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Among the Astrals

Chapter Text

Where am I?

The question bloomed in him like blood spilled in water before receding as if on a retreating tide. The answer eluded him, though he knew he was warm, cradled snug and safe. He was drifting again when the thought returned, louder, more insistent, outlined with a distant rumble that he could not source-

Where am I?

He kept his eyes closed even as the rest of him began to stir, legs untucking and stretching out beneath him, fingers unfurling from closed fists. His feet pressed against something hard and rough. Now he opened his eyes, but saw only dim light filtered through a strange, yellow-tinged liquid that blurred his vision.

The wrongness of being submerged so seized him as he opened his mouth to suck in a breath. The fluid, viscous and bitter, was in his mouth, his nose and throat, but despite this he did not feel the expected desperate tug for air from his lungs. Whatever this was, his body was satiated by it, and he did not need the air his mind now instinctively craved. Still, the vestiges of fear began to crowd the edges of his already muffled vision as that question again forced itself to the front of his mind-

Where am I?!

He reached out a hand and was met again by the same rough surface his feet had connected with. This confinement, moments ago, had felt snug and reassuring, but now those soft whispers of fear were transforming into harsh stabs of panic. He had to get out of here. Whatever this was, whatever his lungs felt, he needed air, and light, and freedom.

As if in response to his very thoughts, a jagged crack tore through the wall before him, letting in a thin stream of harsher, more sharply defined light. He reached forward to grip each side of this new fracture and pulled at them with all the strength he could muster. For a moment he was met with resistance, but then there was an audible crrrrrrack, and he tumbled through the newly formed hole in his prison, out and down, down onto a cold, hard surface, a wash of the thick fluid following after him.

His head caught the brunt of the fall, and a new, crueler darkness claimed him, even as he still wondered, daze and pained-

Where… am I?

Chapter Text

With a gasp consciousness flooded him; a full, brutal consciousness. He was acutely aware of the throbbing pain in his head, of the gelatinous liquid he now coughed hoarsely from his lungs, of a sharp chill that scraped across his wet, naked body. He looked up and saw above him the thing from which he had escaped - a six-foot pod, waxen and leathery, split at the bottom - or rather, the top, as the bottom was secured to the ceiling above by fibrous tendrils as thick as his legs.

He stared at it, uncomprehending, and then his gaze shifted to another pod next to it, still swollen with its brood. Its surface began to ripple and then crack, and from without he could see how the fluid within spilled forth, abandoning without ceremony the being within that it had nourished for... for however long they’d been here.

They. The word caught him off guard, and he grappled with it. Who am I? Who is they? More of me? More like me?

Where am I suddenly became a far more pressing, frightening question.

Who am I?

Where that knowledge should have been, there was only a hollow inside him. Nothing about this place offered answers. The room he was in would have felt large but for the oppressive mass of pods he now saw hanging from the ceiling, jostling one another for space, some dim and lifeless, others bloated and close to bearing their fruits. From where he lay, sprawled, he could see alcoves in the opposite wall. Their contents were shadowy, sharply angled and strangely menacing.

The light in here was as peculiar as it had been while he was inside the cocoon - oddly diffused, and without an obvious source. The brilliant beams that had coaxed him from his sleep were nowhere to be seen. He found himself squinting to try and make out the person newly freed from their pod and was relieved when he felt recognition stir as the man sat up.

‘Ignis,’ he croaked, and like a key that name unlocked a dozen others he knew, including his own.

‘Noct!’ Ignis’s sense of duty must have overridden any confusion or fear he felt, because he was already up and racing over to Noct’s side, slipping slightly in the fluid that had been dispensed with him. Despite this indignity, he moved toward his Prince like someone with a purpose.

Noct was seized by the improbable notion that Ignis surely understood what was going on. He clung to this idea like a newborn to his mother as he was hauled to his feet by his trusted Advisor, who looked him over for injury without batting an eye at their shared nakedness.

‘Are you hurt, Highness?’

The floor beneath them shook, and the rumbling that had woken Noct from his slumber suddenly had an explanation. Wherever this room was, it was under attack. The indistinct, nondescript rumbling became the thunder of war, and a regular thrum that Noct had incorrectly attributed to his own pounding heart risen in his ears was in fact a klaxon, warning of incoming fire. He could make out a voice, too, curt and lilted with an accent he couldn’t place-

Warning. Hull breach on decks 5, 7, and 12. Core systems offline.

