Cosmic Lotus
by Bernard Doove


This follows on from the prequel Ad Astra arc in Life, Love, and Death in the House of Path.




 

Departure

 

The auditorium was packed, but it represented only a tiny fraction of the total audience that was waiting for the scheduled event to start. The Lunar Plenary Centre was host to the official start of the most remarkable endeavour by the people of Equis and its Lunar Colony in its history. GemVee cameras were set to broadcast the event to every corner of both the home world and its moon.

Exactly on time, the lights dimmed and a large screen at the back of the stage lit up with the emblem of the Greater Equis Council. Then spotlights picked out the form of a Chrome Changeling princess making her way to the microphone stand in the centre of the stage. The audience started applauding, and continued until Epiphany had settled in front of the mike.

“Gentlebeings of all races, welcome to the official launch of the Cosmic Lotus mission. While I long ago initiated the research that led to the space program, and I have been spending my later years working on this enormous project to help make it viable, one person alone could never hope to do all this. In fact it would not have been possible with just ponies and changelings working towards its success. No, this is the culmination of our many species working together to achieve far more than any of us could do so by ourselves. This unity of vision and purpose did not start with me, of course, but I am proud to be part of it. So let me introduce the progenitors of the House of Path.”

Another spotlight focused on the left wing of the stage, and the first of several people stepped out.

“Lord Long Path,” Pif announced.

The grey-coated stallion bowed in recognition of the applause from the audience before making his way over to the centre of the stage and standing just behind and to the left of Pif. The applause rose again as each founding member of House Path was introduced.

“Lady Roseclaw Path.”

The aging griffon hen showed no infirmity as she strode onto the stage to join her husband.

The spotlight shifted to the right wing.

“Lady Twilight Sparkle, Princess of Friendship.”

Twilight stepped onto the stage and acknowledged the crowd before joining the others.

“Lord Free Agent.”

The ever-grinning griffon-changeling strode onto the stage, waving a wing as he joined his wife.

“And finally, although not part of the original group to start the House, but one whom we consider to have brought us all together as a herd and family, the Mistress of the Moon, Princess Luna.”

With a bang and flash of teleportation, Luna materialised in mid-air above centre stage and fluttered gently down between the two couples, her spread wings draped over them all in a show of unity.

“Way to make a flashy entrance, Mama,” Pif said with smile. The Alicorn of the Moon merely gave her a small grin back. Pif turned her attention back to the audience. “I would now like to ask the pony whose vision began this remarkable journey to address you all today.” She turned her right to gesture. “Dad, will you step up, please?”

Path smiled at his daughter and took her place in front of the microphone. She walked off stage as he waited for the applause to die down before he began his speech.

“One hundred and sixteen years ago, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime to fulfil a dream. It was my mission to go out and learn what I could about different races in order to better understand them and find ways to peacefully co-exist and work with them. Remarkable circumstances gifted me with the means to do this on a grand scale, and the first major interspecies cooperative efforts began between ponies, changelings, and griffons under the auspices of House Path. Through the efforts and support of my beloved wife, Roseclaw, my soulmate, Free, and the Sparkle of Friendship and Harmony, I began the ambitious plan of bringing together our sciences and arts as a means of teaching and learning. From each species we took the best they had to offer, but we never let it rest at that. We continued to strive for greater things.”

“When Princess Luna joined our herd, she also brought a greater dimension to our efforts, not to mention avenues by which we could make better relationships with a couple more species, and yet more knowledge that came with them. That unity of purpose was in part the reason behind the defeat of Nightmare Chrysalis, and overcoming all the other threats to the peace and harmony of Equis ever since. Today, the vast majority of races and nations are proud to be counted among those represented on the Greater Equis Council, and it’s because of this that we are now on the cusp of our grandest project yet – to discover if we are not alone in the universe.”

“The vast array of disciplines that were required to make the Cosmic Lotus project a success cannot be understated. Griffonian engineering, changeling synthetic compounds, Equestrian magitek, Zebrican medicines, rare metals from Minotaur foundries, crystal control systems from the Crystal Kingdom, hydroponic systems from Saddle Arabia, manufacturing techniques from the Lunar Colony – these and so many more contributions were necessary to make this project a reality.”

Path paused to allow the applause the die down before he continued.

“So what do we hope to achieve by this monumental effort? As I said earlier, we hope to find out if there are others in this universe to whom we can extend our spirit of friendship and cooperation, but there is also so much more to be learned while doing so. I would now like to ask Princess Luna to give an overview of what we know and what we hope to learn during this mission.” Path turned around to face the Alicorn of the Moon. “Luna?”

Luna stepped up to the podium with a smile. “Thank you, Lord Path. For thousands of years, it has been my honour and duty to take care of the night sky, and while the Moon is my particular domain, so too have the stars been my responsibility.” Luna’s horn flared and a holographic image of a starfield appeared above the stage. She continued, “But not all of them. I have striven to enhance the night with constellations to beautify it, and sometimes to celebrate occasions, and occasionally to foretell. However, these stars which are mine by right differ from far more distant stars that never moved to anypony’s whim.” The image of familiar constellations faded away to reveal distant and far dimmer stars. “Over the recent centuries, ponies and other races with the questioning mind of true scientists have learned so much more about those stars, and in doing so, discovered the anomaly that we now call the Far Star.” The image finally stopped with the final goal of the mission centred alone in the softly glowing purple night sky.

“There are so many questions that we need to have answered, so many theories to test, and so much science to be done that despite the fact that the mission will take decades, there will be more than enough work to keep all the crew busy. Our understanding of astronomy and physics will grow immensely during the journey, and perhaps we will better understand the grand design of the Great Architect who created our universe. However, it is what we hope to find at the end of our journey that fills us with the greatest anticipation. We have seen the possibility of life at that incredibly distant goal, and where there is life, perhaps there will be new races to meet and learn from. But first we have to get there. I will now ask Princess Twilight Sparkle to give an overview of the mission’s technical requirements.” She turned to the Alicorn of Magic. “Twilight?”

Twilight smiled and moved up to the podium, thanking Luna as the Moon Princess surrendered the microphone. “A project of this magnitude and duration necessitated immense steps forward in materials, technology, and processes. Space is the harshest and most unforgiving of environments, and the Cosmic Lotus will not have the luxury of stopping for repairs or waiting for a rescue party, so everything not only must work, but it must work flawlessly for a long time. That is why preparing for this mission has taken over nine years. Despite the current level of knowledge and experience with space travel, we had to step up everything a notch or two, and the method of propulsion was totally new.”

Twilight’s horn lit up and an image of a small spacecraft appeared. “After the trial run by the Aether Flower unmanned probe, we believe we have ironed out the problems with solar sailing. The sails themselves are graphene sheets with a very thin but highly reflective coating which makes them both extremely light and extremely strong.” The craft showed the sails unfolding into their operational position. “However, first the starship must endure harsh accelerations from rocket boosters and slingshots around the Dim Star and the Sun. Strong thaumic shields are needed to endure the heat of a close pass by the Sun, and later the constant radiation that permeates space.”

“The engineering for the craft alone was a huge task, but unlike the Aether Flower, the Cosmic Lotus has to carry a crew and support them for about forty-four years before it reaches its destination. Long-term life-support systems were required, and a means of producing food and recycling waste in a limited volume had to be found. Lunar Systems had to produce a revolution in their technologies to pull it off, but even so we could not manage with all of the crew that we planned to send. Thankfully, that was one problem that was already as good as solved. Before I ask Lord Free Agent to explain further, I wish to announce that a comprehensive volume detailing every mechanical, material, thaumaturgical, and physical technique that was used to develop the Cosmic Lotus will be available to anyone and everyone after the close of proceedings. I’m sure that it will give you some fascinating reading for years to come.” She turned to her husband and said, “Free, you’re up.”

Free bounced up to the podium in his usual enthusiastic manner. “Thanks, Twi! Many of you know that I’m not just this roguishly handsome griffon, but also the Queen of the Chrome Hive. My hive has been an integral part of House Path since its inception, and together we’ve striven to advance many fields of research. My daughter, Pif, has tirelessly worked to learn new ways to integrate Hive techniques with other technologies, but in this case it took very little adaptation to work for the Cosmic Lotus. So how do you deal with the problem of too many people to support for such an extended period? Put them into hibernation! Changeling healing pods can be adjusted to suit the needs of a patient, up to and including putting them into suspended animation. The pods are self-sustaining and provide for all the occupant’s needs while he or she dreamlessly sleeps away the years.”

Free looked over at Twilight who took the cue to produce an image of a row of pods with various occupants seen through the translucent green shell. Free continued, “For the majority of the voyage, their will only be a basic crew awake – enough to monitor the systems and do any essential maintenance, while the others will be working on the science projects that Luna mentioned. After a set amount of time, these crew members will swap out with others in hibernation and they will take over the tasks. We have enough crew members covering a multiplicity of skills to not only keep the heavy workload of side-projects going, but to also minimise the amount of time on the journey for most crewpersons to be awake to a little over two years. Because the hibernation process suspends physical aging also, no one will age unnecessarily during the journey. However, the journey itself will still take forty-four years, so the personnel who would be chosen to crew the starship had to either have no appreciable ties, or be prepared to leave family and friends behind possibly forever. Choosing suitable candidates was no easy task though, because despite the daunting prospects, House Path did not lack for submissions to the program. Crew members were chosen not only for their skills, but their ability to live and work with others for extended periods. One married couple was included, as well as two pony-changeling bond-friends. To announce the final crew line-up, I will ask Lady Roseclaw to present them to you.” Free turned to the griffoness and said, “They’re all yours, Rose.”

Roseclaw nodded and replaced Free at the podium. “Thank you, Free. As head of the crew selection team, I can tell you that it was no easy task whittling down the list of prospective aethernauts for this mission. To be honest, we did not expect so many applicants considering the unprecedented duration of this mission. The forty-four years that it will take to get to the Far Star was considered too long for some of them, and the skills needed to maintain a ship for that period were of utmost importance. Still, there are considerations for crewmembers other than ship maintenance for a long journey, and we balanced out those factors against their more prosaic skills. Despite all of this, we still had twice as many volunteers as we needed, and we had to disappoint far too many truly remarkable people.”

Roseclaw took a look at her notes before proceeding. “Foremost among our crew requirements were two things – an alicorn and a ship’s commander. A mage-level degree of power is necessary to sustain the mass-reducing spell that will enable the Cosmic Lotus to accelerate to near the speed of light, but no suitable unicorns were found that could sustain the spell for extended periods of time. Thankfully, we have two alicorns who will be undertaking the trip. This will also relieve the load on them as they can swap out to rest and recover during the lengthy period of acceleration. The position of ship’s commander was hotly contested though, and came down to just three candidates. However, one had joined the program since its inception and worked tirelessly to know everything about the craft and its needs, and I am proud to announce that our son, Wandering Path, has been chosen for that role.”

The spotlight shifted to the right wing and Wandering walked out onto the stage, dressed in his starship uniform which covered most of his body excluding head, wings, hooves, and tail.

Roseclaw spoke as Wandering headed over to join the group. “A variation of the ship’s uniform was made for every species on the crew not merely to serve as unite them as a team, but also for its secondary important purpose – protection. Spells woven into the material are designed to save them from an array of possible disasters, up to and including explosive decompression. In that case, a magic force field would retain pressure and breathable air for between half to one hour, depending on the degree of exertion.”

The uniform also looked dashing, and the loud cheers and applause made Wandering blush a little, although you could not tell due to his red pelt. He stood proudly next to his sire, Free, and waited for the applause to die down.

“Next up I present the Second-in-Command and Engineering expert, Commander Galen Bluequill.”

A middle-aged male griffon strode onto stage to stand beside his captain, his size dwarfing the older alicorn.

Roseclaw waited for the applause to die down and then continued. “Every crewmember who has been selected is considered to be a vital part of the mission, and so I will be announcing them in a previously selected random order. First on the list is the Chief of Hydroponics, Fatima Dashar.”

A Saddle Arabian mare walked on stage in ship’s uniform, but with the addition of the traditional halter adornments.

“Chief scientist, Techbird Sunbeak.”

The ancient catbird slowly walked out onto the stage, supported by all the magitek devices that were keeping her alive and productive for years longer than any normal griffon. She had been intimately involved with the Cosmic Lotus program, and had steadfastly refused to be left out, telling everyone, “This is the moment that I have been living for all my life, and I will see it through to the end. Nothing will prevent me seeing this mission to its fulfilment!”

“Chief of the medical department, Doctor Zubon.”

A zebra mare joined them on stage.

“Hibernation specialist, Princess Galena.”

A Violet Changeling came out to stand by the doctor.

“Security Chief and assistant maintenance engineer, Eon Path.”

The dracopony proudly walked on stage to stand next to his family.

“Control systems specialist, Albite Feldspar.”

A crystal pony stallion came out to stand next to Eon.

“Engineer’s mate, Purple Point.”

Joining the others on the stage came a grey-coated unicorn with purple-grey mane, tail, and hooves.

“Head of the Astronomy Division and our second alicorn crewmember, Starry Path.”

Starry walked on stage from the left wing, dressed in the same style uniform although with different markings. She stood by her sire, Path, and waved a hoof in acknowledgement of the applause.

“Chief Navigator and Communications, Playbitz.”

A brown pegasus stallion with black mane, tail and wing-markings fluttered out to join them.

“Geologist, Ortzi Goldbeak.”

Another person flew in, this time a male griffon of the golden eagle/cougar type.

“Magitek Technician, Gizmo Gears.”

A tall and slim orange-coated unicorn stallion pranced onto the stage.

“Biologist, Traveling Soul.”

Another male unicorn followed out Gizmo, this time light brown with a dark brown mane and tail with a single black and white stripe.

“Hydroponics and herbalist, Skye Path.”

A zebra mare with blue stripes instead of the normal black stepped out on stage. Few had ever seen such a strange sight, but she was applauded just as warmly.

“Physicist, Xanth.”

A Chrome Changeling buzzed over from the wings. He had replaced his crest with a bright blue mane to make himself more distinctive.

“Mental Health Counsellor, Random Dawn.”

A unicorn, female this time, yellow with an orange and red mane stepped out.

“Mechanical Engineer and Guard Pony, ColdFire.”

Trotting onto the stage came a small white pegasus mare with a two-tone blue mane and tail. Fangs and tufted ears hinted at thestral in her parentage.

“Mechanical Engineer, Steam Shift.”

The first-ever Blue Changeling aethernaut proudly joined his crewmates.

“Spell Analysis and Maintenance, Moonlit Path.”

The unicorn daughter of Destined and Silk proudly joined the rest, her blonde mane and tail contrasting with her dark blue coat which matched her sire’s.

“Medic and Archivist, Epic Prose.”

A grey-coated pegasus with brown mane streaked with grey, flew onto the stage, looking at the audience through his bifocal glasses.

“Cook, Kale Robe.”

An earth pony stallion with a dark brown mane trotted out.

“Engineer, Radiant Spark.”

A light teal pegasus mare with a light green mane and tail flew out.

“Thaumophysicist, Cosmic Dawn.”

A golden-maned, light brown unicorn mare walked onto the stage.

“Entertainer and Logistics, Willow.”

An Orange Changeling zipped out over the crowd, waving and grinning.

“Biologist and Storyteller, Emerald Green.”

Another pony flew in, but the audience quickly realised that this was an earth pony mare with magitek wings, and she was obviously enjoying the surprise she had caused.

“Linguistics expert, Amethyst Scroll.”

A light grey unicorn mare with light purple mane and tail trotted onto the stage, although she could have just as easily flown in also using her wings which betrayed her changeling hybrid nature. Her hooves shone like the chrome chitin of her sire.

Roseclaw continued to announce every single crewmember of the Cosmic Lotus, and the stage grew crowded with all the varied species that were participating in the mission. Eventually the last one joined the others on stage.

“These brave, dedicated, and skilled people were chosen from among thousands of applicants. An emphasis was put on a variety of skills and personalities with the intent of alleviating boredom and promoting social interaction during the long journey. Our hopes and dreams go with them,” Roseclaw concluded.

“Thank you, Rose,” Path said as he stepped up to the podium once more. “Gentlebeings, this is the moment that you have been waiting for. In mere minutes, the mission will start the first phase of our journey to the Far Star. Captain Wandering Path, please take command of your starship.”

Wandering’s horn lit up, and he teleported directly to the Cosmic Lotus orbiting above them, taking Commander Bluequill along with him. The big screen at the back of the stage lit up to show the bridge of the starship where six stand-by launch crew were waiting to be relieved. Wandering formally took control and teleported them back to their lunar base.

“Starry Path, will you please teleport your staff to the ship.”

Starry smiled and she and a number of the crew standing beside her disappeared.

“Luna and Twilight – will you please teleport the rest of the crew to their ship.”

The two alicorns sent the crewmembers to their appropriate stations within the ship, some appearing on the screen as they joined the bridge crew. When the stage was empty again except for the original five speakers, Path continued.

“Captain Wandering Path – can you hear me?”

I can hear you, Lord Path.

“Commence your mission.”

Scheduled departure time is in eight minutes and forty three seconds. Final systems checks now commencing. All department heads report in.

The bridge crew were seen taking up their stations and busying themselves with checks. In carefully rehearsed order, all of them and those scattered throughout the ship reported that the launch crew had done their job and all was in readiness. Tension grew within the auditorium as the concern for a glitch that would delay the mission made them worry. System after system checked out though.

All systems are nominal. Orbital departure thrust is scheduled for three minutes and thirty-four seconds. All crew secure for acceleration.

That may have been the longest three and a half minutes that anyone had ever endured. There was nothing to do but wait until the calculated moment. With the precisely calculated manoeuvres, there was no such thing as getting off to an early start. It came as a bit of a shock when Wandering spoke up again.

Twenty seconds to departure.

“Go with the guidance of Faust, Son,” Path said.

Thank you, Father. … Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Ignition.

The sound of the rockets firing came through the screen’s speakers, and the crew sank into their chairs. The Cosmic Lotus was on its way.

 


 

Orbital Manoeuvres

 

The departure under thrust might have been uncomfortable, but it massively relieved the tension among the crew. They had done it! They had started the most ambitious project in history. Nothing was going to stop them now. The roaring of the rockets finally stopped after several long minutes, and the ship went into freefall.

Wandering turned to the navigator’s station. “Report, Playbitz.”

The pegasus checked the readings on his console and finally looked up with a smile. “A perfect burn, Captain. Our course is well within accepted parameters.”

Wandering matched the smile with one of his own. Some trivial course corrections might need to be made, but that was not unexpected. “Excellent! Eject rocket boosters.”

“Ejecting rocket boosters, aye,” Playbitz acknowledged.

There was a slight shudder as explosive bolts released the solid fuel boosters. From now until they reached the Dim Star, they would be coasting until it was time to begin orbital manoeuvres.

Wandering activated the ship-wide comm again. “All stations report.”

In designated order, everyone reported in and Commander Bluequill said, “All stations report no problems, Captain.”

“That’s reassuring. Gizmo Gears – engage the artificial gravity spell.”

“Aye, Captain,” the orange unicorn responded, lighting up his horn to engage the magitek system.

Weight resumed for everyone, although thankfully not in a one stomach-turning lurch. The artificial acceleration eased up to Equis-normal gravity.

Wandering turned on the comm again. “All crew may now proceed with their post-departure tasks. Please bear in mind that because no one will be going into hibernation until we accelerate out of the Equis system by solar sail, it will be somewhat crowded until then, so watch your tails and wings, and be considerate of your fellow crewmembers’ need for personal space.”

The alicorn switched off the comm, but concentrated on the mental traffic that was going through his head through the changeling network for which he was the hub. Nothing called for his attention though, so he turned to Playbitz again. “Open up a channel back to the auditorium, please.”

Playbitz’s black feather tips danced across some switches on his console. “You’re connected, sir.”

Wandering smiled at the camera for the audience. “This is Cosmic Lotus. We have had a entirely successful departure and are en route to our rendezvous with the Dim Star. All systems are green. Thank you to all those who got us to this point. Your prayers and wishes go with us.”



There were yells of delight amidst the thunderous applause from the watchers in the auditorium, and not a few from the audiences watching via GemVee all over Equis and the Moon Colony.

The members of House Path hoof-bumped and hugged. Path replied, “Thank you, Captain. We look forward to your progress reports.”

The big screen went blank, and Roseclaw sighed with relief. “Looks like I can finally retire. I’m getting too old for this.”

Path nuzzled his wife as they walked off the stage, leaving an earth pony mare to host the remainder of the program. “I don’t believe either of those things for a second, darling.”

Roseclaw giggled. “Okay, but we’re taking a vacation as of now.”

“I can agree with that. Where do you want to go?”

“Not sure yet, but let’s start with our bedroom.”

Path laughed. “Yes, dear.”



After all the essential system checks were completed, the crew had very little to do. Some of the scientists set up their equipment for their observations of the Dim Star, but because they would not actually reach it for another four days, they too were soon mostly idle. Of course there was always something that they could find to do – active minds like theirs rarely had the time to get bored.

However, most of the crew were waiting their turn to be interviewed by a newscaster back on Equis. While every crewmember had been introduced at the ceremony, that had only whetted the curiosity of the audience, and so brief question and answer sessions with individual crewmembers had been arranged. A GemVee camera had been set up in the common room and interviews were started with the crewpersons who were already free while many of the rest of the crew crowded in to listen. Although many had trained together, nobody outside of the Command and Medical Staff knew everybody, and there was a great deal of curiosity about the people they would be sharing a vessel with for the best part of half a century.

Emerald Green was currently in the interview chair, and the pegasus host back at the lunar auditorium was asking, “So why do you think a biologist is an essential part of mission to investigate a star?

The mare smiled knowingly. “One of the Anomaly’s most puzzling aspects is the signs of chemicals that we know are associated with life. A primary goal of the Cosmic Lotus is to discover whether there truly is life out there when the only life that we know of is in the Equis system. That would be a magnificent discovery, and if we do indeed find it, the sheer amount of work that it will create will keep me and my fellow biologists busy for a great deal of time.”

What made you, an earth pony, wish to be part of a mission that would take you away from the world that you have such an intimate connection with?

“That’s an excellent question, and believe me, I asked myself the same thing. Nevertheless, I have been somewhat of a pioneer in the field of exobiology, and the lure of some truly exotic knowledge was far too great. Still, I admit that leaving Equis isn’t going to be easy, so I will be spending much of the time that I am not in hibernation working in the gardens that we will be establishing once we have completed our final acceleration phase.”

Gardens? How can you establish gardens on the Cosmic Lotus in spite of its size?

“While you will need to ask someone else the details, I can say that the solid fuel booster rockets were only the first phase of our manoeuvres, and the second phase will be accomplished with the main engines which will be fuelled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. After this phase is completed, the tanks will be empty and will be repurposed. They will be connected to the living quarters and planter boxes constructed within. A combination of lightweight soil mix and hydroponic techniques will be used to grow seeds and seedlings that we have brought with us. Once they’re fully established, the gardens will be a place of relaxation and tranquillity, not to mention a great place for the pegasi and griffons to stretch their wings and fly a little.”

That sounds wonderful for all the crew. Thank you for your time, Emerald.

“You’re welcome,” she replied, slipping out of the chair to allow the next interviewee to take her place.

The host quickly recognised the mare. “Skye Path, I believe?

Skye nodded. “What gave it away?” she asked with a grin.

I admit that I have never seen a zebra with coloured stripes before. May I ask how you got yours?

“There’s a bit of mystery about that, actually. I was found as an orphan and brought back to Equestria by Wandering Path who adopted me into his family, hence the second part of my name. It is thought that my unusual colouration led to me being expelled from one of the more superstitious tribes, but the actual reason for it may never be known.”

Did this cause you any problems growing up?

Skye laughed. “Heavens, no! I was an infant when I was brought to Ponyville, and never knew anything else but the large and loving family that is House Path. I consider myself be both lucky and privileged. I wear my unusual stripes with pride.”

What attracted you to this mission?

“I was pretty much infected with spirit of adventure and discovery for which House Path is famous. My particular skills with hydroponic systems that I developed in conjunction with Fatima Dashar for use in arid lands were well suited to the mission, and several of my family had already signed up as candidates. I wanted to be part of that and share their discoveries.”

You’re also a herbalist, I’m told. How is that significant to your job?

“That’s part of the zebra culture that is my heritage, but combined with a modern scientific understanding of the art. Herbs can be used for many purposes from the basic such as in cooking, to aromatherapy, to sophisticated medicinal applications. There are also magic potions that can be made with the correct blend of ingredients, although admittedly I am severely constrained with those aboard this ship. Nevertheless I expect that my herbs will find a lot use and keep me quite busy looking after them when I’m not working on the hydroponics.”

That sounds very interesting, and I hope that one day you find out more about your past.

“Thank you.” Skye looked around. “Who wants to be next?”

A grey unicorn took Skye’s place.

Purple Point, I presume?” the host asked.

“Gee, how did you figure it out? I’ve been trying to live anonymously. Work needs to be done, and I can’t do it under a spotlight,” he grumbled, but the twinkle in his eyes gave away the fact he was having fun with the interviewer.

“It says in your records that you served for six years in the Equis Merchant Marine service before attending Canterlot University. Did you learn a lot there?

“I most certainly did! Like how to keep equipment going on talent and prayer until we could get into port and get proper parts, or, I should say, reasonably proper parts. I saved my bits during that time so I could go to university and learn how the equipment should work,” Purple Point said seriously. “Lives depend on equipment working properly. It’s hard to call for a factory tech when you are forty light-years away from home. Out there, you really can’t get a plumber to visit on Sundays, or any day for that matter.”

House Path offered you a chance to go through their education program, yet you turned them down. Why is that?

“House Path has an excellent education program, for those who want to be warrior-scholars.” Purple Point paused, then looked directly into the GemVee camera, his eyes a little haunted. “I have no desire to be a warrior, any more so than I am now. I learned a lot at sea, one thing being how to brawl to save my life. I’ve done so too many times. I have no wish to learn how to fight scientifically. Some lessons you can never forget.”

You have been tested as having a completely eidetic memory. A talent like that will be helpful on a mission like this.

“Yes, it will. However, such a talent does have its drawbacks.” The interviewer waited for more elaboration, but sensing no more was forthcoming, she went ahead with the next question.

You seem to take it personally when a piece of equipment needs repair. Why is that?

Purple Point blushed visibly, the inside of his ears going bright red. “Yes, well, if something fails, it could cause harm to the ship or its crew. The faulty equipment must be chastised properly so it can learn the error of its ways. So, my means of chastisement has been learned under very coarse circumstances.”

Meaning you swear like a sailor. Multilingually, fluently, and very descriptively.

Purple Point looked like he was going to melt in his chair. “It’s a habit I haven’t been able to break. I won’t do it in front of anybody, just when I’m alone. I refuse to do it in front of anyone knowingly.”

What attracted you to this mission?

“I have nothing to keep me on Equis. Leaving Equestria and finding out about the Far Star will be useful to science and the population of Equestria. Besides, forty-two light-years should be sufficient to put my past behind me.”

I would ask more, but we are out of time. Best of success to the mission, and yourself.

“Best of success to us all, both here and there,” Purple Point said, getting up from the chair. He looked about. “Next victim!”

Stepping forward, a brown pegasus stallion smiled and gave a gentle nod. “If you don't mind, I'd like to introduce myself.”

Ah yes, Mr. Playblitz was it? Can you tell us a bit about yourself for starters?

“With pleasure. Firstly, it’s just Playbitz. Bitz, not Blitz,” he said with a chuckle. “Call me PB if you like.”

Oh, my apologies.

“You'd be shocked at how many times that happens, so it’s quite alright. I'm from St. Filly originally, but moved many times with my old profession of creating new GemVee games. It’s a profession that encompasses many other bits of odd knowledge.”

Ah, so you were a GV game developer, but how did you manage getting the job of Chief Navigator and Communications?

Playbitz smiled and stretched out his wings. “Well, as a hobby I would fly around Equestria as far as I could, especially when times between game contracts were rather long and boring. Flying around is pretty simple, but when you're flying the long distances that I would catch myself doing, I would end up getting lost repeatedly.”

Oh dear, often finding yourself in some random location I presume?

The stallion chuckled. “Yes, I found it happening more times than I would have cared to admit, and because of that I felt it was best if I get myself some training in navigation. It ended up turning from something to help a hobby to a passion that turned my then job into a hobby. I would often enjoy the feeling of finding a new town or place and the adventure of meeting the inhabitants and being able to add the new details to my map was exciting beyond words!”

I can imagine, though that seems to answer another question we wanted to ask about, that being how you got the job on board the Cosmic Lotus. So let us ask you this, What attracted you to this mission?

“What attracted me to this mission...? To put it simply: the ability to learn. We get to fill in the blanks when we look up at Luna's sky at night. And, to be honest, we get the honour of creating new questions that will hopefully drive us, or another ship even further.” PB looked off camera then quickly refocused back to the host. “I can only imagine what we'll get to see or even who or what we'll get to meet. Words cannot express the amount of excitement and awe of getting to learn more.”

So you're saying what drives you the most is your desire to learn?

“Yes and no. Getting to see and learn something new is something we do every day, but this–” he gestured with an outstretched wing at the starship’s common room. “This is so much more. I've made games about stuff like this, but getting the chance to live like this, to explore... It’s a dream come true.” Playbitz looked around the room, seeing the looks of admiration from a few and a few raised eyebrows from the rest that let him know he was rambling. He gave a soft cough and continued. “But the colt side of things aside, we were given the rare opportunity to pioneer a new path and I felt that I needed to be part of this journey.”

Thank you very much, Mr. Bitz. I certainly hope you get to learn all you can and that you have a safe journey ahead of you.

“The pleasure is all mine.” Playbitz got up, turned around, and spotted a pony. “Kale, you're up!” he said with a broad smile.

“Gee, thanks for nothing, Pitz,” grumbled the earth pony as he reluctantly came forward to take the chair as the grinning pegasus retreated.

The host sensed a degree of reluctance in the new interviewee and started carefully. “Kale Robe, isn’t it? Thank you for talking with us.

“Yeah, that’s me. What do you wanna know?”

When it comes to starship professions, cook is not one that immediately springs to mind.

Kale smirked. “That’s where you’d be making a mistake, lady. Back in the days when ships only sailed on water, even then the officers knew to keep the crew happy with good meals. And when a voyage is going to take over four decades, you better believe that they’ll want a lot of variety in their food. Your typical automat won’t cut it.”

So you have a repertoire that you believe will keep the crew satisfied for all that time?

Kale pulled a long sharp kitchen knife out from… somewhere. He twirled it on the tip of a hoof, saying, “I’m an artist when it comes to food. Some of the plants that they plan to grow on board are as a result of my suggestions. I will have the food and the skills to satisfy everypony!”

Some of the crew are not ponies though. What about the griffons who need to eat meat in their diet?

“If they can tell the difference between the meat-substitute and a real steak after I’ve cooked it, I’ll put away my precious knives and take up crocheting!”

The host laughed. “I bet the rest of the crew hopes that won’t happen. Thank you once again for talking with us, Kale.

Kale got up, looked about the room, and laid his eyes on the Blue Changeling in the crowd. “I choose you!” he declared.

The changeling shrugged, adjusted the blue scarf around his neck, and walked up to take the interview seat.

Welcome, Steam Shift. How do you feel about being the first-ever Blue Changeling aethernaut?

Steam Shift blushed a little. “I was more than thrilled when Her Majesty, Queen Crystal, gave her permission and encouragement for me to pursue my interest in the exploration of space. While the Blue Hive is the newest after being re-established only a few decades ago, we pride ourselves on being progressive, and I was heavily involved in the research that led to the Cosmic Lotus. It was the fulfilment of a dream to be accepted into the crew.”

You’re a mechanical engineer, I believe?

“That is correct. I worked on the special equipment needed for the extended journey, and the challenges that involved. I will now get to maintain that equipment and be in the forefront of discovery at the same time.”

Does it bother you that you’re the sole Blue Changeling on the ship?

“Not really, although I’d like to point out that the Chrome Changelings are considered to be extremely close family. We’re always welcome in their hive, and vice versa.”

That’s a nice scarf that you’re wearing. Does it have some special meaning to you?

Steam Shift grinned. “Yeah – it was a present and I like it a lot. I wear it all the time.” He flipped one end over a shoulder. “Makes me look stylish.”

The host chuckled. “I have to agree. Thank you for talking with us, Steam Shift.

The changeling got up and looked around at those eagerly waiting their turn. He closed his eyes, spun around, and randomly pointed at someone. The griffon that got chosen, grinned and headed for the chair.

Ortzi Goldbeak, I believe?” the host asked, and when he nodded, she continued, “Isn’t geologist an odd profession for a griffon?

“Interestingly enough, my parents were miners in Equestria. High-altitude mining, that is. Since I grew up in the mines, I got to see some of the basics of the workings of the rock. Ultimately, however, it was the cave-in which took my parents’ lives that inflamed my interest. I wanted to understand how something that seemed so inherently stable could just... collapse... like that.”

That must have been tough. I would have thought that you would have wanted nothing to do with mines after that.

“While it was difficult, I was old enough to be not wholly dependent on my parents, and griffons don’t let tragedy cow them. Once I graduated and went into tertiary education, I focused on geology and even parlayed it into a stint in the Equestrian Engineering Corps as an aerial surveyor. It was quite gneiss. Sorry, geologist humour there.”

The host chuckled uncertainly, failing to understand the pun. She soldiered on. “Why this mission? It hardly seems in line with your interests.

“Beyond the obvious – ‘Because I can and it’s not been done before’, I want to see if I can confirm some of the theories we have on planetary development. We’ve really only had Equis and the Moon to study, and we think we know some of how it works. If we have access to other worlds, or even moons and the like, then we can see if our theories hold true. If they do, well....”

So you’ll just look at rocks?

Ortzi laughed. “No. Remember that I mentioned being part of the EEC? I’ll also be working with others to produce maps of any world we come across. In addition, like a pegasus or ’ling, I’ll also be able to work as an aerial scout to look for dangers on the ground for our flight-challenged cohorts.”

I hope you get to test your theories, Ortzi. Thank you for your time.

Ortzi got up and asked, “Who wants to be next?”

A light brown unicorn mare with golden mane and tail and a two-star cutie-mark stepped forward.

“I need to get back to my work soon, so I’d like my turn now.” When no one objected, she took the interview seat.

Ah, Cosmic Dawn, I believe? My notes say that you are the daughter of the Avatar of Honesty, Forest Breeze; how has that affected your career?

“Well, aside from dealing with having a famous father, he has been quite an inspiration to me. He has always been able to perceive the truth behind something, while I go out and discover those truths.”

And what kind of truths are those?

“My goal is to discover the full relationship between thaumaturgy and classic physics.”

That sounds like quite a task that you have set yourself.

Cosmic Dawn blushed. “I admit that it’s quite an ambitious goal, but I feel that if we are to learn the secrets of the universe, we can’t be too timid about it.”

I suppose that’s a reasonable approach to any profession, but it tends to take over your life. My bio on you says that you have never married or even been in a serious relationship – do you think you might finally find the time to do so on this voyage?

The mare giggled. “I must admit that I had not thought about it that way. There’s an awful lot that I have planned to work on during this voyage. Nevertheless I won’t deny the possibility. I haven’t met all the ponies on the crew yet, so I suppose there’s still hope for an old mare like me.”

Finally, what do you expect to find at the Far Star?

“Oh, we have many theories about that. We’re all looking forward to finding out which one of them is right, if any.”

You wouldn’t be disappointed to find out that you’re completely wrong about it?

Cosmic Dawn laughed. “Sweet Celestia, no! It would mean that we would learn something totally new to us, and that’s incredibly exciting too!”

It seems that you’re in a win-win situation then. Thank you for your insight, Cosmic Dawn.

“You’re welcome.” The mare got out of the chair and looked for the next interviewee, and was startled to see Wandering Path standing there.

“Captain? Do you want to go next?”

Wandering nodded. “Like you, I have work to get on with, so best to get this out of the way.” While he personally felt that the GemVee audience had seen enough of him over the past few months, maintaining public interest in the project was part of his job, so he took the opportunity to fulfil that requirement when it was expedient to do so.

Thank you for taking the time out from what must be a very busy schedule, Captain Path,” the host began.

“Just Wandering will do fine,” he replied with a smile.

Wandering Path… we have heard how there was stiff competition for the position of Ship’s Commander, and yet it’s a member of the Path family that won that position. Was there any kind of favouritism involved?

Internally Wandering winced. There had been some gossip about that, however unfounded, so he had to tread carefully. “If you are implying nepotism, I can see how that might be construed. However, House Path has prided itself on being a meritocracy, and no one, not even close family members get any advantage that way. Time and again we have put the best person for the job ahead of a family member. However, I do have to admit that we have some advantages over others. We have the benefit of excellent teachers and supportive parents, and when your mother is Princess Twilight Sparkle, it’s hard not to learn a broad range of subjects that stand one in good stead for a job like this. That is not to say that I was always likely to get the position. Personally I thought that Commander Bluequill had a very strong chance of beating me to it, and neither of us knew who would get it until the choice was made after some gruelling final assessments.”

What do you think won you the post eventually?

“Well, I have had decades of experience leading exploration teams, with several cultural exchanges to my credit, including numerous first contact situations. However, I also have some abilities courtesy of my father that Galen could not replicate.”

Those would be your changeling traits, I presume?

“Correct. While outwardly I am like any other alicorn with the exception of my horn, I do possess a couple of changeling abilities also. The most important in this case is that I can act as a hub for a changeling network. It had always been planned to have a large contingent of changelings aboard the Cosmic Lotus for a multitude of reasons, but because members of one hive will not connect to another hive’s network, it was feared that we would be restricted to just one hive, and that would be one that could also spare a princess to act as a hub. That would have been a major blow to us. However, because I am a pony and of House Path, all the hives were comfortable with using me as an intermediary, and thus we have representatives of every hive aboard.”

So, despite being a pony, you are able to cope with what I am told is a constant flow of information going through your head?

“I was born with that ability, and it comes naturally to me. While I don’t suffer the disconnection anxiety that normal changelings do if I lose contact with the network, it feels a bit weird for it to be so quiet in my head at those times. So coping with a changeling network is a non-issue. It’s actually extremely convenient for me to be able to coordinate activities directly through the network, and it keeps the entire changeling contingent working harmoniously.”

I can see how that could be a major advantage. What do you intend to do when you go into hibernation though?

“I won’t be going into the same type of hibernation as the rest of the crew. Part of my mind will always be active.”

Doesn’t that mean that you will be aware for the entire forty-four years though?

“Yes, although not quite in the same sense as being out of hibernation. You must also understand that I am an immortal alicorn – taking the long view of anything is a necessity. I’m already close to a century old and have learned a great deal about patience and how to keep myself from getting jaded with a lengthy task. I’m also used to being connected to a hive network which gives me some psychological support, and of course I do have some family with me to help too. Family unity and love has always been our strength. It certainly is for me.”

It sounds like the ship is in good hands. I’ll let you get back to your work now, Captain. Bon voyage!

“Thank you, Cherry.” Wandering got up and looked at the crew gathered there. “Okay, who wants their five minutes of fame next?”

The alicorn surrendered the chair to a griffoness, and he left the room to continue with his business while the interviews continued. Although each crewmember was only getting a couple of minutes, with so many of them, the interviews would be going on for quite a while yet, and as much as he was interested, he had more important responsibilities at that moment.



The next few days were almost a letdown after all the intense preparations for the voyage. Once the scientists had set up their equipment for observations of the Dim Star, there was very little to do but wait until they reached their closest approach. Even the crew who handled the day-to-day operation of the ship were quickly bored as automatic equipment worked virtually flawlessly. Devices designed to last at least half a century were very unlikely to break down, although that was no guarantee that they were perfect.

One such problem had become apparent due to the harsh acceleration from the rocket boosters, although it had taken a day for it to be noticed. A leak in a nutrient feed line for the hibernation pods had been found after testing had revealed a systems loss. This was reported to Wandering along with the notification that repairs were already under way. With nothing important to do, he decided to check it out to see for himself if it was as minor as he had been advised. He found a dracopony there, waiting with a wry grin on his face.

“Eon? What’s going on?” Wandering asked before he was interrupted by profuse cursing coming from the open hatch of a service conduit.

At first it was in Equish, but then it shifted to Griffish, saying something so vile that the speaker would have been challenged to an honour duel on the spot. It was followed by Prench obscenities so rancid that the culprit would have been bodily tossed out of Prance so fast, there would have been a sonic boom.

Wandering and Eon looked at each other and said simultaneously, “Purple Point.”

Another burst of expletives followed, this time in Saddle Arabian. Wandering had learned many languages in his travels around Equis, with a fluency that almost matched his herd father’s talent for them. He cringed a little as he recognised the curse.

Eon said, “I was sent to help if needed. I might be wrong, but I think it’s giving him a bit of trouble.”

“Perhaps, but you know Purple Point – once he fixes something, it stays fixed. Be on standby in case he really does need help, but otherwise don’t let him know you’re here. No need to embarrass him about his compulsive profanity.”

An outburst in ancient thestral immediately highlighted Wandering’s words, making him blanch as he recognised the malediction.

“And for Celestia’s sake, keep everyone else out of this room!” the alicorn ordered before he beat a hasty retreat.



By a stroke of good fortune and a well-planned time of departure, the course of the Cosmic Lotus was due to take it through the tail of a comet that was presently passing through the system. Preparations for this unprecedented opportunity kept part of the crew busy for some time. Then when they intercepted the comet tail, Starry was tasked with forming a special funnel-shaped magic shield that let them scoop up some of it into a container, punching a safe passage through it at the same time.

The event was recorded by the more artistically inclined, concentrating on the beauty of the sight as they approached, passed through, and left behind the wanderer of space. After the sample was retrieved, Destined Path teleported aboard, confirming that the primary mana beacon was functioning correctly. He collected a portion of the comet sample, taking it back to Equis for testing purposes, leaving the rest for the scientists aboard the ship to work upon. Boredom was not going to be an issue for them!



The Dim Star was well named. On the fourth day of their approach, observations revealed a gas giant that glowed a deep maroon that was still barely distinguishable from the dark purple stellar background. Nevertheless, Starry and her team were busy taking readings and measurements with a degree of accuracy that had heretofore been impossible. The work continued until Wandering’s voice came over the public address system.

All crew – prepare for slingshot manoeuvre around the Dim Star. Ensure that all articles are securely stowed and instruments locked down. Take your assigned seats for acceleration. Artificial gravity will be discontinued for the duration of the manoeuvre. You have precisely thirty minutes from now to be ready. Mark!

Starry and her team took their final measurements and either put their equipment on standby or stowed them safely. The one piece of equipment that was not stowed was designed to take a sample of the Dim Star’s emissions in a similar way to how they got the comet material. She then headed up to the bridge where she found her sibling relaxing in his acceleration couch, eyes closed and horn glowing.

“Astronomy section ready, Captain. Want me to take over the shield?”

While the Dim Star gave very little light, at their present proximity, it emitted more than enough heat and radiation to give the Cosmic Lotus problems. The ship had a built-in shield spell, but nothing was ever taken for granted. Wandering was currently monitoring the shield and had a back-up spell ready to take over in an emergency.

Wandering opened his eyes and nodded. “Take your seat and I’ll transfer control.”

Starry took her assigned couch and lit her horn. Wandering let her take over monitoring the shield and then turned his attention to other activities.

“Playbitz – how are we doing?”

“I’ve calculated our final orbital adjustments, Captain. Ready to apply them on your mark,” the pegasus replied.

Wandering hit the PA. button again. “All stations report readiness!”

One by one, the heads of each department reported in, and then there were a few more minutes of waiting.

Playbitz said, “Thirty seconds to orbital manoeuvres.”

Wandering announced, “All crew – final warning. Manoeuvres begin in twenty seconds. Artificial gravity will now discontinue.” He then turned to Playbitz and said, “You have the con.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Precisely on time, the manoeuvring thrusters fired, adjusting their trajectory to the precise alignment needed to fling their spaceship around the Dim Star on the optimal path. The ship shuddered under the thrust for a brief while before shutting down.

“Alignment manoeuvres completed successfully,” Playbitz reported. “Countdown to main thrust begun.”

A digital read-out of the time remaining before their main engines would fire appeared on the bridge’s central monitor. This was repeated at various points around the ship, and tension grew as this critical stage drew near. With just four minutes until periapsis with the Dim Star, the countdown reached zero, and the main engines fired. Huge tanks of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen supplied the rocket engine, and the crew were thrust back into their acceleration couches. This continued until their orbit reached their closest approach to the failed star, and then they started receding from it again as the Oldbird Effect multiplied the acceleration of their rocket’s thrust. Six minutes after it began, the engines shut off as the last of the liquid hydrogen was expended.

There were sighs of relief as the dreadful pressure of high acceleration was relieved and they went back into freefall.

“Report, Playbitz,” Wandering ordered.

“Slingshot went precisely as planned, Captain. We are on course back to the Equis system.”

“Excellent!” He hit the public address again. “All crew – begin post manoeuvre operations and report. Artificial gravity resumes now.” Wandering then turned his attention to his sibling. “How is the shield, Starry?”

“Holding up well, Captain. That was quite a ride.”

“Aside from some possible course corrections, that should be the last of the hard stuff. You can get back to your department now. I’ll resume monitoring the shield.”

One changeover later, Starry headed back to rejoin her team.



The trip back to the Equis system was going to take far less time than the journey to the Dim Star, but work began immediately to reconfigure the fuel tanks. The last vestiges of hydrogen were bled off into the vacuum of space and then the pipe was permanently sealed. There was fractionally more oxygen than hydrogen to ensure that all the hydrogen fuel was fully burnt, and the remaining was salvaged for use in the spaceship before that tank was also thoroughly evacuated and its feed pipe sealed. Then a bulkhead was opened into the oxygen tank through an airlock, and crew dressed in pressure suits entered with cutting equipment. A low-strength artificial gravity field was applied to keep everything and everyone from drifting around, and they went to one end of the tank where they proceeded to cut through the end of it, revealing a cylindrical connection to the hydrogen tank. This they cut through also, joining the two tanks into one huge cylindrical empty space. The two tank ends were cut up into manageable pieces and stacked aside to be recycled later, before they opened a port in the joint section and flushed all the fumes out of the whole section. After closing the port, they then gave the word to Engineering that it was ready to fill with air.

Pre-installed ports gushed air from pressure tanks, including the salvaged oxygen. Heaters were turned on to bring the frigid air up to normal ship’s temperature. Within hours, the former fuel tanks had been turned into a liveable open air environment, and the crew were able to shed their pressure suits.

Radiant Spark stretched her wings, glad to be free of the confinement of her suit. “I get to try this out first!” she declared, and launched herself into the air. She flew to the end of the open space where she flipped around to thrust off the bulkhead and flew down the entire length of the joined tanks where she repeated her manoeuvre and flew back to the others. “That felt so good after all this time!”

Steam Shift buzzed his wings and hovered a bit. “I can empathise a little, although changelings don’t feel the need to fly as much as a pegasus would. Let’s give the rest of the winged crew a chance to do what you just did before we begin working on turning this into a linear park.”

For the remainder of the return to the Equis system, all the pegasi and griffons took turns to stretch their wings and indulge in their desire to fly while a small crew worked on installing pipes and other connections through the bulkhead in preparation for the task of making the open area into a place of rest and relaxation for the benefit of the entire crew.



Shortly before they arrived back at the Equis system, Destined Path teleported aboard, confirming that the secondary mana beacon was also working correctly. He took possession of his allocation of the sample gathered from the Dim Star, and also the preliminary results of the research done on it and the comet in the few days since they had acquired them. He wished the crew luck for the final stage, and then teleported back to Equis for the final time.

As critical as their manoeuvres around the Dim Star had been, their alignment for the final acceleration of the Cosmic Lotus was even more crucial. Thrusters were used to minutely alter their trajectory as they approached the sun. While Playbitz was in command of their navigation, he had two others checking and re-checking all parameters. This time they would be using a gravity-assist slingshot around Celestia’s orb to not only give them another boost, but to also put them on the precise trajectory that they needed for their push to near light-speed. Once again, the ship’s shield was up and protecting them from the deadly radiance of the sun. This time though, they did not rely entirely upon just that, and Starry was actively empowering a secondary shield to ensure protection against the sun’s far more powerful output of energy.

Everyone was once again in their acceleration couches as the Cosmic Lotus slipped into the sun’s gravity well. No thrust was applied this time though, letting gravity do all the work. They whipped around the tiny star, heading toward a fly-by of Equis. At a precisely determined moment when the danger from the sun was minimised and the pressure of the solar wind was perfect, the next stage began.

“Deploy solar sail!” Wandering commanded.

