Out of Touch

by ToixStory

Chapter 1: The Beast Within - I

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My name is Tinker. When I was a kid, I wished to travel amongst the stars. It’s a common enough dream for a mare raised on a colony world far from the more populated star systems. We relied on massive, fish-like starships to brave the vast gulf between worlds and to deliver the goods made in our planet’s many factories, so it was not uncommon to see the twinkling stars at night that rode down on repulsors and boosters through our atmosphere to land at our planet’s busiest—and only—starport: Journey’s End.

That port had been named after wayward colonists who, after being denied entry to a dozen other worlds, finally settled on this one. I set out for it only a few weeks after my eighteenth birthday. I wouldn’t call it running away, because to run away you have to have something to tie you to your prior location.

That little town, which had no other purpose than to a convenient resting place for supply trams that sped across the surface of our world, had never truly felt like my home. The modest hotel my family had run for travelers who, for whatever reason, wanted to stay the night in our little town, had seemed like only a temporary resting place before I moved on to bigger and better things.

My heart ached to leave, so when the time came for my family to relocate halfway across the continent, I stole away with what money I had saved up and caught the last train for the coast. It took me to Journey’s End, the industrial city on the cliffs where the air was filled with the hum of starship engines. There wasn’t anything on land to interest me any longer, so I decided to take to the stars. I was determined to purchase a ticket on the first transport ship offplanet.

It wasn’t until then, however, that I realized how much such a ticket would cost—much more than I could afford. I tried to at least gain employment on one of the ships, but I found their berths already full of trained sailors and engineers.

My lack of experience hampered me from looking for a job among the construction yards, despite a cutie mark that displayed both a welder’s torch and a wrench. Work hadn’t been given exclusively for cutie marks for centuries, so I was turned away.

I was at the end of my rope and very close to returning home and begging for forgiveness when I finally found a job working at the Utopia Planitia Ship-Breaking Yards just east of the main port. It wasn’t from any sort of interview or bribery that I found that job, however.

I had been lounging at a local bar when a brawl had started around the booths. Perhaps with a little too much to drink myself, I had gone to investigate.

My parents’ hotel had contained a small bar in the basement that managed to stay packed in the busy seasons when the spring burned away into summer, so in my eighteen years I had been witness to a number of scraps and fights. I had even been taught the ways of breaking them up, when it became necessary.

That night, I shoved one of the combatants into the hooves of a few others who would sort him out, and grabbed the other and pulled him into a booth. After a good talking-to, he had calmed down and even thanked me for ending a fight he was sure he would have lost. As it turned out, he worked at the local ship-breaking yard. One explanation later, I had a recommendation; three days and a tram-load of forms after that, a job.

Now, the general idea of ship-breaking sounds like something that may be—if not exciting—at least interesting. It isn’t. Specialized engineers on lease from firms in the city are the only ones who handle the more interesting parts of a space-going vessel like the navigation deck, the medical bay, and the engine room.

For the average worker, ship-breaking involves working with a cutting torch—which the hiring officer had assumed my cutie mark to be, and I hadn’t corrected him—to take large sections of bulkhead down to a manageable size. Some of the skilled labor work in teams, but for the rest of us it’s a line job.

So, as usual, on the last hour of the last day of the working week, I found myself on the assembly line. Or, rather, disassembly line. An old drillship off a team of planetbreakers had come in that morning, and we’d spent the whole day cutting it down.

The bulkheads on a drillship are made to withstand the heat of a planet’s mantle, so the steel is as hard as diamonds. Even after an entire day with the hottest torches we had—as well as burned hooves and tired eyes on the part of us workers—we had only made it through a few medium-sized sections.

As the last piece continued down the line, the stallion across the conveyor belt from me lifted up his welder’s mask and gave a toothy grin. His light gray muzzle still had a small scar running along it from the night at the bar where we first met.

Ponies said that he and I looked alike, though only our coat colors—despite mine being more of a cream color—were close to being the same; his red, frizzy mane was hardly comparable to my blue-green curls. “Long day, eh Tinker?” he said.

“Yeah, tell me about it,” I said, flipping up my tinted goggles.

The floor managers never paid us any attention around quitting time, so we could get away with idle chatting.

“I gotta tell you, Charm, you really had me worried there with that gas overflow from earlier.”

“I guess I did, huh?” he said. He looked around before gently tugging at the light purple charm hanging around his neck that served both as his cutie mark and the reason for his chosen name.

“So, since it’s been such a long day and all, I was wondering if you would want to just relax at our place tonight right after our shift ends?” he asked. “You know, pizza, pop, vidscreen, that sort of thing.”

I tried not to grimace too much, but knew it showed on my face anyhow.

“I’m sorry, Cha’, but you know I’ve got to do a little extra work tonight. Tomorrow’s the market and I have a few touches to put on my gear before we head over there in the morning.”

