to ease off.

Even in this more open inside gap between the spherical field and the planet itself, there was little ease in the sensation of being in a crowded sky. Lines of ships at various station points waited for their turns to drop to the planet's few starports, and there was a secondary layer of engineering hubs and logistics stations dotted around the planet. In total, Tami had counted an awe-inspiring twenty six stations of habitable scale, from a few dozen personnel to a couple with hundreds. There were a few dozen other automated platforms out there too.

Easing into the final orbit path, snuggling Claudia between a Trandex class liquid transporter and a despondently ugly looking Confederate basic transport, little more than a near featureless block in space, Tami set the autopilot to hold their path. Within minutes, she spotted the approaching remote shuttle making its way toward their assigned speed and vector. To her surprise, it docked on the starboard port of Claudia without much of her own input required, rocking the ship lightly as the airlocks sealed.

Getting out her seat, Tami hastened to the door and shouted down the stairs to the others. “Good for planetside!”

Below her, Hair Trigger stopped holding the ice pack against her hoof and waved up at the hippogriff.

“All right. Let's get going, everyone.”

* * *

The whole crew gathered around the airlock in the cargo hold, carting their belongings with them. Hair Trigger was glancing at her multiband, tapping a hoof on the edge of the crate she sat on.

“Right, route looks fine. So, plan is: Smile, Kerfuffle, and myself will head down there and meet with Asset. If it's all legit, we handle the job then and there. Far as we know it's all planetside. So that's why I want you staying here, Tami.”

The hippogriff looked up in surprise, having been checking the battery in her taser. “On Claudia?”

Hair Trigger nodded. “Exactly. New client, new territory. I'd rather have an ace card in the figurative sleeve ready to move up here.”

Volatility Smile handled her own rifle, ensuring it was unloaded before stacking it into the shuttle. “Expecting trouble?”

“Why else would someone who makes more money in a day than we will in our lives want an independent crew if there wasn't a little twist to it?”

“Fair to note. Although...” Smile leaned on the shuttle's door and ran a hoof through her mane. “Speak for yourself on your life's ambitions.”

Hair Trigger made a small snort of amusement. “Point made, now go get the shuttle fired up. You'll be on helm, you've done more atmospheric work than I have.”

Behind the two ponies, helping Kerfuffle with the packs of provisions to last a day or two's journey, Tami couldn't deny that the news was quite welcome. She tossed her own medical supplies to him.

“Actually kinda glad I don't gotta go down there...”

Grabbing her thrown medkit, Kerfuffle turned and laid it beside the shuttle's door for the Captain to pick up and take inside. He cocked his head curiously. “Why's that, Miss?”

Tami paused, indicating herself. She was still somewhat frazzled all over, after having spent the better part of the morning resetting the artificial gravity software to account for the confused mess of a reaction earlier.

“Because with all the nonsense this morning, I haven't even had the time to do anything! I still haven't finished breakfast, or done my coat, or my mane or...or my tail. Look at it! My tail looks like I just threw it in an ice-cream mixer! And it's still got paint in it! How could I meet someone who's like a planet's leader like that?”

Kerfuffle blinked and waited a moment, then smiled. “Now that ain't right, Miss. Your tail looks fine. The Cap’n thinks so too.”

Tami paused in her ramble. “She does?”

“I do?” Hair Trigger chimed from behind them, raising her head up from the multiband.

Happy with his deduction, Kerfuffle nodded. “Yup. Why else would she look at it and smile a little sometimes when you turn around? And she did it this morning too when you left the bridge, so don't worry.”

Smiling, the big engineer stood proudly, before wondering why Tami suddenly started blushing. Behind him, he heard the slap of a hoof on a forehead.

“Thanks, Kerf...”

“You're welcome, Cap'n. Can't always be you keeping us all cheered up.”

Satisfied with his efforts, he leaned down to grab and hug Tami goodbye, before ducking his head down to clamber into the shuttle through the airlock, leaving Trigger and Tami on the deck to glance quietly at one another. From within the small ship, they could hear the hum of it powering up as Smile got to work at the controls.

Picking up her rucksack and shoving her pistol into its holster, Hair Trigger chuckled. She reached out to clap the hippogriff on the shoulder.

“For the record, he ain't wrong.” She winked, before continuing. “Bit of paint in the tail does look cute, come to think of it.”

Tami’s wide cheeks didn't much change from their reddened state, and she held the hoof on her shoulder with a hand. “If you say so, Captain. Good luck down there.”

“You going to be fine up here on your own?”

Tami nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, don't you worry about me, I got my plans already! Nothing but a quiet orbit with plenty of sights up here and...oh! I should paint that moon! And-and-and I can see what they've got available on the streaming service from the beacon; I've missed so much out here.”

Behind Hair Trigger, Smile appeared at the airlock. “Shuttle's primed, we're good to go!”

Trigger let go of her pilot and wandered into the airlock itself. “Just keep Claudia warm for us. Enjoy the time.”

Giggling, Tami patted the music device clipped to her belt. “I will! Got a whole bunch of music to catch up on too. I'd offer to put it in the shuttle for you all but uh...maybe not your thing. Some of it's pretty, y'know, obscure or...whatever.”

Smile laughed as she set the airlock to start closing behind them. “Tami, your idea of obscure music is something that was number one for less than a month. I think we'll be fine. Take care up here.”

“I will! Have, uh, have a good job! Hope things go better than this morning!”

She saw the crystal pony and unicorn smile at her as the airlock door slammed shut and locked, its bar spinning in place from the other side to activate the pressure seal on all sides. Within a minute, she heard the gentle thump of the shuttle departing, and flew back up to the bridge to watch them on the external camera.

The sloped, gently gleaming silver shuttle turned away from the larger Claudia, taking a route away from the planet at first to get clear of the orbiting ships. Finding a way through, it began arcing back down and around to make headway for the largest continental landmass.

As soon as they were away, she turned back to the bridge at large; and by extension the whole of Claudia.

Hers.

Grabbing her paints and an easel, scrolling through her device's long list of music, Tami concluded that today, despite its start, was going to be a good day.

* * *

Today, Hair Trigger had concluded, because of its start, was not going to be a good day.

Already the banging and tossing of the shuttle on re-entry to Kavala III had knocked her hind leg off the co-pilot position consoles three times, and the stark brightness of the sun over the terminator line had spent all of the journey thus far beaming right into the shuttle's main windows. Tinted glass or not, it was making her eyes hurt.

Smile fought with the controls, muttering and sighing at its ill-configured presets. “Getting the feeling they don't have it manually piloted very much. Ack, this sun! Come on...”

Smile was normally too composed to rant, but enough irritation would draw out even her bitter, snappy tone.

Eventually, mercifully, they passed low enough into the atmosphere for the sun to dip to a merely rising state, and the bumpiness of the ride finally eased off.

“In-atmo,” Smile muttered gratefully, switching the autopilot on - after a few false starts - to carry them to the facility. “Good enough reason as any to ask Raw Deal for a shuttle if we ever get one, and not Asset for a surplus.”

Kerfuffle wandered around in the back, now free of the restraining straps used during re-entry, and cast his eyes into every nook and cranny of the shuttle's small passenger and cargo section behind the dual-seated front. It could only carry around three or four large crates. Or, apparently, two passengers and one enormous griffon.

“Don't know about that, she's a fixer-upper. Maybe give the engine cowlings some realignment, or flush out the fuel-lines. Few weeks of care ought to do it.”

Smile glanced over her shoulder. “You can't be serious. We're not buying a shuttle off someone who can't even keep its piloting software up to date.”

“Then we can update it, give her a new lease on life that ain’t just being used for less than she's worth.”

Hair Trigger threw up a hoof sharply. “All right, enough! We haven't even met her yet, and we're not buying anything. At least not this time. I'm not trusting a damn thing more today.”

She threw off her restraints and hopped her way into the back to the larger seats, getting the ice-pack out again. She leaned back, and held it against her hoof with a pained hiss of inadequate relief.

“Sure it's been a bad mornin', Cap'n, but maybe it'll-”

“No!” Hair Trigger stopped him mid sentence with a sharp look up, then threw another barbed glance at Smile. She wasn't angry at the pair, but they were the only living objects in proximity and would have to endure her built up vitriol. “Nothing more today! The rate things are going this whole thing's going to go pear shaped just to match up, I'm telling you now.”

“You think so, Trigger?” Smile turned the seat around, leaning back in it with a gestured hoof.

“I know so,” she snarled, before gasping sharply and hurling the ice-pack across the shuttle as turbulence made her squeeze it too hard onto her hoof. “I can't even get up out of bed without shit happening, then when I DO get out of bed, shit happens all the more.”

Exasperated, any true anger dying to a sardonic groan, Hair Trigger slumped in her chair, swinging her forelegs in small circles.

“Add in all the stuff going wrong, almost jumping into a damn freighter, and I'll tell you what's going to happen next with that luck. We're going to go down there, and she's not going to have any late morning coffee on hand for guests. And I'm probably going to hate her, and yet I'll need to listen to her for a long time. And then we're going to start the job and head out to pick up whatever it is she wants gotten to call a crew like us - which is of course going to be through a fucking storm en-route because why wouldn't it be at this stage?”

“I think you're being a little over the top, Capta-”

Smile didn't even get to finish, as Hair Trigger's voice suddenly swelled up again, and her hoof waving only grew in intensity.

“And then! After a long flight we're going to arrive wherever it is, we'll realise that it's actually something super illegal and morally bankrupt that she's asking us to get and we'll have to all sit there and have the usual debate about whether to do it for the money or not!”

“Captain, seriously-”

“AND THEN! Just as we thought all the bad shit had gotten done, we're going to get betrayed! Mrs Asset's going to slam on floodlights having flown ahead of us somehow, and laugh like a stars damned supervillain from a balcony flanked by flames about how this was all just a big fucking test!”

Smile's brow furrowed at the ongoing, expletive-filled rant, not even trying to interrupt the unicorn now. Hair Trigger wiggled a hoof around in a circle near her head, talking half as much at the ceiling.

“And then all hell is going to break loose, because we failed the test by not taking the illegal crap because she's probably into funding pirates, or the snakes, or some...some crap like that! And I bet one of us gets shot. And I bet it's in the ass. And I bet we'll have to go home with nothing but new scars and then I'll have to listen to Sweet Ass oh-so-nicely tell us we shouldn't go to other independents outside of her all over again. And I bet we don't even get any damn coffee before we need to make the journey back because anything going right would be too much to ask, would it?”

She sat back with a huff, forelegs crossed. And hind legs.

After a few seconds, Smile finally ventured, “You done?”

“Oh, I'm done. I am very done.”

The crystal pony rolled her eyes, turning back to the controls. “Now look, Asset didn't get to where she is by doing things like that. She's made a lot of enemies even on this world. She controls much of it, but anywhere with a city you'll never run it all, and she's the biggest target. You ought to watch out more for who wants her, that's who I'm worried about; because it's them we'll undoubtedly need to be going against in this case.”

“No coffee; shit cargo; fucking betrayed.” Trigger's voice was muffled below the hem of her hooded top.

Dropping her forelegs by her sides, Smile groaned aloud at the nearly petulant reply, rolling the shuttle upright as they descended through thick cloud.

“All right, I get it, you had a bad morning! We all did, okay? I had to do our charting costs for the Republic exit on a notepad because my laptop's broken! And it wasn't just you that got tossed around by that damn jump! If anything is going to go wrong, we're going to have to deal with a very bad mess. We're the canaries here; we're the ones getting sent to deal with something she can't show face at or risk going to. The more I read about this planet, the more I'm convinced you were right about one thing: there's going to be a twist to this. She's got four corporations alone trying to buy up stock in her mining company lately. She might be the head honcho of the planet, but she's still fighting to keep that position.”

Hair Trigger snorted, a bit put out from her own over-the-top rant. “So what, someone's going to try and pay us more, or we get sued?”

“More that whoever is going after her is going to bring a few stallions in suits to persuade us to do whatever they want instead if we don't keep aware of who we're meeting. Remember, Asset doesn't need to follow us up if we disappear. And I promise, their suitcases won't be full of contracts. Corporate warfare's a nasty business in independent systems, or planets in this case.”

“Great. You know, I think I prefer my one, actually. At least it has less pliers and broken kneecaps.”

Throughout the barbed conversation, Kerfuffle had quietly occupied the majority of the shuttle's passenger section, hunched down from the ceiling despite sitting on the deck itself. Rather than stare at the two grouchy ponies, he instead watched the window as the darkness of space began to transition to the upper reaches of the sky.

Up there, surrounding Kavala, was the Confederacy where he'd grown up. His home, the Labyrinth mining colony, was just two systems away. This whole planet he was now descending to, though, was a strange anomaly. Despite his proximity to it, he hadn't known it existed outside vague mentions of a competing mining corporation in the sector. That in itself wasn't unusual; not much information about other planets got into Labyrinth that didn’t concern relevant details.

But he knew the Confederacy, and he knew they didn’t approve of Kavala III. The border controls were one example. The lack of a through-signal from this planet to Confederate space to let him send a short range message to his sister even just two systems over was another.

Now, however, he was just beginning to hope they weren’t about to see just how far the Confederacy’s distaste with Asset's little oasis in their space extended.

* * *

After around two hours of flight in Kavala III's atmosphere, the away party's shuttle pinged that it was approaching its destination. For the last thirty minutes since they'd come in from across a dried up ocean bed they had been flying above enormous canyons of golden rock. Briefly, Smile had wondered if the lack of water had been a result of the moon's shattering long ago, but the real reason quickly became apparent. The canyons were not empty.

Instead, they were populated by the colossal wrecks of ancient ship designs. Boneyards; ship graveyards, where hundreds of vessels of all sizes had been deorbited or crashed into the canyons. Rolling the shuttle to bring it into view of the windows, Smile could see everything from haulers, to warships, to even the behemothic carcass of a luxury cruise liner broken across a turn in the largest canyon. Its skeletal remains only barely betrayed its once splendid shape. While Smile wasn't the type to recognise exact ship classes, she knew pre-Wyrm War designs with their organic, magically crafted hulls when she saw them.

They bore old colours of long dead nations; once bright, but they had long faded into worn grey from powerful dust storms weaving between the hulks far below the shuttle’s altitude, like the tide was still coming in across the coast. Only now it was a dry, weathering surge that twisted in little eddies among the exposed ribs of old carriers, or spurting out the missing top panels of a crumpled colony ship like a whale’s blowhole. Some were unintelligible piles of torn metal, where a wreck had come screaming out of the sky and fallen upon the rest. Others were held by supports embedded into the rock walls, more gently landed and shockingly preserved. Even then, she could see where many of them had collapsed over time.

The old world had ended up buried here, isolated from the decades-long cleanup that had happened on more populated planets. All this barren dryness had been from the impact of ships never intended to enter an atmosphere being struck down here from orbit to gather dust. A hundred miles of deep impact scores, blackened rock, and mountains of fragmented ships strewn through entire canyon systems, three or sometimes four wrecks deep. It had changed the entire climate of what had once been a coastline.

A telling reminder of the scale of that war.

Behind her, Kerfuffle squeezed his bulk until he could put his head sideways on the passenger door and peer with one eye through its porthole.

He looked aghast at what he was seeing.

Watching the griffon, Hair Trigger reached out and nudged his shoulder.

Well, his elbow, really.

“Chin up, big guy. Someone's gotta be the bottom of the list to help restore 'em. They'll have their time. Metal's patient.”

Kerfuffle shook his head. “S'not that, Cap'n. They've got remote vessels down there stripping them apart. Ain't right. Just ain't right. Deserve their retirement after what they saw back then. Oughta just leave those ones in peace to rest.”

Hair Trigger shuffled up to the cockpit, peering down. Kerfuffle wasn't wrong; there were small moving objects among the hundreds of wrecks littering the canyons. Flat table-like vessels were having salvaged components dropped onto their hulls by the articulated arms of vertical-take off scrapper drones - the same sort she'd once seen tear one of her family's oldest ships apart on its decommissioning.

“Y'know, I'm with Kerf on this one.”

Smile glanced again, but didn't reply. Instead, she swept the flatscreen of the pilot interface aside after the ding of a received message. The curt message displayed in small text, along with a number.

“Docking permission. They've seen us coming. Should be just around-oh my stars...”

The shuttle veered around the edge of a cloud-scraping mountain, before finally coming into sight of Corsinica Headquarters, but that was not what they saw to begin with.

The barren, rocky canyons had given impressions of an entire planet formed of nothing but crevasses, dry air, and scrap metal. The canyons formed part of a continental wall against what had once been an ocean. Beyond them, however, was something else entirely.

The five hundred metre heights they soared over suddenly dropped away, revealing much greener pastures. A pale, patchy type of vegetation perhaps, but nonetheless still fertile land sheltered from the apocalyptic drops of orbital wreckage by the high mountains bordering the canyons they had just passed. But what drew the attention of all three in the cockpit was an expanse of salt cliffs that sharply dropped away on the far side of the range. Glistening white, they reflected the enormous sun out of mirror-like pools staggered down the six mile long slopes in a strange stepped formation. Naturally formed, miles wide, and stretching down into the plains beyond the heights.

In these plains lay one of Kavala's old cities. Once evacuated before the use of its moon for superweapons, it had now been rebuilt by those seeking a life free of the larger galactic nations. To their surprise, skyscrapers already protruded, a symbol of the shocking growth that Asset's predecessor had sparked on this once lonely world. Its modern glass-panelled structures glimmered brightly in the morning sun like a host of fireflies in broad daylight, interwoven with the hot, hazy endless rows of lights surrounding heavy industry and colossal spacecraft factories. Closer to the shuttle, small villages at the city’s outskirts expanded into the green lands, up to the salt cliffs themselves, where chairlifts promised a certain hope as a holiday destination someday.

Smile gave a small smirk, muttering quietly to herself. ”Good luck getting holiday insurance risk assessment past that jump zone up there.”

Their shuttle received a harsh automated communication, demanding their adherence to the flight lanes, and Smile pulled back the sticks to fall in with scant few other small vessels that filtered in from the eastern side of the city itself. As they fell in step with the marked path, she could see much busier lines of drones at lower altitudes, filtering in and out of factories or the numerous scrapyards. Perhaps half a million population, Smile estimated, the outcome of the still ongoing boom period she'd read about, followed up by Asset's mining bringing in several thousand more representatives from worlds all across the surrounding sectors. In short order, they all had begun wanting a slice of rare metals without needing the Confederacy's tax levies. Most corporations, of course, based their operations in the orbital stations, but any serious infrastructure always had a planetary basing in some form, and this was the result.

Yet the route took them past the city itself, passing only through its one-way flight system. Corsinica Headquarters lay beyond.

Another colossal step of cliffs behind the city dropped off for another few hundred metres, casting the height above sea level of their previous route into being much higher than any of them had predicted. This one was empty, but for one building.

“And here we are, Captain.”

Hair Trigger had already been gazing in wonder at the city, but she suddenly found the cockpit area cramped as Kerfuffle squeezed up to take a look as well. Crushed in together, the trio watched the home of their client grow closer.

Cream and silver, it shone with smooth curves, overhanging the very edge of the cliff itself on long struts and wires. Rounded corridors were suspended in mid-air, while a sail-like shape sheltered it from the direct sunlight. It could have been mistaken for a combination between a trillionaire's home and a sailing ship of ancient times.

Dropping into the canyon, Smile brought the rattling shuttle up underneath the strange facility, directed by the nav-unit to a sheltered dock for small vessels. Slowing to a hovering speed, they pulled into the shade of the great sail, and eventually under the 'roof' of the dock itself, before a small drone buzzed up to direct their path onto the landing pad.

As they turned and committed to the always agonisingly slow landing procedures of an occupied dock, they could see various visiting vessels. A mining command ship riddled with radars for drone networking was just departing. Beyond that the far half of the area was dominated by the sleek curves of a large stellar yacht. Twice the size of Claudia, made of gleaming silver metal and bronze highlights, it hovered above the drop on reserve power, gangplanks running up to its smooth surfaces. The lifestyle of the rich. To her surprise, Trigger could see a few retracting doors pulled back, revealing three self-defence autocannons being maintained.

Clearly, Asset knew there were some looking to get her at any opportunity.

With a rough thunk, the shuttle dropped onto the smooth metal and spooled down its engines. Giving the hull a moment to cool, Smile hit the lock for opening the side door. Immediately a stuffy heat washed into the cooled interior, as the reason for the sail-shade became very clear indeed.

Hair Trigger didn't even get to the door before she saw smartly uniformed engineers galloping forward to fix the shuttle in place and start refuelling procedures. Even more formal was the suited security team approaching. Noting they were made up mostly of earth ponies, she lightly cursed at their height as they circled the shuttle. Opening the hatch with a hiss, she saw at their centre a dark red hippogriff; his weathered face somehow managed to twist around a vicious scar to offer a polite smile.

“Captain Hair Trigger, welcome to Kavala III. I am Security Director Garwyn, and I'll be escorting you to the Director's office. However, I will require your armaments. No weapons are permitted off of the docking area.”

“Straight to business”, muttered Trigger, as she floated out the combined weaponry of their team to lay onto a trolley that was wheeled forward. Her pistol, Kerfuffle's shotgun, and Smile's rifle were all tagged and barcode scanned, before being taken to a security office at the back of the bustling hangar bays.

Garwyn smiled again, his mouth doing strange things every time he did. “Miss Asset Margin is waiting for you. She apologises for things running behind schedule, and for the incident in orbit with that freighter losing propulsion out of its jump. It has been a trying morning for us down here.”

Hair Trigger's shoulders relaxed, a sense of strange calm overcoming her at the casual tone. “Tell me about it. Let's go.”

The team formed up around Trigger, Smile, and Kerfuffle, taking an easy pace between pads full of identical shuttles. Relatively few technicians worked on them, supported by tracked robots that followed them around and clunkily handled fuel lines or off-board generators.

Ahead of them, the doors quietly swept open to take them out of the noisy hangar and into a spotless world of smooth metal and, mercifully, functioning air conditioning. As they passed through a quiet reception toward a series of glass elevators that moved on the exterior of the building, Hair Trigger glanced at the crisp lines of the security ponies and the lavish smoothness of the curved roof and rounded doorways around them. She regarded her own frayed top with its loose hood, and muttered quietly to the others.

“Get the feeling we're under-dressed?”

“Speak for yourself, Captain.” Smile grinned, smoothing down her suit, before her face hardened. “If you don't mind, I think I should do the talking here.”

“Carry on, Smile. We're in your world now.”

The elevator doors shut around them, and the magnetic rails swept them upwards, toward the executive level.

* * *

Six hundred kilometres above the city, Claudia maintained her orbit in complete silence.

Within her quiet rooms, little moved, and one could have been forgiven for thinking a fight had broken out with the amount of belongings scattered upon the floor after the gravity fluctuations that morning.

Yet up the stairs, and into the bridge of the vessel, there was sound. Beyond its door, bouncy pop music reigned, drifting out into the quiet main street, and in the centre of it stood a concentrating hippogriff.

Tammani lightly bobbed her shoulders up and down, legs bending in time to her light humming, even as she held a paintbrush an inch from a canvas. Greys and blacks had been swept over it; forming a backing layer in the vague shape of Kavala III's moon, the same fractured satellite that shone into the bridge itself in her view.

“Hmm, hmm...somethin' I can dance to...”

Gently singing the few words she actually knew, Tami made a few light, wisping strokes. Just lines, curves, shapes...the usual, but it always brought a bit of life to her face to see it forming. Things were good, but in the quiet of the ship, her excitement for this day had started to wane slightly. Things just felt muted up here alone after a few hours, or at least felt like she wasn't making use of the opportunity she had available.

“Somethin' I can...ooh, come on. Is that all you've got, speakers?”

Turning her paint-stained cheeks, she glanced at the small speakers sitting on the nav-unit between the bridge chairs. They did her fine when her ears eventually got sore from the earphones, but they really weren’t the best quality. Tinny, and never as loud or as impactful on the beat as she'd like.

And when alone on Claudia, she really had wanted the chance to turn it up a little.

Sighing, she wandered over to the twin speakers after putting her paintbrush behind an ear, and began fiddling with the volume settings. Dropping into the pilot's seat, Tami found it to no avail, and instead idly flicked through the music device's playlist a good four times for something that'd get things moving, for something energetic enough to feel worthy of this rare home alone scenario.

“C'mon, gotta be something, I can't waste this.”

Looking around, Tami eventually paused, and then looked upwards. Her eyes fell upon the PA system's handset, and gently pulled it's wire free from the PA system with a careful, nervous tug.

It was the same kind of input plug as her music device used to connect to speaker systems.

Slowly, she began glancing from her device to the PA system's input port and back again. Rather quickly, an idea dawned on her.

Tami's lips began to turn upwards into a mad, excited smile.

* * *

If the Silver Dome ever wanted a fancy connection between its land-of-the-rich buildings, Hair Trigger thought, they'd need to speak to whoever designed Asset's Corsinica Headquarters.

In theory, they were walking through a small corridor four ponies wide with little furniture. Nothing to write home about.

Only the corridor had no walls or ceiling. After exiting the elevator and passing by a second security gate, they had entered this. A suspended glass tube of a hallway between two sections of the building arching out over the edge of the cliffs with nothing but the multiple hundred metre drop below. If it hadn't been for the criss-cross pattern of the great sail's shade reflecting off of the glass itself, she doubted they'd have even seen it around them. Above them and to their right lay the angles and curves of the patterned building holding a multitude of offices visible through arched windows. They were occupied by a frantic looking workforce nestled around several holographic displays. Drone controls, Trigger presumed, given the quantity of them in Asset’s service.

Yet she couldn't help but notice half the seats were empty. That had described much of this place. Despite its lavish construction something about it made her feel like she was walking around a place still being advertised to be bought. It felt hollow.

Truthfully, though, she was more focused on the constant battle to not wince, grunt, and limp with the long walk through this elaborate building. Her hoof was stinging and aching in alternating times. The half-broken multiband hardly completed the best look for meeting a client.

The remainder of the guards had stayed behind when they exited the hangar, leaving the trio with only Garwyn directing them. He tapped the wall of the suspended corridor.

“It's a single piece, same polymer composition that ship windows use. Not really glass no more. But I've seen it take hurricane season; always fun taking the newstarts through here when it starts swaying.”

His voice had changed. Dropping the disciplined tone, he instead betrayed an accent not too dissimilar to Kerfuffle's own drawl, punctuated by a chuckle at some memory of light hazing.

Hair Trigger smirked, appreciating the drop of formalities. “We used to drop gravity to the cargo hold while newbies were in there, asked them to go get a free-float from the storage.”

Garwyn laughed openly. “The classics. Right, game faces on. That's us here.”

Stopping for a moment to check over his own uniform, he hit the switch for the doorway at the end of the suspended corridor, which opened into what could only be described as the third level of reception in one building. Plush seating sat curved around synthetic plants, while a giant display rolled the galactic market across it in a pattern of numbers and arrows to their right, partially warped by the fish tank sitting between them and it. The room looked like it could seat twenty, but not a single person else was there. To the right of a gold embossed door at the back, a very bored receptionist suddenly perked her head up from behind a tall desk. A young pegasus, no more than her low twenties, and coloured a light pink with purple hair. Hair Trigger grinned, seeing her shocked face and frantic clicking as she attempted to close something on a monitor behind the level of the desk before anybody approached too close.

“O-oh! Oh, hello there! Would this be Miss Asset's nine o'clock?”

Garwyn didn't stop, moving over to tap the pony's desk with his talon. From the angle of his head, he clearly winked at her. “The nine o'clock at ten thirty, just typical for this morning. Still, it's a little better to get to come say hi to you, Pearl.”

She blushed, putting a hoof at her lips, before playfully tossing a pen at his chest. “Oh, you scoundrel. Yes, she is running rather late, thank you for bringing them. Ah...Captain Hair Trigger, Miss Volatility Smile, and Mister Kerfuffle, I presume?”

Smile gently laid a hoof on Trigger's shoulder, and the unicorn stepped to the side. This was the crystal pony's wheelhouse. “That would be us, Ma'am. It's a delight to be brought to her office itself, very generous of her to see us so privately.”

Pearl regarded Smile with surprise, picking up her pen again and shooing Garwyn's hand from her tabletop, before glancing at the glowing blue screen before her.

“Oh, 'us'? I'm sorry; that won't be necessary. This was booked as a one to one.”

She glanced past Smile.

“With the Captain.”

Smile's mouth twisted somewhat, and she backed off with a polite nod, leaning down to quickly whisper to Trigger. “I've seen this. She's done her research, and this is very deliberate if she knows you have a business savvy pony with you. Be careful.”

Without taking her eyes off the doorway beyond the reception, Trigger replied under her breath. “Any quick tips?”

“Just focus on what you want, and be comfortable. She'll lose a lot of time to get someone else; you've more on your side than it might seem. Act natur-”

She paused, thinking that one through.

“Maybe just the first bit.”

Trigger snorted, trotting forward. “Thanks for the warm endorsement of my personality.”

Pearl looked back up from her screen. “Captain? If you'd like to go in, the door is unlocked and on automatic.”

Hair Trigger shook out her neck, reasserted her hat, and trotted forward past Pearl. “Like pretty much everything else here, huh?”

“Quite, Captain.” The pegasus smiled sweetly. “Miss Asset is rather fond of taking as much work out of others’ hooves as possible. Your friends may wait out here.”

Nodding and approaching the door, Trigger found it swept soundlessly open in a curving motion. Each section twisted as it disappeared into the housings either side, to reveal another wall behind it that curved around to the right. Glancing back to see Kerfuffle sit down to stare at the fish, and Smile watching after her directly with a put-out look at being denied, Hair Trigger took a breath and entered.

The moment she stepped through, the door swept shut behind her just as quietly.

The sunny, open transparency of the building behind her disappeared, leaving her in the dark. And upon turning her head to look into the office itself around the curve, she realised why.

She was back in the black.

Enormous fragments of the collapsed moon arced around her, passing above her head on their endless dance. Mining drones chased them, swarming out from the bulk transports. Further out from where she stood, she could see the colossal refinery stations in orbit glowing away from their hundred meter tall heat vents.

Only after a few seconds did Trigger realise the entire office was made up of seamless video panels. A jet black floor beneath her cutting off the images where it met the walls was the first clue, and a turn of her head confirmed the route she'd come through was another gap in the virtual space-expanse. At its centre, a curved table of dark marble was scarcely visible, punctuated by a glossy red chair behind it, and two simpler black ones in front.

A red glow to her left drew her eyes, and she saw the shape of a unicorn's horn lit against the wall-panels’ dark video footage. A tall, slender mare of unknown detail and colour stood in the darkness with her back to the door, her head following a greenish asteroid as it was towed and sheared apart. Her magic was working with something on the desk: a small remote.

Seconds later, one quarter of the wall switched to display another angle. This time of a stricken mass conveyor being towed into a maintenance area.

“I was pondering, Captain, how much I ought to charge them for this.”

Her voice was smooth and rich, deeper than the lithe frame implied.

Hair Trigger remained where she was. No sense in pushing the formalities into unknowing by assuming where to trot. Instead, she just let her eyes fall on the freighter; the first chance she'd had to pause and look at the culprits.

“Well, whatever you decide, you can throw in the cost of a new platinum superconductor for the one we burnt out fixing the artificial gravity, three mugs, and a new multiband screen if you'd like to get them to pay me as well for what they did to my ship.”

Trigger glanced at her multiband's warped display. What the hell, it was worth a shot.

The mare before her broke into a short laugh. “And here I thought I asked the Captain to enter, rather than the one in the suit. I'll see what I can do. Welcome to Kavala III, Captain Hair Trigger.”

“Appreciated, and it's good to meet you too. So what do I call you? Director? I know one owner of a large business that likes that.”

Asset Margin finally turned, as the screen filling shape of the moon gave a glimmer of white light across the office and illuminated her from one side. She was a hazy cream, with a two-tone green mane. It was short, not even hanging behind her head but bunched into a tiny ponytail. The front bore two long strands that hung in front of her face from where the mane parted on her forehead. Behind them, two eager red eyes regarded Hair Trigger with a curious interest.

Asset Margin was prim and proper in her suit, but as she trotted back to her desk there was a more casual look to her step. She dropped into her comfortable looking chair, its back coming to well above her head, and folded her white shirted forelegs over her dark waistcoat. “Please, Captain. Asset will do. And my apologies for the incident in orbit. Our jump zone has little room for error, and they made perhaps the largest error I've seen here. Now, coffee? It's been a hell of a morning for me sorting it out, and from the looks of that limp on your way down the corridor here, you've had one as well. I trust not from the evasion?”

She indicated something Hair Trigger had neglected to observe: a silver urn with still steaming vapour coming from the top. At Asset's beckoning, she sat down. Clearly, the businessmare had seen the desiring look in her eyes, for she was already pouring two cups.

Hair Trigger smiled more openly. Finally, someone that got how to respond to an angry space captain's bad day. “Much as I'd love to say it was heroically pulling a crewmember away from danger during it, not quite. Meeting the CEO of an entire planet's orbital infrastructure and mining operations while limping from standing on a plug hadn't been my intended way to go about a first impression.”

Taking the cup, Hair Trigger paused to smell it and then gratefully raised it to her lips to taste. Asset rolled her eyes, and took the chance to speak as the unicorn drank.

“Having to watch my security director flirting with my receptionist in front of you wasn't mine either. You know he has a wife? Can't take him anywhere. Or, for that matter, watching said receptionist trying to buy and sell shares of competing companies from every business savvy visitor I've gotten in the past week that has to wait there more than five minutes. I'd replace her if she wasn't so damn good at her job.”

Hair Trigger raised an eyebrow over the cup. “Is she now?”

Asset floated her own cup up to knock against Trigger's, allowing herself to smirk. “Including ones belonging to the rival corp I'm looking for you to help me with.”

Rolling the still full coffee around, Hair Trigger thought for a second, before holding up a hoof. “If you would excuse me for a second, Asset.”

She turned in the seat, pointing her mouth toward the closed door.

“SMILE! Sit down!”

In the silence of the office, as Asset Margin stared with confusion at the sudden shout, both unicorns heard the sound of hooves and then the crumple of one of the seats outside being sat in heavily.

Both eyebrows remaining high, Asset perched her hooves together and chuckled. “And they say a CEO must know her employees.”

Hair Trigger waggled her eyebrows. “Just as a Captain needs to know her crew.”

Asset smiled warmly. “I think we'll get on quite well, Hair Trigger. You're refreshingly at ease when most think I'm going to be some sort of tyrant. Not all trillionaires are. Promise.”

She winked and clicked her mouth, finishing her coffee in one rather improper gulp.

“Now, I believe you'll be wanting to know more about what I'm looking for you to do. Fun as having someone to chatter to who's had an equally shitty morning is, I am rather behind schedule already and need to press on.”

The sudden curse caught Trigger off guard. The word sounded unusual from Asset’s refined tone, but the little bile below it held a genuine bitterness. Briefly, Trigger wondered just what else had happened to the mare this morning.

“Well, don't let me hold you back. You gave me coffee after all, I'm all ears to drink and listen. See what we can do for you.”

“Then let's get started.”

Asset leaned back, fiddling with her controls, until the pleasantly dark and quiet space-scene switched on half the room, instead displaying what looked like a CCTV from the roof of a tall, brown and silver metal building overlooking a heavily dusty city. To its right, a portrait of a griffon overlayed the scene - red feathered with white highlights. He looked past his prime, and was looking away from whatever covert camera had taken the photo.

To its left lay footage of a smoking wreck, looping every few seconds. Hair Trigger recognised it as one of the scrapper drones from the piled wrecks of ships over the plateau behind the city.

Asset Margin used her magic to propel her chair over to the screen, pointing to the wrecked drone. “One week ago, I had something stolen from me. You flew over the boneyard on the way here, so you've seen where much of my salvage income emerges from. Well, this drone found something a bit more valuable than just components or rare alloys. Mid-way back, boom! Goes down. I send Garwyn out, and he comes back with the report that it was shot down. And this here, I know, is the one who did it.”

She pointed to the griffon. Hair Trigger edged around the desk, staring at the huge avian and the bristling anger in his eyes.

“Doesn't much look like another man of business. More the sort of guy I'd see in the periphery stalking ships.”

Asset smiled and nodded. “Because he is. You're not the only off-worlder the corps here are hiring, Captain. That is Kreer, a pirate turned corporate wet work operative. Someone got him to do a job, and that job was stealing from me. The drone was carrying a relic from the wreckage of a Wyrm-era ship we'd found three layers down into the pile. News had gotten out we were moving in on something. Guess some rival took a shot, literally, to get it without even knowing what it was.”

Trigger rubbed her cheek, finished her coffee, and leaned on the desk to watch the smartly dressed unicorn. “All about the drones with you, isn't it? They're all I've seen everywhere I look. Might have figured it involved one of them.”

If Asset found the presumption anything but a compliment she didn't show it, spreading her hooves. “Of course, Captain. How else could we mine the field above? Far too dangerous for piloted vessels to go into the dense sections, and the cost savings from an automated, ceaseless force in tandem with this being effectively a tax haven? I fell in love with the approach. We now have over eight hundred automated platforms in service, and a high degree of autonomy within our refineries in the black. No-one on this planet even comes close to our net profits because of that.”

Hair Trigger smirked; her theory on why this place seemed so devoid of organic employees was beginning to be justified. She pointed at the griffon. “And that's why he's here. They're all out to get you when you're the top dog on this world. Because everyone outside sees you as this planet's ruler, and they want the brand.”

“Corporate warfare, Hair Trigger. It's made for ugly work. Share wars, buying up property, corporate sabotage...plenty of stallions in suits looking to persuade people away from investing in me. And their suitcases-”

Trigger leaned back in the leather chair. “-aren't filled with contracts? I'm guessing that's a saying in the business world; heard the same from Smile on the way down. So, what do you want us to do in this?”

Asset's hoof moved to tap the glass wall on the image of the city.

“Shining Reach. An inaccurate name for that dustbowl if ever there was one. It's around six hours away by shuttle. I've learned that an engine signature from the site of the crash went to a warehouse I know is used by Kreer. They took my find there, Captain. I want you to retrieve it. I can't risk using one of my own assets, not with every other corporation waiting to dive on a story of 'Corsinica attempts theft of rival's assets'. My own name would go well with the headlines, of course. Even on a planet with only a few million inhabitants that sort of thing can bring you down.”

Hair Trigger nodded slowly. She'd never really grasped the press. Living off-world all your life naturally removed you from the papers, the debates, and the politics. All the same, she knew their power. “So we're the unknown factor. Far as Kreer and his client will know, we were just any old thief. Same way he got it from you.”

“Now you're catching on.”

Asset got out of her chair, and trotted over to her desk without it to stand and face Trigger. “For this, I can pay you two hundred thousand for the safe recovery of the relic. Three hundred thousand if you can remove Kreer from the game. I don't care how. Pay him off, convince him, recruit him, kill him...whatever. As I said...”

Her eyes showed a flash of a serious, cold nature.

“Corporate warfare is ugly work. It's not impossible he might be there still.”

Hair Trigger wanted to whistle, but kept quiet. She'd expected to barter for even six figures; this was double that. After a second, deciding not to hedge her bets, she leaned over and shook Asset's hoof. “We're not murderers, Asset; don't expect a corpse coming back with us. But we'll do it.”

Asset's shake was a firm one, business standard. Beaming with delight, she clapped her hooves together and moved around the desk. After a second, Trigger realised she was being ushered to the door and got up quickly to limp her way there.

“Excellent, Captain. Excellent. Now, I have prepared a shuttle for the job, and you'll find codes to the warehouse I had my cyber defence experts, hm, acquire. Automated coordinates are installed to take you to Shining Reach, and we fished it out of the junkyard last night so it's completely off the record, even to you. No threat to your own ship being traced. I've even had Garwyn leave you all a packed lunch for the journey.”

Nearing the door, Hair Trigger paused, holding her sore hoof off the ground after an irritated glance at it. She looked back, momentarily amused. “You got your security director making lunches?”

The corporate mare only smiled. “One downside of a drone workforce is you tend to start asking people to do things the robots can't. Good luck, Captain.”

Hair Trigger nodded, pulled her cap on tighter, and walked out the door. “We'll be in touch soon enough. See ya.”

The door gently closed behind her, and Hair Trigger took a slow breath. That had gone well. She caught the eyes of Kerfuffle and Smile as they got up, the former from staring at the aquarium, the latter putting down her multiband. She grinned.

“We got ourselves a job.”

* * *

Garwyn was waiting for them by the shuttle, leaning on its engine housing and swinging a rucksack from his talons. At the sight of the ponies and griffon approaching, he nodded to the interior.

“Weapons are already stowed for you, Shining Reach preplanned in the nav-unit, and...”

He sighed, looking at the bag before tossing it to Hair Trigger.

“And packed lunch. Have fun at school. Courtesy of Miss Mother upstairs.”

Trigger caught it in her telekinesis. “Surprised you actually did it.”

“The hell do you think I am? Course I didn't. Told the new guy he had to, and I'm pretty sure he told the interns.”

The two shared a knowing smirk, as the three clambered back into the shuttle and Smile started to get it fired up. The hippogriff also tossed another device to Trigger: a small pad with a locked screen.

“Password's with four zeros, it'll have the package unlock app ready. Tap it on and off to locate the box, it'll beep like a car. Should help you find it.”

Closing the hatch over behind them, Garwyn paused, and gave them a harsher look. “No matter what she says, be careful. If Kreer's around...well, I have this scar for a reason.”