‘That sounds bad,’ he said, ignoring Ignis’s question.

Life support – offline.

‘Very bad,’ Ignis agreed.

Gravity centrifuges 2 and 3 offline.

‘Gravity what?’

‘I couldn’t say.’

Noct felt his hope that Ignis might know where they were drain away at those words. Without warning, the whole place shook violently, cocoons above them jostling, a furious shock rocking the floor beneath them, as if they stood upon a deck struck by a wave. Noct stumbled, and Ignis grabbed hold of his arm again to stop him going over.

ASTRAL retrieval units offline.

Above them, the sound of carapaces tearing open. They both looked up to see two more of the pods distending before splitting open and shedding their captives to the floor, the yellowed gunge coating their skin.

‘Gladio!’ this time Noct recognized one of the shapes at once, though the Prince’s Shield looked almost alien now, shiny and vulnerable, sliding across the wet floor as he tried to stand. He looked at Noct, uncomprehending for a few moments, and then recognition lit his eyes.

‘Prince Noctis,’ he rose, a shadow of the intimidating figure Noct once knew, but a welcome addition to their scant numbers. ‘Ignis,’ he added, catching sight of his colleague. ‘What’s going on?’

‘We have to get Noct to safety,’ said Ignis, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

Behind Gladio, the fourth of them to emerge began coughing, spluttering on all fours. The three of them turned to see Prompto, best friend to Noct and vague acquaintance to the others, try and fail to get to his feet as the shaking, slick floor conspired against his efforts. With assistance from Gladio he was able to stand, pale and visibly afraid even in this low light.

‘What’s going on?’ he asked, unknowingly echoing Gladio’s question from mere seconds before, but an exchange of looks between the group told him what Noct was starting to accept – none of them knew.

‘Is there anyone else?’ Ignis looked to the pods above them, but none now seemed to be moving. The ones from which they had emerged were starting to disintegrate, folding in on themselves and turning to dust. Noct could hardly believe he’d been inside one of those things. Who put them in there? And why?

When he voiced this query, Ignis shook his head. ‘Questions later, Highness. Let us assume for now the worst of intentions, that this is some Empire scheme, and that we must flee it at once.’

‘Ignis is right,’ Gladio agreed without hesitation, ‘wherever this place is, it sounds ready to fall apart.’

He was right. There was an awful groaning sound now, a screeching of metal loud enough to drown out the klaxon that was still clamouring insistently.

‘Time to go,’ said Noct.

Chapter Text

Not for the first time, Noct found himself indebted to Ignis’s quick thinking and sharp observation skills. Left to his own devices he might have walked the room’s perimeter, trying to feel out a door or hatch, but despite the screeching of metal and sounding alarms, his Advisor implored them to take a moment, take stock and assess.

‘We none of us have clothes,’ he said, ‘we’re wet, we’re cold, we’re disoriented. We won’t get far like this.’

‘Sure. Let’s just swing by the mall on our way out,’ said Prompto, hugging himself for scant warmth, teeth starting to clack in his skull. ‘Unless you have a better idea?’

Despite being naked and covered in slime, Ignis still managed to summon a look so withering Prompto had the decency to look abashed. ‘Use sense. This place is no accident. It’s by design.’ He pointed to the alcoves Noct has noticed earlier. ‘I believe it is expected that we go there.’

‘I’ll check it out first,’ said Gladio, placing a large hand on Noct’s chest to stop him stepping forward himself. Noct felt a familiar flash of annoyance course through him. Prince or no Prince, with his Shield and Advisor around he was always relegated to the position of a child in need of constant supervision. Then he considered the alternative – being stuck here alone – and found himself grateful for the overbearing pair.

It turned out that the shadows that Noct had marked as being menacing were little better up close. While there were perfectly benign lockers containing towels and what looked to be black wetsuits - perhaps they were on a ship at sea, Ignis theorised upon seeing them - each alcove also housed some sort of mechanical arm, primed with a thick, sharp needle. Beside each arm a dim panel read OFFLINE in thick red lettering.

‘Glad those aren’t working,’ said Noct.

‘Indeed,’ Ignis agreed. ‘Are we all suited up?’

