“How can it be nothing?” Aurora squeaked. She closed her eyes then opened them again, following up by blinking rapidly. Surely enough, the emptiness before her eyes remained unchanged.
“Wait.” Discord inhaled sharply as something moved within the blackness. “Look into the centre: there’s movement.”
“Where?” Jackie asked, squinting. She’d pressed her face up against the viewport without seeing any difference.
“Right there, on the peripheral…” Discord trailed off, mouth contorting in a silent scream. The sudden cessation of speech had barely registered in Jackie’s mind when she too staggered, bringing both hands up to her ears.
“Stars above,” Rarity whimpered, clutching her head in her arms. “What is that sound?”
“Who comes forth saluting, the wise? Who steps and falters, beneath the disguise?”
“What? Who’s there?” Aurora growled, looking around frantically. There had been no additions to the room, no new arrivals within the last hour.
“Forget the sleeping, peril at your own cost. How long until those found, are lost?”
There was a long minute of silence, before…
“Hey, that was a minute of silence! Guess it’s over!”
Rarity turned away from the viewport at last, searching for the source of the crash. Immediately, her hands flew to her mouth, and she coughed loudly as she tried (and failed) to hide her laughter. Neither Aurora nor Jackie bothered to hide it, and both looked ready to roll on the floor laughing.
“Would you please get off me?” Discord asked, his voice distorted by the urn his head had ended up inside.
“Okie dokie lokie.” Pinks chirped happily, having appeared from nowhere to land on Discord’s back. “But I thought you’d want to know that two-thirds of the crew are gone.”
“What?!” Came four startled replies.
“Ooh, don’t worry,” Pinks giggled, waving Aurora’s protest away. “They’re not dead.” Her face scrunched up in concentration for a moment. “Actually, half of them are.” She clarified, losing a bit of her cheer. “But only the silly ones. The rest will be back.”
“Back?” Aurora sputtered. “Where’d they go in the first place? And whose gone? Do you have a list? Who can we still find?”
“There’s no list,” Pinks shook her head, “But its easy to see. The only ones gone are a-” Pinks vanished in a flash of light, leaving four faces staring at the empty spot she’d occupied, jaws dropped.
“And she’d just gotten back too,” Aurora groaned.
“Why’d you take me away?” Pinks asked the Phantom, looking around to find the same room Abigail had led her to before they’d set off into the Astral Storm.
“Those who speak of what they know, soon find out that prudent silence would have been wise,” the Phantom retorted. “The being who is here, I can feel its nature. It holds almost all the cards; we cannot afford to break its rules. Not yet.”
“But you have a plan.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes. We sit and wait.”
“What sort of plan is that?” Pinks exclaimed.
“A last resort. The opponent has taken our strongest pieces, yet does not play at its fullest. No, its attention is divided amongst the fleet, and we face only a fraction of its strength. But if we were to draw its full attention, we would have no hope of victory.”
“So we’re just meant to sit here? What about my friends?” Pinks asked, a hint of uncertainty creeping into her voice.
“They will be fine, they are strong of mind and will. In fact, that is what we must count on: that they will break free quickly enough for us to mount a proper defence. But for now? Yes, we wait.”
“Do I have to like it?” Pinks grimaced.
“Both Captains are gone?” Aurora’s head hit her desk. Hard.
“And all other senior crew members.” Discord replied grimly. “Everyone on leave, everyone in the dining hall, everyone in their quarters. Missing engineers, missing security guards, the list goes on and on. There were roughly eight hundred of us onboard if memory serves, but right now I’m getting a hundred. But how?”
“We had a thousand when this journey began.” Rarity recalled, “But in the span of a year we’ve lost a fifth of that. Strange illnesses, aethyric backlash and rebellion have all contributed.” She looked at Discord.
“Even then, only two hundred.” Discord agreed. “Whatever this is, no one onboard could be behind it. Not even the captains have that much power.”
“How’re we suppose’ta fight somethin’ like this?”
“No idea.” Discord admitted, “But we have to try. Let’s round up the ones who are still here, and begin looking for clues as to what happened.”
Twilight raised her head, resisting the urge to avert her unworthy eyes. Before the bedazzled officer lay porcelain perfection: a body that artists spent their entire lifetimes striving to create. No, a body even greater, woven not by mortal hands but by the sublime caress of nature.
Twilight’s breath hitched in her throat, catching the majestic figure’s attention. Perfection beckoned, raising a hand and gesturing for Twilight, inviting her into an embrace.
“Oh, Lumina…” Twilight moaned, feeling heat flare up throughout her body, but mainly down below.
“Yes?” The voice was curious, neutral and strangely close despite Lumina being a room awa…
Twilight’s eyes – her real ones – snapped open, and took in the sight of Lumina leaning over her. The Captain’s eyes held amusement, yet she was blushing lightly.