Checking her pistol over the moment she got inside, Hair Trigger holstered it and nodded. “I'd rather he not be. We'll be in and out.”

“With any luck.”

He didn't say goodbye, slamming the hatch closed and thumping its side. Hair Trigger turned back to the shuttle at large and shifted up to the front, sitting in beside Smile. Curiously looking into the rucksack, she spoke without turning her head.

“Kerf, send a message to Tami; we'll be back early in the morning, maybe half a day.”

“Sure thing, Cap'n.”

Unpacking the lunch they'd been left as the shuttle roared and lifted from the floor, Hair Trigger found multiple foil-packed objects. On them lay the name 'Garwyn'. She snorted; clearly the interns had their revenge for the passing of the buck.

Curiously, she unwrapped them, finding a small stack of tomato sandwiches. Nothing else. Trigger sighed at the lack of variety. It'd have to do. Maybe they could stop for something in the city.

Smile turned the shuttle around to face the horizon opposite the sun.

“We're free to move, Captain.”

“Make it so, Smile.”

* * *

Still six hundred kilometres above the city, Claudia maintained her orbit much the same as before.

Only now, at least internally, there was no such thing as complete silence.

The bridge beeped with the notice of an incoming message, then relayed it to the intended multiband.

That, too, beeped.

Neither was heard.

Every room, every crevice of Claudia, was part of the happiest time possible. The entire PA system thumped and blared with the most sweet-toothed, spring-stepped music that the pop genre had ever created. Lyrics of dates, kissing, holidays, fun, and playing in the sun turned all of Claudia into a gigantic party of sugar-pop, the bass sending reverberations through every deck.

She had danced in the bridge. She had danced in the main street. She had danced in the engine room, and the common room, and the shower.

Then she had moved to the cargo hold, the biggest area to fly, spin and hop from leg to leg around containers. Sliding backwards between them, or surfing the grav-cart. Music echoed in there, making it sound like a live event. Her smile had been unending, her laughter lost in the volume and tempo.

Eventually she'd not been able to keep the happiness to herself, finding a reluctant dance partner to swing around in her hands.

“Unit PATCH requests that Crewmember Tammani refrain from interfering with intended path of gryostabilisation mechanism.”

“You're so into it! You're wiggling your gyros! It's adorable!”

She leapt up, flapping out her wings to spin them both, before letting him go with one hand to let him extend out and whirl, and drawing him back him to grip with both hands.

“Warning. Excessive volume may result in tinnitus. Documenting fifth warning to record.”

“What!?”

Over the noise, the sudden buzz of the airlock snapped her attention away. Patch took the chance to quickly fly away to the main street above them both as the hippogriff suddenly squealed and bounced her way toward the door itself. Hitting the lever to open it, she found the small space between the doors soon occupied by a pressure-suited deer holding an atmosphere sealed container, with a shuttlecraft's small door locked onto the other side. The sudden volume of the music made him shake his head with shock.

“Uh...two pizzas, one garlic, one hot and spicy, with soda and Billionaire Cake? Delivery for an...Admiral Tammani? You're a...”

She snorted with laughter, quickly tabbing through her multiband to the contactless app. “I didn't think that'd actually get accepted on your site. I didn't even expect the orbital stations even did deliveries for food!”

The deer grinned. “People wait here for a spot, people want their pizza. We make it happen. Party can't wait!”

“Best. Idea. Ever.”

“I know! Enjoy, Admiral!”

Tapping her multiband onto the offered tablet with a beep, Tami scooped up her feast and gave him a sweet smile. “Thank you!”

Seeing him out, she looked up to see a very disapproving looking Patch still at the join between the hold and the corridor.

“You want any?”

“Affirmative. Unit PATCH requests possession of all sustenance to prevent imminent threat of over-consumption and stomach ache. Prevention is better than cure. Ninety-nine percent of non-privatised doctors agree.”

“Greedy so-and-so!”

Tami stuck out her tongue at him, skipping and hopping side to side on her merry feasting way to the common room.

* * *

Shining Reach had looked like a rough, dusty place on Asset's CCTV footage. She'd said it hadn't deserved the name.

Trigger, Smile, and Kerfuffle were finding that image very incorrect at the moment.

Their journey had shot them ahead of the sun's terminator line, bringing them into the cover of night. But the moment they had dropped below the clouds, a thick slurry of rain had begun pelting the shuttle. Like snow, it slapped on and dragged up over the top from the craft's velocity, leaving streaks and blurry colours of the approaching city itself below as the only things visible. A heavy storm was assaulting the city and the viewpoint of the shuttle shuddered and bucked as the not-so-aerodynamic vessel fought with the winds.

Hair Trigger instead concerned herself with the thin lines of a wireframe map of the streets on the console itself, using a hoof to drag the image around and zoom in toward the address of the warehouse. Every few seconds she would grumble and mutter as the bumpy ride made her accidentally tap and bring up the 'What's here?' window that would then take ten seconds to close and reload the map again.

“Oh fer...okay, looks like there's space to land maybe half a block away. Sheltered by a hab-building for the workers. Should be quiet.”

She shovelled another bite of the sandwich in her magic into her mouth, chewing with distaste. The fad food had been fun on Medusa when Crazy D had first brought it up, but six hours with only it to eat in stale bread was wearing on her patience.

Kerfuffle, despite the rain, was sitting behind the two front seats and staring into the clouded mess of the window, following the bright lights of the city as they closed in.

“Should be easier at night. Miss Margin sure thought this through for us, didn't she? Making sure we'd arrive in the dark.”

At the controls, Smile fought with the winds, finally bringing the shuttle to the city's own level with a whine of decelerating engines as she navigated through the storm in near darkness. She grimaced and squinted, trying to fly by numbers as much as sight. ”Clearly, she's very thoughtful to send us in during this time right now.”

The griffon nodded without an ounce of irony. “Sure is.”

Rolling her eyes, Smile dropped the nose, finally getting the ship in amongst the buildings. Shining Reach was much smaller than Corsinica: formed of tall prefabricated buildings assembled by orbitally dropped construction modules, and thus ultimately had little spread or suburban area. It looked like a full city condensed into a tiny area, maybe only a few kilometres in rough diameter. Buildings, mostly of Confederate design, were little but dark shapes in the storm, but bright neon signs and holograms lit up on their surfaces. Massive billboards showcased everything from corp logos, to financial data, to sultry ponies aiming their two frame animations at any passing ship.

Hair Trigger couldn't suppress a chuckle at the sight of Kerfuffle politely waving back at one of their animated hooves.

Slowing to the pace of most ground vehicles, Smile took the shuttle the long way around, using the blocky and top-heavy shape of the habitat building Hair Trigger had indicated as cover from the target warehouse. With the hull's flashing lights illuminating the dull concrete of an abandoned car park, she finally let the wearisome ride through the elements end with a shuddering landing on the hard surface.

Weapons ready, and donning their protective armoured vests, the trio gathered in the passenger section of the shuttle. Hair Trigger hit the release latch.

“We get there, use the code on the door, get in, beep the box and just get the hell back out. No waiting around, no taking anything we aren't contracted to. Move quick as we can, at the gallop until we're near it, okay?”

With the pair nodding, Trigger slung the door of the shuttle back and let the freezing air and slurried rain in. It swept around the shuttle, broken only briefly as the huge shape of Kerfuffle dove past and ran out into the streets, closely followed by Smile galloping alongside him. The sparkle of her coat quickly dulled in the dark atmosphere.

Slapping the shuttle closed, Hair Trigger turned to move on herself, finding the other two with their long strides already further ahead than she could reasonably catch up to, disappearing into the night. She grumbled under her breath, and began unsteadily limping and stumbling along after them in the rain.

“Quick as we can, I said...real smart today, aren't I?”

* * *

Smile rounded the corner onto the warehouse's street, her hooves slipping on the wet asphalt, until she could slow down and get a look over what was ahead.

Five seconds later, she hastily moved into cover of the alleyway she just left, and held out a hoof to stop Kerfuffle going past her. The griffon looked strangely deflated in the rain.

“Mrs Smiles?”

“Shh.”

She was aware that her sparkling coat and mane were not the easiest things to try and hide in a dark city, especially with the neon and colour fifty metres above them. Holding her hood around her head, she peeked around the corner.

The street itself was actually more of a promenade, laid against a river rather than a coastline - if you could even call it a river. The edge opposite her went to what looked like a forty foot drop before the filthy water even started. From the looks of it, the unusual drop was simply to keep the city level with its modular construction on higher ground elsewhere. The city was unrelentingly flat at ground level.

Smile had always hated places like this. For all it made financial sense, even she could appreciate a living area that didn't look like it was made out of a mathematician’s wet dream for uniformity. Idly, she wondered how Asset's predecessor had even gotten Confederate construction materials onto a planet the Confederacy denied access to.

Yet right now, her true focus was on what was ahead through the harsh rainfall.

Down the street, under the dull orange glow of street lamps, two hover-vans were offloading goods to the very warehouse they'd expected to approach. An enormous shutter door, coloured red, was still dropping down behind them, with a dozen ponies and griffons dragging the last boxes up the ramps and inside. Others were shutting up the vehicles.

“Looks like they're about ready to leave.”

Above her, Kerfuffle's entire head poked out from around the corner until the crystal pony reached up and nudged him back by a few inches, her eyes not leaving the convoy.

“Mrs Smiles, ain't that the griffon the info on the shuttle had?”

“Smile. And what? Where?”

She caught Kerfuffle's hand about to point around the corner, and saw the red plume come into view. Kerfuffle had to have spotted it from higher up.

Kreer moved harshly, his head whipping back and forth to stare with beady eyes at anyone in the immediate area. A bulletproof vest was tightly wound on his barrel-like torso, and Smile could spot a squat, vicious-looking carbine on his back - more of a cut down service rifle than a light weapon.

Under the flashing of signs above the dark warehouse - itself a wide and thickly walled metal building - Kreer banged the side of one of the vans, giving it the signal to flex its engines and roar off into the space above the river. Rain spray and litter from the pavement blew up in cyclones around it. Soon enough the second one joined it, the whine of hover-pads deadening behind the scathing rain as soon as it dropped out of sight.

The sound of hooves behind Smile alerted her to the Captain approaching, and she waved frantically for Hair Trigger to slow down.

The unicorn had her hood up over the ever-present hat, but it already looked soaked through. Cautiously, she crept forward to look around the corner, filling in the gap below Smile as all three faces peered at the red griffon.

“Ah, crap,” Trigger muttered, watching Kreer move off with two pony guards, one a pegasus and the other a unicorn. The three moved to a metal set of stairs fastened to the side of the building that let to the upper levels of the warehouse, disappearing inside to the offices upstairs.

Dropping back into the alleyway, Hair Trigger fought to urge to whack her head off a broken drainpipe.

“I've already had my fill of brutal wet work operatives with rifles lately, so of course he had to be here, didn't he?”

Kerfuffle looked at the street again, then shrugged. “He's going upstairs. Maybe what we need is downstairs on the main floor? Most things in warehouses back home were. And we don't often go in Claudia's cargo bay.”

Checking her rifle, Smile wiped the water from her face and held it under her body to shelter the mechanism. “You know, you could be right. We have the code after all. In. Out. Before they even realise someone's come inside. Like you said, Hair Trigger. And the shuttle's just a few minutes away.”

Water dripping from the brim of her hat, Trigger looked about as downright miserable as she ever had today, before finally shrugging. “Well if you're wrong, it'll be you dealing with Patch's resupply demands to heal us. Let's go.”

All three hustled out into the rain, sticking close to the porches and overhangs of the other warehouses leading up to their target.

Mid-way there, Hair Trigger and Smile paused behind a low brick wall, keeping an eye ahead. The warehouse’s heavily misted windows let them see occupied rooms with lights and the faint shadows of moving bodies. Below them, thin vents and another layer of half smashed windows indicated the bottom level itself was still in the dark. There weren't any obvious cameras. Indeed, if it weren't for the lights above, it would be easy to think it abandoned.

There was a worryingly familiar feeling of hidden danger about this to Hair Trigger. The quiet darkness of a grey warehouse in a shady part of town felt all too similar to a rescue from a certain building not too long ago. One she preferred to not think too much on.

After a couple more seconds, Trigger realised the rain had stopped, only to look up and see a gigantic wing held above her head, with the other over a similarly bemused Smile.

Kerfuffle hunched between them, as subtle as a rhinoceros hiding behind a lamppost, his wings flitting in the wind as she stared down the street at the objective.

“Appreciate it, big guy. But little time to hang around.”

She darted forward again, delighted in that it only took her a couple seconds of thrashing her hind legs in the air to get over the wall (and trying to ignore the graceful hop and roll Smile used to get over in one bound) before cantering as fast as she dared to the warehouse itself. A service door was facing them from its front, and Hair Trigger pressed her body into the metal of the wall beside it, squeezing herself in tight to get out of view from the windows above. Her heart was thumping hard enough enough that her head pounded as much as her hoof. The adrenaline from the moment was nulling the pain, as they neared a hostile area.

“Always for the big pay days...” she muttered, as Smile and then Kerfuffle fell in beside her.

Above her head, at the height a minotaur would design something, she could see a touchpad with a fading glowing panel. It read 'LOCKED', with a key slot just below it.

“Kerf, you're up.”

“Aye, Cap'n.”

Shimmying out from the wall, the griffon shuffled up and drew out the code they'd been given. Imprinted on a small card, it slid into the reader easily.

The panel, however, flashed a 'DENIED' at them.

Hair Trigger swore, and Smile, behind her, held her rifle ready while looking over her shoulder. “Come on, you two; can't hang around here.”

“Workin', Miss...” Kerfuffle muttered and tried again.

'DENIED'

“Aw hell, they must have changed it.” Trigger bumped the side of her head on the wall, wishing Tami were down here with her tech-kit right about now. “Any ideas?”

“Hang on a minute, Cap'n.”

Kerfuffle hadn't taken his eyes off the reader, and then traced them to the door itself. Scratching the wet surface of his beak with a talon, he started running his other hand around the frame. The metal wall was flash-welded on, likely by a gigantic line-beam for rapid construction on new worlds. But to insert a reader, they'd have had to make a hole into the original template. He could see the newer welds surrounding the reader from where they'd cut into the prefab material.

That gave him an idea.

Grasping either side of the reader, he made a low grunt, tugging back sharply, the often underappreciated musculature usually hidden underneath his feathers flexing and powering through the movement. The entire reader itself popped out of its socket, attached by wires that ran to a hollow between the wall’s outer and inner layers.

“The hell?” Trigger breathed as she watched the griffon work. “Kerf, you sure we-”

“Hold this, Cap'n.”

A second later, she found herself in possession of a brand new card reader, while the griffon fought to fit his head into the gap itself. After a second or two, he emerged and dug into his toolkit for a screwdriver. Uncomfortably pushing his arm within the gap, he started adjusting things hidden from view, switching tools a few times.

Upstairs, the sound of hooves on metal became louder, and they heard an outer door open.

“Kerf...” Trigger hissed, drawing her pistol in her magic, while Smile aimed at the bottom of the stairs that Kreer’s goons had gone up.

“There we go.”

Taking the reader back from her, he re-inserted it into the wall and tried the card again.

'OPEN'

The reader bleeped, and there was a sound of the door's lock clunking back into its housing. Without much waiting, Hair Trigger pushed past him and threw herself inside. Smile followed, pausing to tug the griffon after her; he'd stopped to correct and smooth down the angle the reader had gone back in at.

“But-”

“Not important, come on!”

Shutting the door behind them, they hid down in the darkness of the warehouse, finally free of the heavy rain, to let their eyes adjust. Outside there was the brief sound of hooves - of someone having a smoke where they had just been.

“Too close,” Smile whispered, squinting to see through the blackness. With only a hint of light passing through the misty windows above them, she could only get a vague sense of the piles of crates, shipping containers, and walkways all around them. “Hope Tami's got Claudia ready if we need to make a break for it at this rate.”

Trigger nodded. “Just take it easy, they haven't spotted us yet. Nicely done, Kerf.”

Grinning widely, hidden only by dint of the darkness, Kerfuffle bashfully shrugged his shoulders. “Not a problem, Cap'n. And don't worry.”

As the other two began to creep forward, he looked up through the skylight, past the rain clattering on its suffering glass.

“Miss Tami's good at what she does. She'll be all ready at the controls if we need her.”

* * *

Objects floated gently in the air around Claudia's cargo bay, spiralling and lightly bumping against one another before taking different routes. Art canvases floated past empty pizza boxes and the cases of already-watched movies. The PA system broadcast the calming sounds of the cosmos, a relaxation suite of soft strings and gentle percussion, designed for those who loved to stargaze.

Upside down, with her arms, legs, and wings splayed out as she idly let her body go wherever it wanted, Tami concluded with the most content-of-content smiles that there was no better way to spend a food coma than floating in zero gravity.

Eventually her multiband beeped, and her eyes sprung open. Gazing down at her forearm, she saw with all delight that her download had finished.

The HugePilot remix of one of her favourite songs had released even as she'd eaten. Slow and heavily firewalled connection to the greater SpaceNet or not, she'd picked it up on the spot.

The most dance-worthy, heart-pumping, fun-sung, mood-lifting, high-tempo, happy-causing, and happy-sounding song she owned, remixed by an artist known for amping up the bass and momentum of tracks into intense, cheerful bursts of skin-shivering beats?

Now she could be in zero gravity, with a brand new remix, with max volume over the whole ship's PA system?

As she transferred it to the PA system's stored buffer and hit play, she felt herself tense up (and slightly squeak) in anticipation.

Tami knew nothing could ruin this day now.

* * *

The interior of the warehouse was as dark as they'd expected and hoped.

They’d come in on an elevated side section to the main floor, behind a set of railings that divided it from a large concrete area. After letting their eyes adjust, it had become clear that Garwyn's device would be essential for locating the box.

The place was filled to the brim.

Shipping containers were stacked beside wooden crates. Metal strongboxes lay in formation beside loose piles of electronics and junk. Rows of shelving passed under metal walkways that criss-crossed above them, impossible to see in any detail. They led around to the occupied room, which sat directly above the main shutter door to where the vans had departed.

Yet aside from the hum of a few automated dust sweeping robots shuffling around the main floor, their red lights blinking gently, it was motionless.

“Do it, Smile.” Hair Trigger whispered the words, and kept her eyes on the piles of boxes.

Beside her, Smile tapped the key code into the tablet and hit the giant 'unlock' button on the touchscreen. For a second, nothing happened, and then - distantly - they heard a small magnetic lock being disabled from somewhere in front of them.

Smile tapped it to lock the container once more, and again the sound echoed in the dark warehouse.

“Louder than I'd like. Let's not use it too much.”

Moving down the ramp onto the main floor, Hair Trigger limped her way toward the closest pile of boxes to the direction of the sound. She had her pistol back in its holster, not trusting the glow of telekinesis. She kept angling her head up, watching those lit windows and hearing deep voices from behind them. The shuffle of her hind leg and the clumping of the big griffon behind her were wearing on her nerves. She felt vulnerable. Exposed. In theory, they were standing in the open, were it not for the darkness.

“Again.”

Smile tapped the button and Hair Trigger heard the sound to her left. Turning, she stumbled around some cardboard boxes, spotting a grav-sled sitting near the entrance.

“Think this is it. Once more...”

A heavy briefcase atop the grav-sled clunked.

“Got it! Unlock it, let's get it and get the hell out of here, and then-”

The sound of metal-on-metal grabbed her attention and she lit her horn, swinging her pistol up to the rafters. Smile dropped the tablet and lay her rifle over a box, while Kerfuffle's shotgun was held loosely in his hands.

Up top, on the walkways, they immediately saw the blinking lights of a fire-prevention drone making its way around on patrol. The clunky, hard square machine was, other than the lights, difficult to see, but the chugging of its tracks on the unsteady metal was ringing out in the quiet of the building and making its route obvious. It had to have been idle when they came in, only starting its automated patrol now.

“Shitting...” Hair Trigger muttered, shaking her head and holstering again. “Smile?”

The crystal pony, holding her clothing around her gleaming body as best she could, tapped once more, and the briefcase popped.

Daring to light her horn just a little, Hair Trigger lifted the top as she and Smile finally got a look at what they'd been sent to collect.

Inside was foam casing, designed to hold a single object nice and still. At its centre was a clear polymer bottle. Thickly reinforced, with a triple lock neck and several warning signs on it in languages Hair Trigger didn't recognise. All that was clear in any format she could understand was a name.

“Methylphosphonic dichloride,” she muttered.

Beneath it, a white crystalline substance filled the bottom third of the container - so fine that it almost looked like sand.

The container looked old, though. Very old.

“The hell is this?” she muttered, as Smile tapped on her multiband, bringing up a translator app, and swept it over the bottle.

Smile went rather pale as she searched for the meaning of the translated words.

“Stars above...”

Behind them, Kerfuffle looked back over at the exclamation while Hair Trigger turned to the crystal pony. Volatility Smile slammed the briefcase closed, and hit the lock for it rapidly.

“Smile? Again, the hell is this? What are you-”

Smile shook her head sharply enough to quieten even the Captain.

“That's Wyrm-era language. Warnings for toxicity. Extremus level.”

Her wide eyes betrayed the seriousness before her harsh tone even emerged again.

“That stuff is the catalytic mixing agent for chemical contagions, Trigger. Asset must have dug it up from the old boneyard - some of those ships must have come down from the weapons testing when the moon was destroyed.”

“...fuck.” Hair Trigger breathed the word with more meaning than any irritation-induced curse had held all day.

Smile turned away from the container and ran a hoof through her mane, even under her hood. She had expected an ancient relic, maybe. Some form of reaction formula or document on creating materials, or even just an expensive piece of history.

She had never expected this.

Behind her, Hair Trigger eyed up the briefcase with distaste. Everything about today had been plunging her mood deeper, and now this was one hell of a moment to just want to be done with it all. She heard Smile approach again, and the crystal pony's smooth tone came to her ears.

“They're fighting over the means to create a chemical weapon, Trigger. This is more than just profit now.”

“I know...”

Kerfuffle shook out his shoulders anxiously, more than uncomfortable with this. Solid, physical things he knew, but unseen, lethal chemicals made his skin crawl. He shook his head. “Ain't right, Cap'n. Stuff is buried for a reason.”

“I know!”

Thumping her hoof on the boxes beside the briefcase, Hair Trigger looked up sharply.

“I know, all right? So here's what we're going to do.”

She turned to the others, a grim look upon her face. “We take it. We steal it like she wanted, and then we toss this thing in the closest and deepest ocean we can find. We get to Claudia, and then we get the hell out of here. Maybe we tell her we got chased off, maybe we tell her it's been destroyed. Maybe we rat her to the Confederates. I don't know yet. But we're sure as hell not giving this to her or whoever she's taking it from. Shit...damn her! Damn that smiling, suit-wearing bitch! I have had it today!”

Her hoof thumped a second time. “After everything that happened today already, I am not going to be used like this!”

A smooth voice broke through the quiet warehouse.

“Oh I assure you, you were not being used, Captain.”

Floodlights thumped, and blinding white light seared into the trio's eyes. All three yelled aloud at the intensity, their night vision ruined. Hair Trigger whipped her head away with a hiss, before prying an eye open and feeling her blood boil.

The vague shape of a pony stood out between the beams upon a walkway high above. Either side of her, two fiery laser weapons sparked and erupted into life with deathly hums, aimed by two figures.

Kreer and Garwyn.

Between them, with an amused chuckle, Asset Margin stepped forth into the light and winked. “But you were being tested.”

Squinting, looking up, Smile winced and shielded her eyes with a forehoof. Her rifle rested in the other across a box, but the sight of those two burning energy weapons pointed their way kept her from aiming it. Hearing the Captain's low growl to her right, she desperately hoped Hair Trigger could keep a lid on that temper.

Asset looked down on the three of them with absolute smugness. The CEO rested her head back in a casual tilt to raise her nose at the crystal pony's look. With a short chuckle, her glare returned to Hair Trigger.

“And I'm sorry to say, but with that little declaration there, Captain...you failed.”

Smile kept her hoof on her rifle, but didn't dare raise it. Hair Trigger's teeth were bared, and Smile could see the unicorn's body starting to tense up. There was an explosion imminent, if Hair Trigger got to talk.

Volatility Smile quickly stepped in. “There was no theft, then.”

“Correct!” Asset's voice was chirpy.

“And it was all a lie to see if we were the kind who wouldn't care what it was? To see who we really are?”

Asset's mouth twinged up in amusement. “I prefer the term 'observed interview', myself. After all, I can't just talk openly about this in a publicly traded office now, can I? By the way, I suggest you don't move too far; I assure you, these two brothers are quite accurate.”

Hair Trigger's anger was boiling over. Her teeth hurt from clenching them, and her hoof throbbed as hard as it ever had that day. The sight of that smirking face didn't help. The crystal pony and griffon with her could see her whole face turning into a barely held back rictus mask of absolute fury starting to mount up.

Hastily, Smile kept talking. Anything to avoid being gunned down by lasers for another few seconds. “I suppose we should have guessed by all the automated things in here.”

Surprised, Asset's eyebrows raised, and she looked at the dust-drones on the ground level and the fire-prevention robot whirring slowly behind her on the walkway. Asset made a neutral sound, as though realising they could have been a clue for the first time, before giving a dismissive shrug, permitting Smile to go on.

“And this is why you wanted a shuttle for us, so your shiny yacht we saw could overtake us. I mean, I can't deny that it's impressive. Maybe if-”

Asset shook her head, the two strands of hair in front of her face swaying around as she raised a hoof with a single-shouldered shrug and interrupted.

”Disappointing is the word I would choose, Miss Volatility Smile. Please, I'm not in it for negotiation or re-runs at this point. Actually, I'm quite dejected that it turned out this way. A crew known to work with Sweet Alyssum? Whose ship transponder when traced on the black-navs even included Countess Karmelita's territory? Who somehow got into and out of prison in Avalon within a day through some obviously organised influence? For goodness sake, I thought I'd struck gold with you lot. I had such a nice contract ready for the delightful materials industry I've uncovered in this old place. What a pity.”

Kerfuffle shook his head sternly, the shotgun held at the low ready, but with a very serious look to his normally soft eyes. “Sorts stuff they were testin' here back then ain't delightful, Miss. Ought to be forgotten. Ain't right. Lot here ain't right. Been saying it all day.”

She actually rolled her eyes at him.

“It's right by me so long as they pay me and don't use it on my planet. And believe me, on the side, I have happened to wind up with a very interested buyer already. I just needed a crew off the record to transport it. Such a pity that I'll need to put out another job offer.”

Briefly, Asset ceased her conversationalist tone, leaning her forelegs on the railing of the walkway and glancing down. Her comfortably pleased grin turned to Hair Trigger.

“Captain...you've been unusually quiet. ”

One of Hair Trigger's eyes was larger than the other, twitching and shaking with her solid facial muscles. Her whole mouth was twisted out of alignment, as she felt something deep down fire up with the force of a supercarrier's reactor going critical.

“After all, you seemed so talkative and up-front before; so very...expressive. Before we see this sorry business done, don't you have anything to add?”

Hair Trigger's baleful gaze suddenly whipped up toward her so quickly that Asset actually recoiled an inch or two from the bloodshot eyes.

“Yes! I! Do!”

Pursing her lips, Asset turned sideways and waved a hoof near her ear.

“Oh? And that is-”

Hair Trigger instead whipped toward Smile, her entire head moving on every word.

“I FUCKING CALLED IT!”

The meaty pistol in Trigger’s holster flew out in a spark of magic and fired a single, completely blind shot toward the walkway, guided by nothing but sheer anger.

It was an impossible shot. An impossible chance. But she hadn't once dared think it wouldn’t work. Today had been just too much of an infuriatingly horrendous day for her to dare let one bullet not do exactly as she WILLED it to do.

The round whipped past Garwyn's mane and slammed into the fire-prevention robot passing behind him, where it ricocheted off the pressurised extinguisher on its chassis with a sharp ping of metal and buried itself into the side of Asset's flank.

Eyes bulging wide, her smug tone turning to a high pitched shriek of shock and pain, the composed mare went down in an undignified heap, her griffon and hippogriff guards momentarily too stunned to even realise what had happened.

And behind them, an eerie whistling sound suddenly grew louder.

“Oh...” Garwyn's eyes widened as he saw the gas venting from the extinguisher and heard the high pitched sound growing louder.

“Shit!” His brother finished for him.

The entire walkway exploded in foam and mist, drowning out Asset's thrashing, cursing and furious moaning. There was a sharp crack as the robot's lithium batteries detonated, sending a plume of sparks high above the foaming cloud. A deafening alarm bell sounded as the warehouse’s fire system kicked in. Seconds later, sprinklers activated all over the building, bringing down a monsoon that created a damp, vision-obscuring mist in all directions.

“And fuck that dirt-shit you called coffee this morning too!”

Hair Trigger glared into the mists, seeing red, then turning to the others, finding their bewildered stares looking between her and the walkway, which was rapidly disappearing behind a cloud of foam.

“Well? Let's get the hell out of-”

A red beam lanced out of the white and grey clouds, striking the ground near Hair Trigger. The intense delivery of light and heat exploded the concrete into shrapnel; and Trigger felt bits of stone ping off of her armour and skull.

“Get down, Cap'n!”

A claw reached out and tugged her away - a second beam slapped down and left a second six inch crater of erupted stone on the floor. These were nothing like the precise needles of energy fired by Cascavel's rifle. These were raw and wasteful blasts; a crude imitation of plasma armaments for those who couldn't acquire them. Hair Trigger could hear the weapons’ exposed dynamos hissing and sparking in the damp from somewhere ahead of her.

Out of it all, they could hear Asset's voice frantically screaming at someone to 'get down there and kill them', followed by an impressively blue-collar series of curse words and a groan of pain.

Trigger, Smile, and Kerfuffle fled across the width of the warehouse, Smile stopping only to grab the briefcase en-route. Three more snaps of the laser weapons zapped out of the depths of the mist. Guided only by the sound of their targets' hooves, the shots flashed wildly by. One of them flared when it struck and melted a steel railing inches from Kerfuffle’s side.

Above them, a gigantic red shape loomed down, the laser rifle in his hands charging up with a fierce glow.

Hair Trigger gasped, then waved frantically. “Scatter!”

Diving to every side, they heard Kreer's shot blast apart a crate behind them, throwing a cloud of fabric and textiles into the air.

Smile stumbled on her hooves, running directly into the shelving that bordered the way out. She'd gone further into the warehouse in her rush to get out the way, losing her sense of direction in the mist. Hair Trigger fell in beside her and quickly gave her a shove to dodge the chasing griffon's second attack. The shelving's foundation exploded, its supports collapsing and bringing the three layers of stacked goods crashing down. Rolling on her side, trying to get her rifle up and on target, Smile saw Hair Trigger trip on her hurt hind-hoof and look up at the shelving coming down.

“Aw, crap...”

The resigned groan gave way to the captain hurriedly curling up, hooves over her head, her horn lighting up just as she was buried under half a ton of broken wood and metal.

“Trigger!” Smile cried aloud, giving up her aim to try and rush forward to help the stricken unicorn. A hot flare of red streaked down her side from above, scalding and stinging her exposed coat on a near miss, and she again threw herself away, scrambling madly to get behind a wooden crate.

“Find cover, find cover!” she muttered to herself, bunching up behind it.

Two seconds later, a blast of red energy tore right through the crate, missed her face by inches, and blew a hole in the ground behind her. She stared at the gap in the crate with wide eyes.

“Find better cover!”

Smile got her sore legs powering forward again, deeper into the warehouse, chased by the flying attacks every few meters until ducking into the rows of shelving still standing near the back. Fighting down a sense of panic at being chased by a flying, mostly unseen assailant, she galloped down line after line looking for anywhere she could try and wait in ambush. The sprinklers were making it into a nightmare, blurring her vision as if she were lost in an urban fog. The warehouse felt twice the size it actually was, and yet claustrophobic all at the same time.

She yelped as another laser whipped through the shelving to her left, followed by a semi-automatic burst of them that had her diving to the ground to let them go above her head. With a crunch of metal, she felt a hard impact on her ribs and cried out in pain.

“What the...?”

She'd landed on pipes. Two pipes that gurgled and throbbed with running water. Following them to the side, chasing the sound, she saw a large tank against the back wall - open-topped with a rain filter draining into it. It was a cheap, crude reservoir for the sprinkler system the size of a business class garbage container, only five times longer to reach all the outlet pipes that led up to the roof.

Hearing a griffon's weight landing on the shaking shelves above, Smile didn't bother thinking and threw herself up and into the chilly water, falling beneath the surface with a practised breath.

Seconds later, that same griffon landed heavily on the concrete where she had just been, crunching some fallen debris below him.

Kreer shouldered his rifle, feeling the warm haze of the dynamo's energy built up inside the welded housing of the rifle tingling his cheek. His feathers felt slick and drawn under the mist of the sprinklers, and his eyes stung as red as his body and rifle from the foam of the extinguisher drone. Hard-faced, he swept the weapon’s hissing, steaming muzzle around each shelving corner, straining to look for the telltale sparkle of a crystal pony. Stalking the rows, his side to the reservoir, his big griffon eyes stared and scanned for any motion. The unicorn was done for, and he trusted Garwyn to handle the other one.

This was the moment he lived for: the hunt. The prey running. It appealed to his baser instincts to hear the panting as their hearts raced. Now he saw she had disappeared, and grinned as he looked at the reservoir.

“Really...come now,” he purred, flapping his wings to lift up and point his rifle down at the water. The pumps working to feed the sprinklers were making the surface thrash and churn. Starting at one end, he started to fly down it, always watching.

He hadn't thought for one moment that a pony could swim as fast as this one could.

At the opposite end, much farther than he'd anticipated, the drenched form of Volatility Smile powered out of the water and rolled onto an inspection plate at the top of the tank itself. The fluid, smooth motion of an athlete used to having done this a thousand times. She came to lie on her belly, rifle already aimed, its water-resistant seals holding up as they always had.

Kreer only had time to open his beak in bewilderment, before the thin crack of Smile's rifle echoed in the vapour fog and flashed its report over the water.

The round slammed into the dynamo on the side of his rifle, shattering the casing and sending a spark of scalding energy across his face. The smashed dynamo spat red arcs and streams of energy in all directions, with an unsettling - and intensifying - whine of uncontrolled power. The weapon shook and rolled in Kreer's grip, its unstable systems powering out of control, and he hastily tried to hurl it away.

Smile watched from down her sights with a squint as the laser rifle exploded in mid air, four feet from Kreer, the loud crack of the explosion drowning out his panicked scream. Regaining her vision from the blinding crimson flare she saw him lying on the floor, moaning and incapacitated.

“Still got it.”

She allowed herself a small grin, before dragging her tired and drenched body off the reservoir and toward the sounds of a vicious fight nearby.

* * *

Dust from shelving and wood splinters were dry and prickly in Hair Trigger’s mouth, almost as uncomfortable the rest of her complaining body.

With her muscles protesting, she got her forelegs under the metal panel she'd pulled over herself to protect against the collapsing metal shards of the broken shelf stands and pushed. It scarcely moved. The frame had protected her from most of the weight, but it was pinning her down.

“C'mon...you stupid...” Gritting her teeth, twisting until she got her shoulder against it, Trigger heard the clatter of fragments falling off the pile. Through her hazy vision, she saw droplets of water falling down and crawled her battered body toward them. One foreleg at a time, Hair Trigger pulled herself from out under the rubble that had almost crushed her.

The moment her top half was out, she felt a talon grasp the back of her hooded top with aggressive intent.

“Oh, gimme a fuckin' minute heeeere!”

Her deadpan was driven into a sharper cry on the last syllable, as she was dragged out and hurled head over flank into a second shelving unit. Careening through the cardboard boxes, she fell out on the other side in time to see Garwyn whip around the stands.

Half the hippogriff’s body was covered in a white stain from the foam, and he'd lost his rifle somewhere in the explosion. His hands were balled up, and he was using his wings to help him balance to fight. The crooked scar on his face twisted his grin in strange ways.

“This oughta be a bit more fun than the single shot I expected.”

Hair Trigger spat out a wad of dust and blood, finding her lip split. She began pulling herself to her hooves, lowering her head to get her horn between him and her. Her weary grin seemed to catch him by surprise.

“C'mon then. Been looking for something to take some aggression out on after today. Got plenty of it stacked up.”

Garwyn chuckled. “Mildly annoyed then? Not a lot of room to stack it.”

Trigger's grin disappeared on the spot.

“Oh you fucking-!”

She never finished her sentence, charging forward with bared teeth and ducking below his awkwardly descending punch. Throwing her every bit of weight into his thighs, her horn careened into Garwyn's armoured stomach. The pair collapsed in an untidy heap together, with the smaller pony clambering and lashing out with her hooves toward his face, straddling over his chest to stomp down again and again.

The delicious wave of satisfaction every time she connected drove her to draw up her hoof time after time - striking down hard - until she suddenly felt his whole weight shift.

“Sneaky little shit!” he cried out, his face already bruising from Trigger's unexpected dive, as he used his wings to hurl his whole body around and grab her mane.

She yelped at the sharp tug, her whole head yanked backward. She reached with her hooves to knock and fumble with his tightly clenched fingers, wrestling back and forth, her hat flying off her head.

Below her, Garwyn drew back his other fist and sent it crunching into Hair Trigger's exposed underbelly, knocking the lighter pony clean off of him. Keeping hold of her mane, he dragged her by it, and spun to slam her into the fallen stack of shelves again, then back around in the other direction into the ledge up to the way the crew had entered the warehouse.

Hair Trigger yelled and snarled, eventually wrapping her forelegs around his arm and pulling herself up to sink her teeth into his wrist. The hippogriff gasped, letting go before she could break the skin.

Rolling away, clutching her belly, Hair Trigger got back to her hooves, and faced him down with a glowing horn. For a moment they stood off, both panting.

“Had enough?” He winked, rubbing his wrist. “You look ti-”

The wooden crate Hair Trigger had tugged from the level above slammed into the back of his head.

Rushing forward, Hair Trigger didn't give him time to get back up before leaping at him again, hooves flying and her throat emitting an angry cry. His outstretched talons met her as the hippogriff floundered and thrashed. With hoof and hand they tussled and rolled, a brutal fight on the concrete. His hand caught her nose and set it bleeding - before she head-butted his mouth. His talons, blunter than a full griffon's, raked at her back until she jabbed a hoof under the jawline and into his throat.

Eventually, however, she felt his weight again surge up, and none of her strength could stop it.

Garwyn got a grip around her body, harshly lifting and slamming her down to the concrete. Hair Trigger made a strangled gasp and moan, the air being crushed out of her, fruitlessly pulling at the talons gripping around her neck.

He picked her clean off the floor and hurled her against the safety railings near the door out of the warehouse. Their metal poles dug into her back, and she dropped to the ground.

Twice more he picked her up, his arms keeping her swinging hooves at length, before dropping or punching her down.

Lying on her stomach, pain and dizziness washing over her whole body, Hair Trigger just groaned.

Bleeding across his face, Garwyn stood up in the damp fog of the sprinklers and spread his arms wide. A cocky, victorious stance. “It's over, short-stack. What can I say? There's always someone bigger than you.”

Trigger rolled onto her side, stared past him for a moment, and grinned.

“Got that right.”

Garwyn's momentarily confused look was quickly covered by an enormous taloned hand wrapping around his neck and mouth, muffling the shocked yelp, before he was yanked clean off of his hooves.

Kerfuffle hurled the security director to the side, slamming the much smaller hippogriff against the concrete wall with enough force to shake loose a cloud of dust. A second later, his head was crashed through the same crate Trigger had dropped. Bodily thrown, he smacked against the railings beside the unicorn, staggering back into a sweeping club of the griffon's forearm that actually back-flipped the hippogriff onto his stomach.

Making a staggered whimper of pain, Garwyn offered no resistance as he was effortlessly picked up off the ground, and found himself being hoisted up.

The last thing he saw before he went to sleep for the rest of the day was a door approaching at high velocity.

* * *

Outside the warehouse, the two ponies who'd been told to wait and cut off any escape had finally decided they should head in and help out. Assault rifles ready, they galloped up to the door, ready to flank and kill anyone they didn't expect to see.

They certainly didn't expect to see the door come to them.

Propelled off of its hinges by a deeply unconscious hippogriff, the metal entrance slammed into both of them and knocked all three of Asset's employees through the railing of the door's steps to crash in a heap on the rainy street.

Poking his head through remaining frame of the doorway, Kerfuffle looked either side with the same sort of innocence as a foal about to cross the street.

“Looks clear, Cap'n!”

Weaving back and forth behind him, Hair Trigger pulled her hat back onto her pounding head, getting it mostly straight. She tapped her bleeding lip, feeling like she had eight hooves to keep track of. “Nothing much is clear at the moment, big guy...”

The sound of hooves on concrete made her spin, only to see a familiar and soaking wet crystal pony galloping over from inside the building. After a moment, Volatility Smile tossed a familiar pistol to Hair Trigger. She had the briefcase on her back, taking a glance as she sighed and spoke.

“What was that about us leaving immediately?”

Looking up at Kerfuffle, Hair Trigger nodded - and then quickly regretted the motion.

“Fine, let's-”

A surge of red energy blasted into the doorframe, making the reader Kerfuffle had repaired spark and fall cleanly off. All three turned on the spot to see the red griffon limping toward them through the warehouse, aiming his brother's rifle for another shot.