The other three nodded. They looked like seals, their still hair wet and slicked down to their heads. No longer naked, Noct certainly felt less vulnerable, but they weren’t safe yet. The floor beneath them was shaking and tilting, throwing them off balance at steeper and steeper angles. He looked to Ignis for direction, and only then realised that the other man didn’t have his glasses.

‘Can you see?’ he asked. The idea of the Empire stripping Ignis of his glasses galled him a little. It felt like an insult on top of everything else.

‘I can see well enough,’ Ignis said sharply, ‘it’s not important. We need to leave. There’s nothing else in here than can help us.’

‘I don’t expect there’ll be much out there to help us either,’ said Gladio, leading the way past the alcoves toward a single door that lay beyond. Above it the words “Exit to Deck 4” were printed in more of that thick red lettering.

‘No breach was reported for deck four,’ said Ignis, recalling the announcement from earlier, ‘I suggest we move onward, highness.’

‘Yeah,’ said Noct, ‘right.’ And onward they went, Gladio taking point while Ignis covered the rear, though without their weaponry Noct wasn’t sure what they’d do if they ran into Niffs and ended up in a fight.  He made multiple attempts at accessing his dimensional room but found himself unable to reach it.

‘We know the Empire have been working with damping fields,’ said Ignis when Noct informed him of this, ‘once we’re away from here, try it again. The range of such fields is limited to onboard transmitters, I believe.’

They still weren’t sure where “here” was, the plain gunmetal corridors beyond the pod room offering little in explanation. They were wide, able to walk ten people abreast with ease, and various screens and doorways pitted the walls. All the screens were OFFLINE. At the first junction they encountered they at last found clear signage, with large, colour-coded arrows indicating direction. Some of the options made little sense to Noct - what was a “gravshaft”? or a “holodeck”? - but ‘Docking Bay’ was something they all understood.

‘So, we are aboard a ship,’ said Ignis as they moved to follow the directional arrow toward the bay.

‘A sinking ship, from the sound of it,’ said Gladio. ‘And no crew anywhere.’

‘They probably hit up the life rafts,’ said Prompto. ‘Ships have to have those, right? For emergencies? Maybe we could get in one?’

‘Under international maritime law-’ Ignis began

‘Save the legal lesson for later,’ Noct snapped, his bare feet aching from running across the riveted metal floor, ‘we want to get off this tub, we need to take whatever we can find on the dock. Besides, we want a proper boat to get away, not a raft or whatever. I’m not drifting away at sea with you three for company.’

Getting to the docking bay was not as straightforward as following the signs. The ship was no longer taking fire, it seemed, but she was listing rapidly, and the emergency lighting flickered from dimness to darkness and back, throwing them deeper into the unknown. The klaxon had now ceased blaring, and the voice declaring breached hulls and damaged systems was silent too. That didn’t make Noct feel any better.

‘The docking bay may well be submerged by now,’ said Ignis.

‘I love it when you’re optimistic,’ said Gladio. ‘It’s really-’

He stopped midsentence. Noct didn’t need to ask why. Inexplicably, the floor had fallen away from them. They drifted awkwardly in the open space of the corridor, floating. Noct felt his brain spinning wildly to try and calibrate this new experience and found nothing comparable. For a few seconds they all stared at each other, bewildered, and then something clicked.

‘Gravity centrifuges,’ Noct said to Ignis, ‘the announcement said they were failing.’

‘I…’ Ignis stared back at him, unwilling to join the dots.

Noct was suddenly struck with an idea so terrible that he couldn’t voice it. ‘Docking bay. Let’s go, grab the walls, pull yourself along, just go! Go!’ He pushed himself off from the wall behind him and slammed in Gladio, forcing him forward. ‘Move, move!’

It couldn’t be right. It was a stupid idea. Even as the air grew thinner and they continued down the corridor by pulling along the walls, propelling themselves forward like swimmers, Noct couldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t believe it.

The docking bay access was split into multiple compartments. There was a large waiting room, filled with chairs bolted to the floor, otherwise empty. Screens that had maybe listed arrivals and departures lined the walls, now blank aside from that familiar red OFFLINE. Beyond the waiting room, past now unmanned checkpoints, an outer corridor backed onto multiple hatches, each twice the height of a man.  There were about thirty hatches. The sheer scale of it was dizzying.