Several storage compartments on the outside of the ship snapped open, and the sails started unfurling. Carbon nanotube stays snapped into place, spreading ultra-thin, super-strong graphene sheets with a highly reflective coating. The process continued as the sails resembled unfolding petals of the flower that gave the starship its name. The astounding thinness of the material enabled the sails to keep unfurling kilometre after kilometre, and the intense light pressure started pushing them into their final shape. Despite maximising the process by their close pass to the sun, the sails only finished filling out to their final overall diameter of nearly fifty kilometres as the Cosmic Lotus slipped past Equis, exposing it to the night side of the planet, the world’s gravity nudging its orbit slightly onto its final course.



An immense crowd was gathered in the courtyard of Canterlot Castle, consisting almost exclusively of unicorns. The two Royal Sisters stood on the balcony overlooking the vast gathering, but all eyes were on the horizon as a brilliant new star rose into the evening sky. There were oohs and aahs of awe as the shimmering object moved higher and higher above the horizon.

“Mares and Gentlecolts,” Luna began in the Royal Canterlot Voice which reached each and every pony gathered. “The time has come to participate in Equis’ mightiest challenge – a journey to the stars themselves. You are witnessing the solar sail of the Cosmic Lotus as it aligns itself on a course to the Far Star, but to get there, it must first be pushed up to near the speed of light itself. My sister and I will provide the thrust necessary, but the sheer volume of power we must expend for a lengthy duration is beyond our ability to sustain for the necessary period. Therefore we called upon you, the unicorns of Equestria, to help us meet this challenge. Soon, we will begin our effort, and we will ask you to sustain us. Are you ready to make history?”

There was a roar of assent from the crowd of unicorns who had been attracted to the event by nationwide advertising. While the average unicorn had no chance of being part of the Cosmic Lotus project, in this way they could play a small but vital part in its success. Their horns lit up in anticipation.

Luna continued, “When Captain Wandering Path gives us the word, my sister and I will begin transmitting a beam of power tuned to give the maximum thrust to the sails of the Cosmic Lotus. I will be mostly responsible for its guidance, whereas Celestia will primarily handle the flow of power. After we have begun, you may then direct your power to her. Do not overtax yourselves! This process will take hours, and it is most important that the effort be continued at a high and steady level. If you tire, rest yourself as long as needed. You may rejoin the effort at any time. Know this – there is no prize for contributing the most power, and there is no need to try to outlast your neighbour. This is a group effort, not an individual competition. Nonetheless, medics will be standing by in case you overtax yourselves. Let this be a day to remember though, not one to regret.”

There were more cheers from the audience.

“The time is nigh. We await the word from the Cosmic Lotus.”



“Sails are at maximum; course is locked,” Playbitz announced.

“All systems green,” reported Commander Bluequill.

“Cut artificial gravity,” Wandering ordered.

The spacecraft went into near freefall, the tiny thrust from the solar sails hardly noticeable.

“Stand-by for acceleration to light-speed. Engage the mass-reducing spell.”

Starry had the complex spell already primed in her head. All it took was the magic to empower it. Her horn lit up, and everyone aboard felt a strange sensation as inertia plummeted due to virtually all mass being neutralised by the sophisticated incantation. The starship leaped forward under the thrust of the light of the sun, but it was still nowhere near the acceleration they needed. A critical stability component of the spell left the ship and all inside unable to perceive the acceleration, relying instead upon their instruments measuring the retreat of Equis and Celestia's orb. Wandering reached for the comm switch which connected him to a receiver that was set next to the Royal Sisters in Canterlot.

“This is Cosmic Lotus. We are go for star-thrust.”

Moments later, the sails were filled with a blindingly powerful coherent beam of energy coming from the world below them, and the Cosmic Lotus leapt forward at a mind-numbing rate. Sensors at the edges of the sail set at ninety degrees to the next kept the sails centred on the beam and the angle at the precise orientation required to keep the ship on course for the Far Star. Complex magitek control systems automatically made the adjustments in a fraction of a second, maximising the amount of thrust.

Even though the mass-reducing spell had done exactly as its name described, it was not perfect. An infinitesimal amount of mass still manifested, and that leftover amount had to be accelerated to a speed that nopony had dreamed of mere decades ago. This would take some time, and Wandering prepared to take over the spell in shifts with his sibling during that period, while the rest of the crew could only wait, watch, and hope.



The GemVee crew that was recording the event watched the display of power in awe. A nearly blinding beam of energy streamed skyward from the alicorn sisters even as weaker streams of magic flowed from all the gathered unicorns towards Celestia. The reporter spoke in hushed tones as she described the event.

“As the Cosmic Lotus is lit up by the combined magic of the Princesses and Equestria’s unicorn citizens, we watch as it leaves the surly bonds of this world. For the first time, Equians are headed for the stars, and when they finally reach their destination, who knows what wonders they will find there? What a lucky time it is for you young foals, chicks, and nymphs to be living in!”

# # # # # # # # # # #

Oldbird Effect = Oberth Effect. Props to Airy Words for helping to keep this story scientifically accurate.

 


 

Problems Are Relative

 

Twilight Sparkle was very satisfied with the progress of propelling the Cosmic Lotus. The mana feed by the huge gathering of unicorns had, as hoped, enabled a smooth and consistent supply of power to Celestia. Of course Twilight, her brother, sister-in-law, and son were all playing their part too but inconspicuously behind the scenes, in the room behind the balcony where the Royal Sisters stood. The role of the gathered unicorns was absolutely vital, and the alicorns did not wish to apparently diminish their supposed importance by having all six of the most powerful beings on the world apparently doing most of the work. It also let the four concealed alicorns take short breaks as well, leaving just Celestia and Luna to sustain an uninterrupted effort.

There was one other important thing that it left Twilight free to do – monitoring the process. She was therefore concerned when she received a call from Pif. She disconnected from the flow and answered the comm.

Mama, have you reduced the power output of the mana thrust?” the changeling princess asked.

“No. Aside from minor fluctuations attributed to unicorns switching in and out of the stream, the output has been very consistent, just as planned. Why do you ask?”

I have been checking progress with the TESS, and it clearly shows that the rate at which their velocity is increasing has slowed considerably. They’re just over fifty percent of light-speed now, but their acceleration seems to have dropped significantly.

“What?! How can that be? Is the TESS working properly?” The Thaumaturgically Enhanced Stellar Scope was a cutting-edge magitek device, and their only means of accurately tracking the Cosmic Lotus.

I have run a diagnostic program on the TESS, and it’s working perfectly. The only explanation that my network can come up with is that the Lotus is encountering some form of resistance that we can’t detect.

Twilight frowned in deep thought. “This could jeopardise the mission. Should we increase the mana output?”

We left ourselves a large margin to work with, so I recommend that you compensate. Ten percent more should do it, I think. I will continue to try to identify the problem.

“Understood. Let me know the moment that you learn anything.” Twilight moved up to the balcony, but still out of sight of the crowd. Celestia and Luna needed to maintain intense concentration on their task, so a protocol was in place to not jar them if someone needed to talk to them. A subtle magic pulse caught their attention and Twilight reported the problem. They silently acknowledged the message and turned up their output, hoping that nothing else would go astray with their plans.



Playbitz updated his report, “Velocity now at sixty-five percent light-speed. No deviation from planned course.”

He had said similar things at regular intervals, but dull as it sounded, it was exactly what Wandering wanted to hear. It meant that everything was proceeding exactly as planned, and that was immensely reassuring. However, he now noticed a note of uncertainty in the voice of the pegasus. “Is something wrong, Playbitz?”

“I’m… not certain, sir. The thrust seemed to diminish for a while, but it has increased again; I thought that we were supposed to be getting a steady acceleration? I’m also getting some odd readings from the instruments.”

“What readings?” Wandering asked with a frown.

“The TESS is showing some strange aberrations in the view both fore and aft.”

“Could it be some sort of previously unknown Dappler Effect from travelling at such high speeds?”

Playbitz shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine, sir.”

Wandering began to feel out of his depth. Time to put someone more competent in charge of the problem. “Starry – I’m going to take over the MRS. I want you to look into this anomaly and determine if it’s a problem.”

Starry nodded and she cautiously transferred control of the mass-reducing spell to him. Freed of that responsibility, she turned her attention to the instrument panel in front of her and studied the readings that duplicated what was in front of Playbitz.

“This is very odd. There isn’t anything that I can detect that would be slowing us down, so Playbitz’s assertion that the thrust reduced seems to be correct. He’s also right about the distortions in the views, and I’m trying to compensate. Without understanding why it’s happening though, that’s difficult.” She stopped to think for a moment. “I’m going to call Mama Twilight.”

They had not intended to communicate with Equis until acceleration to their target speed had been achieved, reserving it for emergencies. Starry hoped that she would not upset her herd mother too much. She activated the comm and sent out a call.



Twilight’s crystal comm dedicated to ship-to-shore communications with the Cosmic Lotus lit up with reception of a signal. The sympathetically linked magic crystals that were the heart of the device were tried-and-true magitek that would work irrespective of distance, no matter how great. Maintaining contact with the Cosmic Lotus was assured, so Twilight was dismayed when she heard the voice drawling from it.

Coosmiic Lotuus too Eequiiss Coontrool – aare youu reeceeiviingg mee?

Twilight recognised Starry’s voice despite the shift down in pitch which she could not understand the reason for. She answered it hastily though. “Equis Control here – what’s wrong, Starry?”

After a slight delay, the response came. “Yoour voicce iss diistoorted, Maamaa. Doo youu prooblemms witthh suupplyiing thruusst?

“We have had no problems, but we noticed that your acceleration had slowed, so we increased the output. Have you encountered any resistance?”

Noo aapparrennt reesisstancce. Wee aare getttinng sstrrangge reeadiings fromm ouur iinsstruumennts aand vieeww monniitorrs toooo.

The drawl was driving Twilight crazy. The way the crystal comm worked meant that voices would be exactly reproduced regardless of velocity or distance. She could not understand why this was happening, and right when it seemed that communications was going to be very important. The information was contradictory too. They reported a loss of thrust and no resistance whereas she knew that thrust had been maintained, but something seemed to be reducing its effect. She had no answers. Something beyond their present knowledge seemed to be happening, so she said the only thing that she could right then.

“We’ll look into it, Starry. Keep us updated.” She then made a call to Pif. Contingency plans needed to be put into effect.



Starry shook her head in bewilderment, just as confused as her herd mother. She had nothing to explain the slow drawl coming from the speakers of the comm, let alone the growing problems. “Sorry, Captain, I can’t presently explain what is happening. All I can say for now is that the mission seems to be proceeding despite everything.”

Wandering listened to the words from behind closed eyelids as part of himself maintained concentration on the MRS. He sighed before commanding, “Keep monitoring the situation, but unless there is something that will endanger the ship, carry on as planned. Playbitz – keep us updated.”

Everyone carried on as normal, but tension had begun to grow on the bridge. When the next milestone came, everyone hung on his words.

“Seventy percent light-speed. Still on course. Thrust has apparently crept down again.”

Wandering ordered simply, “Inform Equis Control.”

Starry did so, and they all listened to the reply.

Reepoorrt reecceiiveed aandd unnderrsstoood. Wee wiill aaddjuusst ouutpuut aagainn.

“Why in Celestia’s name are their transmissions stretched out like that?” Gizmo Gears swore softly.

“Zip it, Gizmo,” Commander Bluequill said sternly.

There was a long tense wait for the next announcement.

“Seventy-five percent. Thrust increased for a while before creeping down again. Distortions increasing, but still apparently on course.”

“Any recommendations, Starry?” Wandering asked.

“Our ship does not appear to be in danger, nor has Equis Control indicated any, so I recommend carrying on as planned.”

“Commander, have all stations check and double-check for problems. Have them report anything unusual.”

“Yes, sir,” Bluequill replied.

An even longer wait punctuated by negative reports until the next milestone was reached passed by.

“Eighty percent… I think. Distortions are increasing.”

Wandering cursed under his breath. “Starry – you’re the expert here, so speculate please!”

Starry shrugged helplessly. “Brother, I haven’t a clue. My best guess is that we are discovering something about physics that we have had no experience with before.”

“If we keep needing more output from Equis, are we ever going to reach our target of ninety-seven percent light-speed?”

“That depends on how long they can sustain that output. I’d say inevitably if they can keep it up long enough, but the instruments are making a liar out of me even as I speak.”

Wandering groaned. Was this mission going to be a failure so soon?



“We’re going to have to re-think this,” Pif said, having joined Twilight and the others at the castle after the latest report from Starry. “For now, we don’t have the luxury of time to figure out why this is happening. We have to treat the symptoms rather than the cause. My measurements with the TESS show that the energy requirements are increasing with the speed, but in an exponential manner. Right now we’re only up to a fifty percent increase in thrust output, but if the trend continues, that’s going to rise at a rapid rate over the next few hours.”

“Time! That’s the problem!” Destined suddenly declared.

Twilight and Pif looked at Destined in confusion. The stallion turned to his mother and explained, “Your crystal comms work irrespective of distance, and as we’re still getting reports from the Cosmic Lotus clearly, although seemingly slowed down, then it’s time that is being affected. The comms are still working exactly as they should, but as their time has slowed, so has their speech, like a record on a phonograph which you slow down.”

“So you’re saying that the faster that they go, the slower time gets?” Twilight responded.

“Exactly! I just don’t know why, but I’m starting to see how it affects them.”

Pif nodded. “I’m beginning to understand, but there’s not much we can do about it. My only concern is that we’re not going to be able to provide enough thrust. That’s why Dad and I brought along every Chrome Changeling within reach. They’ll help make up the shortfall in power… at least for a while.”

Canterlot had just seen the biggest invasion of changelings since the one by Queen Chrysalis. Right now, the roofs were lined with changelings ready to add their magic to the effort when given the order.

Free Agent said, “Give the word, Sparkles, and I will have every drone start adding their power. I had them fill up on love gel before coming here, so they have plenty to spare.” Free shifted from griffon to his natural Chrome Queen form. As much as he disliked it, he needed to be able to take in the power from all the drones because they could not feed Celestia directly like the unicorns were doing. Their magic differed too much and would be disruptive if not filtered through their Queen.

“Just let me inform Celestia and Luna first,” Twilight said. She went out onto the balcony, and the others noticed the Royal Sisters frown and nod. Twilight came back and announced, “They said to stand by until they give the word. They can increase the thrust again for now. Save your energy for when they really need it.”

Destined said, “Mom, I’ve been increasing my flow of power gradually, and I can already tell that the drones won’t be able to keep up the power drain for as long as the unicorns. They can’t simply take a break and get their second wind – they’ll have to go feed first.”

“Then we call in the reserves. Five of the six other Queens are here to watch the spectacle. We’ll ask for their help too.”

“No need,” came a familiar voice. Queen Crystal strode into the room, followed closely by Queen Iridia and Queen Carpacia. “When I saw all the Chrome Hive drones arrive, I enquired the reason for it. You know that the Blue Hive will always stand with the Chrome, Aunty Twilight.”

“As will the Red Hive,” Carpacia declared. “Fidelitas is on her way with a large contingent, and all the Red Changelings in Canterlot have been summoned.”

“I have done the same with the Greens,” Iridia said. “The other Queens will do what they can although their hives are more distant.”

“Thank you all very much,” Twilight said solemnly.

“This is a project done for all citizens of this world,” Carpacia declared. “We are as much a part of it as you, so we can do no less.”



“Playbitz – update please. Haven’t we reached eighty-five percent yet?” Wandering asked.

The pegasus looked at his captain with a distressed expression. “Uh… maybe? The TESS suggests that we have, but everything else is telling me something different. The rear sensors seem to think we’re slowing down a lot, and I have no idea what the forward sensors are saying anymore. If I can believe them, the Far Star seems to be getting noticeably closer.”

The alicorn’s lips tightened in a grimace. “I think we have to face it – we’re really in totally new territory here. We may be getting into something dangerous, although the fact that Equis is still supplying thrust suggests that they haven’t seen any sign of danger. Commander Bluequill – execute a thorough ship-wide systems check. I want to know if the ship is suffering any ill effects as a consequence of these unknown effects that are distorting our instruments.”

“Aye, sir,” the griffon replied.

“Starry – take over the MRS. I’m tiring and I need to think.”

“Ready, Captain.”

Wandering transferred control of the spell, and he called up the status reports on his control board. Section after section reported everything normal except for the astrogation instruments, and he already knew about those. Frustrated, he decided to call Equis once more.



Ccoossmmiicc Lloottuuss ttoo Eeqquuuuss Ccoonnttrrooll – pplleeaassee aaddvviissee iiff yyoouu hhaavvee iiddeennttiiffiieedd aannyy ppoossssiibbllee ccaauussee ooff tthhee ppaarrttiiaall lloossss ooff tthhrruusstt yyeett?”

Twilight winced. The speech was stretching to the point where she could barely understand it. She was about to try to respond when Destined spoke up.

“Mom – take over for me. I have an idea I want to try out.”

Twilight nodded and took up the task of supplying power to Celestia. Meanwhile Destined used his special talent to stretch his passage through time to about twice normal and then called the starship. “Cosmic Lotus, please repeat your message.” He waited for a response far longer than expected.

Equis Control – we were unable to understand a word you said. Your voice has been slowed down too far. Can you understand me?

Wandering’s voice was perfectly clear to Destined now, but he was stunned by lack of comprehension of the situation. If the Cosmic Lotus was experiencing a slowdown of time somehow, then he should have sounded as if he was talking too fast before he had stretched time. Instead, in some impossible fashion, both ends seemed to be slowed down. That just did not make any sense whatsoever! With nothing else left to try, he tried the non-intuitive solution – he compressed time to about double speed and called the ship again.

“This is Equis Control – I understood your message and am attempting to compensate. Are you receiving me clearly now?”

Wandering then reversed his time distortion until it stretched out again and waited.

Destined! Thank Celestia! Finally something is going right. Can you tell me what’s going on? Why was your speech distorted? And why do we keep losing thrust?

With his insane theory confirmed, Destined compressed time again. “Wandering, I can tell you what is happening, but not why. Somehow, the faster you travel, the greater the time distortion is becoming, which is why speech has apparently been stretched out. I’m compensating with my time talent, but I can’t do any more than that. As for thrust, we’ve been continually increasing it to try to maintain a steady increase in velocity, but it has been getting increasingly harder. We have enacted a contingency plan to increase our available supply of power, but we might not achieve the planned velocity. Are you experiencing any other problems?”

The alicorn stretched time again.

Ship-wide diagnostics indicate that there’s nothing wrong except for some weird readings that we’re getting from the exterior sensors. These time distortions that you say are affecting us don’t seem to be causing any actual harm. Have you any data to suggest otherwise?

Compress.

“No, not at this time. I will consult with the others and call you back as soon as I can. I recommend carrying on as normal for the moment.”

Stretch.

Understood. We’ll await your response. Cosmic Lotus out.

‘That had to be strangest conversation I’ve ever had,’ Wandering thought as he let his time perception return to normal. After he explained everything to the others, he asked, “Is there any threat to the ship that you can detect?”

Pif replied, “Aside from the growing resistance and this time distortion, the TESS has not seen anything dangerous, per se. However, we’re also noticing some distortions that we can’t account for. But as Wandering reports that the ship seems to be unaffected, I can’t classify them as dangerous.”

Twilight said, “It’s not too late to abort the mission, but should we press on? As long as the mana beacon is still operating normally, we can still teleport the crew off if necessary.”

Destined grimaced. “I’m not so sure. That time-distortion might play havoc with a normal teleport.”

Twilight’s face fell. “That’s bad. That was always going to be our failsafe, and now you’re saying that we can’t even count on that?”

“Sorry, Mom, but space and time are my specialty, so I’ll find a way around that problem, I promise.”

Path spoke up. “It seems that there’s a decision to be made. Does the Cosmic Lotus project proceed as planned, or do we abort? My view is that in the absence of any demonstrated danger, it should proceed, but only if Wandering decides to continue. The Lotus is his to command.” He looked around at the others and saw no dissent. “Okay, Des, inform Cosmic Lotus of our decision and ask for his response.”



Wandering considered the reply from Equis Control. It was all in his hooves now. Everyone on board the Cosmic Lotus had been made aware that there were bound to be unknown dangers in this voyage, and yet all eagerly came anyway. He certainly had not hesitated to jump at the chance. And yet, were they actually in danger? Despite all the weirdness, without the instruments and the communications, there was no sign of anything awry. With the MRS in effect, he could not even sense the mighty acceleration they were undergoing. Things seemed dreadfully normal! He knew better though, but House Path was never known for backing away from a challenge. He made up his mind.

“Equis Control – continue as planned. Unless a clear indication of danger is demonstrated, Cosmic Lotus is going to the Far Star!”

There were cheers from those on the bridge, and the mood immediately lightened. Wandering smiled. No matter how weird things continued to get, they were all true pioneers doing what they loved, and they would carry on doing so.



Every changeling was feeding energy to their Queen now, and they in turn pouring power into Celestia and Luna. Twilight had approached them with some concern, but despite grimacing with the unexpectedly long and heavy load, Celestia had managed to say jokingly, “I could do with a nice cup of tea and slice of cake right now.” The Royal Sisters were performing admirably though, and the Cosmic Lotus continued to accelerate. Pif had joined the power supply efforts, so one of her staff was now keeping them informed of progress as determined by the TESS. The energy required to increase the Cosmic Lotus’ velocity continued to increase exponentially, but they were fairly confident of the speed measurements.

“Ninety-three point two percent light-speed,” announced the assistant.

Every tenth of a percent was counted now as each got harder and harder. The decision had been made to do their utmost to get the Cosmic Lotus to at least a minimum ninety-five percent of light-speed. Hopes for the preferred ninety-seven percent or more were completely abandoned. Unicorns more and more and were dropping out and unable to re-join the effort, but Path had called in a mighty replacement. Fortunately he had been at one of the Equestrian branches and not back home in Griffonia at this time, and his arrival caused quite a stir.

Blue Streak came swooping in on his magitek wings, accompanied by his dragon wives. The matriarch had to find a place to perch on the nearby mountainside because the courtyard was still crowded, but her younger self accompanied Blue to the balcony where they carefully alighted without disturbing the alicorns or the Queens. Destined heaved a sigh of relief at the sight of House Path’s Warmaster approaching with his usual confident smile. The alicorn disconnected himself from the flow to talk with his earth pony brother.

“You’re just in time, Blue. We’re about to make one last surge.”

Blue’s grin grew. “I told you that keeping myself fully charged at all times would pay off one day. So it took nearly a century, but I was right.”

Destined conceded the point. They were going to need every bit of the power that Blue brought – power great enough to fling them thousands of years into the future during the Time Wars. If anything, Blue’s capacity had only increased since then. “You know the drill then. Just open yourself to me and I will draw on the power and feed it to Celestia.”

“Ready when you are, brother.”

Destined warned the others, and they braced themselves. Destined reconnected to the flow, and then sought out Blue Streak’s reservoir of energy and tapped it.

Celestia and Luna both gave a cry of pain at the rush of power, but they still held firm. Destined fed the power as fast as he dared, but even so there was still a vast amount more. It seemed to take ages before they heard the assistant announce, “Ninety-four percent.”

Still one percent more to go. Everyone was straining now. Iridia dropped out with a groan. She and her drones were spent. Crystal had dropped out earlier, but her hive was still much smaller and with fewer resources, so that had not been a surprise. Carpacia was wavering, but she had the most drones available, and they were being bolstered by the positive emotions of the awed crowd of ponies that remained fascinated by the spectacle. Cadance’s legs were trembling; despite being an alicorn, raw power was not her thing. Her husband stood rock steady though, as he would until exhausted. He had protected two entire cities for lengthy periods with his shield in the past, and he would not be found wanting now. Free was showing the strain, but she was damned if she was going to let Shining Armor show her up. Twilight, the veritable Avatar of Magic, seemed to be drawing upon an endless supply, but her son knew that was an illusion. Sooner or later she, just like the rest of them, was going to be exhausted. He hoped fervently that they could make it to their goal. Carpacia’s collapse did not fill him with confidence.

An eternity seemed to pass, and Destined sensed that even Blue’s reserve was running out when the assistant finally said what they were all praying to hear.

“Ninety-five percent light-speed!”

Twilight said loudly and firmly, “Everyone taper off. Don’t just stop or the backlash might hurt!”

Everyone had been pre-warned about this, although the reminder did not go astray under the circumstances. Everybody eased off their efforts and shut down the process gracefully. Celestia and Luna sank down onto the balcony, utterly spent, and castle attendants rushed out to minister to them. Path made his way to the front of the balcony and waited for the crowd’s attention. With the benefit of a voice-enhancing spell, he addressed them all.

“My fellow Equians, although the challenge was far greater than we had imagined, we have achieved our goal. The Cosmic Lotus has reached its minimum optimum speed. The journey to the Far Star is under way!”

A huge cheer rose from the courtyard. Tired unicorns were congratulated by the non-unicorn spectators, and castle staff poured out pushing carts laden with a fresh round of refreshments for all. Despite the late hour due to it taking far longer than planned, a party atmosphere grew as they celebrated the great success. Destined made his way over to the comm and compressed time once more. He was not sure how much worse the time distortion had gotten, but he made an educated guess before pressing the transmit button.

“Cosmic Lotus – this is Equis Control. Propulsion phase completed successfully. Minimum velocity achieved. Report when you’re ready. We’re all going to rest and recover for a while. Equis Control out.”

Destined released control of the flow of time and hungrily eyed the snacks that had been brought in. He decided to grab a particularly delicious-looking apple pie before his brother beat him to it!



Although the stream of energy had stopped, such was the distance from Equis that the Cosmic Lotus had achieved that an enormous amount of energy was still on its way to the starship. For a long time, the crew saw it coming in, although apparently at a far weaker level. However, time dilation meant that the full amount was being spread over a longer period, and the ship’s speed continued to rise.

Ninety-six percent.

Ninety-seven percent.

Finally the thrust ceased entirely at 97.4% of the speed of light. It almost passed unnoticed as the crew stared in awe and confusion at the sight of the stars all crammed into the path ahead of them. What had happened to the universe?



Destined’s message brought much relief. Another round of systems checks reassured Wandering and the bridge crew that the insanity of what was happening outside the ship did not seem to extend to the ship itself. Starry was still going a little crazy trying to work out why everything was wrong with the stars. Not fully trusting the monitor screens, she went to an actual window and withdrew the shield that had been in place as a precaution. The same bizarre sight greeted her however. The report that came from Gizmo only made things more confusing.

“Captain – I’ve checked these readings twice, and they keep telling me the same thing. Equis appears to be four times closer than it should be, and the Far Star looks to be only about ten light-years away.”

Wandering gaped at the unicorn. “What?! That’s impossible!”

Gizmo just gestured helplessly at the screens and shrugged.

Starry sighed. “Along with the time dilation affecting communications with Equis Control, according to our instruments, it seems that space has been distorted somehow, but only on the axis we are travelling in. One star that was directly on our port, for example, measures as the same distance as before.”

“Somehow? All we’ve done is go fast – how can that cause all this?” Wandering asked with exasperation.

“I don’t know, but I and my team are going to get straight to work on trying to find some answers for you.”

“Maybe Destined will have some answers for us.” The alicorn took a deep breath and calmed his thoughts. “Okay – we seem to be on course and up to speed, and the ship appears to be in full working order. We’re going to proceed with post-acceleration schedule as planned with the exception of Starry’s team who will work on this phenomenon. Turn on artificial gravity, and let’s get to work, people!”



With a normal routine established, the bridge crew soon settled down, choosing to ignore the outside universe for the moment. After sending an interim report back to Equis Control, Wandering let the crew do their work while he pondered the ramifications of the unanticipated anomalies. Hours later, he was startled when a blue alicorn suddenly appeared in the specially demarked teleportation area on the bridge next to the mana beacon, and staggered a bit before getting his balance.

“Whoa!” Destined yelped. “That was crazy!”

Wandering got up from his command chair and approached Destined. “Are you alright, brother?” he asked with great concern.

“I’ll be fine. I just never teleported and tried to compensate for a huge time-distortion before. Did you know that time is passing over four times slower for you? Even with the benefit of the mana beacon, I barely managed to get here, and this kind of thing is my specialty.”

Wandering’s face and ears fell. “Do you mean that we’re now without our failsafe escape plan?”

“Oh, you can escape, alright, but I doubt that you would survive the experience,” Destined replied soberly.

Wandering sighed. “Have you any good news for us?”

Destined grinned. “As a matter of fact, yes. Pif took some final measurements with the TESS and confirmed their accuracy. While we thought that we had only managed to get you up to ninety-five percent of light-speed, we overlooked the delay between transmission and reception of the thrust. This ship is now travelling at 97.4% of the speed of light.”

“That’s very reassuring. Our instruments are practically useless due to the distorted views we’re getting.” Wandering indicated the view on the monitor.

Destined nodded. “I could hardly miss that, and it’s as bizarre as you described. I can assure you though that the universe hasn’t actually gone crazy, and you are nicely on course. Oh – and one other thing that you will probably like. If this time stretching continues unabated, your trip to the Far Star will take only a bit over ten years instead of forty-three or four.”

Wandering tried to reconcile those facts in his head and failed. “Huh?”

“Right now, time is passing a lot slower for you, so you will experience less than a quarter of the duration, even while those of us back on Equis still see you taking over four decades.”

“Well, that’s an unexpected bonus. I doubt anyone aboard this ship will be unhappy at slashing the amount of time just travelling to the Far Star.”

“I didn’t think so. Anyway, Pif and her think-tank will be working on these time and space distortions, as well as why it got exponentially harder to push the Cosmic Lotus the closer we got to the speed of light. We’ll keep you abreast of any developments, and if you desperately need something, I will try to help. Don’t count on me teleporting anything much more than a very small package though – I barely can manage bringing myself!”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks for coming, Des.”

“No worries, bro. Glad to be here for you.” Destined clapped Wandering on the withers and gave a wave to the rest of the bridge crew. “Keep up the great work, everyone. Equis is proud of all of you.” His horn lit up and he teleported away, although with a strange stuttering effect rather than the typical flash-bang.

Wandering turned around to gaze at the main monitor and the stars crowded near the centre of it. ‘Ten years… this changes things a lot,’ he thought. His stomach gurgled just then, reminding him that he had not eaten in a long time. ‘In a universe of strange phenomena, it’s nice to know that some mundane things stay the same.’ He chuckled a bit before he raised his voice. “Commander Bluequill, you have the bridge. Kale Robe’s culinary masterpieces await me.”

# # # # # # # # # # # #

Dappler Effect = ponified Doppler Effect
TESS = Thaumaturgically Enhanced Stellar Scope - an advanced telescope that has its performance enhanced with magic spells

 


 

Purple Point Profanity Pool

Sailors, since time immemorial, have found ways to distract themselves from the monotony of a long voyage. The crew of the Cosmic Lotus were no exception to this. Within a day of departure, betting pools were set up, permissions were sought to set up breweries (craft brews by three of the crew, it being a hobby of each of them), and charts set up to keep track of elapsed voyage time, time until hibernation, and guesstimation on what they would find at the Far Star.

One pool that was set up became known officially as the Daily Raffle, and unofficially as the Purple Point Profanity Pool. Purple Point, the Engineer’s Mate, was widely known for several things, mainly an eidetic memory, an exceptional talent with most technologies, a calm, dignified polite manner, a quirky sense of humour, and most of all, when working alone on damaged or malfunctioning equipment, what could be politely described as a potty-mouth. His swearing, always directed at the equipment, was multilingual, literate, and so incredibly detailed, crewfolk who could understand what he was saying would take notes. While he could descend into crudity, and would on some occasions, he preferred the more literate profanity.

One thing to take careful note of is that he would never knowingly swear in the presence of another pony. The swearing was a purely automatic function to him. When he became aware of another pony near him, the profanity flow was abruptly cut off, his ears turning bright red in shame.

The Morale Officer, Random Dawn, brought up the subject of the Daily Raffle to the Captain of the Cosmic Lotus, Wandering Path. “What I would like to do is to set up two related pools, creating a program with CONN (Crystalline Organizational Neural Network, the ship’s Artificial Intelligence) to monitor Purple Point’s swearing. Each pony on board can, before noon, register their guesses for how long he would swear that day, day running from midnight to midnight, and how many languages he will use. Wagers will be given to CONN blindly, meaning you will know your own bet, but will have to ask others what their bets were. A standing bet system can be arranged, to record the same choice day after day. What I need to do is find a way to spread the word without him finding out.”

“What do you intend to offer as prizes?” Wandering Path asked.

“That will vary day by day. One day, you can win free drinks at the Nightclub. Another day, you can win a custom dessert of your choice at Sunday dinner. I have lots of options. That’s just for the time spent swearing. For the number of languages, I will award a cash prize, taking two bits from each entry, free or paid, into a pool to be split among the winners.”

“How will the winner be determined? Nearest guess either way, nearest without going over? What will you do if there are more than one winner, which I think would frequently be the case?”

“I’m thinking nearest either way. Nailing it exactly, which I think will happen more often on the second part, will lead to doubling the prize. In case of one pony hitting both numbers exactly, well, I’ll think of something really special. The non-cash prizes are determined by the time guess. I don’t think very many will take both halves of the prize.”

Wandering appeared to consider the request for a few moments. He was reviewing in his mind all he had read about Purple Point, from the first phone call he made to offer himself to the Project, from background checks to interviews. The Captain knew that a similar scam had been done to the stallion in every non-academic job he had held since he left Baltimare years before to join the Merchant Marine. Purple Point knew damn well that ponies would notice his outbursts. “Hell, Captain – if those lack-wits want to do something like that to me, the best thing I can do is ignore it officially, but closely monitor the progress. If something nice comes up as a prize, I may enter, at zero-zero. They can have their fun, but I always get the last laugh.

Idly, Wandering tapped some controls on his screen, discreetly authorizing Purple Point to monitor progress, through CONN, of the new pool. “Request approved. How will you handle entries?”

“Through CONN. Everyone gets one free entry a day. More can be bought at ten bits apiece for another ticket into the pool. Bets close at noon, final tallies are done at midnight and will be posted in the Plan of the Day, with the names of the winners posted, and that day’s prize announced.”

“What about the bits collected? What will you do with them?”

“They will go into an account which I will donate to charity when we get back to Equis, after the cash prizes have been awarded.”

“Sounds good to me. Post the Daily Raffle rules to each crewpony individually today, and start it as of midnight tonight. Heck, I might even take a stab at it once in a while.”



Several weeks into the mission, after the Lotus was checked, rechecked, and re-rechecked, it was time to prep the majority of the crew for hibernation. Three days before hibernation, Captain Path announced that there would be an All Hooves party the night before hibernation started, so everyone could socialize together one last time before going into magically-induced stasis, the ship being crewed in shifts for the next ten years, voyaging to the Far Star. He also announced that one pony would get to choose who would be ‘assisting’ the cooks and servers that night, the positions open being server, table loader, dish-washer operator, and trash disposal operator. The winner of the Daily Raffle would be the lucky pony to do the choosing.

In Engineering, Eon Path called together two of his friends, the part-thestral pegasus ColdFire, and the Blue Changeling Steam Shift. “Okay, here’s my plan to set things up so one of us wins the Raffle tomorrow. I’m willing to throw in a hundred bits for more chances. What we are going to do is cause a string of minor malfunctions all over the ship while Purple Point is Duty Engineer. All of us bet high, because our little glitches will infuriate him to such a point, he’ll be popping off continually.”

“Just what sort of minor malfunctions are you thinking about, Eon?” ColdFire asked.

“O-rings leaking, insulation rubbing off wires, support bolts working loose. Nothing major, but enough to keep him running about for the twelve hours he is on duty,” Eon explained.

“Plus, if we have the failures in out-of-the-way locations, he will have to figure out how to get to the malfunction to fix it,” Steam Shift added, flipping his blue scarf over his shoulder.

“I like that thought. So, how much are we all in for?” Eon asked his compatriots. They agreed to throw in a hundred bits apiece for ten guesses each, plus their free one. “Make your plans tonight, but let’s not tell each other. He will be on duty from noon to midnight, so let us plan well.”

ColdFire added, “Let’s all agree that whichever one of us wins, we will not name each other to any of the positions, okay? This sounds like a lot of fun!” she squealed happily.

Steam Shift nodded. “Sounds good to me.”

“And me,” Eon said. “Let’s do it to it.” He knew firsthand just how piquant Purple Point could get when annoyed. Personally, he was hoping to hear something in Draconic that he didn’t already know. “I just can’t reconcile his pleasant manner with his absolutely foul language while working. It’s like he’s two different ponies.”

“I’ve noticed that too,” Steam Shift said. “But, if it was anything bad, he would not be here, right?”

“Right,” ColdFire said. “Let’s hope we don’t cause him to blow a head gasket.”



Purple Point, on the other hoof, took the news with his usual calm. He had a way in mind to get through the day, on duty and off, without swearing once. A matter of self-hypnosis, lots of strong black coffee on hoof, and striving not to be alone. ‘The crew thinks they can make me swear on demand? Well, we shall see who has the better will and the better skill,’ he thought as he prepared for bed that night, waiting for the sleeping drug that he required to shut his mind down enough to get to sleep. ‘My will is supreme. I dance to my own tune. Nobody commands me. For Purple Point to live, Radiance Glow must stay dead. I will be the best there is at my job. This mission will succeed. Now, how to make the Virtual Repair spell…’ he thought as he faded out.

Purple Point rarely slept more than five hours at a stretch, and upon awakening, he first renewed his vow, committing his vast mental prowess to the task. “I will not swear today. Period.” he said to himself before leaving his cabin and going to breakfast, greeting those he met politely, in their accustomed fashion. Being Engineer’s Mate, he had to do the departmental paperwork, which he did with his accustomed ease, compiling and inputting what was required of him. After that, an inspection of the ship’s systems through the Engineering monitor display, flicking through subsystems at a high rate of speed, looking not for actual readings, but variations from the normal. Satisfied that the ship was in good health, he then prepared his personal tool and equipment saddlebags for when he was on duty.

Having about three hours before his shift began, Purple Point made his way to the magic research labs. He had an idea for what he called Virtual Repair, casting a spell on a defective piece of equipment and making it last until either a replacement was available or the equipment could be safely shut down. The spell was a series of spells that needed to be woven into one integral unit, and it was a project he had been working on for over ten years, ever since he had attained his ThD, in addition to his two PhD’s.

He was jolted out of his research by the on-duty Engineer, Crystal Twist, a dark-green crystal pony mare. “Point, snap out of it. You’ve got half an hour for lunch before taking over.”

Point jumped some, barely remembering in time not to utter an oath, however mild. “Thank you for reminding me, Twist. I’ll be there on time. Anything to report?”

“Not hardly. Been a quiet watch so far. Meet you back in Engineering,” she said before heading out.

Point put away his research material, returning the area to neatness. Lunch was quick, and afterwards he headed to Engineering, his mug of black coffee trailing steam. Precisely on time, he relieved Crystal Twist. “Do have a pleasant off-shift, Twist.”

“I intend to,” she said with a smile as she put her tool bags up. “I’m helping Willow do the decorations for the party tomorrow night.”

“Then I know the party will be a success,” Point said kindly as he put his belt on. “Go, have fun. I relieve you.”

“I stand relieved!” Twist laughed as she trotted off.



Fifteen minutes into his shift, a call came in. “Leak detected in Hydroponics Bay Two. Duty Engineer, attend,” came the call from CONN.

“Hydroponics leak? That’s not good,” Point said as he gathered some specialized repair parts for the job before hurrying to Hydroponics. There, he found the head of Hydroponics, Fatima Dashar, and two of her assistants standing around a puddle on the floor.

“A good day to you, delight of the eyes,” Point said in Saddle Arabian. “How may this one help you?”

“A seal blew in the tank corner, underneath. Can you patch it?” Fatima asked, blushing just a touch at Point’s greeting.

“Easily. It will just take some time to get in there, see the damage, and select the proper patch,” Point replied in Equish. “Give me some space, please.”

As the hydroponics techs moved away, Point got down on the floor after removing his saddlebags, to peer at the trouble spot. “I wonder how this happened,” he said quietly as he looked at the small hole that was dripping water. “Looks like it was caused by corrosion.”

“We noticed it barely ten minutes ago. Best fix it before it gets too bad,” Fatima told him.

“I can do a temporary patching, but when this tank is down for cleaning and maintenance, do let Engineering know so a better repair can be made,” Point said as he pulled patching material from his bag, along with a cutting tool. Carefully, he cut the patch to the right size, flexed the patch to activate the sealant, and applied it, holding the patch with his purple glow as it set.

Five minutes later, the repair was complete. Getting up and stowing his tools, he then bowed to Fatima and the other techs. “May many blessings shower on you all this day, instead of a leaky tank,” he said politely.

“Thank you for getting it fixed so quickly, Point.”

“That’s my job.”

He left Hydroponics Two, heading back to Engineering. He was at the door when another call came in. “Lighting failure in corridor 17, level H, frame 120. Duty Engineer, attend,” CONN reported.

Point snorted, but changed course to head to the problem site. “Okay, how did that happen?” he asked himself as he trotted.

Once there, he found the lights were indeed out in the corridor. Pulling out his circuit tester, he started to investigate. As he tested spot after spot, he felt the urge to let out his frustration, but nipped his tongue gently. “Remember, this is a no-swear day, Radiance,” he muttered.

Half an hour of testing isolated the fault – the light switch itself had malfunctioned. Not because of a manufacturing defect or simple wear, but by somepony messing with the switch, causing it to fail. Point felt the urge to swear building, but he forced it down before going to Stores for a replacement.

Just as he finished the job, putting the damaged switch into his bag to be repaired later, another call came in. “Corrosives leak in primary sciences lab. Damage reported. Duty Engineer, attend,” CONN said.

Purple Point almost turned purple as he got the news, but headed there, fighting to keep his composure, a fight he won, of course. Upon arriving at the lab, he found Techbird outside the door, being treated by a medical technician and a magitek technician. “What happened, Techbird?” he asked politely, because if there was one being he truly respected on board the Lotus, it was the aged griffoness.

“I was mixing some acids when I had a power failure to my claw. I dropped the mixing container and it shattered, severing some tubing. It’s a bit of a mess in there, I’m sorry to say,” Techbird said, a little mournfully.

Purple Point smiled up at the griffoness. “Don’t worry nor apologize, Techbird. I can put everything to rights. Maybe now you will get your systems tuned like I suggested earlier.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” said the magitek technician, Gizmo Gears.

“If you will allow us, Techbird, we will all take care of each other. We have an appointment to keep at the Far Star,” Purple Point said before activating his suit’s protective spells and going into the lab.

After passing through the mini-airlock, the first thing he asked was, “CONN – atmosphere reading, please.”

“Acid fumes present in laboratory atmosphere. Laboratory ventilation isolated from shipboard ventilation system. Warning: while atmosphere is not toxic, long term exposure is not indicated.”

“Thank you, CONN. Rig ventilation line-up from laboratory to Atmosphere Purification Unit Three for processing. Any damage to major systems in this laboratory?”

“Negative. Damage restricted to table and apparatus in use at the time. Neutralization and clean-up is called for. Ventilation configured to your specifications, ready to begin at your order.”

“Begin atmosphere purification. I’ll clean up the equipment. Please advise as to what equipment is salvageable and what is not as I clean.”

“Understood, Duty Engineer. Atmosphere purification is underway.”

“Thank you, CONN.” For the next hour, Purple Point cleaned the acid spill, carefully adding neutralizing agents to the spilled acids, putting broken equipment into a sealed container for repair or recycling, and, most importantly, remaining silent the whole time, except to answer requests for information, progress reports, and asking questions about pieces of equipment he was not familiar with.

He handled his tasks with only part of his attention, most of his mind locked in a battle with himself to remain silent and not give anyone any ammunition to use against him. It was not an easy chore, because his natural reaction was to cuss a blue streak, but his respect for Techbird did aid him in keeping control of himself. Only once did he stop in mid-action and say clearly and firmly, “No, Radiance!”

When all his work was done, he exited the lab. “All safe to use, Techbird. You may now resume your previously scheduled incomprehensibilities,” he reported to the aged griffoness, who laughed at his witticism.

“Thank you so very much, Purple Point. Will I get to see you at dinner?”

“Probably not. On duty until midnight. I might be assistant chief engineer of this ship, but you can’t learn how the ship feels sitting in an office, you have to get out and feel him or her. That’s why I like doing duty shifts every so often.”

“Another time, then. Any progress on your VR spells?”

“Tomorrow morning I can give you a report. I may have figured out the binding spells, but I have to do some more experimentation,” Purple Point replied. One of his goals was once he got the Virtual Repair spell crafted, it could be integrated into a magitek device so others could use it.

“I look forward to finding out,” Techbird told the unicorn before looking to her assistants. “Back to it!”



Purple Point made it back to the Duty Engineer’s office, where he first recharged the protective spells on his ship’s uniform, then checked on ship’s status. All was well, including the atmosphere line-up from the lab, now that he had cleared all traces of the acid fumes. Restoring the ventilation line-up to normal, he then repacked his tool and parts bag, replacing what he had pulled out, brewing up a pot of coffee, his way, which meant that if you put a spoon in it, the odds were equal if it would stand upright or dissolve. Sugar would dissolve in it, but creamer or anything like it would get expelled from the mug. He did not care – it kept him awake.

Thirty minutes later, he received another call, for a mishap in the Linear Park – a pegasus and a changeling had collided in mid-air, and their fall had damaged some support struts. With a sigh and a mutter, he headed out to see.

Arriving at the park, he found the duty med-tech just leaving. “Everypony all right?” Point asked.

“Bumps, bruises and a few cuts. Nothing major. Some struts for the Park’s upper level, though, are a bit bent out of shape,” the tech reported.

Purple Point snorted once. “As am I. Been a busy shift for me, and it’s only four. Let me go in and see.”

Getting to the scene of the incident, Point found ColdFire and Steam Shift on the growing grass of the lawn, both sporting a few bandages. “What in Tartarus happened in here?” he demanded.

“ColdFire was teaching me some stunts,” Steam Shift explained. “We cut it a little too close to the upper level struts.”

“It’s not too bad, but a few are bent, and some support strands have gone slack.” ColdFire added.

Purple Point grumbled some, actually looking a little angry before composing himself, his lips moving but saying nothing at first. “I would dragoon you two into the repairs, but not only are you two off duty, I can see the bandages on your wings. So, it’s up to me. As usual.” He then snorted. “Okay, you two, get out of here. I’ll deal with you later. I’ve got a job to do.”

Without looking back at the two reprobates, Purple Point went to the damaged area. Looking up, he saw the bent struts and slack wires. Under thrust, it would collapse like a paper fan in a rainstorm. He felt his rage build, but he squelched it with a loud, determined, “NO, Radiance!” before starting to work, the purple glow from his horn reaching up to the bent struts, feeling them out, deciding if they need replacing. To his chagrin, two of them did. He bit his lip as he discovered the extent of the damage.

ColdFire and Steam Shift saw Point’s reactions. “Looks like he’s going to blow his stack,” ColdFire muttered.

“He never loses his temper in public,” Steam Shift whispered back. “But, I can tell you, he’s not happy.”

“First time for everything. Let’s get going before he does lose it. We still have a few more incidents to create before midnight. I have twenty to twenty-five minutes in the pool.”

“I chose between ten and eighteen in my picks. I wonder what Eon has in mind next?” Steam Shift whispered as they left the park.

“That’s why we are working independently. We just came here together because we both wanted some flight time in. I’ve got something wicked in mind,” ColdFire said.

“You are one devious pegasus, ColdFire.”

“Thank you for the compliment, Steam Shift,” the mare replied smugly.

All told, it took Point two hours to fix the damage, between gathering parts and tools, replacing the struts and tightening the stays so that everything was restored to an as-was condition before cleaning up and putting tools and lift away. He had dinner sent to the Duty Engineer’s office, rather than going to the mess deck. He had just barely finished one of Kale’s better creations when the first of three calls in a row came in, first for a bad lighting panel in Engine Ops, a broken ventilator grille in the Captain’s cabin (Wandering admitted to the damage), and another cracked nutrient feed line in a hibernation bay, that one being reported by Princess Galena.

“I don’t know how that happened, Point, but we need to get it patched before we start putting folk in them,” she said with obvious dismay.

“At least I won’t be standing fetlock-deep in the stuff. Makes my hooves itch. Good thing I have the sealant required, Princess. Now, please to pardon me, and I’ll get started,” Point said politely. As he looked it over, he said loud and clear, “NO, RADIANCE! NOT NOW!”

Princess Galena was perplexed at the shout, but decided to let it go as Point swiftly, effectively and permanently fixed the crack, lip caught between two front teeth, seeping a little blood. She backed away as he worked, confused at his demeanour. He was always polite to her, as he was to all the folk. Why would he shout at nothing, and who or what was Radiance? Plus, she tasted a lot of anger, but it was directed inward, towards himself, not outward. Still, it was strong enough to give her a reason to get clear.