“Oh, for fu-...come off of it!” Hair Trigger exclaimed, wishing she had the time to roll her eyes. The trio leapt off of the smashed hole in the railings, pursued by two more deadly blasts.

The moment Trigger landed, she felt her whole body drop below her. Her hoof, still sore from the early morning, slipped out from under her. Her head felt like it was everywhere. Groaning, she felt a clamping tightness at her stomach, until realising it was her being picked up.

“I got you, Cap'n.” Kerfuffle swept the smaller unicorn up, and then after a moment of thought grabbed Smile as well. Spreading his wings with a powerful snap, he took off for the ship, leaving the wounded Kreer firing ineffectually into the rain behind them.

The crimson feathered griffon scowled, letting the rifle's muzzle droop. His keen eyes picked out the targets disappearing around the corner, toward the shuttle. Below him, the unconscious form of his brother lay stricken.

How desperately he wanted to continue the hunt, but his right wing felt like something had broken in it and wouldn't extend fully.

Then, before his anger could take hold at allowing them to move without his pursuit, a shout called out to him from the warehouse, and he turned and limped his way back inside.

* * *

Asset Margin half-limped and half-fell down the gantry stairs to the rapidly pooling water on the floor of the warehouse. Her short mane had come loose from its tie, hanging untidily about her head, and her waistcoat and shirt were both drenched and muddied from hitting the dusty floor of the walkway.

And of course, her backside felt like a solid chunk of hot metal had been buried in it.

Mostly because one had.

“Kreer! Get your red ass back in here and help me! Kreer!”

Asset pulled herself up, limping on three legs in a fashion annoyingly similar to that of a certain unicorn that had limped up to her office that morning. She had smirked while watching her then; things felt very different now, and Asset felt that sting more than the wound itself. She gasped sharply, stumbled again, and held a silk handkerchief over the oozing red hole in her flank.

The griffon came bounding over, pulling off his pack to find a medi-seal gel dispenser. After a minute of hissing, swearing and beating her hoof against the metal railings, Asset felt the numbing effects take hold.

Kreer’s voice was short and to the point. “They got away, Ma'am.”

“I sorta' bloody figured on account of you not dragging that irksome midget's corpse back in with you! AND for my briefcase disappearing!”

“It was just frozen baking soda in the container, Ma'am. Real deal's secure.”

“But it WAS a really nice briefcase! Get this strapped up, we've got-argh, damn it...”

Kreer held a dressing over the furious unicorn's hindquarters, trying his best to not open himself up to a slap about the face for putting his talons where they ought not to be. He matched his employer's angry glare for just a second. Even to a hardened ex-pirate like him, he knew it would be a mistake to let himself get frustrated her berating him. Asset had many plans in the event she didn't come back from somewhere, and Kreer valued having wings. Wounded or not. Besides, she paid well for little work in a place no law ever hunted him, and he didn't imagine Karmelita would much let him go back to his old stomping grounds any time soon.

Pulling the dressing tight, he heard her seething in pain, and watched Asset testing her leg's range of motion. Noticing her obvious discomfort, he hit her with an added shot of local anaesthetic to the leg, and picked her up.

“Don't worry, Ma'am. Garwyn got the immobiliser fitted last night. Their shuttle's not going anywhere. Soon as you're evac'ed and I get him up, we'll go hunt them down. They don't know the city.” He let the predatory grin come back to him. “They aren't going anywhere.”

Asset let herself be lifted up onto his back, as he himself limped to the doors. She could hear the hover-vans returning to pick them up outside. After a moment, she shook her head and insistently dropped down to limp and gasp in pain instead. She wasn't about to let the others all see her being babied out.

On emerging, two earth ponies ran up to her, ones she recognised as having been the trackers for the shuttle. Standing in the rain, her leg still belting with pain, she let her hard gaze find their obviously apprehensive faces.

“What. Happened?”

They looked to one another, the two mares seemingly holding a telepathic argument over who should pass on the news.

Thankfully, neither had to, as the sound of a shuttle's engines blasted across every block for two miles and the off-red afterburners of a very familiar ship rocketed into the sky past them.

Asset's mouth twisted into an indistinct, but very exasperated shape.

“HOW!?”

* * *

Kerfuffle turned the odd device over in his hands a couple times.

Really, it was a wonder why anybody would want to fit an immobiliser into such a silly location. All it would do was interfere with the startup motor's flow of power and make the shuttle have to work overtime to get anywhere.

Confidently happy that he just brightened the shuttle's day, he dropped the offending piece of machinery into a maintenance drawer in the back and settled back to nurse his stiff wings.

Up front of the shuttle, behind the glass showing the night sky slowly turning to a more complete darkness as it climbed back to orbit, Smile rubbed her torso with one hoof and set the autopilot with the other.

To her left, Hair Trigger continued the expletive ridden rant she'd kept up for the last ten minutes.

“-have to just get screwed up right at the last damned minute! Every! Time! Didn't I call it? I damn well called it! Called! It!”

Beginning to weary of the sound, Smile couldn't hold back a snarking tone. “If I remember, you said 'no coffee, shit cargo, fucking betrayed.' Well, she gave you coffee. But two out of three isn't bad.”

Throwing a dangerously explosive look back at the crystal pony, Hair Trigger instead went back to holding her head in her hooves, trying to fight the headache that was waging war with her hoof for which could produce the worst throbbing.

Volatility Smile, content that she'd at least put an end to the shouting, breathed out and focused on finding Claudia amongst the cluttered orbital layers of Kavala III on their nav-unit.

The mining infrastructure filled most of the screen with yellow dots, and Smile wasn't certain how to actually filter it for just Claudia. She could vaguely see the lines of orbiting ships highlighted in reds and blues, yes. But it was proving difficult with a touchscreen intended for minotaur fingers to actually get her hoof on target to check the names of each of them. She could actually see some of them ahead of her now, glinting in the sky like a ring around the planet. Beyond them, enormous chunks of moon were turning.

Then, just as the atmosphere finally broke and she heard the engines fall to silence in the vacuum of space, she saw something.

“Captain, did you see a spaceport big enough for a cruiser-sized vessel at Shining Reach?”

“No, why?”

“Nothing that might be big enough to support a cruiser-sized vessel there permanently?”

Hair Trigger gave up trying to figure out the instant-freeze ice-packs in her hooves, and glanced at the screen to see a red dot approaching from behind them, its designation marking a vessel of above fifteen thousand tonnes on the planet's navigational stream.

“Oh...”

It suddenly veered, and took a course heading right toward them.

“Shit.”

* * *

The luxury yacht erupted out of its escape velocity climb like a submarine surfacing at speed, its curved prow breaching into the void with a silent crash and a flurry of residual vector-engine vapour being caught in the sun's light. Almost as though it were on a two-dimensional plane, it dropped its nose, curling along the very outer edge of the mesosphere, before finally rolling itself the right way back up again. Its silver hull became a dance of colour from the stellar radiation affecting its chemically reactive paintwork, turning it a mix of white and cream in elaborate patterns.

Yet as beautiful and artistic as the gracefully curved vessel was, its movements held a menace, and a very defined purpose. It’s bow wound over, and turned to take a course after a fleeing spot of light.

The doors to its bridge slid open, and Asset Margin stormed through at an angry limp. She was filthy, with a matted mane and a flank streaked with dried blood under a hasty dressing. Holographic displays at the six crew positions were frantic with the crowded orbit of Kavala III, but every uniformed member kept their eyes smartly on their complex layouts.

They had gotten advance warning from Kreer that Asset was not in the mood for people staring.

She had only three words to growl.

“Where are they?”

Regretting his recent promotion, the bridge officer gulped, keeping his eyes firmly on the curved display screen ahead of them.

“Ten minutes out and closing, Ma'am. We're faster than they are.”

Asset narrowed her eyes, finally allowing herself to smile again.

“Ready tac-cannons; got a rogue asteroid to shoot down. Also, be a dear and get me drone command for the Secondis refinery...”

* * *

“Eleven minutes till intercept? C'mon, when will this day just END? Smile, how long till we make Claudia?”

Having finally located the right blip, Volatility Smile set it as the current destination, and waited a few seconds for the nav-unit to update with their estimated time out. “Seven or eight minutes.”

Hair Trigger bit her lip, then winced at the sharp reminder that it was still split and bleeding. “Better hope Tami can run an FTL from orbit in three minutes then.”

She reached forward and keyed the communication panel onto her own display. Entering Claudia's general frequency code, and then her Captain's authorisation, she opened a channel to the bridge.

“Tami? Tami I hope you-”

All three crew members in the shuttle were assaulted through the speakers by a wall of noise. Loud bass, high pitched synth instruments, and a female vocalist exploded into the shuttle so suddenly that even Kerfuffle behind them covered his ears with a wince at the audio feedback.

Hair Trigger yelled in shock, before slamming a hoof into the 'send' button, setting it to play through all available speakers on the ship.

“Tami! TAMI! What the hell is-”

* * *

Dropping to the floor of the cargo bay with a squeal, a dozen objects tumbling down around her, Tami regretted her hasty resetting of the gravity on the spot.

She could hear the vague sound of the Captain's voice somewhere below the lovey pop-lyrics and the clatter of boxes and cases striking the metal deck, and Trigger had that ‘on the edge’ tone that always implied a lot of things had given her a reason to sound like that.

Scampering madly, Tami raced into the common room and up the stairs, shouting toward the open mic even before she got to the pilot's seat, half expecting to see a Changeling invasion in the space around her by the sound in Hair Trigger's voice.

“Captain! I'm here! I'm here! What's going-I mean, what do you need me to-”

“What I'm needing is an imminent getting the fuck out of this system!”

Drawing up her map, overlaying the communication's sender onto it with a few quick swipes of her fingers, Tami quickly spotted the shuttle coming in at speed, closely followed by a much larger ship.

“Tami!?”

“I-I'm on it, Captain! I'm on it! Just get here!”

The comms clicked, ending the link.

Tami frantically began throwing everything out of idle mode and within ten seconds Claudia's reactor was starting to wake up to a ready state for all ahead full. Yanking the FTL panel across, she paused only to reach up to the PA system playing the deafening music and click it to 'off'.

The button went down.

The ship-wide music, blasting out of every speaker it could, did not cease.

Clicking the switch up and down a couple times to no avail, then suddenly remembering the incident this morning with the same function, Tami held her mouth open for a moment.

“Uh oh...”

* * *

With a hard and hasty docking that made all aboard wince at the dull clang of hull on hull, the shuttle attached to Claudia's right-side airlock. They'd come in at such a speed that for the first time, Smile started to understand some of Tami's persistent nervousness when it came to piloting.

Hair Trigger didn't waste time in pressurising the lock and throwing the doors open, immediately recoiling at being reunited with the same track that had minutes before filled the shuttle. Hip shaking energetic beats and lyrics about a prom night filled the ship, reverberating from the walls of the cargo bay.

“What was she even doing up here?”

Realising no-one even heard her question, she rapidly stumbled and hopped her way into her ship and limped up toward the bridge. Finding the door ajar, she spotted the thick mane of the hippogriff at the controls.

“Tami what is going on with this-”

The pilot whipped around suddenly, her hands already up and waving, shouting to be heard. “I'm sorry, Captain! It won't turn off! Same issue, and I can't fix it, and-”

Closing her eyes with a growl of frustration she'd normally suppress around the skittish pilot, Hair Trigger waved her off. “Nevermind, no time! Just get us out of here, Tam! Go, go, go!”

Grabbing Claudia's control sticks, Tami wrenched the ship around in a one-eighty and reoriented onto the longest stretch of empty space she could find in the gap between the asteroids and the planet itself. Reading down to her side, she threw the thrust-stick forward.

Both the main outlets on the rear of the ship and the vector controls along the side shifted their metal plates, opening up or angling in, before erupting with light. Her entire frame creaking, Claudia powered forward and headed directly away from her monstrously larger pursuer.

Accompanied by the height of the pop world's remix charts, Claudia committed to the chase. Straightening her out, Tami fought down the growing pressure in her breast at the ongoing thump of music and every slightly-too-lovey lyric blaring into the crew compartments with her friends around her. Hands dancing on the touchscreen, she keyed in the easiest jump vector she could think of and got the drive spooling.

“We'll be gone ahead of them!”

“What!?” Hair Trigger shouted above the song.

“FTL NOW!” Tami screamed back.

There was a pitch shift in the whine of the reactor, a sense of rising tension began to creep through all aboard the vessel. Ahead of them, space seemed to begin folding and thickening.

And behind them, the yacht's prow had opened up.

* * *

“Activate!”

At Asset’s barked command, the two specialists at the front of the vessel keyed in the final signal. Behind them, Asset grinned.

“You don’t get to leave yet, Captain!”

* * *

There was a silent flash. A white beam, flickering like a giant strobe-light, spat out from a dish on the front of Asset's ship and lit Claudia up from behind.

Sensitive systems inside the bridge of the Pioneer class transport suddenly grew very hot and erupted like a firecracker below Tami's hooves. The hippogriff leapt up from her seat with a shock at the flash below her, smelling smoke. To her left, the FTL display flashed red.

'TRANSLATION ERROR'

“What happened!?” Hair Trigger leaned over the console, as she saw the familiar surge of the ship’s jump rift suddenly collapse in front of them. Like a hazy-edged crack in a window repairing itself, the rift twisted itself out of existence in an eruption of twisted rainbows, leaving them with nothing but a hostile system and a singer extolling the delights of a first kiss.

Scrambling over her screen, Tami gaped in horror. “She's got a jump scrambler!”

“A what!?”

“A jump scrambler!” Tami repeated, then a second time as her voice was muffled by the sudden drop of bass inside the ship.

“What IS that?”

Tami was already clawing at the floor panels, pulling them away as smoke belched out into her face.

“It's a-” She coughed from the acrid smoke. “It's used by police forces! Most FTL systems have some form of wireless connection for commands somewhere in their electronics. A scrambler projects fake signals to us that gives it the wrong stuff, makes them overload!”

Volatility Smile ran up into the bridge, having felt the FTL's vibrations cut. “What's going on? And can't you turn that music off!?”

Tami threw up her hands from unscrewing the panel. “I'VE TRIED! The PA system is-”

Trigger tossed her hat onto the screen in front of her in frustration, spinning around on both of them. “Drop it! Less arguing about the song! More fixing the FTL before they-”

* * *

“Fire?”

The officer's query to his boss told all. They were in range, and they had the tac-cannons ready. Mainly intended to ward off pirates and stray asteroids, they would be more than enough against an unarmed vessel.

Asset Margin purred in response. “Oh yes, please do...”

* * *

Claudia rattled heavily, throwing every crew member off their hooves. The concussive impact sent the ship's window view whirling through stars and asteroids, as Claudia veered and reacted to the sudden force impacting near her.

Through the windows, Trigger, Smile and Tami all witnessed several other shots hurtling through space and erupting into yellow flares ahead of them, missed rounds reaching their maximum limit before self-detonating.

Under the cover of Tami's music, the crew staggered up, and Hair Trigger groaned. “I was gonna say tackle and board us, but come the hell on!”

She hopped back into the Captain's Chair and transferred control to her side, pointing at Tami. “You and Kerf fix the FTL! Do whatever you have to!”

Tami gaped at the window, then at her Captain preparing to fly. “D-do you even know how to evade fire!?”

“Nope! But I'll do what my dad told me to do for when you’re flying a ship and can't do the right thing!”

She ratcheted the thrust stick as far forward as it could go and threw the controls over to steer Claudia in toward the asteroid field.

“The wrong thing, but very enthusiastically!”

Gunning the engines once more, Hair Trigger set Claudia onto a long curving arc to get away from the firing lines of those guns, diving in toward the closest chunks of moon she could. Microfragments started pelting off of the bridge window, reflected by the tough minotaur design and adding a strange snare drum-like tone to Tami's music.

With an oddly fitting build and hit-after-hit of big tempo beats, Claudia dropped her nose like the music dropped the bass and hurtled at speed into the asteroid field. Rolling and banking, Hair Trigger flew her behind every bit of cover she could spy out there, feeling and seeing rather than hearing the concussive thumps of vicious flak-rounds slamming into the chunks around them.

The yacht soared in after them, the two frontal tac-cannons spitting their high-velocity rounds again and again. The cannon mountings lacked automated guidance, but spat out a rapid stream of exploding munitions that followed Claudia, lighting her pale hull from every direction, and turning the musically propelled ship into a mad rave of exploding rock and flickering space. The gleaming yacht powered through chunks of debris and space-rock, its hull absorbing and denting but remaining strong with its dual-layer design.

On the yacht's bridge, scowling at her prey evading her in the tightening density of the field, Asset stormed with an angry limp to the communications officer. “Hail them! I want to speak to that idiot! Hack into their PA system...I want them all to hear.”

“Aye, Ma'am!”

Asset narrowed her eyes at the transport making hasty, panicked turns and committing to the ugliest manoeuvres she'd ever seen a fleeing target do. Were it not for the asteroids constantly blocking her gunner's solutions, they'd have been fragments by now.

“Ready to commit, Ma'am! I have control, opening channel to their internal PA in three, two, one...”

Asset put on her most calming voice. “Captain Hair Trigger, I think you-”

Then she screamed, covering her ears along with the rest of her bridge crew, as a loud voice pleading her to 'love her like it's prom night' cut her off and belched through the entire bridge, accompanied by a rapid fire series of synth and chiptune at the maximum possible volume. The ship's course wavered away from Claudia as the helmsman lost control in shock.

Screaming, Asset whirled to the comm-panel. “WHAT THE EVERLOVING HELL IS THIS!?”

“Ma'am!” The comms officer yanked off his headset. “They appear to have some form of sophisticated electronic defence suite! I...I can't cut it! It's like their system is locked open to us!”

Asset Margin grabbed the headset up from the floor and screamed into the microphone. “Listen here, you little shit! I've had enough of this! I've had enough of this day! There is no way you're leaving this system! You've cost me too big a loss profit margin for me to let you get away now!”

After a few seconds and a fumbling sound from the other end, Hair Trigger's taunting voice came back through the speakers, fitting into a gap between the irritatingly hyperactive lyrics. “Get the hell off my bridge speakers, Asset Margin! The only 'margin' you'll get is the one I gave you earlier in your Ass-ets, and you'll fucking love it!”

Asset hurled the headset into the startled comms officer's face, turning to scream over the music at the rest of her crew. “Little...where the hell is drone command!?”

* * *

Hair Trigger had no idea what she was doing.

She was desperately trying to fly behind every asteroid she could lay eyes on to put more material between them and those cannons. She went with her gut, unable to see the yacht itself, instead guessing just from the direction of the shots whizzing past the bridge windows. Apparently, it was working, and she was very glad Asset's ship wasn't more agile than it was. From rock to rock, she sent Claudia on a mad race to stay ahead of the eruption of flak filling space behind them.

“That one!” Volatility Smile pointed sharply.

“I know! I know!” Trigger sent Claudia banking for the asteroid.

“Dodge more!” Smile cried as they went to a flat trajectory.

“I KNOW!”

Trigger threw the controls back and forth, sending Claudia into an erratic spin to squeeze between two asteroids. Briefly losing control, rolling more times than she’d intended, Trigger wrestled with the ship’s engines to arrest the spin and getting them pointing roughly the way she wanted to go. Back in control, she began jinking and weaving their flight path again. The ship rocked from another close impact, and alarms began blaring all around, adding another layer to the audio madness.

After a second, Smile knocked her on the shoulder.

“WHAT!?” Trigger barked up at her.

“Stop dodging in time to the music, they'll pick up on it!”

Realising her hoof was tapping on the bridge deck, Trigger could only sit and stare for a moment at the absurdity this day had come to.

“Oh, fuck me for ever bothering to get out of bed.”

She surged the main engines again, coming far too close to an asteroid, enough that the proximity warning sounded, drowned out by yet another easily dance-inducing chorus that set Trigger seething.

“How long is this song!?”

Tami's face popped up from the floor. “It's the extended version!”

Hair Trigger rolled her eyes as the pilot grabbed a new circuit-board from Kerfuffle, and got back under the bridge decking with a soldering iron.

Another shot flew over their heads, and Trigger threw Claudia away from it before the detonation; the controls bucked hard as the mechanical force carried down through its robust minotaur design.

After a second, she noticed a very worrying crack appear on the side window. Yet it was what was beyond it that drew her attention.

All the mining lasers of the drones in the industry field sections ahead of their flight path were cutting out. With a look at her console, she saw a swarm of fifty mining drones suddenly turn and start rushing toward Claudia to cut them off.

Asset Margin's furious, sneering voice managed to fight through the deafening music to make herself known on Claudia's bridge. It was distorted, with a repeated echo of the song behind her.

“Wanna know what happens when I tell my drones that you're an asteroid? I sure do.”

Out of the black, dozens of blinking red lights began powering toward Claudia. Much more agile than the clumsy yacht, they weaved and darted around the asteroids like a swarm of wasps.

“Oh hell no, no way I can out-fly them! Tami...Tami how long on that FTL?”

Tami's voice was muffled from the crawl-space below Trigger's own seat. “Few minutes! Just a few!”

Hair Trigger glanced at the surrounding field on the main screen, looking for any way she could evade the yacht's line of fire without going directly toward the drones. Only one way remained that held anything of a hope. With a moment of consideration, she knew she was going to regret this. And a lot of people were about to get very angry with her.

Throwing Claudia onto her side and twisting the vector nozzles as far as she dared, Trigger sent the ship on a crudely sharp turn, directing their route down toward the clearing through the asteroids. The one they had flown in through.

The one populated by a dense cluster of cargo ships.

The second Claudia erupted out of the field and dove into the midst of the carefully controlled lanes in the tight area, a dozen ships made sudden swerves to get out of the seemingly insane pilot's route. A dozen ship captains hailed Claudia's hacked-open speaker system to demand answers, and a dozen bridge crews were all immediately granted a streaming service to the barrage of sugar-high music spreading like a happy plague in the void above Kavala III.

A swarm of drones followed the reckless Pioneer, diving on their simple routines to buzz around and over the frantically evading supertankers and mass conveyors. One that had only just had its engines repaired after causing a nightmare earlier that morning now found its repaired intake suddenly in-taking a fifty ton drone, putting it right back out of commission and signifying the sudden choice of retirement of its chief engineer. Another had its entire bridge crew duck as Claudia missed their windows by only a hundred metres, followed immediately by a series of the compact drones that set their elevated bridge shaking on its frame.

Claudia banked, tried to turn, failed from excessive velocity, and then tried again with more success. Hair Trigger's teeth were clenched, along with at least one other portion of her body, as she evaded ships with frantic, violent movements. She was dodging by sight alone - precisely the sort of way you weren't supposed to fly in space.

To her horror, long mining beams sometimes spiked past them as soon as the drones felt they had a clear run to 'mine'.

“Captain, there's another problem.” Smile's voice picked up, leaning down to the intensely focused unicorn's ear.

“Go...ahead...Smile...”

“Even if we get FTL, she'll just use the scrambler again.”

“Then figure something out!”

Smile cocked her head. “Me?”

“Well I'M a little busy at the moment!”

Smile thought for a moment, wandering to the back of the bridge. What could she do? A rifle was hardly going to manage it. She'd need something they could launch that was a lot-

“...bigger.”

Amazingly, she realised she did have an idea, and ran out of the bridge.

It was at that point the yacht decided to return.

Given space by its authority on the radar of every ship in the area and driven clear of the asteroids by its more powerful engines, it powered along the top of the space-lane. Hair Trigger spotted it angling itself to cover the end of the lane out into open space.

“Tami, we're blocked in, please tell me you have something for me!”

“Few minutes!”

Hair Trigger couldn't hide the mounting worry in her voice. “You said that a few minutes ago!”

“It felt like seconds!”

“Cap'n!” Kerfuffle's steady voice was still oddly calm, as he looked around the ship's windows, more particularly off to the right, before gazing at the main screen. “Drones're smart-”

“I'D NOTICED!”

“-but they need to be near their mother to work right.”

Her anger born of adrenaline momentarily interrupted, Hair Trigger risked a look at the griffon. “What?”

“Further they are from the hulks they take off from, slower they get. Bandwidth only goes so far for that much data. And the control ships are all lining the field to our, uh...right, that those ones came from. And the hulks are pretty cautiously moving.”

“You mean slow?”

Kerfuffle looked awkward. “Slower...but I wouldn't insult them so much like-”

Hair Trigger didn't need told twice. For the third time, she committed the suffering ship to a hard turn and burn, pointing it back into the asteroid field opposite the mining control ships.

As soon as she got on target, she had to wave off and turn again as a colossal mobile refinery thundered into their flight-lane, sending an automated message that barked angrily in some language she didn't know.

Claudia spun out, her engines mis-angled, and no matter what Hair Trigger did, nothing could correct the unnatural vector she'd been thrown on. Forced to hit the retrothrusters to avoid an uncontrolled spin, Claudia slowed to a near stop.

On the screens, the drones swarmed in.

* * *

On her bridge, Asset had the tac-cannons take aim, and finally allowed her rigid, twisted face to smile again.

* * *

“Shit! Shit-shit-shit!” Hair Trigger beat at the side of the chair, trying to rework the vector engines to where she wanted them - while trying to make heads or tails of the spinning in the windows.

“I...we've got FTL back!”

A dirty orange mane and an oil-stained face poked back out of the floor with a triumphant shout and a wave of a soldering iron. Tami started pulling herself up, until Kerfuffle helpfully lifted her out by her overalls. She collapsed into her chair, just in time to see Hair Trigger switch the controls back to her side.

“Then get your three-dimensional mind working and get us out of here!”

Tami glanced at the controls, then the screens, and her mouth gaped.

“Is-what-Captain I didn't realise it wa-th-there's like fifty of them incoming a-”

Suddenly leaning over, Hair Trigger grasped the hippogriff by both shoulders, forehead to forehead. “Tami, Tami listen to me. Now really, really isn't the time to go back to that.”

“But Capt-”

“This is your wheelhouse, Tam. And I want to mail a picture of my notably not-shot ass to that bitch in the yacht after we get out of here just to rub it in, so I need you to do this.” She winked, “You flew Regulus like a foal bounding around at Hearthswarming. I've seen what you can do. Wouldn't it be a great thing for me to tell Whisper about this?”

Tami's eyes widened; she looked down at the waiting controls.

“I....”

Her hand reached out.

* * *

Asset Margin swiped away the ship's doctor for the third time, leaning on the bridge's railing like a psychotically invested sports fan as she watched the drones close in. She loved drones. She loved robots. Things doing things on their own. She loved watching them tear asteroids apart and imagining the credit signs popping out of them.

She'd never gotten to see them do it on a ship before.

The drones swirled around, dancing past the final ship in their way, and clustering about the Pioneer they'd been chasing. At this point she wasn't sure what she wanted more - Hair Trigger to die for shooting her in the ass, or that ship to die to shut that damned music off.

Thankfully, she could have both.

“Time's up. Time to mine!”

She gleefully laughed...until her giggling suddenly faltered as Claudia's engines fired.

The gunners with the tac-cannon firing solutions had their sights set ahead of the ship, waiting for its inevitable last try. The drone's AI was following the vessels slow forward drift.

Neither anticipated her to suddenly spin every vector engine and power off backwards.

Fifty mining lasers criss-crossed in a bright orange star of light where the ship had once been, their logic confused by their stationary target suddenly moving. Seconds later, the drones reengaged their protocols and spun as one to give chase.

Asset's mouth dropped in exasperation, as she saw Claudia pick up speed from a sudden burst of power to the vector-engines, catapulting and weaving in reverse ahead of the drones. Blazing from every outlet but the main ones, Claudia banked and spun. Keeping her bridge facing the tide of drones, she rolled to fit between ships, even once between the empty stems of a conveyor's cargo arms. Rapidly accelerating, evading even in reverse, Claudia quickly passed underneath the slower yacht and out of its weapon arcs.

Looking down, Asset grabbed her comms officer's mug and threw it at the helm officer to break her out of staring. It shattered on the ground, making the pony yelp. After a second, having spotted the comms officer out of the corner of her eye, Asset followed the throw by cuffing him across the ear to get him to stop bobbing his head to the music.

“What are you all staring at!? GET AFTER THEM!”

Drones and yacht surged forward as Claudia inverted, firing its vectors vertically to make a transversal jink, passing under a refinery ship and out of sight, moving in reverse for the asteroid field opposite the drone controllers.

With a last burst of her vectors, Tami blasted the engines on one side only, then from the other side after a quick re-angling of the engine nozzles. It threw Claudia into a smooth, rapid J-turn to make a flat spin, until caught by the retrothrusters to hold the whirling ship on a trajectory away from Asset’s drones.

With the crew inside holding on as the artificial gravity was strained to its limit, their stomachs churning, the main engines surged even before the turn was complete, Tami guiding it through a curved arc, moving as much sideways as forward. Finally finding her desired path amongst the cramped vessels, Tami threw every bit of power she had into the main drive, the complex three-dimensional maneuver finally bringing her to where she wanted.

Taking off like a rocket, Claudia powered forwards through the incoming traffic. With wide, focused eyes, Tami smoothly twitched and eased the control sticks to carefully steer with the vectors rather than by angling the main engine. Her fine-tuned manoeuvring sent Claudia on nerve-wrackingly close encounters with other ships. Skimming the surface of freighter’s shipping containers, she used a sudden blast from starboard to roll Claudia over one-eighty and drop down the other side of the massive vessel, putting it between them and the drones, and hurtled into the asteroids.

Already, thanks to the high energy escape, the drones were slowing. Their bandwidth was struggling to keep up this far from their motherships. Asset's yacht, however, had no such problem. Its tac-cannons swung onto station and opened fire as the larger ship surged after the transport, following it down the line of asteroids.

Shells slammed into the rocks, firing at maximum rate in a blistering wave of destruction that shattered asteroids and filled the air with heavy shrapnel and concussive waves. With the yacht flying parallel to Claudia everything between the ships was savaged by the violent broadside.

And yet, to Asset's continued frustration, none of their shots would just HIT.

She could see the camera zoomed in tracking that ship, as the Pioneer banked, rolled and made irritatingly smooth adjustments at speed to fly between asteroids, around the arcs of fire, away from the shockwaves, and once even through the still separating pieces of an asteroid her ship had just blown apart. The movements were aggressive and flowing, retaining momentum and allowing the ship to roll on its ends and sides in awkward directions, more telling of a trained evasion pilot than some random truckers.

Asset began wondering just where the hell had this piloting been a minute ago. Yet the end of the asteroid field was approaching, and she knew they only had so far to run. No cover and no amount of suddenly fancy flying would save them then.

“Ma'am! They're charging FTL! Scrambler coming online!”

* * *

Tami was panting hard. Sweat dripped down her face as her eyes flickered in different directions, sometimes independently of one another. The flashing of explosions and the whirling of rocks that she had to evade or had to rely on Claudia enduring impact with was like the worst of the tests she'd ever taken at the academy, where simulated mass obstacles were thrown at them to react to while answering basic questions.

Yet while her body and face were rigid and terrified, her hands were moving with grace and smoothness. Switching motion from vector to main engine housing with a preset, or changing velocity to pre-empt movements and turns, she led Claudia on a dance to match the song that she couldn't help but murmur along with under her breath in some vague attempt to stay calm. Possibly the only living person for one AU actually finding the climaxing music useful right now, she slaved both vectors to one control stick and used her other hand to prep the FTL. She idly sang to herself, a vain attempt to stay calm.

“Go down and take-”

“What?” Hair Trigger raised an eyebrow, gripping her seat tightly.

“Nothing! Okay, Captain? I hope you've got an idea for the scrambler, ‘cos we're ready to go! Just need some space, we gotta get out of the asteroids!”

On cue, Smile's voice came over the intercom, shouting to be heard. “Tami! Got an idea ready down here! I'm at the airlock with the emergency release ready, you understand?”

The hippogriff thought for a second, and then it clicked. “I-I got it! I'll tell you when!”

Hair Trigger gave her a curious look, then suddenly made an appreciative smirk. “Kerf? Might wanna close your eyes, big guy.”

* * *

Thumping her hoof on the railing of the bridge again and again, Asset had finally had it with these gunners. She'd already made the decision to fire them. To fire most of this crew. To fire her ship trackers. To fire her drone controllers. Anyone who'd failed her so utterly today.

The tac-cannons were firing slower, reaching their heat limit and being forced to fire alternately. Still that elusive lump of metal refused to be hit, and again she wished her love of automation had extended to being able to acquire military grade auto-locks.

“Captain, if you'd be so kind as to please stop wasting my ammunition. Remember who pays the bills.”

“We're...we're trying, Ma'am! Scrambler is ready! But the gun, their pilot must have been trained for partial manu-”

“CAPTAIN!” The helm suddenly cried up to them, and the sight of Claudia on their viewscreen changed significantly.

The ship fired its vectors and retrothrusters on the port side all at once, sending it on a crazed roll right toward the yacht itself, arcing up and above their line of fire, right toward them.

“What are they even-”

The ship wasn't getting any smaller, and it wasn't stopping.

“All stop! They're trying to ram us! FULL REVERSE, HELM!” the Captain bellowed, before everyone on board staggered at the powerful frontal thrusters cutting speed.

Claudia followed through on its long barrel roll, arcing upside down above the yacht, before suddenly dropping directly in front of it, completing the cylindrical manoeuvre.

Asset stared at the bright engines of the transport. She could see open black beyond them both, and the twisting of reality that signified Claudia's FTL charging.

“What are you-...SCRAM THEM!”

* * *

“NOW!” Tami screamed in to the handset.

Down below, aided by a reluctant Kerfuffle, Smile yanked down the heavy grade lock and activated the emergency decoupling.

On Claudia's side, the shuttle they had arrived in banged, air pockets exploding it off the hull into free space.

* * *

Asset Margin's eyes widened, as she took a moment to believe what she was seeing.

Her own shuttle, one she'd paid for, came arcing off the small ship and careened right back at her yacht.

As her crew panicked, shouted, and tried in vain to move the ship, Asset simply sat down in her chair and held her head in her hooves, beyond done with this day.

* * *

The shuttle crashed into the sensitive components of the scrambler, shattering its dish, and piledriving into the hull of the yacht itself. Twenty tonnes of metal buried itself three decks deep, knocking out generators and spiralling the larger vessel end over end from the transfer of momentum, leaving it spinning helplessly on the fringes of the space its owner took to be hers.

Ahead of it, space erupted into light, and then an unusual tear in the fabric of reality opened. Claudia, propelled by the closing notes of one very happy song, disappeared into it and left Kavala III in the far distance.

* * *

A few hours later, once someone had gotten Tami a bag to breathe into and they had let Patch take a look at them all, the crew had taken Claudia some distance from Kavala before doing anything else. They had arrived back in Jealousy, and only then allowed the ship to ease off on the reactor, safe in another civilization’s space.

Only then, after all that, had they finally gathered.

It had been set to be a celebration: a chance to sit down, meet, and let any lingering adrenaline out. Instead, they just sat in tired silence around the common room table as the exhaustion and painkillers set in, idly glancing at movie lists and board games with absolutely no energy left to try any of them. Smile had explained that the Confederacy had a reward out for information on Asset Margin's suspected activity, and they had made a tired cheer. Their payday would still happen, if substantially less than originally planned.

That, and Smile found she had a very fancy new briefcase.

Hair Trigger had rarely been more thankful to hear nothing but the tranquil hum of the ship's reactor, and nothing else. As the quiet between them all wore on, she knew it was expected of her to say something about it all. Not by the crew; she knew they wouldn't hold her to it. But she'd come to feel a duty toward her position. Being a Captain was more than just making decisions. As she'd grown into the role, she'd seen it was about taking care of your crew and bolstering them after hardship.

Trying to think about what to say, Trigger instead just got up and walked over to the kitchen. She idly added Kavala III to the 'systems we don't go to any more', and made to pour a cup of-

Hair Trigger paused, internally letting loose a tired curse as she remembered.

Yet somehow at this point, she just smiled. The smile quickly turned to chuckles, and then to laughter as she dunked the mug down and leaned on the kitchen.

“Nothing.”

The other three looked up at her in confusion, moreso when they saw her broad grin.

“Absolutely nothing.”

“Cap'n?”

Hair Trigger limped back toward them, and leaned on the back of a chair with a weary sigh. “Absolutely nothing went right for us today. Tech failed. Job was a bust. Ship got screwed up. Shuttle had an immobiliser on it. Got shot at. Got beat up. Got betrayed. Almost crashed a dozen times. Hull's scratched to hell. Had a crap morning. No coffee.”

She let her attention fall from Kerfuffle's still confused face, to Smile's curious one, and to Tami's mouth spreading even as she brought up the energy to smile back. Trigger hopped down and trotted around them to behind Tami, her back to her own room's door.

“Everything went wrong, and yet we came out of it. Y'know why?”

Tami looked over her shoulder. “Why, Captai-eek!”

Hair Trigger's foreleg hugged her from behind, pulling the back of the soft and quickly giggling hippogriff's head to her chest, the other one ruffling through her thick mane, before pointing at each of the crew.

“Everything went wrong, but even with that, there was this crew to fall back on when it all fu...when it all went to hell.”

Chiding her own curse, feeling the day’s anger begin to fade from her own words to not need to express it as much now, she let Tami go.

“Asset surrounded herself with automation. Demanded people do things. She hired skills, and ‘things’, not people. She didn't have what I have here. What we have here. Others to hold on when luck throws the worst at you. Friends you can rely on behind you.”

Smile lived up to her name, her head angled to the side in a casual glance. “How eloquent, Captain. But...accurate.”

Kerfuffle nodded along eagerly, an unspoken 'what she said'.

Hair Trigger felt her heart well up, and she patted Tami's shoulder.

The young pilot looked up, then squished her cheek into Trigger's hoof, speaking cheerfully. “S'what makes a crew different from a crowd, Captain, that's what my dad said.”

“Smart guy. Now, if you excuse me, I got beat up by a big nasty hippogriff, so I'm gonna go lie down and groan for a while. Advise you all get some rest. We'll head back to Medusa tomorrow...then just see whatever the black's got to offer us next. So...g'night.”

She gave a brief wave, then limped back to her room.

Inside, the screens were still on the floor, and she tossed her broken multiband onto the desk. Dropping off her hat and hooded top, she didn't even bother with her night shirt; and instead just wandered naked to her bed.

Finally, finally this day was over. Finally, things going wrong were done.

Eager to relax and return to slumber, she threw herself back first onto it with a sigh.

And landed directly on the upturned charge plug she'd tossed onto her bed in anger that morning.

* * *

In the common room, three heads perked up in unison at the sudden cry and barrage of swearing muffled by the thick doors.

Volatility Smile got up, unable to stifle a smirk of pure schadenfreude. “Well then, Captain's orders. Off to bed.”

She moved to her own room, the door closing behind her before her laughter got loud enough to be heard.

After a brief hug from the big griffon, Tami flew off upstairs, returning to her own 'quarters'.

Kerfuffle, now alone in the common room, was left to turn out the lights for the impromptu night cycle. One by one, he moved around to dull them in both decks, taking his usual tour of the ship before turning in. Making sure that all was good - that all was now fine - before returning to his own doorway.

Holding it open, he paused and gently patted his hand on the frame; on the wall of the ship. Leaning in, he whispered gently.

“Don't worry, she meant you too.”

He closed his door and Claudia fell silent, ending one more day.

One more day of a crew needing to come together, to rely on one another and to find a way around whatever the galaxy held in store. Even when chance tried its best to pull them down.

One more day reminding them why it wasn't easy to live in the stars.

But also one more day to remember that it was the spirit of working together in overcoming hardship that had brought all species off of that now distant single planet in the first place.

One more day for the difference between a crowd and a crew.

And between crew and family.

* * *

A system away by now, a ship drifted aimlessly in the black. Sparking and blackened about its nose, it turned over and over. And within its bridge, between the sparking remains of two bridge consoles, a very angry unicorn sat in a burnt suit, and mused.

Her backside hurt. The new second horn of a lump on her head hurt. Her pride hurt. Soon enough, her wallet would probably hurt too.

Around her, ponies ran in circles trying to regain some sort of control, but their employer was silent. Eventually, she reached out for a communicator and punched in a number back to Kavala III.

“Yes, Pearl? Cancel tomorrow. All of it.” Asset Margin paused, and glared through the cracked display screen to the stars outside. “And get me the special contractor list ready.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I'm not letting this go.”

* * *

The Last Promise

View Online

During their time in the black, the crew unwittingly became involved in the search for a mysterious ‘Project Snowdrop’. This was a secret program that turned out to be owned by the Sidewinder Syndicate, a super-corporation with a very dark, organised criminal underbelly of black secrets and wetwork agents.

The elusive secret project, it seemed, was attracting the attention of several interested parties all the way up to entire governments, all of whom interacted with, allied with, or fought and hampered the crew in some way.

To fight against this, the Sidewinder Syndicate sent in one of their operatives to try and protect their project: a ruthless batpony known by the nickname ‘Cascavel’ who was tasked with hunting down all those trying to find it.

The Solar Empire sent Tundra Gem, an investigator of the mysterious Æther Corps, a group of unicorns with the rare gift of still having magic abilities. His intellect and friendly charm came to aid the crew greatly, with Hair Trigger even falling into a relationship with him before long.

And lastly, the New Lunar Republic. Unwilling to let the Solar Empire investigate this alone, they sent one of their own stoic, focused agents. Whisper Step: a quiet, often stern mare of lethal covert talents that Tami quickly came to look to in awe as someone bearing the cool confidence she never had herself.