‘Pick a door?’ Prompto suggested.

‘And get it open how?’ Gladio countered. ‘These things are reinforced, shut tight. We’re floating around without a clue!’

For a few moments they did just that, drifting aimlessly, unable to proceed. Then Ignis spoke up.

‘A vital system that depends on electronics to operate will surely have some sort of manual override. Look for a panel, anything like that.’

The air was growing thinner still. As they searched, Noct found himself having to take deeper breaths, found his lungs wanting. When he located what they were looking for, his cry to the others barely carried. They joined him, looking equally harried, and they prised the panel open. Ignis looked at the switches and buttons beneath.

‘As I suspected… mechanical, able to run on low power systems. I don’t… I don’t recognise the configuration-’

‘Just press the big red button!’ said Prompto, leaning forward to do just that himself, slamming his open palm down on it.

For a moment, nothing happened. Ignis was opening his mouth in a snarl to rebuke the younger man when suddenly the third hatch along from them began to open with an unpleasant grinding sound. But open was open, and Noct was going to take it.

Beyond the hatch they found a cylindrical room, fitted with what looked like sprinkler systems above them. At the other end, another hatch, smaller and adjacent to what Noct prayed was safety. After an abrupt search Gladio located and turned a manual crank which shut the hatch doors tight behind them.

‘Okay,’ said Noct, ‘now through that one.’ He indicated the smaller hatch opposite.

‘Wonder why they have all this security stuff for some boats,’ said Gladio.

‘It’s not security,’ said Ignis softly. ‘This part isn’t, at least.’

‘Then what is it?’

Ignis and Noct exchanged a look, and Noct nodded at him to continue.

‘I believe it is an airlock, to prevent vacuum flooding the main ship during docking procedures. We aren’t at sea, Gladio. We’re in space.’ 

Chapter Text

If anyone but Ignis had said it, Gladio might have laughed. Noct had been on the receiving end of that derisive, throaty chuckle more times than he could count. But Gladio’s respect for Ignis must have run deeper than Noct knew, because the next words out of his mouth were ‘Okay. So what do we do?’

Ignis seemed relieved that his colleague had not attempted to argue the point. Perhaps the floating in zero gravity really was too much to ignore. ‘Beyond that hatch, hopefully, will be a small vessel we can commander and use to escape.’

‘Am I the only one freaking out?’ Prompto asked, voice an octave higher than usual.

‘Not at all,’ Ignis’s tone was far more level, ‘but before we fall apart we need to get away from here.’ “Here” remained a nebulous concept, but he didn’t address that. Another thing to save for later, along with falling apart and freaking out. Noct appreciated his advisor’s sheer force of will when it came to self-control.

Noct took a deep breath of thin, sour air. Time was running out. ‘Let’s see what’s behind door number one, then.’

He hoped against hope that it was open air, open ocean. Sea and sky. He wanted more than anything for their hypothesis, ludicrous as it was, to be wrong. He wanted them to be on a sinking Empire ship in enemy waters. He wanted to see Niff lifeboats surrounding them, ready to pick them up, arrest them, hold them hostage. He wanted it more than he had ever thought possible.

Released by another manual lever courtesy of Gladio, the hatch hissed open and revealed what lay beyond.

It was anticlimactic. They were looking into the interior of another ship, an entryway that led into a corridor far smaller than the ones they’d been navigating so far. There were no windows here, only more empty stretches of metallic surface, the grey occasionally struck with accents of darker grey. But the air within smelled fresher, and they couldn’t exactly turn back.

Noct pulled himself inside. He ignored Gladio’s annoyed huff - he wasn’t about to wait for his Shield to scout ahead. There wasn’t time. If there was something dangerous in here, it didn’t matter which of them went in first.

As he crossed the threshold from the airlock into the ship, he was acknowledged by the low lights going up, temporarily blinding him, and in that same moment he fell heavily to the floor. Gravity applied in here, and it had not been forgiving. He hit the deck face first with a thud, and he felt his nose swell and burst with blood at the impact.

‘Noct!’ Ignis rushed forward, forewarned and able to avoid falling similarly as his feet found the floor. He lifted his bloodied Prince and began to inspect the injury, but Noct batted him away, impatient. Ignis knew when to persist and when to admit defeat, and this occasion was the latter. ‘We’ll want to head for the forward deck,’ he said instead, ‘locate the ship’s controls. The cock pit.’