Within twenty minutes, the leak had been sealed, and the area cleaned up. Point sought out Galena, telling her that all was well now, and just who had been in there within the past half hour?

“Why, Eon Path was here, helping me check out all the pods. He left just before I found the leak.”

“Okay, then. I have an idea about something. A pleasant evening to you, Princess.”

“And to you, Point. Thank you again.”

“Hey, we’re all in this together. I’m going to be in one of these pods soon enough, and it had best be working when I am in it. It’s in my best interest to make sure they work,” Point told the princess, sending her good thoughts and feelings, but she could still taste the undercurrent of hostility.

Back at the duty office, Point looked at the clock as he ‘poured’ himself another mug of coffee. “Three and a half hours more of this. Can I stand the strain? No, Radiance. Ouch!” he yelped as the hot mug touched his bitten lip. He took a deep breath to utter a malediction, but this time he bit his tongue. Literally. Painfully. Then, CONN called again.

“Hole reported in ventilation duct, Deck C, frame fifty-three.”

Purple Point’s face and ears purpled. “What in Tartarus is going on here?” he asked angrily as he prepared his gear for another trip. On scene, there was indeed a hole in the duct, as if somepony carelessly banged against it while carrying something large and hard. As he patched the hole, noting the location for further repair, he took a deep breath to curse, and bit his lip again. Hard. Very hard. Painfully hard. Messily hard. He sucked carefully on his bit lip as the patch set, before making his way to Medical to get his lip patched before he lost too much blood, making sure he didn’t leave a trail behind him.

“Having a rough day?” asked Dr. Zubon as she mended his lip.

“Ohnlee cuz ah kep on bitin’ myshelf,” he slurred as the wound was healed.

“Next time, not so hard, okay?”

“I will do my besht, Doctor. Thank you for the treatment,” he said before the intercom sounded off again.

“Hydraulic valve failure, auxiliary machinery room three. Duty Engineer, investigate,” CONN said in its pleasant female voice.

The grimace on Point’s face amused Zubon, for about five seconds. “Pardon me, Doctor, yet another problem,” he said in a kind tone, but the undercurrent was plain.

“Go in peace, Point,” Zubon said as he hurried out.

In AMR3, Point found an O-ring had failed, blowing a seal on a hydraulic valve. Fluid had sprayed out of the flaw, spraying a fine mist into the air and coating almost everything within five meters with fluid. He stomped his right front hoof several times on the floor, marshalling his temper. “No, Radiance, don’t you dare,” he muttered. “Almost there…”

Automatic systems had isolated the system, so all Point had to do was disassemble the valve and inspect it. He did note a scratch near the O-ring seat, making him not only very suspicious, but causing him to nearly detonate. Sparks flew up and down his horn, and he bit his lip again, even more severely than last time. Working fast, he replaced the O-ring, coated it liberally with sealant, reassembled the valve, and reconnected the valve controller to CONN. He then literally stomped his way back to Medical. The duty tech summoned Dr. Zubon.

“Again, Point?” she said as she readied treatment. He could only nod, keeping his mouth shut until she was ready. After the healing was completed, Point looked at Zubon with an apologetic expression.

“Sorry, Doctor. I don’t plan on being a frequent visitor.”

“When do you get off shift?”

“Midnight.”

“I’ll wait here until then. I think you’re going to need an extra strength sleep med tonight. I had best start preparing it.”

“May Celestia smile upon you, Doctor,” Point managed to say when the intercom sounded off with yet another call.

“Broken water valve, exercise room one, shower booth five,” CONN announced. “Duty Engineer, attend.”

Point shut his eyes and moved his lips, but said nothing. Another spark flew off his horn. “I’ll be waiting,” Zubon sighed.

Point made his way to the designated place, to find the earth pony cook, Kale Robe, standing in the shower room, a towel around his neck. “I’m sorry, Point. I just lost a game of hoof ball, and, well…” Kale trailed off, looking at the remains of the valve on the floor.

Point looked at Kale, his eyes blank at first before warming up. “You, I believe, Kale. I’ll have this fixed in ten minutes.”

“Make it five and I’ll make you your favourite coffee cake.”

That was all it took. With a blur of purple glow, tools and parts, the valve housing was cleaned, damaged parts removed, new parts installed, the bonnet tightened down, and tested. “Three minutes thirty-nine seconds. I’ll take it at breakfast,” Point muttered, his lip sore, having nipped it from the inside.

“You got it, Point! Thanks, and thanks again!” the earth pony said before going back into the shower booth and turning it on. As Point was leaving, Kale let out a yelp. “HOT!” Point just put his nose to the floor for a moment before looking up.

“CONN, secure water to shower booth five, exercise room one,” he said in a tired voice.

“Unable to comply. Cyber controls have been rendered inert.”

Point sighed, feeling tired. “CONN, review security scans around all damaged areas this watch, from one hour before incident to one hour after my repair. Send all scans to my terminal for review. Secure all water lines in to exercise room one shower stalls.”

“Understood, Assistant Chief Engineer. Reports are waiting. Water isolated to exercise room one shower stalls.” CONN said in her level tones.

“And repairs are starting.”

Swiftly, Point pulled out a diagnostic tool from his bag, finding out the valve’s remote controls had been damaged when that valve was broken. Sighing, he dug through his bag to find a replacement part which was quickly located and installed. When CONN reported normal function, Point turned to Kale. “It’s working now. CONN, reactivate water service to exercise room one shower stalls.”

“You’ll have your coffee cake tomorrow, Point!”

“Thank you, Kale. Just doing my job,” Point said as he left the shower room, his mind thinking about coffee.

Back in his duty office, Point put on another pot of coffee as he restocked his saddlebags, getting ready for the next problem call. Coffee ready, he added sugar to his mug before pouring in the coffee. Just as he was raising the mug for a sip, a loud snap, crackle and pop was heard echoing throughout the area, and the office went dark.

“Lighting Circuitry Panel Six-Nine reporting main breaker failure. Power disconnected to aft lighting panels Six-Nine, Seven-Zero and Seven-One. Duty Engineer, investigate cause of failure of Lighting Circuitry Panel Six-Nine,” CONN reported.

“What do you think I’m going to do, you cracked crystal contraption? Write poetry?” Point shouted, retaining control of his temper only by the barest of margins. Lighting his horn, he took a big gulp of liquid tar before putting the mug down and exiting the office for the lighting panel, which was only a few meters away, around two corridor turns. CONN, not being sentient, did not reply to Point’s outburst.

By the light of his horn, Point saw the lighting panel door open, with a hole and a char mark evident on both the inside and outside of the panel door. The main input breaker had failed spectacularly, with only bits and pieces still in the mounting. He sat down, sighed deeply, shut his eyes and recited a mantra, “No, Radiance, stay out of this. No, Radiance, stay out of this,” fifty times before opening his eyes and getting to work.

He tested the panel to make sure it was de-energized before removing the failed breaker. Examining it, he found a faint sign that the breaker had been tampered with, but he could not be sure until later. Setting it aside, he made his way to Stores to get another master power breaker, chanting his mantra the whole time. Installing the new breaker, he checked it thoroughly before calling to CONN to re-energize the lighting bus.

“Power restored to aft lighting panels Six-Nine, Seven-Zero, and Seven-One,” Conn reported as some lights came on, but not in the immediate area.

Point then ordered, “Shut breaker to Lighting Panel Six-Nine.” There was a clunk from the panel, the breaker flipped to the shut position, and the lights came back up.

“Lights are on, but is there anybody home? Conn – time check, please.”

“Time is now twenty-three hundred forty-five hours. Fifteen minutes until end of shift.”

Thank you, CONN. Let me clean up here before Eon arrives,” Point said before doing just that, getting the area tidy before going back to the office, where Eon Path was waiting, his own saddlebag tool and parts pack on and ready.

“Rather busy shift, I see,” the dracopony said, looking up from the log display.

“Very much so. Suspiciously so. I’ll investigate tomorrow. For now, it’s midrats, medication, and bed for me, hopefully until about oh-seven.”

“Very well, Point. I relieve you.”

“I stand relieved,” Point said as he took off his saddlebags and placed them in his locker, until the next time he took a duty shift. Once that was done, he took his mug of cold tar and headed to the mess decks, where he partook of what was there before reporting to Medical.

“Now, this is a more potent form of your usual sleep medicine, Point. Just use this pressure hypo and inject yourself where convenient. It should work within twenty minutes,” Zubon said, hoofing over the hypo. “Wait until you are back in your cabin before doing so.”

“Yes, Doctor, and thank you for making this. I hope I won’t need this concoction too often.”

“I hope so too. It could be habit-forming.”

“That would be bad. I have enough bad habits already.” Point took the hypo and left for his cabin.

Once there, he settled himself into bed. Before he injected himself with the sleep dose, CONN spoke up. “Incoming message for Purple Point.”

“Read message aloud, CONN.”

“You have won the Daily Raffle with a correct submission of zero-zero. You have won the right to name the cook’s assistants for the party tonight. Whom do you choose?”

“I will decide before noon, CONN.”

“Very well. Incoming call, from Eon Path.”

“Put him through, please.” Point looked up at the image of Eon in the intercom display. “What you need? I’m about to go to sleep.”

“How in Tartarus did you manage to win the raffle?” Eon said, confused. “I thought you would be swearing up a storm!”

“Now, why would you want to think that, Eon?”

“Because I, ColdFire and Steam Shift have been doing minor sabotage all day, trying to piss you off!” Eon blurted.

Point sprang out of bed. “You WHAT?” he bellowed. “YOU were behind all that happened today?

Eon smiled. “Most of it. Nothing harmful to the ship at large – just enough to make you swear up a storm. How did you manage not to?”

“Willpower and the fact this has been played on me before, you…” Point shouted before the dam broke. For over forty-five minutes he swore, both crudely and literately, in a total of thirty-eight languages before he passed out colder than yesterday’s pancakes, which were cold enough yesterday. The sheer magnitude of the cussing turned the air in his cabin blue, okay, purple, because of the purple smoke and sparks coming from his horn. The intercom circuit failed within the first thirty seconds due to overload.

When Point passed out, his going unconscious was enough of a shock to cause CONN to notify Medical and the Captain. Wandering arrived to find Zubon scanning the sleeping Point.

“Will he be alright?”

“I am seeing something I have not seen from him before – a deep, sound, natural sleep without the aid of chemicals,” Zubon reported, holding up the spray hypo she had prepared earlier.

“I hope he wakes up in time for the party tomorrow… er… today.”

“I will see to it. CONN, what were his numbers for that outburst?” Zubon asked.

“Forty-five minutes eighteen seconds non-stop, plus thirty-eight languages, from Equish to Yakyakistani, Doctor.”

“Wow! That must be a record somewhere,” Wandering exclaimed in admiration. “My bet was fifteen minutes ten seconds and ten languages.”

“While mine was twenty-two minutes and eighteen languages. So that’s why he was biting his lip so much. I had to heal it twice.”

“You have to hoof it to him – he really puts the cuss in focus,” Wandering said as the alicorn and zebra left Purple Point’s cabin, leaving him to sleep.

Upon awakening at about eleven in the morning, the first thing Point noticed was how refreshed he felt. When he looked at the clock, he jumped in surprise. “I missed the morning meetings!” he bellowed as he headed for the toilet and shower.

“Messages are waiting for Purple Point. Should I read them aloud?” CONN asked.

“Please do, CONN,” Point said from the toilet, draining coffee.

“Message from Doctor Zubon. If you are not awake by lunchtime, I will come get you. I want you here in Medical after lunch for an examination. Message from Commander Bluequill. You are to consider yourself on off duty-status until cleared to return to duty by Medical. I will let you punish the pranksters. Message from Willow. I need your nominations for the party tonight by noon. Please message them to me. Message from the Captain. How and when did you learn Yakyakistani? Message from Eon Path. I’m in it deep, right? Did you know you blew the comm circuits from your cabin to the Duty Room, taking out a whole sector’s communications until I reset matters? Call me when you wake. Messages end.”

By that time, Point was coming out of the shower, towelling himself off. “Message to Willow. My nominations are Steam Shift for the serving table loader, ColdFire for dishwasher, and Eon Path for trash disposal operator, and Willow herself as server. I’ve had this trick pulled on me behind my back before. I always get even. Message ends.”

“Understood and delivered. Anything else?”

“Message for Doctor Zubon,” Point said as he brushed his mane. “Tell her I have received her message and will see her after lunch, as ordered. Message ends.”

“Understood and delivered. Anything else?”

“Yes. Message for Techbird. I hope you are doing better than yesterday, and with good fortune we will meet over lunch. Message ends.”

“Understood and delivered. Anything else?”

“Message for Eon Path. You’re in for it now. Check your messages, trash pony. Message ends.”

“Understood and delivered. Anything else?”

“Message for the Captain. I met a yakety yak some years back. He taught me a few things. Message ends.”

“Understood and delivered. Anything else?”

“No further messages, CONN. Thank you and out,” Point said as he brushed his tail before getting into a clean ship suit. The screen on his desk monitor dimmed, indicating CONN had gone, for him, from active to passive mode.

He did meet Techbird for lunch, and he discussed an idea for an integration spell to knit the disparate parts of his planned Virtual Repair spell together. Just another step forward on a dream he’d had for ten years now.

Reporting to Medical, Zubon scanned Point with everything she had at her disposal. “Just what are you looking for, Doctor?” he said in a polite tone tinged with confusion.

“You passed out after your tirade. You had yet to inject yourself with the compound. Yet, I found you in the deepest, most restful sleep I have ever seen you in. I want to know why.”

“For that matter, so do I. You may investigate to my heart’s content, Doctor. You examine; I will think.”

Zubon looked over Point’s readings, while Point thought about putting his Virtual Repair spell together. “You are unusually calm today, Point. Last night, you were wound up tighter than I have ever seen you, but now your readings show you as calm, relaxed and rested. Your tirade really drained all your negative feelings out,” she told the waiting unicorn.

“How bad was the tirade?” he asked.

“Forty-five minutes eighteen seconds before you ran down, along with what CONN counted as thirty-eight languages.”

Point grimaced at the report. “Forty-five minutes?”

“Non-stop and at full power the whole time. How do you do it?”

“Natural magic talent. Am I cleared for duty?”

Zubon smiled. “There is the party tonight. The way you are now, you really should attend. Let the crew see you in a good mood and a relaxed state, when you are not cleaning them out at the poker table.”

Point hesitated. “Well, I was thinking of taking Command Duty Officer tonight so others could attend. You know I don’t like parties.”

“It will do you a lot of good, too. Maybe you can do some performing. I know you have a good voice.”

“You know my music is a private joy, Doctor.”

“I will not clear you for duty until you agree to go to the party!” Zubon snapped.

“Pick you up here at a quarter to seven?” Point said quickly.

“Make it seven exactly. Us senior officers can make a fashionably late entrance. Oh, just one little caveat before I release you for duty, Point.”

“What’s that, Doctor?”

“If you even think of performing any of the verses of ‘Barnacle Tail the Sailor’, your next sleeping drug will put you out until two months after we get to the Far Star, without using a hibernation pod!” Zubon said sternly.

“Yes, Doctor,” Point said meekly. “I’ll do something pleasant I learned in Mexicolt a while back, in Esponial.”

“Good colt,” Zubon said as she tapped the keys on her panel, releasing Point from medical restrictions. “You need some fun, and if I have to prescribe it with a crowbar, I will!”

# # # # # # # # # # # #

 
Purple Point is the creation of Alden MacManx. This episode and the next were 98% written by him but proofread and edited by me. His story continues in Purple Point: His Life in Space.

 


 

Memories

 

When Purple Point was released to go back on duty, the first place he headed was to the mess deck to grab himself a mug of coffee before going to his office. He had some research to do and malefactors to punish. However, once logged on, he was refused access to the security scans he had requested the night before.

“CONN, explain reason for denial of access.”

“Access denied by both Captain Path and Commander Bluequill. Message for Purple Point from Commander Bluequill. Point, the three you caught were not the only ones gunning for you. Others did as well. If you would like to know who did what, ask CONN. Message ends.”

Point snorted. “Figures most ponies aboard would. CONN, display and recite list of those who were involved in the minor sabotage on my duty watch yesterday, please.”

“Listing begins: Incident One – Leak in Hydroponics Bay Two, perpetrator Fatima Dashar,” CONN reported in its pleasant female voice.

“Huh! Didn’t know Fatima had that in her,” Point snorted.

“Incident Two – Lighting failure in Corridor 17, perpetrator Eon Path. Incident Three – Corrosives leak in primary science lab, no deliberate cause detected.”

“Didn’t think Techbird would do something like that deliberately,” Point muttered.

“Incident Four – Damage to Linear Park support struts, perpetrators ColdFire and Steam Shift.”

“Sorta figured that.

“Incident Five – Lighting panel in Engine Ops, perpetrator Steam Shift.”

Point nodded in appreciation. “He’s a better mechanical engineer. Good to khow he has the courage to try electrical work. I’ll have to remember that.”

“Incident Six – broken ventilator in Captain’s cabin, perpetrator Captain Wandering Path.” In this case, CONN displayed the footage, revealing it truly was an accident – he skidded on something and fell into the ventilator, breaking the handle tab.

“Nice dance step, Captain Graceless,” Point said with a chuckle.

“Incident Seven – Leak in hibernation bay two, perpetrator Eon Path. Incident Eight – hole in ventilation duct, perpetrator Ortzi Goldbeak.”

“Ortzi? When will he realize he simply can’t play poker at my level?” Point muttered.

“Incident Nine – Hydraulic valve failure in Auxiliary Machinery Room Three, perpetrator Steam Shift.”

“Now, that’s more his style.”

“Incident Ten – Broken water valve, exercise room one, shower booth five, perpetrator ColdFire.”

“Sneaky – no traces left. I like that,” Point grudgingly admitted.

“Incident Eleven – Main breaker failure lighting panel Six-Nine, perpetrator Galen Bluequill.”

“WHAT?!” Point shouted, leaping to his hooves. “Galen did that?”

“Affirmative. Message from Galen Bluequill. Gotcha! Message ends.”

“Why, that sneaky, low-down…” Point said before blasting out a few choice epithets in Griffonian.

“All that and a whole lot more.” Galen said from the office door.

Point looked at Galen, ears reddening. “Why would you do such a thing, Commander?”

“Just to keep my claws in practice. Rigging the breaker to blow on demand was not easy even though it was failing and due to be replaced. I was just glad you took some time in the shower while I rigged the panel. I thought for sure you would lose it then. Also glad the Captain would let me tinker with the lighting breaker. We both knew you were on duty, and would fix it right.”

“I did not intend on letting anyone get me to dance to their command yesterday, and I didn’t. Teach them to try to pull a stunt like that on me! I’m going to let Willow know today at the party that she should have involved me from the start,” Point griped.

“I listened to some of your tirade. I’m going to have to remember the one of plucking all the feathers out of a griffin, numbering them and putting them back on without an anaesthetic. You sure know how to insult a griffin, don’t you?” Galen asked, sitting at his own desk in the small office.

“You ought to know, Commander. You challenged me to an honour duel one time, when you overheard me cursing out a broken water pipe to a fountain in the Griffonian Embassy grounds.”

“Yes, well, once I sobered up, you did allow me the dignity of backing out honourably, and we’ve been friends ever since. Can’t say the same about Lord Razortalon, though,” Galen said quietly, hearkening back to an honour battle from a decade earlier than his own aborted battle, where a drunken Lord Razortalon overheard Point swearing during a delicate repair.

“Razortalon would not listen to his aides, even after sobering up. He insisted on the honour fight, so, we fought,” Point said bleakly. “So, I beat him in forty-four seconds, but not without cost.”

“Nearly getting castrated would definitely qualify as a cost. Getting your tail cut off didn’t help, either.”

“Took six months for it to grow back, and two before I could move without pain. Three weeks before they took the catheter out and I could piss without discomfort. His fortune did pay for my doctoral studies, after I ransomed back what his family truly considered heirlooms. I’m not cruel, just determined.”

“That you are, Point. You earned your way here, and don’t you forget it,” Galen said before wincing. Too late, he remembered the two words never to say in Point’s presence.

Point looked as if all the sadness on all Equestria had landed on his withers. “I can’t. I can’t forget a thing, no matter how much I want to,” he whispered before walking out of the office, tail limp.

He stopped by his cabin to grab his portable music player before going to the Park. There, he found his preferred patch of new grass and sprawled upon it, letting the ventilator blow the scents of his favourite plants into his nostrils as he listened to music, trying to jolt himself out of his depression. It took an hour or more, but it did work. Other ponies using the Park knew not to disturb him while he ‘meditated’.

Invigorated, he sought out one particular crew pony, one Gomez Sanchez Caballeros, the youngest member of the crew, whose skill at piloting the landing and orbital craft impressed everypony since he was barely in his teens. Flying came naturally to the young pegasus, be it himself or a small craft. Point had known the pegasus since he was a colt, having stayed with the family for six months while studying for a PhD in Ciudad de Mexicolt. Not only did Gomez have a good voice, he also played one hot guitar. Point himself only had moderate skill with harmonica, accordion and keyboards, but his best instrument was drums. Point’s singing voice, while not stage-worthy, was not bad to listen to.

The green and orange pegasus readily agreed to assist with Point’s performance at the party that evening, and so the two went to Point’s cabin for a little practice, it being larger than Gomez’ own. The two songs they decided upon posed a challenge to both their voices and instrumental skills. Ninety minutes of practice was enough for the two before breaking for dinner and party preparations.

Dinner was rather sparse, but the party would make up for the scanty meal, Kale going all out for it. Back in his cabin, after a long shower and grooming, Point put on his one main concession to the party atmosphere – a rainbow-colored tie-dyed bow tie over his uniform. Promptly at seven, he was outside Zubon’s door. As he raised his hoof to buzz, the door slid open, revealing Zubon in a nice party dress, her mane groomed in a Zebrican style. “My dear Doctor, you look spectacular!” Point exclaimed in rather stilted Zebrican.

“You’re looking fine yourself, Point. So, shall we?”

“Yes! Let’s go to the party!”



The Park was dressed spectacularly for the occasion, that being the one space that would hold all the crew at once. Tables were set along the walls, servers keeping them stocked with some of Kale’s best creations. Canned music was playing, but a small bandstand was set up at one end for later, many of the crew having musical inclinations. Point guided Zubon to a table. “What would you like from the buffet, dear Doctor?” he asked.

Zubon sniffed some at all the aromas dancing about. “Grilled corn and banana leaves, please, with a glass of wine.”

“Thy desire is a command to me!” Point said gallantly, bowing dramatically before fetching her desired choices, along with his own selection, a triple-thick hayburger with the works, fries, and his usual mug of coffee, carrying them in his purple-white glow.

The two dined slowly, chatting often with passers-by, because both knew who was going into hibernation the next day. Some couples danced out on the lawn to the canned music. “Not bad music, but I think I can do better,” Point said after a bite.

“Oh? You sure of that?”

“Well, I have some help. Once the crew settles down, I’ll go up and play, with my partner in tunes.”

“Just remember my warning, Point.”

Point held up a hoof. “Hey, I promised, and I will ensure you will not hear me do ‘Barnacle Tail the Sailor’ tonight. Something lively in Esponial. Two somethings, actually, and a final instrumental I find soothing.”

“I think I know what they will be, but I can’t wait to hear.”

“Patience, my dear Doctor, will reap wonderful rewards,” Point said, as he watched Eon hauling out a bin of food trash for recycling, giving Point a nasty look as he passed by.



It was about half an hour after they had completed dining when Captain Path climbed up onto the bandstand. “Okay, crew! Who wants to help with the festivities?”

Gomez stood up. “I do! Point, get up here, please. We have some music for everyone!” he called out.

“That’s my cue,” Point said as he stood up and pushed his way through the crowd to the bandstand. Once there, he sat down behind the electric drum set, adjusting their arrangement to his taste before picking up the sticks in his glow. Gomez had brought his favourite guitar, and the two set up their microphones.

“Our first offering tonight is called ‘Vive’,” Gomez said as the opening chords were sounded, with CONN providing the backing tracks not supplied by the musicians. Point and Gomez alternated on the vocals, Gomez’ high tenor contrasting well with Point’s baritone. Of course, the words were all in Esponial, but the infectious beats soon had many of the crew up and dancing.

After that song ended, the two musicians wiped themselves down with napkins as the crew cheered. “Our next selection is called ‘Oye’,” Point said as he started the opening beats, shifting from the drum set to the keyboard. This one more of the crew knew, and they joined in on some of the verses, even if they did not know the language. The cheering was even louder after the second song, many either stamping or clapping in approval.

“That’s all we have rehearsed. I’ll be back later with something completely different, but now I’ll let someone else try their luck up here. For sure, they won’t beat me at the poker table!” Point laughed as the crowd applauded, ColdFire giving him a dirty look as she returned with a cartload of dishes.

Point returned to his seat. “Did I pass your test, Doctor?”

“Very much so. That was very passionate, exuberant, and fun!”

Point blushed a little at the compliment, his ears turning faintly pink. “Music is a passion of mine because it can jolt me out of depressive loops, given time. I know a lot of songs, and when the mood strikes me, I’ll share them. Today, I felt in the mood to do so.”

“I’m glad you did. I don’t know Esponial, but you made it sound wonderful.”

“I lived with Gomez’ family for six months some years ago, when I was in Ciudad de Mexicolt. I took the time and made the effort to learn the language. Glad I did,” he said before taking a sip of coffee and making a face. “Cold. May I get you another drink?”

“Please. Another glass of wine would be wonderful.”

Point got up. “On its way. I need a fresh coffee, even though they make it weak.”

“Nobody takes coffee like you do. Do you drink it or eat it?” Zubon asked.

Point smiled back. “I’ll leave that as an exercise for the doctor, Doctor. Be right back.”

So engrossed was Point in getting through the crowd, both to get drinks and return, he did not notice the new group that took over the bandstand, nor what song they were playing, until the first words were sung, and by then, it was too late. When he heard those first words, almost back to the table, he let out a scream of pure fright, the shock causing every changeling in the room to stagger in place.

“Radiance! Get back where you belong!” he bellowed, his mug and wine glass dropping to the ground as his pupils constricted to mere pinpoints.

“Oh, horseapples!” Wandering said as he felt the waves of fright coming from Point being relayed through his network from the changelings closer to Point. Quickly, he threw up a confining field around the stricken unicorn. “Starry! Get some restraints, fast! I’ll hold him!” he shouted to his herd-sister, who promptly ran out of the park.

The band stopped as every crew member in the Park looked at Point, who was trembling all over, held in Wandering’s restraint field, eyes staring at nothing.

“Captain, what’s going on?” asked the lead singer of the band.

“You know what song you were playing, right?” Wandering said, finding it a struggle to hold the unicorn.

“Yes – The Wreck of the Gowanus Herald. What’s wrong with it? What’s wrong with Point?” the singer asked.

“You know what the song is about, right?”

“Yes, how a merchant ship went down in a big storm, killing twenty-nine, but twenty were saved by the sacrifice of one unicorn, Radiance Glow. What has that got to do with Purple Point?”

“He is Radiance Glow. They never found his body, right?”

“No, they didn’t. But, Radiance Glow was chestnut brown, with a red and white mane, a green tail and white hooves and horn. I saw the movie more than once,” said another crew pony. “Point is grey and purple.”

Starry charged back in to the Park, carrying a suppressor ring in her glow, which she slipped over Point’s horn. Point did not react to that, still standing there, trembling, eyes staring at nothing. Wandering dropped his restraint field. “Time to tell a story that really should remain within the crew alone. He’s been running from the memory for thirty-two years.

“Everyone knows Point served in the Merchant Marine for over six years before going to university. Ever notice he never says what ship or ships he sailed on?”

Eon spoke up. “I noticed that. It seemed like he knocked around several ships as he moved up in rank, but he never says any ship names, just ports.”

“Nor has he ever mentioned the full names of anyone, referring to them by title or by a partial name. He will go into detail about jobs he had done, but never about the crews,” Crystal Twist supplied.

“There’s a reason for that. Radiance Glow is described in the song, and in films, as a brave, heroic unicorn, tying himself directly into the ship’s mana battery to get the power to teleport those who were close enough to him from the sinking ship to Vanhoover. In truth, Radiance Glow was very hard to get along with, arrogant, foul mouthed, and cruel. He was a vicious card player, as well as a brawler and fighter. What is known is that he has killed at least four ponies in brawls, with his hooves alone.

“Nobody aboard liked him, but they respected his native talent for keeping the ship running. The song describes the Gowanus Herald as a proud ship, the pride of her fleet. Actually, it was an aging rust-bucket operated by a company who was determined to squeeze every bit out of it as they could.”

“Why would Radiance ever go aboard such a ship?” ColdFire asked.

“It was the first ship out of Baltimare. He was wanted by the authorities for questioning in an assault,” Wandering said.

Doctor Zubon was looking over Point carefully. “It’s like he’s in some sort of catatonia, replaying something over and over in his memory,” she said.

“He is, Doctor. He’s replaying the scenes from the loss of the ship, from the time the ship rolled over to the time he teleported the last pony off, a pegasus deck crewpony by name of Jerdian Lighthoof.”

“Jerdian Lighthoof? She wrote the song, as well as the script for the movie!” the lead singer said from where he was listening.

“She was also the last off the ship. How does that one verse go?” came a question from the crew.

“When the last one did go, so did Radiance Glow, claimed by the magics that burned him all over. Where he did go, no one does know, because they never did find him in Vanhoover,” the lead singer recited, along with about a dozen crew members.

“Radiance Glow was not found in Vanhoover, because he showed up five days later, in Baltimare.” Starry said, looking sad.

“In Baltimare? From fifteen miles off shore of Vanhoover? That’s impossible!” Gizmo Gears exclaimed.

“He didn’t teleport all in one shot. He teleported again and again, mind fixated on only one thing – to go home. He was found shambling around his old neighbourhood in Baltimare, his fur already turning grey where it was not charred, his hooves and horn changing color, mane and tail burned off, still in a state of shock. Starry and I know about this, because House Path was asked to track down the past of this mysterious unicorn found wandering around Baltimare.

“Tapping into the ship’s mana crystal did give him enough power to save the others aboard who were not already killed by then, but at a terrible cost. His already formidable mental skills were amplified to a great degree, as well as altering his personality. He also acquired a couple of phobias, namely he will never go on the ocean or even look at water for long, and a profound phobia of sleep.”

“His interview!” Skye suddenly spoke up.

“What about his interview, Skye?” Starry asked.

“He did his interview with the media right after I did, between the boost phase and the Oldbird Effect burn at our closest approach to the Dim Star. When he was asked about his eidetic memory, he did say that the talent does have its drawbacks.”

“It does, Skye,” Wandering said seriously, addressing not just her, but the crew at large. “He literally cannot forget anything at all. If he sees something, hears it, reads it, he remembers it, be it good or bad, down to the last detail he can detect. Right now, he is locked in a memory loop, remembering every event that happened when the ship went down.”

“When he was repairing the broken nutrient line yesterday, he said, ‘No, Radiance!’ quite distinctly. I remember being confused about it,” Princess Galena supplied.

“He can’t forget just how nasty Radiance Glow was, and he vowed to be the opposite of what he was, whenever possible. Radiance Glow lives on, deep inside him. The only way Glow shows himself is the compulsive cursing Point does while working alone.”

“That’s why one of the cardinal rules of dealing with Point is to never say ‘forget it’ around him,” Galen said. “It hurts him so much to be reminded that he can’t.”

“Why did you put the suppressor ring on him?” Playbitz asked.

“If we didn’t, he would try to teleport home. He would try to tap our mana source here to do it, and the power would fry him in seconds if he tapped it. Don’t worry – we have a means of bringing him out of the fugue, but I want to caution the crew not to mention this incident to him. It will only make him either very mad, or very ashamed,” Wandering informed the crowd there, ponies, griffins, zebras and changelings alike.

“I have known him since I was a colt,” Gomez said, “but I never knew this about him. He did tell fun sea stories. Watching him trying not to swear in front of us fillies and colts was very funny.”

“He only uses the mildest of his coarse language when in public. Even then, he tries not to. He’ll make up words to vent his feelings.”

“Why did he turn down the chance to study with House Path?” Skye asked. “I remember that from his interview, too.”

Commander Bluequill answered that question. “He simply does not want to fight. He can, and well. He does not want to be any better at it than he already is. He won an honour fight with a griffin twenty-five years ago, defeating the griffin Lord in under a minute, without magics. Not before sustaining grave injuries, though.”

“He said that some lessons you can never forget,” Skye said, more than a little sadly. “That’s the only time I have ever heard him use that word.”

“He will recover, Skye,” Wandering said gently. “He did not study under House Path, but it was House Path psychologists who put him back together again. Starry and I know methods to bring him back to his normal state of mind. It’s not hard, because the psychologists put some… well, call them resets, in him.”

“Can’t he ever face the truth about himself?” Cosmic Dawn asked.

“He faces it every minute of every day, Dawn. He just feels he can’t burden anyone else with it. It’s his fight, and his alone. That was the biggest stumbling block the psychologists had to work around. It’s burned into his brain.”

“He has more courage in one hair of his tail than most griffins have in their entire bodies. I’ve seen it in action,” Commander Bluequill said quietly.

“We all know of his courage and dedication to the project, the mission, and the crew,” Princess Galena said, “but, can you get him treated? I can still feel the fright and pain emanating from him.”

“I could feel him all the way up at the mess decks,” Steam Shift said.

“Starry, please escort him to Medical. You know what to do,” Wandering said.

Starry nodded. “That I do. Come on, Point – let’s go. I’ll get you home.”

At the word ‘home’, a little hope crept into Point’s eyes. Not much, but some. He followed Starry tamely, putting full trust in her, Doctor Zubon following. As the doors to the Park closed, Wandering addressed the crowd. “One thing I have to say to the entire crew. While betting on Point’s swearing is one thing, damaging the ship, however minor, cannot and will not be considered acceptable behaviour. To that end, I will meet with all those identified as causing damage deliberately… but privately. I will not go so far as to name the perpetrators publicly, but penalties will include extra duties and fines, as well as a written apology to Point. He doesn’t mind the pool as it’s been pulled on him before, but trying to force him into doing something that he considers shameful is pushing matters a little too far.

“The profanity pool will continue as before, but remember, he’s in on it too.” Wandering paused to look over the crew, who were paying attention to his words. “Well, what are you standing there for? We party tonight, because many of us will be going to sleep tomorrow!”



In Medical, Starry had Point sit down. His expression had barely changed as he was guided, sight and thoughts turned inward.

“Just how will you bring him out of his fugue, Starry?” Zubon asked.

“When he was reassembled, to use a poor word, several key phrases were implanted in him to bring him out of his withdrawn state,” Starry told the doctor. “I will teach you the phrases and the intonations needed to cut through his mental fog. He will remember events as he went into the state, but he will not remember what happened while he was entranced, not even time passing.

“He will be confused for a moment, then he will feel exceptionally guilty before he recovers. Just how did you get him to escort you to the party?”

“Threatened him with not releasing him to duty unless he went. He did offer to escort me.”

Starry smiled. “He may have a severe dichotomy, but he is so pleasant to be around, you tend to overlook his bad traits.”

“He is pleasant – always polite and gallant, willing to help anyone. I take it his… alter ego… was a lot different, from what we were told.”

“Almost a complete opposite. When he recovered, he swore to never be like his prior self in any way, shape, or form. However, he did find that he had to release the bit of his prior self, to keep him under control.”

“His compulsive swearing as well as his prowess at poker,” Zubon guessed.

“Yes, or rather, how he acts playing cards. He shows no slack or no mercy while playing. But, if you beat him, he’s so pleasant about it, it makes one not mind losing. You should see him and Galen playing cribbage.”

“War across the board?”

Starry nodded. “Oh, yes. Afterwards, they shake hooves, compliment each other, and go on their separate ways.”

“Interesting. So, how do you wake him up?”

“Watch and listen carefully. The tones are just as important as the words,” Starry cautioned before looking at Point.

In severe, upset mother tones, she snapped out, “Purple Point! Radiance Glow! Behave! You’re causing a scene!”

The effects were almost immediate. Point’s eyes snapped into focus, and he shook himself so hard, his mane went every which way. He looked up at Starry, his ears turning right red. “How bad?” he asked in a small voice.

“Grade Two flashback, possibly a Grade One. You seized up in public to that tune. Why didn’t you hear it coming?”

Point’s nose almost hit the floor in shame. “I was fetching drinks for the Doctor and myself. I was trying to get through the crowd without spilling a drop. I wasn’t paying attention,” he said mournfully. “Now everyone knows my shame.”

“No,” Zubon said firmly. When Point looked at her in surprise, she went on. “Not your shame, your bravery. You saved lives when all appeared lost. What prompted you to even do such a thing?”

Point looked at Zubon, his eyes reflecting his internal pain. “He hated them all, the entire crew. Dregs of society,” he said in a dull voice. “When the storm hit, he was off duty, in the lounge. Some of the newer crew were there, more than a little frightened. When the big wave hit, and the ship started rolling over, one of the youngest of them looked at him and said, ‘What can we do, sir? I’m not ready to die yet!’ After the ship steadied, upside down, something broke inside him. Maybe it was the way that new hire looked at him with so much trust, wondering what to do, needing guidance. We grabbed the 1MC mike in the lounge and put out an all-call for all survivors to go to the power room. Help any pony who needed it, but get there quickly!

“Some crew called in from various points in the ship, saying they were on their way. Two were hurt, and we sent the two with us to get them while we went to the power room. We knew where to go in Vanhoover, but we hadn’t the power to reach it on our own.”

“Tapping into a mana battery crystal that size, that old and that damaged was a foolish thing to do, Point,” Starry said. “Not even I would do such a thing.”

“He and I could hear the ship breaking apart, the load shifting, pouring out the fill hatches unevenly. The keel was snapping. We didn’t have much time. We got to the power room. The crystal was failing, cracking, releasing power randomly. We gathered up what we could and we started sending every pony to Vanhoover. The last one to get to the power room as the noise of the keel cracking got louder, was the pegasus who asked us what to do. She asked me if we were alright. We could feel the power raging through us, burning us from the inside out. We told her, ‘No, but you will be,’ as we sent her to Vanhoover. That was the last we remember,” Point said, nearly in tears. “The next thing I knew, I was in Ponyville, at the House Path facility, knowing just how much of a patoot he was, and I had to keep him locked away inside me, vowing never to be like him.”

Point was saved from collapsing by both Starry and Zubon, supporting him on either side. “Patoots like him should never be inflicted on anyone, no matter what they be. He hated every being that was not his equal. I won’t put up with it.”

“Patoot?” Zubon asked Starry as Point started weeping.

“He will not swear in front of anyone knowingly. He makes up words to vent his feelings when swearing would not be ‘appropriate’, in his mind,” Starry replied quietly.

Point took a breath. “Always leave them wondering what in Tartarus you meant,” he gasped out between sobs.

“Is he always like this when he comes out of a fugue?”

“For a while. He will recover in an hour or so. Right now, he needs a nap. He’s made his confession, now he can rest. When he wakes, he’ll be the way you normally see him.”

“How can he get to sleep? He needs his medication to do that!” Zubon exclaimed.

“Just watch,” Starry said as he turned her full attention on Point. “Take a nap, Purple Point. You need it,” she said firmly. Point went totally limp and Starry used her magic to put him onto a medical bed.

“Just out of a fugue, he’s extremely suggestible. Also, he won’t remember this part. He must go through it fresh every time it happens. All he will know is that it happened; details won’t stick.”

“So, the eidetic memory has gaps in it?” Zubon asked, trying to make a joke out of the irony.

“I would consider these gaps a blessing. Here, he can confess his life, tell his tale, and not remember doing so. He believes he’s keeping the monster that is Radiance Glow away from ponies, where he can’t do harm. When he wakes, he will be back to his normal self. Want to wait for him to wake up?” Starry asked.

“Not a bad idea. I think he would appreciate a friend who knows his secret, but doesn’t care. He’s a good pony. He needs me, knows it, and strives to do right by me. I’ll wait for him. What should I do when he wakes?”

“Have his coffee ready. Tell him you know, and don’t care. Ask to be his friend. Take it from there. I’m heading back to the party. He should wake up before the party’s over,” Starry said before leaving.

When Starry returned to the party, everyone there stopped what they were doing to look at her. “He’s doing fine. Doctor Zubon is with him. Expect him back in an hour or so,” she told the crew, who all cheered at the news before resuming their activities.

Wandering made his way to Starry. “What recovery mode did you use?” he asked quietly.

“Mode One. He did another confession. The ‘we’ part started at the same place. It looks like it was the shock of being asked a question by Jerdian was the trigger that caused the change, but the crystal tap, well, crystallized it. We just have to make sure he stays Point side up,” Starry reported.

“It was his first relapse in over two years. He’s just too talented, too skilled, to reject. When most go into hibernation, we need somepony with his wide array of skills and talents.”

“He’ll be just fine. Doctor Zubon will need a briefing on all the pass phrases to bring him out of a shock. We should have done that earlier.”

“I know, Starry,” Wandering sighed. “You, me, Galen and now Zubon. I’ll select some more after we salt everypony down.”

“Right. Now, let’s party!”



An hour and ten minutes later, Purple Point and Zubon returned to the party to much cheering and stomping. Point made his way to the stage, hoof bumping all who offered one to him. “Okay, ponies and other assorted what-have-yous! Zubon has agreed to do a little dance for us while I play, so, give her your attention, please! I would, but I’m going to try not to make a mistake,” he said loudly, then went on in a more hushed tone, “If I do make a mistake, the next time I wake up will be two months after we reach the Far Star, without a hibernation pod!”

Zubon shot him a look as the crowd laughed, a look that promised mass mayhem with a twinkle in her eye. Point sat down, not at the drums, but the keyboard. “Wind her up, because it’s time to start the music box!” he exclaimed as he started to play.

The combination of Point’s music and Zubon’s exotic Zebrican dance enthralled the crowd, Point putting passion into his playing, this song being one he practiced, not just memorized. When the song and dance ended, the watching crew paused for all of ten seconds before a spontaneous cheer went up, one that shook the hanging plants along the roof line.

When the cheering ended and Zubon sat down, Point looked at her and smiled. “Of course, you know this was her idea,” he said a little snidely to much laughter. “I have one more song for you all. If you know the words, join in, okay?” he said before pounding out the opening chords to ‘Balls of Fire’.

Wandering, Starry and Galen stood in the back of the park while the crew either cheered or joined in the song. “Looks like Purple Point is back,” Galen said.

“That he is,” Wandering said. “I just wonder what his bank account will look like before we arrive.”

“Better than ours, more than likely,” Starry said.

“Next time he relapses, can we try to edit his card playing?” Galen asked with a small groan, not looking forward to the next cribbage game with his assistant.

Wandering sighed. He expected to lose more than a few bits to Point, whose card playing was legendary or nightmarish, depending on who you asked. “I wish I could,” he said mournfully.

 


 

Relativity

 

“I fold.”

Wandering dropped his cards out of his magic onto the table and leaned back to watch the final two players. Poker was not his favourite game, but he had been asked to join in, and he wanted to establish an easy-going relationship with the crew when he was off-duty. Now that the excitement of acceleration to near the speed of light had been accomplished and a large proportion of the crew had been placed in hibernation pods to await their scheduled tour of duty, an enormous amount of space had been freed up on the starship. The constant discomfort and pressure of being practically shoulder to shoulder with other crew members had at last been alleviated, and the remaining crew had sought out ways to relax. Unsurprisingly, card games were common, and Wandering had a policy in place long before leaving Equis.

Betting was permitted, but no crew member was allowed to lose more than ten percent of their total wages. If the person was permitted to play on past that point in the hopes of winning some of his money back but still lost, Wandering had no sympathy for the winner who gained nothing further. Favours were allowed in lieu of money, but were likewise limited. The captain of the Cosmic Lotus needed every crew member concentrating on their assigned jobs or resting and recreating rather than being constantly beholden to someone. He was very glad that he had put that policy into place. Mere days into the voyage, one particular pony was already making serious dents in the crew’s earnings.

Apparently Purple Point had learned more than how to curse on his many voyages. A large proportion of the poker chips were stacked up in front of him, and if Wandering guessed right, he would soon have them all.

“Call!” ColdFire snapped, pushing the remainder of her chips forward.

Purple Point smiled and laid his cards on the table: straight – queen high.

The mare groaned and thumped her head on the table as the stallion raked in the chips.

“Thank you for contributing to the Purple Point Retirement Fund,” the winning pony said with a smug smile. “Another round, anyone?”

ColdFire’s head snapped up and she gave him a snarl, showing her small fangs.

“That would be a no, I guess. How about you, Captain?”

Wandering got up and shook his head. “I’m out. I know when I’m outclassed.”

Purple Point looked at the last of the four. “What about you, Ortzi?”

“If Captain not say you not cheating with magic, we be fighting duel right now,” the griffon griped.

“Oh well, plenty of others willing to give me their money, I’m sure,” PP replied cheerfully as he swept his chips into a sack.

Wandering chuckled and left the griffon to sulk. Ortzi was anything but a fighter and would cheer up quickly enough. No – things were pretty peaceful aboard the ship right now, and he hoped to keep it that way. He did have one more stop to make before retiring for the evening though.

The linear ‘Park’ was coming along very nicely. A lighting arrangement designed to accurately reproduce sunlight was already fully in place. Prefabricated tubs, troughs, and hanging pots had been installed, followed quickly by watering systems. A mixture of hydroponic and artificial soil garden beds had been created, and seeds and young shrubs were in the process of being planted. Even some dwarf trees had been included in the choice of greenery, although they were still in the sapling stage. They had been carefully stored in a stasis field to protect them from the ravages of rocket acceleration and days spent in a hostile environment without sunlight before they were ready to be planted. A lot had been accomplished in just a few days, but there was still more to be done, and of course the newly planted greenery had to be tended.

The first person whom Wandering laid eyes upon was their biologist and Head Gardener, Emerald Green. The unusually patterned green and black mare was watering a pot of flowers that were ready for transplanting into one of the new beds. That they had been seeds only a few days previously was testimony to her very strong plant-growing talent. While all earth ponies had ties to soil, this manifested in different ways and various strengths, but hers was exceptional, and had won her a place on the crew. She noticed the alicorn enter the room, smiled in acknowledgement, and finished watering the row of plants. She nodded in satisfaction, headed up the pathway, bade him goodnight and left the Park.

Further down the length of the former fuel tank and now rapidly growing greenhouse, Skye Path was tending her new herb garden. The zebra mare was engrossed in her work though, and failed to notice her foster father. Wandering smiled at seeing her, but did not disturb the mare. Instead he walked over to the small patch of real grass that had been planted simply as a pleasant place to lie down and relax in the sweet-smelling and tranquil atmosphere. He trod carefully as the grass had yet to fully establish, but his alicorn-based earth senses told him that it had taken no harm. He settled down, closed his eyes and breathed deeply of the oxygen-rich and scent-laden air, clearing his mind. The changeling network chatter was down to a minimum and nothing required his attention. He opened up his eyes again to watch Skye at work.

“You’re quite proud of her, aren’t you?” came a familiar voice.

Wandering looked up to see Starry standing there, her eyes also on the zebra. “She’s my daughter, so of course I am proud of her achievements. I was surprised when she told me that she wanted to travel with me to the Far Star, but I encouraged her to try out. Nobody was prouder than me when she was chosen for the crew.”

Starry chuckled. “She may be adopted into the family, but she’s a true Path.

“Uh-huh.” Wandering looked up at Starry. “Why are you here, Sis? Isn’t this your sleep period?”

“Couldn’t sleep.”

“Why not? Is there something stressing you excessively? You’re not still going nuts over the time-space distortion problem, are you?”

Starry snorted. “Nope. I don’t think that one is going to be solved overnight, and if it is, I’m betting Cosmic Dawn is the one to crack the mystery.”

“Well, she is the thaumophysicist in the crew, so she does have an advantage over you there.”

“Exactly, which is why I made that problem her priority.”

“Her father, Forest Breeze, is an Avatar of Honesty, and the Seer of Truth. If anyone can find the truth behind this phenomenon, it’s his daughter. Anyway, if that’s not what’s keeping you awake, what is?”

“Cosmic irony,” Starry replied with a smirk.

“You’ve lost me.”

“What’s one thing about alicorn mares that is different from other mares?”

Wandering thought for a moment before replying. “Because of alicorn immortality, the oestrus cycle is drastically slowed.”

“Correct! We can go decades before going into season – centuries when you’re Mom’s age. So what happens mere days into this voyage?”

“You’ve gone into heat.”

“And I’m horny as Tartarus!”

Wandering chuckled sympathetically. “I know what that’s like.”

Starry stared at her herd-brother in disbelief. “Okay, I know you got your Dad’s shape-changing ability, even if it’s a closely-guarded family secret, and I know you’ve taken female forms on occasion, but you can’t tell me that you’ve stayed a mare long enough to go into heat so that you know what the hell you’re talking about!”