Finding themselves allied with Whisper and Tundra (despite the difficulties of their opposed allegiances), the crew thus were at odds with Cascavel and Sidewinder, being attacked several times.

Tami in particular grew to fear the dangerous batpony, for he always seemed to influence and attack even where she felt safest. Be it encountering him after a massacre aboard the derelict ship Starweaver, a Sidewinder systems hack forcing Claudia into an almost fatal jump, or through the threats and attempts to murder her friends.

This was to take a turn for the horrific, after Cascavel and his agents captured and interrogated Whisper Step. The first knowledge of this was harshly known in a call to Tami, as she heard the electric shocks and screams first hand.

Cascavel and Sidewinder brutally tortured Whisper over the course of weeks for information on their goals until, after a nerve shredding race against time, the crew were able to rescue her with the aid of Tundra Gem. Whisper, free of her bonds, killed Cascavel herself. Ramming the same implement he’d used on her into his eye socket in a defiant revenge, she made a vow to hunt every one of them down.

Even so, the events left lasting scars on all of them. Whisper worst of all, leaving everyone uncertain of just what damage to her composure she was hiding below the intense - and at times reclusive - stoicism. Tami meanwhile, after being shot and injured by Cascavel in the firefight, felt her terror of him only grow. It was illogical to feel that still, what with his death, but after Cascavel himself promised that he had planned the same horrors for her as he had done to Whisper, she found it difficult to let herself feel safe.

He was dead, and yet the fear just wouldn’t leave her.

Some weeks later, after a terrifying mishap with Tundra’s magic, one that pushed the crew to face some of their worst fears in a waking dream, Tami found everything she had worried about brought to life in front of her again. Only this time, it was her at the mercy of Cascavel, about to enact his promise.

The escape from that nightmarish illusion did little to settle her. Even if she didn’t fully remember it, in the way dreams quickly fade, a hazy shadow of fear remained.

And out in the black, there is a lot of empty space and slow time for worries to fester and grow into something worse…


The Last Promise

* * *

Within the spiralling stars of a galaxy, there were gulfs of darkness, far greater in distance and relative size than any map or travel schedule would have anyone believe.

And within that great darkness, known as the black to those who traversed it, there was a ship.

Silver-grey, highlighted in dark off-blue panels, it gently turned in a slow spiral of its own, completing its rotation once only every hour. Alone. Alone in the black, caught in the dark between stars, a gulf so vast that a sane mind could scarcely grasp the true scale of it, let alone that of the galaxy beyond.

And every time it turned, on the hour, every hour, the faint lights of its hull illuminated its name.

Claudia.

Those same lights, even if they could reach those worlds that might see them, would have taken years to arrive.

Having stopped between jumps in this great emptiness to rest from her efforts, Claudia was alone to a degree that defied simple understanding.

Upon her hull, above those telling letters, the glass of her bridge turned with her. The reactive tinting of the windows was at its lowest setting this far from light, leaving little sense of any difference between the void outside, and the dark, empty bridge behind them.

Two seats stood before an elaborate cluster of darkened screens, their standby modes active, and small photos stuck onto their rims, visible only as muddy shapes. The hammock behind them was unoccupied, its blankets hanging untidily off of it. The patterns and colours on the fabric were scarcely discernible in the faint aura of a multiband’s blinking light upon the floor below them, the flashing battery icon indicating that it was reaching critical battery levels.

The door to the bridge was open, revealing the way to the so called 'main street', the dorsal corridor that led from the bridge to engineering.

At this moment, engineering was only a vague hint, as light from the reactor core within it gave a dull ambience to the relatively distant compartment and highlighted the two ladders before it that led to the cargo bay.

And in there, within the hold, was near silence. Large containers filled either side of a primary hatch on the deck itself, looming quietly in their lightless hold. Between them, the hatch was slightly ajar, the trails of LEDs within it revealing the small cockpit of an attached ship. A tiny speck of light that nonetheless became like some form of a beacon.

Past them, from beyond two closed and sealed doors, was the source of the only noise in the cargo bay.

Behind those doors: an oasis of light, and sound, and warmth.

* * *

“For crying out loud, he doesn't even have his unit badge on the right side of his tac-vest! That one didn't exist till years later, either!”

Hair Trigger rolled her eyes, lifting a bit of popcorn from a bowl below the common room's sofa to toss with her magic at the source of the interruption. She'd have used her hooves for the satisfaction of hurling it, had they not been tightly wrapped around a comfortably fluffy unicorn.

“For the twelfth damn time, Swan! It's just a movie!”

The popcorn bounced off the mane of an irate hippogriff sitting at the far side of the room by the table, an ex-Solar Empire soldier hired to bolster security aboard. Swan, grumpy and picky as the day they’d met him, dropped the bottle from his mouth and held up his other hand, palm-open, at the screen.

“Details! What schmuck did they get as advisor? Some FNG who only stayed in for the warm meals and called himself a damned vet despite only fighting with the barracks fridge? Look! That one's got a Kalsen Mark Eight-Oh-Two! Those were only issued a year ago!”

The common room's large flat-panel screen gave a good view of the clean, finely crafted rifle in the hooves of a menacing looking civil war-era Empire soldier. He stalked through the ruins of a burning, rustic village, with the shot panning to reveal the frightened face of a slit-eyed batpony just barely hidden from her assailant.

Swan sighed. “Why isn't he using his heat-scanner? We all had them for counter-insurgency to root out the Lunatics being that slippery. And where's his guardian angel? We always moved in twos and-”

Volatility Smile, sat on the opposite side of the table, made a loud groan and clamped her hooves to her face, slipping down in her chair in utter exasperation.

“Because absolutely no-one cares!”

“I care!” Swan countered, looking back around just in time to catch the end of the batpony having managed to pull the pin on one of the unicorn's grenades, and diving out of the homestead just as it exploded. Relieved and triumphant music slid in, tinged with a mournful bittersweet violin as she was able to be picked up by a ship that had been looking for her and her child, the last evacuees off world.

At the sight of static text before the credits noting how many supporters of Princess Luna had died on that world prior to evacuation during the war, Swan just went back to his drink with a grumble. “Empress-damned propaganda...”

Across the room, upon the sofa, Tundra Gem rubbed a hoof through his short beard as though thinking for a moment. “Actually, while it was a League production, I believe those numbers are quite close to reali-”

Hair Trigger's hoof tapped on Tundra’s mouth, and she shook her head with a grin.

“Isn't worth it, sweetie. Isn't worth it.”

The tap turned into a little stroke at his beard, and she caught the flush of red on his cheeks as he tried his best to confidently smile it off. She did like that look on his face. The 'trying so hard to look all at ease that it turns obvious' look. Hair Trigger had been developing ways to make it happen, and thus far had enough material that she figured a book entitled 'Wizards and How to Startle Them' wouldn't be too tall an order.

“Yes, probably.” Tundra moved her hoof down with a grasp of his stronger magic. “Besides, it's quite late. Too late for digging out sources and conflicting evidence, I suspect.”

“If that's your way of trying to hint for us to get into bed, Gemmy-boy...” Trigger waggled her eyebrows.

Tundra coughed, his eyes rapidly looking past her shoulder, as though hoping the others hadn't heard it.

“Well, I just meant you've got an arrival back at Medusa tomorrow and-”

“Hey, I'm not complaining if it is.” Hair Trigger smirked. “It's a step up from me needing to spell out that I was wanting you to-”

“Okay, okay! I get it!” Tundra rapidly interjected, his eyes perpetually looking past his marefriend, before giving her a playful nudge. “You know they trained me to confront the surreal unknowns and mysteries of the galaxy, and yet you take the cake for catching me unaware.”

“You know it.” Hair Trigger let herself be shoved, not letting up on her smile, before turning to the rest to announce them turning in. Even before she spoke, she could see Volatility Smile and Swan were grabbing the rubbish from the night's snacks.

Yet closer, Kerfuffle and Tammani sat together at the bottom of the stairs. The enormous griffon was hunched over, sat on one of the steps. Trigger couldn't see which underneath his thick feathers.

Below him, Tami sat on her beanbag, her back resting on Kerfuffle's chest.

They both looked tired. Kerfuffle's head was hung, his arms limp by his sides. Only his talons lightly toying with the edge of the steps gave an indication he was awake.

Tami, however, was looking woozy. Her upper body was wavering, her eyes staring blankly into the floor.

“Tam?”

There was no reply. Hair Trigger raised her voice a little.

“Hey, Tam!”

This time, the hippogriff snapped upwards, blinking rapidly.

“Oh? Oh, uh, Captain?”

Patting Tundra's hoof with her own as she got up, Hair Trigger lowered her tone and wandered closer to her pilot.

“Snooze cruise? You look ready to keel over.”

On cue, Tami yawned. Hair Trigger had seen them before, and remembered them well. Tami had quite a dramatic yawn when she was exhausted. Her mouth opened wide, her wings stretched out to the sides, and she emitted a quiet little groan, before it all sharply sank down, like the will had just gone out of her muscles.

“Jus' tired, Captain...”

Giving Kerfuffle a rub with her hoof to stir him as well, Hair Trigger moved gently and slowly. It’d only been a few days since they had all gone through quite an experience back on Medusa on Tundra's ship, and she'd seen how rattled the pair before her now had been.

That, in fact, had been the reason she'd accepted this low profit pickup job. Get everyone back out in the black for a bit. Get them working, get them time around one another away from everything else. A quick trip to help them reset, and a couple extra movie nights to boot.

In truth, she'd needed it herself as well; but the crew had to come first.

“Reckon it's late for you two now, Tam. Report to bed and hammock. That's an order.”

Kerfuffle spluttered and shook his head. “Aye-aye, Cap'n.”

“Aye, Captain...” Tami muttered from below, rubbing her eyes.

There was a quick sound behind them: a metal door opening and shutting. Turning her head, Hair Trigger caught side of a dark earth pony moving out of the door beside the sofa. Tall, wiry, moving with purpose, and bearing two piercing golden eyes, Whisper Step exited what had become her quarters.

Hair Trigger gave her a quiet nod and saw a fraction of the same in return. Hair Trigger regarded the stern, dangerous mare for a moment as she watched the agent move past them toward the kitchen, before turning and winking at Tami.

“And if Whisper's up, then you know it's past bedtime for all of us. Go on, shoo.”

Giving the pair of them an overacted ushering, she was pleased to see the small smirk it got from the pilot. Hustling her crew away, Hair Trigger finally turned and lit her horn, grasping Tundra's beard to 'encourage' him over.

“C'mere loverboy, need a fuzzy chest as a pillow.”

Cantering over with his chin poked out from the magic, Tundra just scoffed, before his own horn lit instead.

“If you're going to test me with telekinesis...”

Before Hair Trigger knew what was happening, she felt the tingling grasp of magic around her, carting her off to her own room. Wiggling her legs, she eventually crossed the front ones as she floated away with a look of indignation on her face.

“It's mutiny then.”

“And you always say I'll pay for it until someone gives you a really tight hug.”

The door closed behind them, leaving the deadpan expression of a spy rolling her eyes into her coffee.

* * *

Climbing the stairs out of the common room, Tami felt an odd sensation, like a shift in the atmosphere.

The 'main street' dorsal corridor was dark. A sharp and sudden contrast to the light coming from below her. With everyone else moving into their rooms, and only the generally silent Whisper Step left below her, any sounds of her friends talking were quickly deadened by inches of bulkhead.

She'd moved only a few feet vertically, and yet it felt so much further. Moving between decks in ships was always an unusual transition, especially when running on the night cycle with most compartments left on low level lighting only.

Pausing at the top of the stairs, she turned and glanced down the main street, spotting the heavy glow emitting from the reactor’s core at the far end. She could only barely see the shape of the walls and piping down the dorsal corridor in the darkness between her and engineering. Lit only by a couple of panels on the walls, the whole tunnel felt so much longer and deeper, like staring into the abyss. It held the same feeling of looking into a living room at night on the way to a bedroom; when one’s own home didn't feel quite as cosy any more out of the full light.

Normally, the feeling wouldn't have bothered her. Tami had gone on wanders more than once before through Claudia during the night cycle. Knowing Claudia was a sealed environment gave her a comforting sensation amidst the thrill of exploring the dark places on board.

As of late, in particular since a few days ago, those feelings had been harder to come by and she had slept restlessly. Often since the events in Tundra's vessel, she had woken drenched in sweat, feeling like she had just forgotten something the moment she'd opened her eyes. Forgotten something that made her heart clench tight, and left her wondering if she was lucky to not know. It was always the same sensation she'd felt when waking up on board the Lady of the Lake, like all the details were just inches away, concealed within a ghostly fog of memory that she could feel, but never describe.

Tami figured the others thought she was just being quiet and wanting peace. But in truth, it was simply because she was exhausted, having not caught much more than four or five hours sleep at any time-often less-in sporadic bursts. Once, Kerfuffle had come across her while she had been tearing up for no reason she could understand. Embarrassed, she had still held onto his neck as he had stood by her hammock and leaned in to cover her with a wing for a few minutes.

Feeling her eyes grow heavy, Tami turned away from the dark of the dorsal passage and eased herself into the bridge.

Here, at least, she felt safer.

The bridge was her true home. The moment she stepped into it, she felt her heart lift to see the sights. It was just as quiet and just as dark, yet darkness in here wasn't the absence of light, it was the presence of the cosmos, filled with its gentle colours that glimmered in the far distance. A serene and gentle vista. A view into infinity that helped her breathing remain steady and relaxed all her anxieties. It was a different black, not of unknown shadows, but of tranquillity.

All the same, she made sure to switch on several of the monitors, letting their 'dark mode' colours cast more light into the bridge with diagnostics, navigation data, and even just a few idle-screens of famous celestial phenomena she'd chosen. It gave the bridge some more illumination; made it feel more comfortable and familiar.

Briefly, Tami considered that if she felt the need to do that, then maybe there wasn't as much a feeling of safety on the bridge as she'd thought.

Instead, leaning on the back of her pilot's chair, Tami stood on her hooves and watched the void, imagining what every glint might be and spotting her favourite constellations. She'd always done it to calm down. Indulge in her truest love. To be out here. To stare at her dream from within it.

Finally managing to draw up the will to smile again, she dressed for bed, set her multiband on charge, and clambered into her hammock.

Under the soft hue of glow-in-the-dark stickers on the ceiling above her, Tami shoved the wall with a wing to set the hammock swaying, and cocooned herself in the soft thermal blanket.

“G'night, Claudia...”

Muttering the words, she knew they were pointless. Relaxed or not, it took her a long time to sleep now. It was frustrating to feel so tired yet so unable to just switch off.

There was always the anxiety. The dreaded worries. Worries about what she'd seen. Worries about why she felt so scared, vulnerable and unsafe. And above all, worries about why those feelings just wouldn’t let go of her.

And so she hazily dozed, drifting half into sleep before opening her eyes time and again.

She was waiting. Waiting for the time she'd open them and feel the grip at her chest and the sweat on every inch of her body. Waiting for the one restless waking up where she'd suddenly realise she had slept just long enough for some unknown terror to have gripped her, and then been forgotten again the moment she woke up.

Three nights in a row now.

Slowly, Tami felt the world become that bit more muffled, and her body that much more still. And as she felt her eyes close, there was one last creeping wash of dread.

She knew. She knew it would happen, and she couldn't stop it. Not herself.

Never hersel-

She gasped. So sharply and suddenly, that her whole body jerked, a violent spasm shooting through her. Feeling a sudden shock of cold run through her whole body, like she’d fallen in polar waters, Tami yanked the blanket in tightly, hunching herself as much as she could.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she realised she had drifted off for some indeterminate time and was now shaking terribly from icy temperatures.

“Wh-wh-what?”

Struggling to open her heavy eyes, she found everything blurry and sore to look at. The glare of screens, like hazy lens flares, made her squash them shut again. She could feel her heart rattling at multiple beats a second and dampness on her cheeks. An unseen, freezing hand ran beneath her skin with crooked claws and clutched at her heart.

She felt terrified. Terrified and cold. And she didn't know why.

Something was deeply wrong, and Tami fought against her sleepiness to try to force her numb body to awaken. She groggily wondered if temperature control had broken down in the night, and the ship had only now gotten cold enough to wake her.

“Oh gosh, right...right...”

She made to open her eyes, rubbing them to clear her sight.

And as she looked out from her hammock, every single source of light on the bridge suddenly cut.

She jumped in fright. A loud bang of powerful electronics sharply powering down thumped into the darkness around her; monitors shut to black and low-level lighting thudded off all at once. LEDs below switches disappeared, and the hazy glow of Claudia's external lights that eeked into the fringes of the bridge windows snapped away entirely. Even the emergency lighting didn’t trigger.

In the distance she heard the reactor emit a strangled, tortured scream, quickly winding down, before its ever-present hum disappeared entirely.

Within her single held breath, Tami was plunged into such pitch black that she could not even see her own hammock.

And through the windows, there was nothing. No stars. No colours.

Just black.

A suddenly very enveloping, and menacing, black.

* * *

Limbs frantically flailing to try and get feeling back into them, Tami fell from her hammock to an unsteady landing on her hands and hooves. The deck was biting and prickly, like a sheet of ice, while the thick and motionless air grasped at her. A feeling like she had fallen into a chilly lake sunk into her skin, and Tami shivered powerfully as she huddled and staggered toward the pilot's chair.

Panic was settling in. She was navigating by memory alone. A ship without power this far out had nothing like enough light to see anything inside it. The emergency lighting had failed, telling her this was no normal outage.

“Right, right...warn, assess, act.”

Reciting the mantra that all space-goers were taught, she fumbled around until she found her chair. Pawing her hands over it, she started reaching up until she found the PA system's handset. It was connected to its own power supply, purposefully disconnected from the rest of the ship.

Holding the button down, she instinctively looked out the windows.

Or at least, the direction where the windows mere feet away would be. Now, they hidden in the darkness, and she couldn’t tell where the bridge ended, and space began.

“Captain? Captain are you awake?”

Letting go of the button, she waited. Those few seconds of dead silence dragged longer and longer with every one of her rapid heartbeats. Quaking, holding her wings around herself for warmth, she pressed it again.

“Kiffie? Anyone?”

Only this time did she think to realise that she'd set it to broadcast in all compartments, and she couldn't hear it from the main street behind her.

The PA was dead.

Biting her lip, she heard herself make a strangled, fearful whimper. Tami rushed across toward her multiband. She couldn't see it, and found herself blundering into the hammock again while clasping around frantically. It had been on charge; it would be ready.

Yet as her hands found it to yank it up, pressing the power button resulted in nothing. Its screen was blank. She could still feel the cord attached, and began to wonder how long ago some systems had started cutting out. How long had she slept through it until the cold woke her up?

“Oh no, please...”

Grabbing her blanket down from above her, she wrapped it around herself and began trying to find her way to the door. She had to get the others up. If only to fight off the suffocating, alien sense of isolation creeping in at the edge, mixed with a growing concern as to just how bad this was. What it they couldn't reactivate the reactor? What if they were left to freeze in here?

“Nooo...”

Shaking her head, she located and pulled at the cold metal of the bulkhead door to the bridge.

Behind it was nothing but a black void.

The main street would normally have stretched out from her door, illuminated by the reactor at the far end and a couple of small lights. Now it was as though she'd opened a door from nothing...into nothing.

Tami stopped and gasped sharply. She could hear something.

Distantly, coming from somewhere far off, she could hear the sound of a bell. One similar to a shrill school bell, faintly and continuously ringing in the dark.

She didn't recognise it, but the sound set her nerves alight with tension and made her gut clench.

Leaving the door open, Tami carefully crept through, aware of stairs just in front of her. Using her wings as guides, she felt one brush against a railing and gripped onto it, gasping as the ice-cold surface shot up through her wing-stem. Descending step by step toward the pitch dark common room, Tami saw no further light down there either.

Quickly, a thought came to her.

“Whisper?”

She gasped the word by accident, before gulping and trying to get her chattering teeth to work with her.

“Whisper, are you still up? Whisper! Are-yah!”

She stumbled forward, tripping over her own beanbag. Landing hard on her side, Tami squeaked and flailed until she could get back up, feeling empty bottles and food packets slide out from under her. She hadn't even realised she'd reached the bottom until her hand hadn't found another step to land on.

The ringing was louder down here, hammering in her ears and distractingly loud, as though she were in direct sight of the source now. Turning around as she stood up, Tami realised she'd lost all sense of direction. The sound was coming from her right side, but she no longer knew what part of the common room that meant.

She felt numb from the cold shock. The adrenaline spike on waking up was being stifled and worn down. Frustratingly, her mind felt full of cotton wool, unable to think clearly.

Moving forward, she found a chair in the black void, but that meant nothing. Chairs had been everywhere last night.

Putting each step in front of another, slowly, spreading her wings out, she moved further in. Or away. Or back the way she'd come. Her hand came down into a sticky mess, likely left by a soft drink that had spilled, and soon her every step with hand and hoof was having to pull up with a little more effort.

Tami walked, and walked, until an impossible, irrational thought began to settle in her mind.

She had walked far enough that even if she'd started at one corner and gone toward the furthest one, she'd have found the other wall by now.

“What's going on?”

She vocalised the words, but they felt tiny - absorbed by the still air. Frantic, Tami began to theorise. Had she walked into the cargo hold by accident? No, the floor was still sticky. Ended up turned around on the spot? Improbable.

As each option presented itself, she felt her mind starting to rest on one far more terrifying possibility. One she immediately shut down and tried to forget about.

“No, no...I can't remember them every time. I don't ever feel them during it...”

Shaking her head, Tami rushed forward. At this point she didn't care if she hit or tripped on anything. She just wanted something, anything to tell her where she was. That ringing was getting painfully loud. She ran across the sticky floor, and suddenly barreled into the edge of the table. The lip struck her in the side, knocking her over with a pained yelp.

Lying on the floor, feeling wet all over her body and clothes from the syrupy puddles of spilled drinks, Tami curled up.

“Please! Someone wake up! WAKE UP! HELP!”

There was no reply. Her words echoed away into the nearby cargo hold, returning to her after an unusually long time as though the atmosphere around her had suddenly forgotten that an echo had to come back.

Feeling her whole body clamp up in terror, she grabbed the nearest chair and clung onto it, her claws scraping the thin metal. Anything to give her some sense of solidity in the pitch dark.

She felt alone. So very, very alone. More than anybody ever should with their friends mere feet away, seemingly unaware of the disaster unfolding on their ship.

Sniffling, Tami then noticed something at the edge of her vision.

Opening her eyes wider, she could see a hazy line. A white, glowing crack, like the underside of a door with a light behind it.

Someone was up!

Scrambling, pulling herself up, Tami took off and flew unsteadily toward it.

“Hey! HEY! Whisper, is that you? Whisper!”

Nearly colliding with the door itself, recognising it as Claudia’s bathroom, she frantically grasped at the handle, twisting it down and giving it a strong pull, throwing it open. The light cascaded over her, hurting her eyes, but bearing a relieving ambience to it after the dead space behind her.

Standing in the doorway and squinting hard, Tami endured the stinging glare of the light source until she could get a look at what was there, desperate for another person or even just a place of illumination.

Yet, as her vision adjusted, she instead gasped.

She wasn't looking at Claudia's bathroom.

It took her a few seconds to recognise it, but eventually she knew. She knew all too well.

Before her, through the door, lay the captain’s quarters of the Starweaver. Equipment and beds were strewn around, with fallen utensils and ripped bandages. The wall, the floor, and everything within it caked in a slick red.

Blood.

Blood, but no bodies.

Feeling her voice stolen from her, Tami stared into it with a gradually mounting whine caught in her throat. It was impossible. It was beyond impossible, and it lent power to the theory she had been suppressing and deeply hoping would not be true.

“No...no...no, Captain!”

Fully intending to rush right into Hair Trigger's quarters, she turned back to the common room - and screamed in horror until she fell back and collided with the kitchen unit behind her. Tami’s eyes remained locked on to what lay ahead of her, even as plates collapsed over and around her, shattering on the ground.

The door she had opened lit up the common room, exchanging total blackness for more varied - yet darkened - colours. She could see the doors of all of her friends’ quarters, all of them with a sickly, red liquid slowly oozing from below each door of a room that she knew would be occupied.

“No, no!”

Choking on her voice, she could see the puddles of it had reached where she'd been, leaving a trail of it near the table. Looking down at her stained hands, hooves, body and blanket, she realised she had been wrong about spilled drinks the whole time.

Tami knew she was right now. She knew this wasn't a power loss, or sabotage, or an event horizon being crossed.

She knew what she was trapped in now.

Fighting back to her hooves, she backed away from the bleeding edges of the doors. Nothing now could have made her dare approach them, and instead she fled into the cargo bay.

The moment she passed into it, the bell grew to a horrendous, unbearable volume. Its sound warped and twisted, as though sensing her coming closer. It was coming from a singular red light at the centre, on the control panel for the crane and floor airlock. The crimson aura it emitted mixed with the white light from behind her, dimly casting eerie, two tone rays across the hold.

Looking all around her, holding her head with bloodied hands from the thumping noise, Tami paused to try and get her breath. Every sucking of air felt laboured and painful. Her lungs felt numb, and yet the freezing air stabbed at them on every inhalation.

“Please let this end! End now! Just end!”

Tami knew where she was. She knew what had happened. Knocking her own head or body hadn't worked to break it. Knowing what it was hadn't helped. In a single, immature and desperate moment, she came to an insane conclusion to get back to her hammock. Would it even help? She'd never felt one this vivid, this self-realised. This was the stuff of-

Well, yeah.

She was struck by the sudden and dread-filled thought that perhaps she would have to live it all through. Endure whatever horrors it threw at her. Just like before...

Feeling her cheeks start to dampen, Tami dropped her red-stained blanket on the deck, hardly even realising she’d somehow kept hold of it, and paced back and forth.

Hammock. Bed.

It was the only thing she knew she could do, if she even had a choice in the matter any more.

Looking ahead of her, she saw one of the two ladders leading up to the main street. From there it was a straight run to the bridge.

“Okay...okay!”

Urging her legs into motion, she ran toward it.

Before she was even halfway, a deafening voice broke through the bell's painful volume. Electronically tinged, coming from every speaker throughout the ship, speaking as the ship itself.

“CARGO BAY AIRLOCKS OPENING.”

The female voice was not Claudia. But she did recognise it from the other end of a call long ago. Mocking and smug, it had once preceded her overhearing Whisper’s agony.

Stopping briefly in shock, Tami looked up, and then around her as she heard the metallic bangs of locks being disengaged. Stark fear ran through her as the bell that had been running suddenly cut, and was replaced by the blaring of a depressurisation alarm. Red lights flashed from the roof of the cargo bay. Screaming, Tami willed her limbs into operation and galloped for the ladder.

“Stop! Stop! I'm in here still! STOP!”

The doors to either side of the cargo bay rolled open with two violent clangs. Seconds later, so did the large one in the floor, before the gigantic main door followed suit. A sharp hiss gave way to the bassy roar of rushing air. Tami screamed, grabbing around the ladder as tightly as she could, feeling her clothes, mane, tail, and wings blown backwards and forwards as air whirled in an indecisive cyclone around the bay as it fought for which open door to blast out of. Daring to look back, she saw the black through them all, as Claudia's internals were exposed to a nebulous vacuum. Her ears popped, her skin felt like it was burning, and yet she summoned all she could to keep climbing.

Tami fought to grip tight, and to yank herself up the ladder, feeling air tearing at her body. Her wings were thrown painfully back, threatening to rip her from the rungs. Her own mane blinded her, its size like a great hand around her head trying to drag her back down. Back toward one of the doors. Cold tendrils, wrapping around any part of her they could reach, tugging her, constricting her attempts to escape, trying to capture her and drag her out there with them.

The roar of rushing air grew to a peak. Alarms, wind, bells, and the clattering as boxes and the small gym were all sent tumbling across the floor and ejected into the void assaulted her senses. Her hands felt loose on the searing icy cold ladder, slipping from sweat and blood as she pushed up rung after rung.

Squealing, she slipped, and her lower body was immediately pulled away from the ladder, leaving her hanging by the grip of her talons.

"ENGAGING EMERGENCY JUMP."

“NO!”

Familiar terrors quickly returned, spurring her to strain forward and grasp the ledge of the hatch at the top of the ladder. A mounting whine, and crackling of unnatural magical energy began to build around her as she pulled, got her hooves on the rungs again, and yanked herself through the hatch.

Crying aloud with the pain and the effort, she turned, moving to slam it shut. Yet even as she looked back down, the hurricane of air blasting out of Claudia began to settle. Below her, she could see stars through the floor airlock, and realised the impossible logic that she could still breathe, even after all the air had been blown out.

As though whatever that had been only cared about getting her.

Head still hurting, she didn't even try to think about it, slamming the hatch shut and falling against the wall to hold her head in her hands. Her home felt dark and dangerous now, as the realisation of what she was stuck inside was fully beginning to land on her heart. Using her hands to shake herself, she pleaded and whispered over and over.

“Let me out...please, let me out...make it end.”

Even as the decks rattled and shook from the sensation of a jump to FTL speeds, she whimpered and shivered on the spot scarcely knowing what to do, or if she even could do anything.

"Let you out? So soon?"

Tami's eyes bolted open, her pupils becoming tiny pinpricks as she heard the voice. Male, calm and confident, tinged with just a little sense of playful amusement.

Her blood turned cold. Lowering her quivering hands, Tami turned her head to stare toward the engineering compartment's open door.

In the darkness within it, there were two vividly green eyes gazing at her, one of them warped and damaged, like something was blocking it. Around them, there was only a vague hint of an outline. A slender body with snapping bat wings, blacker than the shadows it was hidden within, bleeding and vague at its every edge, like dark ink running through charcoal.

"And I thought we were just starting to bond last time.”

From engineering, even in shadow, Tami could see a thicker, more complete darkness start to emerge. Crawling, slithering only at the corners of her vision, as the terrifying shape moved toward the doorway itself with malicious intent, its steps altogether too slow for how fast it was moving.

“It's just in my head! Tundra said the magic was gone! I'm just having a-a-”

She didn't finish, screaming aloud. Throwing herself forward, she slammed the door to the reactor shut and ran back toward the bridge. Within a couple seconds, she felt her right side erupt into a gripping, burning, and yet utterly familiar pain. She almost collapsed with a gasp, whole body travelling slower than she willed it, as though she were trying to run through an unseen mud that gripped at her every motion.

“Ngh! No! Come on! Please!”

Feeling dragged down, Tami nearly fell forward, feeling like she were having to draw and strain every one of her limbs. Gritting her teeth, she held her side and pulled herself toward a door that only seemed to keep moving away from her. There was nothing holding her back, but she felt weak. Trapped. Like half her body was suddenly made of lead.

And with every step she could feel, rather than see, a darkness coming up behind her. He was coming. He was coming for her. Just her. She had his full attention and no-one else to help her.

Running, then struggling, then pulling, then crawling. Digging her talons into the mesh sections of the floor panels, she pulled, and pulled, and cried, and pulled.

A dull, distant rumble of a void, like the wind in a cave opening, began to pass over her. She couldn’t even see the door to the bridge any more, and the sounds of his hooves on the metal were only getting closer, accompanied by an amused little chuckle at her fear. She whined, and haphazardly threw her body forward with as strong a flap of her wings as she could muster.

“NO!”

Finally grasping the railings around the stairwell. Tami tugged herself up by them. Hauling around them, she cried out at the sight of those same baleful eyes looking up at her from the black void of the common room below.

“And we never even got to what I'd promised you.”

Bleeding out of the dark, it came for her, rising up from the stairwell until it leered over her. Its transparent wings gave a leathery flap, the snap blowing a chill air and the smell of sweat, blood, and urine over her. Shrieking, Tami fell as she tried to back away from it.

Hitting the floor, she realised she’d fallen into the bridge, tripping on the frame of the door. Panting hard, sweating even in the frigid ship, Tami grabbed the door and tried to throw it closed. The door jammed inches before it shut, and the sickly-coloured eyes drew up only inches from her face, staring through the last remaining crack. Unblinking eyes surrounded by a shifting, melting face. Stainless white teeth - including two sharp fangs - made a cocky, almost flirtatious smirk.

“You do remember?”

In the distance, from down the stairwell, ghostly, helpless shrieks echoed. All of them familiar voices. The oily, dripping face blew her a silent kiss, as though seeing her distress at the torturous sounds.

“Don't you?”

Tami pushed the door closed, locked it with shaking hands, and then turned her back against it, clutching her searing torso. Her knees buckled from some unseen force, and she fell with a scream. Behind her, the door began to shudder and vibrate, as though coming to life all on its own. The locks that sealed it were moving all on their own.

“I want to wake up!” Tami shrieked the words as she fled from the door. She began pawing and clambering for her hammock, the only thing she could even vaguely think of. “Let me wake up! PLEASE! Let me wake up!”

Using her wings to lift herself, Tami finally lunged for the hammock. Getting into what had once been the safest place she could ever think of, childishly trying to hide beneath the blanket, she quivered and waited.

Waited.

She heard the faint rumbling of the locks coming undone and squeaked in terror, gripping her thin pillow so tightly that her claws dug into her own palms.

“Wake up...wake up, please, I want to-”

The door opened.

The rumbling grew until it was an ever-present, suffocating atmosphere about her. Enveloping her. She heard the soft sound of hooves on metal, echoing within a bridge that never normally echoed.

Tami closed her wet eyes tightly, whimpering as she heard it coming, and then squealing as her blanket was violently torn off of her.

Slowly, first hearing the skitter of metal on metal, she felt and saw thin wire cables slithering over the ground, reaching up and lashing tightly around every wrist and ankle. She was paralysed, unable to stop them winding around and around. She was unable to move at all.

“Just like I promised. Do not worry.”

A mouth with ice-cold breath began nuzzling its dry lips into the inner side of her ear. It spoke quietly, as though trying to be reassuring; an unseen hoof caressing its way through her mane.

"You'll be joining agent Whisper soon enough."

Eyes fully open, she stared directly forward as she heard a distant, helpless, and painfully familiar scream from somewhere in the darkness. The cables suddenly tugged hard, and her body was ripped from her hammock. Behind her, what had once been the pilot's seat rotated, now looking like a seat used for a much more malicious purpose, the wire dragging her frozen body toward it.

As she neared it, unable to move anything but her eyes, she saw the ends of the wire connected to a charged electric battery. She felt a very new, very terrifying reshuffling of priorities in her mind.

Don't let me remember this when I wake up.

Tami felt the cables tighten. They roughly dragged her into the chair. Tears rolled down her paralyzed, unblinking face.

Please, don't let me remember this.

A leathery wing stroked her cheek from behind. “Now, it’s your turn.”

Please...

She closed her eyes, heard the searing crack of a static discharge, and jerked violently as she screamed and-

* * *

-fell, until the deck came up to meet her.

Hearing her own awful scream still echoing off the plate metal, she landed hard, collapsing in a heap. Tami flailed and spasmed in fright, fighting with her own blanket on the ground in blind terror.

Drenched in sweat, her throat feeling rough, Tami pulled herself out of the blanket, blinked and looked around at the dark bridge, her stomach feeling twisted and hollow. Twinkling stars and the idle screens of displays gave off enough light around her to see. It was still the night cycle.

All thoughout her body she felt gripped by fear, and yet she couldn't remember what from.

For a moment, there was silence.

And then she heard the sudden clatter of approaching hooves.

Pushing herself back from the entrance to the bridge, Tami felt her skin tighten in fear.

The door was knocked open, slamming loudly against the wall. A tall pony came barrelling through, rushing into the bridge with purpose and a submachine gun held at the ready.

“Tami!?”

Golden-yellow eyes swivelled around, and Whisper Step quickly spotted the hippogriff lying in a tangled heap with her blanket on the floor.

After a second, as the spy realised there was no true danger, the weapon was lowered, and Tami saw her aggressive, focused stance abate slightly.

“I heard you scream.”

“I...I did? I mean, sorry, I did...” Tami lowered her eyes away from the piercing gaze, before cradling her face in both hands, feeling tears still emerging.

Above her, the stoic agent stood in place, looking back at the door she'd come through, before making a quiet sigh. Hooking the weapon back on her suit, Whisper spoke quietly, yet her words were terse. “Are you all right?”

Habitual instinct made Tami want to nod, but after three nights of this, she simply lacked the energy to summon any real resistance to the query. Sniffling, she gently shook her head, her voice pitching up and cracking as she struggled for just one word.

“No...”

There was a long pause. Tami sat and held her head, feeling wholly embarrassed to sob so openly in front of a pony she looked up to greatly, while Whisper Step just stood still and looked around the bridge. Whisper looked behind her at the door a couple of times, as though impatient to get back to something.

Then, finally, after ten seconds of silence, Whisper took a slow breath and spoke up.

“Tell me.”

“What?” Tami gasped, looking up; her eyes glazed with dampness in the low light.

Whisper's face turned only partially toward her. She wasn't smiling. Her eyes were as piercing as ever, seeming to glow in the darkness.

“What's wrong. Tell me.”

Her mouth hanging open, Tami still took some seconds to process that. Even weeks into knowing her, Tami still felt apprehensive about exactly what she said to Whisper at any given time. Especially when alone.

Clutching around her blanket, Tami sat up properly and looked at the floor. Strangely, in an odd moment of realisation, Whisper's quiet pause struck her as unexpectedly comforting. Whisper wasn't forcing the issue, despite the stern tone. The spy was waiting for her, not rushing her to speak.

“I...” she began, before faltering and holding a hand to her face again. “Sorry...”

Whisper Step remained silent and serene in the low light of the bridge; half her face was illuminated by the spectrum of colours from a half hourly diagnostic beginning to flicker over the main display.

Tami tried again.

“I've been waking up at nights. Every time feeling...feeling scared, or screaming. Like something cruel was about to happen to me. I find stuff that was in the hammock with me spilled out, and I feel like I've been so terrified that my whole body's tense and sore, a-and then I d-don't sleep for the rest of the night. ‘Cos I'm too afraid...”

She sobbed, and grasped a portion of her own tangled mane in frustration.

“And I never remember what it was! Sometimes I think I know why b-but I just can't know and-”

Whisper Step cut through the babbling, not taking her eyes away from looking out the front of the ship.

“What do you think it is, then?”

Tami opened her mouth, and then sharply closed it. Anxiety flowed through her as she considered that question.

“I don't know...”

“You said you did. Or had an idea.” Whisper's voice was level. She turned her head back to Tami, even as she moved forward to lean against the back of the Captain's chair.

Panic was setting in. There was no way that Tami could bring herself to say it. She couldn't. Not now. Guilt was too ridden in her gut to dare broach the subject in present company, and she clammed up.

“S-sorry, I can't.”

It was a poor excuse. A telling one, to those trained to spot such things.

To those like Whisper Step.

“It's Cascavel, isn't it?”

The sudden opening of Tami's eyes to their fullest was an obvious confirmation of Whisper’s guess, and the hippogriff shook her head violently.

“No, no, it's-”

“And you're worried to say it is, because I'm here.”

If striking the real problem had been a target, Whisper would have scored a bullseye. Tami felt frozen in place all over again, uncertain how to even reply. How could she? After everything Whisper had been through, how could she sit here in front of the spy and cry about her own issues from those events with Cascavel? It felt wrong. Her own were less important than Whisper’s. Less intense. Tami knew she was only acting like this because she was weaker than Whisper, and it made her feel guilty.

Eventually, she just nodded in defeat.

“I'm sorry...”

She heard Whisper make a neutral sound in her throat, and the rustle of her clothing moving, even as Tami looked at the floor and felt ashamed.

“You had a rather traumatic accident a few years ago, didn't you?”

Tami's misty eyes crept open, hearing Whisper continue.

“One that badly hurt you, and not just physically. Correct?”

Feeling her heart skip, Tami swallowed, and meekly replied.

“...yes. How did-”

Whisper interrupted, “If Hair Trigger or Volatility Smile were to take the helm here, and collided with something that led either of them to harm, or to a loss in confidence...even if not to the same severity as your own experiences, what would you do?”

Licking her dry lips, Tami gulped and looked up at the spy. Whisper was half lounging against the side of Hair Trigger's seat, idly playing with the disabled flight control panel.

“I'd t-try to help them.”

Whisper's eyes suddenly moved to look at her, even though her head remained still. One eyebrow raised. It was a silent query, one Tami realised the meaning of after a couple seconds.

“O-oh...right. Sorry, I just didn't...” Tami trailed off, not knowing how to follow that up.

Eventually, Whisper let go of the yoke, letting it snap back into position, and turned more properly toward Tami.

“You're having night terrors. That much is obvious.”

Tami blinked, confused. “Is that a Republic euphemism for nightmare because of what that word means to-”

“No.” Whisper's voice was firm, but calm, before softening. “No, night terrors are different from nightmares. In simple terms, nightmares you remember, night terrors you do not. There's more to it that I'm sure a medical student could bore you with, but that is effectively what the main difference is. Thrashing and screaming in the night? Waking up in a panic feeling terrified of something, but only a vague idea as to why? That's what it is.”

Tami listened intently, surprised to hear Whisper speak at such length on a subject not related to her work.

“How do you know that so off-hand?”

Whisper, surprisingly, grinned.

“Now that one IS a Republic thing where the association with the night makes up a saying. When they trained us, they told us to be night terrors, not nightmares.” She winked, with a dangerous, playful smirk that betrayed the real nature of her job. “Because something you don't even know the nature of coming after you is a hell of a lot scarier than what you can remember and describe. That's what we do.”