“I-I-I-I-“ Twilight stammered, trying to kickstart her brain while her face strove to emulate a tomato. “This i-isn’t what it s-sounds like.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” Lumina replied diplomatically, seeing Twilight’s shoulders sag in relief. “Now get up, we’re in a bad position here.”
Twilight looked around, expecting to find Lumina’s (admittedly familiar) quarters. Instead, they seemed to be inside a room made entirely of some smooth metal, populated by hundreds of Eclipse crew members. Images of Sanaer’s ship assailed Twilight’s memories, and she gulped.
“Where are we?”
“I cannot say.” Lumina admitted, “But it is safe to assume that we’re not on board our ship.”
“Who comes forth saluting, the wise? Who steps and falters, beneath the disguise?”
“What’s going on?” Twilight exclaimed, hearing a burning voice inside her mind. Saluting? The disguise? What?
“Twilight, move!” Lumina extended her half, and the next thing Twilight knew she was flying away, landing in a heap several metres later. A wall had risen, cutting Twilight off from Lumina, and where she’d beheld a room full of people, only a narrow corridor remained.
The First Officer’s eyes widened, and she began scanning the corridor, searching for the voice. It did not take long to find: Captain Oblivia lay roughly fifty metres ahead, kneeling close to the floor and clutching her abdomen. The ground beneath her was stained in red, a pool of blood expanding by the second.
“Heal… me.” Oblivia gurgled, doubling over in pain.
Twilight picked herself up and broke into a stumbling run, her first instinct being to help Oblivia.
Who steps and falters, beneath the disguise?
Twilight froze mid-step. Someone had mentioned a disguise, a trick. Was this it?
Another gurgle came from Oblivia’s throat as she collapsed onto the floor entirely, fighting to breathe as the life departed her veins. Twilight bit her lip, tasting blood. There was no way she could leave Oblivia to her fate if this were real: but neither could she walk blindly into a trap.
“Hold on.” Twilight called out, crouching. She was still several metres away where she stopped, a violet aura forming around her hand. From this aura emerged a spectral claw, flowing down to Oblivia’s wound. Twilight’s probing claw had barely reached Oblivia when she realized that there was no wound, and a moment later Oblivia exploded.
No, the fake Oblivia exploded, waves of black energy emanating from her shrivelled husk. One such wave hit Twilight’s claw, and instantly the aura faded as every last shred of energy was devoured. Twilight shuddered, now aware of what her fate would have been had she not proceeded with caution.
That’s when she noticed the screams.
Coming from every direction, men and women were screaming in agony, a symphony of pain that dimmed a little with each passing life. Only when the echoes of the last scream had faded did the walls separating Twilight and Lumina crumble, turning to dust before the First Officer’s eyes.
“Twilight!” Lumina had run over the moment the walls fell, and pulled Twilight into a deep hug, ignoring all semblance of protocol.
“Lumina!” Twilight cooed, letting herself sink into the embrace. “Did you see a vision too?”
“Yes, tempting me towards it.” Lumina noted. “Neither of us were fooled, but it seems not everybody was so lucky.”
Twilight pulled away at that, scanning the entirety of the metallic room once more. The sight greeting her was grim. Though Twilight had no way of knowing exactly how many crew members had been present, it was obvious that around half of them had fallen to the insidious trap. Desiccated husks littered the floor, drained of vitality. Some were held in the embraces of others, and scattered pockets of weeping could be heard.
“Whoever did this is going to pay,” Lumina murmured, so quietly that Twilight barely heard it. Even so, the First Officer shuddered, already pitying whatever had invited her Captain’s wrath. Only one incident in memory had stirred Lumina’s wrath, but the sights of that day were forever etched into Twilight’s soul.
Both Lumina and Twilight turned, surprise fading into relief as Oblivia came into view. Behind her, Flutter Hart followed meekly, wincing whenever her eyes met one of the husks.
“It’s not your fault,” Twilight assured the Chief Medic, pulling her into a hug as soon as she was in reach.
“I know,” Flutter Hart whispered. “But I still feel awful. So many dead… There must be hundreds.”
“Hundreds?” The word chilled Twilight to the bone as she glanced around once more, reassessing the population of the room. There was no doubt about it: at least a hundred were gone, likely more. If only she knew how many were in the room to begin with…
“Counting the dead might have to wait.” Oblivia quipped, pointing at the far end of the room. Something in her voice betrayed urgency, despite the measured calm of the Captain’s inflection, leading all those within hearing distance to follow her lead.
Water was being pumped in, from one end of the sealed cubical room. If nothing was done, they would be drowned.
“To fight the flow of time, I sink. In weakness, find the path ahead. Ignore the right, embrace the fear, dread. The toll, calling from the brink.”
Twilight staggered as the voice left her mind once more. She stared at the rising waters for a moment, before wistfully turning her eyes to Lumina.
“I guess I should have taken those swimming lessons after all.”