He gave her a lopsided smile. “You’d be wrong.”

Blinking in stunned disbelief, it took a moment before Starry gathered her wits and respond. “Okay, granting for the moment that you’re not just pulling a fast one on me, why haven’t you told me about this before? We used to do everything together as foals, and never kept secrets from each other.”

“But we grew apart – you with your astrophysics, me with my exploration of other cultures. Sure, we always spent as much time as possible together despite that, but we never had that same unity of purpose since we became adults.”

“You had the knowledge and ability to join my field of work,” Starry pointed out.

“And you could have joined me on my expeditions to new lands,” Wandering rebutted. “This is an old argument of ours, and we can’t change the past.”

“No, but we can make the future. We’re together again, at long last, both of us doing what we love best.”

“Why do you think I joined the project? Sure, it was tempting already; exploration is one of my great loves, although the chances of meeting another culture are slim. But to do it alongside of you? That opportunity I couldn’t turn down.”

“You stole my captaincy though!” Starry pouted.

“Nope. Bluequill would have trounced you in that department. I honestly would not have minded losing out to him either – he’s an excellent commander.”

“Yeah, I know. Anyway, I sense someone avoiding my question – why haven’t you told me about being a mare in heat?”

Wandering sighed and his ears lowered dejectedly. “Because the circumstances still sadden me to this day.”

Starry immediately noticed his change in attitude, and the sadness that exuded from him. She leaned up against Wandering, rubbing her cheek against his. “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

He gave her a crooked smile. “No, but I think it’s time I did. We’re together again, and will be for at least a decade. I don’t want there to be anything bad between us now. Wandering Star is back!”

Starry smiled, recalling their teenage rally cry. It made her feel good to know he remembered. “Then you know I won’t tell anyone else.”

“I do indeed. This all started on my last expedition before bringing Skye home. This was a visit to Zebrica to study the independent tribes. While a large majority of the zebra tribes joined the Equian Alliance, some refused to do so. For some, it was stubborn independence, and others simply hated outsiders. There were other reasons though, and finding such things out was my specialty.”

“Nobody outside the family ever figured out the secret of your success,” Starry said. “But when you can become one of those people that you study, it makes a difference.”

“Exactly. As you already know, my standard approach was to find out as much as I could about them first and learn their language thoroughly. With Papa Path’s help and some language learning spells that he and Grandma Ivory Tower developed, I could blend in with the locals very well.”

“With the help of your shape-changing ability, of course. But why a zebra mare?”

“Many of those tribes won’t accept outsiders at all, with one exception – they occasionally exchange mares to keep the bloodlines fresh. That was my only way into this particular tribe, so I did my homework, acquired a few props, gave myself a new name, and took my chances.”

“Ooh! What did you call yourself?”

“Mwasikwao.”

“Say what?”

“Mwasikwao. It means Wanderer in their dialect.”

“Ha! Smart-ass is more like it. I thought it would be one of those names beginning with Z.”

“While those are common, they’re far from universal.”

“Fair enough. What kind of props did you need?”

“Things that a migrating mare might take – household goods, personal items, clothing, and a dowry.”

“A dowry?!”

“Yep. Payable to the village chief. Supposedly to compensate the tribe for your upkeep until you fit in somewhere, but still basically a bribe.”

“Doesn’t a dowry imply marriage though?”

“What do you think fresh blood implies?” Wandering asked with a questioning lift of his eyebrow.

“Right. Silly me. So was a husband chosen for you?”

Wandering snorted. “Heavens, no! I would not have gone there if I was compelled to marry a stallion upon arrival.”

“So what did happen?”

“I was considered fair game for all the unmated stallions in the village, and there were more than a few. It seemed that I had arrived at a time when eligible mares were scarce. I did not lack for attention, nor for food and shelter. With so many to choose from, no one was surprised that I took my time choosing among them. I planned to study the culture and then get out of there long before it became an issue.”

“And before you came on heat. So what happened?”

“I fell in love.”

Starry’s eyes widened and jaw dropped. “You what?!”

“His name was Kamari, which means Moonlight. He was clever, witty, and thoughtful. He reminded me a lot of you, in fact. Where the other stallions frequently tried to show their prowess in their chosen vocations in an attempt to impress me, Kamari would go out of his way to do things for me that really meant something. He even helped me with my studies of the tribe’s culture, although he did not realise it at the time. One evening after our meal, we sat together watching the moon rise. I leaned up against him, he nuzzled me, and then he asked me to marry him. Without hesitation, I said yes.”

Starry’s gaping had only grown wider. “But… but… you’re a stallion! I know you like mares. Are you telling me that you like stallions too, like Des?”

Wandering shook his head. “I am completely heterosexual. However, while that means I’m sexually attracted to the opposite sex, it is also dependent on what sex I am at the time. I was a mare then, so I found Kamari really desirable.”

“But that’s not how changeling shape-shifting works! Sure, they have their gender biases, but if a masculine drone takes a female form for some reason, that drone still has their original preferences.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Sis, I’m not a changeling. I’m an alicorn who has inherited his sire’s shape-changing ability, but manifested at alicorn level. When I change into another creature, I don’t just look like them, I become one of them. I am instantly comfortable with any form that I take, including bipeds like minotaurs. The transformation is total, and that includes my sexuality. So when I transformed into a female zebra, I really was one completely, and Kamari was the handsomest and most desirable stallion a zebra mare like myself at the time could want.”

Starry stared for a long moment. “Oh, wow. I never realised it went that deep. So that’s how you stayed long enough to go into heat. But why didn’t you come back with your husband?”

Wandering’s ears drooped, and he looked away from Starry. “Because he died.”

“Oh, no! What happened?”

Wandering took a deep breath before turning back to Starry. “First let me go back to when I was on heat. Kamari and I had plenty of adult happy-fun times, but sex was absolutely awesome at that moment.”

Starry smirked. “Yeah, I know how that goes.”

“Anyway, it was not only amazing, but also productive. I found out later that I was pregnant.”

“How did you feel about that?”

“At first I was uncertain. This was the one thing I had never prepared for. However, Kamari was ecstatic, and his mood was contagious. Soon I was looking forward to having a foal almost as much as he was. That’s how things were for several months. We worked and played and made love and we were very, very happy. Then the day came when I went into labour – honestly the one thing that I did not enjoy about being a mare. Nevertheless, it was a good delivery, and I gave birth to a healthy female foal – a foal with a particularly distinctive difference.”

Starry’s eyes widened and her head snapped around to stare at Skye who was still engrossed in her work. “You mean…?”

“She had blue stripes. Yes, Skye is my natural daughter, not adopted.” Wandering’s voice had changed, and when Starry turned back to face him, it was to see a zebra mare instead.

“She was still a young foal when you brought her home. What happened?” Starry asked gently.

Mwasikwao replied in a lilting accent, “There’s a reason why many tribes stay segregated from the majority, and that is superstition. There are many tales that circulate among the tribes, and most of them see anything out of the ordinary as an omen of evil or impending disaster. You can only imagine what happened when our tribe found out about Skye’s colouration. At first all they did was demand that the foal be offered to the gods to appease them. I refused, as did Kamari. Not for a moment did he hesitate to love our child for what she was. That wasn’t enough for the elders though, and the demands became threats. Then our hut was raided. Kamari tried to fight them off while I protected Skye. They…” A sob broke her voice. “They killed my husband.”

“But why would they do that?”

“He sired an abomination of course. If he was willing to defend it, then he was equally tainted, or such is the way they thought. Then they came for me and Skye.”

“If they were willing to kill Kamari, how did you both escape unharmed?”

“I didn’t; Wandering Path did. I transformed to alicorn form for the first time in over a year and struck them down. I killed them all without a moment’s hesitation. They had taken the love of my life – I took their very lives in return!”

The tears were flowing freely down the zebra’s cheeks by then, her face contorted with hate and rage.

“I took Skye and teleported out of the village and changed back to my zebra self so that I could look after my foal. There was nothing left for me back at the village, especially after that slaughter, so I returned home as fast as I could. I explained everything to Moms and Dads, and they helped me raise Skye while preserving the secret of her birth.”

“Was keeping your ability to shape-shift that important that you raised her thinking she was an orphan?” Starry asked with a hint of accusation in her voice.

“Yes, it was, but not for the reasons that you may be thinking. Although Zebrica is allied with us now, it has always been a fragile relationship. The independent tribes show just how tenuous their nation is as a union, and if they found out that an alicorn had been poking around disguised as one of them – well, the fallout could be considerable.”

“Surely it isn’t that bad? I’m acquainted with several zebras, and they have always seemed reasonable.”

Mwasikwao gave her a sad smile. “You are not a zebra – you cannot know… cannot think like us.”

That stunned Starry. Her herd brother truly was another person when transformed. “Do you even feel the same way about me and the family when you are a zebra?”

“Oh, Starry, I am still your sibling, and I love you and the family as much as ever. That does not change. My memories do not change either – only their interpretation matches my form. Again I emphasise that I become, not imitate.”

“I’m beginning to believe it. Does Skye know the truth?”

Instead of answering, the zebra mare raised her voice. “Zawati!”

Skye’s head jerked up and she looked around. Her eyes widened as delight lit up her face. She scrambled to her hooves and started trotting towards her mother before she noticed Starry there.

“It’s okay, my child, I have told Starry about our past,” Mwasikwao reassured her.

The blue-striped mare’s smile returned, and she lowered herself to nuzzle Mwasikwao. “It’s so good to see you again, Mom. I’ve missed you.”

“And I missed you too. But now that the ship is on its way, your step-father will be able to spare more time to allow me to be with you.”

Skye hugged her mother. “Dad’s nice, but I’m glad you’re here.”

Starry looked nonplussed. “You talk as if Wandering and Mwasikwao are two totally different people.”

“Of course they are,” Skye replied.

Mwasikwao added, “Just as my personality changes with my form, so does my relationship with my daughter. Wandering is a stallion who took on the role of father after the death of Skye’s sire, but he isn’t my husband.”

“That would be quite a trick,” Starry admitted. “One thing that does change though is that Skye is not just adopted into the Path family – she is a Path.”

Skye giggled. “With these stripes, was there ever any doubt, Auntie Star?”

“I suppose not. By the way, when your mother called to you, what was the meaning of that?”

“Zawati? It’s my tribal name. It means ‘Gift’.”

Mwasikwao said, “That was what Kamari and I were going to name her, but we never had the official naming ceremony. Instead it has become our private name for her, and a term of endearment.”

“That’s beautiful! And it’s a name beginning with Z,” Starry pointed out.

Mwasikwao shrugged. “Like you already know, Z-names are common. We chose it for its meaning, not its spelling.” Her ears pricked up. “My drones tell me that we’re about to get some company. I have to go, Zawati.”

“When can we spend some time together, mother?”

“I will arrange something very soon, dear. I want this as much as you do.” She leaned forward to give her daughter a kiss on the cheek. “I love you, my beautiful Gift.”

“I love you too, Mom.”

Skye got up and both she and Starry watched as the older zebra flared softly with magic fire and became an alicorn once more.

“Goodnight, Dad,” Skye said. “Love you too,” she added with a smile.

“Goodnight, Skye,” Wandering replied with a matching smile.

Skye trotted off, passing Epic Prose as the pegasus entered the Park and spread his wings to take flight and exercise his wings.

“Well, that has got to go down as the weirdest family reunion in history,” Starry said as soon as the pegasus was out of earshot.

Wandering chuckled. “Well, you did ask how I could possibly know what being on heat felt like.”

“Yeah, you got me there, bro.”

“So why don’t you do something about it? If solo efforts aren’t enough for you, there are more than enough stallions left to help you out with that even with a major portion of the crew in hibernation now. A couple of griffon cocks too, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Maybe they would, but none of them appeal to me. The only one that does interest me might not be amenable to the idea.”

“Why? Is he gay?”

Starry snorted in amusement. “He’s complicated.”

“An interesting description. Still, could it hurt to ask?”

“Maybe. I’m not sure how he’ll feel about it.”

Wandering rolled his eyes. “If he’s a heterosexual stallion, I can’t see him being offended to be asked to help quench your fire. Ask him, for buck’s sake!”

“Okay, I’ll do that. Wandering, will you come have some adult happy fun-times with me?”

Wandering’s eyes looked like a deer’s in a spotlight. “What?! Me?! But I’m your brother!”

“We’re herd siblings – different mothers and sires.”

“But we grew up as brother and sister!”

“We grew up doing everything together. Then when I was a teenager and I started noticing males, guess who I thought about most, especially the first time I went into heat?”

“Me? I… wow… I never thought… it was the same for you.”

Starry cocked her head and swivelled her ears towards Wandering. “Wait! What was that?”

Wandering felt himself blushing, and as always he was grateful for his red pelt that hid it. “Well… when randy colts first discover the joys of masturbation, they like to let loose their imagination and picture sexy mares, and the sexiest mare that I knew was…” He lifted one eyebrow as he glanced at Starry.

“Me,” Starry finished the sentence.

“We’re not teenagers anymore,” Wandering pointed out.

Starry nodded. “No – we’re responsible adult alicorns nearly a century old. We know better now.”

“Yes, we do. So we can make responsible and thoughtful decisions.”

“And what’s yours?” Starry asked coyly.

“I’ve decided that I want to know if you will live up to my teenage fantasies.”

Starry laughed. “Brother, you have no idea how much I’m going to make them pale in comparison!”

She surged to her hooves, and Wandering quickly did so too. They made their way out of the Park towards the crew quarters.

When they reached the final corridor, Wandering asked, “Your place or mine?”

“Mine,” Starry replied, stepping up to her door and touching the ident-plate. The magitek lock recognised her and the door opened. As she entered, she said, “I have contraceptives in my room.”

“Good idea. Don’t want to be accidentally getting you pregnant just to cool your heat.”

“Yeah, a starship is no place to raise a foal.”

“Of course not. Wait! Are you saying–”

Wandering was cut off as Starry turned and passionately kissed him. After the surprise wore off, he began to return the kiss in kind. They took their time and explored each other’s reactions and feelings before Starry pulled away. She tugged him towards the bed.

“We can talk about that subject later.”

Wandering briefly wondered which of them had stunned the other more thoroughly that evening before he turned his attention to more lustful thoughts.

 


 

Power Problems

 

Wandering Path woke up feeling relaxed and more content than he had for quite a long time. A lot of the reason for that mood currently had her head pillowed on his chest and a foreleg wrapped around him possessively. And although she seemed to be fast asleep still, her face held a soft smile that mirrored his feelings. His horn lit up and his magic pushed stray strands of her mane out of her face as he gazed at her lovingly.

Last night had changed their relationship forever, although he found it hard to define. They were far more than siblings, but not quite romantic lovers. Best friends with benefits was about as close as he could call it. Whatever it could be classed as, he was sure that neither of them wished to go back to the way things had been previously. In spite of being very happily married when he had been a zebra mare, there had always been a disquieting truth behind the relationship – Kamari would have died of old age eventually, but Mwasikwao would not. Or more accurately, the alicorn that he really was would live on to mourn his lost love, irrespective of how long Kamari would have lived. The Alicorn’s Curse was not one that was easily dealt with, and each member of that exclusive group had to find ways to cope. Wandering decided that he and Starry might have finally found theirs, and they had the next ten years together to decide if they wanted to make it a lifelong commitment.

It was not about the sex, although that was a wonderful bonus. They had both proved last night that teenage fantasies did not come close to the marvellous reality of two well-matched lovers. Their closeness as youths had never been given an opportunity to blossom into something more due to their perception as siblings, but their more mature outlook enabled them to look past that artificial limitation and discover more about each other. He looked forward to enjoying furthering those discoveries.

Wandering hoped that he had the discipline to not let their change of status affect the way he commanded the Cosmic Lotus. Even with the unexpected boon due to the unexpected time dilation effect, they still had at least a decade to spend confined to the starship, and as much as possible, the crew had been chosen to be able to get along reasonably harmoniously with each other. Favouring Starry would not be of benefit to the mission, so they had to be a little more circumspect in the future.

As it happened, he had duties to perform, but he was pretty much trapped by Starry. He discovered that his right wing was numb as a consequence of the mare sleeping on top of it. He was going to have one heck of a case of pins and needles when the circulation was properly restored! He was spared having to wake Starry though, and he put off that experience for a while by exercising his other inborn talent – his link to the changeling network. Closing his eyes, he visualised his hub. Just as non-changeling visitors to the Chrome Hive network would enter a virtual room to be guided safely by changeling attendants, Wandering had created a virtual control centre to efficiently manage operations throughout the ship. His inner eyes opened to a small circular room lined with video screens. There were no doors or windows as they were unnecessary. The room had but one piece of furniture – a swivel chair upon which he sat and could turn to observe what was happening on the dozens of screens. Each of them showed what one of the changeling crew was seeing, and a status monitor under each screen showed other relevant data. It was all just a way of interpreting the constant flow of information that came his way, for despite his ability to link and be a hub for a changeling hive mind, in the end, he was not a changeling, and did not perceive things as they did. This was a very useful workaround however.

Wandering checked out the bridge first. Although it was unlikely that there would be a need for actual manoeuvring for a very long time, the bridge also served to monitor all the ship’s functions, and although it always had a minimum of two crew members there, a changeling was always one of them, enabling the alicorn to check its status at any time. Right now though, the most exciting thing happening was a game of chess between the chrome changeling and Gizmo Gears. Although the crew had to be present in case a problem came up, they did not have to constantly watch the monitoring equipment. Audible alarms would alert them, and in the meantime they found ways of staving off boredom. Wandering smirked a little when he realised that a few of the other changelings were observing the game too, and he wondered if the unicorn knew that he might be up against more than one mind in this contest.

Moving on, Wandering checked out the other screens. Several showed the Mess Room, and breakfast had begun to be served. Waffles were on the menu this morning, and were those eggs? Yes! The chickens that had been brought out of stasis had started laying, and apparently there were enough to serve everyone who might want some. He was sure that Kale Robe would have reserved some for his baking already. That resource was limited, so Wandering made a point to get one or two while they were available.

What was next? He peered at the next screen before hastily averting his eyes. Whoops! That particular changeling was getting his fill of love emotion in the best possible way, and it was none of the alicorn’s business, but what he had seen could not be unseen. Although she was one amazing flirt, he had not realised ColdFire’s inclinations went that far!

He continued to check on the status of other parts of the ship through changeling eyes, and found everything to be nominal and nothing in need of his personal attention. He became aware of a physical sensation outside of his virtual environment, and he banished the room to the back of his mind and opened his eyes once more. He found himself peering directly into Starry’s green orbs.

“Good morning, Wandering. How are you feeling?” Starry asked with a knowing smile.

“Like my whole world got a lot better, Starry, and I suspect yours did too.”

“Mmm, uh-huh. It was worth the wait.”

“I agree. I think we’ll be spending a lot more nights together.”

“You better believe it! After all these years, I’m not letting this go.”

Wandering chuckled. “I won’t argue with that. Are you feeling hungry? Breakfast is being served.”

Starry giggled. “Oh, I’m hungry alright, but not for that.” She licked her lips as she gave him a smouldering look.

“Really? More sex?”

“You tell me, O former zebra mare – did your heat last just one evening?”

“Um, no, of course not.”

“So what’s on the menu?”

Wandering smirked. “Right now, I suspect you are.”

“Got that right, lover!” Starry then began to show Wandering just how hungry she was for him.

Wandering briefly hoped he would not miss out on the eggs before all such thoughts were firmly pushed aside.



Unsurprisingly, Wandering had quite an appetite by the time that they managed to get to the mess room. Whether by luck or the grace of the chef, he got the eggs that he craved – poached upon a steaming-hot waffle and covered in a creamy hollandaise sauce. He was halfway through the delicious meal when he saw ColdFire walk in for her breakfast. Considering what she had been up to earlier, he was impressed that he still had beaten her to the mess hall. Half a minute later, Xanth discreetly arrived also. Wandering let him get his food – just a biscuit with jam and a mug of coffee – before gesturing to the changeling to join him at the table. Through his network link, the alicorn could sense Xanth’s highly energised condition, with a hint of curiosity and concern as to what his captain wanted.

Wandering was hardly surprised at the chrome changeling’s sprightly vigour, considering the real meal that Xanth had gotten earlier. He kind of envied the changeling’s ability to charge up on that type of energy. Still, there were some things that he did not want to share. “Sit down, Xanth,” he said, indicating the chair next to him.

“Is there any problem, sir?” Xanth asked as he put his plate and mug down on the table and sat in the chair.

“Not exactly. You like ColdFire a lot, I take it?”

Xanth was startled for a moment before he gave Wandering a guilty look. “Umm, yeah.”

“Oh, stop looking so concerned!” Wandering said with a cheerful grin. “She seemed to enjoy the company, and that’s all that matters.”

“Oh… you saw…?”

“Yes, I did. Please do me a favour and hang a virtual ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign out when you two are in private. I’m no changeling queen where this kind of thing is normal. What you and she do in private is none of my business, and I prefer to keep it that way.”

“Understood, sir.”

“Considering the way that you two came in separately, I guess you’re keeping your relationship quiet for now too. Since I hadn’t noticed until now, I presume that it’s a recent thing?”

“Not exactly. We started doing things together while still in training. But now that we’re underway, ColdFire does not have as many outlets for her energy, while I am more than happy to provide some, so our relationship has grown a lot recently. She’s still a little uncertain how far she wants to take things, but what she does, she does with her usual wholehearted enthusiasm. I find myself hoping to further the relationship.”

“I’d say that most if not all the changelings aboard this ship are hoping to find compatible partners too, so you’re hardly unique there. Anyway, I don’t want to know their private lives either, so pass the word, and good luck to you both.”

“Yes, sir, and thanks.”

Wandering could have sent that advice over the network, but he felt a bit odd advising the changelings about their sex lives. A more discreet conventional mode was quite adequate. Besides, he really did not want any echoes of his own new relationship to leak out as yet. He and Starry needed a bit of time to find their new dynamic, but at least it promised to be interesting.



Wandering set off on his daily inspection of the ship. Although he visited all sections, he tended to spend extra time in one of them, a different one each day, looking for even trivial problems, relying on the section heads to do their jobs properly for the most part. Today though, it was one of those heads of department who was the potential cause for concern.

The alicorn made his way into the hibernation bay, nodding to the Violet Changelings on duty there. He walked down the rows of pods, each containing a crewmember suspended in the magical gel that kept them in ageless and dreamless stasis indefinitely. They all looked peacefully asleep, and Wandering was reassured that the people for whom he was responsible were in good hooves. While all the hives had their version of the pods, the Violet Hive had the most advanced ones and were the unanimous choice for the extended mission. They were fortunate to get the services of one of the hive’s princesses too, but that had brought with it an unfortunate consequence. Today he hoped to clear that up once and for all.

When Wandering returned to the monitoring station, Princess Galena was waiting there, and although her outer expression was serene, there was an undercurrent of hostility that he could sense through the mini-network.

“Anything wrong, Captain?” Galena inquired.

“Not with the hibernation pods anyway,” Wandering replied.

“Then there is something you wish to discuss?”

“I do. Can we talk about it in private?”

Galena nodded and headed to the door to her office, and the alicorn followed. The changeling sat behind her desk which was partially covered with equipment that monitored everything in her section. Wandering settled down on a mat in front of the desk.

“So – what can I do for you, Captain?”

“What is your problem with me?” Wandering asked bluntly.

“Sir?” Galena replied with a faint look of puzzlement on her face.

Wandering sighed. “Look, I’m not going to dance around this subject, and you know exactly what I mean. You have been cool towards me ever since the final crew selection was made. My family has never had anything but cordial relationships with the Violet Hive and Queen Lamina, so what about me is tweaking your chitin?”

Galena stared silently at Wandering for such a long time that he thought that she was not going to reply, but eventually she said, “You are not a changeling.”

“That is blatantly obvious, but how is that a problem?”

“A hive network should be controlled by a changeling, not a pony.”

“There is nothing sacrosanct about that. My sire is a changeling, and my twisted horn is confirmation of my heritage. That should be good enough for you.”

“You still cannot control a network like I could.”

“Is that what this is all about? You feel that I don’t deserve to be the controller of the Cosmic Lotus network?” He wondered a little how he had never been able to sense that over the link, putting it down to the young queen’s superior abilities.

“I am perfectly capable of managing this network without you.”

“That is not the point, Princess. This is not a hive, and the requirements are different. Besides, you already know why I was chosen to be the command hub. I’m a neutral party for all the hives involved. We needed the talents of all the changelings that succeeded in being selected for the crew, not just the Violets.”

“Yes, we do, and if you weren’t on the crew, then they would have been forced to choose me as the controller. Necessity would have forced the non-Violet Changelings to accept me.”

“Perhaps you’re right, but that would have been an uneasy alliance at best. While I personally feel that there are no logical grounds preventing one hive from linking networks with another, there is a deeply ingrained aversion to doing so. Perhaps sometime in the future, that might change, but right now we need a harmonious network of all changelings, and I was the solution. You cannot deny that it has worked, and I have had no problems with any of those linked to me except you. That makes this a personality problem, not a practical one. So – how are we going to deal with this?”

“You can work on your aversion problem and transition the control to me. I acknowledge that it can’t happen immediately, but we could complete the transfer in much less than ten years. And I could work with the other changelings much more efficiently than you ever could.”

Wandering sighed. “Is it the power you want? You’re already a princess of your hive…”

“The youngest princess! I will never be the queen of my hive!”

“…and you’re already the fall-back controller if anything happens to me.”

Galena rolled her eyes. “As if that is likely to happen.”

“I rather hope not. But there’s one other factor that makes your proposal problematic – it would reduce my effectiveness at monitoring everything on the ship. I need to be the hub to work with the changeling crewmembers.”

A touch of uncertainty crossed Galena’s face for the first time. “I’m sure that there is a way that we can work around that.”

Wandering smirked. “You know what – the best minds on Equis had not found a way before we left, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t one. So I’m giving you permission to try.”

Galena looked surprised, and the alicorn felt a let-up of the previously unrelenting undercurrent of hostility. “Are you serious?”

“I am. But… unless and until you have a one hundred percent solution, I expect your complete willing and respectful cooperation. I need a team leader that I can utterly depend upon, one who won’t be trying to undermine my authority. Also, I will not unilaterally impose a change in the leadership of the changeling network upon those within it. You also need to gain the trust and respect of all changelings on board.”

Wandering saw the changeling princess bristle slightly. “That's not how changeling hierarchy works. Drones follow the instructions of their leader.”

He chuckled. “This a ship, not a hive, and we have a unique situation here. You are going to have to be adaptable if you want to achieve your goal. They will need to have confidence in you before you can become their leader. If it helps, try thinking of the changelings outside your hive as ponies as you get to know them. And Princess, there’s one other incentive to bear in mind. Irrespective of whether you succeed in finding a solution on this journey, your experience will be unmatched by any other changeling. The exploration of our universe has only just begun, and the Cosmic Lotus will hardly be the last starship to seek out its mysteries, and those new ships are going to need a queen in charge of its changelings. It might take more than ten years, but I can virtually guarantee that one day you will be the network controller for your own ship. So don’t blow this assignment with impatience or overreaching ambition.”

Galena looked deeply thoughtful for a long moment before she nodded. “We have a deal, Captain.”

This time Wandering felt neither the hostility nor reluctance that the changeling had started the meeting with. It seemed that he had convinced her, and that was a load off his mind. “Excellent! I look forward to a long and harmonious relationship with you, Princess Galena.” He got up to his hooves, a satisfied smile on his face. “Carry on, Section Leader.”

“Aye, Captain,” Galena replied with a faint smile.

Wandering Path left the hibernation bay with a great deal of satisfaction. Averting a possible power tussle was satisfying, but it also did much to reassure himself that he was capable of leading this crew to its goal. While he might be a powerful alicorn, it was words that would be his most potent tool for this task. Even a mere ten years instead of forty-two was a long time to spend with hostile crewmembers, and he had to vindicate the faith that had been put in him as the commanding officer of this ship. He had to keep his eyes and ears open for any sign of friction, and losing the changeling network would have been a major blow. While he wished Galena well, he was glad that it was unlikely that she would solve the problem presented to her. And if she did – well, that was something he would just have to deal with if it happened. Nobody said that this was going to be an easy job, and that was a good thing. Otherwise it would be boring, and where was the fun in that?

 


 

Applied Maintenance

 

Wandering’s sides hurt from laughing. Thankfully, Willow was winding up his comedy act with a series of one-liners and the alicorn would soon be reprieved from the orange changeling’s unrelenting onslaught.

“My stallion friend says that he can see through any mare – he sure is missing a plot!”

“He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you… he really is an idiot!”

“He wrote a book once. From the moment I picked it up until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Someday I intend reading it!”

“I find the GemVee very educational – the moment somepony turns it on, I go to the library to read a book!”

“I like to have a drink while I’m reading, but it only takes one to get me loaded. Trouble is, I can’t remember if it’s the thirteenth or the fourteenth one!”

“Goodnight, everyone! I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening… but this wasn’t it!”

Willow made his way off the stage to an enormous amount of cheering, hoof-stomping, and various other methods of applause from the audience which consisted of almost every waking crewmember. Even after several months of travel, the ship’s Entertainment Officer kept coming up with fresh material for his acts, whether they were comedy, drama, musical, or anything else that would amuse or inspire the crew. He was an extremely versatile changeling, and that was going to be of ever greater importance as the journey continued. There was no way that anyone could take a vacation, and keeping everyone from getting cabin fever was crucial.

Of course, Willow’s stage shows were hardly the only means of doing this. He had a hoof in just about every form of entertainment ranging from hosting games to sourcing fresh shows from Equis via the data link. Even with the information flow slowed down considerably by the time dilation, enough new GemVee recordings were procured to fill the average crewperson’s free hours. The orange ’ling was possibly the hardest working member of the staff, but of course he also got a lot more than job satisfaction out of it.

Wandering sent a brief thought over the changeling network, and Willow’s head turned to find the alicorn. Spotting him, the changeling made his way over.

“Did you want me for something, Captain?”

“I just wanted to congratulate you personally on a great show. You must be feeling pretty pleased, not to mention bloated.”

Willow patted his stomach. “Yeah, I almost overdid it there. I’m going to my cabin and sleep off this feast.”

“You’ve certainly earned a break. When do you have time to socialise?”

Willow chuckled. “After all this time, you haven’t noticed that I don’t have time to socialise?”

“You’re certainly bucking the trend as far as your fellow changelings are concerned.”

The changeling shrugged. “What can I say – they get their emotion food one way, I get it another way.”

“But what about a personal relationship – don’t you miss that?”

Willow shrugged. “I have friends; I’ve never felt the urge to do more.”

Wandering nodded thoughtfully. “I suppose that’s good enough for a changeling. Even with a bit of changeling blood in me, I don’t always see things your way. Anyway, I just want you to know if there’s anything that I can do to help you, I’m always available.”

“You worry too much, Captain,” Willow said with a grin.

“That’s my job, Willow. Anyway, I won’t hold you up anymore. Go sleep off your binge!”

“Aye, sir! Seeya tomorrow!” The changeling headed for the exit and his cabin, ideas for another show already swirling through his head.

Wandering watched him leave, hoping that the orange ’ling was not overdoing things. Willow was too precious a resource to lose due to overwork. Too bad the entertainer had no special somepony to keep him distracted occasionally and otherwise prevent Willow from turning his profession into his obsession, but even though Wandering was concerned about the changeling’s welfare, he drew the line at playing matchmaker.

The gathering was shifting into its second phase – party time! It was six months since they had departed on their mission, at least by their clock if not the ones on Equis, and that was deemed a good enough excuse to throw a shindig. Willow’s comedy act was just the warm-up for the event which was as much an excuse for some of the crew to offer up their home-brew efforts as anything else. Wandering was just as curious as any of the crew as to what they had achieved. After eighty years of sampling beers, he had certainly enjoyed an extraordinary variety, so he had high hopes for this lot. The mess room also doubled as a community centre with the tables shifted to the sides and the chairs turned to face the tiny stage. These were now stacked aside and party foods brought in along with the first of the kegs of home brew. The alicorn moved to get in line to try them out. Just a few samples – as ship’s commander, he did not have the luxury of getting drunk. Still, he had the extraordinary constitution of an alicorn….



Wandering groaned as he held his head with one hoof while levitating a couple of aspirins and a glass of water to his lips. He barely had the time to down the medicine with a gulp of water when a knock on his office door made him wince.

“Come in,” he called, the effort making his head throb.

A light-teal pegasus mare entered uncertainly and approached Wandering’s desk. “You wanted to see me, Captain?”

Wandering just glared at Radiant Dawn for a long time, and the mare slowly wilted under his gaze. At last he spoke up. “What in Celestia’s name was in that brew?” he grated out.

Radiant Dawn gave the alicorn a nervous grin. “I might have overdone it a bit…”

“A bit?!” He winced at his own outburst and calmed down. “Radiant, I gave permission for crew members to indulge in home-brew beers as a relatively harmless and potentially enjoyable pastime. I did not intend for you to incapacitate half the waking crew with that… that… whatever it is! How in Tartarus do you even manage to make a brew that’s more like beer-flavoured moonshine?”

“Umm… skill?”

Wandering closed his eyes and sighed. “Look, Radiant, I’m not going to ban you making your brews, but from now on you pass them by Medical and then have them dispensed at the bar.”

“Oh. Okay, sir,” she replied, relieved that her favourite hobby was not going to be prohibited. “Is that all, Captain?”

“No. You get to do all the basic maintenance chores for a week – after your normal duties. Dismissed!”

Radiant Dawn groaned. A week of dispensing toilet cleansing spells and removing dust from the ventilation ducts was not going to be fun. As she trudged out of the office, she reflected that it was a good thing that she had something to drown her sorrows.



When Wandering’s headache finally abated, he headed for his adjoining cabin to freshen up a little. He stripped off his full uniform and went into the bathroom. After splashing some water on his face, he saw his bloodshot eyes and unkempt mane in the mirror and decided that he was overdue for a bit of pampering. Donning just a minimum top with his rank bars instead of the entire outfit, he headed out. He made his way down to one of the lower decks and entered the ship’s spa.

Besides offering the obvious hot tub, hooficures, and massages, the spa also provided mane cuts and styling. The person in charge of the spa was Ixia, a yellow changeling who was a skilled masseuse, mane stylist, and conversationalist. It was a lot of jobs for one person, but with only thirty or so crewmembers awake at any particular time during the journey, she was able to cope with all of that and more. How much more was known only to a very select few.

“Captain! Is this business or pleasure?” the changeling asked as he walked through the door.

“A bit of both, Ixia. Can you do something with this mane of mine and follow it up with soak in the hot tub?”

“Certainly,” she replied cheerfully. “I’m completely free right now, although I suspect that I will have a few more customers later.”

As he headed for the hairdressing chair, Wandering asked, “You didn’t sample any of Radiant’s brew, I take it?”

The changeling chuckled. “I don’t even like beer, so I avoided that fate.” She placed an apron around his neck and considered the mess of hair. “What do you want me to do with this? I could style this into something more chic.”

Wandering smiled and shook his head. “Just my usual neat formal cut, please. As captain of this ship, I have to set some standard, and fashion model isn’t it.”

As she lifted a brush and some detangler spray to get some semblance of order to the mane before cutting it, she sighed and said, “I’ll get you to be a little bolder one of these years, Captain. We still have most of a decade for you to loosen up a bit.”

The alicorn chuckled. “Good luck with that, Ixia. I’ve kept the same basic cut for most of my life.”

“Well past time to change it up then,” she replied as she started snipping away. “Anyway, you mentioned that you had some business also?”

“Yeah. Purple Point.”

The changeling nodded. “I thought as much. I’ve managed to convince Point to come back for some regular massage sessions to relieve his tensions and help keep his alter ego at bay. That will give me more time to work on his therapy.”

“Any results yet?”

“Captain, those kind of changes don’t happen overnight. I can’t discuss confidential details about him, but yes – he does seem to be responding favourably, but it’s slow-going. House Path took ages to get his head back together, and it’s going to take a similar amount of time for me to deal with his inner demon.”

Wandering sighed. “I know. I’m just a bit too eager to see Point whole and happy.”

“Aren’t we all?” Ixia continued to comb and snip his mane until she nodded in satisfaction. “How’s that?”

Wandering looked in the mirror and nodded in satisfaction. “Great job as usual, Ixia. Now let’s mess it up a bit with a dip in the hot tub.”

Ixia grinned. “I’ll fix it up again afterward. Wouldn’t you like a massage first? You seem pretty tense.”

“Nah – just a relaxing soak will do.”

“As you command. Go hop in while I fetch some towels.”

Wandering walked into the adjacent room where a large tub steamed, the scent of medicinal herbs wafting from it. He would not be surprised if his daughter had grown them fresh just for this reason. Eschewing the steps, he took off his top and flapped up over the rim before lowering himself into the warm water. Sighing in contentment, he settled onto one of the underwater benches and tried to relax.

Ixia returned with a stack of towels, and she placed them on a nearby shelf well out of splash range. Then she joined Wandering in the tub. When he raised a curious eyebrow, she said, “You still need that tension relieved. Turn around and I’ll work on your neck and back.”

Wandering did as he was told while Ixia shape-shifted her hooves to their specialised massaging form. Then she applied her masseuse skills to his tense muscles, working knots out of them before moving on to his forelegs. The alicorn cooperated with her, feeling the tension ease considerably. He was both amused and embarrassed as she held her breath underwater to work on his hind legs too. Finally she was finished and he leaned back in the tub until his chin was barely above the water.

“You were right – I did need a massage. I feel a lot better now.”

Ixia smiled as she did the same as Wandering. “Next time, make it easy on your therapist and have the massage before the tub.”

Wandering grinned and replied, “Okay, Doc.”

The alicorn was one of the few aboard who knew that Ixia was more than just a mane stylist and masseuse. She was a qualified mental health counsellor and had a doctorate in psychology. She just chose to do her work undercover. Despite having an official counsellor aboard in Random Dawn, the changeling still found that many people, ponies especially, would confide in their hairdresser or masseur things that they were embarrassed to bring up in front of the counsellor. She even volunteered to man the ship’s bar occasionally just so she could hear even more candid remarks.

After about twenty minutes, Ixia declared it was time to get out of the tub. With a touch of regret, Wandering levitated himself up out of the water and as he hovered there, he applied a spell that expelled the majority of the liquid from his coat and back into the tub. He alighted on the platform adjacent to the tub and grabbed a towel in his magic. He dried his mane first before starting on the rest of his body.

Ixia climbed out too, the water sliding off her chitin much more easily, and she had little to towel off afterward. She then helped Wandering finish drying himself off before brushing his mane back into shape. “There – you look much better, Captain.”

“Thanks, Ixia. I’d better make my rounds now and show the rest of the crew the standards that I expect of them,” he said with a wink.

“The more customers, the better,” she replied.

The alicorn nodded, knowing that she got a lot of her emotional sustenance from the happiness and gratitude of her clients. “Keep Doctor Zubon apprised of Purple Point’s progress.”

“I’ve made Purple Point my priority project.”

Are we going to continue alliterating?” Wandering asked.

“Shards! I hope not!” Ixia replied with a giggle.

“Have a great day, Ixia,” Wandering said as he left the spa. ‘Now to find out how the rest of the crew is coping. I just hope that the anniversary celebrations are just a tad less headache-inducing when they come around.



Wandering’s route did not quite take him past the thaumophysics laboratory, but he felt the urge to do so, quite possibly because of the rise in frustration that was being passed on by the changeling assistants through the network. He decided that it was time to stick his nose in and have a quick look around.

The first person that he saw was Cosmic Dawn, seated at her desk but with her head resting on her front hooves, ears flattened, glaring at the screens in front of her. Each of them was covered with equations that were incomprehensible to the alicorn. Wandering knew that the unicorn had been working on the time dilation anomaly ever since they had been boosted to near light-speed, but without coming any closer to a solution, and that had to be very frustrating for one of the top ThD’s in the field. Although he had no hope of helping her with the mathematics, he decided to see if he could at least offer some more encouragement.

“Good morning, Dawn.”

Cosmic Dawn nearly jumped out of her seat in startlement. She had been so wrapped up in her thoughts that she had not noticed the alicorn’s arrival. “Oh, Wandering… I mean, Captain! What can I do for you?”

Wandering chuckled. As the daughter of Forest Breeze, Avatar of Honesty and friend of the family, Cosmic Dawn had been a regular visitor and knew the Path family by name, and she had yet to get into the habit of addressing him by his title. “It’s okay, Dawn, this is an informal visit. Just seeing if you’re making any progress yet?”

“If by progress you mean all the wrong ideas that I’ve eliminated, I’ve made plenty,” she grouched. “It just doesn’t make sense!”

“I wish I could help, but it’s way out of my field of expertise. If it makes you feel any better, none of the thaumophysicists back home have had any more success than you.”

The mare sighed. “I know, but while I’d love to be the first to figure this out, right now I’d settle for a solution that I can work with. There are so many questions that need to be answered! I think that this one breakthrough would keep the entire world’s thaumophysicists occupied for decades to come.”

“And all this caused just by going fast,” Wandering said, shaking his head with wonder. “It’s not as if we haven’t had the means of travelling really fast back on Equis. Teleportation is instantaneous. Hypervelocity tubes can get up to some impressive velocities if they’re long enough.”

Dawn nodded. “Yes, magic makes a mockery of every attempt that I have made to reconcile… these… results.”

Her voice trailed off and Wandering looked at her curiously. “Is something wrong?”

“I’m an idiot.”

“Well, we all knew that, but we let you come along anyway,” he joked.

Dawn looked at him with a smirk. “Leave the comedy to Willow, okay?”

“I will if you tell me what brought on that epiphany.”

“I’ve been overthinking one aspect. Tell me – what’s my profession?”

“Ah, amnesia now. It’s getting worse.” Dawn gave him the stink-eye and he relented. “Okay! Okay! You’re a thaumophysicist.”

“And what does a thaumophysicist do?”

“Umm… reconcile how the laws of physics and magic interact to make the universe work?”

“Close enough. So, I would take all those things into consideration when working on a problem, right?”

“Right,” he replied promptly.

“Wrong!”

“Wrong? You’ve lost me.”

The mare sighed in exasperation. “I’ve been ignoring the fact that basically there was no magic involved in our acceleration.”

“Er… yes there was. The mass-reducing spell and the alicorn propulsion.”

“Irrelevant!” she snapped, making Wandering jump a little.

“Okay, explain it in words of no more than two syllables for me.”

“While the thrust was magically generated, it was still purely a push on our sails. There was no spell involved in that – only action and reaction. Basically just an enormously powerful and focused version of what we were getting from the sun. And as for the mass-reducing spell, you told me yourself that it is imperfect, and that a tiny fraction of the mass is still left over which needed to be accelerated, right?”

“Right,” he replied tentatively, hoping that she was not about to contradict him again.

“Once again, the spell did no actual accelerating; it just removed the majority of the mass that needed to be accelerated. This reduces it to a pure physics problem! Consider, when the mass reduction spell was turned off, the time and distance dilation remained unchanged.”

Wandering frowned. “But haven’t you been assuming that the ship accumulated some unknown magical energy signature to create the time-dilation side effect?”

She nodded. “Which I have been unable to find any trace of. I think I and all of my colleagues on Equis have been looking at this manticore from the wrong end all along. Now what self-respecting thaumophysicist would ignore the effects of magic and concentrate solely on the physical side of things?”

“No one but you now?” Wandering guessed.

Dawn grinned back at him. “Got that right! Now, if you will excuse me, Captain, this mare has scientific history to make.”

She turned back to her screens and wiped off everything on them. She immediately started filling them again, although to the alicorn’s eye, the equations were no more comprehensible than before. He decided to chalk this up as a win and quietly left the lab. Things were looking up this day!

He was feeling quite cheerful as he continued his informal tour of inspection until he got pinged over the changeling network.

Captain to the bridge, please!

On my way,’ he replied, wondering what was going on. In six months of travel, he had never been summoned to the bridge. Anything that needed his attention was able to wait until he arrived whenever it suited him. Whatever this was, it had at least one notch more urgency than usual, and he hastened his gait.

Stepping onto the bridge, he said, “Report!”

Moonlit Path, the unicorn daughter of his brother, Destined, looked up from her instrument panel. “Sir – our primary ranging device abruptly ceased functioning several minutes ago.”

“What do diagnostics say?”

“No response whatsoever.”

“Can you get it on an exterior camera?”

The red changeling crewperson spoke up. “I have already turned camera five to observe it, sir. Check out the main screen.”

Wandering looked up at the screen but failed to spot the instrument. “I’m not seeing anything, Pax.”

“Precisely, Captain,” Pax replied.

“It’s gone? Any indication as to why?”

Moonlit spoke up. “It was working normally right up to the moment that it completely stopped. Best guess is a kinetic strike.”

Wandering shuddered. At the speed that they were travelling, even the smallest grain of sand was a deadly missile. That’s why they had the thaumic shield that stretched for kilometres ahead of them – not to block anything but to deflect it to pass by the sides of the ship. That was far more effective against the molecules of gas and dust that permeated even this hard vacuum. The shield was not infallible though – something of significant size could still force its way through the shield to strike the ship, and that could be disastrous. “Pull up the records of the thaumic shield,” he ordered.

“On screen three, Captain,” Pax said, having anticipated the command.

“When did this happen?” Wandering asked as he leaned over to read the data on the screen.

“Timestamp 14:35:12,” Moonlit reported.

He scrolled back the data and spotted what he suspected immediately. “Power surge. Something got through alright. Hmm… looks like the shield managed to kill up to ninety-seven percent of its kinetic energy, but that means that it was still travelling at about nine thousand kilometres per second. More than enough to take out the ranging device. I suppose that we ought to be grateful that it wasn’t worse. The armouring on the bow of the ship was designed to take impacts, and the reinforcing spells backs that up, but I would rather not test them out. However, we need to replace that ranging device. Who have we got available for extra-vehicular activity?” He checked the roster and smiled. “Perfect!”



The sound of air being pumped out of the chamber gradually diminished as the atmosphere was reduced to a near-vacuum. Eventually a lamp lit to indicate that the airlock was ready to be opened to the outside. Steam Shift checked his safety tether one more time before saying, “Ready for E.V.A.”

Opening airlock now,” came back the reply over the comm.

The airlock door opened inwards, and the outside came into view. Not that there was much to see. The strange aberration that crowded the stars fore and aft left the scene blank, and even the eternal dark-purple glow of the night sky was distorted. However, Steam Shift was not here for the sightseeing.

The changeling turned around and put his forelegs onto the replacement ranging device and gave it a gentle tug. With the artificial gravity off in the airlock, the equipment floated easily in his wake. Steam then hastened to exit the chamber, tilting himself over the lip of the airlock and firmly fastening his magi-stick boots on the outer hull of the starship. He then waited for the replacement part to drift clear of the airlock before pulling on the short second tether to change its direction. It was massive enough that it took a steady pull to swing it around and headed in the direction that Steam Shift wanted. With his suit’s lamps illuminating the way, he then slowly made his way forward, two hooves at a time, making sure that they were planted firmly before moving the others. The ranging device started drifting too close to the hull, so the changeling paused to let it catch up to him a bit so he could give it a nudge to correct its course, then he continued onward.

How is it going out there, Steam Shift?” came Wandering’s voice over the comm.

“Slow but steady, Captain. This ship may seem big when you’re walking from end to end inside, but try doing it at a slow shuffle while hauling a reluctant piece of machinery!”

I did some training space-walks on the hull during construction, so I know what you mean.

“I think your scenery was a bit more interesting than mine, sir.”

Wandering chuckled. “Just don’t get bored and lose concentration, okay?

“I have nothing to worry about as long as we keep having these scintillating conversations.”

Oh – would you rather talk about fashion, for example? Such as why you wore your scarf inside your spacesuit? It can’t be too comfortable.

Steam Shift smirked, although the alicorn could not see it. “Have you forgotten that I’m a changeling, Captain? A little shape-shift to accommodate it within the confines of the spacesuit’s neck section, and I’m stylish as well as protected.”

One of these days I’m going to make you tell me why you almost never take that thing off.

The changeling laughed. “Good luck with that, sir.”

You’re one of the strangest ’lings I’ve ever met, Steam, and I’ve known a few.

“Why, thank you, Captain. You might actually have a clue as to why I wear the scarf. I’ll let you think about that for a while as I’m almost to the installation site.”

Okay, Steam. Report everything that you see.

“Will do, sir.”

Steam Shift could now see the stump of the mounting bar for the missing ranging device. He stopped just short of it and gradually braked the replacement part before securing it to one of the numerous anchor points dotted along the length of the hull. He then bent down to observe the bar closely.