 Behind them, Prompto and Gladio had also successfully boarded, and behind them the ship’s outer door swept closed with a decisive clunk.

‘We have power, then,’ Gladio observed.

‘Lights, gravity, air,’ Ignis nodded. All things they’d taken for granted until a short while ago. How long had it been, Noct wondered? How long had they spent orienting their way off this beleaguered ship? All sense of time had left him, overwhelmed by the fear. They might still be wrong. They might be in a submarine, or a diving bell, or any other type of sea vessel. Now that their feet were anchored firmly to the floor, their earlier hypothesis seemed even more preposterous.

Gladio seemed to be thinking along the same lines. ‘Space, Ignis?’ he asked as they began to move, following the corridor and then, on Noct’s initiative, taking a left in the hope it led somewhere useful. ‘That’s a pretty wild theory.’

‘Based on the fact we were floating in zero gravity due to the failure of artificial systems,’ said Ignis curtly, ‘Noct and I heard the announcement, before you and Prompto... escaped your cocoons.’

That word felt strange to Noct’s ears. In his head, he’d been calling those weird vessels they’d come out of ‘pods’. Cocoons implied something different. He shuddered and pressed onward, letting Gladio and Ignis continue their discussion uninterrupted.

‘Everything I’ve seen so far has said we’re on a ship, sure,’ said Gladio, glossing over the mention of their strange prisons, ‘but space? Ignis, no one’s even tried a rocket launch in the last what, forty years? Not since the-’

‘The Moribus-Rimor shuttle disaster, I know,’ said Ignis, ‘I’m simply working with the evidence available.’

There was a short silence, and then Prompto said, ‘does anyone know how to drive this thing?’

‘One problem at a time, Prompto,’ said Noct.

They must have boarded on the ship’s forward flank, because it didn’t take them long to find the forward deck and what had to be the cock pit. Nothing here was signposted – the ship was simply too small for a crew in the know to need directions. The cockpit held five seats, all fitted with belts, the foremost seat attending to a console that sat before a dark screen.

‘Where’s the window?’ said Prompto.

‘If there’s vacuum out there, you don’t want glass being the only thing keeping it at bay,’ said Ignis. ‘I doubt this ship has any windows at all.’

‘So we’re blind,’ said Gladio.

Noct sat down in the pilot’s chair, looking over the console. It was mostly blank, with just a couple of lights indicating it was working at all. There were no buttons that he could see, no instructions, no handy manual. He was going to have to improvise.

‘Nothing to lose now,’ he said, and he placed his palm on it.

For a second, nothing happened, and then the whole thing powered up with a haptic-lit interface, blinking lights in orange, green and blue. Some outputs he could read and parse – oxygen nominal, gravity panels nominal – but others remained a mystery without context. He was able to navigate a menu to toggle the screen’s display, and that too sprung to life, revealing that what he’d assumed to be a single large screen was in fact multiple small ones tiled together, some scrolling text readouts, others mapping graphs that measured levels of... something. It all seemed unnecessary when what he wanted was to see outside.

‘Cameras,’ Ignis was standing at his shoulder, pointing the option out on the console menu, ‘internal and external.’

‘Okay. Let’s see what’s out there.’

The screen switched display to the external, forward facing cameras. Silence seized the cabin.

They were, it turned out, still within the docking bay. But this part of the bay wasn’t designed for humans to wander – it housed instead the docking arms and platforms required to stow a multitude of ships. Noct could see small spider-like robots crawling around, attending to repairs, replacing worn machinery parts even as the ship they served foundered. The bay ran a good five hundred metres like this, and then it simply ended, giving way to-

‘Space,’ Ignis confirmed, his throat dry.

Beyond the bay, darkness. Stars. The night sky, but immediate and beckoning them. A cold, endless expanse.

‘How,’ said Prompto, ‘how is this possible?’

‘Let’s get moving first,’ said Noct, looking back to the console as an excuse to tear his eyes away from the terrible truth outside, ‘let’s get away from here.’

‘Then we can regroup,’ Ignis agreed. ‘Take stock.’

‘Okay, again, gotta ask,’ said Prompto, ‘does anyone know how to drive this thing?’