To her own surprise, Tami felt her spirits lift a little at the boast, before fading quickly as she looked back at her hammock, and felt a dull pain in her hip where she'd landed on her side.

“And here I am just being just a stupid coward that's afraid of someone who's dead...and having childish nightmares or...or night terrors or whatever and bawling b-because I...I...”

She heard movement, and squeaked as she found Whisper suddenly walking directly toward her with a purpose, leaning in sharply to look her sternly eye to eye, mere inches away. Her voice was much more serious, and tinged with a darker -and incredibly insistent- tone.

“They. Are not. Childish.”

Eyes wide, Tami stared back, feeling herself quiver, worrying she'd implied something she really shouldn't have in her own self-degrading ramble.

Yet as fearsome as it was, the conviction in Whisper's voice drove home a change in perception to Tami's mind. If someone as strong as Whisper could say that about such problems...

The forceful expression on Whisper’s face dropped slightly, and she sat back.

“Have you been staying awake after them every time?”

Gently, Tami nodded.

“Then that's the problem. You're building a schedule, Tami. What you need is a good night's sleep.”

“But-!”

Whisper cut the fearful complaint off. “To get back to bed and sleep it off. Break that cycle you're getting yourself into.”

Tami didn't like the thought of where this was going, shaking her head frantically.

“No, no I can't face all that again! It's-it's awful! I can't remember, except in a way I can a-and...I don't want it again! I keep waking up alone and not knowing if it's real and even those few seconds are so awful, I can't do this! I-I need to be up in like, a few hours to do the next jump anyway s-so I should just stay up, really...”

Whisper's turn of expression was curious. Her hard eyes softened, before she stood up and unhooked her submachine gun from its harness.

“Get into the hammock. And sleep.”

“Whisper?”

Tami stood up as the spy wandered back over to Hair Trigger's seat, slid it back as far as it would go and sat sideways on it. Her dexterous hooves turned her weapon over, made it safe, opened a panel to remove its strange, stubby form of round, and hit a latch that sprung open the two-tone receiver to reveal its complicated internals. Moving it from side to side, Whisper began disassembling it before Tami's eyes.

“Always preferred to do it by starlight. You don't mind?” Whisper turned her head to look at the hippogriff. “I can be quiet, I promise.”

Her mouth hanging open, Tami finally caught up with Whisper’s real meaning, and nodded.

Whisper nodded back, then turned back to her cleaning. “Thank you. Good night, Tami.”

Tami didn't know what to think, other than that the reassurance, the act itself, made her realise truly how tired she was. Whisper was right that she needed sleep. She was scared, but as foalish as it seemed, knowing someone as capable as Whisper was right there made it feel, well, easier. Safer.

Silently, she backed away, and with a clumsy flap of her wings, rolled back up and into her hammock. Reaching down to her multiband on the floor, she groaned, realising how little sleep she'd be getting even if she were to drift off now. Yet even as she put it back down, she couldn't avoid the words quietly being blurted out.

“Whisper, thank you.”

The moment she spoke, Tami heard the sound of the weapon’s springs and hinges cease and spotted Whisper's eyebrow raise again in her direction, her voice gentle.

“When I woke up after only an hour the first night back here, I saw a comforting sight by my bed too.”

Clutching into her blanket, Tami honestly didn't know what to say.

“Eyes closed, Tami. It generally helps.”

“O-oh, sorry...okay. G'night...”

Closing her eyes, Tami's thoughts were overridden enough that any fears were a far distant second in priority. Thoughts of what Whisper meant about this or that. Or the reassuring sounds of components being undone or clicking back into place from just nearby with expert regularity. A presence. A quiet reminder to latch on to.

Within a minute, her limbs went loose, and Tami was asleep.

* * *

After a minute more, Whisper Step looked up and saw the pilot fast asleep.

Staring at Tami for some time, she finished her work on the weapon; her hooves clicked and snapped the pieces back together without even looking at them.

Getting up, she winced, and glanced down at her hooves, at the chipped edges and scar tissue from electric wire burns. That gallop upstairs to the bridge had made them hurt again, and she'd done her best to not dare show it in front of Tami.

That little thing had more than enough worries on her mind already without the physical reminders as well.

Trotting closer to the hammock, Whisper stood over the hippogriff, momentarily considering the recent events from Tami's perspective, before quickly dismissing them. Such thoughts wouldn’t help her right now, and any good operative always had a finely honed crap-filter in their mind.

What mattered was dealt with, and it made her smile.

Looking around, her eyes caught sight of Tami's multiband on the floor. Silently, she leaned down to pick it up, casting a brief glance to the sleeping form before her. Entering Tami's password to unlock it, Whisper quickly navigated past the pop-rock wallpaper to the alarm clock app and disabled it.

Placing it back down, at precisely the same angle as it had been in, Whisper looked again at Tammani, and spoke quietly. Firmly.

“I promised I was coming for all of you, Cascavel.”

She leaned in, a hoof hovering above Tami’s head for a moment, before placing it on the hammock's side instead, setting it gently swaying with a soft push.

“That includes in there as well.”

Turning, she walked across the bridge to the door and locked it before finally moving toward Tami's own pilot seat.

Slowly, a grin came to her face as she slid around and onto the cushion the hippogriff had added to it. Whisper reached out and took the controls. She had a few hours to familiarise before the crew's next jump was scheduled.

“Well, I let you fly mine...”

* * *

Agent Whisper Step (Image by Kalemon)

Tundra Gem (Image by Kalemon)

The Most Wonderful Time of Manufacture

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With the horrors of recent events behind them, the crew of Claudia eventually returned to Port Medusa to rest once more. They had earned some time off, Captain Hair Trigger felt, both for themselves and their allies. That and they needed some more time to get to know Swan, the new mercenary on their crew, and catch up with some of their acquaintances who live and work on the space station itself.

But the black has its own traditions. And for once, some can be of a positive, heartwarming nature for those in need of it.


The Most Wonderful Time of Manufacture

* * *

The flying mug impacted on the lip of a rare unoccupied stool, careening up and over in some rebellious defiance of common physics. With fiery liquid flying out in all directions, the clatter of its landing on the table amongst an ongoing card game was joined by rampant cries of annoyance and anger. Half a dozen burly shipmates looked up, and soon the insults were flying back along the mug's trajectory, accompanied by a metal ashtray.

Bushel Hops looked up from her customer with a scowl and rattled a hoof off the metal plate on her bartop three times. The one she kept on a little spring between an upper and lower metal surface precisely to make a noise louder than any shout.

"Hey! Chill out or get out!"

A couple dozen faces from the rival shipping companies looked up at her from either side of Port Medusa's tavern. Many of them glowered, some even swore under their breath, but all went back to grumbling among themselves instead, pulling stained cards back to hands and hooves.

Captain Hair Trigger dropped an empty shot glass to the bar's surface with an amused chuckle, having watched the bartender take care of business quite happily.

"Rowdy night, Bush."

The bartender didn't take her stern look away from the groups, and Trigger could have sworn the earth pony's eyes were looking in two directions at once. To Trigger’s right, a hippogriff somewhat larger than her made a neutral sound.

"Young hotheads with their drink," muttered Swan.

Bushel finally turned back to Trigger, shrugging dismissively. "Bad blood, competing contracts. I'll be lucky if I can close up without them kicking off. Speaking of hot fuses tonight, I'm not going to expect anything from you again, am I?"

Her wary glare turned to Swan, and the affronted indignation on his face set Trigger to laughing uproariously, knocking her hoof on the table.

Grumbling, he grabbed his beer again. "You start one fight with some ass who more than deserved it, and suddenly you've got a reputation forever. For the love of..."

Feeling the warmth of the spirits in her gut, Hair Trigger felt herself laugh far more than she had intended to, snorting and tapping her empty glass to signal for a refill.

"Oh, don't worry, Bush. Got him on a tight leash."

Bushel Hops took a second, before finally cracking into a grin and short laugh at the roll of the hippogriff's eyes, leaning over the bar conspiringly on one foreleg. She winked while pouring the stiff drink for the Captain. "You do, huh? Guess my hunch was wrong then. Always figured you were the one who preferred being tied up."

Hair Trigger met the bar-mare's waggling eyebrows with a confident smirk. "Oh, you did, did you? So, that's why you never said anything to me. You needed someone you thought would be the one to strap you to the bed-frame instead, huh?"

Bushel cackled, sliding the glass to her customer. "I'm quite certain we both know who'd be the one tying who, filly."

"And I'm very certain us starfarers know how to tie better knots, babe," replied Hair Trigger, her voice sudden and smooth.

"And I'm absolutely certain I'm too sober to be sitting next to this exchange," deadpanned Swan, leaning on a claw and upending his bottle. The liquid inside sloshed, being downed at the rate only an experienced drinker could manage.

Hair Trigger snorted, downed her shot, shook her head, and collected the tray of drinks she'd initially come for. The remainder of her crew were sitting at the far end of the bar, behind one of the two parties she'd seen arguing. She could see the top of Kerfuffle's plume over them, and (like any good partner) hear Tundra even through the din. After a moment she spotted the bright green of Verbena Mint's tail sticking out from the side as well.

Whether Sweet Alyssum, the station’s much feared director, knew of Verbena - her half-sister - being in Bushel’s was something Hair Trigger was not certain of, nor something she wanted to know.

Knowledge meant complacency, after all. Ignorance in this case was bliss.

She knocked Swan's shoulder. "Come on over when you get the chance, you're spending too much time off alone as is."

There was a brief grunt in reply; Swan turned his attention to the hanging display screen to watch some far off anti-gravity based sport with his drink.

Shrugging to Bushel, Hair Trigger took up the tray in her telekinesis. Giving the bartender a wink as she turned, Hair Trigger spoke up above the noise.

"Cheers, Bush. I'm sure that cider will have Tam going off the wa-HEY!"

Mid-turn, a heavy body barged into her. The metal tray squashed between them, flattening into Hair Trigger's face and knocking her off the stool. She hit the ground, back to the bar. The tray upturned, drowning her in various forms of alcohol; the glasses rattling one by one off of her head.

With a feeling of absolute indignation, Hair Trigger felt one of the bottles land perfectly on her horn.

A surge of fire washed through her. Opening her eyes, feeling them stinging from the spirits flowing down face, she could see a hefty, blurry shape above her. A minotaur, belonging to one of the transport crews. He looked down and gave Hair Trigger a dismissive kick on her hindleg with his hoof, his hands patting at his soaked clothing. His own tankard lay on the floor.

"Watch yourself, you clumsy little shit!"

Trigger's mouth caught open, and she scowled. Floundering for a moment, feeling a searing anger at the laugher of others around the room she surged up, rose to her full height, and stared him sternly in the groin.

"Says the bastard who just knocked clean into me when I wasn't even moving!" She bared her teeth, looking upwards and trembling.

The minotaur just grinned at her. "Heh...tiny pony thinks she's a big shot. Not that you should be here."

Hair Trigger let out a low growl, her head twitching to one side. "How. Do you figure. That?"

The minotaur nodded to her side at the way in, and a thickly worded warning written on it.

"No minors allowed in the bar."

He reached forward and clipped Hair Trigger around the ear. The impact was solid, dizzying the unicorn for a moment, feeling like she'd run into a steel bar - enough to almost take her off her hooves.

"Playpen’s up on level six, kid."

He gave her another knock, before Hair Trigger whipped her head around, her face projecting a visage of growing rage.

"Aww, look at her, lads! She's wanting a fight!" The minotaur waved to his crew. "Little thing's got a cutie temper tantrum! Guess she's got a SHORT fuse!"

Hair Trigger stomped the ground.

"Oh. Fuck YOU."

"Oh you want to fight? Well come o-"

Before his fist could even clench, a pony's skull -complete with a firm and well directed horn- headbutted him in the groin with all the sudden force and fiery anger of a torpedo hitting a capital ship's hull.

Hair Trigger felt it land. Hard. Hard and true, followed by the minotaur collapsing in front of her, wheezing and gasping, his legs failing like they were made of jelly. He made a strangled cry.

Catching the brute's beard in her magic, she grabbed his cheeks and yanked his head down, slamming it against the heavy metal stool. With a sound of a boulder hitting a brick, the enormous creature dropped to the floor and curled into a ball.

"And you'll damn well apologise when you're done crying you stupid...fuck...ing..."

She had caught the look on Swan's face, the hippogriff having turned from his game.

Slowly, he raised a hand and pointed behind Hair Trigger. In a moment, some of the red mist cleared, and Hair Trigger sighed, already knowing in her gut what she'd see.

Turning to look over her shoulder, she saw twelve other creatures raise up from their table, the sound of scraping chairs and dragging bottles in hand filling the bar.

Hair Trigger stroked her hatless mane and muttered quietly, "Aw, shit..."

From along the side of the bar, she could see her crew still somewhat unaware, other than Volatility Smile. The crystal pony was already up, reluctantly easing herself in towards Hair Trigger and Swan. She gave the minotaur on the floor a glance, and then turned her eyes to the hippogriff. "Seriously? Did you start another fight?"

"You what!? Why does everyone just assume-"

One of the minotaur's friends stepped forward: a burly earth pony. Hair Trigger fixed him with a stare, refusing to blink as his crude accent belched out.

"Oi! Fuck you playin' at!? Now here's the deal, you're gonna apologise to us, and him, real nice like. Gonna be some drink in it too, see?"

Volatility Smile groaned, her head turning to see who Trigger were looking at. She leaned down to her Captain.

"Hair Trigger, think about what you're saying, and we-"

"How about you all eat a bag of dicks!? He's the one who came at me!"

The invitees of the phallus-consumption looked to one another, as though scarcely believing what they heard. One shrugged, before they rushed forward. All of them.

Volatility Smile sighed, hung her head, and moved to duck the first punch.

* * *

"Hey! HEY!"

Bushel slammed the metal panel again and again, but its noise was lost. She called the names of those she knew. She promised suspensions.

None of it helped, as she witnessed the brawl break out in front of her. Hair Trigger and her two crewmates quickly amalgamated into the whirlwind of thrown fists, hooves, and claws. She saw some of their attackers break off and charge at the rest of the crew. A missed punch struck a lonesome mercenary at the bar on the back, who quickly joined in as a third party, throwing hooves at anything in range. A drunkard flailed into it all, seemingly just up for any fight.

Then, with terrifying stillness, she saw one thrown bottle arc up and away.

Slowly, it descended, end over end, until it crashed into the back of one of the rival crew's heads. It shattered, and a string of curses broke the air.

Before she knew what was happening, the other half of the bar spun into a fury and charged into the fray. The sound of breaking furniture mixed with glass exploding. Screams of rage and the dull thud of impacts drowned out the sports channel.

Throat hoarse from yelling, Bushel hit a red button below her bar and went back to slapping and shouting at anyone within reach.

* * *

Hair Trigger had somehow already ended up wrestling and punching with three of the instigating rival crew. She had one of their manes in her teeth, jarring it as she rammed her horn again and again to jab at the side of the one holding her in a headlock. Her hindlegs were connecting with someone every time she kicked, and it didn't sound like any of her crew.

Thus, she decreed, it was a viable target.

Hooves smacked into her sides, and she fought to keep her head protected, feeling the impact of punches on her forelegs. There wasn't any pain. The adrenaline and anger steamed through her to keep her thrashing like a rabid wolverine in their hooves, until one of them bodily picked her up and hurled her onto the bar top.She felt claws on her back, dragging her down the length of it, clattering into bottles along the way.

"For-argh! Fucks-ack! Sake-ow!"

Her head impacted on the cash register and she lashed out to the side on sheer instinct. Her hoof caught one of them in the sternum, and she wrestled her way onto her back. Clumsy fighting ensued as she traded hooves with another brawler, before finally sneaking a strike by to clip his chin and make him back off.

Drink sprayed over her from a tossed plastic cup, making her wince away. Opening her eyes, she saw a pony rise up to stomp down on her chest. She sucked in air, trying to toughen up before the impact.

An orange hoof swung a bottle that crashed over her assailant's head, and what she now saw was a pegasus went down hard, falling off the bar to the floor, wings splayed out.

Hair Trigger paused for a moment, and saw Bushel Hops glowering at the groaning pony below them.

"Never did pay his damned tab,” muttered Bushel.

She tossed the empty tip jar at him -just for punctuation- before looking up and clearly spotting some other trouble. She rushed off quickly down the bar, pulling at a plastic container someone was trying to hurl. “Hey! No! Leave that right where it is!”

Taking a second to take a glance at the brawl, Hair Trigger stood up on the bartop and looked for her crew among the thirty-something bodies tussling and fighting in every corner.

For a moment she thought she could see Tundra's cloak getting tangled up in it, but more freighter crews -presumably called via multiband- had piled in from the nearby hangar. She could-

A can bounced off her forehead.

“Gotcha, shortstack! Haha!”

The aggravating pain shot through her, and Hair Triggered glowered, vibrating in outrage. Her mouth twisted and she decided, quite simply, 'fuck it' and 'fuck you', in short order.

Her telekinesis glowed and picked up two broken chair legs. Staring death at the group of jeering ponies amidst the brawl, she just bellowed in rage, ran across the bar top, and dove right off it clean into the midst of the mayhem swinging the hunks of wood at anyone within reach that happened to be taller than her.

This, as it turned out, was itself quite a tall order.

* * *

Volatility Smile rebounded off of a unicorn's side, knocked herself away and then was driven back again by the crush of ponies swinging and tackling on all sides. She ducked a punch coming for her head, using what self-defence techniques she knew to shift around the attack. Giving the drunk a sharp shove from behind, they keeled over and got lost behind a couple of griffons brawling on the floor. She ducked a bottle, before grabbing the nearest chair and swinging it to buy herself some room.

“Get back!”

Turning, the chair sweeping, she felt it suddenly stop in mid air, a magical field enveloping it.

“Smile, it's me!”

Tundra Gem’s look of shock met her as he fought to untangle himself from his own cloak. Even before he could speak again, a pony tackled into his side and took the unicorn off his hooves.

As the space-trucker sought to get atop Tundra, a sudden flare of magic sent him firing directly upwards to join the flying bottles in soaring across the room. He cleared most of the brawl, a high pitched, warbling yell accompanying him, before falling on top of - and breaking - a table on the far side.

Smile grabbed Tundra's hoof to help him up, and the unicorn leaned on a chair as he steadied himself.

“What in Equestria got this started?” Tundra asked hurriedly, panting and looking around, his magic instinctively catching an ashtray and two bottles in mid-air.

Volatility Smile shrugged and gave a 'what-can-you-do' look. “Rather what 'triggered' it.”

Tundra paused, opened his mouth slowly, and then nodded. “Yes...yes, I think I can grasp roughly what transpired now-look out!”

A griffon came barrelling toward them, smashing the remaining chair from Smile's grip. She stepped around a haphazardly thrown claw, turned, and bucked him as hard as she could. She couldn’t even get her balance before another pony fell into her and ran past before she even saw them, sending her tumbling into Tundra to fall together in a heap. Hissing in pain on the ground, Smile saw the griffon come back at them again. He was wild with rage, seemingly with no other goal than to get some hits in.

“Fuck you!” he cried.

“Eloquent.”

The voice from behind him caught the griffon's attention, before a purple coated arm threw a fist into the side of his beak.

Swan drove into the larger opponent, using stance and momentum to make up for what he lacked in comparative strength, powering wicked hooks again and again into the griffon's stomach. The moment he had the head low enough, Swan grabbed it and threw the griffon down, giving him a nasty kick to the solar plexus. The air was blown from the thug’s lungs, and he lay coughing on the ground.

Getting up together, Tundra and Smile pushed and shoved behind Swan to the edge of the room, away from the mad brawl.

“Eloquent? That's your taunt?” Smile chided. “Coming from you of all people?”

Swan shrugged and kicked a can away, looking back into the thrashing crowds near the bar. “Least I put some fucking effort into it. YES!”

“What!?” Both Smile and Tundra remarked together. The hippogriff pointed at the display screen and thrust both hands in the air.

“Third inning, last possible moment from the sidelines! I knew they had it this season!”

Bewildered, staring at one another, unicorn and crystal pony just shook their heads.

“Make our way to the exit?” Tundra suggested.

Smile nodded. “Sure, just...” She turned back to the fighting, concern brewing in her head. “...what about Tami?”

Tundra's calmness faltered. “Oh no, let's go!”

* * *

Tami slipped backwards as far as she could, caught against the bar itself at the opposite end. She'd tried to hold on to Verbena, until the crush had separated them. Now she had no idea where anybody was.

“Hey! Hey you!”

Tami squealed in fright, turning sharply. There was a pony limping toward her. Long haired, rough, and clearly coming off a long time in the black.

“I...recognise you, halfbreed!” A distinctive Empire accent slurred from heavy intoxication, as the earth pony stumbled and pushed toward her. “You'wi...you'wif the short one who'm hurt mah mate!”

“What? No! I'm j-just here to get a drink, I was just going to go! I'm going! It's okay!” She pleaded and spoke rapidly, possibly too fast for his inebriated mind to keep up.

“Nah! You wiff her! C'mere!”

His hoof rose.

And his hoof fell.

She felt a stinging smack across her cheek and fell to the ground with a cry of pain - one that stood out amongst the crowd. She fell into a puddle of ale, feeling dizzy and with a stinging throb in her face. She opened her eyes, feeling them dampen in fear as she saw him leering over her.

“Git up, fight!”

She couldn't reply, shaking her head over and over.

“Git up, fi-”

Kerfuffle's fist hit the side of his head like a pneumatic ram.

The pony was catapulted over the bar, his head staying oddly where it was in spatial terms as the rest of his body rotated around it. He crashed - upside down - into the shelving at the back, before dropping out of sight in a clatter of decorative bottles, quite unconscious.

Tami looked out from behind her raised hands, seeing the big griffon look over his handiwork with some degree of surprise before gently reaching down to her.

“C'mon, Miss. Let's get you someplace safe.”

“Oh, Kiffie...”

She grasped his hand and let him lift her onto his back, safe between his raised wings.

“Sorry I didn't get here sooner, Miss,” he began, seeing her holding her bruised cheek. “Some very rude people got in the way.”

Unbothered by anyone (and indeed with many moving out of his path entirely) he started moving toward the door, where Volatility Smile, Tundra Gem, and Swan were waiting. As he stepped around strewn objects, from his back she could see a trail of around twelve groaning spacers on the ground on a rough trajectory from where Kerfuffle had been seated to where she'd been.

“Wait, Kiffie...Vebs!”

Kerfuffle looked around, before pointing.

“Here she comes, Miss, all safe.”

Tami looked up, and then gaped at just what she was seeing before her, where Kerfuffle pointed.

“What...?”

* * *

At first, Verbena Mint had been scared when the fight had broken out. A much larger pony had rammed between her and Tami and knocked her over, but when she'd gotten up, something strange had happened.

The first pony that saw her had come running to throw a punch, before suddenly stopping.

“Oh, no! Not you!” he'd said, before turning to find someone else.

Then, a crude looking mare covered in painted tattoos had swung toward her with a bottle in hoof, before pausing and backing up.

“Shit...I ain't got nuthin' against you!” she'd said.

Both of them had rapidly exited, and then she had realised what was going on.

Calmly, almost smugly, she had wandered back through the brawl to her seat and collected the milkshake she’d brought into the bar from where it had spilled. Half of the thick drink was still left. Another pair of spacers had given her an evil eye, before suddenly switching to an apologetic look. Verbena had watched them go, and waved.

There had been a brief worry when a bottle lightly impacted on her flank. But the two stallions eagerly arguing and trying to say it was the other one had made it worth it. She had just tapped her chin, letting them sweat over her thoughts, before trotting past.

Now, she delighted in the look of surprise from the Space Jammers near the entrance, as they witnessed her skip serenely through it all and back to them.

Stopping in front of them, she sipped from her straw and giggled.

“What...what was that?” Tami gasped down from above atop Kerfuffle's back.

Verbena felt a twinge in her heart at the bruise on her bestie's cheek, but gave a cheery grin and a dismissive shrug all the same. “Spend a few weeks here...people learn who your half-sister is.”

She winked, reflecting that now she knew why Sweets enjoyed this sort of life so much.

* * *

The crew gathered, free from the still furious violence erupting inside Bushel's tavern. Tammani still rubbed her cheek with one hand, the other accepting some spilled ice that Verbena had wrapped in a tissue and passed to her friend. It stung, but the cooling sensation was enough to let her feel relieved at getting away lightly.

“Best we maybe head back to Claudia till things cool off?” Swan offered, rubbing his side. Someone had gotten a good shot in.

“Are we not we forgetting someone?” Tundra chided, angling his head back to the singularity of drunken madness.

After a half second of everyone staring at one another, the confusion wore off and Tami gasped aloud. “The captain! Where's the captain?”

As one, they cast their eyes to the tumbling, frantically swinging bodies. It was hard to see individuals amongst the upturned tables and flying beer. Yet eventually, as Tami looked from her perch on Kerfuffle, she started to see something from her higher perspective.

A section of the brawl had an odd anomaly. Every few seconds, one of the drunkards would cry out and drop downwards out of sight with a sharp cry, like swimmers being pulled below the surface.

“There she is!”

Tami pointed, and Kerfuffle lifted her down to the ground. Following her direction, he waded back in. She saw the big griffon breeze past some stumbling, walking wounded and reach his hand into the melee. After a couple seconds of grasping he gripped something, and pulled a whirling dervish of a pony out from the crowd in one hand.

“Come on! Come on! Call me that will you! C'mere you bastard! C'MERE!”

Even as Kerfuffle lifted her up and quickly walked back, Hair Trigger was swinging all four limbs in the air, her teeth bared, her coat soaked in beer and her face covered in a few bruises.

“I think you got enough of ‘em, Cap'n.” Kerfuffle spoke softly.

Hair Trigger's protests fell on deaf ears, or at least calmer ears, as Kerfuffle walked her back over. On the way, the sight of a dozen security drones surging into the tavern past her seemed to calm the unicorn down somewhat.

Dropping to the ground again, she bristled and stared back at the fight, then grinned at the satisfying sound of several taserings occurring in quick succession.

“All right, maybe it was worth it to leave early,” she tacitly admitted.

The sound of running claws and paws caught Tami's attention, and she - along with the others - turned to find Gerhard sprinting up to the tavern, somewhat out of breath and still trying to buckle his protective layers on.

“Just typical.” he was muttering. “Utterly typical we get a riot the moment the drone update screws the response cues. So...”

He stopped by the door, seemingly happy to let the drones buzz in and pacify the situation, before his gaze fell to the crew. Tami watched as his beady eyes travelled between all of them, before settling on Swan.

“You didn't start this, did you?”

“Oh for the Empress' damned sake!” The hippogriff threw his arms up, turned, and promptly just left in the direction of Claudia, stomping and swearing as he went.

Tami could have sworn she saw a grin on Gerhard's beak. Drawing his attention back to them, the security chief nodded sideways at the brawl as he knelt down to Verbena.

“Miss Mint, all okay?”

She put on an exaggerated scared expression, making a slow nod. “I'm okay, they got me out after the bad ones in there all started it.”

Gerhard watched her act for a second, one eyebrow slowly raising, before turning to Hair Trigger. “So I'm sure if I check the footage...they'll have struck first, and you'll have calmly headed off to your ship to stay out of the way for a day or so in order to not wander into any more trouble, am I correct?”

“I think that'd be about right, sans a quick trip for some painkillers...ow.” She winced, rolling her shoulder around.

Gerhard nodded, apparently more concerned with the resolution than a blame game over a bar brawl. “On your way then. I better get this settled.”

Nodding their thanks, the crew began to move off, as Gerhard sighed and watched the drones deploying restraining clamps. “For goodness sake, I expect this more around Hearthswarming in a few months, not now...”

Walking past on her way out, Tami paused, watching him for a second.

“Hearthswarming?”

Her gentler voice got the griffon to turn and Tami felt oddly on the spot, her friends already rapidly departing into the hangar, or to the next door shop, other than a patient, watchful Kerfuffle waiting at the curve for her.

Gerhard tilted his head. “Yes, Hearthswarming.”

“On a station? How do you know when it is? You don't have seasons.”

The griffon took a second, before chuckling. “Ah, of course. Old tradition. Hearthswarming, they say, is on the anniversary of the date of manufacture of the artificial construct. Commissioning is the birthday, so they say, but the day it was completed? That's Hearthswarming. Differs station to station, ship to ship.”

Tami cooed, her mouth pursing at this idea. “Oooh...I see. I never knew that.”

He shrugged. “Mostly a Peripheral thing. Anyway, off you go.”

“Oh, yes, yes, sorry!” She smiled at him and turned to canter back to the others, catching them on the way to the hangar.

Behind her, Gerhard turned, and saw an old drone finally limping its sluggish way down the corridor toward the tavern.

“And just where the hell have YOU been?”

* * *

Tami lay awake on Claudia’s bridge, mindlessly toying with a paintbrush in her hands.

It was night cycle inside the ship, with all the lights dimmed and the rest of the crew asleep downstairs. That this included Tundra Gem as part of the word 'crew' didn't prompt a second thought to her now.

They were asleep. Yet she was not.

Swaying in her hammock, the windows of the bridge shuttered against the everpresent lights of the hangar, Tami couldn't help but feel she'd missed something. A little niggling at the back of her mind giving her pause.

Adrenaline from the fight? No, she'd had a long shower to flush that (and the stink of beer) out of her. Concern about a job? Couldn't be, they were still on downtime. Lingering worries about a couple weeks ago? Definitely not - Whisper's advice had been on point, Tami hadn't had another occurrence since.

No, she reflected, this was different. This wasn't a worry. She knew worry and anxiety like old foes by now. She could recognise their insidious approach on her mind.

This was something more benign. Like feeling you had forgotten to lock the door after leaving your home, whether you already bought milk, or if you couldn't remember the exact date of your dad's birthday.

The paintbrush stopped moving.

“Gift...”

Tami clambered her way out the hammock and into motion. Tapping across the rugs in the bridge, she hopped into her seat by the pilot station. The darkness of Claudia's nerve center lit up with a login screen, its background that of an NLR boy band. (The stars and hearts around the band member on the far right were not photo-edited at all, she had maintained, when asked about them.)

Her credentials entered, Tami started digging. She parsed to the base level Pioneer class systems screen, then to factory level information, and then to the ship summary. Scrolling through countless lines of pointless data and legal text, Tami rubbed her tired eyes and continued to flick-flick-flick at the screen with a claw.

Eventually, after ten minutes, she found what she was looking for and gasped sharply.

“Oh gosh!”

She flew from the chair, hurriedly wriggling on the floor to get her pyjamas off and her overalls on before unlocking the door, throwing it open, and flying downstairs as fast as she dared without waking anyone.

* * *

“Kiffie! Kiffie, come on!”

Tami's hands knocked and shoved at the not-exactly-small shape under the oversized sheets in Kerfuffle's quarters.

“Wake up!”

Unresponsive, the giant griffon lay still on his side.

Making a far too high pitched sound of frustration, Tami spread her wings and flew up to land atop his hip, before making light jumps from hands to hooves again and again.

“Kiffie! Wake up! C'moooon!”

There was a sudden, sleepy snort, and the griffon's leftmost eye creaked open. “Mmph, hmm?” Shaking his head, Kerfuffle sat up, hunching to avoid the slope of the wall, and looked down as Tami dropped back to the floor. “Is somethin' wrong, Miss?”

She grabbed his claw, tugging and pulling with all of her might, her hooves rapidly skittering on the floor, wings flapping eagerly. Kerfuffle didn't move an inch.

“I need your help! We've gotta go shopping right now, and I can't carry it all myself!”

Kerfuffle twisted his mouth side to side, clearly considering her meaning for a moment, before shrugging and sitting up, patently deciding to go along with it.

“Comin'. We in a hurry?”

“Yes, we gotta do it before the others get up.”

Tami hurried to the door to let him get dressed, before whispering back through the gap again.

“And bring a sack!”

* * *

Hair Trigger was in her optimum state.

It was quiet, it was warm, it was comfortable, and it was shared with someone else.

Drifting between deep sleep and a lazy morning snoozing, she willed rather than consciously moved her forelegs into gripping the squeezable object, tugging its back against her chest and burying her head into the back of its neck. The satisfied, pleased groan it made was enough to push her toward sleep again.

After another few blissful minutes, enough cohesion of thought began to gather to start identifying simple aspects of reality. That meant things like 'bed', 'Tundra', 'nightshirt not present', and 'damp spot, don't roll backwards.'

Grasping her hooves around Tundra's front, she reaffirmed her place pulling against his back and let her head fall to the pillow again, feeling something on top of it.

Oh, that was where my nightshirt got to.

Even as she declined to move again, accepting the discarded article as a replacement pillow, her ear twitched when she heard a noise from outside her quarters.

Two people talking, like they didn't want to be heard.

Immediately, a curiosity caught in her heart, and refused to go. A hunch. And she rarely ignored them knowing that something was afoot. Pushing sleep aside, Hair Trigger yanked herself up.

“Tundra.”

“Mmrr.”

“Tundra!”

He stirred lightly.

Her hoof snapped out in a light, but firm smack of his rump.

The unicorn jerked and snapped awake. “Ack! What!? What? Trigger, what was th-”

She nudged him, nodded at the door, and got up quickly.

“What's going on?”

“I don't know, just heard something. Someone's up to something out there.”

Wiping his tired eyes, Tundra rolled onto his front, grimaced briefly as his foreleg rested on a 'spot', and got to his hooves. “Something bad?”

Hair Trigger didn't reply, her magic grasping around her revolver, before she heard another noise. This one was much louder. The short, surprised squeal of a young female, followed by a crash.

Hair Trigger smirked and dropped the revolver back onto her table.

The pair of them went to the door and opened it just as another two doors opened at the same time. The morning-mane of Volatility Smile poked out and she saw Swan's curious glance.

All of them, together, then stared in wonder.

Claudia's common room was different. Brighter. More colourful.

From the supports on the roof, glinting tinsel and jury rigged flickering lights had been hung in a haphazard assortment. Cheap ornaments of sparkling reindeer and candy canes were dotted around the shelves and kitchen. The edges of the main display were covered in a plastic green leaf design, while doors to quarters bore wreaths and bells. Bags of food were heaped at the far end.

Yet on the table stood a manufactured tree, every strand glowing and shifting colours from embedded LEDs. A large griffon stood up to his full height beside it, a star in his claw, caught as though his hand had been found in the cookie jar.

At its bottom lay an upside down hippogriff, lying on her shoulders with her hindquarters hanging above her against the tree, collapsed into a pile of hastily half-wrapped boxes and obvious trinkets. A garish, overly bright red sweater with snowflakes and colour changing tiny bulbs in the shape of a tree flickered on her chest.

“Oh, uh, gosh...uuuh...”

Blushing, she put on her best grin and - still upside down - spread her arms wide with a forced grin, shaking her hands.

“...ta-daaaa!”

Feeling her heart attempt to implode from the stupid, adorable little sight, Hair Trigger instead just burst into laughter.

* * *

It took only a few short minutes for explanations, and Hair Trigger almost kicked herself to think she hadn't even checked for this. She'd known about the tradition from her own family, but her assumption had always been that Hearthswarming was miles away, since she'd had one just before leaving for Port Medusa in the first place, mere months ago.

But this stupid, overly sneaky, silly way to do it cut off any negative feelings at the knee, and instead she just grabbed her pilot into a tight hug.

“You are too much of a sweetheart, you know that? And you!” She pointed at Kerfuffle, who had finally assembled the tree's lighting in an energy efficient manner. “You were in on this! You of all people?”

“I guess, Cap'n?” He shrugged in response, before rushing to catch the once again falling star.

“This is quite the shock; I guess I was only thinking about it back planetside.” Volatility Smile walked into the common room more properly, looking about her in wonder. “You even picked up food? Kerfuffle, that's so sweet of the two of you.”

The big griffon climbed down, looking more bashful than anything, picking up the Hearthswarming hat he had been 'volunteered' to wear, and proudly affixing it onto his plume again. Volatility Smile, after a second, failed to hold her composure, and cracked up at the sight.

“This truly is something. I hadn't known of that tradition out here,” Tundra observed, calmly as ever, before a more childlike glee overtook his eyes at spotting one label around a gift with his name on it. “Oh!”

Tami squeaked as Hair Trigger gave her another squeeze, hearing her Captain speak loudly in her ear. “Two Hearthswarmings in four months. Oh, I love Periphery traditions! Now c'mon, all of you: get dressed and get out there to get your presents while Tam and Kerf set the rest of this up. Tundra? Shower first. And Tam? See who you can rustle up to join in.”

Tami, nodded eagerly, still grasped in the hug, before her brain caught up with the instruction for Tundra and started piecing two and two together from the awkward blush on the wizard's face.

Gingerly, she detached herself from close proximity to Hair Trigger.

Swan, for once a relaxed smile on his face, clapped his hands and grabbed his casual clothing from the line over the door. “Well, you heard the mare, everyone. Hop to it!”

* * *

What followed was nought but a whirlwind of Hearthswarming preparations. One eager crew condensed days of work into the space of a single morning. The original pair remained on board to prepare. Tammani eagerly sent out mail to anyone she knew on the station. Kerfuffle, fighting to contain his glee at his first ever Hearthswarming, began finding the difficulties of not getting tangled in ribbons while wrapping the things he and Tami had bought. The others, now properly awake, began galloping around Medusa looking for what they needed.

Swan returned first, ever the bastion of efficiency and experience, with the job of finding gifts for several people. He quickly set about the kitchen, putting together a late breakfast of the only sort anyone could expect of him. The presence of pancakes and smoked fish, he claimed, made it a Hearthswarming one.

Volatility Smile bumped into Verbena mid-route, the young pony having already been rushing down to pick up her own things. The pair joined forces. One with knowledge of the station, the other with knowledge of making a cashier's life a living misery. Between them they acquired their gifts, some treats for general handouts, several free samples, and one managerial resignation.

Captain Hair Trigger went about Hearthswarming shopping the way she normally did. With indecision, muttering, and eventual bursts of inspiration. Yet caught on one gift, she eventually headed into the station elevator after consulting with Bushel. She descended into the lower levels of the station to find what she needed, and two hours later emerged with the last item on her checklist. And a grin.

* * *

Kerfuffle spent far too long gingerly undoing every facet of the wrapping with his talons, trying to keep it all in one piece as much as he possibly could. After all, it had his name painted on it around little cogs and wires. How could he rip that apart?

Tami clenched onto his arm to watch, finding the sight as amusing as it was adorable, until finally Kerfuffle popped the top and upended the box into his palm.

Inside lay an input-logic-converter with a dual-feed connector.

Kerfuffle's eyes lit up, his beak opening in a silent gasp, before burying the hippogriff amongst his feathers in a bear-hug of utter delight.

“I love Hearthswarming!” he cried out loudly, arms and wings wrapped around the muffled sounds of delighted laughter from his chest, before finally letting the spluttering pilot down. A second later, he hugged her again anyway.

“Now your little spider-bot can fit a camera to see where he's going!” she spoke up happily.

“That's so kind, Miss! I dunno how I didn't see you buy it earlier. Guess I was still tired.”

Even as they hugged, another excited unwrapper was on his third present already. Tundra, like a foal on his first Hearthswarming, gleefully pulled open a parcel to find a book on the pre-galactic history of Equestria, 'Skyborne Tales of the Sapphire Coast'.

“Oh, most wonderful!” he exalted, immediately flicking through its maps and long texts of deeds, individuals, and adventures, despite the other presents left nearby.

“Most welcome.” Swan gave a nod from the kitchen, turning to dump another load of food onto the table. While there, he stopped, finding Volatility Smile handing him a small package.

“Don't think you get left out.”

Confused, Swan took it. “I've already gotten a few from the rest; I don't feel left out...”

Smile winked. “You'll know what I mean. I've seen what you've got stitched to your bags.”

Beginning to suspect, Swan placed the food down, tossed the kitchen towel back to the drawers, and peeled the small box out to open. Inside, he found a patch. One bearing the logo of Port Medusa. Momentarily taken aback, he just laughed. Laughed, and clapped Smile on the shoulder. “Thank you. I suppose where I’ve been matters as much as who I’m with..”

“Can go right beside those old unit patches then. Like a life's journey, right?”

Handing her a plastic cup of cider, early or not, Swan knocked his against hers, and then took a long drink. “Yeah. Now here, go finish off your own. I've got to see to the fruit pudding.”

Volatility Smile lived up to her name in response, turning back. Yet the moment she did, she found her way blocked by a griffon. Looking up, she found Kerfuffle awkwardly standing with a gift in his hands. “You uh… You missed this one from the tree, Mrs Smiles. Here you go. It's, uh… This one's mine. From me.”

“Oh stars above, I'm so sorry Kerfuffle. It must have just passed my eye. Thank you.”

Placing her drink down first, she pulled the not entirely well wrapped paper off of it and began laughing aloud. Holding her gift aloft, she shouted across the room. “Hey! Tami, sweetie! Look what I got!”

The hippogriff looked up from handing a gift to Tundra, her eyes blinking and squinting to see what Smile had in her hooves. Volatility Smile grinned and shouted the answer to her. “Bounce Beats Volume Four, for the ultimate cardio experience!”

The look on Tami's face dropped Smile to the chair behind her with laugher. The aghast look of someone desperately trying to figure out more than a few more excuses was too rich.

“I'll see you in the mornings!”

Tami rubbed a hand over the other, offering a polite nod, as she tried to sneak herself away from the immediate topic. Shimmying to the side, she got midway toward the sofa before stumbling across a gift held in a telekinetic field.