“Bridge, I can see what has happened. It certainly was a kinetic strike. At an educated guess, I would say that it took just a glancing blow, but at the speed it was travelling, it was enough to vaporise the mounting bar at that point. I can see a gouge in the armour plating aft of the mount that seems to be in line with the particle that might have done the damage. Of course there’s no sign whatsoever of the old unit.”

What’s the repair prognosis, Steam?

“Dead simple, Captain. None of the fasteners have been damaged, so it should be an easy swap.”

Bring back what’s left of the mount. It can’t hurt to examine it properly, and we don’t want to leave any more space garbage in our wake.

“Will do. Starting dismounting procedure now.”

Steam Shift touched a control on his left foreleg, and the covering over the hoof retracted, exposing it to space. However, a seal above the fetlock joint prevented the loss of pressure from his spacesuit, and his specially adapted chitin did the same for his exposed body part. He repeated the action with the right foreleg before applying his shape-shifting power to form his hooves into three-clawed prehensile extremities. With these, he took a tool out of the pouch strapped to his barrel and he looped the attached strap over the limb so as not to lose it. The tool was specifically designed to work with the fasteners, and he soon had the first one off. He nimbly placed it into another pouch before proceeding with the next fastener. He soon had all of them removed, and he lifted the bar and its mounting plate, exposing the cable that ran up its hollow centre.

Because the majority of the device was gone, Steam Shift did not have any mounting points for a tether until this moment. He now could secure one to the cable bundle, and once that was done, he unplugged it from the electrical wiring harness reaching into the depths of the ship. He then pulled it away and attached it to another anchor point. The replacement device was pulled into position above the mounting site where he plugged it into the harness. He then eased it into place and started the process of replacing all the fasteners again. When the last one was secured, he detached the tether from the newly installed sensor and stood back.

“Bridge, run diagnostics on the new ranging device.”

Test sequence beginning now.

The unit started swivelling on its mount, but its most important function was invisible to the eyes. Steam Shift waited patiently for a report from the bridge.

Diagnostics completed. The new unit is in full working order. You may now come back inside, Steam Shift.

“Acknowledged, bridge. Returning now.” He first shifted his limbs back to the normal hooves and replaced the spacesuit’s magi-stick hoof-coverings. With all four limbs ready to walk back safely, he detached the broken mounting bar and started towing it to the airlock. With less to worry about, he took more time to look at the hull and noticed for the first time that there were more gouges in the armour plating. For the first time, the changeling started feeling nervous. He was terribly exposed out here, and the evidence showed that kinetic encounters, while rare, were not quite as infrequent as he had believed. He sped up his two-by-two shuffle to hasten his arrival at the airlock, and breathed a sigh of relief once safely within.

“I’m inside the airlock and have secured the broken mount. Start compression procedures, please.”

Closing airlock.

The door shut off the dull view and clamped into place. Air started rushing into the chamber until a green lamp indicated that pressure had been equalised with that inside the ship. The inner door opened, allowing the changeling to step through, depositing the mount safely aside to be retrieved later for examination. Right now it was frosting up quickly due to having come out from the bitter cold of deep space. Steam Shift removed his helmet and then tugged his scarf out to wrap it around his neck.

“Don’t you think that could wait?” asked Radiant Spark who had been manning the airlock station.

Steam Shift grinned at the mare as he struck a pose. “It’s never too early to make a good impression. It takes a dashing aethernaut to make a job like this look both easy and cool!”

Radiant rolled her eyes but giggled. “You’re certainly something, Shifty.”

 


 

Wear & Tear

 

“What am I looking at?” Wandering asked.

On the screen before him was a simple equation: C²M=E.

Starry Path and Cosmic Dawn looked at each other and grinned. “An answer to a lot of your questions,” Dawn replied.

“I didn’t realise that my questions involved obscure letters,” the alicorn stallion complained.

Starry patted Wandering on the withers. “Don’t stress too much about it – we plan to give you just the basics.”

“And besides, it’s only one of the many strange and wonderful things that we have uncovered,” Dawn added.

“Mostly Dawn, though,” Starry said with a nod toward her colleague. “She’s a lot stronger with theory than I am.”

“But it was your experimental observations that helped make the breakthrough,” Dawn insisted.

Wandering cleared his throat to gain the two mares’ attention. “Would you mind stopping the mutual admiration fest and get on with the explanation? What has your months of research and brainstorming revealed, and how does it relate to the mission?”

Dawn said, “Well, it all started when you made me realise that this was a pure physics problem and including thaumaturgy only distorted the facts.”

“What facts are these?”

“There are two basic postulates. First – the laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion relative to one another. The second is that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers, regardless of their relative motion or of the motion of the light source.”

“Still not seeing how those letters relate,” Wandering complained.

Starry rolled her eyes with exasperation. “How about giving Dawn a chance to explain?”

The stallion chuckled at himself and smiled. “I’ll shut up now.”

Dawn giggled and continued. “We set up some experiments to test my theories and came up with some surprising and counterintuitive consequences. Some of these we have already observed, the most obvious of which is time dilation. A clock moving relative to the observer’s stationary clock will always tick slower. For the most part, we never notice this because the difference is tiny until you reach very high speeds.”

“Such as getting close to the speed of light?” Wandering asked.

“Or at least a significant portion thereof. And the progression is exponential, so the closer you get to light-speed, the greater the increase in dilation. At our current speed of 97.4% of the speed of light, that time dilation is only a bit over four times normal time, hence why our journey has apparently diminished from forty-two years to only ten. But that is only for us! To those back on Equis, our trip will still take forty-two years. If we had managed to get up to 99% light-speed, one second would become 7.1 seconds, at 99.5%, ten seconds, and at 99.9%, over twenty-two seconds!”

“So, what happens if you reach one hundred percent?”

“You can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because of that equation,” Dawn replied as she pointed at the screen.

“Which means…?”

“Mass-energy equivalence. All mass and energy are equivalent and transmutable. That’s why it got harder and harder for Celestia and Luna to push us. The mass-cancelling spell reduces a fixed percentage of the ship's mass. As we gained more kinetic energy with respect to the Equis frame of reference, that increased our mass from their perspective. That's why we seemed to be receiving far less thrust the faster we went! Another consequence of this "relativity" is that from our frame of reference, we are always stationary, so our own perceived mass stays constant!”

“You were right when you said that this is counterintuitive. So what exactly do those letters mean?”

Starry replied, “M stands for mass and E stands for energy. You multiply mass by the square of the speed of light to get the equivalent amount of energy.”

“That’s an awful large amount of energy, but why do you write C instead of L?”

“Because strictly speaking, it’s the speed of Causality. No event can travel faster than its cause, and seeing as light and other electromagnetic radiation are the fastest things possible in pure physics, the speed of light is a handy reference. But it’s still basically causality.”

“But teleportation and the crystal comms work instantaneously irrespective of distance, thus increasing the speed of causality to either infinite or close to it,” Wandering pointed out.

“But only when thaumaturgy is involved, as is the case with both of those instances. Thaumaturgy has its own inviolable rules, but they can override a purely physical phenomenon. Without magic though, we hit a hard limit. Causality is Queen of Reality.”

“So there’s no way to go faster than light without magic being involved?”

“None that we know of,” Dawn replied. “This universe has a speed limit, although intriguingly my equations have hinted at different limits for other universes.”

“Like Mom has visited?” Wandering asked.

Dawn nodded. “Princess Twilight Sparkle could do science a big favour by doing some measurements for us when she next visits a parallel universe, although it’s possible that nearby universes have the same or very similar limits. But we will never know unless we do the research.”

The alicorn stallion grinned. “Once Mom learns about this, you just know that she’s going to throw herself into that research immediately. Maybe even tear Pif and Hype away from their current work.”

Starry smiled. “Yeah, that would be exactly what Mama Twilight would do.”

Wandering drew in a deep breath and let it out in a huff as he stood up. “Well, I’m happy to see that you two have solved the puzzle and got it all worked out.”

The two mares looked at each other and burst out laughing.

The stallion looked at them with an eyebrow arched in confusion. “What am I missing here?”

Starry choked down her laughter enough to answer. “Oh, Wandering, we have barely scratched the surface of this new science and given you a simplistic explanation. There are probably decades of research and experimentation ahead of us and other physicists. For example, we still don't know how gravity ties in.”

“I see. Well, I know when I am out of my depth. You two can have that kind of fun all to yourselves. I have a ship to run, so I’ll leave you to it.” Wandering beat a hasty retreat. His field of knowledge covered neither theoretical physics nor smug mares. He only hoped that Starry would not bring her work home to bed tonight.



Wandering decided to stop by the mess hall to grab a mug of coffee. There were a fair number of crewmembers there already either having a meal or like him, getting some form of refreshment. After acquiring his favourite brew, he sat at one of the tables and observed the others while sipping the drink. Most were just chatting or discussing some aspect of their work, but he noticed Xanth and ColdFire seated in close proximity together with some of their friends. As he watched, the mare got up from her seat, leaned over the changeling and nibbled his ear. Then with a grin and a wink at the others, she left the room. The changeling blushed as his friends laughed and made some sort of comments which Wandering couldn’t quite make out, but it was clear to him what had happened. ColdFire had publically staked a claim to Xanth and he had to chuckle too. She was such a flirt while Xanth was so much more subdued, and yet it was obvious that they went well together. While changelings had a lot in common with ponies, there were several things that were markedly different. One of these was the lack of jealousy, so when ColdFire flirted with other people, it did not bother him at all. He knew that she was only being playful, and she showed how much she appreciated that freedom by making it clear whom she cared for the most. Changelings, however, were obviously not immune to embarrassment, and he endured his friends’ ribbing as best as he could.

After Wandering lost interest in Xanth, he looked around the room to see Travelling Soul in deep discussion with Epic Prose about something written in the book before them. The unicorn and the pegasus had been collaborating for a while on something that they had refused to discuss with others, although Wandering suspected that it was either a new story or a stage-play. Soul picked up a pen in his magic to write something in the book while Prose adjusted his bifocal glasses and considered it critically.

The alicorn left the two to their Muses and his attention landed on Techbird. The ancient griffoness looked tired and worn even beyond her years. He got up and walked over to her table, sitting down again opposite her.

“Has my Chief Scientist been overdoing things again?” he asked.

Techbird gave him a wan smile. “The work with Cosmic Dawn and Starry Path was both fascinating and rewarding, but it was also exhausting.”

“I just came from a briefing with them. You’ve all done fine work.”

“Thank you. If nothing else, this discovery has justified the effort that has gone into the Cosmic Lotus program, but we still have the ultimate goal to look forward to.”

Wandering allowed his concern to show through. “Tech – I’m worried about you. You’ve been pushing yourself hard for months, but you’re not a young griff anymore. Those prosthetics of yours can’t replace vital rest and relaxation.”

“I know, Captain, but there is so much to be accomplished before we reach the Far Star. I thought that we would have forty-two years, but instead we have only ten. Solving the problems caused by the relativity effects just ate into that time further.”

“Surely you didn’t intend to work the entire forty-two years we originally allowed for?”

“Of course I did. Hibernation is only for those who are neither essential nor have sufficient stimulation to keep themselves from growing bored. None of that applies to me.”

“But overwork most definitely does. Frankly, Tech, you are not going to be of any use to anyone if you have a breakdown. You need to take time off from your work to relax for a while. In other words – you need a vacation.”

Techbird stared at Wandering for a long moment before replying with a touch of humour. “What do you suggest? A trip to the beach? Skiing in the Foal Mountains perhaps?”

“Funny catbird,” the alicorn said with a smile. “No, I’ll start you off easy. I’m commanding you to visit the spa and get the works. Relax and de-stress. That’s a direct order.” Wandering finished off his coffee and stood up. “A good long sleep after that too. Enjoy your vacation, Techbird.”

The griffoness watched the stallion walk away before considering his commands. She had so much work to do, but she could not ignore an order. Besides, he had not ordered her into the stasis pods for mandatory rejuvenation... this time. With a sigh, she lifted her left foreleg and tapped the device strapped upon it.



It was about the middle of Ixia’s shift, and she was enjoying a lull in business. There was no such thing as a typical day, but some were busier than others. This morning she had a group booking and had to call in some assistants to cope, but she also had her regulars. She checked those off her appointment board and then blinked with surprise when she saw a new name pop up requesting a time slot. She tapped Techbird’s name to connect her to the griffoness.

“What can I do for you, Chief Scientist Techbird?” she asked when the comm connected.

I’m told that I need to relax and de-stress, so I was wondering when you would have time available.

“As it happens, now would be a good time. Were you after any particular treatment?”

Our good Captain suggested that I get the works, whatever that is.

Ixia smiled to herself. If Wandering had suggested that, it was a little more than a dip in the hot tub that the griffoness required. Tapping her appointment board, she blocked out a long private session for Techbird. “I can manage that. Please make your way to the spa, and I will have everything ready for you when you arrive.”

Thank you. I will be there soon.” Techbird closed the call.

Given the sedate pace at which the augmented griffoness tended to travel, Ixia had plenty of time to prepare before the door announcer chirped.

“Come in!” she called, automatically activating the sliding door.

Techbird stepped inside, her footballs alternating clicking of natural claws with the clink of her magitek crystal limbs.

“Right on time,” Ixia said with a smile as she set the privacy lock on the door. “This is the first time that you have visited my spa, so what exactly prompted this visit?” she asked, fishing for information to use to treat her client.

Techbird smiled weakly. “Overwork, I suppose. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Frankly, while I have replaced many biological parts that have failed, I cannot do that for everything… yet. I need to stay alive until we get to the Far Star and I can get the answer to my big question, but I still need to continue my work while we are travelling there.”

“Ah, I see. The Captain noticed that you were reaching breaking strain, am I right?”

Techbird nodded with a touch of embarrassment. “The fact that I was too tired to argue with him convinced me that perhaps he was right.”

“Well, I’m not a medical specialist, but I believe that I can do a lot to de-stress and relax you. I find that can be a very effective treatment for a lot of ailments. May I suggest that we start with a full-body massage? I’m sure that your artificial parts must put some unnatural strains upon you.”

“You would be correct. From a mechanical standpoint, everything is within tolerance, and from a medical view, they are working well, but they are not the same as a healthy complete body. It would not hurt to feel better, as it were.” She straightened up and flexed her wings a few times, wincing a little. “Do you have the time for a full treatment? I don’t know when I’ll have the time to stop by again. Most of me is almost always busy with the processing cluster, but right now I am taking an enforced break.”

“We have as much time as you need. The massage room is right through here.” Ixia indicated a doorway and allowed the griffoness to enter first. “Please make yourself comfortable on the massage table, face down. Your beak will fit comfortably through the head support.”

“Will that support my weight? My crystal prosthetics are heavier than they look, and I’m not a small griffon.”

Ixia smiled reassuringly. “The table is built to deal with even the weightiest of the members of the crew. Have no concern over that.”

Techbird eased herself onto the low-slung table and made herself comfortable. “Is this right?” she asked, her voice coming from under the table.

“Perfect!” Ixia replied, pushing the button that raised the table to her normal working height. “Now please spread your wings and allow them to relax to the floor. I need to start working on your back muscles.”

“Are any of my augmentations going to be in the way? I can always disconnect them if you wish, as long as the sight doesn’t disturb you too much.”

Ixia chuckled. “That won’t be necessary. In fact, it will be easier to see how they are putting strain on the rest of your body if you leave them connected. I can already tell that you have a lot of tension in one location in particular. You don’t seem to be able to get your wings comfortable, so let’s start with the wing joints first.” She shape-shifted her hooves to create long, thin digits suitable for pushing through a griffon’s plumage.

When she dug her digits into Techbird’s muscles, she found them so tense that they were just short of locking up completely. She kneaded the knots firmly but skilfully and felt them relax. She worked her way through all the muscles, watching the wings droop more and more as the pent-up tension was finally dissolved. However, she noticed one other thing while she was working. “When was the last time that you had a good preening?”

Techbird had started softly crooning as her muscle knots were loosened, but she paused to answer the masseuse. “A lot of the time I don’t have the opportunity to preen, but other times I don’t have anyone to help me with parts that I can’t reach anymore.” She was about to add more when Ixia hit a particularly tough spot. “Ngh! Ow, ow, ow!”

Ixia tisk-tisked. “As one professional to another, please don’t tell me that you don’t have the time to do something vital. How can you perform at your best if you don’t look after yourself? This spa has been here for the entire journey, but this is the first time that you have stuck a paw inside despite me sending several subtle hints your way.” She finished with the right wing’s muscles and started working on the left. It was trickier because she could feel the artificial tendons obstructing her, but her digits adapted to the need.

Techbird let out a groan of relief as Ixia found and massaged out more knots. “Mmmm! Caawwww…” her eyes fluttered closed as she considered the changeling’s question. “Do you want the truth or a more believable lie, Miss Ixia?”

“I’m a changeling, remember? I can taste deception. But entertain me if you wish.”

Techbird snorted, but her emotions were not of sad sadness or anguish – they were of resignation. “There is a good chance that I am not going to last long enough to reach the Far Star as I am right now, even with the reduced travel time. This is a problem that I need to resolve, and no amount of preening is going to help. I need a more permanent solution. You know that we have regular data transmissions between the ship and Equis, don’t you?”

“I do, but what is the significance of that? If you are so concerned with your survival, shouldn’t you be taking extra care with even your minor needs such as those you have been ignoring? Such minor needs as... say... the health of your body?” She finished with the wing muscles and moved further down the back.

The catbird chuckled and then groaned as Ixia hit a particularly dense patch of knots and began kneading them. “What is survival? The continuation of biological function, or the perseverance of consciousness? All that we are, magic aside, is bio-electrical impulses. Copy those correctly and you copy the person. One would not be able to tell that they are different from the original.” She groaned again and let out a soft caw before asking, “How old do you think I am?”

Ixia knew exactly how old Techbird was, but chose to answer evasively. “Considering that the average griffon lifespan is about 140 years but you have been actively staving off the aging process for some time now, I would have to say considerably older than that.”

Techbird laughed a little. “Lady Roseclaw is currently 135 years old, but her strength and health makes it seem likely that she will last significantly longer than the average. I, however, am considerably less gifted physically, and I am fifteen years her senior. Everyone assumes that I am younger because I’m smaller than her and my feathers haven’t greyed, but it’s hard to turn grey when your feathers are already white.”

“All the more reason to look after yourself better.” Having reached the lower back, Ixia started working her way down one leg.

Techbird’s leg twitched in Ixia’s hands before relaxing. “If you hold onto the idea that all you are is a bag of meat and organs, then yes, you would be right. However, I figured that a changeling like you would be open to the idea that it’s not so much the bag as the consciousness that it contains. After all, isn’t that somewhat like what your hive memory is like? Pif and I were working on a solution well before we left, and have continued to do so while we have been travelling. The greatest challenge has been working on those mental procedures, but if we perfect the process, not only will I be confident of being able to see this project through to its goal, but also provide this ship with vastly more computing power.” She let out a sigh as Ixia finished with that leg and she let it go limp.

Ixia switched to the other leg. “Hmmm... well, while it's the consciousness that makes a person, the way that consciousness is encapsulated affects how it behaves. Would you be the same person if you were in a changeling's body? A zebra's body? How about a diamond dog? But you are not, so you must take the greatest care with what you have. However, I sense that you are either trying to change the subject or being cagey about something, but I'm not through admonishing you for your neglect.”

“It’s been a while since I just talked. More often than not, I’m in the lab working on trying to solve problems. I’m not used to it.” She groaned as Ixia dug into a knot in her calf muscle. “Ixia, I believe that if I took you, all of your mental impulses, your memories, your personality, all of which are basically just bio-electric impulses, and copied them into another body, the you that I created would be indistinguishable from the you working on my legs so wonderfully. That is what Pif and I are working on – a way to modify my stasis pod so that while my body is inert, my mind is awake and able to continue working.”

“Oh, I would say that we're all more than just a matter of electrical impulses, but you may be sensing a truth that changelings have known for a long time – with the right infrastructure, who we are may persist forever. I suspect that Epiphany Path may be extending that knowledge to you in a different way. However, until that time comes, and I will keep emphasising this, there's no excuse to shun company and neglect yourself.”

“It’s not like I want to shun company!” Techbird protested. “How to explain.... You know, for having been a constant visitor to a changeling network for years, it’s hard to put this into mere words that make sense.” She started to laugh. “I am focusing on the puzzle, Ixia. Combine that with the fact that most are unnerved by me and my prosthetic limbs; I would rather just take myself out of the equation. Surely you must have read the media articles against me from a few years back, when I was getting the original replacements done?”

“Pfft! Mostly traditionalist griffons and anti-science ponies. Who pays attention to those? Not that I thought that this was a great idea, but I was never set against it either. I ignored all the controversy, and frankly I'm surprised that you did not do the same. You never struck me as somegriff who particularly cared too much about the uneducated opinions of others.”

“One or two I don’t care about, but when they gather up in groups to try to take down the facility I’m working at and then petition the king to ‘put me down’, I start to care. A lot.” She frowned, her emotions turning more toward sadness. “I'm an old griff, Ixia. I need to weigh my options with more care than I did in the past. If there is a chance that I can exist long enough to solve the puzzle, I need to do anything I can to make it happen. If it means I have to be alone working on the tech needed to do it, then... I just have to do that.” She sighed. “But I am lonely. When I was working in the Pif core network, I was surrounded by other team-mates constantly. It was... warming.”

Ixia paused in her work to gaze keenly at Techbird. “How much time did you spend in the network? Come to think of it, how much of these prosthetics are based on changeling synthetics? How much of you is more changeling than griffon? You sound like a drone who has become disconnected from the hive. Is all this tension caused by neglect and old age, or is it the stress of being apart from the network?”

The griffoness sighed. “I was connected pretty much constantly from a few weeks after the crystal siege, to shortly before the launch of the first satellite. Then when House Path created the directives, I went back in from just after the successful launch to a few months before the launch of Cosmic Lotus, except some time when we moved the experimental cluster to the far side of the moon. Time works differently in the network, so I can’t tell you how many years it has been.” Her emotions shifted again to longing. “But all of that time was worth it. We accelerated our progress several times over and saved about thirty years by doing it.” She looked back to Ixia. “And to answer your other question, about sixty percent of the implants are based on changeling synthetics, while the rest is Crystal Kingdom-backed magitek.”

Ixia shifted to a position in front of the griffoness and shook her head. “Congratulations, Techbird. I have seen and heard many things in my career, but you are the first example of withdrawal symptoms from being disconnected from a hive network by a non-changeling that I have ever heard of. I could suggest that you join Wandering's network, but I'm not sure that would be doing the right thing. Withdrawal is a craving for something that your body does not naturally have, so you have to get used to it. However, due to your extensive body modifications and age, I don't believe that is an option any longer. You need to find a new balance or you will not live to learn the answer to your big question. Your body is rebelling - I can feel it in every muscle of your being.”

Techbird blinked in surprise. “Rebelling? Do you mean rebelling against me... or rather... the griffon part of me?”

“Rebelling against your attempts to push it beyond its limits. Unless you are an alicorn, you must either learn to live with them, or find a way around them soon, or else you may find that you will break, and no one will be able to fix you anymore.”

The griffon’s emotions shifted again, becoming unstable, as if her mind was racing a mile a minute. She then smiled, but this was not a good smile. It seemed like she was starting to hide a developing desperation and her emotions verified that as she was tensing up again. “Do you happen to have any ideas? I’m all ears! If not, the only thing I can think of would be to fast track the stasis project, get it rolled out within the year...” Her eyes went wide and she let out a squawk before she collapsed with a groan as lethargy overcame her.

Ixia withdrew the digit that she had jabbed into a nerve bundle, causing the griffoness to cry out. “Yes, definitely withdrawal symptoms,” she murmured. She continued her massage, finding the remaining knots in Techbird's neck. Finally she put a digit under the griffon's beak and gently lifted it up so that she could look Techbird in the eye. “Not every problem has a technical solution, my dear. As a princess acquaintance of mine is fond of pointing out: seek out a friend. Share with them your hopes and needs. Work with them to bring peace of mind so that your body may endure until you reach your goal. You have a unique opportunity – please do not sabotage your own efforts.”

Techbird felt like she was on the verge of passing out. “I… I’ll talk to… Galena.”

Ixia smiled. “Excellent. Now, I believe that we're done with the massage. Can I interest you in a long soak in the hot tub? I believe your prosthetics are compatible? I have some Nightlark's Bath Salts which I believe griffons find particularly appealing. I can let you rest there for a while.”

Techbird groaned softly in response before her brain processed that she was being asked a question. “Uh... yes, please... but I can’t move.”

Ixia chuckled. “You're not the first to have that problem.” She pressed a lever with her hind hoof which released the brakes on the table leg castors, and she pushed the whole lot out the door and into the adjacent hot tub room. She pushed it onto a ramp that brought the table level with the rim of the tub, locked the brakes, and then pushed a switch. A whine under the table heralded the tipping of the table top until the griffoness almost slid off, but the changeling's horn lit up to magically ease her into the warm water rather than precipitously splash in. She held Techbird in place until the griffon could find the underwater seat to settle upon, then released her magic. “I'll go get those bath salts now if you are comfy?”

The catbird nodded a few times as she smiled, looking up at Ixia. “Don’t mind me... I’ll be here… floating.”



Wandering gazed curiously at Galena who was wide-eyed with a thousand-mile-long stare. She was sitting in the mess room, breathing hard like she had just been exercising.

Wandering went over to the changeling. “Anything the matter, Princess?”

Galena jerked, then looked up at the alicorn. “A funny thing happened today...”

Wandering smiled knowingly. “She's already pounding the network.”

“How can one griffon put such a load on a network?” she protested.

“One griffon and a tonne of Crystal Kingdom neural enhancements,” Wandering replied. “You didn't think all of her prosthetics were for just walking, did you? This is one third of the team that started the technological boom of the past century. When you get Techbird, Hype and Pif on the same project, the entire Chrome Hive quickly burns through its love reserves due to the effort.” Wandering patted her reassuringly. “You are a young queen who has never hosted direct connections before. I do not envy you. If Techbird was directly connected to me, I would most likely go into a coma; at least you have the capacity to handle it. If you let any of her activities get past you, odds are it would overload every ’ling on the ship. There is a reason why the Chrome Hive think-tanks are hoof-picked. When they were designing the ship, Pif, Hype, and Tech were held up in the lunar research base for two years, and right now I hear she’s still working, trying to crunch some numbers to figure out solutions to some issues we have been dealing with on the ship, like the periodic strikes we have been getting.”

Galena shuddered. “Tell me about it!”

Wandering grinned. “You wanted network responsibility – you got it by the trainload. Happy now?”

“A-heh! I have no idea what she’s doing!” she whimpered a little.

“Tech is modelling a four-dimensional projection of the Lotus to test out optimal shield configurations using the other ’lings as sub-processors just as she does back at the Chrome Hive. This takes a huge amount of strain off of her.”

“And puts it onto me,” Galena moaned.

“Indeed.” Wandering smiled sympathetically. “Be careful what you wish for.”

 


 

Repairs and Replacements

 

Have you got all your readings done, Starry?” Wandering asked as he looked over the bridge from his Captain’s chair.

“All complete, Captain,” she replied. “Sending the results to Navigation now.”

Playbitz got busy as he fed the data into his calculations. Wandering waited patiently, monitoring the flow of information on his screen while the pegasus triple-checked his work.

“Ready to apply course correction, sir.”

“Go ahead,” Wandering ordered.

Playbitz addressed the artificial intelligence, “CONN, rotate ship 19.8 degrees clockwise and give me a 3.7 second burn on vectoring nozzle five.”

Confirm rotation positive 19.8 degrees and course adjustment on vectoring nozzle five for 3.7 seconds,” the AI paraphrased.

“Instruction confirmed. Execute.”

A faint sound was heard as the attitude jets spun the huge ship slowly before the vectoring rocket burned for exactly the specified time and then cut out.

“Course correction completed, Captain,” Playbitz reported.

“Very good.” Wandering always liked to be on the bridge when the course adjustments were made. Despite the high degree of accuracy of their initial departure thrust, even the tiniest of deviations would result in missing the Far Star system entirely after travelling forty-two light years. Every month since they had begun their journey, Starry had taken readings that measured the deviation from their course and a correction was made. Fortunately, it only took a very small burn to achieve this for the same reason as their initial deviation – a little added up to a lot over the time they travelled. Starry’s readings had a secondary purpose too. “So, Starry, how far have we got to go yet?”

“Approximately 28.6 light-years. The visual distortion makes it a lot harder than planned, but each time I measure it, the accuracy improves.”

“With about two thirds of the trip yet to go, high precision isn’t of great importance yet. Anyway, that seems to be all the excitement for now.” Wandering turned to Playbitz. “You’re due to go into hibernation after this shift, aren’t you? Just think of all interesting stuff that you’ll be missing.”

Playbitz gave the alicorn a flat look. “Oh, yeah. The eight hour watches when nothing happens until the monthly course corrections have me flat out busy for ten minutes. Woohoo,” he replied drolly.

Wandering grinned and was about to reply when an unexpected flash of light and loud pop came from the location of the mana beacon.

“Dang! I’m never going to get used to that weird time transition when I come here!” the newcomer exclaimed.

“Des? What are you doing here? You weren’t scheduled to pay us a visit for another month or so,” Starry said.

The red-maned alicorn smiled and replied, “Special occasion, Sis.” He looked over to his other sibling sitting in the Captain’s chair. “I have some family news.”

“Well, spit it out, Destined. You’d think the Alicorn of Time would not waste it so much!” Wandering said with a smirk.

Prince Destined Path grinned back. “Congratulations, you’re an uncle again.” Turning to Starry he added, “And of course that means you’re an aunt again.”

“What?” Starry replied. “Who had the foal and why weren’t we told sooner?”

“Lucida and Hype had a son. It was a bit of a surprise to them, so they thought that they would surprise you too.”

“A surprise to them? What do you mean?”

“Well, after Lucy decided to retire and pass on the leadership of House Path to her younger daughter, Gidela, she and Hype went off on an extended vacation. Apparently they got a little carried away with their newfound freedom from responsibility and had a little accident. Or not. Lucy has often said that she wanted a son, and happily, she did this time. They named him Glide.”

“Glide Path.” Wandering chuckled. “I look forward to seeing him.”

“I brought photos and some birthday cake for the both of you.”

“Awesome!” Starry said as she crowded her brother.

Destined fished out the photos from his saddle-pack and passed them around to his siblings. Even Playbitz huddled around to take a look. Wandering chuckled at how anything novel occurring on the ship was valued by the crew even higher than Kale Robe’s dessert creations, and he made a mental note to add the photos to the ship’s daily status report later for the crew’s entertainment.

The foal was a hippogriff, as they expected, with plumage similar to his sire’s, and a pony half the colour of sand. There were picture of him by himself, with his happy parents, and with his two sisters, not to mention the rest of the extensive Path family. Destined fetched out slices of the celebration cake and passed them around, with enough for Playbitz too. They were still talking about the newborn when someone suddenly burst onto the bridge.

“Captain! Commander Bluequill and Ortzi have started fighting!” gasped Radiant Spark who promptly dashed off again.

“Oh, crap!” Wandering swore, and then galloped off in pursuit of the mare.

Startled, Destined hastened to follow. “What’s going on Wandering? Is there some sort of trouble?”

“It’s the duels!” Wandering called back over his shoulder before hurtling down a stairway.

“What duels? Is there some sort of crew rebellion that you haven’t told us about?”

He didn’t get an answer, and was chagrined to lose sight of his herd-brother and make a wrong turn. When he did catch up, it was in the mess hall/common room where it seemed the majority of the waking crew were gathered around a pair of battling griffons, shouting encouragement to one or the other of the combatants. To his astonishment, Wandering was doing the same.

“What in Tartarus is going on?” he demanded.

Without taking his eyes off the griffons, Wandering replied, “It’s the ultimate event of the Cosmic Games. Galen and Ortzi are the finalists in the freestyle unarmed combat event. I was supposed to come down here to watch it straight after doing the course correction when it was due to start. I would have missed it except for Radiant noticing that I was absent. We have a bet going on who will win.”

Destined now noticed the gauntlets each griffon was wearing to prevent injury by their talons. “Oh. So you’re not undergoing a mutiny then?”

Wandering chuckled. “No, we’re not. The Cosmic Games are just another way we found to entertain the crew in a manner in which they could all participate.”

“You had me worried there.”

“You think I’d hide crew problems from you and the family? That isn’t like a surprise foal birth!”

“No, I suppose not. So, two griffons are finalists, hey? I know that they’re both bigger than the average pony, but I would have thought Eon at least would have been in there.”

“Probably would have, but he’s in hibernation at the moment. Security isn’t a big issue, and his side job of engineering assistant is more than adequately covered by other crewmembers at the moment, so he’s taking a later segment of the journey.”

“Ah, I see.”

“That said, both of the griffons have said that they hope to have a match against him. Not that I think either has a chance. He’s been one of Blue Streak’s best students.”

Destined laughed. “I think Eon would win through sheer dread of disappointing our Warmaster!”

Wandering matched his laughter, but his attention was dragged away as the match appeared to be coming to a conclusion. Galen had Ortzi pinned, and despite the latter’s best efforts, he could not get free. The referee called a halt and Galen got up.

“Rats! Ortzi lost,” grumbled Wandering.

“What made you pick Ortzi over Commander Bluequill? It seems to me that the commander would be the clear choice.”

“Not as much as you would think. Galen is very experienced and broadly skilled, true, but I found out that this was one of Ortzi’s stronger talents. They were actually very evenly matched. Radiant disagreed with me and bet that Galen would win. So, I had to back up my opinion and take her bet, of course.”

Destined nodded. “I suppose that you did.”

Radiant Spark stepped up to Wandering at that moment. “Yeah, and now he has to pay up,” she said with a smirk.

“I’ll have the bits transferred to your account soon,” Wandering said with a sigh.

“Thanks, Captain!”

The mare walked off along with the rest of the dispersing crew, and Wandering started following suit to head back to the bridge. Destined fell in beside him and asked, “Are there more events to attend?”

“Nope. As I said, that was the ultimate one. Want to contend in the next one after crew rotation?”

“I’ll consider it. Anyway, while we’re on the subject of hidden talents, have you learned anything else of interest about your crew?”

“Well, not talents, but I did learn an interesting fact about one of our crystal ponies.”

“Oh? Which one?”

“Albite Feldspar. He and I were chatting when he brought up Dad’s first visit to the Crystal Kingdom.”

“You mean when Papa Free overdosed on love energy?”

“Yeah – when he became the ‘Alicorn of Lust’ as Mom described it.”

“Was he even born then?”

Wandering shook his head. “Nope, but that’s when his father was conceived.”

“Ooh! So his grandparents were caught up in one of the lust blasts?”

“Yep. Turns out that they were married, so the unplanned conception wasn’t too big a problem, but Albite still credits Dad with his existence because his grandparents didn’t have plans to raise any more foals.”

Destined grinned. “I’ve heard plenty of stories from that incident, but that’s a new one for me. Is that why he joined House Path?”

“One of his major reasons anyway. Apparently he got the chance to meet Dad and they had quite a chat.”

“Ha! Papa Free has never quite lived that incident down. He was probably happy to hear something positive from then. Any other news from home?”

As a matter of fact, I have a juicy bit of gossip.”

Wandering stared at his herd-brother. “Since when do you pay attention to gossip?”

“Since it involves Auntie Celestia. She has a special somepony!”

Wandering halted in surprise. “What?! After all this time, she’s finally dating again?”

Destined nodded and grinned. “Yep.”

“Okay, now I wanna hear about that!”

“Auntie’s personal secretary passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, so there was no one lined up to replace her. One of Celestia’s honour guards volunteered his time until the secretary could be replaced. He said that he was fairly familiar with the routine and would do his best to fill in until a new secretary was chosen. Auntie was intrigued by the offer, and agreed to give it a try. Turns out that while he was hardly as proficient as the former secretary, he was good enough and he was kept on because, and I quote Auntie, ‘I enjoy his company’. Eventually after no replacement was forthcoming, the guard queried Celestia about his position and he was asked to stay on in the job. However, he informed her that he felt that he could not continue as both her guard and as her secretary.”

“So, what happened?”

“She promoted him and discharged him from the Royal Guard on the spot.”

“She can do that?”

“Of course – Princess Celestia is Commander-in-Chief of the entire Equestrian military.”

“And how did he feel about that?”

“He asked her for a date!”

“Ha! I like him already. And what’s the name of our bold stallion?”

“Auric Thunderstrike – he’s a pegasus.”

“How did you find out all of this?”

“Well, their relationship has been growing over the past year, and they recently decided to take a short vacation together – anonymously of course. However, Auntie needed someone to take over Day Court in her absence, and she confided in me before leaving the responsibility in my hooves for the duration.”

“I want photos next time you visit!” Wandering demanded as they entered the bridge.

Destined chuckled. “Will do.”

“Will do what?” Starry asked curiously.

“I’ll tell you later,” Wandering replied. “Anyway, Des, do you have anything else to tell us before you go back?”

“I have the usual batch of hoof-written messages to pass onto you and the rest of the crew,” he replied as he levitated a bundle out of his saddle-pack. “I also have a piece of equipment for Techbird that she could not manufacture on board. I’ll still be coming at the next scheduled meeting. I just wanted to let you know about Glide Path in person rather than via comm.” He passed the packages to Wandering.

Starry gave Destined a hug. “Thanks for coming, Des. It’s been good seeing you again, even if briefly.”

“Same here, Sis. Anyway, gotta go. Can’t wait to tell the family about the mutiny.”

Starry blinked. “Say what?”

Wandering laughed and said, “Don’t worry, Starry – the insurrection was suppressed.”

The mare was really perplexed now. “Are you going to explain that, brother?” she asked Destined.

“Nope! Seeya!” he winked and teleported away.

Starry turned and glared at Wandering. “Talk! Now!”

“That’s ‘Talk! Now! Captain’,” replied with a laugh.

“Grrrrrr!”

Wandering decided that he had teased Starry enough and it was best to quit while he was ahead. “How do you feel about gaining a potential new uncle…?”



Starry settled down by the stream and waited patiently, appreciating the gentle sounds of the babbling brook and the breeze through the trees. Occasionally a bird would flit by or a butterfly would flutter around some flowers, but otherwise she was undisturbed. After all, that’s exactly how she had designed it. When your mother is the mistress of the night, you learned early how to shape your dreamscape. Tonight though, she hoped that she would be sharing it.

Time was fairly meaningless in this dreamscape, but she felt that she did not have to wait long before she heard hoofsteps approaching. Without turning around, Starry said, “Hello, Mom.”

Luna settled down beside her daughter and nuzzled her. “It’s good to see you again, daughter.”

Starry nuzzled her mother back, saying. “Thanks for making the effort to come see me.”

Even though distance was no barrier to Luna in the dreamscape, even the Moon Princess was subject to the tyranny of relativistic time dilation, and she found it difficult to synchronise with any of the crew of the Cosmic Lotus. Therefore she tended to restrict her visits to the most important ones.

“I thought you would want to talk more about the news that Destined brought today,” Luna replied.

“Why did Lucy keep her pregnancy a secret, Mom?”

“You do not accept the explanation that she intended it as a surprise?”

Starry shook her head. “Who keeps that kind of thing a surprise?”

Luna sighed. “In truth, there was some intention of surprising you. With the time dilation, you would only have to wait less than a quarter of the pregnancy anyway. But that certainly was not the main reason. Your sister is much older than you – far older than a griffon would normally consider having a child, or even a pony. No one was sure if this applied to a hybrid hippogriff too, but it became plain that, unlike us alicorns, they are no exception. Lucida’s pregnancy was unexpected because she thought that she was past fertility, but she was happy nonetheless. That is until she miscarried. It happened just before Destined was due to visit and pass on the news.”

Starry was shocked. Destined had not even hinted to Wandering that there had been a problem previously. The fact that the family had not informed them of Lucida’s pregnancy earlier was not an issue – they always preferred telling that kind of news in person, and Destined was their proxy. However, obviously they had chosen not to burden their voyaging children with the sad news.

“What happened after that? How is it that she now has a healthy foal?”

“Lucida was exceedingly distraught over the loss. Even though the child was unplanned, he was already loved. As the weeks passed by and Lucida remained mired in misery despite our best efforts, we came to the conclusion that she had her heart set on having another foal. She and Hypotenuse were encouraged to try again, but this time it would be with the utmost attention to the care of both mother and unborn child. Fortunately, Hype was able use her changeling abilities to imbue Lucida with enough of her love to facilitate the conception. We spent all those months worrying and caring for her and the child, none of us daring to announce the pregnancy due to fearing another miscarriage. Fortunately the foal was carried to full term and was born healthy.”

“I understand now. Do you think Glide Path has been affected by his unusual conception?”

Luna shrugged. “He has no obvious trait such as Wandering’s twisted horn, but I would not be surprised. We will all just have to wait and see what eventuates.”

“I’m happy for Lucy, whatever happens. Glide looks like an adorable foal.”

“He is indeed. I fear that he may be thoroughly spoiled.”

Starry smirked at her mother. “With you as the prime culprit, I suspect.”

Luna gave Starry a quiet smile in return. “It took me centuries to make a family, and I will do whatever it takes to make any additions feel loved. Besides, I think you turned out fairly well despite my best efforts.”

Starry giggled. “I’m sure that I must have given you some troubles.”

Luna rolled her eyes. “Some? Daughter, I can’t wait until the day that you have a foal of your own to take care of. Then I will watch and smile smugly while you desperately try to cope.”

“No you won’t. You’ll help me because you’ll want to be the best grandmother in Equestria,” Starry stated with conviction.

Luna chuckled. “Ah, you know me too well. So, is there any chance yet of making that come to pass?”

Starry shook her head. “Not while we are on the Lotus anyway. Mom – Wandering and I have been sharing a bed since early in the voyage.”

Luna raised an eyebrow. “And you are only now telling me this? How deep does this go?”

“We comfort each other and fill each other’s needs, but we are not lovers, if that is what you are thinking.”

“Are you sure of that, Starry Path?”

When her mother addressed her by her full name, it always made her pause to think. “We cannot afford to let it be more, Mom. We are siblings, even if not related by blood.”

“Sometimes I wish for simpler times when such an association would be irrelevant, but I must bend with the mores of the present. Starry, I see no fault in your present relationship, but I understand your reluctance to go further. Know this though – I will support you, whatever you decide.” She enveloped her daughter with a wing and pulled her into a warm hug.

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Anytime, dear daughter.”

The two enjoyed a long moment of quiet togetherness before Starry thought of something else that she wanted to bring up.

“So what’s this I hear about Auntie Celestia finding a special somepony?”

Luna’s face lit up with the most gleeful of grins.

 


 

Halfway (part two)



Author's Note:
If this chapter is part 2, where is part 1? The answer is that it's in my other story - Life, Love, and Death in the House of Path. If you haven't already, you may wish to read that first as the events are relevant.
Also very relevant is the Purple Point fanfic written by Alden MacManx. Important details can be read in the latest chapter of Purple Point - His Life in Space.



“We have confirmation from Equis, Captain. We have officially passed the halfway point in our journey,” Starry reported.

Wandering smiled and leaned back in his chair. “It’s becoming more real all the time, isn’t it, Starry?”

“What exactly do you mean?”

“The dream. The goal of discovering what is out there. For five years we’ve lived our lives and kept a sense of community so that we can make this extraordinary journey. Being confined to a metal cylinder hurtling through space for year after year takes real dedication. Only dreamers like us could make the trip. Now that we’re halfway to our goal, that dream has become more substantial.”

“You’re certainly waxing philosophical today,” Starry replied with a smirk.

“Well, I have to say something deep for the record, don’t I?” Wandering replied with a wink toward the chrome changeling crewperson on duty.

The ’ling grinned and made a show of recording the alicorn’s words.

“So – time for the Halfway Happening?” Starry said, referring to the name that they had given to the party that they had planned for passing the halfway point on their journey.

“Yes. I’ll have a word with Galena about reviving all those in hibernation who insisted on participating in the event.”

“It’s going to be pretty crowded for a while, isn’t it?”

“Considering that 94% of the crew want to party, I’d say so. I’ll also alert Engineering to ramp up life-support to cope. Hmm… Radiant Spark is currently in charge, but she doesn’t start her shift for another hour, so I’ll talk to her then.” He turned to the changeling. “Zinth – let Fatima know that we’ll be needing more fresh food supplies soon.”

“Aye, sir!” the ’ling replied as he put that information into the system.

At the same time, Wandering felt the mini-network light up with sub-directives to all the changelings associated with both the food production and life-support systems, as he knew that Zinth would do. Five years of familiarity with the network made this an almost automatic response because the changelings thoroughly understood their controller’s methods and desires. He got up out of his chair and turned back to Starry. “I’ll go see Princess Galena now. You’re in charge of the bridge until the end of your shift.”

“Aye, Captain,” Starry replied formally.

As Wandering headed to the hibernation department, he encountered the occasional crewmember who would give him a happy smile. The alicorn returned it, knowing that the word had already spread from the changelings to their workmates. He seriously doubted that anyone awake did not know it by now, especially Galena. Nevertheless there were details to work out in person and schedules to be made. Coordinating an event as big as this was going to take a lot of work.

He encountered Ixia apparently heading towards the mess hall for a meal break, and she seemed to be walking a little gingerly. “Are you okay, Ixia?” he asked solicitously.

The yellow changeling paused, and gave him a smirk. “Fun fact – dragons don’t tire as easily as any other species.” She then proceeded, still walking gingerly.

Wandering stared after her for a long moment before he hastened on his way. She did not have to elucidate any further. In fact it was close to too much information. Her relationship with his dracopony nephew was an open secret since he had called her his charoite gem, and he insisted that he only kept the finest jewels in his hoard. Wandering had only found that out as a consequence of his concern that the changeling crewmembers were all making stable relationships for the duration of the voyage. He admitted that he never saw that one coming though. When he asked Eon why he called her that, the dragon pony told him – ‘Because that’s what she tastes like.’ He wisely did not ask any more questions after that!

When Wandering reached the hibernation department, he was informed that Galena was in her office with Techbird. He nodded and thanked the changeling drone and knocked on Galena’s closed door. His ears swivelled forward as they picked up the sound of people hastily moving around before Galena called out, “Enter!”

Wandering entered to find Galena behind her desk with Techbird at rest in front of it, and he repressed a grin. A lot had changed since Galena had formed a sub-net with Techbird. After the initial overload of work that nearly incapacitated her, the changeling princess had reached a compromise with the elderly griffoness which throttled back the amount of stress that Techbird put on the net. However, Galena still got a heavy mental workout that had gradually improved the changeling’s capabilities.

One other unexpected consequence though was that their constant intimate cooperation had begun to spread from a mere working relationship. This had been of great benefit when Techbird had finally completed her special project – a golem body built on crystal magitek. Galena had supervised the placement of Techbird’s real body into a special pod that enabled her to stay conscious even while her life functions were slowed to near stasis. Then the network connection that they shared enabled Galena to shift Techbird’s consciousness into the golem body, freeing the griffoness from the tyranny of old age.

Their association did not end there. In fact their very intimate mental relationship had surprisingly blossomed into a deeply personal one, and the two were rarely found apart. This had been of profound psychological benefit to both, and even though they were very different people, they complemented each other. The only mystery to Wandering was that they somehow didn’t realise that he knew very well that, if they could, they’d be doing what he would be doing with Starry. The noise that he had heard was probably them scrambling to disengage from a cuddle in order to maintain the illusion of propriety.

“What can I do for you, Captain?” Galena asked ingenuously.

“I wish to go over the schedule for reviving the hibernating crew who want to attend the Halfway Happening.”

“Ah, yes – Techbird and I were just discussing that.”

I just bet you were,’ he thought with amusement. “Okay – pull up the list and let’s get started.”



Despite the time dilation problem, the crew of the Cosmic Lotus had long ago worked out a method of coordinating with Mission Control back on Equis, and a visit by Destined Path was scheduled for the beginning of Wandering’s next shift. Starry, more often than not, kept the same schedule as him so that they would both be off-duty together. Their personal bond had only strengthened over the years, although neither was inclined to explain it to any of their family as yet, other than Luna. They were both willing to procrastinate revealing that little detail until the end of the voyage, if possible.

Thus they were both on the bridge awaiting the arrival of their brother, with two extra crewmembers instead of the usual one due expecting to need them in charge of the bridge while the alicorns left the control room with Destined. Right at the scheduled time, the Alicorn of Time appeared next to the mana beacon, grumbling as always did about the temporal distortion that gave him trouble.

“Hi, sibs,” he greeted them, although a little more subdued than usual.

“Hi, Des. Are you trying to make a fashion statement, or is that the new rage these days back on Equis?” Starry asked with a smirk.

Destined raised a puzzled eyebrow. “What are you talking about, sis?”

“The yellow sequined mane-band that you’re wearing.”

“What mane-band?”

“That one,” Starry pointed out with a giggle.