‘While I’m glad you’re here to give voice to the most pressing of our concerns,’ said Ignis stiffly, bending down next to Noct to observe console panel with him, ‘you should get yourself sat down and strapped in. You too, Gladio. We mustn’t risk more injury.’

‘Come on, champ,’ Gladio steered Prompto toward one of the seats, ‘let the brainiacs handle this.’

Together, Ignis and Noct successfully located the launch sequence initiation routine on the console, through a mixture of intuit and trial and error. Around them, everything was eerily quiet. Whatever conflict had damaged the larger ship seemed to have ceased. Noct hoped it stayed that way long enough for them to get out, but at the same time he had to wonder, where would they go?

‘One question at a time,’ said Ignis, echoing Noct's own words from earlier, when he put voice to this fear. ‘Wherever we are, we’ve been held against our will. Getting away from here is the first step. The rest will follow.’

‘Do you really believe that?’ Noct asked.

Ignis didn’t answer that.

The launch sequence, it turned out, was not quite their golden ticket. Authorisation required for full flight access said an artificial voice, again with the strange accent that Noct couldn’t place. Without a verified NIB, you cannot proceed.

‘What’s a NIB?’

‘Stop asking me questions I can’t answer, Noctis,’ Ignis hissed, patience finally evaporating, white knuckles gripping the console. ‘I know as much as you do.’

Without a verified NIB the voice repeated, insistent, you cannot proceed.

‘Okay, so we can’t go anywhere,’ said Noct, the panic of such a defeat starting to curdle in his chest. ‘We’re stuck.’

In case of emergency the voice offered helpfully after a full minute of miserable silence lifeboat mode may be initiated.

Noct and Ignis exchanged looks.

‘Lifeboat mode?’

‘Lifeboat mode.’

Noct took a breath, and tapped the green INITIATE button.

Chapter Text

They were drifting aimlessly through the vast emptiness of space.

It turned out that lifeboat mode had a single purpose: to carry its passengers as far away from a failing mothership as could be deemed safe, and then to keep them alive while awaiting rescue. In order to escape possible radiation exposure from imploding drive cores, they had been shuttled a very, very long way from where they started - their ship of origin wasn't visible from any of the external cameras. While the lights were on and oxygen was recycling with a hum through the filters, they were locked out of the mainframe and the navigation system. The distress beacon was automated, and they couldn't specify the direness of their straits to anyone who might pick the signal up.

 And now they were drifting.

‘Drink this,’ Ignis instructed, and Noct did as he was told. The coffee was lukewarm and acidic, but it did the job. The shuttle’s current cache of long-life food was enough to feed a full crew of five without restocking for one month. Out here, a month was simultaneously an eternity and an eye blink. Ignis had taken it upon himself to ration what was available in a manner that he assured them should stretch to nearly three months, which they all accepted without protest. There were much bigger issues to discuss.

Like the fact they were in space.

‘Okay. So. What do we remember last?’ said Noct.

They were sitting in the canteen area of the ship, which had a single polished metal table with affixed benches, a coffee machine, and the food dispensary. A pile of towels used to dry off the last of the pod-liquid sat in the corner, soggy and looking as miserable as Noct felt. The coffee was terrible, but the feeling of a warm mug clasped between the fingers brought comfort. More comfort than the conversation, at least.

‘I remember walking home from college,’ said Prompto. ‘From a meeting with a tutor. I’d just decided to drop out ‘cause it wasn’t really working for me, so I was feeling pretty bummed. Then I got a call from Noct... and that’s it. Blank after that.’

Noct momentarily considered commiserating with Prompto over the fact he'd dropped out – the guy had hardly been an academic star at school, so Noct had been pretty surprised when he took a swing at college. But in the scheme of things, it didn't really seem important anymore.

‘Okay. So that's Prompto. Specs?’

Ignis considered. ‘I recall being at the Citadel. I was... going about my usual duties. There had been a mid-level council meeting about... classified matters.’ He paused, and then apparently decided to hell with "classified". ‘It was about the Empire’s new technological capabilities, and how ours compared. We found Insomnia’s technology was coming up dreadfully short, possibly due to the Empire’s comparative lack of ethical standards in their research. Then I was... called somewhere. I remember my phone going off. It was Noct, asking me to meet him. Then, nothing.’