And from behind it, one Captain Hair Trigger with a generous smile.

“You've been running in circles all morning - haven't caught you. Happy Hearthswarming, Tam.”

Tami gasped, hands to her mouth, before bouncing in glee, the terror of Smile's sessions forgotten all but instantly. “Ooh! Captain, oh, thank you!”

The present was propelled into her hands, and she hopped her backside up onto the sofa to pull the ribbon off the top. Scything one of her fingers around the lip, she pulled open the top and peered in with eager excitement. The inside of it was dark, and she squinted to get a grasp of what lay within it, angling the box to let the light panels above shine in so she could see it and-

Almost immediately, her cheeks flushed cherry red, and the top of the box was slammed down with a shocked squeak. Her eyes rapidly swivelled, hunting to make sure no-one else was watching them. Her voice was a sharp, stammered hiss.

“C-Captain!”

Hair Trigger only winked, her grin reaching ear to ear, before nudging the hippogriff's side with an elbow. “Gotta look out for the morale of my pilot, don't I?”

Tami bit her lip, holding the top tightly down, as though what was inside would leap out and be seen by everyone. Her face looked more like a beetroot. “Th-thanks...I g-guess?”

“That's the spirit, Tam.” She grinned, giving the hippogriff another little squeeze with her foreleg. “Wanted to get you something to wow Midnight with too, but I doubt Medusa's the place to find attire like that. Didn't know your size anyw-”

Tami's wing batted at her face, and Hair Trigger burst into laughter even as the blushing hippogriff leapt onto her and playfully fought hand on hoof, barely suppressing her own nervous giggles. “You're-you're something, Captain! I don't know what yet but I'll think of a word!”

Letting the unicorn back up, Tami shot her a look somewhere between a pout and reluctant enjoyment of her Captain’s antics. Hair Trigger just gave her a wink.

“Wouldn't be me if not. Now if you-hmm?”

Hair Trigger's eyes slid sideways as the presence of another making his way to the sofa caught both their attentions. After a moment, Tami hid her gift behind a pillow, as if the unmarked box in wrapping paper wasn't cover enough.

Tundra stood there, the others still laughing around the table behind him. He had one more box in his magic, and floated it forward.

“I...I may have hesitated to give you this, Captain. My gift, to you. For you, I mean.”

Giving Tami a brief wink, Hair Trigger felt her own face flush lightly and stood up to take the box for herself. She gave him a suspicious look and shook it. Behind her, Tami sat up, hands clenched around her own body as she watched the (to her) cute couple sharing a moment. Across the room, directed by a point from Volatility Smile, the others started paying heed.

It was, after all, the last gift between them all.

Finding herself the centre of attention, Hair Trigger gave Tundra a cheeky look, listening to its contents, before tearing it open without losing eye contact. “Pressure of the moment, huh? For me or you?”

“Definitely for me.” Tundra confessed, looking away briefly with his front legs rubbing over one another.

“Well then, let's see how you did on our first Hearthswarming.”

Hair Trigger threw open the top. Her hoof rummaged inside, and yanked the gift out without any hesitation.

There was a silence, and then there were gasps from the others. Smile's pleased one. Tami's excited one. A sense of heartwarming was palpable among all.

Hair Trigger stared at the object before her and felt the moment slow down. Condensed into just her looking at it...before she fought back the wisp of tears in her eyes.

In her hooves, rested a pristine piece of quality headwear, to suit any captain of a starship.

Looking up at his worried, anxious face, Hair Trigger simply surged forward and grabbed him by the chest into a vice-like grip, as his magic firmly slid it onto her head.

* * *

After a late Christmas brunch and getting the presents squared away, the crew took a couple of hours to themselves. Yet after mid-day on Port Medusa’s own cycle other ponies gradually started to arrive.

It started as one, with Verbena Mint running through the hangar to open up Claudia and head inside, long since accepted as one who could enter at will. She rushed up to and hugged Tami, Hair Trigger, Volatility Smile, and then nearly disappeared into Kerfuffle before deciding she had better get to business. Presents, sweets, and an eager, filly-like glee about Hearthswarming re-energised Claudia’s atmosphere.

Even as she and Tami got to work preparing a playlist of the most sugar-happy space-pop to throw on (much to Swan’s chagrin) an unexpected arrival made its presence felt from a ring at the airlock. On opening it, Volatility Smile found a deer; ‘Crazy D’ - Port Medusa’s most well known fast food cook - was standing on the main ramp. Known for keeping his customer’s orders stuck to his antlers on notes, the impressive horned growths were instead now decorated with hanging baubles and flickering lights. To his side, somewhat embarrassed for his father, was his son Sruth - the young buck was dragging a trolley of food along with him.

“Hearthswarming!” The older deer declared. “Hearthswarming requires food! I do food! I do Hearthswarming! Yeah?”

After they had rolled the food up the cargo ramp into the ship itself, Smile didn't even get the door closed before spotting a very tired and still nonplussed Bushel making her way toward the ship. Her voice travelled ahead of her, along with the clink of glass in her rucksack.

“You let that captain know she still agreed to help me repair the tavern tomorrow for helping her find Kinky-Dink’s Emporium, y'hear!? I need a night to drink instead of watching others do it.”

Volatility Smile didn't know what to think. Bewildered, she held the door for the brash mare. “I...Tami messaged you too? I can't say we expected you and D and-”

Bushel shrugged. “She put it out on the general notice mailing list. We usually jump on any ship having its Hearthswarming here anyway. Why not? Excuse to get slammed. Now c'mon, show me where your coolant valves are. Medusa Special doesn't do well with normal fridges.”

Wandering past, Bushel left a stunned Volatility Smile by the door. Blinking, turning her head to the hangar at large, Smile noticed the crews of several other docked ships starting to gather outside their hulls and point toward Claudia.

Smile gulped.

“Oh my stars...”

* * *

As Port Medusa's internal cycle turned from midday to early evening, Claudia bore host to more ponies than any of its crew had expected. A full fifty others crowded the common room and cargo bay, each adding to the piles of food and drink, or bringing gifts for those they knew among the crowds.

They entered in groups, usually other crews. Even the two rival ones that had fought the night before seemed to mysteriously get along. It was half an hour before Hair Trigger even realised she was sharing horrendously inappropriate jokes with the raucous crowd that she had beat over the head with bottles less than a day ago.

At any given event the best times were always found in the kitchen. Any experienced party-goer would confirm that. But on ships it was a different matter.

Instead, the best times took place in the engine room.

Kerfuffle, to his delight, found that eventually every mechanic and engineer in the ship gravitated there. He had spent some hours sitting awkwardly, unsure how to broach the crowds and loud voices, before quietly retreating to familiar territory. There, he had found a few other mechanics already sharing a drink and chattering about the well maintained regulators around the core. Others made their way up over time to talk shop. Finally, surrounded by those who knew what true entertainment was, Kerfuffle settled into his place for the night.

Tami and Verbena, as ever, found one another's company almost immediately and rarely parted sides, quickly adding Sruth to their little group of the younger ones on board. Before long, music began pumping all over the ship, as Tami showed both of them a 'little trick' she had learned with the PA system not too long ago.

Among those who often came from different civilisations, there was usually friction. But for Swan, finding a New Lunar Republic veteran who had fought on the opposite side of the War of the Two Crowns instead gave him a drinking buddy for the night. Much time was spent sharing tales from either side of the same front, and laughing equally as much at the false perceptions as to who thought who was attacking or defending in those confused times.

Volatility Smile, concerned as much for the ship as anything, fell into the role of trying to stay somewhat sober, running around and being wary of where everyone was and what was happening. Yet eventually she settled near Tundra, the unicorn keeping his distance from many of the crowds and seeming ill at ease with such an intense environment. Happy for a more familiar face, the pair shared time and laughs, both easing off their high strung worries a little.

And among it all, Patch (bearing a hippogriff-dispensed red bow on his chassis) nearly ran down his battery careening around at a rapid rate in a dire attempt to dispense alcohol, sugar, and fat warnings to counter the horrific event taking place. Unable to prevent the health damage, his confused algorithms eventually logged the event as 'mass ritualistic suicide' and he retreated to his charger.

* * *

Squeezing through the crowds, Tami pulled Verbena behind her to the kitchen's fridge, working around the frantically serving deer to their right.

“There, there, that one!” Verbena pointed, before grabbing out an ice cool bottle of Confederate vodka. “Oh, I am so going to-”

The sudden sight of Tami rapidly cutting her hand over her own throat got the young earth pony to look round. Verbena spotted the sudden and withering glare of her half-sister looking her way, the Director - surrounded by a small fleet of security drones - having just entered the room.

“-hand this to the pony who asked me to collect it!”

Grinning too wide, speaking much too loudly, she passed it to Tami, who just as meekly handed it to (unknown to her) a very confused Sruth, who simply passed it to his father beside them.

“Ah, Confederate cooking oil,” came the offhand remark from the older deer, before D took a sharp slug from the bottle itself. “Sometimes also used in the food.”

Sweet Alyssum gave a small - but sharp - smirk before taking up a short drink of her own. She wasn't going to stay long, but it did well to show face at a visiting ship's Hearthswarming. Her attendance was never expected, but it was generally a useful impression to have circulating about herself for attracting crews to her station.

And the looks on the faces of those present was always worth it, she thought to herself, waving and smiling to a known pirate whom she knew wouldn't be leaving her station the next day...

* * *

It had taken many long hours waiting for an opportunity, but Hair Trigger had finally managed to reacquire the Captain's Sofa.

With only one in the entire ship, it had disappeared quickly under ponies using it, until she had staked out her claim and dove onto it while someone went for another drink. And just to assure that no-one else joined when she didn't want them to, she dragged Tundra down with her.

Seemingly quite happy to get off his hooves, the Solar Empire investigator dropped down with a sigh, catching both their drinks in his precision magic, before floating Hair Trigger's to her mouth with a goofball grin. “I can't say I earmarked this as what I expected when being assigned this mission, Captain. Serving alcohol to a marefriend on a sofa at Hearthswarming - and they say that real espionage doesn't involve any parties and drinks. This is the second you've taken me to.”

Hair Trigger smirked, sipping at the upturned glass, before using her own telekinesis to adjust the Hearthswarming lights that someone had hung around Tundra's neck. Much as spacers saw it just as an opportunity for a bit of a get together, there was a very festive theme to the night. Most had brought one gift for the hosting crew, and then a few others for people they knew personally. Clearly, Periphery crews knew this routine well.

“I did say I'd show you the sights.” Hair Trigger winked.

Raising an eyebrow, Tundra scoffed, and prodded one of her hindlegs with his across the sofa. “I believe you weren't referring to events at the exact time you said that, Captain.”

“Whatever gave you that idea, Tunny-Buns?”

The pair of them cracked into giggles, and she leaned into his side, pulling one of his forelegs over her shoulders. “You know, I do love it when you insist on still calling me 'Captain'.”

He grinned. “Why do you think I've observed to keep saying it? Your pupils dilate every time.”

“Least I know you're paying attention to my eyes at some points, then.”

She knocked his side, and in a moment of high-spirited fun, he returned the gesture, the pair of them chuckling together like school-kids at their first party.

Yet as they flirted and joked, a small set of leaves began to slowly ease into the top of their vision. Descending from above, a sprig of mistletoe lowered until it rested just between their faces.

Hair Trigger raised her eyebrows and tilted her head to look up and find Tami holding it, hovering in the air above the pair and extending the mistletoe in one hand with expectant glee on her face, clearly waiting to see something between the couple.

Tundra Gem looked back down at Hair Trigger with a small snicker. Trigger looked back at Tundra, thought for a second, and then let a sly grin come across her face.

Seeming the smile, Tami lightly shook the mistletoe back and forth, egging them on, and slowly drew in her breath as she saw the two lock eyes.

Hair Trigger looked up, then down again at Tundra with a lick of her lips, and chuckled. “Well...all right then!”

She sat up, then leaned forward.

And grabbed Tami by the cheeks.

The surprised hippogriff had only a second to emit a shocked squeal before Hair Trigger's sudden movement yanked Tami down and planted her lips firmly onto the startled pilot's mouth.

Tami's wings faltered before flapping rapidly to catch her, all four limbs below her doggy-paddling in the air in bewilderment at the sudden kiss locking around her lips.

“Mmphmm!” Her face rapidly turning cherry red, Tami made a muffled squeak, her wings losing control and dropping her onto her hands and hooves by the sofa's front end. A not entirely quiet 'mwua!' sound signalled Hair Trigger letting the kiss go, a cheeky, pleased grin plastered over her face. “Not bad, Tam! Not bad!”

Tundra Gem, for his part, was already doubled over in laughter at the wide-eyed look of confusion on Tami's face, as she staggered and dizzily fell back against the nearest door frame to catch her breath and process what had just happened. She was breathing heavily in surprise, her chest rising and falling.

“C-Captain! I d-didn’t mean m-me-I-I-what was-” she babbled rapidly.

Hair Trigger laughed, “Just do that to Midnight and you'll be good. Y'aight?”

Flustered all over, Tami staggered up and made a vague nod, her eyes as round dinner plates with small pupils. “Wh-what? Y-yeah, Captain what-you-I...I think, wait-I mean...I-need-a-drink!”

Blushing fiercely, she staggered off, leaving Hair Trigger to chuckle to herself and turn back to her boyfriend. “Oh, that reaction...priceless. She's too-”

The mistletoe, caught in a magic field, floated in front of Hair Trigger's face. The front of her hooded top was yanked forward, hard. Tundra pulled her into a tight hug, tickling her nose with the leaves. “Hope you didn't forget someone who'll kiss back.”

Hair Trigger felt her cheeks flush, before grinning. “Who said she didn't?”

Tundra just laughed, and pulled Hair Trigger in for a deep, long kiss.

One that didn't let up for some time.

* * *

The music and voices echoed outside of Claudia into the hangar, drifting out to the force fields and reflecting with strange, pitch adjusted echoes from the unusual physics at work. With most of the other ships, ground crew, and even those like Raw Deal inside, it was deserted. Empty ships waited, staring at Claudia as though wondering why she was getting all the attention.

Kerfuffle stepped off the bottom ramp, exiting the party for a moment. He moved unsteadily, balancing on his hindlegs until he had the airspace to use his wings. Awkwardly carrying a tray of food, he also bore a small, stuffed bag under an arm.

Quietly, not wanting to disturb the other ships in their silent rest, he flew around Claudia's front and across to the next ship. Much smaller in bulk than Claudia, more akin to a heavy fighter, its robust and angular shape around large engines betrayed the ferocious speed it could reach in the void. Stopping on its hull, Kerfuffle awkwardly leaned down to gently tap on the tinted glass canopy of the single person cockpit.

For a few moments there was no reply, and he almost left then and there, but after a moment the sound of miniaturised servos picked up and the glass slid backwards.

Below it a set of golden eyes on a dark coat stared up at him, and then at what he carried, with some momentary confusion.

“Kerfuffle?”

Kerfuffle coughed, looking just as hesitant himself at what he carried under Whisper Step’s hard glare. “Evenin', Miss Step. We gave you some time to turn up, but I figured you weren't comin' after a while.”

Whisper glanced back at the main screen within the Regulus, where a mail advertising Claudia's Hearthswarming was still displayed. She pursed her lips and shrugged, looking away toward the cargo vessel.

“Not exactly my kind of environment at the moment.”

“Figured so. S'why I brought this out. Can't be havin' you going hungry while everyone else eats all merry-like. And well, bein' honest with you Miss, you never seem to eat much the best of times. Mama never said that was good for you.”

He set the tray down on the edge of the cockpit. Bitesize nibbles, a small platter of Crazy D's always barely identifiable but (usually) edible rolls and pies, and a couple of bottles from the drinks bin.

Whisper Step swapped her attention back to the griffon, and then the tray. Her mouth opened slightly, as though genuinely surprised, before she found herself being handed a small bag.

“An' this is from all of us. Ain't right we all pass our presents about and you don't get yours on Hearthswarming. Can't have a member of the Captain's crew missing out.”

The dark earth pony took the bag in her hooves, finding a manner of haphazardly wrapped gifts within, covered in achingly colourful and cheap paper. Pushing a couple to the side to see all five, she raised an eyebrow and looked back up. “I'm not under Hair Trigger's command, Kerfuffle.”

The griffon nodded. “I know that, Miss. But that don’t mean you aren’t still part of her crew.”

There was a long silence. Whisper, for once, looked actually somewhat confused about what to say or do, before a slow smile crept across her stoic face. She took the bag into the cockpit proper, stowing it by the seat, and drew the tray in behind it. Holding up one of the bottles, she gave its label a look of approval. Gently, she snickered. “You lot are ridiculous. Thank you, Kerfuffle.”

The big mechanic smiled warmly, stepping back away from the cockpit onto the hull itself. “You're welcome, Miss. Happy Hearthswarming.”

“Happy-” Whisper laughed under her breath, as though finding the notion silly, even if genuine. “Happy Hearthswarming to you… And pass it along to the others.”

Kerfuffle gave her a blissfully innocent look and made to fly back to Claudia. “I'll do that. And Miss Tami'll be glad to hear you're using the slippers she made for you too. Good night!”

He took off, missing the sudden widening of Whisper's eyes and the sharp protest that died in her throat at seeing the griffon already gone. Mouth open, Whisper sat there for a few seconds, before closing it and shaking her head.

Gently, she lifted one present out, its half-wrapped state revealing it to be from the griffon himself.

A toy spy-pen, with 'invisible' UV illuminating ink.

After a moment of staring at it with hard eyes, she couldn’t prevent a chuckle breaking through, one that rose into an uncontrolled laugh, the first true one she'd had to herself in some time.

“I swear, this crew...”

Putting the gift, and her work, to one side, she popped the cap of the bottle off on the edge of the cockpit latch, sat the food on the auxiliary panel, and laid back to enjoy the ambience of Claudia's Hearthswarming - if from a little further distance than most.

* * *

“Captain!”

Hair Trigger looked up, hearing Volatility Smile's voice somewhere above the music and chatter bouncing off the walls.

“Hair Trigger!”

“Over here, Smile!”

Gradually, fighting her way between a couple of dancing stallions, Volatility Smile squeezed and pushed her way through toward her. She could see Smile trying to move while holding a brown package, shaking out her mane once through the crowd. At some point the crystal pony had given over to the inevitable and let it hang loose for the night, its sparkling glints catching the lower lighting well.

“Was down by the entrance ramp, had one of the station's drones fly by with a delivery.”

Raising an eyebrow, Hair Trigger got off the sofa, passing her drink to Tundra before taking the package in her hooves. She felt its balance shift as it was turned, like it had liquid in it. A letter was hoofed over as well, which she unfolded separately in her magic.

“I didn't order anything. Who's it - oh.” She saw her own name on the letter. “Huh.”

Smile nodded and offered a shrug. “To you. No sender noted on it. All it says is 'open first' on the letter. That's about it.”

Turning it over, Trigger found the words herself, and slid its contents out to read.

Behind her, she heard Tundra get up, and felt him rest his chin on her shoulder. His cheeks were still flushed, whether from her or from the drink she wasn't certain. Possibly both.

“Got a secret...secret admirererer, Captain...” he chuckled.

Definitely the drink.

She reached up and patted his cheek without turning her head, and squinted in the low light at the letter itself.

Contact this number in private when you have a moment.

Don't open the package till you do.

Hair Trigger furrowed her brow.

“Either Whisper's playing games, something I doubt, one of you is playing a prank, which you all know better than to instigate with me, or this is going to be quite the surprise.”

Volatility Smile sat on the common room stairs, picking up a glass of wine she'd left behind earlier. “Well, who knows what tomorrow brings. Suppose you've got some free time now, right? Want one of us to come in, just in case?”

Hair Trigger shook her head and looked back up at Smile, gently lifting Tundra off her shoulder as she did so. “Nah, I'll handle it. You all stay out here, enjoy yourselves. Or keep adding to that stock check, whatever makes you happy.”

Smile laughed, waving the leg bearing her multiband. “S'not that, Hair Trigger.” Her voice was a little less precise than normal. “It's getting the dates other crews have theirs. So we can keep an eye on who else is out there about to have a Hearthswarming. Networking isn't just for business, I assure you.”

Pausing, Trigger smirked, then nodded. “Well played, Smile.”

“That's what you have me for. Also, tracking results of that lot through there on who can lift the most weight on the bar.”

Laughing, Hair Trigger gave Tundra a kiss on the cheek, “Of course. Now you...” She turned to the unicorn, and ushered him to sit back down on the sofa. “Just going to my room for a moment.”

“I'll...I'll be right through!” He perked up with a grin, only half hearing her.

Cracking up, she tapped his head to push him back down. “Not what I meant, just stay here and look after my drink.”

Clearly catching up on remembering the letter, Tundra nodded and glanced at his glass. “I think averting from this stuff for months may be having an effect on me.”

“No shit, magic-man. Back in a moment.” She chuckled, picked up the package and made pace for her quarters.

* * *

With the ambience dulled through the thick walls of her quarters, Hair Trigger collapsed into her desk chair. Immediately, a sense of tiredness crept through her, as her body recognised a quiet moment to settle after from the long day.

Resting the small package on the desk, she pulled out the letter and unlocked her workstation to bring up the communication interface. A quick glance revealed the number to be a pre-paid access line for a real-time video link across systems. Technology wasn't quite at the level to allow full streaming for everyone to do it yet, but premium services for those who really wanted one did exist.

Someone wanted to speak to her face to face.

Punching the numbers into her satisfyingly clacky keyboard with quick spikes of telekinesis, Hair Trigger didn't waste any time on hitting the icon on the screen to call it. She could sit for minutes second guessing, or just do it and see what happened.

When confronted with such moments, that was how she rolled.

The screen switched to showing three circles. One for her, one for the hubs between Claudia and whenever this was, and one for the receiving connection. Quickly, the hub connection lit up, before it sat on the receiving end for around half a minute, then a full minute, and then two.

She was about ready to call it a lost call, when it finally blinked green and chimed a short countdown to full video link. An electronic voice announced the call.

“Real-time streaming stable. Connection established.”

A video window appeared on the comm-app. It was blurry, the video buffering struggling for a moment or two to catch up with the active link’s signal. After a second, she could see fragmented pixels of colour that began to steadily come into focus. She could make out blonde feathers, probably a griffon. They were moving the camera - likely on a laptop - placing it down on what she thought was a desk.

Finally, the real streaming quality and framerate kicked in, and Trigger saw a blonde griffon, clearly in his fifties at least, but with a youthful energy in his eyes. He sat back with a calm smile, clearly having finally gotten a good connection in return. Behind him, a chunk of a ship's hull was affixed to the wall of what seemed like a cosy living room.

“Captain Hair Trigger. Glad you received my mail.”

Hair Trigger's eyes followed past his head to that piece of hull on his wall, and saw a symbol upon it: a griffon wing, with a smaller pegasus wing overlapping it. She grinned, recognising it immediately.

“Captain Gaius, I presume. In other words, Tam's-”

Gaius scoffed, as though surprised to hear the title before his name. “Tam's father, yup. Took a while, but finally glad I got a moment to speak with you. Just captain-to-captain, hm?”

“Sure it's not dad-to-captain?” Hair Trigger snarked, settling back in her chair and crossing her hooves.

Gaius laughed shortly. “Well, if you'd prefer it be. But I think I can convince you elsewise. You got my package with you there?” She lifted the brown paper object, waving it in her magic in front of her display's camera. Gaius smiled and motioned with a large claw. “Open it.”

Hair Trigger paused for a moment, and then unfurled the package’s string binding. Eventually, the 'tink' of hoof on glass became apparent. The moment that she pulled a small, unlabelled bottle with just a small drink's worth of dark amber liquid at its bottom from the wrapping, Gaius slid the full bottle that it had clearly come from into view, with around one third of its contents left.

“See, I have a tradition,” he began, pouring a small measure into a tilted glass, “one that started far back when I first took command of the Tammaran. Every time I had another ship's captain aboard, or any time I visited another ship to meet its own one, I would sit down with them and have a small drink from this. Direct from Equestrian space itself before the split, sixty five years aged before bottling.”

Hair Trigger whistled, suddenly regarding the glass in her hoof with a little more care, watching as Gaius poured a measure for himself.

“It's a pity I couldn't get out there to meet in person, but I figured what the hell. I've not had the chance to do this in two decades - I can bend the rules a little. Hope you've got a glass.”

Hair Trigger winked, floating across a simpler, but more than viable spirits glass to pour the bottle's scant contents into. “For a drink like this, I'd run out and buy one if I had to. Thank you.”

“Well said, Captain. Please, go ahead.”

Without waiting himself, Gaius settled back, taking up his glass to sip from. Hair Trigger followed suit, raising it in a quick toast before trying not to look too eager in bringing it to her lips.

It was lighter than she'd expected, passing into her mouth with a heavy, fragrant tone. She almost had to remind herself to not gulp to chase the subtleties, before the sudden heavy aroma and flavour broiled and swam around behind her lips and into her throat. Spicy nutmeg, with a cured, unexpectedly thick headiness that took a second to really erupt.

She couldn't help herself, breathing out suddenly and smelling the meaty tingle in the exhalation, before lightly shaking her head.

“Wow.”

Gaius sighed, looking like he'd come back to an old friend, settling in his chair in a much more relaxed manner as he brought the glass down from his beak. “It's quite something, isn't it, Captain?”

“I feel like I just drank my yearly earnings. How did you even afford this, if I can even ask that?”

Gaius smirked, and tapped his beak with a claw. “Ask the captain of the Empire supply ship I took it from.”

There was a pause, before the pair of them laughed. A simple, easy laugh, taking the edge off of the conversation. Gaius settled the glass in a palm and nodded. “How is Tami?”

Hair Trigger felt the hair on her neck raise up and the drink catch in her throat. How was one to say 'Well I got her into a bar fight recently where she got punched, bought her something you probably don't want to hear about, and then snogged her - with tongue - less than an hour ago' to her father? Taking a second to shelter behind a mock sniff of the glass, Hair Trigger gathered her thoughts in a less suicidal direction.

“Probably bouncing off the walls about now. We've got a bit of an event going on board at the moment.”

He nodded. “I can vaguely hear it. I'm not keeping you?”

“Like I said, with a drink like this, you could pull me away from my boyfriend asking me to bed.”

She snapped it out before thinking on sheer habit, and was surprised to hear Gaius suddenly guffaw with laughter. Hair Trigger smirked, feeling somewhat more at ease. “Tami's doing great for us. Flying Claudia about just as we need her to...even if she sometimes needs reminded she can. But really, it's just her being herself that makes us glad she's with us. I wouldn't give up the spirit she brings on board for anyone else at the helm. That, and she can fly like a demon when she has to.”

Gaius flushed, and Trigger observed an odd look of bashful pride about his face. “Well, she made an old dog like me grip the seat when she took me up. So I can believe it. I still get surprised by what these newer ships are capable of. But what I'm more interested in is, how has she been doing though, as herself? I don't mean in piloting.”

Hair Trigger tapped her glass against a hoof a couple of times, formatting her answer as quickly as she could, before spotting the easy look on Gaius' face. It was honest and open. He wasn't digging for issues. Taking a second to collect her thoughts, she took one more decadent sip of her drink and placed the glass down with a gentle breath.

“It's been trying at times. Lately especially. I won't try to pretend she hasn't had her moments where it's clear she's scared or anxious. I've had to...had to occasionally just sit with her for a while. After something frightening, or if she makes a mistake, or if we're ever in danger. Really, when she starts doubting herself, that's when it gets bad. But we're here for her, and we'll help her, because we all want that smile in our lives. I promise you that.”

The few seconds’ pause from Gaius set her stomach churning a little, before he gently nodded. “I believe you, Captain. And I thank you for doing that for her, and for being honest with me. I know my daughter. I know what she's been through. And if someone had tried to pretend what you just said didn't exist...well, that's when I start booking shuttles out of worry.”

Hair Trigger smirked. “Knew the dad-talk bit was in here somewhere.”

Gaius chuckled in response. “Well I could tell you that I'd follow your ship into the next galaxy if I ever felt she was being mistreated aboard, would that help make things feel more traditional?”

She didn't reply, just making an amused look and taking another delectable sip of the provided spirit, trying to make it last. After a second, she rested the glass against her chest as he spoke again.

“This is your first command, isn't it, Captain?”

“Mhm,” she replied tacitly. “Needed something apart from my family. My own little slice of space.”

“How are you handling it?”

The question caught her by surprise. She had been preparing for every eventuality that led back to Tami in some way, but a query directly to her was not on the expected card. She stumbled over her words for a moment, holding the glass in both hooves. “Me? I… Well, it's been a few months since I left the others and came here. It's been… trying. I wake up every morning and still need to remind myself at times I'm the one who's got to walk out and make the calls. Just taking some getting used to.”

The frankness of her own reply surprised her. Maybe it was being plied with a top-end and rare whiskey, or the easy authority in his voice, perhaps even the alcohol from before, but she felt her lips move before her head caught up.

“Hardest thing is getting used to the retrospective. Look back, see things that happened, wonder if you made the right call. Been a few rough moments. Few times people, even Tami, got hurt. Crewmembers leaving either right after you get them, or mid-job, when you're wondering if they thought you were taking them a direction you shouldn't have. And there's no-one above yourself anymore to look to and ask if you're calling the right shots.”

The glass circled in her hooves. She didn't know where that had come from, and momentarily felt ashamed she'd said it.

Gently, Gaius' voice came through the speakers with a warmer, paternal, and more experienced tone. “What you said? That isn't a negative thing, Captain. What you said is just what it is to be a captain at all.”

She looked up, finding him looking directly into her own eyes.

“I had command of a vessel for twenty years during the most tumultuous event in our modern history. Life out there, it draws you into things you don't expect, or sometimes don't even want. It happens before you've even realised. One job turns into a rabbit hole and before you know it, you're playing a part in a front of a war that you never even knew existed. The only real question has to become...is this for some good in the end?”

Hair Trigger felt her glass run dry, and she settled it on the desk.

“...I think so.”

“Then the very fact that you worry about things like that tells me all I need to know. To know that you're doing things the right way, Captain. You're concerned about your crew as people, not just their performance. You're questioning what's right out there.”

He sighed lightly, finishing his own drink. “For example: that blasted Academy in orbit above here, they took Tami in, and after one year sent the wrong damn girl back to me, from how it was to see her again. There in body, but…” Gaius glanced away and shook his head. “They took my daughter away from me for four years with what they did.”

He leaned down, closer to the camera, and suddenly smiled, holding up a tablet with a still frame from one of Tami's VLOGs in it, with Claudia’s crew around her, the hippogriff beaming with unrelenting joy and contentment.

“Whereas you? You gave me her back.”

Gaius paused, letting the words sink in, and Hair Trigger felt rather than heard the emotion in his tone. “So as far as I'm concerned, my daughter isn't wrong. She found herself a great captain, Captain.”

There was extra emphasis on that final word, and he set the tablet down. Hair Trigger had to look away, feeling something inside she hadn't before. A certain well of affirmation she'd been afraid to judge for herself since leaving the roost.

“...thank you.”

Gaius gave her a few seconds, then tapped the desk. “Listen, you've got my contact now. Just between us, if you ever need anything, or to ask anything...just let me know. My life's experiences are at your disposal; it's the least I can offer as thanks for what you've done for me and my family.”

“Thank you,” she repeated, touching a hoof to an eye. “And I promise I'll keep them safe, even if-”

“Even if you're finding that same rabbit hole.”

“Yes, because I think we are,” she added quietly.

Gaius, surprisingly, smiled. “Then much as I can worry, it makes me proud to know she's out doing what I used to. Go do some good, Captain, and Happy Hearthswarming.”

Hair Trigger nodded again, smiling, before twisting her mouth up in confusion. “Wait, I never told you it was Hearthswarming on my ship. How'd you know our date of manufa-”

Gaius laughed and winked. “To the next galaxy, if I have to. Good night, Captain.”

The connection cut on her bewildered look, before she made a single, short laugh followed shortly by a much longer one.

Then, she sat in silence for some minutes.

After rubbing at her eyes, she moved to head back outside.

* * *

Things were still in full swing: a Hearthswarming atmosphere of drink, dance, laughs, reunions, first meetings, love, and friendship around the flickering tree at the centre of the common room.

Tami stood slightly to the side of it, clutching her third cider in her claws, taking her time with it. She wanted to be cohesive for tonight, but it gave her a warmth in her belly to feel that little heady easing of her anxieties around such a dense crowd. This had been more than she could possibly have expected. Far more.

She heard the sound of a door closing behind her, but paid it no heed.

A few seconds later, she felt hooves grab her from behind, and spin her around to face them. She had just a second to realise who it was, before her Captain grabbed her into a tight, long hug. An embrace that she was more than happy to return in kind, uncaring of whatever reason had initiated it.

* * *

The frivolity continued long into the night cycle. A time of colour and smiles, and new memories.

In time, groups departed and waved, smiling more than when they had arrived. Eventually, even those closest bid their farewells, returning to their own homes or ships. In many cases, those there the same thing.

They left behind a ship that bore the décor of a place that had seen joy. A mess that told of fun. A clutter that held cheer.

Leaving six within it to meet, to smile, and to reflect. To gather and take the quiet hours to themselves before the inevitable cleaning.

A first Hearthswarming. A tradition born to a new ship, for its newest crew.

And as they each fell to sleep, either in a solace long sought, in the company of a loved one, in the relaxation of letting one's hair down, or slumped against a dear friend on a sofa, Claudia finally fell silent, filled with nought but smiles.

In nearly a thousand years since they had first left Equestria, much had changed, adapted, shifted, or simply been forgotten. But some things still remained as they had once been, no matter how many stars lay between it and its origin, or how differently its people had grown apart.

And across a galaxy, that same spirit of Hearthswarming remained strong.

* * *

The Mongoose

View Online

The Mongoose

Written by Napalm Goat

*****

Top of the hill, Heroes of the Revolution Park.

The distant glasteel buildings of the city centre were glinting in the pale white light of the young star. The many birds and other creatures hidden in the nearby aquamarine hued trees were busying themselves with their daily life. Pathways, benches and picnic tables dotted the immediate surroundings. A nearby pond with its flat mirror surface shimmered in the sun. And not a soul was in sight.

Save for a single pony, the area was deserted. Even the nearby street was silent.

A quick glance at her hooves for one last check was followed by a content sigh. The rigid neon pink and black shoes were secured and tight.

The mare let out a breath, waiting for her heartbeat to steady. She adjusted her outfit to feel most comfortable, then cleaned her brow and muzzle with a quick rub of a sweatband.

She brought her forelegs to her head and firmly inserted the small white earphones. She had no need for a helmet. Not at her skill level. It would only be an annoyance.

She looked down on the path before her; it was steep.

Too steep.

But not for her.

She drew in a deep breath.

She muttered a single word-

“Play.”

-and threw herself off the hill.

As her body gathered speed, she moved her lips silently to the lyrics. The mare’s eyes were focused firmly on the path ahead.

Soon, the objects around her were matching the speed of the beat thumping into her ears. The early hour made it easy to navigate the park’s smooth pathway. No passers-by to keep an eye out for.

But she couldn’t afford to grow complacent. Doing that could lead to lapses in concentration. Slips. Accidents. It was not a luxury she was privy to - not here, not on the job.

That didn’t mean she couldn’t have some fun.

With a smooth move of her left legs she sailed diagonally across the pathway, right in time to miss a surprised jogger. They yelled something behind her back, but she was too far away already.

The blasting drums made it easy to not hear the cry of protest anyway.

She didn’t care.

It was not the time to care.

The time and place for that would come later.

A place for everything, and everything in its place. Especially time.

Now was the time to enjoy the simple things.

She smiled to herself as she bent her legs and drew her body closer to the ground, her speed only increasing. The fear had been exterminated years ago; she was content in her abilities.

There was no stopping her.

Not here, not now, not ever.

*****

The shop assistant sat on the uncomfortable chair with a drooping posture. Luckily, the slow graveyard shift was almost over. Only thirty more minutes and he’d be able to get back home, take a nice hot bath and perhaps spend some time with the missus.

A loud beep of the door sensor ripped him out of the daydream. He looked up slowly at the entering pony and forced a fake smile.

The mare was an earth pony. She had a long, loose mane and tail the colour of charcoal. Her coat was of a strange shade, a colour he found impossible to name properly, even when she was standing right in front of him. Maroon? Rose? It was a striking mix of thin purple, pink and gray, and all of that muted like a washed out t-shirt.

She was taller than the average mare. Her body was lean, like that of someone used to light athletics. Her tight fitting sports pants and loose sleeveless shirt didn’t leave much to the imagination. Her sporty appearance was fitting, given she always appeared drenched in sweat and in a set of sleek rollerblades.

But that was not what always caught his attention. Every time she appeared when he was behind the counter, he saw them. He was pretty sure no one could have missed them.

Those eyes.

Those piercing golden eyes. Like the shiniest doubloons from the pirate holovids he had liked so much when he was a colt. He had a wife, a wife that he loved very much. But something drew his attention to them. They were beyond being simply attractive. They were mesmerizing.

Many times hehad found himself lost in them. Luckily she never noticed, or she didn’t care.

Probably for the best.

He was always wondering about her when she dropped by. There were lengthy stretches of time where she walked into the shop day after day to buy an isotonic drink at 5:45 am. Like clockwork. Then she would vanish for weeks, sometimes months, before just reappearing all of sudden one morning like nothing had happened, buying another drink.

Like clockwork.

The stallion watched her awkwardly walk to the freezer on her locked rollerblades, grab her drink - always the same, blueberry - and display the autocash machine. She paid quickly with a swipe of her multiband, gave him a barely noticeable nod and left the shop chugging on the bottle.

They never exchanged a word.

*****

The hazardous material detector blinked a green light as she walked through the guardhouse into the compound. A small gated community on the outskirts of the city, reserved mostly for those with cushy business positions or the retired and wealthy. She was the only pony that was going inside; everyone else was leaving in their shiny premium class e-cars to inevitably be stuck in the morning rush. It never ceased to amuse her.

The bored security guard had been granted a brief glance and a tiny nod. She never bothered to utter a greeting, more as professional habit rather than spite. Getting too friendly with those that were irrelevant to a mission could result in dire consequences.

With the rollerblades hanging around her neck she began to walk towards her flat. It wasn’t far. She just needed to follow the gravel path past the artificial pond. It was still early; the groundskeepers were out and about, cleaning the azure water, trimming the neat rows of conifers and mowing the large open lawns with precise machines. The whole area looked like it was maintained by automatons. Not a pinecone was misplaced, not a bush untrimmed, not a wastebasket filled. She had chosen this place because she liked it that way. Orderly. Organized. Uniform.

Qualities her usual work environment severely lacked.

Following the winding path, she passed by a playground. Spring riders in the shape of colourful cartoon characters, ornate synthwood seesaws, big polymer slides, but most importantly, no foals in sight thanks to the early hour. She didn’t hate children, they were just alien to her. She didn’t know how to deal with them. She had no point of reference.

She had never found the time.

Soon, she reached the building. A four story block of yellow cavorite with subtle steel beam highlights and many balconies sticking out. Just as she was about to input the code to the building’s door she heard a grinding male voice right behind her.

“Wine Glass! He’s done it again! I’ve had it up to my horn with these escapades! Tell him that I did not allow my daughter to marry him so he can throw away the money from her- MY family business willy nilly on such idiotic things like independence!”

The mare turned to the stallion, quickly smiling. “Mister Grape, I am Laser Point. And I am not your daughter. I am your neighbour.”

The elderly unicorn narrowed his eyes at the mare with a visible look of confusion on his face. “Say what missy? I do not recall you ever marrying into the family, you are no daughter of mine.” He pointed a cane-armed hoof at her. “And do not ever think of calling me dad!”

She sighed, slowly walking over to the elderly pony and gently lowering the belligerent cane. “Where is Miss Pitter Patter? Isn’t she supposed to be taking care of you?” The stallion found himself being very slowly rotated away from the flat and towards the nearby trees. “Go back to the park, she must be worried sick about her charge.”

He screwed his face and tapped the cane hard on the concrete. “That skank? I do not care what she thinks, no one will babysit Grape Juice! I have a reputation to uphold!”

“Yes, a reputation of a very hard pensioner. Go back there before she calls for security.”

The stubborn unicorn waved his cane in the air a few times before slowly moving towards the indicated spot. “And you are with her? You lied to me all my life? Damnit, if only Princess Celestia saw how the youth are treating their elders these days she’d banish you to the moon right away!” He turned his head surprisingly quickly for someone of his age and gave the mare an evil eye. “Say, what was your name again?”

The earth pony smiled patiently, lightly nudging him in the direction of the park.. “Feedback Swirl.”

She returned to the door.

Grape Juice could be heard walking away and grumpily vocalizing his displeasure at the current generation as she input the six digit code and entered into the foyer. She passed the glass elevators standing at the ready and made towards the staircase, then with a few quick preliminary steps in place the mare began to jog upwards.

*****

The toughened door smoothly slid open and just as smoothly closed behind her.

The rollerblades were tossed into a corner, soon the shirt and pants followed into the laundry box in the nearby bathroom and the multiband and earphones were put on the shelf by the door.