Suddenly the mane-band flew off Destined and in a flash of light, changed into an odd mismatched creature.

“SURPRISE!” the unexpected visitor shouted.

“Flix? How did you get here?” Destined asked.

“Hitched a ride, Des. You told me that you couldn’t teleport anyone along with you, and you could only take small parcels. I figured you wouldn’t even notice a mane-band, so here I am!”

“Didn’t you think that your presence or chaos magic might have thrown me off?!”

“Nah – I had confidence in you, bro.”

Wandering and Starry gaped. Both had been born after Flix had been petrified, and neither had ever known him as anything other than a statue in the House Path training grounds.

“You’re really our brother?” Wandering asked.

“That’s big brother to you,” Flix replied with a grin.

Starry gasped with joy and flung her forelegs around the chimera’s neck. “Oh! I never thought I’d ever be able to hug you!”

Flix chuckled as he hugged her back. “You’re an alicorn, sis – you would have been around for however long it took for me to be freed.”

Starry pushed back a little to look into Flix’s mismatched eyes. “How do you even know us?”

“Although I was a statue, I was still aware of what was happening around me. Whenever you were in the training grounds, I could watch you. Heck! Mom visited me every day and brought you around when you were foals to introduce you to me. Even then she had faith that I would hear her words. I got to watch you both grow up.”

Wandering listened with wonder and happiness. He chuckled and said, “It’s about time you got around to fulfilling your big brother duties.”

Flix laughed. “Not sure what I can do for a century-old little brother or sister, but I promise it will be fun.”

“You sound a lot like Professor Discord,” Starry said.

Flix shrugged. “I was his prize pupil, so it’s hardly surprising.”

Destined said soberly, “Flix – you’re stalling.”

Flix’s expression drooped and he sighed.

Starry frowned and asked, “What’s wrong, Flix?”

“Destined was going to tell you the news anyway, but it’s more personal to me. Mom passed away the night after I returned.”

Starry gasped. “Momma Roseclaw died?!”

Destined replied, “Yeah. She passed away in her sleep due to old age. We reckon that she had only managed to stay alive this long because she was determined to see Flix again.”

Starry stepped up to Flix and gave him a comforting hug. “You must be devastated to lose your mother so soon after being freed from being petrified.”

“I was a wreck for the rest of the day. I’m still waking up in tears every morning. I’ve been using humour to cover up how I feel.” He looked into Starry’s eyes and gave her a lopsided smile. “Judging by the tears filling your eyes, you’re not much better off than me.”

“Make that all three of us,” Wandering said. “After we discovered that the time dilation was going to prevent Destined from ferrying people back and forth, we knew that our voyage was going to be long enough that we might never see some of our parents again. We did our best to express our feelings through letters, but it still hits hard now that it has actually happened.” He spread his wings to enfold the two of them.

Destined followed suit, and all four silently shared their loss for several moments.

Eventually they pulled apart again and spent a minute composing themselves.

Wandering eventually asked, “How is Papa Path taking it?”

Destined replied, “Pretty bad. He broke down during the funeral, and he hasn’t left his room since. It’s been nearly four days since Mama Roseclaw passed away even though it’s been less than half a day for you. We saved this news for the scheduled visit so that I could deliver the news personally. I hoped that Dad would have pulled himself together by now, but not even Papa Free has been able to get him out of his misery. If it keeps up, the family will have to find some way to intervene.”

“How is Dad’s health?” Starry asked. “He’s not an alicorn or a changeling queen, so he must be feeling his age, and his wife’s death can’t be helping.”

“Dad’s health is fine, Starry. He’s still fit as a fiddle with not a grey hair in his mane. It’s only his spirit that is depressed,” Flix replied.

Wandering said, “Don’t tell any of the other crew about her death except Eon. He deserves to know, but I don’t want to put a damper on the celebrations for everyone else. That can wait until much later. Keeping up morale is always a priority on board the Lotus.”

Destined nodded. “Of course. And since Flix has decided to hitchhike along with me, I say that we put him to work entertaining the crew.”

Flix’s grin returned. “Laughter is the best medicine, even if it has to be self-administered.”



Only the Park was big enough to contain the expanded crew numbers, but five years of plant growth and constant work by the gardeners had changed it from a plant-lined tube into a true linear parkland that gave the party a more festive air than when it was last used for such a large gathering. There were little nooks and patches of grass where couples or even small groups could sit down. Sculptured ledges further up the tube walls catered to the winged members of the crew which left more floor space for the ground-bound ones.

Flix, Destined, Wandering, and Starry entered the Park and the chimera immediately started drawing attention. Many of the crew had seen the statues in House Path’s main training grounds in Griffonia, either from having trained there or visited at some stage, and there was no mistaking the transformed hippogriff. He quickly gained a large audience as they moved deeper into the Park. Even those who had never seen the petrified son of the House Path founders were astonished by the bizarre creature that had a dragon’s right arm, a griffon’s left arm, pony and bunyip hind legs, one changeling eye, and a sea-pony’s tail. They followed him, exchanging comments and speculation.

When the crowd had grown so great that he could not move forward anymore, Flix raised his dragon arm and snapped his talons. Fireworks and streamers burst harmlessly overhead, quieting the gathering and focusing their attention on Flix.

“Greetings, Cosmic Comrades!” Flix declared with a broad smile. “While a lot of you may have heard of me, I’m sure that some of you haven’t, and so, let me introduce myself. I am Flix, son of Lord Long Path and Lady Roseclaw, student of Professor Discord, and Master of Chaos. Not to mention hero of the zebra invasion of Griffonia,” he added with exaggerated false modesty. “I’ve come here to join my sister and brother in celebrating passing the halfway point in your journey. Now I realise that you think you know how to throw a shindig, but you’ve never had one Chaos Style!”

“Flix, what are you up to?” Wandering asked suspiciously.

The chimera grinned back. “Don’t worry, Captain, O Captain – you’re gonna love this!” He snapped his claws and a giant book appeared in his other arm. On the cover they could see a stylized CL logo, and Flix started flipping through the pages. “Let’s see… yadda, yadda, yadda…. Yeah, relativistic travel is a bitch, isn’t it?” He flipped a few more pages ahead. “Bling, bling, bling… whoa! Okay now, that was creative.” He looked around until he met eyes with Purple Point. “You, sir, are a linguistic master! Good on ya for making my li’l bro blush.” He went back to the book. “Yes, yes, yes! WHOA!” His eyes went wide as he looked at Wandering. “Really? Really?

Wandering didn’t even know exactly to what Flix was referring, but he felt himself blushing anyway.

Flix chuckled and went back to the book, flipping a few more pages. Starry and Destined craned to look over Flix’s shoulder to look at the book and went cross-eyed trying to read the words on the page – if you could even call them words as they were in constant motion on the page. Flix laughed before he looked up at Galena. “Yeah, Techbird is like that.” He shut the book and it went poof in a puff of smoke, while at the same time two puppets appeared on his shoulders. One looked like an orange changeling, the other looked like a sea-pony.

“All hail Flix the Magnificent,” the changeling puppet declared.

“Flix the Prognosticator!” the sea-pony puppet added.

“Now, for the party, I have something special planned. Since this is my first party in ages and I have so much energy accumulated after all these years, it’s time I really flexed my muscles.” The book reappeared along with a bookmark, and he placed it into the midst of the pages with an exaggerated flourish. Then he threw it up into the air and snapped both his griffon talons and dragon claws. The book disappeared and at the same time everyone felt a strange, powerful magic wash over them.

“Flix… what did you do?” Starry asked with deep concern.

The chimera looked over to her. “Save point.”

“What?” was all the flustered alicorn could say.

Flix turned to the gathered group. “For the next twelve hours, there are no consequences, a-a-n-n-d ask me for something – anything! I can guess what you all want, so who is going to be the first one to tell me what they wish, hmm?”

Wandering spoke up. “Hey now! I don’t want you to do anything to my ship without my–”

Flix cut him with a raised claw. “You’re welcome!” He snapped his fingers and Starry and Wandering disappeared. He turned his attention back to the rest of the crowd. “Now there are limitations. No, I can’t send you to visit Equis for a few hours. If I did that, as soon as you appeared, you would cause an explosion that would take out most of the city you wanted to visit. I can’t bring back the dead because… just trust me – you don’t want to meet him, and there is no point in wishing for all the bits in the world because where would you spend them? But if there’s something you would do on this ship if you only could, ask me now.”

The crowd was still unsure of both Flix’s intentions and abilities, so the chimera started to help some of them out. He laid his eyes on Xanth who had one foreleg around ColdFire. “You! Don’t be shy! Let me help your relationship along.” He snapped his talons and Xanth transformed into a pegasus.

ColdFire took in Xanth’s new look and then turned back to Flix. “Xanth has transformed into that pegasus form before for me, so what’s so great about this?”

“Umm, no, Coldy. This is different,” Xanth said with wonder in his voice.

“Huh? Why?” the puzzled mare asked.

“I’m a pony. I mean – I’m not a changeling in pony form – I’m a real pegasus pony! This… is so weird.”

ColdFire’s mouth went round in surprise as she said, “Oh.” Then her face split in a grin. “Oh! So, two wishes for the price of one! Thanks, Flix!” She grabbed the bemused new pegasus and started dragging him away from the crowd and out of the Park.

“Two happy customers!” Flix declared. “Who’s next?”

“Umm… you said anything, right?” asked Albite Feldspar.

“You heard right, friend,” Flix assured him.

“I know this might seem silly, but I have been dying to taste my favourite meal from Apple Bee’s restaurant near my home.”

“A stallion of simple pleasures. One deluxe feast for you, my friend!”

A tray loaded with food appeared hovering in front of Albite. The crystal stallion grinned in delight, took the tray in his mouth, and trotted away to enjoy his meal.

Flix looked around and spotted Techbird’s Griffish golem form. Their eyes met and he smiled. “Hello, Tech – long time, no see.”

The crystalline magitek construct stepped up and cocked her head. “It really is you, Flix. You are a most unlikely visitor.”

“That sounds just like me,” Flix agreed. “It’s good to see that you’re still pushing the boundaries of science.”

“While you’re still abusing reality,” she replied with a chuckle.

Flix grinned at that. “Yep. So what can I do for you, Tech? Free wishes for everyone, even golems.”

Techbird smiled. “I only have one wish, and that’s to find the answer to my Question.”

“And I am certain that you will. But I see the years have not been kind, and you have had to resort to extreme measures to ensure that you do find your answer, which sadly, I cannot provide. So, I’m going to make a wish on your behalf.” He snapped his talons.

Techbird gasped, which in itself was impossible. While the golem body could mimic her natural griffon form, it did not need to actually breathe or eat, nor perform most bodily functions. Basically it was a vehicle for her mind while her real body reposed in a pod. But now she started breathing, and her crude crystalline form smoothed out and her colours brightened. When the magic died down, the occupants of the Park were gazing at the griffon equivalent of a crystal pony – a living being.

“What have you done?!” Techbird demanded even as she looked over her new form.

“Just a few improvements – all the benefits of both your natural body plus those of your golem body, minus the drawbacks. I’m certain that a certain changeling princess will appreciate them.”

Techbird quickly discovered that her new body could also blush, but she turned to meet Galena’s eyes, and the changeling nodded in approval.

The crowd finally caught on that even the most unusual wishes could be granted, and they started clamouring for the attention of their bizarre visitor. Flix’s smile grew as he started flexing his power and granted many diverse wishes. Finally he was left with a few indecisive individuals, and one troubled unicorn.

“So, Point, why don’t you make your wish?”

Purple Point frowned at the chimera. “Some things are beyond even you.”

“Are you sure of that, my eloquent friend? You are asking for the ridiculous, which is the essence of Chaos.”

“If you already know, then why don’t you just do it?” Point challenged.

“You just had to ask,” Flix replied with a knowing smile, and he snapped his talons.

A red-orange pegasus with white wings, mane and tail appeared beside Purple Point. The stallion stared at her, and she looked back in shock.

“Sunrise Flight?” gasped Point.

“Radiance, what’s happening?” the mare asked.

Purple Point turned to Flix. “Is this some sort of bad joke?”

Flix’s smile never wavered. “No, Purple Point, or should I say Radiance Glow? This is really your sister whose soul you have been carrying around with you for years. About time for a sibling reunion, don’t you think?” *

Sunrise put a hesitant hoof on Point’s shoulder. “It’s really me, Radiance. I don’t know how he did it, but I’m really here in person.”

Point looked at her in wonder. “Sister…”

“Why don’t you introduce me to your friends?”

A smile lit up the stallion’s face.



Wandering stared at Starry in surprise. “Well, that’s new,” he said in a voice that was an octave and a half higher than normal.

Starry looked at herself and replied in a mellow baritone, “You’re telling me!”

“You wished for that?” Wandering asked, her eyebrow raised questioningly.

“I think we were both curious,” the stallion replied. “After all, you’ve enjoyed being a mare before, even if it was as a zebra.”

“And you wanted to know what the other side was like?”

Starry smirked. “So, I have a kinky mind. Are you going to do something about it?”

Wandering hesitated. She was more than a little intrigued by the idea, but something was bothering her. “If Flix can do this to us, what is he doing with the rest of the crew?”

Starry reached up to put one hoof gently on Wandering’s cheek. “He’s really like Professor Discord. You know that while some of his actions are a little crazy, they’re never harmful. Trust our brother.” He then gave her a gentle kiss.

Wandering smiled and said, “You’re right – I don’t believe Flix would do any harm. Let him and the rest of the crew have a little fun.” She then pulled Starry to herself and kissed him passionately, and the stallion responded in kind.

It was not for a couple more hours that the gender-swapped couple rejoined the party and braved the curious questions of the crew.



The Halcyon III colony was still fairly new, but it at least had a properly established base near its spaceport. The temporary initial structure had been replaced by a permanent multi-purpose building that served as both the seat of government for the fledgling colony, and as the base for several essential services. Two such services were interstellar communications and port control which included monitoring the planetary neighbourhood. Since neither were especially busy at most times, they were both located in the same room along with several other minor services, with just two slightly bored staff members watching the equipment.

An alert sounded, and the fox morph next to the device that had issued it peered at the screen.

“That’s odd. Are you aware of any unscheduled starships coming here, Raskar?”

The Rakshani turned around and peered at the vixen’s station. “No, there hasn’t been any notification, nor any emergency alerts. Not that anyone should be any all the way out here on the extreme frontier anyway. What are you seeing?”

“The geosat is picking up a mid-size ship of unknown configuration heading our way. Looks like it’s on a course for a low orbit.”

“I suppose we’ll find out soon. I’ll try to open communications with them.” He pressed a couple of switches. “This is Halcyon Three Colony Central Control calling incoming starship. Please respond.”

Raskar waited for a long moment before trying again with the same result. He frowned and changed frequencies before attempting to make contact once more, but again there was no response.

“It’s no use – either they have equipment problems, or they’re ignoring us.”

“That’s very strange. Scans from the geosat are not showing any signs of damage. Still can’t identify the origin of the ship either. Must be a new– what the hell?!

The Rakshani tensed up. “What’s wrong, Alicia?”

“They fired on the geosat! It’s offline – probably destroyed.”

“Merciful gods!” Raskar swore. “I think we’re under attack by pirates!”

“What pirates go to the trouble and expense of coming all the way out here just to steal farm equipment and construction supplies?” she asked.

Raskar never got the chance to respond.



“The link to the Halcyon Three colony went down an hour ago,” Ben Kumar reported to his supervisor.

The Caitian female frowned and asked, “I assume that you have checked the relays?”

“I did. Pings come back from them all. Only the satellite orbiting Halcyon Three failed to respond.”

M'Lisseena nodded. “If their geosat is experiencing problems, we need to give them a day to try to rectify the situation. Report back to me tomorrow if the issue isn’t resolved.”

“Okay, boss,” Ben replied and headed back to his station.

The next day, he was back in M'Lisseena’s office.

“Twenty-four hours and still not a peep from Halcyon Three.”

The Caitian grew concerned. “Too many failsafes for that to happen. We’re going to have to send out an inspector to check out the situation. I’m bumping this up to the next level.” She tapped the screen in front of her to get in touch with her superior.



“Contact with the inspector’s ship was lost minutes after arriving at Halcyon Three,” the Director of Federation Colony Services informed Star Fleet Command. We request an immediate investigation of this situation.”

The Commandant nodded gravely. “I will assign a ship to check it out and report back to you as soon as possible.”

“Thank you. Hopefully this isn’t as bad as it seems.”

“Indeed. I will keep you informed.” The Commandant closed the connection and he frowned. Unlike the Director, he did not have as nearly an optimistic feeling about the situation. He queried his computer for ships in that sector, and then sent out a subspace signal. His screen soon lit up showing the face of bear morph.

“Captain Yuri Ursa, here. What can I do for you, sir?”

“Captain, you are to proceed immediately for the Halcyon Three system and investigate the reason for the cessation of all communications from it and from the Star Corps colony inspector’s ship that went to check out the problem. Proceed with caution – this smells bad to me.”

“Understood, sir. We are approximately seven hours from Halcyon at standard warp speed. I will report as soon as possible.”

“Very good. Star Fleet Command out.”



The Betelgeuse was a medium-sized ship – fast, armed and armoured to deal with pirate raiders and other dangerous situations. Even so, Halcyon Three’s remoteness meant a lengthy wait until they arrived at the star system with shields at the ready. Under Yellow Alert conditions, they cautiously approached the planet, every sensor active and straining for the least bit of information. They did not care if this made them conspicuous, only concerned that they would not miss a thing. They quickly found the missing inspector’s ship, and realised that it was a derelict with massive damage.

“Red Alert!” Captain Ursa declared. “Hostiles may still be in the area. Everyone on your toes!”

The entire bridge crew grew tense as they worked every possible technique to determine what had happened to the inspector’s ship, and who had perpetrated it. Then one of the crew spotted something.

“Captain! An unknown ship in orbit around the planet has just cleared the horizon. I think they have spotted us too as they have altered course.”

“Phaser cannons at the ready. Shields to maximum. Helm – ready evasive manoeuvres!” Ursa growled.

“The ship is firing! Some sort of plasma discharge I think!”

The helmsman pushed the ship down and to the left, evading the blast.

“Return fire!” the captain ordered.

Phaser cannons spat out beams of terrible power. Unlike their enemy’s weapon, the beams travelled at light speed and struck their target.

“Their shields stopped most of the beams, but some minor damage to their armour,” reported the Weapons Officer.

“Keep firing!”

The enemy fired again, but the distance between the two ships had decreased rapidly and the helmsman barely managed to avoid the blast.

“What is the nature of that weapon they’re using?” demanded Ursa.

“Unknown, sir! The only thing registering on our instruments is energy in the visible spectrum, and that appears to only be a side-effect,” the ermine morph at the science station reported.

“How can that be? It has to register somehow!”

The enemy ship took another hit, but continued approaching anyway.

“Back off,” ordered Ursa. “I don’t want that ship any closer.”

The helmsman started to comply just as the enemy ship fired again. This time they were too close to dodge.

“Brace for impact!” the captain shouted.

Although they were expecting a shudder as the shields absorbed and deflected the beam, they were shocked to see it pass though as if the shields did not exist. The beam struck the Federation ship with fury, blasting away the hull and everything underneath it. The hapless ship spun, hurling its crew around as power failed to several systems including the inertial dampers. Emergency power quickly was restored to the bridge, but several of its staff were either unconscious or groaning in pain after being thrown from their stations.

Captain Ursa fared better as he was partially encapsulated by his command chair. “Helm – get us out of here! Maximum warp!”

The helmsman had been thrown into his control console, so although he was in a lot of pain, he was both functional and able to respond to the command. He brought the warp engines online, but just as he was about to execute the command to go to warp, they were struck again. One of the warp engines went offline, reduced to scrap as more of the ship was torn apart, and survivors were either killed or more seriously injured. Miraculously, power remained for the remaining warp engine and the Betelgeuse slipped into hyperspace.

There were several tense moments on the bridge as they waited to see if the enemy pursued them. In their crippled condition, there was little doubt in their minds that they could not outrun their foe’s ship if it had similar FTL capability, but eventually they came to the conclusion that they had escaped.

“Damage report!” Ursa barked.

“Port warp engine destroyed,” the Systems Engineer reported. “Main engineering still online but main power couplings are gone. Power rerouted through secondary circuits. Life support lost to decks three to seven. Casualty reports starting to come in, but initial numbers suggest that we have lost a third of the crew. Communications offline, but we should be able to get backups online soon.”

“Let me know as soon as we can contact Star Fleet headquarters,” the captain commanded. “Weapons Officer – I want to know why our shields failed.”

“They didn’t, sir.”

“Don’t tell me that! This ship has been badly crippled and I want to know why!”

“Sir, the instruments tell me that the shields were functioning perfectly, both before and after the first hit. It’s the weapon that they used against us; it did not react at all to the shields.”

“That’s not physically possible!”

“I know, sir, but the evidence speaks for itself. I have complete recordings of the event, for all the good it may do. I have no idea as to the nature of that energy used against us.”

Ursa scowled. Star Fleet was not going to like what they had paid so dearly to learn. Worse yet, he was going to have to explain to the families of his deceased crew members how a Federation battlecruiser had failed to protect the lives of their loved ones.

The Betelgeuse was halfway home before communications was restored and the bad news passed on. Star Fleet Command immediately alerted the entire fleet and issued instructions for all shipping to evacuate the sector. An emergency meeting of the Federation Council was held, and after it was concluded, the President made a Federation-wide broadcast.

Kyran Judd, the Voxxan Head of State of the Stellar Federation, gazed gravely at the camera. “My fellow citizens, it has come to our attention that an unknown enemy has chosen to attack a colony world and two ships sent to investigate why it had ceased communicating with us. Recordings of the active scans taken during battle by the Federation battlecruiser, Betelgeuse, revealed that the Halcyon Three colony has been wiped out, along with a Star Corps’ Colony Service ship. The Betelgeuse was heavily damaged but managed to return to warn us of the danger. The nature of the attack and the weapon used against us have led us to one terrible conclusion – we may be in a state of war with an enemy who has no compunction against killing us on sight. May our deities preserve us.”

 


 

Chaos and Organisation

 

Just one last crewmember was left to be granted a wish – a male griffon with fiery-coloured plumage and fur markings. Brimstone was Eon’s lieutenant while aboard the ship but had also trained as a planetary scout if their destination warranted it.

Flix grinned at Brimstone. “Ah – the student of the student of the master; more laidback than the rest, but also so very, very intense. Don't think I didn't notice when you snuck out to train next to my statue – always so focused on getting better once you were knocked down a peg. Why not really relax for a few hours?” Flix snapped his talons and two griffon hens appeared at Brimstone’s sides, crooning and nuzzling him.

“Nah, I'm okay,” the griffon said with a smile as he ruffled the head feathers of one of the hens. “Thanks though.”

Flix smirked. “It appears that my talons are on the fritz again.” He snapped them a second time and the griffon now had a zebra on one side and an earth pony on the other… both well-hung stallions.

Brimstone licked his beak. “This is more like it! Thanks!” He turned and left with his wings around his new companions. He waved to Eon as he passed. “Be back in a few hours, Teach!”

Destined had been watching all the wishes being fulfilled, and he sidled up to Flix to satisfy his curiosity. “Why is it that you seem to want to get nearly everyone laid?”

Flix chuckled. “It’s not my fault that's what's on everyone’s mind.”

“Or the first thing that occurs to them is some guilty fantasy before you give them a chance to think of something that they might want more?”

The chimera’s grin widened. “I promised a wish and fun – I never said that it wasn’t fun for me too.”

“Just like Professor Discord – he never let an opportunity for some harmless mischief go by.”

“Ah, I’m not quite at his level, but it’s not mere mischief anyway. Look at me – do you think I wanted to emulate my teacher with these mismatched limbs? No – I got them because I forced chaos to do something precise again and again. That’s not how it’s supposed to work! It has to be free-wheeling and spontaneous. That’s a major reason why the first thing that crosses the mind of the crew is impulsive rather than considered. But that’s the beauty of it too! They usually end up enjoying something that they normally would not even consider asking.”

Destined was both amused and impressed by his brother’s enthusiasm. “So, are you done?” he asked curiously.

Flix grinned. “I gave them twelve hours, and I’m sticking around to enjoy it. Besides, some might be bold enough to ask for something more. Take that crystal pony who just asked for a special meal for example – what’s the bet he regrets not thinking up something more long-lasting?”

“And if he does ask?”

“If it amuses me, why not? I never said anything about being limited to just one wish.”

“Ha! I suppose not.”

“What about you, Des? Got something you want to wish for? Not limiting myself to just the Lotus crew either.”

Destined shook his head. “Nah – my sex life is just fine, thanks. I have a great husband, two fantastic children, and a career that I enjoy. Aside from wishing that Mama Roseclaw hadn’t passed away, I really don’t have anything I really want personally.”

Flix pouted for a moment. “That’s too bad. Oh well – no sense wasting the opportunity.” He snapped his claws and disappeared.

“What did you mean by… that…?” Destined began before his higher pitched voice threw him off. With some trepidation, he craned his neck around to look at himself. … Herself. She groaned. “FLIX!” she yelled in a musical mezzo-soprano voice. She groaned again. ‘I even sound extra girly,’ she thought, not daring to speak again.

She fumed for a long moment before her thoughts turned to her husband. He had used a gender-swap spell twice in order to bear them a daughter and a son, but Destined had never done the same. Then again Silk always said he preferred it that way. Still, just this once while he was a she…? Destined didn’t think that Flix was going to undo the spell, so she was stuck this way for the remainder of the twelve hours – why not enjoy it? Destined sighed and shook her head. “Dammit, Flix – you win,” she said begrudgingly, wincing again at how melodically beautiful her voice was now. She powered up her horn, got a fix on the mana beacon back in Griffonia, and teleported home.

The chimera’s laugh was all that was left in her wake.



The Halfway Happening might have been delayed briefly, but it certainly was not cancelled. Many of those who had left earlier rejoined the party a little later. Wandering and Starry caused a bit of a stir when they revealed the nature of their relationship, but not nearly as much if half the crew had not also had their hidden fantasies revealed.

Starry said to Wandering, “What’s the chances that Flix knew that exposing our relationship under these conditions would take most of the controversy out of it?”

Wandering thought about it for a moment. She eventually nodded before replying, “I believe that you’re right. Mama Roseclaw always said that Flix was precocious, and spending a century merely as an observer probably sharpened his perceptions. He saw right through us, didn’t he?”

“Yep. I’m going to look forward to spending more time with our long-absent brother.”

They did have more chances to talk with Flix despite the chimera being interrupted occasionally by various crew members. The two on the bridge were relieved and given their wishes too. However, Flix did not provide all the entertainment. The planned events still went ahead, and he joined in and enjoyed himself as much as any of the crew. Eventually a number of them drifted off to bed to get a few hours of sleep.

When Wandering announced that she and Starry were going to do the same, Flix snapped his talons and he was suddenly clad in a Cosmic Lotus uniform with a ridiculous number of rank stripes on his sleeve and enough ribbons and medals pinned to his left side to be mistaken for multi-hued scale armour. He wobbled for a moment, eventually finding his balance by thrusting his right arm and leg straight out to the side to regain his balance. He then saluted Wandering and said, “Worry not, Captain! Your ship is good claws. Admiral Flix is on the job!” Unfortunately, saluting caused him to lose his precarious balance, and desperate flailing with his limbs was to no avail as he unceremoniously crashed to the floor. Wandering smirked. “You are supposed to hold the salute until your subordinate officer returns it, Admiral Flix.”

Flix bounced back up, now with a number of heavy trophies attached to the right side of his uniform. He beamed as he shot a snappy salute. “No fun in that, rule follower!” Wandering noted that the largest trophy was a plaque surrounded by golden filigree. It read "Zeroth Semi-Annual Equestrian Spelling Bee: Best Spelled Word". And in bold beneath that "FLIXIBILITY". Wandering rolled his eyes and begrudgingly returned the salute. “Didn’t your yacht end up landlocked in a lake?”

“Aye! But she was safely moored, right?”

Wandering realised he was never going to win this argument. “Goodnight, Admiral.”

Flix winked and a large book appeared in front of him with a quill hovering at the ready. “Captain’s log… stardate: half past two. Ship’s Commander incapacitated… by extreme lethargy… I suspect… too much nookie…. Crew in high spirits… and in the punch too…. I must… boldly go… to the bathroom…. End log.” The book snapped shut, and both it and Flix then disappeared.



Destined Path returned to the Cosmic Lotus shortly before Flix’s twelve hour wishes were due to expire, startling the crew on watch. They had not been aware that Destined had left the ship, but that was not nearly as surprising as her present gender.

The alicorn gave them a wink and a sexy swish of her tail and said, “Better get a good look, guys – this is the last time you’ll see me as a mare.”

She left the stunned stallions and headed for the Park, believing that the party would still be going there. Her guess proved correct as she found a significant number of the crew present while musicians were playing a slow dance tune. It was his turn to be surprised when he recognised two of the couples as gender-swapped versions of Wandering and Starry, and by the intimacy of their dancing, there was far more to their story than a sex-change. He waited for the music to end and the two wandered off the dance area before he moved to join them.

They both spotted Destined at the same time and gaped in surprise before Wandering gave a girlish giggle. “I don’t believe this – our gay brother wished to be a mare?”

Destined rolled her eyes. “Don’t jump to conclusions. This was Flix’s idea of a joke on me after I commented on all the impulsive naughty ideas that the crew had wished for. Anyway, look who’s talking! Are you going to tell me that you two weren’t having happy adult fun times together as the opposite sex?”

Starry chuckled and replied, “No, but we were having those even before Flix did this to us.”

Destined grinned. “I knew it! The way you were dancing together was too intimate for mere siblings. How long have you been an item? And why haven’t you told me about this sooner?”

“We’ve been together almost as long as the voyage has been going,” Wandering replied. “We’ve just kept it a secret because we did not want to cause controversy. Only Auntie Luna knows about us, but now the whole crew is aware, or soon will be.”

“Want me to tell our parents?” Destined asked.

“Might as well. This experience has only solidified our feelings for one another, and whatever our parents think of it won’t change our minds. They deserve to know at least.”

“Okay, I’ll do that. So, how did like swapping gender roles?”

Wandering grinned. “I’ve been a mare before, and I enjoyed being one again, especially with Starry.”

Destined was surprised. “You have? You have to tell me more later. What about you, Starry?”

“Well, I have certainly gained a huge insight into masculinity, but I still have no idea how males put up with this thing between their legs every hour of the day. It’s so demanding!”

Both Wandering and Destined laughed uproariously. “You get used to it eventually,” Destined replied, “Although sometimes we still have to tolerate it at the most inconvenient of moments. But did you enjoy using it?”

Starry grinned. “Buck, yeah! I’m still going to give Flix a kick in the rump for foisting it upon us without asking, but I’ll give him a kiss after he turns us back for helping us with our relationship.”

“Seems he’s been doing that a lot in his own chaotic way,” Wandering added. “Anyway, while we’re on the subject, I believe you left the ship – so what did Silk think of the new you?”

Destined blushed. “He laughed his head off for several minutes. Flix’s spell made me extra girly, and he just couldn’t stop breaking up every time I opened my mouth.”

Starry nodded. “I noticed that. In fact I think it’s playing on my masculine feelings too, but I’ve been repressing them.”

Destined sighed. “Yeah, well Silk eventually got it out of his system and then promptly dragged me off to our bedroom.”

“He wanted to have sex with you that readily despite your change of gender?” Wandering asked.

“Silk has always been bisexual – he just has a strong leaning towards preferring stallions.”

“But what about you? I’m pretty sure that you’re not bisexual.”

“Well, I think that Flix might have influenced my sexual preferences a bit, but even so, Silk twice became a mare for over a year to bear and nurse our two foals, so how could I do less than giving him the opportunity to reverse the roles for once?”

Starry frowned and poked Destined with a hoof. “That’s a load of horse-apples. No mare just has sex just because she thinks it’s her turn,” he said gruffly. “Are you seriously going to tell me that you have spent the last twelve hours, or should I say two days in your time, trying to make up for Silk’s supposed sacrifice?”

Destined blushed fiercely, started to say something, stopped, tried again, and then sighed. “You’re right. When we got to the bedroom, Silk stopped and asked me if I wanted to have sex. I found myself thrilled to be asked, and said yes. Then he made love to me in a way that I never experienced before.”

“You’re feeling guilty for enjoying being a mare for him, aren’t you?”

Destined nodded. “Don’t get me wrong – I still prefer being a stallion, but I never thought of myself of being capable of feeling that way for him as a mare.”

“He loves you, and you love him,” Starry declared. “Sex or gender has little to do with that, so stop feeling that way and remember the experience with joy.” He turned toward Wandering and smiled lovingly. “This gender swap has given me some valuable insights that I will long cherish. I look forward to being a mare again, but I enjoyed my time as a stallion, and I value the new perspective it has given me.”

With a flash and the bang of party poppers, Flix suddenly appeared next to them. “Did I hear someone say that they look forward to being a mare again? Maybe I should give you three an extra twelve hours?”

FLIX!” all three growled at him simultaneously.

The chimera chuckled. “Just kidding! The twelve hours are almost up. Naughty of you to stretch it out for over two days, Des!”

“As if you didn’t know I would,” Destined pouted adorably.

Flix chuckled. “Guilty as charged.” He held up a camera and took a picture before Destined could react. “That’s one for the family photo album!”

“What?!” Destined squawked. “Gimme that camera!” The alicorn mare tried to grab the camera in her magic, only to see it disappear.

“I’ll send you an eight by ten glossy print later,” Flix said smugly.

Destined groaned and face-hoofed.

Flix then spoke up, his voice magically projecting throughout the ship. “Magic wishes are about to expire in three… two… one…”

“Wait a moment!” yelped someone above them.

“Zero!” Flix concluded, and simultaneous flashes of magic occurred everywhere in the ship.

Wandering, Starry, and Destined were back to their original genders, but they did not have time to appreciate it before a unicorn mare heavily landed on the grass beside them.

“Oof! Give a girl a bit more warning next time, Flix,” Golden Gleam grumbled before getting back onto her hooves.

“What just happened?” Destined asked.

“Gleam wished to find out what it was like be a pegasus,” Starry explained.

“And I was in mid-flight when the wish ended,” Gleam complained.

“Did you at least enjoy being able to fly?” Destined asked.

“Oh, definitely, but how hornless ponies deal without telekinesis I’ll never understand. Handling things with just my hooves was a pain in the plot!” She then trotted away.

Wandering said, “Well, I suppose I had better call this party to a close and get things organised for the next full shift. First I had better find out…” He trailed off as Techbird entered the Park, still in the enhanced crystal-griffon form that Flix had given her. “I thought all the wishes had expired, Flix?” he asked as she walked up to join the group.

“I was about to ask the same thing,” Techbird said. “Galena and I had been waiting for this moment with a bit of regret. So what’s up, Flix? Don’t tease this old bird.”

Flix smiled slyly. “What wish did you make, Tech?”

The griffon frowned. “As I recall, I didn’t actually make a wish.”

Flix spread his forelegs expansively. “There you go.”

“What are you talking about?” Techbird demanded.

“You did not make a wish, so it cannot expire. I gifted you one instead, and I didn’t limit myself.”

Techbird’s crystal beak gaped in shock. “You mean – I get to stay this way?”

Flix grinned at the reaction to his surprise. “Yep. You have a whole new fresh lifetime ahead of you, Tech. Time enough to discover your Answer and perhaps get to enjoy your relationship with a certain changeling princess too.”

Techbird suddenly threw her arms around Flix and hugged him fiercely. “Thank you! Thank you so much!”

“You’re… welcome,” he gasped.

Techbird released the chimera, allowing him to breathe once more. “Oops! Sorry. I… I have someone to tell the good news.” The crystal griffon bounded away with the joy and vigour of youth.

“Sneaky!” Starry said admiringly.

“Totally worth the bruised ribs,” Flix said smugly.

“Any more surprises?” Wandering asked.

Flix smirked. “Maybe.”

“You’re not going to tell me, are you?”

“Nope, but why don’t you ask them?” he replied, pointing with his dragon talon.

They looked to see Purple Point approaching down the Park’s winding path with his sister, Sunrise Flight, both of them looking worried.

“Wait a minute,” Destined said as the pair stopped by the group. “I clearly remember Point challenging you to grant his unspoken wish, so why is his sister still in corporeal form?”

Purple Point said, “I don’t know either, but I’ve come to beg you to not send her back.”

Flix smiled, but without a trace of mockery on his face. “Do you really think I would be that cruel? I swore that no one would come to harm by the use of my chaos powers. I could not think of anything more terrible than to send your sister’s soul back within you, so you’re stuck with her now. Cancellation of your wish is null and void.”

Purple Point looked incredulous, not daring to believe, but Sunrise Flight came over and kissed Flix on the cheek. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Radiance does too when he gets over the shock.” She turned to Wandering and asked, “I don’t suppose you have a use for another crew member, Captain?”

Wandering smiled reassuringly at the pegasus mare. “I’m sure we can find a place for you, Sunrise. Welcome aboard!”

“Thank you, Captain!” Sunrise turned and hugged her brother. “Come on, Radiance – we have to start looking for a job for me.”

Purple Point was gaping in shock, but he shook himself, gave her a goofy grin and said, “&*#%!”

Sunrise giggled before leading him away.

Wandering blinked in surprise as the siblings departed. “I haven’t heard that one before.” He turned back to Flix. “Next you’re going to tell me that you plan to join the crew.”

The chimera laughed. “Nah! I have so many other things planned now that I’m no longer a statue. I figure you’re going to have enough chaos all by yourself.”

“What do you mean by that?” the alicorn asked with narrowed eyes.

Flix just winked, snapped his talons, and disappeared.

Starry said, “Don’t let him push your buttons, Wandering. He may be just trying to stir you up.”

“Whatever the case,” Destined said, “I need to get back to Equis now that I’m back to normal. I have a Day Court session to hold, and at least the petitioners won’t wonder why there’s a new princess in charge.”

Wandering and Starry gave their brother a hug.

“Give our love to the family, Des,” Starry said.

“Of course I will. Seeya next scheduled visit!” Destined’s horn flared and a moment later he was gone.

“Where do you suppose Flix went?” Starry asked. “I saw no ribbon on Des this time.”

Wandering snorted. “Turned himself into a flea on his back for all I know. Anyway, time to get this ship back to normal operating routine.”

Starry giggled. “Somehow I don’t think this ship will ever be quite normal again!”



“You’re what?!” Wandering blurted out from behind his office desk.

Coldfire calmly replied, “Pregnant. With foal. Awaiting the tapping of little hooves.”

“I know what pregnant means – how did that happen?” He immediately held up a hoof to forestall another smart-ass reply. “And I don’t want to hear a lecture on reproduction. You know that there’s a ban on having foals on this voyage. We are not equipped to deal with them, and it wouldn’t be fair to the foal, growing up knowing nothing but the inside of a starship.”

“I know, but the opportunity was only there for a short time, and we both wanted it.”

“Opportunity? Who’s the sire?”

Coldfire gave him an annoyed look. “Xanth, of course! What did you think I meant by the opportunity? He was a real pegasus for only twelve hours, so it had to be done then. What do you think would be the chances of that happening again?”

“And you just happened to be in heat at that precise time?”

“I wasn’t up until Xanth was transformed. I guess Flix knew what I wanted most.”

Wandering groaned and face-hoofed. “Why did Flix have to do that? No, don’t answer – it’s because it was amusing and would cause chaos. At least I can assure you that you will almost certainly have a perfect pregnancy and birth. The way his magic works, the more good-natured chaos it causes, the more effective it is. And that brings me back to the problem at hoof. So – it’s plain that you two are deeply in love if you wanted a pegasus foal so badly that you could not wait until the end of the voyage when we return home where you could get a changeling compatibility spell and have a hybrid child, but did you consider the consequences first?”

“We were… kind of caught up in the moment,” Coldfire admitted.

“I thought as much. It seems to me that our options are limited, and none of them are perfect. We can’t return you to Equis, and letting the pregnancy come to term leaves us with the problem of dealing with a foal. I’m not sure if the hibernation system would be suitable for an infant, and the same might apply to pregnant mares.” Wandering sighed. “I’ve got some consultation and a lot of thinking to do, so you can go back to work for now.”

Coldfire got to her hooves and started to move toward the door, but she stopped when the alicorn spoke up once more.

“And before I forget – congratulations to both of you. I hope that your child will bring you the happiness that you deserve.”

Coldfire smiled. “Thank you, Captain. That means a lot to me.”



“This special council is called to order,” Federation Senator Maya Barr declared as she took her place at the head of the conference table. The bear morph waited for quiet before continuing. “Gentlebeings, I realise that we have given you a near-impossible task to achieve in too little time, but due to the nature of the threat, I need to know whatever conclusions that you have been able to derive from the Halcyon incident as soon as possible. Shir Redrock – has the Science Corps identified the mysterious energy yet?”

The chakat that had been addressed shook hir head. “Madame Senator, my team copied the records of every sensor aboard the Betelgeuse, and I do mean every sensor. Even things that should have had no chance of interacting with that unknown energy such as an oil-pressure monitor on some obscure piece of equipment. We were that desperate for data, and yet we still came up empty. The energy blast failed to trigger any sensor directly with the exception of visible light, and we came to the same conclusion as the Betelgeuse’s crew – it’s a side-effect of no consequence. Aside from the images gleaned from the visual logs, only the energy blast’s reactions with whatever matter that it struck were recorded. Whatever it is though, it isn’t electromagnetic.”

“Shir Redrock, are you telling me that we have no way of detecting the use of that energy?”

“I’m afraid so, at least directly. Our examination of the damage done to the ship shows distinctive effects on the molecular structure of materials that is similar to known outcomes caused by energy weapons. However, these do not enable us to detect the enemy in any fashion. There is still a chance that a ship equipped with specialised sensors, both tried and experimental, might be able to learn more about the energy, or at least be able to detect the process that produces the visible light portion.”

“That would involve sending a ship into considerable danger, would it not?”

“I’m afraid so, ma’am.”

Senator Barr turned to the Star Fleet officer on her right. “Admiral Tirarsk, what are your thoughts on this?”

The male Rakshani gravely returned her gaze. “Madam Senator, it is Star Fleet’s responsibility to the Federation to defend it against all threats. Just because it is dangerous does not mean that it should not be done. Having said that though, my own analysts have been assessing data on the alien threat and we have drawn some initial conclusions. First – whatever their superiority in firepower, they showed none of that with their starship’s manoeuvring capabilities. We believe their warp drive is vastly inferior also, with the caveat that this is based solely on this single encounter. However, like Shir Redrock, we also want more data, so we are proposing to despatch four of fastest and most manoeuvrable fighters to investigate. If they find the alien threat still present, they can dodge and weave while trying to disable the enemy ship and maybe even bring it back for analysis.”

“The report showed that phasers had limited effect upon the enemy ship.”

“We have far more weapons at our disposal than just phasers, Madam Senator. If the circumstances favour us, we may get the chance to try them all out on their ship.”

“Capturing it would be of far greater value though.”

“Of course, but until we have their measure, that is by far the most risky alternative.”

Barr frowned but had to concede that point. “Very well, go ahead with your proposal as you see fit, but if you perceive the opportunity, please try to capture it. Keep in mind that the aliens must be prevented from getting access to our superior propulsion technology at all costs.” This earned a grim nod from the Admiral, her meaning clear.

The senator turned to another at the meeting – a male fox morph. “Mr Tomas, what is the current situation with regards to the outlying colonies near Halcyon?”

“Star Corps colony ships have been despatched to the Midline, Gosford, and Albright colony worlds to facilitate evacuation procedures at a moment’s notice. Initial reports suggest that many colonists will resist being removed, but as the colony populations have grown beyond our means to accommodate them all on our ships, that might be a blessing for those who do wish to be evacuated. As morbid as that sounds, we do not have the capability to remove even half the colonists at short notice.”

“Unacceptable,” Barr replied. “I want every available Corps ship to suspend its current operations and head for those colonies. Their safety is Federation responsibility and until it is proven that they are not at risk, we will assume the worst.” She turned back to Admiral Tirarsk. “How many Fleet ships can be brought in to defend the Corps ships?”

“I would have to research that to give you an answer, but we have over two dozen pirate hunters that can be quickly dispatched to that task. In addition, there are several capital ships, but I strongly recommend that they be held in reserve to defend our home worlds and the major colonies that are too big to evacuate. We cannot disregard the possibility that the enemy may approach from a totally different direction.”

Barr considered his words. “You’re right. Very well, leave it to just the pirate hunting ships for now.” She turned to the final member of the meeting – a faleshkarti – a race of hermaphrodite beings resembling fennec foxes. “Coordinator Blyss, your species is adept at moving and catering for enormous numbers of beings, which is why you have been assigned to handle the logistics of the evacuations in tandem with Star Corps. Do you have a program drawn up as yet?”

“Yes, Senator,” shi replied as shi forwarded a summary of the details to the senator’s PADD. “Supplies and accommodation are being sourced as we speak, and we will be ready to take in refugees if or when they come.”

That was a bold statement, and if anyone but a faleshkarti had made that claim, Barr would have been inclined to scoff. However, she had witnessed their colonising procedures and had no doubt that they could live up to their boast. Nevertheless, she still pushed for a little more. “Do you have any of your colony ships to spare, Blyss?”

The long-eared alien shook hir head. “My apologies, Senator, but they are still needed to relieve population pressure on my homeworld. While enormous improvement has been made in the past eight years, it will be a long time before my race can afford to divert efforts away from reducing our numbers, even in the face of this threat.” While the Federation had found a solution to hir race’s innate urge to breed without restriction, their critical overpopulation problem would take many decades to ease.

The bear morph nodded reluctantly. “I understand. We will do our best without them.” She stood up, pushing back her chair with an annoying scrape. “That should be all for now. Unless you have any questions? No? Good. I expect daily reports even if there’s nothing new to report. Gentlebeings, we have a huge challenge ahead of us, and an enormous number of citizens who are depending on our ability to work fast and effectively. We are still treading muddy waters here, so hope for the best but prepare for the worst. This meeting is adjourned.”

 


 

Fight For Life

 

Captain Adrian Spain wore his usual stern and serious look, an appearance that the dog morph had cultivated assiduously ever since joining Star Fleet as a cadet. Anything else tended to give him an aspect of adorable cuteness which had been the bane of the cocker spaniel’s life. Curly golden hair and large floppy ears simply did not have the same gravitas as a German Shepherd or mastiff. Of course he had been the butt of many a joke due to his looks, some light-hearted, but too many had been mocking or nasty. In spite of this, he had borne the harassment with studied indifference and graduated at the top of his class. That dedication to his career had resulted in a steady rise through the ranks until he had achieved command of a ship of his own – the FSS Centurion. Today, his seniority saw him in charge of all four ships that had been sent to investigate the fate of the Halcyon colony. He gazed seriously at the visages of the three other captains on the large view-screen.

“To sum up, Captain Haaster is to take the Ultimax and concentrate on scanning the planet to determine the condition of the colony, and whether there are colonists requiring rescue.”

The female Voxxan nodded in agreement.

“Captain Adrax will follow closely in the Warrior Spirit and ensure that the Ultimax is fully defended while their crew is scanning.”

The blue-striped Rakshani’s scowl had not changed throughout the final briefing. He had been quietly hoping that he would get a chance to put the aliens’ defences to the test. He had probably lost a close cousin in that colony.

“Captain Firedrop will position the Katapult further back to actively seek out the enemy craft. Because phaser fire was of only limited use against the enemy’s armour, we’ll see if the Katapult’s mass driver is more effective.”

The black-furred and red-spotted chakat grinned. “I’ve yet to see the armour that can stop one of my depleted uranium shells.” Shi was far too eager to use the weapon against something other than practice targets.

Spain frowned at the chakat. “The line-of-sight nature of that weapon makes it cumbersome, so don’t neglect your other weapons. I will have your back in any case.” His eyes scanned across all three of the captains. “Remember that above all else, it is of vital importance that we get absolutely as much data on the enemy as possible. Was the ship a lone scout? What is its full offensive potential? Can we determine its purpose there? And what is that bizarre unknown energy that was used so devastatingly against Federation ships? The fate of other colonies might depend on what we learn today.”

“The ship may have moved on since the Betelgeuse escaped from it,” Haaster pointed out.

“In which case we will have lost a valuable opportunity to learn about the enemy, but we may be able to concentrate on determining what has happened to the colony and search for survivors without worrying about being attacked. Whatever the case, we go in expecting the worst. Although the Science Corps has tweaked our shields, even they admit that they have no idea if that will be of any benefit against the enemy’s strange plasma weapon, so play it smart and assume nothing.” Spain rose to his feet. “Captains, we arrive in five minutes. Red Alert conditions are now in effect. All weapons and defences set to maximum. Good fortune, gentlebeings.”