A queasy feeling had begun to congeal in Noct’s stomach. ‘Gladio. Scared to ask. Is the last thing you remember me calling you?’

Gladio nodded. ‘I was at home, with Iris.’ Her name came out stilted, pained. Obviously now they were no longer fleeing for their lives, he had time to ruminate on the whereabouts of his sister, and his father, and how he had no way of knowing the answer. ‘Got a call, from you. And that’s it.’

They all looked at Noct.

‘I don’t remember calling you,’ he admitted, after a short spell. ‘I remember... I’d finished my meetings for the day, my weapons training, all that crap. I was heading to my apartment when my dad’s car pulled up. Must’ve been a couple of blocks away. The door opened, and...’ he trailed off, trying to remember, but only a hazy darkness met him. ‘Useless,’ he concluded, ‘I can’t remember anything that might explain... anything.’

‘The situation is unprecedented,’ said Ignis somberly. ‘We cannot deny what is in front of our eyes. We were taken, and held aboard the larger vessel, in those cocoons. To what purpose, I cannot say, but they seem to have made effective prisons. As our nation's enemy, the Empire are the most likely culprits for enforcing such captivity. The vessel was attacked or sabotaged, perhaps by... by our own forces.’ He looked doubtful, and then changed course. ‘But we don’t have forces out here. Insomnia wasn’t working on a space program, that I knew of. I find it unlikely that in the time between our capture and now, such vessels would have been developed and launched.’

‘How much time is it, though? We have no idea what day it is, what year it is,’ Noct countered. ‘We could have been in those pods for months, maybe even a year or two.’

‘Yes,’ Ignis conceded, ‘we could have. But you don’t manufacture and crew space ships in a matter of months, even with Insomnia's impressive industrial output. I’m afraid we cannot presume rescue from Insomnia is coming, that it could even reach us. We have to proceed under the assumption that we are on our own.’

That statement plunged them all into an icy, horrified silence.

‘This has to be a nightmare,’ said Prompto. ‘I’m gonna wake up, and I’m gonna tell Noct all about it, and he’s gonna laugh at me because it’s insane. It’s insane!’

‘Please calm yourself,’ said Ignis. ‘This is not the time to panic.’

‘Not the time to panic? Are you serious? We woke up in those things, whatever they were, those gross, slimy things.  We’re stuck on a ship we can’t control, in the middle of space! There’s so much going on that we don’t understand – we, not just me! I’m not the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on, you don’t either!’ Prompto blundered on, going a little red in the face.

‘Used to you having the answers, Ig,’ Noct agreed, voice quiet.

Ignis bristled. ‘I’m sorry. I have none, aside from what can be gleaned through observation. Our prerogative now is to accept the situation, and survive it. I will take another look at this vessel’s computer system and see if I can get it to tell me anything useful. Even the date would be a good start. But it’s Empire technology, I don’t recognise its manner of operation. I fear it was sheer, dumb luck that Noct was able to get this thing to launch at all.’

Noct thought back to slapping his hand against the console to wake it, to muddling through menus and screens of data, and nodded. ‘If the ship itself hadn’t suggested lifeboat mode, we’d still be stuck. If we hadn’t found that panel in the docking bay, we’d still be stuck. If we’d met a locked door or any Niff soldiers, we’d probably be dead.’

‘So we got lucky,’ said Gladio. ‘And that luck’s gonna run out, sooner or later.’

‘Lucky,’ Prompto snorted, mostly to himself, ‘yeah, real lucky.’ He buried his face in his hands.

Ignis pursed his lips, irritated, but said nothing. Prompto wasn’t his concern, Noct was, and he looked to his Prince now. ‘I will do everything I can to protect you,’ he said, ‘but I’m afraid we are all at a serious disadvantage. I suggest we hold to hope that someone finds us, and that that someone is an ally.’

Throat dry, Noct nodded. He sipped his coffee to quench his thirst and grimaced at the bitter, slightly sour taste. ‘Hold to hope,’ he echoed, voice barely a whisper. ‘Guess that’s all we’ve got right now.’

Another silence followed, and then Ignis stood. ‘I’ll see what the situation is with sleeping quarters,’ he said. ‘We could all use some rest. Things might seem better once we’ve had some sleep.’

Privately, Noct didn’t think anything could make this seem better, but he nodded anyway.