Her hooves softly clattered on the bocote paneling as she got close to the open doors separating the antechamber from the rest of the apartment. Beyond them was a large room, two stories high. The opposite wall was fully transparent, doubling as a window and showing the neighbourhood. Further beyond the gates and the low urban sprawl, the city. Tall oblong buildings of the downtown, easily visible even from this distance, and even further than that, the jagged peak of Mount Reis. To her right were stairs consisting of nothing but a set of synthwood blocks embedded in the nearby wall, leading to the raised sleeping area and a small private lounge. Under the stairs, a kitchen in a simple yet elegant style, light gray nu-modernistic furniture holding less than a dozen plates and a barely used set of kitchenware. On the far right wall, rows and rows of shelves filled with paper books, more of a fashion statement than a practical collection in this day and age. She did read them from time to time, but the smell and the feel of old paper could not beat the convenience of a simple e-reader.

The left wall was adorned with many intricate metal hangers and holders, the vast majority filled with house plants of all shapes, colours and sizes. A miniscule lizard-like drone was climbing between the fragile leaves and vines, dutifully spraying the plants with hydration agent. The few remaining empty pots were waiting their turn for new occupants from far off worlds in far off nations.

Everyone needed a hobby.

She flexed her neck and shoulders a little, then, with a light heave, she threw herself up on her hindlegs and hooked her left foreleg on the metal bar mounted in the doorframe. Then she took a deep breath and pulled herself up.

One.

Two...

...Three....

She dropped on the floor and gave herself a moment to catch her breath, then looked up at the bar and threw herself back up again. The right one needed work too.

One.

Two...

...Three...

Her forelegs were burning as she returned to the ground. Breathing heavily, she started walking, or more accurately, stumbling, towards the bathroom. As soon as her breathing steadied, she called out.

“Resume playlist.”

A gentle guitar began immediately from the ceiling mounted speakers.

‘I'm on lonely street age nearly three. Recently mama's crying all the time...’

“Stop playlist.” She took a deep breath and exhaled softly. “Change playlist. Chill 2. Play.”

Again, the apartment was filled with soft music, this one purely instrumental. Full of light drums and bi-wave xylophones with a sprinkle of macro synthesizers. The mare nodded with satisfaction as she entered the bathroom, a medium sized room entirely covered in ivory tiles, only the floor made of black marble. With a neutral expression she glanced at her reflection in the big wall mounted mirror and walked into the corner, under a free hanging shower head. She tapped one of the multitude of identical white squares, which blinked to life with a light green holo-interface, then adjusted the settings to ‘Hot’ and ‘Rain/Mist’ before tapping ‘Start’.

The shower hissed and the mare let out a moan more befitting a bedroom as her muscles melted in bliss.

*****

With white towels firmly wrapped around the top of her head and her entire tail, the earth pony stepped out of the bathroom. A different song was playing now, a slow paced ambient track with a lot of grand piano mixed with aggressive use of electronic samples. She looked around the apartment as she prepared a mental checklist for the day, and smiled as she realized it wouldn’t be long.

First: Plant care. They all need to be tended to; the donkey tail would need to be replanted soon and the desert rose would have to be trimmed. The really exotic ones would be fine - she’d taken care of them on tuesday. Often she chuckled to herself when she imagined her coworkers reacting to her taking care of houseplants, rubber gloves on hooves and holding a small trowel, or even the tiny shears needed for the rose. This time was no different.

Second thing on the agenda: one of the window’s false-image holoprojectors had been acting up and she’d rather no one from the outside could actually see in. Of course, she could forward a request to logistics to have them install bulletproof shutters, but she didn’t want a bunch of agency techs milling around her home during her leave. Besides, shutters had an annoying tendency to block sunlight. She could change the holoprojector herself as soon as they delivered a new one.

Lastly: she was out of strawberry jam.

All of those could wait. At least until noon.

She walked upstairs, approached the big modern couch and slowly climbed up. Hindlegs stretched, back propped up with a large satin pillow, she let out a content sigh,

“Television.”

The music stopped, then the transparent wall showing the distant city instantly dimmed. A second later it lit up, showing a handsome stallion in a checkered suit sitting at a desk. To his side, a smaller video feed was visible, showing a crowd of ponies brandishing crude signs and chanting angrily in front of an impressive official-looking building.

“-citizens gathered in front of the Royal Senate to voice their displeasure at the contentious Repopulation Bill which was proposed last week. At the moment, the bill aims to lower yearly income tax for families with at least two children. Princess-Regent Luna is yet to-”

“Television off.”

As the music resumed, the mare sighed again, this time with annoyance.

She narrowed her brows, then reached to the coffee table and picked up an ebook reader. It took her awhile to finally find a desirable position that didn’t irritate one old scar or another, but once she was satisfied, she clicked the reader and opened a page.

‘Chapter 9: Colonel Kraft's Ingenious Plan’

*****

Two chapters in, the mare’s attention was grabbed by a soft jingle coming from the apartment’s speakers. A very particular jingle she had purposefully selected for that specific contact. Without taking her eyes off the reader, she frowned at the audacity of the caller to ruin her leave.

“Accept call.”

The speakers chirped; she didn’t wait for the caller to identify themselves.

“What do you want?”

Even though the voice was purposefully distorted, it was clearly displeased at her lacking discipline, or even common courtesy. “Standard operating protocols require you to ID yourself first.”

Her frown deepened. “You are calling me at home during my free time. The only one I will identify myself to is the Zebrahan restaurant’s delivery drone.” She locked the reader. “This better be important.”

“It is. Eagle Eye has intercepted a message that you might find very interesting.” There was a short pause. “I don’t have the details yet, but it must be related to Snowdrop.”

The lounging mare slowly looked up and put the reader back on the coffee table, then she got off the couch and descended the stairs towards the kitchen. The wall mounted panel blinked, indicating the call was rerouted to this section of the apartment. “COMINT doing their job? That’s a new one. Are they sure it is not some solar flare radiation, system glitch or dud decryption?”

“I made them check thrice, and I also asked Section Twelve to do it too. They are all certain it’s legit.”

She filled the wireless kettle with water and set it on, then opened a cupboard, pulled out a metal mug adorned with stenciled floral patterns and set it down on the counter. “I trust twelve to know their job. Fine, what do you have?”

“It is not about what the message says, it is about where it was sent from...”

The mare was looking through the small ornate porcelain containers on the counter as the distorted voice continued.

“...And to whom it was addressed.”

She finally decided on the content of one of the containers and pulled out a rose scented teabag to drop in the mug. “And who would that be?”

The digital distortion on the caller’s voice failed to mask their consternation. “We have no idea. But we are working on it.”

“Oh. I think I can see where this is going.” She smiled at herself as the orange light on the kettle faded before grabbing it and filling the mug.

“HeadOps wants you to find that out, but that is enough details. I expect to see you in my office in the next two hours.”

She let out a defeated sigh. So much for leisure time. “I’ll see you there then.” The speakers clicked and the soft instrumental music resumed playing. She blew into her mug and took a small sip. Immediately she recoiled as the tip of her tongue was burned.

The mare gave the kettle a flat stare.

“Fucking Sidewinder.”

*****

Eight hours and a short jump later, a reinforced bulkhead opened with a hiss of pressurized air. Behind it, a long tubular corridor was visible. She walked into it at a brisk pace. The other end was nearly three hundred meters away.

To some, the sights the glasteel tube presented would have been breathtaking. Naval Station Tiberius One; the primary anchorage for the Republic fleet, right above the capital planet of Hope. Even though majority of the navy was constantly patrolling the borders of the Republic or based in other, more distant locations, the sights offered never failed to impress newcomers.

All around, the vacuum of space had a strong colouring to it. Swirls of sapphire, midnight blue, ultramarine and everything in between, with tiny dots that were different stars sprinkled all around. White, yellow, orange and red. The Galleon Nebula - named after its appearance bringing an ancient ship of the line to mind when viewed from the far away Equestria.

On her left was a panoramic view of Hope’s southern hemisphere, half of it perpetually covered in darkness, tiny gatherings of faint yellow visible here and there. The other half presented massive mountain ranges and vast clusters of landmasses broken apart by malachite green seas.

Hope was a pristine world not unlike primeval Equestria. Perfect to settle for the exiles, who had turned the virgin planet into their new home away from home over the past three decades. Much of the world was still untouched purely because of the simple fact that the republic’s population had spread very thinly in this sector of the galaxy. There were simply not enough ponies to fully exploit the controlled planets. But they were getting there. It was best visible with Hope.

With a population of roughly half a billion, the planet had only a few dozen major cities, most of them located on the perpetually dark side to accommodate the majority of the bat pony citizens living below. Only the capital city was built on the equator, right where the dark and light sides met. It was entirely possible to drive around the city in circles, thus experiencing sunset and sunrise multiple times in a short span of time.

On her right was a massive orbital station that always brought to mind an image of a flattened spider, dozens of ships attached along the leg-like berths. The Royal Republic Navy was far from the biggest, maybe not even the third biggest given the Crystal League’s aggressive expansion the past few years. But even Nightmare Star’s vast armadas had to be wary of the modern ships of the NLR. Especially since her sister’s followers rarely engaged in a direct confrontation. The RRN was never meant to destroy the enemy in a decisive battle. They were meant to raid logistics, strike high value targets far behind enemy lines, disrupt strategic capabilities of the hostile power, sow chaos and force the superior opponent to scatter. Only so the enemy could be singled out and destroyed in a series of swift strikes.

Lessons learned from eight bloody years of civil war.

That didn’t mean there were no hard hitters however. Closest to the walkway, in the nearby berth, lay a massive dreadnought easily over a kilometer long. Its hull was shaped roughly like an ancient battleaxe, with the bridge at the cutting edge and superheavy mass driver turrets along the ‘shaft’. The pride of the fleet built almost forty years ago, back during a better era. Now upgraded countless times, outfitted with the best offense and defense systems available to the Republic, and sadly the only one of her type on this side of the galactic core. The RRNS Celestia.

Right on the other side of the berth- rested the sleek and modern teardrop shape of a Stormreaver class battlecruiser with its bulbous gravity well generator. The first indigenous supercapital design of the fledgling republic.

Two berths away, as if purposefully isolated, rested a strike carrier, dwarfed by its supercapital sisters in arms. Merely three hundred meters long. Either Princess Cadance or Shining Armour. The only two of their class. It was hard to tell which one was it from this distance.

Among them, near and far,was a multitude of smaller capital and sub capital ships.

A single mobile shipyard, a squadron of missile destroyers guarded by an electronic warfare frigate, a cruiser sized fleet tanker, orbital bombardment monitors. All were being resupplied or repaired, docking or undocking, or simply waiting for their next assignment.

And in space, around them all, dozens of various corvettes and even smaller craft. Venoms, Banshees, Vertigos. Even a couple Harpies long withdrawn from frontline service, now retrofitted and affectionately nicknamed ‘salvettes’.

The mare didn’t pay an ounce of attention to any of this. In fact, the only thing that occupied her mind was the duffel bag on her side, filled with essential supplies. Going to the Periphery always meant that she had to pack heavy, and carrying one of those all the way from the shuttle depot was not a pleasant task.

Walking the full length of the corridor took her well over a minute. As always, at the end there was a single security bulkhead with two guards standing up front in full zero-g combat gear. She was just about to walk through the door when one of the helmeted ponies stood in her way. His opaque visor stared down as his electronically tainted voice rang out.

“Halt! Turn around and go back where you came from, miss. This area is for clearance zero personnel only.”

The mare very slowly shifted her gaze from the ground and pierced the overzealous guard with her golden eyes. She calmly reached into a front pocket of her tacsuit and withdrew a plastic ID card. Before she could fully show it to the guard, he was shoved away by his companion.

The other guard stood at attention with rigidness that would make a statue blush. He saluted sharply with one of his leathery wings and barked out.

“Good evening ma’am. I apologize for my partner; he was transferred here recently from the surface.” The smart guard quickly moved himself from the way, allowing her to go through the door.

The mare made an ‘o’ face and looked at the newcomer before returning to the second guard. “At ease Master Sergeant.” She hid her ID again and walked through the door.

Just as they were about to close, she heard an annoyed voice behind her.

“You absolute reta-”

The door shut with a hiss.

*****

The mare smelled the air with a deep breath as she relaxed on the perfectly fitting seat. The suited pony allowed herself a smile when her nostrils caught a whiff of silicone mixed with aloe. She closed her eyes and slacked all the muscles she could. Only the soft humm of the reactor somewhere behind her existed now; nothing else mattered at this precise moment.

Then she thought of her mission, of her contacts, of her plans, of her backup plans. The mental checklist was being ticked nearly as fast as it was appearing. Finally, she took another deep breath, opened her eyes and keyed the radio.

“Tiberius flight control this is Paladin. Requesting undock clearance at berth D-nineteen. Over.”

The reply was quick and to the point. “Paladin this is Tiberius, you are cleared for departure at D-nineteen. Assume vector two-two-seven by negative nine-zero until the perimeter break and egress spinwards. Over.”

The mare started flipping the multitude of switches on the console in front of her. “Understood flight control. two-two-seven by negative nine-zero. Paladin departing now.” She quickly keyed the coordinates into the nav unit and slightly pushed the throttle forward.

The superstructure on the other side of the tinted canopy began to move. Soon, it disappeared behind her.

“Separation successful. Tiberius flight control out. Good hunting.”

She allowed herself a tiny smirk as she pushed the throttle further and heard the humm from behind intensify.

*****

Only the dark blues of the nebula and the distant stars lay ahead of her. Not even the sensors picked up any contacts in range. A quick glance between all the status displays for one last check was followed by a content sigh.

She looked down at the job before her; it was tough.

Too tough.

But not for her.

She drew in a deep breath.

She muttered a single word-

“Play.”

-and initialized the magicdrive sequence.

She moved her lips silently to the same lyrics again as the space in front of Regulus flickered and the dimensional rift began to open.

‘Would you take a bullet? Would you bite the gun?’

The mare’s eyes were focused firmly on the path ahead.

‘Through the fire I'll keep burning on.’

Castle of Glass

View Online

Castle of Glass

Written by Napalm Goat

*****

When was it? When was the first time?
Was it before or after my first assignment? So long ago. A year? Two? A decade?

It was summer.

I remember… I remember standing there and looking at it all. Clean. Freshly renovated. Was the furniture in there already or did I bring my own? The Agency, I got it from them, I think. They care for their people. They have to. Especially after that mess with-.

Poor girl. Couldn’t handle the pressure. Hopefully her family moved on.

What was her name? Cloudy? Sunny something?

Donkey Tail.

I was so proud of them, one fully grown and potted under my foreleg and a couple of saplings resting in the basket. I couldn’t wait to settle in and plant them, and the others too of course. Maybe hang them on that wall over there? I’d have to order some hangers then. But maybe it would be best to go out myself? Find the local flower shop, get acquainted with the neighbourhood?

No, not in this heat. I had enough heat for the whole year after that survival exercise.

Heat? Not heat. Rain.

The flash of lightning shook me out of my musings. Beyond the window I could see the far away city, its brightly lit buildings shining through the darkness. The flowing droplets on the other side of the glass made the huge hanging neon signs appear to dance and weave to the drumming of the rain.

I leaned back on the seat, sipped from the glass and listened to the rain. The storm outside occasionally banished the room’s darkness with a distant flash. My nose picked up a hint of fresh dirt from the recently hung pots. My limbs were slacked pleasantly as I lounged on the soft cushions.

Easel was right; it was worth it. And how convenient!

I looked over my shoulder at my guest. One of the most handsome bats I had ever hooked up with, if not the most. But now he was leaving.

Tall, fit, but not overly muscular, with that amazing roguish smile. If I had a normal job I could see myself falling for him.

He put on his leather jacket and winked with one of those slitted emerald eyes. “I’d stay for the night, but I have a job to do, pretty.”

Giggling and nearly spilling the cocktail, I half turned and pointed a hoof at him. “We had our fun charmer. You can drop the act!”

He just shrugged and walked over, the lightning illuminating his silhouette. “It’s not an act. I am one hundred percent genuine.” He stopped on the side of the chair, extended his neck and gently pecked my cheek.

I giggled again, but it was cut short as I felt his leathery wing brush the inside of my thigh. “Now you are getting cheeky.” I regained my senses and playfully swatted with my foreleg. “Get out of here!”

I watched him strut towards the door. No, I did not just watch. I ogled his flank like a starving mouse would a piece of cheese.

With a roll of my eyes I put the wine on the table and followed to see him out.

The door opened with a hiss. He stopped in the threshold, turned around and watched me come closer with a smile. Once I stopped before him, he wiggled his eyebrows and simultaneously flapped his wings once. Then, he leaned close yet again, as close as before. His eyes were the only feature I could see as he whispered, dead serious. “What do you know about Snowdrop?”

Lightning struck right in the park under my windows. I winced at its roar and shut my eyes tight out of reflex. When I opened them again my companion was as blank as before, its featureless faceplate staring through my head.

“Thank you for using our services. If you enjoyed this unit’s performance we can offer you a discount on the monthly sub-”

I pressed the button and shut the door in the pondroid’s face. Easel was right, it was worth it. But it lacked something. I chuckled to myself in amusement. “A goodnight kiss most likely.”

Slowly I walked back to the living room, made myself comfortable in the seat and idly rubbed my fetlocks, then grabbed the glass and took a sip of my whiskey. “Resume playlist.”

‘The lunatic is on the grass…’

Downtown looked beautiful covered in snow.

*****

This getup sure was a new experience. I didn’t mind, not at all. How often did I get to wear something that annihilated the notion of function?

Worn khaki poncho?
Check.
Tight iridescent one piece?
Check.
Baggy rainbow sequin pants (with obligatory generous cutouts for cutie marks)?
Check.
Fluorescent paste on said cutie marks?
Check.
Silvery reflective horseshoes?
Check.
Chemlight collar?
Check.
Perfectly placed face jewels?
Check.
Animated optical fibers running through mane and tail?
Check
Attenuation filter ear plugs?
Check.

And a very special necklace.

Check.

It was quiet. A little self discipline, and you could filter out any noise. After this short moment of clarity, I decided it was time to get going. I released my breath and focused my senses outwards.

The world regained its sounds one more time.

Like a freight train, the roar of music and the noise of over three thousand people filled my ears. Screaming, yelling, talking and laughing. Despite this, the thumping electronic beat was palpable.

‘You get a phone call from the queen with a hundred heads.’

I took a deep breath and opened my eyes.

All the colours of the rainbow, periodic table and the galaxy were before me. Ponies, griffins and zebra among others. Their coats and their outfits were just as extravagant as mine, if not more so. Towering colourful chapeus, flowing floral robes, obscenely high platform boots, vast amounts of intricate jewelry and the ubiquitous chemlights.

And above them all, a stadium-sized glassteel skylight ran over the sea of people, offering a view into the cosmos.

Space. Infinite, black and red and blue and green. And right in the center, an apple sized disc, made of smudged colours from the ether around it, with thousands of tiny white dots packed tightly in a thick ring surrounding it. The further from the muddled center they were, the less cramped the dots appeared, until they finally transitioned into normal starscape, far enough away for light to escape the insatiable appetite of the cosmic devourer.

And below it all, sheltered by mere inches of glassteel was a sea of people partying on the edge of infinity. There were the searchlights, lasers and holograms, flickering, spinning and weaving to the rhythm. All of them constantly shifting patterns, colour and intensity, changing the floor into an ecstasy fueled kaleidoscope that perfectly blended with the music. And between all of this equipment, in the middle of the stage a hundred meters before me, a duo of bat pony stallions behind a huge table, headphones on, forelegs dancing on the consoles.

The air was filled with soap bubbles lazily falling down, heedless of the crowd’s collective energy. I smiled as I watched the colourful stage lasers reflect in those small shimmering orbs, like miniature supernovas.

All around me, huge metal bulkheads - easily thirty meters tall - were covered in sound absorbing material. Here and there, an archway or other passage led into one of many side corridors and rooms.

The ship used to be a bulk cargo transport long ago. Now it was repurposed as a mobile festival and concert arena, currently orbiting Light’s End at a distance most space travel agencies would find in grave violation of the widely accepted common sense and ship operation safety standards.

I took another breath and began walking, bouncing my body to the music. It was surprisingly easy; as soon as others saw my outstretched foreleg they took a step to the side, just enough to let me pass. Amusingly, no one tried to ‘accidentally’ grope me. A welcome change in comparison to the last job at a similar event.

“What were they called again? Something about a metal boot.” I spoke loudly to myself, not that I could hear it.

The beat intensified, and the crowd reacted in turn. Even I stopped limiting myself to just bobbing my head and shoulders up and down, and began swaying. Hips and all.

It took me a good five minutes to get to my destination, but finally I approached a duo of gruff looking minotaurs flanking a large open hatch labeled AC1609. They looked hilariously out of place. Cheap black uniforms covered them from head to hoof. One of them looked down at me questioningly. I showed him a simple red synthetic band on my fetlock. He squinted his eyes at it, barked something I couldn’t hope to hear and motioned for me to enter as I gave him a sweet smile and went in. Behind the doors, a set of short metal stairs led me up and above the main floor, and onto a relatively small, open platform. A crowd of people was here too, all wearing the same bands as I.

I quickly scanned the area. It was quite a sight. Not only was it a miniature copy of the crowd below, it also had quite a few unique amenities the main floor did not possess. Namely, tables with bottles of champagne in sleek ice-filled buckets, standing right next to neat lines of white powder arranged by length and thickness. Quite a few of them clearly in various stages of consumption. Young waiters and waitresses in brave clothing patrolled the floor, refilling the buckets and contractually giggling at an occasional haughty look or slap to the flank. On the sides, large circular cages held mares and stallions who bent and weaved in tune with the booming music. Right above the middle, just barely out of reach from the floor, a slim zebra mare was suspended upside down. Her hindlegs spread horizontally in a perfect line, somehow holding onto a hanging hoop above her. A red semi transparent ribbon was barely wrapped around her body, covering what little modesty she still had. She held a part of it between her teeth, grinning at an infatuated deer buck who was fruitlessly trying to bite down the very end of it.

The deer buck I came here for.

He appeared young for a deer, mainly because of his modest antlers which were entirely covered in pinkish glitter. His coat was light gray, almost white in colour, though most of it was hidden by an unbuttoned shirt with a floral pattern. Other than that, he wore what appeared to be a standard set of accessories for such an event. A pair of shutter shades with colourful animated LEDs, simple pieces of expressive jewelry; mostly plastic and glowing or reflective one way or another, and to top it all, his hindlegs were covered by sporty shin guards.

An increase in the music’s tempo shook me back to the present. I instinctively resumed swiveling before looking around. A large bar counter with a trio of tenders on the other side was nested opposite the main stage. I made my way towards it, and waited for the buck to have his fun.

Thankfully the space by the counter wasn’t crowded. Enough to blend in, but not enough to lose sight of my quarry. I stood sideways to be able to see the main stage, and by extension, the deer.

Even in this VIP lounge it was obvious the music was the main attraction, with people dancing and cheering, no doubt their enthusiasm fueled by alcohol among other indulgences. I couldn’t say it was my type of tune, but I couldn’t lie and say the universal energy radiating from the crowd and the performers did not put me in a giddy mood. It was… infectious.

“What'll it be miss!?”

The bartender’s shout got my attention. I leaned over the counter and yelled back. “Ring up a Vesper!”

The griffin nodded in an overexaggerated manner, making sure to signal to me that she understood, then quickly started prepping my drink.

I turned my back to the counter and leaned on it, then grabbed a strand of my mane and twirled it playfully. A large unicorn in a colourful blouse walked right beside me. He was moving slowly, bouncing and bobbing his head only very slightly.

I let go of my mane and giggled before muttering under my breath. “A for effort, soldierboy.”

As the stallion walked past, I rolled my eyes and shook my head in amusement. If you were trying to stay undercover, do not watch everyone like a hawk. And most definitely do not pack anything bigger than a thirty-eight.

Amateurs.

I threw my head back, closed my eyes and listened.

‘That he could wish himself health on a four-leaf clover.’

I could have sworn I heard those lyrics in some ancient and very different song before. No matter.

The beat that came right after did the trick, and I heard the excited yelling of the crowd all around me. I couldn’t help but lightly throw my loose mane around. Partially to blend in, but mostly because it was just plain fun.

A light tap on my back broke me out of my reverie. Reluctantly, I looked over my shoulder to see the bartender pointing at my now filled glass. I gave her a quick nod before swiping my bracelet on the portable terminal in the griffin’s hand and grabbing my cocktail.

A sip of the bitter liquid, just enough to feel its coarse burn, and it was time to go.

Show time.

I took off and made my way to the opposite end of the platform. The buck was by the railing, stomping, swaying and tossing his head around. Lost in trance. I really could not blame him.

Weaving between other party goers, tables and the staff, I managed to get to the railing. With friendly smiles and a bit of elbow grease I finally reached the very front, stopping right next to my target.

One more step and an accidental tumble later, the contents of my glass landed straight on his shoulder.

He jumped, startled, looked at me through his flashing LED shades, and made a surprised expression.

I quickly grabbed the edge of my poncho and started rubbing it against his coat. “I am so sorry! I am such a goof!”

He looked annoyed for just a split second, just long enough before he noticed my rich golden eyes. As he did, his expression became neutral. Then, the corners of his mouth went upwards. The song was ending by now, but I still barely registered what he said.

“Hey! No problem!”

I’ve put on my best innocent smile I could muster. “Sorry, sorry! I shouldn’t have come all the way here! It’s too tight to just stand and drink!”

His smile grew into a grin as he waved a foreleg, dismissing the notion. “You should really fasten your seatbelts in this place girl! Come on, stay and have fun! I promise I will get you a new one later!”

His obvious wink was all the confirmation I needed to know that he thought I was his now.

More precisely, it was what I wanted him to think.

After one of the burly unicorns the deer waved over took my now empty glass, I graciously nodded and smiled some more. I then put a hoof on his shoulder, drawing him close enough to not have to yell. Once I got his attention, I pointed the other hoof towards the stage. “Who are these guys anyway!?”

He looked at me briefly, then at the stage. “Oh them!? I am not sure, first time hearing them! Some kind of art bats!”

“I think I like them! Are they going to go on for long!?”

The buck glanced at his multiband and tapped it twice. His response was drowned out by the roaring cheers of a couple thousand throats as the tune passed its climax. “...nding! The next set is the bomb! You don’t want to miss that!”

I gave him a few quick nods. “Oh yeah! I am not alone in that! That’s what I’m here for!” I had little knowledge of what he was talking about. “You want to get me that drink before it begins!?”

Out here, there was no such thing as the beginning or end, just periods of slowdown for resting. The event was running for three days in a row, but right now was the ultimate concentration of the party. The peak of freedom. The depths of hedonism. The supernova of pleasure. I’ve spent the last three and a half hours looking for this deer. No intel, be it Republic or Imperial, could have tracked him down this precisely. Not in this place. Torann Corcra, also known as the Fading Halo, eldest son of the owner of the most powerful big pharma megacorp in Avalon. Ninety nine point nine percent of all the drugs at this party were made in his father’s laboratories.

But that was not why I was seeking him out. Arrest him for drug trafficking? I was not here to play cops and robbers. A month ago, one of our missing Avalon agents was finally found. More precisely, his hindlegs and a roach infested torso had been found. In three separate waste barrels no less. Sloppy, not something a rival agency would do. But a mob? Section Twelve finally found out who was responsible. Looked like daddy decided to change sides.

It was time to return the favour.

I flashed my eyebrows. “Come on! Before they start playing the good stuff!” They were already playing the good stuff, but I had to take my chance before Torann was lost in the zone again.

Tugging at his antler playfully, I headed for the counter. He quickly followed.

Of course he would.

I reached the bar first, turned around and waited for the buck with a playful smile. Once he rejoined me, he waved one of the bartenders who dropped whatever she was doing and immediately approached the deer. She knew who he was, that much was obvious.

“Hey Ringo! Aquileian Light!”

The bartender nodded and yelled back, eyes still on the buck. “And for the lady!?”

He looked at me with a coy smirk. I held his gaze with a smile. “Lake City Coup!”

The bartender disappeared as quickly as she appeared, not that he noticed. I think he was lost somewhere between yellow and gold.

The music was picking up again, but it was obvious it was just a slower piece intended to let the crowd rest since the last performance.

I grabbed a strand of my mane and played with it in my hoof, all the while staring into the buck’s soul. “You’re a regular, aren’t you!?”

The sound of his chuckle was covered by the fast beat. “I’ve been around! Here, Highlands, Radar, Yesterdayland, Sunset, Moonburn… The list goes on!” He puffed his chest out proudly.

I opened my mouth in awe. “Wow! I haven’t been to any big ones yet! Unless you count this! You’re a vet!”

The deer was beaming; that did the trick. “You won’t find this kind of fun anywhere else!” He lowered his eyes for a moment before looking at me again. This time however, Torann wasn’t looking at me like he would have had at a new toy; his gaze was focused inwards. As if he was reflecting on a philosophical dilemma, or lecturing a neophyte. “In this kind of music the beautiful thing is that it is not hurrying along! There are no verses, no chorus, no refrain, everyone can just experience it as they please! It's just... music!”

Before I could have answered, our attention was grabbed by the bartender. We took the two tinted glasses filled with with our respective orders.

The deer spoke again. “Are you going to finally tell me your name or do I have to get you more drinks?”

I brought my drink to lips before giggling at his question. “Oh yes! I am Memory Lane!”

He nodded, tapped his glass and smiled charmingly. “My name’s Torann Corcra, Purple Noise in deerspeek! A pleasure!” The buck raised his drink with a wink.

Half closing my eyes with a warm smile I brought up mine and we clinked our glasses together.

“Well, Miss Memory Lane!” He downed his entire drink in one go. “Let’s PARTY!”

“Woohoo!” I followed suit and threw one of my forelegs into the air.

This was bad. I was supposed to drop the pill into the drink and conveniently vanish. Not get smashed and listen to whatever the fuck kind of trance this was with a soon to be a very stiff druglord.

Torann put his glass on the counter, then did the same with mine. Then, he grabbed me by my shoulder, before gently pulling me into the crowd.

I habitually touched the piece of jewelry on my neck. I had to try again later, or come up with another option. Close enemies, I supposed.

As he pulled me along between the colourful partygoers, I felt the warmth reaching my stomach. The last time I drank anything stronger than a beer was… I didn’t remember. The blasting music’s tempo quickly matched my own heartbeat. This time it was faster than before, even more energetic. It didn’t take long for it to unfurl. I could hear the crowd singing in unison.

‘Reach up to the sky above. Higher like you can't get enough.’

He pulled me along. There were noticeably more people here now. Figures. It was the hour where the really good stuff started. Soon, we found ourselves surrounded by partying people.

But we weren’t going to the platform’s railing. The deer was dragging me towards the stairs leading out of the VIP lounge.

“Where are we going!?”

Torann yelled without turning around to look at me. “That was just an entrée! We’re going to the main floor! Trust me!”

I quickly looked around, trying to spot the heat packing stallions, but they were nowhere to be seen. I couldn’t remember if that was good or bad. But I knew I had to stay close to the deer.

We gracefully weaved through the crowd, running down the stairs two steps at a time. Then, headed for the main floor, right under the massive glassteel roof. The buck held my hoof gently, but securely enough to not lose touch. Minute after minute, drop after drop, beat after beat, we made our way into the middle of the huge crowd, perhaps twenty meters from the stage.

The crowd here was dense, but there was enough room to stand freely. More importantly, there was enough room to throw oneself around, which Torann immediately started to do.

I couldn’t afford to stand out.

‘And then you bring it back.’

We couldn’t get drinks here. How was I supposed to give him the poison? I had to figure out something, and fast.

I was probably the only person on the floor right now that was thinking. Not that others were incapable. They were just… gone. Consumed by rhythm, lights and each other’s bliss. The closeness of another, be it lover, friend or a total stranger. All were lost, heedless of the world at large. Their daily burdens, issues, monotony. All were away, far from here. Just for this weekend. It was good.

I drew in a sharp breath as the beat slowed down.

Closeness. That was it. Risky. Extremely so. But I had a job to do.

Alternating between my four legs weaving, stomping and twisting, I sidestepped closer to the buck. Close enough to brush my side against his coat.

He looked at me with a smile and turned it into a grin. “This is awesome! COME ON!” With a quick reach, he hooked his foreleg over my shoulder and began swaying left and right in tune.

My laugh was drowned out by the music as I followed suit. “YOU’RE RIGHT!” Turning to the deer, I lidded my eyes and grinned. “I’m glad I’m here with you Torann!”

He lifted his LED glasses and looked into my eyes with an expression of gratitude. It took him a short moment to finally escape the sea of gold. “The night’s still young! But something already tells me it will be unforgettable!”

I couldn’t help but cover my muzzle with a hoof and laugh. It’d been a while since someone looked at me like that.

I thought.

Damned alcohol.

We embraced each other and laughed as the song transitioned. But instead of letting go, I pushed the deer away forcefully and laughed at his confusion. “How about that other drink you promised me!?”

He balked at me for a split second before bursting out in laughter. “Oh so you are that kind of mare!? Don’t worry! I have something better!” He slowed down his swaying and reached a hoof into the small satchel around his midsection, rummaged there for a moment and pulled out two tiny wraps of tinfoil.

I could see them clearly. I instantly knew what they were. After all, he was a specialist.

Torann slowly unwrapped one of the packages, licked his hoof and put it into the foil. Then he lifted it and pointed at my muzzle. A small pale orange pill was sticking to it. Shaped… like an owl?

“Nothing serious, not some insane tranquilizer! Just enough to make you fire on all cylinders!” He turned the hoof around, opened his muzzle and started to move it to his mouth.

Quickly, I reached out and grabbed his foreleg. He looked at me in surprise as I turned it around, gave him a devious smile and licked the pill off it.

It immediately sucked out all the moisture from my mouth, and was by far the single most bitter thing I ever swallowed.

The buck raised his eyebrows high before chuckling, at least I thought he was chuckling, not that I heard anything. “What about me!?” He leaned down and began to carefully unwrap the other packet.

That was my chance. I turned to the side and grabbed my necklace. A small, wooden crescent moon on a linen string, holding a shiny gemstone. Grabbing it with both hooves I clicked the gemstone and from the other side another pill fell out. This one white and round. I quickly put it in my mouth. I knew it was safe; the chemical compound was tailored to deer DNA. An earth pony like me would end up in a street corner and puke for the rest of the night, but for a deer like Torann it would be lethal. After all, it was made by his own father’s company.

Turning quickly back to my quarry I called out. “You fed me mine, how about I feed you yours!?”

I could see the cogs in his head turning. Once he got it, he grinned and passed me his pill.

Quickly, I grabbed the owl and deposited it in my mouth.

I was going to regret this later.

Holding the necklace pill between my teeth, I swallowed the disgusting drug, then shifted the white pill between my lips… And threw myself at the buck. Forelegs around each other’s shoulders, our lips met passionately and I wasted no time in pushing my tongue, and the pill, deep inside his mouth.

We stood like that for a long time. He was busy trying to feel the inside of my muzzle. I was making sure he swallowed the pill. I would have lied if I said I did not enjoy it. He was a cute young buck.

But a job is a job.

Finally, once I was certain Torann had gulped down the pill, we broke off, breathing heavily and shaking. He grinned at me like a colt who just had his first kiss.

I smiled and waved my mane in return. “Wow! This thing is really dry! Get us some water, will you!?”

The buck nodded eagerly, leaned in close and gave me a smooch on the cheek before leaving. “I’ll be right back!”

Too easy.

As soon as I was sure the deer was out of sight, I turned towards the stage and began pushing through the crowd. All I had to do was extract without him finding me, get a gastric lavage, and it was back to the NLR for some well earned rest.

I had to take the long route back. Get to the stage, then to the side, and skirt the edges of the crowd as far away from the VIP lounge as possible. I did not want to run into his bodyguards. They would surely be on the lookout for his lovebird once he realised I was not waiting for him.

The crowd was even denser here. No matter. The less obvious the route, the better.

I could hear the shift in the music’s tempo; a new piece transitioned, and judging by the crowd’s ecstatic reaction to the high, almost coy female voice, it was a banger. Stopping briefly, I cast my sight backwards to where I last saw the deer. There was no sight of him. Instead, I saw hundreds if not thousands of grinning, blissful faces. I couldn’t help but crack a smile at the scene - it grew and grew. As soon as the lyrics started, I saw nearly everyone following along.

‘Our hearts tend to wander’

Such a fascinating place.

Facing the stage again, I looked at their idol. A griffin female, barely visible from behind the huge console. Fortunately, her station was televised live from multiple angles on the many screens hanging all around the venue. The ashen red griffin’s image alternated between colourful outlandish visualizations and shots of the colourful crowd.

I stood there, staring at it all. Even as an outsider I felt like I belonged. There was no judgement here, no prejudice, no hate or ridicule. Everyone could enjoy the event, everyone was welcome.

It made me feel happy.

My legs felt like they were made from putty.

And my face was graced with the biggest smile I’d ever felt.

I was certain.

I threw my head backwards and stared at the madly spinning spectacle behind the tinted glassteel. The pale blue jets of the pulsar’s emissions weaved as only a young filly’s braids could. In the middle, where they met, a tiny dot of brightest white radiated like no ordinary star ever could hope to accomplish. I was hypnotized.

‘Set yourself free!’

The crowd EXPLODED.

I was swept away by their ecstasy, yelling and cheering like so many others around me. Finally, I unglued my eyes from the distant star’s red glow and looked towards the stage, at a multitude of screens. The pegasus was still at it, then the image on the screens shifted. An overhead shot of the whole crowd. Then it shifted again. A heavily stylized negative colour visualization of what I guessed was the ship itself, floating through a psychedelic rendition of the cosmos.

With wobbling muscles I hefted myself up to stand on my hindlegs and threw my forelegs up.

A golden rush.

The bright moving lights of the stage had an almost perceivable aura around them, as if I could have touched the shine. I balanced on my hindlegs and reached out to touch it.

‘Welcome back agent Whisper Step, ready for another round?’

The smooth, brazen male voice echoed through my skull.

Smiling, I look at the gigantic screen behind the stage, the only one present. It was clearly visible, the whole floor was dark, with only occasional, electric hot searchlights shifting through the blackness.

On the screen, a pair of emerald slitted eyes.

Unblinking.



Peering straight at me.



The chorus exploded again.

‘Snowdrop. Tell me what you know about Snowdrop.’

I grin at the eyes. They are beautiful.



My fetlocks start to itch.

*****

The job was supposed to be a simple snatch and grab. Get to the university, quietly grab the professor - by force if necessary - get back to the extract point and wait for pickup.

Of course no one expected a squadron of hyper advanced pursuit robots to crash our plans. I was on the run from the moment I snatched the zebra, at least fifteen minutes ago. We managed to make our way out of campus and into a more isolated area, but they were not letting up.

I could hear the flechettes hit our cover as I shouted into the radio. “Damnit Sir, I need some help!” The rushing wind all around me made it hard to hear anything else.

The voice in my ear was calm, but the level of intensity it carried only reinforced how serious the situation was. “We’re working on it Paladin. Get to the top of the temple, we’ll have a dropship pick you up.”

I nodded, knowing well that the many telescoping cameras watching me from the orbit would not be enough to let the voice know I understood. “What in Luna’s name are those three legged freaks?”

The voice was quick to reply. “Unknown. Their profile doesn’t match anything the Caliphate might have in service.”

I let out a blind burst from my SMG over the pile of construction materials I was using for cover, then pulled out and primed my last EMP grenade before lobbing it over towards my pursuers. The electric zap of an explosion was clearly heard from here. “Empire?”

“Unlikely, nothing suggests they are involved in this operation.” The voice paused, then continued with a tinge of annoyance. “We don’t know who made them or who sent them.”

I took a deep breath and counted what remained in my ammo pouch. It should last. “Great.”

Finally, for the first time since the tireless hunters appeared, I properly regarded my mission objective. An elderly zebra, wearing pure white flowing robes with golden filigree, now a little dusty from the chase. He was thin, nearly emaciated, I was not sure if that was because of some sickness or old age. His milky white eyes were staring into space, somewhere I could not hope to perceive. Every time I looked at them, I felt like I was being dragged in deeper and deeper. Something was telling me I would not have liked where I would end up at. Was that how others felt when they looked at me?

I did not know who he was, other than some high ranking scholar the Agency wanted to have. Frankly, I did not care, and even if I did, there was no way to know. The stallion did not speak a word of Equestrian.

“Paladin, looks like they retreated. Keep moving.”

“Roger that Emperor!” I peeked over our cover. The pursuers were gone, at least for the moment. With a slight nudge I brought the zebra up and we started moving again. He wasn’t resisting, even though I had just kidnapped him straight from his lunch break. All we had to do was to extract. Easy enough.

That had been the case until those things appeared out of nowhere. I had counted at least eight, but once we get out into the open, Emperor had confirmed it was just five. They were just very, very good at teamwork and misdirection.

They were also nearly bulletproof and could take full advantage of the urban terrain thanks to their agility and articulated limbs. With some effort, I'd managed to down two of them with EMP grenades, but the others seemed to have gotten wise to my tricks.

That is why we had run here. Al-Bayir, the biggest and oldest university in the Caliphate. A prestigious centre of learning and knowledge, both secular and religious. A shining pearl of early post-colonization zebra architecture, its three hundred plus meter golden dome we were currently climbing dominated the city’s skyline and, conveniently, offered the biggest open space where our pursuers could not exploit their strengths. Fortunately, the building was undergoing renovation and was currently covered in scaffolding and repair gantries. The machines had to follow them to the top, same as we. It was also devoid of any workers thanks to an important holiday.