Spain’s First Officer, a Caitian named M’Nassaleeta, closed the comm connection and triggered the Red Alert. “All hands to battle stations. Arrival at Halcyon in five minutes,” she announced before turning to the cocker spaniel morph. “What do you expect that we’ll find, sir?”

Spain nodded at the small catlike officer. “The Federation has been extremely fortunate so far in its encounters with new species. Aside from some initial clashes with the Rakshani, our history has been fairly peaceful. I believe that eventually we are going to run out of luck, and this unknown enemy may be our turning point. I hope that I am wrong, but I fear that we are seeing the beginnings of a much larger conflict.”

As they headed out of the briefing room to the bridge, M’Nassaleeta said, “So you expect that we will find that ship there?”

“Nassa – I’m praying that that’s all we find today.”

As they stepped onto the bridge, one of the crew announced, “Captain on the deck!” The officer in charge surrendered the command chair to the captain and took up a position at another station. Spain settled into the chair, his eyes scanning the bridge and assessing the ship’s readiness. “Report!” he barked.

“Shields at maximum!”

“Phasers hot and ready!”

“Anti-matter missiles ready!”

“Plasma bombs ready!”

“All scanners set for maximum resolution!”

“Attack and evasion flight patterns locked in and ready!”

“Engineering ready!’

“All stations report readiness,” M’Nassaleeta announced. “Three minutes until we drop out of warp.”

The young officer at the navigation station turned toward Spain. “Sir, if I may ask, why bother with the shields if they are ineffective against the enemy’s unknown weapon? We could use the extra power for our own weapons.”

Spain frowned at the navigator. “Ensign, how many different types of weapons does this ship utilise?”

“Umm… three, sir.”

“Is it your considered opinion that the enemy has only the one? Or do you believe that our shields would be useless against all their weapons?”

“Uh, no sir. I retract my suggestion.”

“Good idea. Attend to your station, Ensign.”

The young morph turned his attention back to his board, fearing the likelihood of a poor assessment at the next quarterly performance review for his ill-considered idea.

The remaining couple of minutes dragged by seemingly interminably, but then their warp engines shut down and they dropped out of hyperspace well outside of the planet’s gravitational influence. It is said that no battle plan survives engagement with the enemy, and never was it truer than now. Although they had anticipated the possibility of more ships joining with the single one encountered by the Betelgeuse, no one had dreamed that they would be met by a huge swarm of enemy vessels encircling Halcyon like flies around a corpse. The four Federation ships were immediately in trouble. The enemy ships reacted quickly and started pursuing the Ultimax as it continued on its assignment in spite of the setback. The Warrior Spirit was already bringing its weapons to bear.

Just as had happened to the Betelgeuse, the enemy ships began firing upon the Federation ships without preamble. The plasma weapon was unleashed, but the nimble starships were able to easily dodge at the current range. The Katapult and Centurion immediately joined the fray. As before, phaser fire was far more accurate and successful than the enemy’s plasma, but the blasts that got through the enemy’s shields did little damage to their armour plating. It was time for less conventional armaments.

Centurion, I’m discontinuing evasive manoeuvres to line up a mass driver shot,” Firedrop announced. “I have no shortage of easy targets. Watch my back!

“We have your back, Katapult,” Spain acknowledged.

As the chakat’s ship stopped accelerating and dodging, it drew the attention of several of the enemy.

“Target Katapult’s hostiles. Fire anti-matter missiles!” Spain commanded.

Several missiles launched, one to each of the attackers. Three connected and exploded, destroying the enemy ships, while the Federation ships’ shields flared as they blocked the torrent of radiation from the anti-matter annihilation of regular matter. Another two missiles were destroyed by energy beams from the enemy ships that continued to approach, only to be hit by more missiles that came from the Katapult. Just because it was focusing on using its mass-driver did not mean that its crew could not use its other weapons. Power was being reserved for the mass-driver though, and the ship shuddered as a steel-clad uranium shell was spat out of the maw of the linear accelerator. It crossed the intervening distance in a blink of an eye and smashed through its target effortlessly. With a gaping hole in its structure, the ship now drifted helplessly. This was exactly what the Federation team had been aiming for – a disabled ship that they could salvage and study. Unfortunately, due to the enormous swarm of enemy ships, they had zero chance of grabbing the derelict.

The battle continued at a frantic pace as the Federation ships struggled to keep out of the path of the plasma shots from the enemy while returning fire with missiles and phasers, trying hard to find a weakness in the enemy’s defences. Then things made a turn for the worse.

“Sir! More ships approaching from the far side of the planet!” the crew person on Sensors announced, the tension in her voice evident.

Spain considered the holo-viwer which gave a three-dimensional overview of the battlefield. It was rapidly getting crowded with red dots representing the enemy ships.

Centurion – we have sustained a hit!” came the voice of Captain Haaster. “Shields still ineffective against the unknown plasma. We cannot manoeuvre sufficiently to avoid all the ships that are pursuing us.

Spain barked, “Abort your mission, Ultimax. Fall back but continue long-range scanning as you do so. All ships – we are going to be overwhelmed at this rate. Form up and prepare for retreat.”

The Katapult stopped using its mass-driver and concentrated on defensive fire and evasion as they waited for the Ultimax and Warrior Spirit to join them. Spain noted the damage done to a section of the hull of the Ultimax that fortunately had missed the warp engines, but he wondered how many of the crew had not been so fortunate. The enemy closed in on them, seemingly careless of their own safety in their efforts to destroy the Federation ships, but when the Warrior Spirit and the Ultimax finally rendezvoused with the others, Spain gave the order to depart.

“Go to Warp One, withdrawal course Alpha One” Spain commanded. “We still have to assess their FTL capabilities. Increase warp speed just enough to keep ahead of them.”

The four starships slipped into hyperspace, quickly followed by the enemy. As planned, they gradually increased their warp speed until it became obvious that their pursuers could no longer keep up.

“Enemy ships maxed out at Warp 3.2, sir,” the navigator announced.

Spain nodded in acknowledgement and hit the inter-ship comm. “All ships – top speed on current course for the next two hours, then set course for Star Fleet Base Three. Ultimax – status report, and what can you tell us about the colony?”

Haaster replied, “We have made emergency repairs to the bulkhead and we’ll be fine until we get back to the base. Three crew members have been confirmed killed, with fourteen more injured. And what colony? All traces of Federation presence have been erased and resources appropriated by the enemy. No signs of survivors. There’s a huge… nest or something there though.

An image was sent over from the Ultimax, and Spain stared at it in revulsion. A nest, Haaster had called it, and indeed it resembled something like a wasp’s nest, only the size of a twenty-storey edifice. He growled lowly. They had been swarmed like insects, and they built structures like insects. Even their spaceships could now be seen as chitin-armoured vessels. Were they indeed dealing with an insectoid species that colonised worlds at the expense of any other species? They had failed in their mission to bring back a ship to discover its secrets and identify their enemy, so it was all speculation. Spain could feel it in his bones though – the Federation was going to have far too many opportunities to try again.



“SURPRISE!”

Coldfire nearly jumped out of her skin as a couple of dozen of her crewmates gathered about her. “What’s all this about then?” she asked as she tried to calm her fluttering heart.

One of the mares replied, “We heard about your pregnancy and we’re throwing you a foal shower.”

Coldfire blinked. “But how? As the Captain pointed out, we are not set up for caring for a foal.”

Amethyst Scroll grinned. “Never underestimate the power of improvisation. Albite Feldspar figured out how to reprogram the fabricators for a few necessities.”

The expectant mother smiled. “I should have known. But you realise that the Captain is going to put both the foal and myself into hibernation as soon as the foal is weaned? We won’t be needing much before then.”

Another mare laughed. “Take it from someone who has raised a filly already – you’re going to need every bit of help that you can get before then. Now hush up and let’s get this shower under way!”

Coldfire giggled. “Okay, let’s see what you’ve come up with.”

As the gaggle of mares drew Coldfire away, Starry watched on with Wandering by her side. “So – you made your decision. Coldfire seems happy.”

Wandering nodded. “Galena recommended against putting Coldfire into hibernation while pregnant. The suspension process runs the risk of interfering with the development of the foetus. She says that a healthy foal would not be a problem though, and suggested to do so after weaning. It seemed the best option, and both parents are happy with that alternative.”

“How did the mares find out about it though?”

“I might have let it slip quietly.”

Starry looked at Wandering and snickered. “You big softy!”

Wandering shrugged. “I’ve been a new mother – I wanted Coldfire’s experience to be better than mine.”

“That’s understandable. The foal is going to be notorious for being the first to be born among the stars though.”

“Ah, well, I can’t do much about that. Some things are out of my purview.”

“What if we have a foal of our own?”

Wandering stiffened. “You aren’t suggesting…?”

“Not now. But I would like my foal to be born among the stars too. Or are you planning to stop exploring them after this mission?”

The stallion looked at Starry who returned his gaze hopefully. He smiled back at her. “Y’know – I haven’t made any plans for after the mission, but I like the idea of exploring the stars with you.”

“Keep on wandering the stars, you mean,” she replied with love in her voice.

“With my mate by my side,” he agreed, leaning forward to give Starry a kiss.

“Always,” she replied just before their lips met.

They kissed for a long moment before drawing back and Starry grinned.

“The House of Path bringing Harmony and Friendship to the stars, with Wandering and Starry in the forefront. Sounds like a worthy goal.”

Wandering nodded. “I look forward to the possibility of meeting other civilisations. It’s going to be marvellous!”



“It’s going to be full-scale war if the Swarm makes its way to other inhabited star systems,” Admiral Tirarsk declared.

One of the first things that the special council had decided was to give the enemy a name, and due to the nature of the attacks upon the Federation ships, ‘Swarm’ seemed to be most appropriate. It also gave the situation a frightening edge.

“Our preliminary analysis of the data that Captain Spain’s taskforce brought back suggests aggressive colonisers who eliminate all opposition and take over their resources. The sheer numbers that they dedicate to this task for even a single planet indicates that resisting their invasion is going to be difficult at best. We have no direct evidence of what their plans are beyond Halcyon, but my gut tells me that they won’t stop there indefinitely. Maybe they will take the time to expand their presence on the planet, or maybe they will begin moves to the next star system immediately because they have already established a foothold there, but either way they are coming, and we have to prepare.”

“Has the Science Corps learned any more about the plasma weapon?” Senator Barr asked.

Tirarsk shook his head. “They are still mystified as to the nature of the energy despite the mountain of data that they were provided. However, they have identified a second side-effect that can be used to detect its usage other than the visible light show. It might not be of much use right now, but it is at least a first step.”

Barr sighed. “Not a whole lot of help to us, Admiral. We will have to be alert for future opportunities to discover their secrets. Right now though, I want all star systems between Halcyon and Federation territories to be put under manned or automated surveillance. All colonies in that path are to be on the alert for another swarm. I will be taking what we have discovered to the Federation Council to discuss what has been learned and formulate a response. It’s your task to ensure that we have the time to make an informed and considered decision.”

“Understood, Madame Senator,” the admiral replied. “Hopefully the slow warp speeds that they can achieve will buy us some time.”

The bear morph turned to the others on the special council. “Mr Tomas, Coordinator Blyss, your teams are to go to Stage Two. If the Swarm surprises us and Admiral Tirarsk informs the Federation Council that a colony is threatened, I want the first refugees boarding within minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Tomas replied.

“It will be done,” Blyss added.



“It’s a colt!” Doctor Zubon announced.

The panting and sweat-soaked new mother looked up to see her newborn son in his sire’s arms. Her tired face lit up with delight as Xanth placed their child on the bed against her belly where she gently stroked his mane. The pegasus colt’s pelt was pale blue, and his mane, tail, and wings were striped with various shades of blue-grey. The tiny pony opened his eyes and they could see that they were an even paler blue. If the child had any trace of its sire’s changeling heritage, it was not immediately apparent.

“Do you have a name for our son, darling?” Xanth asked.

“Skyborn. His name is Skyborn,” Coldfire replied.

“That’s a fine name.” Xanth lowered his muzzle to the colt’s and rubbed noses with him. “One more beautiful soul in this wonderful universe.”



“Casualties are estimated at eight percent,” Blyss reported.

“Why so high, Coordinator?” Barr asked. “That is unacceptable!”

“The resources were there, Senator, but many of the Pax colonists refused to leave their land.”

“Weren’t they aware that Star Fleet has had little success at even slowing down the Swarm, let alone stopping them?”

“They were informed of this, but were either convinced that they could defend themselves, or that they would prefer to die trying to defend their land,” the Faleshkarti answered. “I confess that I do not understand this tendency to let emotion override your ability to perceive reality, even to the point of discarding your lives based on your disbelief. You Terran species make some very strange decisions in spite of the facts.”

Barr sighed. “Story of the human race and its morph children, I’m afraid. We will have to deal with the fact that Pax and its remaining colonists are lost to us. Better to concentrate on dealing with the next probable target. Admiral – how long do you think before the Swarm gets to Valhalla Colony?”

“That star system is a long distance from Pax, and we suspect that the Swarm will check out a couple of intervening systems first, although we already know that they have no suitable worlds there. Our best estimate is a little over two and a half years.”

Barr nodded grimly. “I might be replaced by that time, but I expect that you will be preparing as best you can in the meantime.”

“We certainly hope that we can stop them by then, Senator. If we can’t, the future looks dire.”

“Why do you say that, Admiral?”

“Because our analysis of their migration pattern suggests that their next goal after Valhalla would not be a small colony, but a well-established independent world.”

“Which world is that?” Barr asked with trepidation.

“Chakona.”

 


 

Impossibilities

 

Wandering Path stared at the faint glow of the shield that protected the Cosmic Lotus from stray matter in its path. That glow had been growing a lot stronger lately, indicating that it was having to deflect far more material than in all the years that they had been travelling so far. It represented a greater drain on their power source than anticipated, but although it was not at a level to be concerned about yet, the rate at which the space dust was increasing was cause for concern.

“You say that you know what’s causing this, Starry?” Wandering asked without taking his eyes from the screen.

“I believe so, and answered another question at the same time.”

“What question was that?”

“You know how the sky is a dark purple normally? Well, although you can’t currently see that directly due to the distortions of relativity, the TESS was modified to compensate for those distortions. This allowed my department to study the stars as we passed by them. We recently had our closest approach to the last star before we reach the Far Star, and we noticed that the sky was changing colour. In fact it was getting redder, the same red as the star we just went by. When we investigated further, we found that some patches of sky further away were bluer than others. We finally realised that what we were seeing was the light of the star being reflected by a cloud of matter, presumably dust like that which we are passing through right now, only denser. The fairly even distribution of red and blue stars reflecting their mixed light off this cloud has resulted in the soft purple glow that has filled the sky for as long as we have known it.”

Wandering turned to Starry, a little shocked. “Are you saying that we are heading for a wall of dust? What will happen if we hit that wall at our current speed?”

“I suspect that the shield would be overwhelmed, but there’s no need to panic. The majority of the increased glow you are seeing comes from increased amount of hydrogen and helium atoms which our shield deflects harmlessly. While it’s true that we have been experiencing an increased rate of actual ‘dust’ collisions with larger particles, we made careful measurements, and as best as we could determine, the Far Star is located well before the dust density becomes a significant danger. However, you are overlooking one hugely significant possibility.”

“You’re the astronomer, Starry, not me. Spell it out for me.”

“If the sky represents a wall of dust, and Equis and all the stars we know are inside a bubble within a cloud, how much is there within, or even on the other side of that cloud?”

Wandering blinked as his mind was boggled by the thought. “Wow! We may have stumbled upon far more than we have ever dreamed.”

Starry smirked at her mate. “Yeah, that’s putting it mildly. This voyage is already starting to pay off in ways we hadn’t anticipated. The thing is – will we be able to do anything about that windfall once we reach the Far Star?”

“I regret that I won’t be able to answer that until we get there. Right now though, I need to determine if we need to start decelerating sooner to compensate for the amount of dust we’re going to pass through.”

Starry frowned and gave Wandering a serious look. “The best option would be to use the Far Star’s light hitting the solar sail to slow us down, allowing us to conserve resources.”

Wandering nodded. “And it still is. Can you give me some sort of estimate of what we will be encountering between here and the Far Star?”

“I thought you might ask, so I prepared that data for you.”

Wandering grinned. “Heh! You read my mind.”



“Execute course correction,” Wandering ordered.

Playbitz addressed the A.I. “CONN, rotate ship 7.4 degrees counter-clockwise and give me a 2.4 second burn on vectoring nozzle two.”

Confirm rotation negative 7.4 degrees and course adjustment on vectoring nozzle two for 2.4 seconds,” the AI paraphrased.

“Instruction confirmed. Execute.”

The familiar sound of the attitude jets was heard briefly until the programmed burn was finished.

“Course correction completed, Captain,” Playbitz reported.

“Thank you, Playbitz. Starry – are you happy with the course now?”

The alicorn mare frowned. “Something is still off kilter. Triangulating from the readings of our last course correction, the light from the Far Star seems to be emanating from a point that is at least a light-day or two in front of where we measure the star to be.”

“That doesn’t seem possible,” Wandering replied.

“Maybe, but that’s what my instruments are telling me.”

“What if something unknown is distorting that distance measurement? We can’t afford to overshoot our target. Even if we slow down a lot, if we are still decelerating with the more distant goal in mind, we could end up wasting a lot of time and mana bringing ourselves to a halt, and then backtracking if the nearer distance is what we should be aiming for.”

“I’m sorry, Captain, but at the moment, I can’t give you a more accurate answer. The data just does not make sense. If you want a recommendation though, I say aim for the nearer point. It’s better than overshooting, and that would give us more time to study why we are getting such strange data. If these readings are accurate, it would solve one mystery though.”

Wandering raised an inquiring eyebrow.

Starry continued. “If the light of the Far Star really is coming from a point source fixed in space, that would explain why, despite having planets, the Far Star doesn’t show any ‘wobble’.” She nodded with conviction. “You remember how I’ve been fairly interested in finding out how this could be possible.”

The captain broke out in a wide smile. “You mean how you’ve been obsessed about it night and day since long before this mission started.”

The alicorn narrowed her eyes and flicked one ear irritably. “Yes, that.”

Wandering’s eyes twinkled for a moment before he resumed a more professional expression. “Since that was the final course correction before re-opening the sail, we’re ready to start the deceleration immediately. Give us your best estimate of where to aim for, and Playbitz can calculate the optimum braking program.”

Playbitz turned around in his chair to address Wandering. “I hope that you realise that this dust we have been encountering will complicate those calculations. Even with you reducing our mass to virtually zero, that miniscule amount left over will feel the impact of dust particles that will be hitting us at close to the speed of light. While they in turn will have their effective mass reduced, that’s still a spectacular amount of energy.”

Almost on cue, a deep note sounded through the hull, the result of a minute particle that had managed to force its way past the magic shield and impact upon the thick forward armouring.

Wandering nodded. “Good point. We’re going to have to be cautious when unfurling the sails. Once they are fully open, we will have a much better idea of what we are up against. Who knows? It might end up a blessing in disguise. Instead of expending a lot of our mana supply to power light bombs to use on the sail, the dust might help considerably.”

“Or it might incur damage to the sails,” Commander Bluequill pointed out.

“It might,” Wandering conceded, “but it’s not as if we have a choice in the matter. The sail is our sole means of decelerating from our present speed, so it has to be deployed. We will do so cautiously though, and the sooner that we start, the thinner the dust will be, and the quicker we will get data upon which to make an informed decision. I will leave that to you, Commander, as you’re the engineering expert. Once you are sure that we have a sustainable approach, you can work out with Playbitz our best course of action.”

“Aye, Captain,” the griffon replied.

Wandering leaned back in his command chair and smiled. “Ladies and Gentlebeings – things are about to get real interesting.”



They thought that it was a perfectly feasible plan. While there was no longer anything that they could do about Halcyon or Pax, the slow nature of the Swarm ships would make them a ready target for a fleet of fast Federation starships. Crews were trained with advanced evasion tactics that would see them concentrate on the safety of their ships before trying to destroy any of the enemy. Hard-won experience had shown that even a glancing hit from the unknown plasma weapon could do untold secondary damage, frequently incapacitating a starship in spite of not making a direct hit upon critical equipment. How this happened was just as big a mystery as the nature of the plasma itself. While the Ultimax had in fact gotten off very easily, many other Federation ships had not fared so well. Frustrated with the loss of ships and personnel, Star Fleet temporarily suspended operations against the Swarm until its new attack squadron was ready.

After the strike force had engaged the Swarm fleet, the operation was considered a huge success. While the progress had been slow, the Federation fast cruisers steadily whittled down the enemy, eventually destroying the last of their ships. Only a couple of the Fleet ships had sustained some minor damage, and with zero loss of lives. The authorities breathed a sigh of relief. That was only to last a few days. Scouts brought the news that another Swarm fleet was coming, no less than five times the size of the first. The Swarm was fanatical, but not stupid. Their ships travelled close together, forcing the Federation ships into greater danger in their attempts to launch a fatal attack upon them. No amount of evasion could keep them out of the Swarm’s battle sights for long, and Star Fleet started losing ships again. While the hit-and-run tactics were still effective, the opportunities to strike were far fewer, and the battle dragged on for days. Eventually the Federation won the engagement, but at the loss of half their strike force. It was time to go back to base and lick their wounds. Even the knowledge that they had saved the Valhalla colony was barely enough to bolster the spirits of the weary warriors. However, at last they had their hands on a few of the enemy’s ships. While the sheer viciousness of the fight had obliterated most of the marauders’ starships, three were intact enough to study and they took them in tow, mindful that the Swarm crews would likely still be extremely dangerous to any boarding party. It came as a shock when all three self-destructed by virtue of releasing their anti-matter containments, leaving nothing worth examining.

A month later, Star Fleet Command was aghast to learn that a third Swarm fleet was approaching Valhalla from another vector. Size estimates ranged from ten to twelve times that of the original. One thing was perfectly clear – there was no way that the Federation could fight that with high-speed strike and evade tactics alone. Fortunately the Science Corps had not assumed that their troubles with the Swarm were over, and they had been feverishly developing new weapons, chief among which were the warp-drive enabled nuclear missiles that could be remotely piloted. Production was prioritised while the colonists on Valhalla nervously awaited action from Star Fleet. However, recognising that a half-baked response might reduce the effectiveness of the assault against their implacable enemy, Fleet Command held back until it was deemed that they had a sufficient quantity of them. Dreadnoughts hauled the missiles into range and launched them all in a huge deadly salvo. The first few missiles struck, destroying their targets completely, but to the shock of the remote watchers, the rest of the Swarm vessels reacted nearly instantly, bringing up defences of their own. Energy beams intercepted missile after missile even as they dropped out of warp. While at least half of them still got through and found their targets, a large portion of the invaders avoided destruction and continued on to their goal.

An emergency session of the Federation High Council was held in conjunction with Star Fleet Command. The military arm of the Federation had to concede that it could not guarantee that they could stop the Swarm before it reached Valhalla. Virtually all the stockpile of missiles had been used in the assault upon the Swarm, and even if they had time to build more, it was doubtful as to their effectiveness. Whatever their shortcomings in FTL travel, the aliens’ other systems were more than competent, capable of detecting and intercepting the missiles with alarming regularity. Other weapons were untested and not ready yet, giving the Council no other option. They ordered the evacuation of Valhalla. This time it was mandatory, with special teams sent out to gently but firmly remove recalcitrant colonists from the planet. A few obsessive fools managed to hide from the authorities, but in the end, only a handful of beings died when the Swarm finally reached Valhalla.



Clad only in her normal uniform, albeit in active protection mode, Techbird made her way out onto one of the eight solar sail booms. The sails were attached to it with carbon fibre cables via motorised pulleys that could tension or relax to warp the sails to the optimum angle for propulsion. The uniform’s protective spells sustained her living crystal body even better than it would an organic one, and she took a moment to enjoy the unequalled freedom of movement that it gave her here, surrounded by nothing but the vast emptiness of space. No bulky spacesuit was interposed between her and the ever-closing Far Star. She could sense the abysmal cold without being affected by it, and in her imagination, she could feel the cosmic wind blowing in her crystalline feathers. She spread her wings to revel in it for a long moment before she sighed and brought her attention back to the reason that she was outside the ship. Carefully, Techbird made her way up the sail boom.

One of the adjustment motors had failed, and Techbird had volunteered to replace it. The space environment was far more hazardous than it had ever been due to the constantly increasing amount of dust travelling at relativistic speed, and it was a big risk to a regular crewperson. She, however, had a far more rugged form, and while she would not appreciate a hyperkinetic impact, she could survive it. She reached the housing of the pulley motor and shook her head in dismay at the sight of a gaping hole through it. A tiny fleck of matter had done all that damage, and during the few remaining months of their journey, it was likely that they would get many more impacts. Already the sails had several punctures, but due to their thinness, the affected areas were only a few centimetres wide, and with a sail that was measured in square kilometres, their performance was virtually unchanged. The inability to warp the sails for steering was a problem though.

Techbird muttered imprecations at the vagaries of fate that had led to one of the most important features of the enormous sail mechanism being hit. The damage to the housing made it difficult to prise it apart, but eventually it swivelled open with a screech of tortured metal that she only ‘heard’ through conduction of the material of the boom. With the unit exposed, she operated a clamping device to secure the cable before proceeding with the repair. Tethered to her waist were a number of tools, and she detached the pulley from the motor with them. Next she unbolted the ruined motor, disconnected its power and control cables, and pulled the massive mechanism out of its enclosure. She could see now that the projectile, while doing enormous damage to the motor, had failed to penetrate it completely. Apparently the offending speck had lost too much momentum while passing through the shield that it had failed to hit as hard as other impacts had. The point was moot though because the unit was no more useable for having been hit less hard. Techbird secured it to the boom before tugging on the line that was attached to the replacement unit. Magnets had weakly held it to the hull until she was ready, and now it floated over to her. Allowing for the inertia of its great mass, the crystal griffon brought the motor to a halt, and then manoeuvred it into the enclosure. After connecting the wiring harness, bolting the mechanism into place, and reattaching the pulley, she released the cable clamp.

Touching a button on the sleeve of her uniform, she said, “Techbird to bridge. Replacement motor has been installed successfully. Ready for testing.”

Acknowledged, Tech. Stand by while we run the tests,” came Commander Bluequill’s voice.

Techbird watched as the motor came to life, pulling the cable in, then letting it out again. This happened three times before it halted and the commander’s voice came to her again.

Diagnostics show normal operational parameters. You may finish up now, Techbird.

“Acknowledged, bridge. Closing up now.”

Techbird forced the recalcitrant cover closed and latched it securely. Reaching into a pocket of her uniform, she pulled out a roll of silver-blue sheeting. She carefully stretched it over the hole in the cover and moulded it to conform to every curve of the surface of the panel. Then she pulled out a small cube from a separate pocket and laid it upon the sheet, activating the spell with which it was imbued. There was a flash and the sheet turned purple and went rigid, welded into place. Satisfied with the result, the griffoness then made her way back down the boom, towing the destroyed unit with her to have it recycled. She attached it to the same magnets that had held its replacement before detaching its towline from her belt and securing it to one of the ship’s tie points next to the airlock. Having done that to her satisfaction, she then started walking up the length of the ship, much more nimbly than when Steam Shift had done the same years ago. She reached the foremost point of the starship and then secured herself to a tie point. Only then did she relax and allow herself to enjoy the grandeur of the scenery.

Surrounding her was the purple, blue, and red of the mysterious dust wall, broken only by the faint glow of the magic shield that protected the ship from the matter that it was deflecting away. This was punctuated by a brilliant point of light that was the Far Star. Of course the star’s colour was a bit deceptive because of the blue-shift of the radiation that it emitted, but it was nonetheless the beacon that had beckoned them onwards for many years. Now that they were at last slowing down to rendezvous with the Far Star, that destination was feeling more and more real, and closer to answering the question that she had been asking since she was little more than a teenager. She lay down with her back to the hull and gazed upon the star, trying to wrest its secrets by will alone.

The sound of little bells made her ears twitch. The impossibility of hearing anything in the vacuum of space did not stop her from turning her head towards the apparent source of that sound. A grey unicorn stallion with a long beard, clad only in a dark blue cape and hat from which the bells dangled, smiled at her before taking a seat beside her. Techbird noted that his clothing, appropriately, was decorated light blue crescent moons and yellow stars. He looked up at the same scene that Techbird had been watching moments before.

“Wonderful, isn’t it?”

The fact that he should not be even able to breathe let alone speak did not seem to bother the unicorn who seemed very familiar to Techbird, although she would swear that she had never met him before. She considered his question in spite of that. “Is it though?”

“What do you see?” he responded.

“What do I see, or what do I know is there?”

He grinned as he turned to her. “An even better question!”

“I see what used to be featureless purple sky, a universe of stars behind me, and the only star that matters in front of me. I know that there have to be unified physical laws of the universe, and we can explain everything we can see except the Far Star. If we figure out that star, everything else will fall into place.”

“Ah, I see. You know, not once, have you asked who I am or what I’m doing here.”

“It could be one of two things; either I’m talking to myself and I’m starting to go mad, or you are an unknown aspect, another part of the Puzzle. If the first, there is nothing I can do about it, and if the latter, I’m already working on it, so it is not worth worrying about.”

The unicorn chuckled as his horn lit up, and a rolled piece of paper sealed within a bottle appeared by her crystal talons. “A pragmatic view, to say the least, but nonetheless efficient.”

Techbird looked down to the bottle. “What’s this?”

“You may hit a roadblock while trying to work out the ultimate answer to your Puzzle. The message within is both a clue and a signpost,” he replied in a sly tone.

Techbird’s eyes lit up with excitement at the unicorn’s words, and she turned to face him only to be met by nothing but an uninterrupted view of the sky. She looked back down towards her talons, but the bottle was still there. She grasped it hastily, but to her relief, it did not fade like the pony phantasm. She pushed it inside a pocket in her uniform, sealed it, and started making her way back when she was startled by another voice, a much more prosaic one however.

Bridge to Techbird – are you having any problems?

“Negative, bridge,” she replied.

As you had not re-entered the ship, we were beginning to wonder.

Techbird could sense the reproach in Bluequill’s voice. “Sorry, Commander, but I am bringing in something that might excuse my tardiness.”

And what would that be, Techbird?

The elderly griffoness gave a childlike giggle. “A note from my teacher, sir.”

There was silence on the comm for a long moment before Bluequill responded. “I’ll wait until you report to me before I try to make sense of that. Bridge out.

Techbird grinned as she hastened back to the airlock. She looked forward to him trying to do that!



The bottle was stoppered by what seemed to be an ordinary cork, although Starry felt an old enchantment dissolve as she used her magic to remove it and extract the paper from the bottle while Techbird told them about her encounter.

“You’ve just described Starswirl the Bearded,” Starry said, scepticism strong in her voice.

“I described an apparition – you identified him,” Techbird said pointedly.

“In any case, Starswirl died centuries ago, and even if he hadn’t, he wouldn’t be out here at the edge of the known universe, chatting with griffons on the bow of a starship!”

“I never said he did, but isn’t it possible that a long-dormant sophisticated spell was triggered by our presence here?”

“What? Nearly forty light-years from Equis? Impossible!”

“And yet Destined can teleport this far. Why not Starswirl?”

“There’s nothing here!”

“No, but it’s on a direct path to the Far Star. I believe it’s an indication that we are on the correct path to learn all the answers to our questions.”

“We don’t need an indication! We’re going to the Far Star anyway!”

“Starswirl said this note would help solve the Puzzle.”

“A note that is indecipherable,” Starry grumbled, waving the offending piece of ancient parchment in front of the griffoness.

“He said that it would be a clue toward solving the Puzzle when I encountered a block to my path to understanding. It can wait.”

“How do we know that you did not make that bottle yourself to prank us?” Command Bluequill suddenly spoke up.

Techbird glared at the blue griffon, and although he was bigger and stronger than the hen, Bluequill wilted before the gaze of the she-griff who was twice his age. “I am a scientist, not a prankster. I observe, I collect evidence, I make hypotheses, and I test my ideas. I do not make bottles or invent foal’s tales.”

Starry reached out with her wing to enfold the irate crystal griffon. “Sorry if we upset you, Tech. It’s just that this is so far-fetched that I am having a hard time getting my head around it. I’m just going to accept what you say for now and hope that things become clearer later. I suggest that you discuss it with Wandering and write up a full report. Send it along with pictures of the bottle back to Equis. Perhaps they will have some insight.”

Techbird nodded. “That seems sensible. Now if you will excuse me, I am weary from my work today. I bid you goodnight.” The griffoness slipped free of Starry’s wing-hug and exited the bridge.

After she had gone, Bluequill looked at Starry and asked, “Do you believe her story at all?”

Starry sighed. “Commander, I may be an alicorn and powerful with magic, but Starswirl was reputed to be unsurpassed in the magical arts. If anypony could do this, he could.”

“So you do believe her.”

“There’s one thing that I can’t refute.”

“The bottle?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“While we were talking, I cast an analysis spell on it. It’s at least a couple of millennia old – far older than I can determine, but I also detected the remnants of a preservation spell when I opened it. Techbird was right about one thing at least – we were meant to find it. Whoever actually put it in her talons must have had the means and a reason to do so. Hopefully Techbird will learn that reason.”

Bluequill settled back down in the command chair, grumbling under his breath. “Let me stick to the hardware. I’ll leave the mumbo-jumbo to you magic-users.”

Starry grinned, winked at the other bridge crew who had been discreetly following the conversation, and replied, “We’re all magic-users, even grouchy griffons.”

The griffon merely snorted and let the subject drop.



Star Fleet Command was frustrated. In the years since Valhalla had been lost to the Swarm, they had been trying every conceivable idea to deal with the inexorable advance of the alien enemy, only to be quickly countered. Remotely guided gravity-bomb equipped missiles worked to disable the alien ships in warp right up until the Swarm started intercepting them before they could even reach the enormous convoy. All remote real-space offensive tactics were severely reduced in effectiveness within months of being put into action. Close-in attacks worked, but left the attacking vessels vulnerable to the mysterious plasma fire. A material was found that was fairly resistant to it, and this was used to armour swift fighters, but resistant was not the same as impervious. Two strikes in the same place were enough to cause it to fail. Many brave fighter pilots had died finding that out. Many still took their chances, playing the odds that they would not take a double hit anywhere. Because of the sheer number of enemy ships and their tendency to concentrate fire on a limited number of Federation ships at a time, it was near suicidal to try, but Star Fleet Command did not order the practice to stop. They could not afford to. Many millions of people of many races were depending on them.

They ended up adopting part of the enemy’s tactics – sheer numbers. They built great quantities of fighters, missiles, bombs, armour, and anti-matter clouds. They even threw rocks. Of course the rocks were asteroids massing gigatonnes, but once accelerated into the midst of the enemy fleet, they could neither be easily diverted nor destroyed, and because they were plain rock, they were exceedingly difficult to detect in deep space until too late. The Swarm’s advance was slowed considerably, but still more ships came to replace the destroyed ones, and they drew ever closer to Chakona. With enormous reluctance, the Federation Council ordered evacuation plans to be drawn up for that world in the event that Star Fleet could not find a solution. At the current rate of approach, they had little more than five years to stop their implacable foe.

 


 

Inner and Outer Space

 

NOTE: This little interlude was mostly written by Alaskaiscold with just a bit of input from me, plus editing. It might not really affect the storyline, but it's a nice peek behind the scenes of a certain couple's relationship.



Bored...

So bored...

Galena was the head of the Hibernation Department, which really meant that she was a glorified babysitter whose babies were always asleep. Making sure that the nutrient ratios were consistent took some effort, but once she figured out everyone’s basal metabolic rates, it was simple. It gave her time to think, poke around the changeling network, and see what Techbird was doing.

With the network being as it was, manipulating the mental net was a lot like locks in a canal system – the locks were individual connections and the water was the stream of consciousness or thought. Because of this, Galena had to be careful when navigating the network when Techbird was involved. To make this easier for everyone Galena devised a way to ping Techbird before she opened up the connection. That way when the locks were open for that brief moment, the stream of consciousness didn't flood out into the network. The princess figured that is what happened when Epiphany tried to link up with Luna – there were no safeguards in place, or the guards were too weak for the stream. Once it hit, it blew apart everything and collapsed the network.

When Galena pinged Techbird over the network, she felt the sympathetic bond echo back to her as well as the underlying emotions of love, adoration, and concentration. She knew that Techbird was just finished with her debriefing with Wandering, Starry, and the Captain, so maybe she was asleep? No harm in just taking a little peek?



Cosmic Dawn, (Unicorn), Doppler Effect (Thestral), Gravity Wave (Chrome Changeling), I need everything we have on our work right now! Techbird ran into the main lab and started to pull up everything she had on various topics – diffraction of the electromagnetic spectrum, current gravitational theories, current laws of physics both with and without magical inputs. At the same time, the two ponies and the one changeling ran around gathering scrolls and maps and putting them in the center of the room.

Techbird’s team did things... in a rather strange manner. They were atypical thinkers, much like the Pif think-tank back on the lunar colony, and this was no different. Once Wave levitated the scrolls in the correct orientation, Cosmic Dawn lowered the gravity spell in the room. With a slow flap of her wings, Techbird started to slowly move around the sphere of constantly moving data. She ran over every fact and every figure over and over again.

“Hypothesis: what if our hypothesis on our universe was wrong the entire time?” Tech barked out.

“Negating Data: none of our all-sky surveys have detected anything beyond the Far Star.” Gravity Wave chimed in.

“Query: have our sky surveys indicated a hard barrier or a gradual barrier?” Doppler spoke up.

“Analyzing.... Analyzing.... Out of our understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum, gamma rays, X-Rays, ultraviolet, visible light, infrared, and microwave show an abrupt stop,” Techbird said.

“Query: what about radio waves?” Gravity Wave asked.

“Analyzing... Analyzing...” the griffon stated as she flew around the many many scrolls of raw data. “Hold on – I need to utilize the link in order to come up with a conclusion.” She searched her mind for the link to her mate-in-secret and smiled when she felt her pinging her lightly “She must have been able to tell.” She opened the link wide open and let the multiple threads of computation flow.



Galena’s eyes went wide as the connection was forced open. She had not been expecting the sudden flow, and the only thing she could do before she was swept away by it was send out a warning ahead of the shock to Wandering. She could not serve as the barrier this time.



Wandering suddenly stood up in his chair and sent out a warning ping to every other ling on the network. He tried to bolster his mental defenses against the might of Techbird’s mind, and he let out a gasp before everything went white.



“What...what happened?!” Ixia cried out as she looked around. This was not where she had been a few moments ago. Now when she tried to figure out her surroundings, she was in what looked like a large planetarium. On the ground with her, the changelings in the crew were waking up, along with Wandering Path.

“Okay, what in Tartarus is going on!” Wandering bellowed out.

Galena walked up to the group when a sheepish look on her face. “Okay... so you are all going to be mad at me, but this time it’s not my fault. I was going to ping Techbird before I connected with her but I kind of forgot, and right when I opened the link, she pinged me, and that kind of sent us here.”

Wandering helped everyone else to their feet. “So where is here?”

“Whenever Tech gets a huge problem she has to deal with, she starts multiple threads of thought, and each train of thought is given license to work out its issue. This is how she innovates at such a startling pace... well that and time in here isn’t like the normal world.” Galena went into lecture mode as she walked toward the center of the room and pointed up.

“For every second in the real world, a much larger amount passes here. That is how she’s able to come up with answers so quickly.” The purple princess nodded as she made sense of the situation. “Because I was surprised, I could not stop her from drawing everyone into our world. However, I am still shouldering the entire mental load so you should be fine. Because there is that disconnect, while you can see her, she can’t see you... I think. If she did, she would most likely try to force tasks onto you.”

Wandering was going to ask what exactly that meant when Techbird came up to them, or rather it was an unusual version of her. She was smooth, strong, and alluring, and she moved in a very sensual manner. Oblivious to the others, she wrapped a wing around Galena and drew her into an ardent embrace. While she couldn’t kiss because of her beak, she nibbled and crooned against the chitin around the changeling’s neck, her tongue moving up against her chin before speaking in a lustful and blatantly sexual tone, “And how is my Queen doing tonight?”

The princess’s eyes went wide and her wings buzzed slightly in response. Galena started to stammer as she searched for a way to explain what was going on to the rest of those in the mindscape without giving Techbird the idea that they were there. “Separating yourself into your core components to do a computation again?”

The Techbird that kept chirring around Galena nodded a few times. “Full Techbird can’t fully focus on things this complicated, too many distractions you know this. She has to separate herself to get things done. It’s not that bad – it means I get to have you all to myself while the others work on their projects.” She gestured up at her other aspects before she let out another deep croon. “Now...where were we? Shall I get the toy you lik-”

Galena's horn lit up to silence the catbird while Wandering and the other changelings looked up to see what looked like twenty other Techbirds all flapping around some kind of construct. While it looked like some strange geometrical figure, none of them could shake off the feeling that it was something greater than that.

Galena sighed a bit. “How many dimensions is she working in?”

The lusty Techbird was about to say something when a strange Techbird landed by them. One of her eyes was tinged like a Violet drone and it spoke in a cold, matter-of-fact voice as it paced back and forth. “Currently there are eighteen core Techbirds working on each facet of the problem; the maximum she can work on her own is four. With your help she can work in six, which still pales in comparison to her capacity when she’s a part of the Pif Network.”

Why does she need six dimensions – the problem isn’t that complicated is it?” Wandering said out loud.

The strange Techbird stared straight at him. “It’s not a function of complexity – it’s a function of capacity. Each dimension adds a new vector in which one can work, reducing the total time required for the task.” Wandering was about to speak when the strange bird spoke again. “Yes, I am a part of Techbird; no, I’m not going to use you to run calculations, and yes, I can see you because I’m the one directing the Techbird algorithm within the mindscape. I can see you but I can’t use you... such a wasted resource. Your sole virtue of being here is to distract the useless aspects of Techbird.” Strange Techbird gestured in the direction of the lustful Techbird aspect who was still basically groping an embarrassed Galena as Wandering closed his mouth.

Gravity Wave finally spoke up as he let out a whimper. “How long are we going to be in here for?”

As long as it takes for Techbird to finish the calculations. However I don’t think that will be long, what with how many vectors we are working in and the relative simplicity of the problem. Maybe a few minutes in here, which equates to a few seconds in real time.” The griffon-ling sighed. “It was not our intention to drag you in here with us. Actually, the reason why this happened was that of coincidence. Right when Techbird pinged Galena to use her for the link, Galena pinged Tech wanting to come in. The result was similar to somebody running into a door right when somebody opens it. Galena is quite the Queen being able to maintain a connection with this level of strain and keep you out of my grasp.”

“Your grasp?” Wandering asked?

“I only care about two things, the Queen, and solving the puzzle. I will use everything in my power to keep her happy and solve the puzzle. That is why I was created,” the strange Techbird replied.

“What aspect of Tech are you?” Gravity asked.

Galena was the one that responded. “That is Techbird's Loyalty and Ambition,” she stated rather warily. “She’s the one you need to be afraid of.” The Princess moved in between the group and the one fragment of Tech. “Go back to the threads; we will wait here until you are done so I can reset the connection.

“As the Queen wishes.” Strange Tech smiled and flew back into the air to join the others, all working on the task at hand.

“Why do we need to watch out for her?” Wandering asked.

“When Tech is fragmented like this, you get pure versions of all of her sides, good and bad. This one is neither... in theory. But she’s pure ambition and loyalty – no restraint, no compassion. It’s why she and I have such an... intimate connection. When the link was first formed, I had to win over all of her cores or she would overwhelm me. Pif had herself, Free Agent, and all of her drones on her side, so it was rather quick. I only had myself, so it was a battle I just barely came out on top of. It’s why when you saw me in the cafeteria, I was so winded.” Galena sighed and looked up with a sudden smile. “The construct is almost done. That means she’s almost found her solution.”

The group of changelings looked up with wide eyes at the strange flowing construct created purely out of equations and proofs. A few of the lings shook their heads, utterly confused by what they were seeing.

All of the Techbirds suddenly froze and faded away, but after a few seconds one Techbird appeared with a smile on her face. “Conclusion: the exponential increase of dust strikes is because we are nearing the inner edge of a dense dust sphere. The Equis system is inside a hollowed-out portion of a cloud light-years across. Supporting data includes deep sky radar surveys, infrared surveys, point triangulation analysis, and physical theories seven, nine, thirteen, and thirty two pioneered by Cosmic Dawn. The Far Star is twenty light-days away, and the wall is approximately twenty five light-days away. Potential course needed to enter a high inclination elliptical scientific orbit is calculated.” She nodded once, and with the strain on the network reduced to practically nothing, Wandering started pulling the other lings out of the rather intense sympathetic system and into the less taxing parasympathetic system, leaving Galena and Techbird to themselves for now.

Techbird blinked a few times and looked around, sensing the change but not being able to notice what happened. Within a few moments, she shook it off and wrapped a wing around Galena. “So, now that the calculations are done, why do you seem so annoyed?”

The Princess huffed. “It still bothers me that I am not the Queen of the Cosmic Lotus changelings. I should be able to handle it. I have been getting stronger thanks to your sheer brain power, and they pale in comparison to you. Maintaining all of them would be a simple task. But no – I am not to be a Queen on the Lotus, and when we get back home, I am not to be a Queen there either.” She slumped slightly in sadness. This sadness ,however, was countered by the love the griffon was feeding her. “How long have we been together, Galena?”

“Since Ixia had you talk to me, about three years ago.”

“And for this entire time I have felt that you were sad about this fact, the rightful queen cursed by being the youngest, never able to achieve her true destiny.”

Galena frowned a bit, not liking how her sadness was being trivialized. Before she could vocalize her opinion, Techbird stopped her by nibbling on her neck.

“Don’t you think I have been working on a solution for you? Pif and I have been working on a side project. You know one of the House mantras is to keep going forward, and this is the natural progression of this. Would you like to see?”

“What does this have to do with anything?”

Techbird started to grin as the mindscape around them started to shift. “Everything!”

When Galena looked around again, she was floating through space. When she turned around she was staring at a bright white ball in the pitch void of space.

“What... what is this?”

“This is what we think the Far Star looks like. We are still very, very far away so we can really just get a feel for its color and its intensity. Other than that, it’s a lot of speculation. But that’s not why we are here,”

The griffon held onto Galena's hoof as the shot toward one strange light point in the sky. As they zoomed toward it, the star became a little smaller but the star-like point turned into a large ring-like structure. As they floated around the structure, the silver outside gave way to a truly large settlement. Dwellings and buildings lined the edges with a central green strip of land going through the center. Down along the central way, they could see a tram-like object and beings walking along side it. Tech did not have the capacity to form mindscapes too intricate, so the beings had no form to them.

“Tech... what am I looking at?”

“The Far Star Colony. Free rules the Chrome Hive on Equis, Pif administrates the Lunar Colony, and we were thinking that you would be the Queen of the Far Star colony. Pif and I realized that from a single fly-by mission, we would not gather all the science of this feature. It would take a prolonged scientific mission, and with a mission such as this, we would need to be able to tackle new problems, and formulate new ideas. One of the reasons why I was picked as the Chief Scientist was because I had no problems with never returning to Equis if it meant an answer to my puzzle. When you combined that with the potential of a permeable dust barrier, it means that we would have so much to study before we were able to push past that. Pif and I have a few ideas, but it’s just been side notes to the data transmissions.

The pair landed on the roof of one of the taller buildings while Galena gawked at the scene in front of her. “We could live here. I could be the Queen of changelings here?”

“Not to begin with. First we need to get the colony in the right orbit and then construction begins. This is a massive project – so much larger than the Lotus.” She motioned to the stationary point in the center of the ring.

“What’s that?”

“The transport beacon hub – that’s the Cosmic Lotus. If we started construction right when we reached capture orbit, it would take twice as long to build as the lunar colony. But, if we can get approval it will be done.”

Techbird smiled for a few moments before she was tackled by Galena in her dark griffon form. She crooned and nuzzled into her neck fluff.

Galena let out a happy sigh. Maybe her destiny to be an unknown princess could be changed somehow, but for now she was just weary from having to host so many minds at one time. “Can we leave now? I’m kind of tired.”

The catbird just smiled. “We can, yes, and when I get back to our room, I’ll make you some love tea. How does that sound?”

Galena nodded before she nuzzled her companion. “Sounds good to me.”

With the computation completed and the last two occupants shifting to the parasympathetic network, the scene slowly faded into the void.

 


 

Unexpected Encounters

 

Playbitz scanned the large monitor screen in front of him, just as he had done thousands of times before. Instrument read-outs displayed on the screen’s edges were just as they should be, and the scene that they framed was virtually unchanging. The ship had slowed down enough that the image from the forward camera no longer had to be compensated for the Dappler Effect, but only one stellar object still was within its view. Having passed all the other stars, only their goal – the Far Star – remained in the centre of its screen, with the background of dark purple, blue, and red that was the dust wall beyond it.