“I know, but can’t you do that back at home? We can clear off the kitchen table and everything—”

I shook my head. “I’d like to, but we just don’t have the tools there that I can use here. I can’t fit a square peg into a round hole without the proper tools, after all.”

He smiled and gave in.

“I understand.”

Charm had always understood. He’d understood when I hadn’t had any place to stay in the city and needed to crash at his small apartment for a week. Then a month. Then a year, and so on.

He also had understood when I needed an entire room of said apartment for my work, and that he would have to sleep on the couch. Really, I was afraid of the day he wouldn’t understand, and what that would mean.

The shift ended a short while later and all the workers packed up their helmets, masks, goggles, and uniforms before they went home for the weekend. It was a Friday, so everypony’s spirits were up; they would soon be hitting the city’s numerous bars for a night of debauchery.

Charm gave me a nod and a smile before he left along with the crowd, though I knew he would separate from them somewhere along the avenue to head back to our apartment along the wharf.

Meanwhile, though, I had to talk to one of our managers. He was a burly stallion with an ever-present stubble upon his chin and beady eyes that always caught you when you decided it was safe to take just one more unscheduled break. He scowled a lot when he talked.

“You can stay behind just for two hours,” he said. “I’ll be checking the timecodes, and if you’re here just a second longer, I’ll be collecting your next paycheck for myself.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, “can I just have the key already?”

He looked at the small little card in his hoof. “Did you deposit our, uh, agreement into my account already?”

“Did it this morning.”

“. . . fine.” He sighed and handed over the key. “But if it isn’t there, then it’s two paychecks!” he called as he left the building.

The vast metal door slammed shut and I was alone in the main building of the ship-breaking yard. The lights flickered and hummed above me in a steady beat, giving me a soothing tone to work with.

I’d never minded working alone, ever since I’d tinkered with little toys in my attic room back at my parents’ hotel. There was something about sweeping my eyes across the vast workplace of the building and knowing it was all mine, at least for the next two hours.

I walked over to my workstation with a spring in my step and took out a cardboard box, the parts inside seemed to rattle eagerly. Taking apart the coffee machine and old vidscreen that I’d found in an alley had been the easy part, but it was figuring out what to actually do with the assortment of doo-dads and thing-a-ma-bobs that was the hard part.

I dumped them out on the now-still conveyor belt and glared at them, hoping my cutie mark would kick in at some point and help me out.

After a few minutes—or rather, seconds that felt like minutes—of absolutely nothing, I glared at my rump and tried to will it to start glowing. I wanted an idea, at least, even if it was a silly one. Not that the numerous other little gadgets lying around Charm’s apartment weren’t silly . . . or that they sold well.

I tried rearranging the pieces on the table and gazing at them hard and even a little longingly, but still couldn’t see anything. I never set out an actual plan for what I wanted to do with a project, so they tended to be slow going, but tonight it seemed even slower than usual.

So, I decided to do everything in my power to change that. I grabbed a stool from a workstation located across the building and moved it over to my station. I climbed on top and was able to lean over the still conveyor belt to get a full look at the parts. Then, with all my might, I concentrated on them and the desire to see them put together into an object that might be useful to somepony.

I strained and strained and strained some more, until I thought a vein would burst in my head. I thought I could feel . . . something . . . but I didn’t know what. A tingling in the air?

I thought I imagined the feeling until the tingling grew stronger and very real. Then it was everywhere, and I felt like my tail had been plugged into a socket as the room exploded into white light.

The stool toppled to the floor, taking me with it, so I was unable to see what lay at the heart of the white light.

I lay on the ground rubbing a sore spot on my head when I heard the clopping of hooves echoing through the building.

I picked myself off the ground and weighed my options while dusting myself off. On one hoof, somepony had just materialized in a room through magic, which meant they could be a powerful sorcerer . . . or an escaped criminal . . . or even an Everfree Knight!

On the other hoof, somepony had just materialized in a room through magic. Something that didn’t exactly happen every day—outside of the unicorn communes—in the normal, earth pony worlds. At that moment, however, I realized that I did not have much of a choice as said pony seemed to have suddenly appeared directly in front of me.

I slowly looked up at the figure, trying to avoid any sort of confrontation.

It wore a large crimson cloak with a hood that hung down over its face, obscuring it from view. From what little I could see of the pony, it looked to be lavender in color, and around its front legs was wrapped an impressive collection of scars.

“Um, h-hi,” I stammered. “That was a, uh, pretty impressive magic trick you did there.”

The figure seemed to look at me like it was I who had suddenly appeared in the room.

“Time,” it spoke suddenly in a deceptively feminine voice. So it was a mare, it seemed. “What is the time?”

I shot a look at the clock that hung in a cage on the far wall.

“Just about a quarter until seven,” I said.

She—the pony in the cloak—shook her head and sighed. Shook her head so hard, in fact, that the hood came down from her head and fell to her shoulders. Her face was the same color as her legs, and just as scarred. Her mane was darker purple, almost black, with what looked like the remnants of a pink streak.