I quickly checked again if the robots were gone. Once I was sure I didn’t see any, I helped the old stallion along. He mumbled something I could not understand in protest, but started moving anyway. We quickly followed the narrow path made of prefab support segments, drawing closer and closer to the temporary landing platform at the very top.

The scaffolding was spiraling around the bulbous dome, but fortunately we had already passed the point of biggest diameter. Each bend of the upwards spiral was becoming shorter and shorter. I had to stop every now and then to allow the zebra to catch his breath; each time I expected an inevitable ambush. It never came.

After a few more rounds I spotted a platform extending from the scaffolding that held workers’ equipment and supplies. We crouched down behind bags of dry plaster. “Emperor do you have a visual on the hostiles? I cannot see any of them.”

“We’re scanning all spectra but so far nothing, it’s like they vanished. Stay alert.”

“Understood. I have to hold here so the VIP does not kee-”

The serene zebra suddenly whipped his head to the side and stared into empty space with alarm. I followed suit, but there was nothing.

Then, in a blink of an eye, a form took shape. Pale white, I saw an inverted conical body shimmer into being. It lifted up, standing on three well-articulated legs, until it stood easily over a meter taller than I was. A glowing robotic eye was mounted on a rail around the middle of the cone and a flechette launcher was attached to its top like a turret. But for all the uncanny valley in that shifting eye, it was the small pair of eerily organic griffish talons hanging from the bottom of the cone, grasping and feeling the air that sent shivers down my spine.

I brought up my weapon and dumped the whole mag’. They were nearly bulletproof, but that did not mean they were invincible. Majority of my bullets ricocheted off the conical body, but those that hit managed to hurt it. It’s robotic eye was shattered and one of its leg servos was torn at its base. The machine staggered, screeched, and after a few shaky steps fell to the ground. I winced as I watched the small griffish arms still reaching out and clutching helplessly, even after the rest of the robot had been ruined. Two down to EMP, one to plain old bullets, two to go.

I took a deep breath.

Less than a second later.

‘Thwip! thwip! thwip!’

It was a distraction.

I felt a sharp pain in my side as the force of impact made me gasp for breath. The flechettes embedded themselves in my carapace and started glowing, faster and faster. Frantically I attempted to dislodge them, but I was too late to get them all.

As I reached for the third one, the glow became constant and the blue end of the projectile exploded in an electrical discharge.

Over a blink of an eye I could feel the wave of the shock travel from the flechette’s tip through skin, through muscle, searing every nerve it found along the way, then all over my side, spilling over my torso. I whipped my tail as all my muscles spasmed. I felt the insides of my teeth cry out in pain.


I don’t know how long I screamed.


I fell to my knees as the shock ended and my muscles gave up. I found myself staring forward, eyes wide. Drawing in fast and shallow breaths. My heart was racing. The machine that shocked me was gone.

“-adin respond! What is your situation!?” Emperor’s concerned voice thundered in my left ear.

“Dey hafe-” I balked. My tongue was burned. The shock must have boiled my saliva.

I forced myself to swallow. “They have some sort of cloaking device, that is why you couldn’t see them!”

“Shit. Get to the landing pad right now. Exfil in three minutes.”

“On it!” I turned to the zebra and grabbed his robes, pulling him along. “Come on old man!”

Two more levels. We ran as fast as the old stallion’s legs allowed, far below the speed I'd normally keep when being hunted. Every now and then the zebra would start mumbling something under his breath. After a minute, I realized he was chanting, words I couldn’t understand, nor cared for. All I needed from him was that he cooperated and followed me to the top.

We ran and ran. I didn’t bother checking every nook and cranny of the extensive scaffolding. If the robots were capable of cloaking, all I could do from now on, was to anticipate their moves and react to their ambushes.

The curve of the dome revealed another platform ahead. I stuck out my foreleg to tap the zebra and we slowed down. He looked at me with his piercing eyes, then at the platform and said something questioningly.

“That is where I would wait too, old man.” Checking my ammo I started to move slowly ahead, my weapon’s holo-sight close to my eye. Despite the howling wind and the hustle and bustle of the metropolis below I found myself whispering. “Emperor, anything on sensors?” The zebra wisely held back.

“Scope’s clean. They are hiding.”

“I don't think that is much better. They know you are watching. I am pushing in.” I just hoped there was a limit on how long they could stay hidden.

The platform was maybe the size of a typical living room. My left side was covered by the golden wall of Al-Bayir’s dome; ahead were stairs to the next level. On the right, beyond the platform’s railing, open sky.

I stepped carefully onto the platform, prefab components groaning under my weight. There was no sight nor sound of the prowling robots. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, relaxed my muscles and focused. The distant hum of the city and the rush of the wind slowly dulled out into silence.

I could hear the zebra’s quiet chanting.

My footsteps.

My heartbeat.

The creak of a floorboard, two o’clock.

Immediately I opened my eyes and leapt to the side.

‘Thwip! thwip! thwip!’

They tried the same trick again, but this time I was not there.

Bringing myself up, I aimed at the machine I heard. It hadn’t finished decloaking yet, and I was not planning to let it. Thirty rounds later it collapsed in on itself on the platform. I could hear its brother galloping away on the scaffolding above.

One more.

I stood up and walked over to where the zebra was hugging the golden wall. “Downed another one, Emperor. There is one hostile left, it ran away.” Reaching out I pulled the stallion’s robe and lightly shoved him along, then with a quick move I swapped the empty mag out.

“Understood. Continue to the top. Dropship ETA ninety seconds.”

“Any chance of it supporting me?” It was a fair shot.

“Negative. It’s unarmed.”

Of course it was.

And so we started moving again. Now that I knew there was only one drone left I played it safe. It had to face me directly without its allies to misdirect me.

Two more sets of short stairs and we finally reached the small temporary landing pad at the top of the dome. It was simple, just a metal rectangle built over the top of the dome, big enough to allow a light dropship to land, deposit supplies and takeoff. “At the landing pad. Hurry up, will you?”

I could hear Emperor’s muffled chuckle. “ETA ten seconds, approaching from the south east.”

Sure enough, in the corner of my eye I could see the sleek form of a small unmarked coal-black dropship, it’s two vectoring nacelles maneuvered as the onboard programming actively counteracted the drag.

Keeping both the mission objective and my weapon close I had nothing to do but keep watch and wait for the automated craft to land. There was no sign of the last remaining cone freak.

With the clang of landing gear the dropship touched down and a door on its side slid open. Grabbing the zebra by the scruff of his neck I led him towards the passenger compartment. “We are boarding now, Emperor.” It was not easy to haul an eighty-something year old stallion into a tiny black ops dropship designed to hold four ponies at most.

The zebra started to reluctantly climb aboard; I had to help by pushing his flank into the dropship. Once he was inside, I grabbed the handle and started climbing in myself.

‘Thwip! thwip! thwip!’

Crap.

I let go off the handle and jumped down. The flechettes embedded themselves in the hull exactly where I was half a second ago. Turning around I brought my weapon high and aimed at the opposite end of the platform.

The last remaining machine was only a few meters away. It scanned me with its single eye and adjusted its stance.

‘Thwip! thwip! thwip!’

This time I was faster, diving ahead and rolling right in front of it. The shock projectiles flew overhead. I brought my weapon up again and depressed the trigger at almost point blank range.

At the same moment, the drone fired again. This time however, its salvo was cut short by the damage done by my submachine gun.

A sharp jolt of pain in my left foreleg signalled that a single flechette hit its mark. I looked at the blue glowing tip and quickly pulled it out. That gave the drone an opening - it swiped one of its long legs and hit me square in the muzzle.


I can hear my nose cracking.


The force of the swing spun me fully in place and made me drop my gun.

I was not sure how I managed to stay upright. But I wasn’t going to waste it. With the flechette still in my left hoof, I threw myself at the machine. It was preparing to swing at me again, but I was swifter.

We crashed together. I stabbed the projectile into the robot’s front, but before I could withdraw, the glow at its tip became constant.

Lightning.

Lightning inside my foreleg.

Crawling slowly, deep under my flesh.

Higher and higher, to the shoulder.

My foreleg bends as all the muscles tighten.

Along my neck.


I feel a vice grip my windpipe.


It hurts.

I felt it reach my face.

My eyes bulge - I feel like they are going to fall out.

It hurts so much.


I can feel the darkness suffocating me.


No. Don’t give up. They are counting on you.

NO.

I snapped my eyes open, feeling like I just woken up from a nightmare. My head was pounding and I could feel the blood from my nose making its way down my face, neck and under my armour. I could barely stand.

Before me, the three legged drone lay on the ground. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Just in time to see it stir and start getting up. Its singular eye sharply turned through ninety degrees to face me.

I let out a painful whimper. Then, I screwed my eyes shut and roared.

I ran straight at it.

It didn’t have the time to stand up properly; my body slammed into it. I used my stronger right foreleg to punch and batter the singular eye as the drone desperately tried using its frail griffish hands to grasp at me. The machine was trying to steady itself but it was for naught with my full body weight constantly pushing it back.

Finally we stopped. I took a step backwards, crouched down and swiped my hindleg low, clipping two of the robot’s articulated legs. It wobbled like a spinning top.

Before it could regain its footing I stood up and threw my hoof square at its eye, finally shattering it with a crack.

The machine leaned back from the force of the impact. That was enough to send it over the edge. It tried to balance, but it was too late.

No programming could beat physics.

I stood there, breathing heavily. Only the sound of running engines and the rush of the wind could be heard. Just a few moments more and all of this would be over. I’d drop off the VIP, debrief and then crawl into nice comfortable bed aboard-

“Paladin, you okay down there?” Emperor’s voice brought me back to reality.

I moved my left foreleg. The muscles were still taut, so I had no choice but to keep it close to my body and walk to the dropship on three legs. “Perimeter clear, let’s get out of here.”

“Roger, get on board and it will get you to orbit. We’ll pick you up in twenty minutes. Emperor out.”

I slowly made my way to the awaiting dropship, the door on its side was still open. Inside I could see the zebra. He was sitting calmly on one of the folding seats, eyes closed. For someone currently being kidnapped, he was suspiciously stoic. Or maybe he knew there was nothing he could do. Smart guy.

As soon as I climbed in and secured the door, I fastened the stallion’s seatbelts before sitting down and doing the same for myself. Once that was done, I tapped the green button on the console nearby. The muffled whine of the engines intensified as I felt the dropship take off.

After the console informed me that we were underway did I lean my head against the headrest and let out an exhausted moan. As I slacked my muscles and began to relax, I could not help myself from thinking about what happened.

Who sent those drones? Who BUILT those drones? How did they know I was here? Why did they want the zebra? Did they really want the zebra? Or did they want me?

I had no answers. Probably for the best - it looked like something way above my paygrade.

I decided not to dwell on it and attempted to rest as much as possible. I’d have to request at least a month off after this mission. Two if I also wanted to get my head back together.

Just as I felt my eyes slowly closing on their own, the dropship’s lights turned from white to red. An alarm shrieked. Before I could gather what was happening the cabin turned pitch black and quiet.

No console. No lights.

No engines.

Immediately I was fully alert, my body summoning last reserves of adrenaline.

“Emperor come in! The dropship lost power!”

“Paladin, verify. All green on our end.”

“We are going down! No damage! It just… turned off! I have no te-”

I screamed and threw my head as the small receiver in my ear burst into deafening static. Quickly I pulled it out and turned it off. Then, I heard the groaning of the dropship’s hull. Without power its flight characteristics were on par with a dead swallow.

And just like a dead swallow, it fell to the ground. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel the blood rushing into my head from the negative G force affecting my body.

There was nothing I could do.

Blindly I checked if my seatbelt was properly secured. I looked where the zebra should have been, but in the windowless inside of the dark dropship I couldn’t see a thing. I wasn’t sure if he was there; no sound was coming from the old stallion.

Just as I was about to yell out to him, the dropship shuddered. I could hear something scraping on the other side of the hull. But we weren’t done falling. A few more hits like that, and then a humongous crash followed by a white hot spike of pain drilling into my flank mercilessly.

Then, darkness.

...

How long was I out? I couldn’t tell, but mercifully I started feeling my pounding head again.

I opened my eyes slowly.

I saw a large blue rectangle with white clusters of fluff.

Sky.

I was looking at the sky through the ripped out door. Outside I could hear the noise of a busy street. My head was pounding. I couldn’t focus on the clouds above nor the noise outside. I decided not to.

Looking to the side I spotted the zebra. He was still in his seat, fastened and secure, lying nearly motionless with his eyes closed. Only the slight rise and fall of his chest suggested that he'd survived the crash. I tried yelling at him, but that only made me realize my ears were still ringing as I couldn’t hear my own voice. At least that was what it felt like.

There was also the matter of dull pain in my right upper hindleg.

Not being able to do much from there, I unfastened my seatbelts and crawled out of the seat. What was left of the dropship was lying on its side, the only means of exit was the ripped door above. Once I made sure we were in no immediate danger I inspected myself for injuries.

Cuts and bruises, nothing serious. Then I stood up.

Bad idea.

I squealed in pain as my right hindleg settled on the ground. Quickly I moved it up, holding it close to my belly.

It was broken. I didn’t need a medibot to know that. It also meant I had to use my other wounded limb if I were to walk anywhere.

Gritting my teeth, I hobbled over to the zebra and leaned down. A tiny wound was visible on his left temple, the small amount of blood he lost staining the elder’s pure white robe.

I quickly checked for any other visible injuries or dangers - fortunately there were none. None I could have seen at least. Regardless, I got up and shuffled to the back of the transport cabin. A first aid kit was attached to the wall with a three point strap. I grabbed the plastic box and moved back to the stallion, then sat down carefully, still mindful of my own injury.

The kit was rudimentary at best; painkillers, antiseptics, bandages and so on. I singled out a few items and began to dress the zebra’s wound. He was still out and it didn’t look like he was waking up anytime soon.

“Please don’t be a brain hemorrhage.”

If it was, there was nothing I could do. We couldn’t just go to a hospital.

Once I was done with the zebra, I popped open a cap from another stimshot applicator and slapped the needled tip into the base of my neck. The device let out a quiet hiss of pressurized air and momentarily I felt the pain in my body numb. I tossed the applicator aside and began to secure my broken limb with bandages and elastic bands.

There was little time to be thorough. The crash surely drew attention - we couldn’t have cleared out of the metropolis in so little time. And I didn’t want the local officials to get close. With the upper half of my hindleg wrapped in elastic bands and splints I settled down again and pulled out my communicator, turned it back on and inserted it into my left ear.

“This is Paladin. Package is secured but the dropship has crashed. I need an immediate evac.”

Nothing.

“Emperor, are you there?”

Silence.

“Emperor. Paladin. Are you reading me?”


No one.


I hung my head and mouthed a curse. How could this have gone so wrong? Who was after me? This was not a quick reactionary play by the Caliphate. It was too precise, too well planned.

Biting my lip hard I looked up and pulled out my weapon, then checked the magazine.

Halfway. I had two more spare.

Whoever planned to ruin the mission would also have planned what to do once the dropship was brought down.

Carefully I unstrapped the unconscious zebra and threw his limp body over my back. Then, I started climbing out of the wreckage. It was no easy task with a broken hindleg, a shocked foreleg and an elderly scholar in tow. But thanks to the many handles inside the dropship and my regular workouts, we made it. It still took much longer than I liked.

Finally, I climbed out and onto the ruined dropship’s side. The craft had crashed into a deep artificial channel, about thirty meters across, now nearly empty. Only a lazy stream flowed at the bottom. It was fetid, most of the water’s surface was covered with junk and refuse, the rest was covered with thick mushy plant matter. At least I hoped it was plant matter.

It certainly did not smell like plants I was used to.

The vertical sides of the canal ended at the same height as my head, and I was standing on top of a small spaceship, wrecked in the middle of the structure. Additionally, an imposing wall extended above the right side of the channel, at least three stories tall. Further above it, rich highrise buildings, clearly the edges of a different, wealthier district. There was no way I could have gone over that.

A small crowd of zebra wearing simple clothes were gathered at the left edge of the canal; they were lively, talking and watching me and my wrecked spaceship. Some were taking photos or filming me with their hoofheld devices. None of them looked like they were eager to come closer.

From my perch on the fallen dropship I could see that behind them, was a narrow street running along the canal. Small utility trucks, smaller city cars and what looked like dozens, if not hundreds of mopeds; most of them running on antiquated internal combustion engines.

And all of them honking.

Whatever parts of the street were not filled with vehicles were filled with pedestrians. Dozens of zebra walking one way or another, carrying huge packages, stacks of fruit or tall clay jars. All on their heads, and all mares.

More often than not, the two areas intertwined. This it seemed, was the source of the constant honking.

Beyond the street, I could see small shanties haphazardly cobbled together from sheet metal, loose cinder blocks or other jigsaw construction materials. Even further, a scattering of low buildings. Dilapidated, dirty and looking as if they were about to collapse. Every structure was adorned with a multitude of old signs and advertisements, many of them hoofpainted, no doubt by the owners themselves.

We were in the slum district.

Balancing on the mangled hull of the dropship I stepped down into the fetlock deep water with my quarry on back, then made my way towards the wall and the shanties. Fortunately, the wall of the canal had steps cut into it allowing me to climb out relatively easily. That said, given the stallion’s weight, my wounds, the shining sun and the length of the stairs, I was sweating once I reached the top. After steadying my breath I looked up and froze.

The zebra from before were gone, dispersed into the flowing crowd nearby. Only three remained.

Two fillies and a colt.

The trio watched me with blank expressions. The oldest - a pre-teen at most - had a smoking cigarette stuck in the gap where her front teeth used to be. Her mane was a clogged mess; I suspected it had never been cleaned. The middle one - also a filly - was peeking out from behind the cigarette kid; I could see her closely clutching a decapitated head of a plastic doll. The colt, whose age gave an impression of a recent escapee from daycare, was dressed in an oversized hoodie bearing a washed out Imperial Sun crest.

I knew my stare had an effect on people. But the stares of these three?

It was…

I didn’t know.

I didn’t want to know.

But I instantly knew I would never forget it.

A loud shout somewhere off to the side grabbed mine and the foals’ attention. Another zebra ran over to us. This one was an adult, a mare, perhaps ten or fifteen years older than me. But then I couldn’t tell - she was too grubby-looking to make sure. Disheveled, just like the foals.

The mare shouted again, something I couldn’t understand, and something that made the three foals instantly bolt back to the adult and far away from me. As soon as they rejoined the adult zebra, she reached out her forehooves and held the trio close. Then gave me an accusatory stare and vanished with the kids back into the crowd on the other side of the street.

Only then I realized. Everyone was giving me a wide berth, which was no easy feat on such a busy street. It felt like I was the most alone person in a slum.

The Slum.

The zebra of the Caliphate and the rare, more adventurous individuals living abroad always had a very defined cultural identity. If two zebra living on the opposite ends of the Core met each other for the first time, the separation didn’t matter. The tribes had their shared customs, language and traditions long before they had spaceships. One of the most basic pillars of social life for a zebra was their tribal identity and blood ties. The tribe helped an individual as much as an individual helped the tribe.

That was, of course, unless a zebra was one of the Manaeat.

The Barred Ones.

The untouchables.

There was a slum like this in every major metropolis across the Caliphate. Filled with Manaeat, the zebra without a tribe. Outcasts mostly, for one reason or another.

Of course, there was also another way of becoming one.

Being born into it.

I quickly filtered out any further thoughts about it; this was not a place nor time to think about their misery. Of course, I had to go into that misery if I were to get out of there. The slums were not safe to outsiders, especially after nightfall. It felt more like a wild frontier than a city.

After a quick check of the unconscious stallion on my back I started moving into the narrow alleyways between the shacks. Finding a place to catch my breath and properly treat myself was my main goal now.

“Emperor, this is Paladin, do you read me?” No reply, but it was not impossible that only I was being jammed. “I am somewhere in the slum district, looks like north quarter. I am wounded and I have no means of extraction. I am going to look for someplace to stay low. Proceeding on hoof, over.” Briefly I worried that the message could be intercepted by whoever was chasing us, but then I decided that I had no other choice if we were to leave this place intact.

If any reply came, I couldn’t hear it over the constant noise of the street.

“Damnit.” I looked at the old stallion as we rounded a corner and proceeded deeper into the shantytown. “You better wake up soon or we will both suffer for it.”

He was as talkative as my communicator.

I had no choice but to look forward and walk in silence.

The ‘streets’ here were nothing more than narrow, uneven asphalt pathways allowing pedestrian traffic between the shanties; none of that stopped anyone from driving their mopeds through though. Nothing in this part of town was regulated, supervised or maintained in any official capacity, and it showed.

Most of the shacks were made from bleak cinder blocks - bare, save for an occasional piece of spray painted graffiti or street art. The buildings were stacked on top of one another without rhyme or reason, which made it obvious how frequently they were built, rebuilt and modified. It wasn’t uncommon to see a structure where the first floor was made out of blocks with each following floor being constructed from a different material. Many of them lacked doors and windows, and instead used tarps, old pieces of furniture or plastic covering to block my sight.

If the buildings were a mish mash of random crossed with accidental, another thing was nearly universal. As I limped along the street everyone was watching me. Wherever I went, conversations died. Vendors protectively covered their wares displayed on simple pieces of clothing laid out on the ground. Street craftsmen stopped their ancient noisy machines and tools, and watched me from under furrowed eyebrows. Oncoming passers-by swerved to the other side of the street just to not get too close to me. Mares, stallions, colts and fillies watched from many windows above the street.

All stares were on me.

All stares were fearful.

No one dared to approach me.

I was growing increasingly concerned as more and more zebra began taking notice. A block later I noticed a small mob had started to follow me.

I was a stranger there, but this place should not have been like that. Indifferent, yes. But not openly hostile.

“Why?”

It didn’t matter - what mattered was that I had to deal with it. And fast. As soon as I spotted a thin alleyway I turned into it and started hobbling faster. It was barely wide enough to allow two ponies walking side by side. I could see and hear doors slamming as I walked past them, the curious onlookers frightened by my proximity. Only a scant few kept them open, but just enough to only peek at the pony with one eye covered in shadows.

The alleyway was so narrow that the buildings above blocked sunlight, but I could clearly see sunshine at the end. With a quick glance I confirmed that I was still being followed. At least six young stallions. All holding gas-pipes, knives or other brutally simple weapons.

Two and a half mags.

How many of them were out there?

I winced painfully as I began to trot. My shocked foreleg was barely usable. The pain followed like hot burning wire deep in my tissue all the way to my clavicle.

Grinding my teeth, I pushed on.

Finally, I reached the end of the alleyway. Upon exiting the narrow path I was nearly blinded by the sun. As soon as I regained my sight I saw a zebra holding a metal chain standing in front of me. She was shorter than me, but well built, a black ornamental eyepatch covered her left eye. Her neck was adorned with ornate metal rings and she was wearing a spotless bright orange robe with golden filigree. Not unlike the robe of the zebra on my back.

At the other end of the chain was a snarling creature roughly the size of a large dog. It looked like a dog too, but something was off. I couldn’t really settle on what exactly. It’s brown-gray coat had distinctive black spots all over the creatures body. Its jaws looked like they could bite through my bones with ease.

I could have sworn it laughed as it sniffed the air towards me.

The zebra was standing in the middle of a rectangular yard, surrounded on all sides by tall dirty buildings. Corroded rainspouts adorned the walls. Above I could see tiny barred balconies around every wall, and beyond, a depressingly small rectangle of blue sky. All the doors on the ground level appeared closed tight.

There was no way out.

I grabbed my weapon and brought it up, aiming at the mare. The chained creature snarled.

“Fire that gun and your spirit will wander these streets forever, looking for the pieces of your vessel.” She didn’t bat an eye as she serenely spoke in heavily accented equestrian. Her eye was locked with mine.

I glanced over my shoulder at my pursuers. They were standing at the end of the alleyway I just left, weapons ready.

“Let me leave in peace, I am not here by choice.” I indicated the big double doors behind her with the barrel of my weapon.

“That is why your foregoers guided me here.” She pointed a hoof at the armed thugs. “They do not want him around and will do anything to get the rot out of here swiftly.”

I looked at the stallions, then at the unconscious elder on my back. “Then tell them that I want to leave. I need to get out of the city.”

The mare lightly tugged on the chain, making the creature pant and retreat to its mistress. “They won’t help you, they will not help anyone who deals with the Shayatin.” She pointed a hoof at the stallion on my back. “And he does. They think you and your friend will doom the souls of everyone in here.” The mare paused, looked at the creature and said a single word in a language I could not understand. The furred beast obediently sat down and let out a monstrous yawn, giving me a full view of its bone crushing jaws.

“The cleverest out of you and me is I. For I am the one with the evil eye. Your soul is pure.” She chuckled and nodded at my raised submachine gun. “At least when it comes to demonic possession.”

The mare took a few steps forward and her bestial companion closely followed. She smiled and extended a bracelet covered foreleg towards me. “I will-”

Her words were drowned out by a sudden crash of wood and metal. I saw it clearly.

The double doors on the other side of the yard were pulverized.

Between the pieces of shattered wood and other debris I could see a frightening sight. Dozens of segmented metal limbs, flailing around, breaking through what was left of the door.

“GET DOWN!” Mercifully, the zebra and her companion dashed out of the line of fire, giving me a clean shot. I let out a long burst, but it had no effect on the machine.

It strode into the yard on its many arms, each of them making a loud clunk as it anchored itself in the ground or nearby walls. The thin appendages were attached to a rotund torso, roughly as wide as two ponies. In the middle of it hung what I could only describe as a face of a mechanical arachnid, with groupings of optical sensors of various shapes and sizes. They scanned the immediate area.

I wasn’t going to stay and find out what it wanted.

Running shoulder first into the narrowest door I could spot, I broke the weak lock and we tumbled into a dark building. I landed on my back on the old tiles, staring at a winding staircase leading upwards. Doing my best to ignore the brief pain in my third limb now, I got up and turned around to where the stallion was lying in a heap; he was still unconscious. As I moved again to pick him up, I noticed one of the metal tentacles reaching in through the narrow entryway, snaking its way towards one of elder’s hindlegs.

I pulled on the strap of my SMG, brought the weapon to my eye and fired what I had remaining in the magazine. What bullets hit seemed to make the machine reconsider as the tentacle retreated hastily.

I wasn’t about to waste time either. Picking the stallion up I started to make way to the staircase and upwards. Once I set a hoof on the first step, the sound of shattering glass and wood rang from above. Pieces of skylight dropped next to me with a crash as I saw another octopus-like machine enter at the top of the staircase.

Its many eyes glowed crimson as they locked on me. Its tentacles expertly anchored the robot in the walls and the staircase’s structure, making it hang three floors directly above me. For a second it looked as it was going to jump down on me. I slapped in my penultimate magazine and aimed up, steadied my racing breath and depressed the trigger.

The octopus instantly swerved to the side, hugging the wall and using the banister as cover as I kept firing short bursts at it. It moved faster than I could have tracked it. Plaster on the wall bulged and ripped, wooden stairs broke and splintered, the banister’s metal rods bent and warped as its tentacles propelled the technological horror in a downwards spiral towards me.

I turned around only to see another set of tentacles reach in through the door which I had entered through. Dumping the remaining bullets at it, I frantically looked for a way out.

The stairs lead below the ground level, to the cellar.

There was no time to look for alternatives. I had to hope that the doorframe would be too narrow for the robots and hobbled inside.


Into the darkness.


With a flick of a switch I turned on the flashlight mounted on my weapon and descended down the stairs. I could hear the thrashing of the machines behind me, their long manipulators not stretching down the basement entrance far enough to reach the zebra on my back; we were too deep already. The robots couldn’t fit.

The cellar was pitch black, cold and damp. It was sizeable enough to allow a couple branching corridors leading deeper into the structure. The shine of my light revealed rows upon rows of open storage units. Most of them were empty, while those that weren't held mostly junk. Anything from rusting machine parts, through stacks of rotting furniture to plain trash.

I picked a direction at random and began walking carefully, weapon to my shoulder. Once I rounded a corner I could no longer hear the robots above. This dark place was nearly silent, only my own hoofsteps and the squeaking of rats rummaging through the abandoned items could be heard. I had to find a way out; put distance between me and whatever those mechanical freaks were.

What were they? Who sent them?

I let out a quiet curse as my left foreleg reminded me of the previous adversaries I'd faced on this mission.

Were they sent by the same people?

I didn’t know.


I really don’t know.


I tried my communicator again. “Emperor, if you are listening. I need help urgently. I am being hunted. I am in the slum, in a...” I stopped, lowered my weapon and let out a pained moan, my voice cracked in the middle of it as I shuddered.


“A dark place. It’s full of… things.”


I turned the SMG and shone its flashlight at the knocked out zebra. No change.

“I don’t know if I can take it any longer. Paladin out.”

He was heavy, my lungs burned, my head was pounding and my two healthy legs were nearly buckling from the strain.


I need rest. Please.


There was a storage unit right beside me - a couple plastic bags filled with trash were visible thanks to my flashlight. I limped over there and lowered the stallion onto the pile. I needed a way to move freely to locate an exit that was hopefully not guarded by the robots. Sliding my last remaining magazine into the gun I closed the door to the storage. There was no padlock or other means of securing it, but I didn't have much of a choice.

The doors were marked with bold digits.


Site One.


I took a mental note of the number and began looking for a way out.

The dry air of the cellar irritated my nostrils as I carefully limped along the hallway. More storage units and no sign of exit. This place was a maze.

Turn after turn, I found nothing to give me direction. Looking up and down, I spotted piping attached to the ceiling. It had to lead somewhere. At the very least, it was something. With every step, my left foreleg ached more and more. Electric aftershocks ran along my nerves, from the tip of my hoof all the way to my neck.

It wasn’t as bad as it was before.

Well, it was.

I’d just stopped caring anymore.

I didn’t care much about anything by now.

Except the mission.

Emperor would get that stripe and give him to the nerds at Silent Bo’s Institute to do Princess knows what.

I frowned and scolded myself mentally. Focus. Keep alert. It was getting dark; what little light entered the cellar through the tiny ground level windows was fading rapidly. There had to be another exit.

I had to make best use of the still available daylight. My movement became more rapid - as much as my body hated me for it. I had to push. I had to pull myself together. I had to keep on holding on.

Room after room, corridor after corridor.

Trash.

Dead ends.

Nothing.

A deep corner of my brain was starting to think that I was lost in an impossible maze; imagined days passing by. Infinite gray concrete corridors for hours, filled with nothing but trash and darkness. It felt colder than the vacuum of space.

Then, suddenly, a sound of scraping metal nearby.

Instantly I turned to the side and aimed the shotgun at the source. The flashlight revealed a slowly rolling can and a sickly black rat, rummaging through the trash. I let out my breath and furrowed my eyebrows at the scavenging rodent.

A miniscule piece of plaster dropped from above and bounced off my muzzle.

I drew my eyes upwards, only to spot a dozen red dots appearing in the darkness on the ceiling.

My brain told me to raise the gun and shoot, but my reflex forced my body to throw myself to the side. Just in time to avoid being struck by a metal tentacle. I rolled to my back and fired a long burst.

The rifle’s noise was deafening in the tight confines of the cellar.

I didn’t have the time to see if the bullets did any damage. Getting out of this place was more important. Seeing as I was not skewered by a robotic limb, I thought it was safe to say that my attack gave the drone pause.

I ran.

I ran as fast I could have with one broken limb and another battered. There was no sign of pursuit as I retraced my steps.

Turn after turn, corridor after corridor. Everywhere I turned, the cellar looked the same. It was a labyrinth.

Then, I could hear it. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from. The cellar’s corridors and bare walls reflected and distorted the noise too much. A clunking of metal on concrete. Faster and faster.

They were coming for me.

Faster, I had to move faster. Get the zebra. Drive them off.

Somehow.

More turns, more corridors, more darkness and the all-present noise of the machines chasing me. Every now and again I looked behind me as I turned a corner. Nothing.

They were too smart to go after me directly.

Move.

My foreleg was already numb. The muscles of my hindleg ached from constantly having to keep it off the ground.

Quickly.

My breath was running out. The throbbing pulse in my head was pounding.

Get out of here.

My heart was racing. The clunking noise was ever present. They were relentless, and they were coming for me.

Get out of here now.

Another turn, I almost fell as I ground to a halt. There it was.


Site One.


I reached for the handle.

Only for the door to buckle and bend. Then, with a screech of rusted hinges giving way, it flew straight at me.

The wood hit me hard, knocking me down on the floor. Before I could get my bearing and stand up, I heard the noise of a robotic appendage reaching out and grabbing what was left of the door. Then it pushed on the debris, pinning me down.

I failed to choke down a desperate scream as my limbs flared in pain.

Through teary eyes, I saw the unconscious zebra’s white robes flow as he was raised by a metal tentacle, its claw holding him by the neck. It lifted the stallion through the door, and behind him an oblong shape with red glowing eyes followed, its other tentacles anchoring into surfaces all around and pulling itself toward me.

The machine hoisted the stallion all the way up to the ceiling, then moved its torso under the zebra. A jawlike apparatus I previously hadn't seen extended from below what could be described as the robot’s face.

With a snap the jaw split and widened, to easily thrice its previous size. I saw a semi-transparent skin like membrane between the jaws. The machine threw its head upwards, then lowered the stallion down into the jaws. As soon as the victim touched the membrane, it started expanding. More and more as the body was shuffled inside the macabre sack, then it started filling with liquid.

Barely half a minute later, entire stallion was inside a bulbous container. Full of liquid, and with a hapless zebra inside, the machine now looked like a honeypot ant. It slowly turned and stared at me with its multitude of eyes.

Run.

I couldn’t. The mission.


Those things will hurt you.


I was in no shape to move, no shape to resist.


Do you understand?


I screwed my eyes shut. I felt the tentacle grab my foreleg and make its way along it, then it started coiling around my chest. Then it squeezed. I could feel my ribs grind on each other.

I whimpered.

The grip loosened. I felt myself being brought up - my limbs dangled freely as the robot held me high.

I dared to open my eyes.

A smudged sight full of red lights greeted me. Only after I blinked the tears away I saw that they were cameras and other optics of all sizes arranged in a pattern at the front of the robot’s body. The machine held me merely a hoof’s reach away.

I watched helplessly as the lenses on the cameras turned and hissed, scanning me closely.

This… this was the end.

The eyes turned green.

Emerald green.

Then they started to move, no, flow; swirling and joining together. I could see irises forming. Until there were only two left.

Finally, two slitted pupils appeared.

I could feel their gaze drilling into my thoughts.

“Now Agent Whisper Step. Relax and let’s try it again, shall we?”

*****

Darkness. Only the soft orange glow of my HUD stood out from the blackness of the cosmos beyond the tinted glass.

I carefully watched the AR path displayed on my helmet’s visor and followed it with gentle moves of the throttle and the joystick.

“Three hundred meters.” The synthetic voice confirmed what my HUD was showing.

I reached over to the side console and flipped a switch.

“Silent running.” The hum behind me eased as the ships systems powered down. Only drives, short range sensors and life support were left online.

I watched the speed indicator drop slowly as I eased on the throttle. My target quickly filled the canopy. An unassuming old freighter. Easily a hundred meters wide and twice as long. I locked the throttle on neutral and let the momentum carry my ship forward. According to the blueprints on the monitor, the service access was right ahead. Last quick visual check and I was ready to go. “Regulus, Initialize EVA procedure.”

“Initializing EVA procedure.” The ship’s voice was quick to reply. Slowly, the hum of the reactor eased as atmosphere was pumped out of the cockpit. Soon, all I could hear was my own breathing through my personal life support system. As it was happening, I was eyeballing the access hatch; a small rectangular door marked with a dim light right above me.

With a quick flick of my wrist I fired the retro thrusters and the Regulus came to a halt.

“Cockpit atmosphere expunged. Ready to initiate EVA.”

I took a deep breath of the recycled air. “Regulus, initiate EVA.”

The tinted canopy soundlessly slid up and behind, exposing me to open vacuum. I unbuckled my belt, grabbed a bag containing my gear and stood up from the pilot’s seat. As soon as my upper half cleared the cockpit I grabbed the side of the canopy and gently pushed myself out of my ship. The freighter’s hull was about ten meters away. That gave me enough time to tap a button on my suit’s multiband and initiate my magnetic horseshoes.

Once that was done, I carefully turned myself around, legs first toward the freighter.

One.

Two.

Three.

My legs snapped to the metal hull. Almost on target too. Not bad at all. Three silent steps forward and one to the side and I was looking at the access hatch. The lock was simple enough. I just had to plug my hacking device into the control panel and it would do the rest. Carefully I pulled it out from the bag and reached to plug it in.

The hatch opened.

A wave of violently escaping atmosphere and debris blew the device out off my hooves, some of it bouncing off my visor with a loud audible tinkling noise.

Not debris.

Pills.

Before I gathered what was happening, a shining metal tentacle reached out from the freighter. It grabbed me by the neck and pulled, overcoming my magnets. Then, with a swift motion it ripped me off the hull and held me away from the ship. I watched as the rest of the creature crawled out of the now open corridor. Yellow spinning alarm lights blaring a depressurization warning.

The tentacle was one of many attached to a young buck. No, not attached. They were coming out of his torso through numerous holes ruptured in his nearly white coat and tissue. The buck was not wearing any protective gear. His body just dangled, suspended on the macabre limbs.

I struggled, but the mechanical claw’s grip only intensified. It started to choke me.

Despite being exposed to hard vacuum and having many robotic tentacles bursting out of his torso, the deer appeared fine. That was until I looked at his face.

The buck’s emerald green eyes were bulging out, almost as if they were going to fall out at any moment. His nose was covered in long-dried blood. His blue tongue was out and his mouth was covered in foam. A long, red, semi transparent ribbon was tangled around his antlers, flowing freely in zero g.

I watched with horror as the buck opened his mouth and began to speak.

Even through the vacuum, I could hear the voice.

As if it were echoing out inside my skull.

“Reaching vision. Everywhere. You will die.”

The mechanical tentacle on my neck eased off.

And then pushed me away.

“NO!”

I yelled and flailed haplessly as my body began drifting away from the creature, the freighter and the Regulus.

There was nothing I could do. Nothing.

Faster and faster, the monster, the freighter and the Regulus were growing more and more distant. I quickly looked for my bag containing my pneumatic anchor launcher. It was my last hope.

The bag was nowhere to be found. I hadn't even registered when it had went loose.

“No…”

I threw my head up in panic towards the monster again. It was already gone. So was the freighter and the Regulus.

It was just me and the distant stars. I was alone.

Then the stars started to go dark.

One.

By one.

I began spinning wildly, looking around. Distant nebulae and constellations, dimming and vanishing. Everywhere the space around me was quickly becoming solid blackness. There was no point of reference left.

Finally, the last remaining source of light gave out.

My helmet’s HUD.

Solid, infinite darkness.

Was this how dying felt? A dark void? There were so many things left to do, so many things left to say. I thought of the Agency. My friends. My family.

I’d do anything to spend one last moment with them.

“Anything?”

The voice pierced through my brain. Through my soul. As if it was always there, a piece of me.

I opened my mouth to reply but I found it full of liquid. Water.

My helmet was filling with water. Panicking, I grabbed it firmly with my forelegs and undid the seal, then ripped the helmet off.

Deadened noise became a roaring crash, and a wave struck me in the face.

I was swimming with my head poking out of the liquid. I could feel the resistance as I frantically paddled with my legs, but I could barely keep my muzzle above the surface. It was still dark, I couldn’t see anything. But at least I had a point of reference. If there was water, that meant there was a surface and a bottom.

I aimed to keep as far away as possible from the latter.

It was a struggle - the surface was not calm. Every time I managed to get my head above it, another wave splashed over and brought me down again, even if just momentarily. I had enough strength to keep my muzzle and my eyes above the surface, but with each wave it was becoming harder and harder.

Another wave.

My chest was pounding.

Another wave.

My muscles were aching from the strain.

Another wave.

My head was spinning.

Another wave.

There was no surface to breach.

I pushed and pushed, but I couldn’t reach the surface again. I reached a hoof before me. Maybe.

Somehow.

Please.

Someone grabbed it. Then squeezed and pulled me up.

I breached the surface and immediately started coughing up water. My lungs burned. It was still dark. The only reason I was afloat was because of what was holding me. I could feel it through my suit, it was someone’s foreleg. Despite the darkness I looked up. Two glowing, emerald slitted eyes peered straight at me.

“What do you know about Snowdrop?”

It was the same voice from before.

I choked and forced myself to speak through the pain. “I don’t know... what you are talking... about!”

“Wrong answer.”

The foreleg let go. I went back under instantly.

Again I tried swimming upwards, to the surface. Maybe if I told the voice something, this would end?

My hooves hit a wall.

There was no surface here.

I somehow managed to not cry out and lose valuable air. I must have gotten disoriented and reached the bottom. Instead, I turned, planted my hindlegs on the wall and pushed myself off it. Then I swam in the opposite direction.

A few strokes later and my hooves hit a wall again.

No.

My chest was on fire. Again I turned and pushed myself off the wall. I extended my forelegs to start the first stroke, and they hit a wall.

I reached to the right.

A wall.

Left.

Wall.

Up.

WALL.

Down.

WALL.

It’s a cube.

It’s a cube. With no way out.

With me inside.

Alone.

No...

No more.

I am done.

I give up.

I relaxed my limbs, there was no sense in trying anymore.

I opened my muzzle. The water rushed inside. It burned, but quickly stopped.

I couldn’t feel anything anymore.

The darkness enveloped me.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

Light.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

A female voice.

"...Whisper?"