Most shocking, though, was the tattoo on her face. It was black and ended just below her left eye; it looked like some sort of serpentine beast, but I could not tell exactly what kind. The eye it ended below seemed to glow a deep purple.

Her face showed signs that it had once been much more pleasant, before the scars or the seemingly permanent scowl she displayed as she looked down on me.

“The date,” she said. “I need to know the date.”

“It’s, uh, the fifteenth of March,” I stammered.

“And the year?”

“820,” I replied. “ALR, After Luna’s Return.”

At the time, it seemed crucially important that I include that last bit, though I did not know why.

The mare accepted my information without a change in her demeanor, though she seemed to pause and think about my answer before moving on. She began to walk away, and roughly pushed past me on her way out of the building. Instead of trying the door, though, she simply stared at the wall and was suddenly gone in a flash.

Unsure if what I had witnessed had actually been real, I quickly gathered up my scattered pieces of machinery into a ancient, battered saddlebag I had scrounged off an drunken old spacer.

A quick swipe of the key later, I was out into the dirty, unwashed streets of Journey’s End and safely away from the ship-breaking yard and the mystery of the appearing mare. Or so I thought.

* * *

I washed up on the front porch of our apartment complex like so much trash from streets, which were muddy after a long rain and wash-off coming down from the hills.

Charm buzzed me into our building without protest and I took the stairs two at a time past the broken elevator until I found myself in the little foyer of our apartment. I dropped my bag by the door and trotted over to him.

He sat on the couch in the middle of the room that doubled as his bed, and boredly waved his hoof through channel after channel on the vidscreen. An open pizza box lay on the coffee table in front of him, with half the slices already gone. All the makings of a usual night for him.

“You’re back early,” he said nonchalantly.

“So what,” I said in the same tone. “I just finished early is all.”

He laughed as I took my usual place on the couch beside him and grabbed a slice of pizza for myself.

“So you’re saying that you didn’t actually get anything done?” he said.

“Shut up,” I said, though I included a grin to show I wasn’t really serious.

I don’t think I’d ever stayed mad at Charm for more than few fleeting seconds, even when I’d tried. He just had one of those faces.

Charm grabbed a can of pop and opened it with his teeth. “Then I guess we’ll try to sell some of the old gadgets tomorrow?” he said. “Though what should we rebrand them as this time? Novelty pet toys?”

“Better than last time,” I said. “Who knew that people would bring their kids to a booth advertising ‘marriage enhancements?’”

We both shared a laugh over that and settled in to watch the vidscreen. It was another vapid romantic-slash-comedic series set on the inner colonies about a pair of middle class couples and their upper class friends whose biggest concerns were preparing for kids or trading one high-paying job for another.

Suffice to say, it was our favorite show. Escapism and all that.

A little while into the third episode, though, I was absentmindedly tapping my hoof against the unopened can of cherry-flavored pop in my lap as my mind drifted back to the mare in the crimson cloak. I’d hoped that would have been forgotten as soon as I had returned home, but that wish had turned out to be fruitless.

After a few minutes of relentless tapping, I began, “Charm, have you ever had the feeling that you’re part of something big, but you don’t really know exactly what that thing is?”

Charm swallowed the last bites of pizza and thought for a moment, tugging at his necklace. “Once,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

“Something happened at the yard,” I said. “After everypony else had left and I was working on my new gadgets.”

“Oh yeah, was it the return of the ‘ghost’ that turned out to be a stray cat?” he said lightly.

I shook my head. “No, no, something else. Something . . . real. There was a bright flash of light and suddenly there was this mare in a great red cloak that appeared out of nowhere and asked me what year it was. That was the funny thing, too. She didn’t ask where she was, but when. Then after I told her, she just vanished again.”

Charm’s brow furrowed and the mood in the room suddenly became serious.

“Are you sure this wasn’t just some, I don’t know, some magician practicing a trick? Unicorns are rare here, but there are still a few around.”

“She wasn’t a magician,” I said. “I mean, yes, she was a unicorn and all but she didn’t look to be doing some trick. She had scars all over her, and the way she looked at me . . . she was something more than an ordinary unicorn.”

“And you say she disappeared right after you met her?”

“Just out of the factory, I think. It wasn’t the same kind of flash that she arrived with.”

Charm rubbed the back of his head.

“Well, it doesn’t sound like she was very interested in staying around. Do you think you’ll see her again?”

“Not really,” I admitted, “but the funny thing is, I think I want to.”

Charm raised an eyebrow but said nothing, instead choosing to settle back in and watch our show. I joined him after a time, but the atmosphere of the room didn’t feel quite the same.

Eventually, he shut the vid screen off and we both went to bed early. That night, I dreamed of the mysterious mare and her crimson cloak.

Next Chapter: The Beast Within - II Estimated time remaining: 4 Hours, 13 Minutes
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