An intensely bright tiny ball of light suddenly shot into view and rapidly shrank into the distance. At a precise distance from the ship, it detonated into an overwhelmingly bright and huge sphere of pure light, but the screen automatically dimmed to compensate until the light source faded. The light bomb added another increment to the deceleration of the starship as the solar sails caught nearly half of its output. For days, the Cosmic Lotus had been drawing mana from the miniature star that powered the ship, priming the balls of energy with a spell to make them into light bombs, and then firing them ahead of the vessel at a steady rate calculated to slow them down just before reaching the Far Star, or at least the inexplicable point from which the Far Star’s light was emanating. It was far more gradual and less efficient than the alicorn boost that had started the journey, but it was nonetheless effective.

Playbitz swivelled around in his chair and said, “All systems nominal, Commander. Deceleration still on schedule.” He had said this dozens of times since they had started slowing the Cosmic Lotus, but while a little boring, it was nevertheless reassuring that everything was proceeding as planned.

Bluequill nodded. “Acknowledged, Lieutenant.” He gestured at the 3D display that was set up between them. Griffin knight to level two alpha five.” The magic game board automatically responded by moving the appropriate playing piece to the designated location.

Playbitz frowned. His thestral scout and unicorn archer were both under threat, but if he took them out of danger, his princess would soon be imperilled. He sighed – it looked like Bluequill was going to win another game. He heard a chuckle come from the other chair in the room, and gave Wandering a dirty look.

The alicorn’s attention was mostly on maintaining the mass-reduction spell that was vital to the deceleration process, which was why Commander Bluequill was currently in charge. However, a small part of his attention had been following the game between the griffon and the pegasus. Such games had been vital for staving off boredom during the shifts on the bridge which were characterised by long periods of nothing happening, and the skills of the players had increased considerably over the years. Defeating the wily griffon continued to be a very elusive goal though for most of his opponents. Playbitz was not going to go down without a fight though.

“Unicorn archer to level one gamma seven.”

“You’ll be sorry,” Wandering said before leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes to return his full concentration on the spell.

“Huh? What do you…?”

“Zebra assassin to level five epsilon two. Royal jeopardy.”

“What the…? Oh, ponyfeathers! How did I miss that?” The pegasus sighed in frustration. “I concede.”

The griffin smiled. “Do you wish to play again?”

Playbitz rolled his eyes. “I prefer not to be humiliated more than once a day, Commander.”

Bluequill dismissed the game with a flick of a talon. “Eyes back on your station then, Lieutenant.”

The pegasus turned around and scanned the instruments once more, noting nothing unusual. Another light bomb detonated and the screen dimmed. As it came back to full brightness, something caught Playbitz’s eyes. He frowned and watched carefully when the next bomb went off, and then another. His hooves tapped on the controls and the view went from normal to high magnification. At astronomical distances, magnification was normally pointless, but this close to their goal, it finally revealed something previously unknown. As he watched, six spheres that had been previously lost in the glare from the Far Star pulsed dimly about five seconds after the light bomb detonated. When the screen returned to normal brightness, he could see their glow fade and leave them silhouetted against the background. He dismissed the distracting screen read-outs from the instruments and watched in fascination as it happened again, this time noticing a tunnel-like shadow around the Far Star extending as far as the spheres. He spun around in his chair, confusion and concern on his face.

“What in Celestia’s name is that?” he demanded.

Bluequill had already noticed the unusual sight on the big screen, but he had no more idea about it than Playbitz had. He tapped a button on his chair’s controls and said, “Lieutenant Commander Starry Path to the bridge immediately!”

Wandering had opened his eyes at Playbitz’s words and looked at the screen, but comprehended what he was seeing no more than the others did.

Starry burst onto the bridge a minute later. “What’s up, Comman…?” She trailed off upon spotting what was on the screen.

“Starry – I need to know what we’re seeing and I need to know now!” Bluequill ordered.

Starry hastened over to her station and got to work. Bringing the TESS to bear on the phenomenon, she made some quick readings and gasped. “Sweet Celestia, no!” She whirled around and said urgently, “Commander, we have to slow down a lot faster. Double – no triple the light bombs.”

Bluequill did not waste time arguing with the alicorn mare. He hit another button on the chair and squawked, “Bridge to Engineering!”

Radiance Point here, Bridge.

“We need an immediate increase in the rate of light bomb production to triple its current rate.”

WHAT?! No way, Commander. Double is no problem, but triple is virtually impossible.

“You have your orders, Point. Get it done however you can!”

Something in Bluequill’s tone stifled further objections by Radiance. “On it, Commander.”

Almost immediately, light bombs started coming out at a far faster rate. Bluequill turned back to Starry and said, “Explanations now, please.”

All eyes were upon Starry when she nervously replied. “Those appear to be moonlets directly in our path to the Far Star. We are too close to avoid them now, and they are too close together for the Cosmic Lotus to pass between them with the sails extended. We have to stop before we reach them.”

“Damn! What’s that shadow?” the griffon demanded.

“It looks like some sort of tunnel through the dust cloud. I’m getting some contradictory results here. One set of data says that the Far Star lies just within this bubble inside the dust cloud, but another set seems to suggest that the star lies outside of the wall.”

“That’s impossible!”

“I know! But there are those moonlets and there’s that tunnel. You explain it.”

Bluequill snarled and turned back to the screen.

“Calm down, Commander” Wandering said. “Give Starry a chance to get more data.”

“Do you wish to take over, Captain?”

“No. Starry has to concentrate on her instruments, so I have to maintain the mass-reducing spell. Just watch the situation carefully.” Wandering then closed his eyes and tried to increase the effectiveness of the spell, hoping that even a tiny increase would be of benefit.

The tension on the bridge was palpable as the odd scene grew closer. Everyone jumped as the comm suddenly came to life.

Engineering to Bridge! We have a misfire – one of the light bombs did not have its detonation spell set correctly. Commander – the crew can’t keep up with the demand. They’re starting to make mistakes.

Bluequill looked towards Starry and she shook her head. “We’ll be cutting it fine already,” she said. “We must keep slowing down as quickly as possible.”

The griffon nodded. “Engineering – we don’t have a choice. Keep up the pace.”

There was a long moment of silence before Point replied. “Aye, sir.”

Meanwhile the bridge crew were watching the scene unfold on the screen. The intervals between the light bombs going off and the moonlets pulsing gradually decreased as they drew closer. As they grew closer, the visual sensors provided a much clearer view. The light bomb that had failed to detonate continued on towards the Far Star, but at the moment that it appeared to pass between the six moonlets, it suddenly exploded. Each of the spheres pulsed with a huge burst of light, and ropes of energy leapt between them, linking them up in a roughly hexagonal arrangement. The shadow between the moonlets intensified and the tunnel effect became very pronounced with the Far Star gleaming at the distant end of it. The starship suddenly shuddered.

“What was that?” demanded Bluequill, expecting Starry to answer.

Playbitz responded instead. “Commander – we’ve stopped slowing down! Something is pulling us in!”

Starry spoke up. “He’s right. That energy matrix is generating a field that is distorting space, causing us to fall into it.”

“We have to increase our braking. Playbitz, use the forward vectoring rockets!”

“Sir – with the mass-reducing spell in effect, their contribution would be almost nothing!”

“Anything is better than nothing, Lieutenant. Full thrust on all forward rockets!”

“Aye, sir.”

Bluequill hit the comm again. “Engineering – is there any way to increase the output of the light bombs?”

Point’s voice came back with dread finality. “No sir, we’ve already done that. Commander, I’ve looked at the feed from the bridge instruments. We’re not going to be able to overcome both our inertia and the pull of whatever that is. We just aren’t equipped for it.

Starry nodded. “He’s right. And at the speed we’ll be going when the sails hit, we may not survive.”

“Furl the sails! If we can’t stop, we have to go through.”

“Furling sails,” Playbitz replied. “Commander – can I stop the rockets? Our fuel situation is getting critical. They were never meant to be used constantly like this.”

“Yes, stop the rockets. How long before the sails are furled?”

Starry replied, “You already know how long that it takes. They don’t have a means of speeding up.”

“They don’t have to be fully furled – just enough to allow us to pass through safely.”

“How much is enough, Commander? I can measure the distance those moonlets are apart, but what other forces are at play here? A significant gravity field alone would wreak havoc as the sails pass.”

Unable to give her an answer, Bluequill resumed watching the screen in silence. Long minutes passed before anything more was said. Even though the sails were being furled, they were still decelerating the ship, although their effectiveness was diminishing at an ever-increasing rate. Starry watched their progress closely, hoping for good news, but eventually she had to concede that they were taking too long. It took a lot of time to reel in many kilometres of graphene sail despite its thinness.

“Sir, we’re not going to make it. I estimate that about three hundred metres of sail will still be beyond the inner diameter of the circle of moonlets when we reach them.”

Wandering spoke up then. “Detach the sails.”

Bluequill frowned. “Without the sails, we’ll be helpless.”

“With the sails, the torque imposed by hitting the moons at our current speed could rip the ship apart. Ditch them. We’ll worry about the rest later. One crisis at a time.”

“Aye, Captain. Playbitz – prepare to detach solar sails.”

“Aye, sir.”

While the pegasus’ hooves danced over the controls, Bluequill contacted Engineering once more. “Halt production of the light bombs,” he ordered.

Thank Celestia! Production halted, sir.

Playbitz announced, “Explosive bolts primed and ready. Safety protocols require command authorisation.”

Wandering discontinued his mass-reducing spell, and there was a lurch as the pull on the ship sharply increased. He said, “CONN – command override Omega One.”

Command override acknowledged,” CONN replied.

Bluequill said, “CONN – command confirmation Omega Two.”

Command confirmed,” Conn replied. “Explosive bolts activated.

“Detonate explosive bolts,” Bluequill ordered.

There were a series of muffled thuds as the fastenings of the solar sail booms and the tensioning cables were shattered, and the sails began to drift away from the ship.

Explosive bolt failure in boom four,” CONN dispassionately announced.

“What!” Bluequill squawked. “Get me a camera on that boom!”

“On it!” Starry activated the camera nearest to boom four and put the image on the main screen. The boom was slowly bending forward, being drawn by the force being exerted by the moonlets. As they watched, the pressure became too great and the boom shattered in half, tearing off a large portion of the sail with it. However, the other half stubbornly stayed attached to the ship via the tensioning cables. Almost gracefully, hundreds of metres of graphene sail folded itself over the ship, obscuring the camera. Starry switched the view back to the forward camera, but even then they could still see the torn sail slowly encroaching on the view. The seven successfully detached sails could be seen accelerating towards the moonlets which were beginning to show individual features.

“Are those… runes on the moonlets?” Starry asked.

Bluequill snorted in disgust. “I wouldn’t be surprised. I’d say there was some strong ancient magic at work here.”

“I wish Mom or Mama Twilight was here. Maybe they would know.”

“Have we got time to try to contact them?” Playbitz asked.

Starry shook her head regretfully. “Whatever that is ahead of us, we’re committed to going through it now.”

“Umm… about that,” Playbitz said with a worried look on his face.

“What now?” Bluequill asked.

“The damaged sail is pulling us out of alignment.”

“Then compensate!”

“I am! But it’s taking a lot of effort by our vectoring system, and we’ve already used a lot of our fuel.”

“Are we in any danger of being pulled into one of the moonlets?” Wandering asked.

“The ship isn’t, but the sail might,” Starry said. “I’ve managed to get a fairly accurate measurement, and the moonlets form a circle roughly two hundred and sixty metres in internal diameter. The sail fragment is a couple of hundred metres long, but it is being pulled forward. The attractive force seems to be pulling us towards the centre of the circle. We may be lucky and thread the needle.”

“Have any of you noticed what’s happening inside that… tunnel?” Playbitz asked, pointing with his right hoof.

Swirls of energy were noticeably growing within the passage between the moonlets.

Wandering said, “I don’t think we want to find out what that unknown energy can do to us. Playbitz – try to keep us centred and away from that tunnel wall. Starry – reinforce the ship’s shields.”

“Aye, Captain!” Playbitz and Starry chorused.

Playbitz worked feverishly to keep them aligned as the moonlets drew ever closer. The first of the detached sails reached the array and seemed to be sucked into it. An edge struck the wall of the tunnel and there was a burst of light as the sail was ripped to shreds, the super-strong material nothing more than tissue paper in the grasp of the strange forces within.

Wandering gulped and said, “Playbitz – let me rephrase… whatever you do, don’t let us hit the wall of that tunnel. Fuel economy be damned!”

“You got it, sir!” Playbitz replied fervently.

In rapid succession, the rest of the sails met the same fate. As the Cosmic Lotus drew closer, the watchers could finally make out the markings on the moonlets. Each had a different one. Starry had the TESS focus on them. A stylised overlay was put on the screen that showed the markings for what they were.

“Those are ancient runes,” Wandering said with surprise.

“There seem to be far more, only much smaller,” Starry reported. “The big one seems to be the focus of the others.”

“Then we are dealing with really old magic,” Bluequill stated.

“That doesn’t make them safe,” Wandering replied. “But it does mean that we were meant to find this. It has been waiting for someone to come along and activate it, whatever it is.”

“I think we’re all going to find out in a few minutes,” Playbitz said with false cheer. “Allowing for the acceleration that thing is imposing upon us, I estimate that we will reach it in seven and a half minutes. Anyone want to grab a coffee while we wait?”

Wandering stared at the pegasus for a long moment before chuckling. “I think you’ll be needing something a bit stronger if we get through this okay. Keep up the good work.”

Playbitz never took his eyes off his board, and constantly worked to adjust their attitude and trajectory. Nevertheless he gave a small smile and said, “I’ll take you up on that, Captain.”

Wandering managed a chuckle before touching a comm button. “Attention all crew members! This is the captain speaking. We are about to encounter an unknown phenomenon which is potential extremely dangerous. Secure equipment and then take your stations. Use departure thrust and manoeuvre protocols and secure yourselves too. You have seven minutes. This is not a drill!”

It was a nervous wait for the bridge crew, made all the worse each time another sail struck the passageway between the moonlets and was violently torn apart. Playbitz kept reducing the magnification of the screen until it could be reduced no further, and the passageway between the moonlets rushed up to meet them.

“All crew – brace for entry,” Wandering announced moments before they passed the threshold.

There was a flash of light, and the torn sail wrenched them to the side. The ship bucked and shuddered as the forces within the passageway fought for dominance. The tunnel stretched out ahead of them, their universe now bounded by the swirling energies within what seemed to be an ever-warping tunnel terminating in the bright glow of the star that they had been chasing for over a decade of ship’s time. The sail touched the energy swirls that bounded the tunnel and parts of it disintegrated in a flare of power that shook the ship like a toy and sent them drifting towards the opposite side of the enormous tube.

Get us back in the centre!” yelled Wandering.

I’m trying!” Playbitz yelled back, desperately manipulating the vectoring rockets to stabilise them and push them back, only to have the flapping sail remnant touch the side once again and thrust them back towards the edge of the tube. Every loose object within the bridge was sent hurtling willy-nilly throughout the bridge, their flight sometimes terminating in worrying sounds, and Wandering wondered what it was like in the more cluttered rooms. Then he thought of the Park and its large pond. Oddly, the thought of having to work to clean up a flood cheered him up a bit, because the need to mop up implied that they would get through this crisis alive. As long they could hold together until it ended, then they would have plenty of time to fix things. Hopefully both the ship and the crew could last until then. But how long was that?

The seconds seem to drag out forever, and then it all suddenly stopped. On the screen, there was no longer any sign of the bizarre tunnel. A brilliant star was nearly centred on the screen, but it was far from alone.

Starry gaped in awe. “Oh sweet Celestia! There’s millions of them!” Stars of various sizes and colours filled every part of the screen, some so thickly that they seemed to be a river of milk flowing through an eerily black sky. The sea of white was obscured in places by irregular dark clouds which in turn had even more stars in front of them.

Everyone on the bridge looked at the unfamiliar scene with wonder until Playbitz had the presence of mind to turn on a rearward facing camera. Behind them, six moonlets were rapidly losing their glow, and the arcs of energy between them had disappeared. Only a dark purple shadow could be seen within them. Something else was missing though.

“Umm… what’s happened to the dust wall?” Playbitz asked.

Behind the moonlets, there was no sign of the dust cloud that contained the bubble of space that they had known all their lives.

“I have a better question,” Bluequill said. “Where in the universe are we?”

All eyes turned to Starry, and she gulped nervously. “I’ll… get to work on that,” she said with a nervous smile.



The Chrome Changeling who had been monitoring the passive feed from the Cosmic Lotus frowned before hitting a comm switch.

“This is Helix. We have a situation on board the Cosmic Lotus.” He listened to the response before continuing, “The ship has encountered a possible threat. I recommend that Princess Twilight come immediately to the control room.” He waited for an acknowledgement before disconnecting the comm.

Twilight and the rest of the science team as well as various members of House Path had already gathered for the upcoming milestone. The Cosmic Lotus was due to stop decelerating on the verge of the Far Star system to do a thorough scan of the volume of space around it for planets. This not only gave the crew the opportunity to choose their final course, but it also marked the official moment that they had arrived at their destination. Naturally a special celebration had been organised at the princess’ castle for this historic occasion, and it took a while for the message to get through. By the time Twilight frantically teleported into the control room with a number of other family members, the threat had unfolded into crisis.

“What is that?” the alicorn demanded as she stared at the still image that Helix had downloaded from the data stream.

“No one knows, ma’am,” Helix replied. “However, it seems to be drawing the ship into it. The crew are trying to brake, but are having no success.”

Twilight tried to comprehend the situation, and squinted at the moonlets. “Enlarge the view on one of those spheres.”

Helix increased the size of the image as much as was practical.

“Those are runes! What in the universe are they doing there? Helix – contact the Lotus and try to get me more data!”

“I’ve already tried – the crew seem preoccupied at the moment.”

“Then get me more data from the stream. I need to help!”

The changeling tried his best, but was limited to what the starship had been automatically sending back to base, and in the brief time before the Cosmic Lotus jettisoned its sails, Twilight was unable to glean any more relevant information.

“Where’s Destined? He needs to get over to the ship!” Twilight said with a tinge of panic in her voice.

Free Agent replied, “He’s showing some VIP’s around the facilities, remember? I’ve already got my drones looking out for him. When they spot him, they’ll… whoops – found him.”

A moment later, the blue alicorn stallion teleported into the control room.

“What’s wrong, Mom?” he asked even as he noticed the latest image on the screen.

“You have to teleport to the ship and help them!” Twilight blurted out.

“I don’t know what I can do there, but I’ll try.” His horn lit up, and then died down again, his expression confused. “I can’t find either of the mana beacons!”

What?! How could that happen?!” Twilight screeched.

“Something must be interfering with them.”

Twilight stared at the image with the glowing runes on the moonlets. “Oh, Tartarus!” she whispered helplessly.

Long Path said to Helix, “Can you put me on the comm? Maybe I can get through to them?”

“Good luck with that, sir,” Helix replied even as he complied.

“Lord Path to Cosmic Lotus – are you receiving me?”

There was a long moment of silence, and then a burst of static. Helix double-checked the instrument readings from the comm and said with shocked seriousness, “The link to the Cosmic Lotus has been lost.”

That’s impossible!” Twilight yelled. “The way the sympathetically-linked crystal comm systems work, there’s always some sort of signal! They didn’t even lose their link during the time dilation!”

Helix cringed a little at the alicorn’s outburst. “Unless one has been destroyed,” he reluctantly pointed out.

A dread silence hung over the group as the seconds dragged out into minutes without resumption of the signal. A sob broke the hush as Twilight sunk to the floor in anguish. Free put a comforting wing around his wife, at a loss for words. The others looked at each other, trying to comprehend what had happened to their family and friends.

Eventually Path gave a deep sigh and said, “I’m going to inform our guests what has happened. Let me know the moment that the situation changes.” ‘If it changes,’ he added to himself as he departed the control room.



Commander Bluequill walked up to his Captain behind the small artificial hill in the Park that served as a stage. “Everyone is assembled, sir. The bridge crew will be viewing you on the main viewscreen and the engineering repair teams will be getting the audio feed.”

Wandering Star nodded. “Very good. I’ll address everyone in a moment. Go ahead and take your seat.” Bluequill saluted and took his leave. Wandering frowned.

Starry Path blinked and commented to her mate. “When was the last time that happened?”

Wandering looked over, then resumed his pensive stare straight ahead. “What? Getting a salute from Bluequill? Before the mission started, I think.” He sighed. “Starry, I’m hoping your astronomical observations have more good news than I do for the crew. Or at least more answers. Everyone is covering their fear in their own way.” He gave a vague wave towards where Bluequill had been standing. “I’m hoping you can distract them.”

Starry nodded. “I think I can guarantee that.”

Wandering smiled briefly. “See that you do.” He then walked to the top of the hill and looked down upon his crew gathered before him. Their conversations died out quickly.

“By now, you are all familiar with the initial data on the gateway that carried us to this portion of the universe. I’ll summarize the current ship status. The comm link and the two mana beacons have lost their connections to their counterparts on Equis. There doesn’t appear to be any damage to the mana crystals, so we’re hopeful that the links can be re-established. After critical repairs, that will be Engineering’s top priority.”

The crew started talking animatedly, only to be cut off.

“Techbird has completed removal of the damaged solar sail. As we suspected, a dust particle had damaged the separation mechanism during our approach to the gateway.” He shifted his weight. “We have measured the velocity at which we were ejected from the gateway tunnel and compared that to our remaining chemical propellant. We currently do not have sufficient fuel to make a direct return. The engineering and navigation teams will explore other options.”

This time, the wave of fear he felt from the crowd was palpable as they began talking amongst themselves again.

“Starry Path will now tell us what we know and what we believe regarding this region of space.” Wandering walked to the bottom of the hill, gratefully taking a mug of tea that Kale Robe had ready for him.

Starry trotted to the top of the hill and looked out over the expectant and worried faces. “So what’s new, everypony?” There was a moment of silence, followed by a round of chuckles and strained laughter.

The alicorn smiled. “Let’s get right to it then. Not all of you have had the chance to look at the video feeds yet, so be ready for a bit of a shock.”

Using her magic, she dimmed the lights in the Park and turned on the projector unit. She looked up at the floor to ceiling scene behind her, the pinpoints of light creating a silhouette of her form on the hill.

Starry heard the gasps behind her and turned. “Each of those tiny flecks of light is a star. Or more than one star. Without question, we are in a region of the universe with far more stars, and probably planets, than we ever could have imagined. It puts the few hundred that we knew back home to shame. If you needed a reason to justify why we are here, look no further than this.”

An animated buzz carried through the crowd. Cosmic Dawn lifted a hoof and spoke up. “What is that smudge in the corner?”

Starry nodded. “I wondered if anyone would notice that. As many of you know, Moonlit Path and I use a version of Far Sight’s magnified optics spell to gather light for our visual sensors. By pulling in all the light coming from that area of the sky over a circle of one hundred meters radius, we can show you that section of the sky in real time.”

Starry’s horn lit up and the view zoomed and rotated.

The talking became louder. “This is what Moonlit and I are tentatively calling a star whirlpool,” Starry continued. “It appears to be one of a few standard structures for large groups of stars.”

Cosmic Dawn raised her hoof again. Starry pointed at her. “How many stars and how large?” she asked.

Starry smirked. “To a rough order of magnitude, over a billion stars and a hundred thousand light years across.”

Wandering frowned and swallowed his tea untasted. He sensed less fear around him, but it was replaced by plenty of anxiety.

After waiting a minute, Starry’s horn went out and returned the background to the previous view. “It’s likely that we live in one such star whirlpool that is of similar structure. We are currently perhaps three quarters of the way to the edge. The milky light areas of this image? That’s the direction to the centre where the stars are the densest. There is much less of that brightness in the opposite direction.”

Starry looked directly at Wandering for a moment with a twinkle in her eye. “Now since Moonlit and I are the discoverers of our home whirlpool, tradition dictates that we have the privilege of naming where we live.” The room became quiet. “We discussed what would be an appropriate name. Something that properly expressed its grandeur and indescribable power.” Near the back of the crowd, Moonlit cocked her head a bit and furrowed her brow, obviously confused.

She’s stalling. Why is she stalling? Wandering thought as he brought the mug to his lips.

Starry continued. “Finally, we decided on ‘Wandering’s Flatulence’!”

The silence was broken by the sound of tea shooting out of Wandering’s nose as he broke into a hacking cough.

The room exploded with laughter. Bluequill helpfully pounded on his captain’s back until the griffon could no longer keep upright. The screeches, hoofstomps, and chirps rolled on and on as Wandering got his coughing under control. He felt the tension in the Park melt away like ice in the Saddle Arabian sun, but that did not prevent him from glaring at his partner, although his smile removed any venom from it.

Starry gave a sloppy salute worthy of their brother Flix. She mouthed silently, “Just following orders.”

Wandering returned the salute. “Just you wait. Yours is coming soon.”

Starry smirked. “Looking forward to it.”

After a few minutes, the crew settled down of their own accord. Wandering was curious why Starry had not stepped down. Was there more?

She cleared her throat and got the majority of everyone’s attention, though there was still the undercurrent of a few conversations. “Moonlit and I also located a very small patch of sky with no stars. We expanded the magnified optics spell to its maximum of 450 meters and made one image of all light from that area over the course of 90 minutes, just in case there were any dim light sources there.”

The view changed again.

The room became completely silent. Not even breathing was heard.

“Every one of these structures, even the far away points, appears to be a star whirlpool. Again, we can only give a rough estimate. We are surrounded by approximately a billion star whirlpools that we can see. That means that our home star is one of roughly one quintillion others... that we can see.”

The silence stretched out.

“Any more questions?” Starry scanned the crowd and saw no hooves or paws raised, but lots of pupils reduced to pinpricks despite the overall darkness of the Park. ‘Weird,’ she thought before continuing aloud. “And that’s what we know as of today. Our universe just got a whole lot bigger.”



“I believe that I have a way for us to propel ourselves,” Radiance Point reported.

Wandering and Bluequill looked at the unicorn expectantly. “Well, don’t keep us waiting,” the alicorn ordered.

Point nodded. “Now that we have slowed down so much, our forward shield is not so vital to our needs. I propose that we reconfigure it to project a cup-shaped field ahead of us. The mana balls that we configured as light bombs can be re-spelled to produce a concussive force instead. Because the force field would be out of the influence of your mass-reducing spell, we will be able to get a similar amount of acceleration as with the solar sails. However, while the sails would flex to absorb the shock of the photon bombardment, the field would have to be tuned to absorb and release the impulse from the explosions in a more gradual manner so as to not treat the ship like a hammer hitting a nail, but I believe this will work. It will be a lot rougher and less efficient than the light bombs, but it’s a whole lot better than being stuck without any form of propulsion besides a few manoeuvring rockets. Besides, we seriously need to conserve what little chemical fuel that we have left.”

Wandering brightened considerably at that news. He looked at Bluequill. “What do you think, Commander? Will it work?”

Bluequill looked thoughtful. “Off the top of my head, I can’t see why not.”

The alicorn looked back to Point. “Go ahead with that. What help do you need?”

“I already have started the guys working on the equipment, but I’ll need the assistance of a control systems specialist, so I want to requisition Albite Feldspar.”

“You’ve got him,” Wandering assured Point. “How long do you think it will take to make the configuration changes?”

“About a day, give or take.”

“Keep me up to date.”

“Aye, Captain.” Point departed Wandering’s office, and the alicorn heaved a sigh of relief.

Bluequill said, “You do realise that this method will draw a lot more heavily on our mana reserves than the light bombs did, and we have yet to figure out if we can return through the gateway and hopefully re-establish contact with Equis.”

“I know, Galen, but I choose to be optimistic. Mere minutes ago, we were a floundering ship, but now we’ll soon be back under way again. We have a marvellously diverse and skilful crew, and between us we’ll figure it out.”

The griffon was not quite so upbeat though. “That assumes that nothing else goes wrong in the meantime.”

“We spent over ten years crossing the stars before we had a major problem. I think I’ll play the odds.” The alicorn grinned and clapped the griffon on the back. “And if things do go wrong, you can tell me ‘I told you so’,”

“Small consolation,” Bluequill grumped.



Harry Buford looked around in surprise as an alert sounded at the Chakona Defence Force monitoring station. He got up from his desk to go over to the status monitor, and he frowned at what the screen told him. He tapped a few keys on the keyboard and looked at the result in confusion.

“A weak gamma ray burst only three light-days from Chakona? That should not be possible.” He picked up the nearby phone and dialled a number. When it was answered, he said, “Amanda, could you turn our instruments all on these coordinates and tell me what you find.” He then read off the coordinates from the screen and waited. Before he got a response though, the status monitor reported another gamma ray burst, quickly followed by several more.

“What in blazes is going on out there?”

Amanda’s excited voice drew his attention back to the phone. “Harry – I’m sending the data to your station right now. There’s something very strange happening.

“Thanks, Amanda. I’ll get back to you.” He switched the view on the screen to focus in on what concerned him most. The information flowed, making him frown even more. “All the bursts are too small to have been created by normal stellar phenomena,” he mumbled to himself. “They all are coming from a single point on the plane of the ecliptic at a distance of 3.1 light-days. Other than comets, what else is out there?” Then he gasped as he spotted something. He grabbed the phone again and dialled the base commander’s office.

“Sir! Lieutenant Harry Buford here, shift supervisor for the Chakastra System Watch. We have just detected the signature of the mysterious plasma that the Swarm utilises in their weapons. The invaders have been spotted at only three light days from Chakona!”

 


 

First Contact

 

“That’s impossible!” Fleet Admiral Namatjira declared, glaring in disbelief at Commander Meadowlark of the Chakona Defence Force. “There’s no way that the Swarm has gotten past our blockade.”

The chakat returned his gaze with a frosty look. “Our sensors are not mistaken. The outer system satellites detected a light burst at 410 nm wavelength and is 93.2% linearly polarised which are the exact characteristics of the light emitted by the Swarm’s unknown plasma energy.”

“That still doesn’t explain how they could have gotten past us.”

“Irrelevant. You’ve been fighting them for decades and have failed to stop them, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they might have found their way around you. The point is that the Swarm is beyond the ability of the CDF to cope with, and we need Star Fleet out here right now!”

“Do you have anything to go on besides this light burst?”

“Of course. I despatched a fast scout immediately before calling you, and even though shi will be approaching the area with caution, shi should be reporting any moment.” A light lit up on Meadowlark’s monitor with an accompanying ping. “Speaking of whom, shi’s reporting in now. I’m patching you into the call.”

Meadowlark answered the incoming transmission, and the screen split to reveal the helmeted head of another chakat. “Report, Lieutenant Calmstream.”

“Shir – I have found the source of the signal, and there’s definitely a starship there, but it’s like nothing we have ever seen before. Sending you images now.”

The monitor changed to show a telescopic view of a long cylindrical vessel seen side-on. At that distance, no markings could be distinguished, but as they watched, a pinpoint of light was ejected from the nose of the craft. Moments later, the light source exploded, and a cup-shaped force-field lit up, blocking the ejecta from reaching the ship. After a short time, this sequence of events repeated.

Calmstream spoke up again after the second explosion. “This has been happening ever since I came within telescopic view. Each time there’s a burst of the indicative polarised light. There’s no indication that the ship has noticed me. Do you wish for me to get closer?”

“Proceed with caution, Lieutenant,” Meadowlark ordered.

Namatjira spoke up. “That looks nothing like any Swarm ship that we have ever encountered.”

“I can see that for myself, Admiral. That does not lessen its potential threat.”

“Why is it travelling at sub-light speeds though? And why did it just appear out of nowhere on the outer fringes of the Chakastra System?”

“That’s what I am expecting you to find out, Admiral. Perhaps it’s a scout of some kind that you simply haven’t encountered before. Perhaps it’s mapping our system for invasion purposes. Whatever the reason, I have a world with millions of sapient beings that need defending, and if it’s Swarm-related, the CDF does not have the means to stop them.”

Namatjira frowned. “I will send a ship, but our fastest and most manoeuvrable battleships are on the front line of the blockade. One moment….”

Meadowlark’s monitor switched to a stand-by screen showing the Federation Star Fleet logo while Admiral Namatjira followed up on his words, and then his face returned. “I have ordered the Pegasus to proceed at top speed to Chakastra. That ship has the firepower to deal with any Swarm ship, although it doesn’t have the same manoeuvring capabilities as the blockade ships. We’ll get you your answers, Commander.”

“Thank you, Admiral.”

They both watched their monitors for a while as the scout ship approached the unknown starship cautiously. Eventually they could just make out some markings. There appeared to be two unfamiliar emblems on the side as well as what might be writing.

“Swarm ships all have an organic look to them, and none of them have any identifying emblems like those,” Namatjira commented.

“I agree, but that does not mean that they are not a threat. Nothing we’ve seen using that unknown energy has ever been of benefit to us.”

The admiral chuckled with dark humour. “Believe me, Commander – if they show any sign of attacking us, they will no longer be a threat to you.”



“There it is again, sir,” Gizmo Gears reported.

Wandering Path said, “Switch it to the main screen, Gizmo.”

The unicorn did so, revealing nothing but the unfamiliar starfield. “Wait for it….”

A glint of light accompanied by instrument read-outs appeared momentarily.

“You’re right. Try to focus on that object.”

“Trying, sir. It’s elusive though.”

“Use the TESS,” Starry said from the couch where she was lying and maintaining the mass-reduction spell.

“Good idea,” Wandering replied. He tapped the comm and said, “Cosmic Dawn – report to the bridge immediately.”

On my way, sir,” came the immediate reply.

When the unicorn mare arrived, Wandering instructed her to use the TESS to investigate the odd phenomenon. After some fruitless attempts, the alicorn asked if she was making any progress.

“The problem, sir, is that whatever it is seems to be moving very fast and I have not been able to get a lock on it. The TESS was not designed for this kind of thing.”

“Keep trying, Dawn. Nothing else we’ve tried has given us any more information on the object as yet.”

After a few more minutes, Cosmic Dawn said, “Aha! Gotcha! Captain – it stayed relatively motionless for long enough for me to get a lock on it. Transferring the image to the big screen now.”

The starfield seemed to zoom in, revealing something totally unexpected.

“That’s a spacecraft!” Gizmo blurted out.

“Nothing like anything Equis ever built,” Wandering added.

“How is it moving like that though?” Gizmo asked as the ship changed direction.

“Some unknown form of magical propulsion?” Starry suggested.

“There’s zero sign of mana use according to the TESS,” Cosmic Dawn countered.

“Who cares?” Wandering said. “We’ve just encountered our first ever non-Equis civilisation. What an enormous discovery! Some people had speculated on the existence of beings on another world, and here’s proof of that!”

“They’re being awfully shy,” Starry commented.

“Believe me, I’d be cautious too if I was meeting a new species for the first time. My past experiences back on Equis made me value a conservative approach. I’d like to reach out to them too, but let’s take our time. There’s no need to rush this.”

“What if they’re hostile?” Gizmo asked.

Wandering smiled grimly. “Our shield can stop a lot of things, but our real problem would be trying to get away from them. Right now, we are at the mercy of our limited means of propulsion. Have you made any progress in restoring the mana beacons or the interstellar comm systems yet, Dawn?”

“The entire staff is doing their best, Captain, but we haven’t restored them as yet. However, I do have some good news. We believe that the links have only been disrupted, not destroyed. If we can re-establish them, we may be able to restore communications.”

“That’s promising, but for now we’re at the mercy of the intentions of those unknown beings.”

Cosmic Dawn nodded. “I’m afraid so, sir.”

Wandering smirked. “Good thing I’m feeling optimistic about this then.”



Admiral Boyce Garald Kline was surprised when he got the orders from Fleet Admiral Namatjira to investigate a possible Swarm incursion in the Chakastra System. While the Pegasus was the flagship of the First Fleet and had seen action against the invaders, it had been relegated to its normal duties since the specialised blockade ships had been built. Since his ship was the closest, he had been directed to proceed with utmost haste to possibly defend Chakona until back-up from other Star Fleet ships could get there. After ordering the helmsman to lay in a course, he called in all his department heads and a few specialists to a meeting in the main conference room. Among them were his First Officer, Rosepetal Silpurr, a Caitian female with sandy-coloured fur, long reddish-brown hair, and golden slit-pupiled eyes. Not incidentally, she was also Kline’s wife.

Although Rosepetal’s height was only 157cm (5’ 2”), she was actually very tall for her species, and her commanding presence more than made up for her lack of stature among the others gathered for the meeting. These included her co-wives – Chakat Forestwalker, Chakat Midnight, and M’Lai Saarath. While their husband was a human, he had married Rosepetal under Caitian customs which, due to the extreme gender quantity differences, allowed for up to six wives for each male. Boyce so far had five official wives, although the nature of a relationship with a chakat extended family had blurred that definition somewhat over the years. At 193cm (6’ 4”), M’Lai towered over her fellow Caitian. A victim of a childhood disease that had caused gigantism among other problems, she had finally found acceptance as Fifthwife of the Star Fleet Admiral to whose ship she had been assigned as Assistant Chief Medical Officer decades ago, now promoted to Chief of Staff.

It was Admiral Kline’s Thirdwife who was the greatest contrast though. Forestwalker, a jaguar-patterned chakat, was not only a taur, a being with four legs on a lower torso with two arms on an upper torso, shi was also a hermaphrodite. Although the feline centauroid strongly favoured hir feminine side, like all hir species, shi also had masculine needs. Boyce had not only been comfortable with that, but he also found it attractive enough that Rosepetal, had insisted on formalising their relationship, as was her right and duty as his Firstwife. Although not a Star Fleet officer, Forestwalker headed up the biology department staffed by civilian scientists. Later on in their relationship, Forestwalker’s mate, Midnight, became Boyce’s Fourthwife as home life and hir work in Star Fleet Security overlapped so much with them both.

When all the relevant departments were present, Boyce began the meeting with a display of what information had so far been gleaned. Although there was much concern about the possible threat to Chakona and her home planet, Forestwalker was the first to point out the other side of the coin.

“What if these are peaceful explorers from another species entirely, and no threat to the Federation?”

Boyce smiled grimly. “While that may be the best possible outcome, it’s our task first and foremost to ensure that it is not a threat to ships or inhabited worlds. The only species we have encountered so far that have utilised that enigmatic energy have been utterly hostile to everyone, so we will be proceeding with utmost caution. If necessary, we will destroy that ship before it becomes a danger to our colonised worlds. That’s our duty as Star Fleet.”

Forestwalker nodded. “I understand completely, but I hope that you give them every chance to prove otherwise. Please take advantage of my empathic abilities to do so.”

“You may be an E5 empath, Forestwalker, but even you need to be dangerously close to use your ability,” Rosepetal pointed out.

The chakat nodded solemnly. “I know, but it’s still better than a potentially fatal misunderstanding between possible allies.”

Boyce said, “Trust me, Forest – I’ll do my best to ensure that everyone comes through this incident safely.”



The shy spacecraft had continued to watch the Cosmic Lotus from a distance, and apparently had not made any attempts to communicate that the crew had been able to determine. It came as a shock when it was joined hours later by a huge starship that dwarfed not only the scout ship, but also the Equian’s own craft.

“Sweet Celestia – would you look at the size of that thing!” Gizmo exclaimed. “How did it move that fast and then come to a relative standstill so easily?”

Wandering had the same questions, but refrained from commenting. Unlike the small first ship, this one was a lot more intimidating, and he questioned the Lotus’ ability to defend itself against it. “Try communicating with it,” he ordered.

“Yes sir, but you realise that it will probably have the same problem as with the first ship, namely incompatible systems?”

“I know, but at least we can try.”

Gizmo attempted to contact the ship, but had the same lack of success as earlier.

Wandering sighed internally before deciding on his next approach. He tapped the comm to connect him to Engineering and ordered, “Cease deceleration procedures.” He then turned to Gizmo and said, “Reconfigure the shield for optimum defence.”

“Aye, sir!”

“What are you planning?” Starry asked as she discontinued the mass-reducing spell.

“I’m going to do some counting,” Wandering replied enigmatically.



“I think it’s some form of Orion Drive,” the helmsman opined.

The Pegasus had immediately brought its entire sensor suite to bear upon the strange starship when they had arrived. After matching velocity with it as close as they had dared to approach, they started delving for its secrets.

“I agree,” Rosepetal said from her position at the Science station. “And a remarkably effective one too. There must be some form of mass-cancelling technology at work for those explosive impulses to have that much of an inertial effect upon a ship of that size. My measurements suggest that they were decelerating at a rate and direction consistent with putting them into an orbit around Chakona. This indicates that they are probably aware of the inhabited nature of the world.”

“Any idea what those exploding balls of light are?” Boyce asked.

“None whatsoever, but I can tell you that they are the main source of the light signature of the same unknown energy that the Swarm uses. The force-field also radiates that signature while absorbing the impulse.”

“That’s an uncomfortable coincidence,” Boyce replied.

“Unless, of course, they are a species that have dealt with the Swarm and have knowledge of the same technology that produces that unknown energy,” Rosepetal pointed out.

“In which case, we may be best served by making an alliance with them.” He turned to the Communications station. “Have you had any response to your signals?”

The ferret morph shook her head. “No reply on any channel, sir. I have tried every military and civilian band and subspace channel that I can think of. Either they cannot hear us or they are not responding.”

“Sir!” the helmsman exclaimed. “The ship has stopped decelerating.”

“Maintain distance and velocity.”

“Aye, sir. What do you suppose they are up to?”

“If they’re anything like us, they are as curious as hell. What have we learned so far, Commander?”

“Some very curious aspects of this ship, Admiral,” Rosepetal replied. She manipulated and enhanced the image of the starship on the screen. “It’s a bizarre mixture of inconsistent technologies. At the rear of the ship are very definitely chemical rockets, absolutely useless for interstellar travel. Their current propulsion method which resembles an Orion Drive is only effective because they have some form of mass-cancelling technology, but judging by their rate of deceleration, they simply could not have used it to get anything close to the fraction of light speed for interstellar travel, not to mention having enough explosive material to maintain that boost for a significant period. Additionally, there are the remainders of eight masts encircling the ship. The enormous graphene sheet that we detected on our way here suggests that these are the anchor points of a solar sail arrangement, which is also inconsistent with interstellar travel. I would love to know how they manufactured that much graphene, by the way. That’s advanced technology even in this era. However, the structure of the ship suggests a streamlined design that is generally unnecessary for interstellar travel except at extreme sub-light speeds, so that suggests that it is designed for escaping a planet’s atmosphere. Aside from propulsion methods, the design is inconsistent with anything seen in the Swarm, and I find it very difficult to associate it with them. Finally, there are two logos where Swarm ships never have any.”

Boyce nodded. “A mystery wrapped in an enigma. What about that weak gamma ray burst that first revealed the ship’s presence? Would that be relevant?”

“Possible. The CDF scout ship is currently trying to backtrack the alien ship’s trajectory and check that out.”

“Any sign of a weapon system?”

“Putting aside the exploding spheres that powered their propulsion, I have detected nothing of that nature,” Chief of Security Chakat Midnight replied from hir station. The all-black furred taur had hir own weapons ready for use at a moment’s notice, but had seen no need to recommend their use.

Boyce leaned back in his chair, his brow furrowed in thought. Nothing had indicated that this ship had anything to do with the Swarm except for the nature of the unknown energy that both used. This could very well be a normal First Contact situation, but under the circumstances, one that might have unforeseen hazards. His first instinct was to play things safe, but the lure of a potential new ally was great. His thoughts were interrupted just then.

“Admiral – there’s a light blinking on the side of the ship,” announced the helmsman.

Boyce looked up and saw what the crew person had noticed. A single strong light was blinking in longer and longer sequences. Then it paused and went back to a single flash, then four flashes, then nine, sixteen, and finally twenty-five before going back to one. “Those are the squares of the numbers one to five. They’re attempting to communicate with us! Commander – repeat that sequence back to them, but add the square of six to the end.”

“One moment while I repurpose a floodlight for that, sir.”



When the huge starship started blinking a light at them, Wandering breathlessly counted the flashes of light. The final group ended at thirty-six and he pumped a hoof in the air. “Yes! We have contact!”

“What now, Wandering?” Starry asked.

“Now the tricky bit. Prepare the skiff.”

“You’re going over there? Just because they seem willing to communicate doesn’t mean it’s safe to meet them.”

“I am aware of that, but I won’t be going in blind or unprepared. One of the reasons that I was chosen as the leader of this mission was because I have experience dealing with different civilisations, and I have alicorn-level abilities to deal with sticky situations. In the event that we met up with a sapient species, I also had pre-selected a team to back me up.” He touched the comm button. “Eon Path, Amethyst Scroll, and Phalanx report to airlock two. First Contact protocol. I will meet you there in five minutes.” Wandering then turned to Bluequill who had been called to the bridge earlier. “Commander, the ship is yours until I return. Do whatever you need to do to protect her if I don’t come back.”

“Yes, sir, but can I persuade you not to take this risk? The ship needs its captain.”

“I’m not irreplaceable, Bluequill. This is one of the biggest reasons for me wanting to make this voyage, and I’m confident that this will go fine, but even if it doesn’t, you are more than capable of leading the crew to safety.”

Starry came over to give Wandering a parting hug. “I hope I’m one of the biggest reasons for you coming back safe.”

Wandering looked at her tenderly. “I promise that it is.” He then gave her a kiss and turned to head out to rendezvous with his team.



“Sir – an airlock appears to be opening on the alien ship,” Midnight warned her commanding officer. Shi readied her targeting systems just in case.

They watched the screen carefully as a small vessel emerged from the airlock. Very slowly, it headed towards them.

“It looks like a small shuttle. No weapons detected. I think the slow approach denotes either caution or a wish not to alarm us, possibly both. Shall I warn it off?”

Boyce shook his head. “No, I agree that it’s a cautious approach. Open our shuttle bay doors and allow them to come aboard. Have crash protocols in place just in case.”

“A wise move, sir. The crash force-fields will certainly foil any attempt to ram us.”

“Or by accident. Don’t put down to maliciousness what you can attribute to bad piloting. I want our visitors to arrive safely.”

“May I suggest that we have a security squad there to meet them?”

“Bring as many as you see fit, but keep them back from the shuttle. You and Rosepetal are going to meet them personally. You can bring along one other guard, but I am choosing the fourth member of your team.”

“Who would that be, sir?” Midnight asked.

“Forestwalker.”

The black chakat was rocked. “My lifemate, sir? Isn’t that a bit of a risk for hir? Shi’s a biologist, not a Star Fleet officer.”

“Forest indicated a desire to help make contact with these aliens, and we both know that shi’s the strongest empath on the ship. Plus shi’s had years of experience with dealing with various races. If anyone can tell if they’re friendly or hostile, shi can.”

Midnight was forced to agree with hir husband, but shi was going to ensure that hir lifemate was as well protected as possible. Shi set to work assigning hir security staff even as Boyce contacted Forestwalker.



As the Cosmic Lotus’s small skiff slowly approached the enormous starship, the alien vessel slowly swung around so that its stern faced them and equally huge doors opened to reveal a well-lit landing bay.

“Looks like we’re expected,” Wandering said cheerfully.

Eon smirked and replied, “Yeah, but for a party or a funeral?”

The alicorn chuckled. “Depends on whose funeral. All four of us are House Path warrior-scholars, and you’re in line to be the next Warmaster. I think that our soon-to-be-acquaintances had better be careful what path they choose to take.”

Wandering carefully manoeuvred the skiff into the bay without incident. As the shuttle bay doors closed behind the skiff, it did not escape their notice that there was a large contingent waiting for them, all obviously armed. That was not unexpected though – they were coming armed also. What most intrigued the alicorn was that they had apparently been waiting there while the bay doors had been open to space.

“They must have had some sort of force-field holding back the air in the bay,” Wandering speculated.

“So? You could do a similar spell,” Eon replied.

“Yes, I could, but I detected no magic in use when we passed inside. I wonder how they did that?”

“You can ask them yourself. I see four of them approaching, and what a weird mixture of beings they are!”

“The instruments indicate a breathable atmosphere. Time to make history!” Wandering pressed the button to open the skiff’s door. Detecting a safe difference of pressure, the skiff’s system first equalised it and then opened it. They filed outside and lined up outside to face the alien delegation which stopped a discreet distance away while the two parties regarded each other with a mixture of intrigue and caution.

Eon said, “The two-legged female resembles an Abyssinian.”

Wandering nodded. “There’s a strong correlation, but the tail is very different. The other two-legger has a tail more like them, but he’s definitely not feline.”

“I don’t like the way he’s holding that weapon. What’s your reading on him, Phalanx?” Eon asked.

The Red Changeling replied, “He’s nervous and slightly hostile. Watch out for him. The Abyssinian-like one is worried but calm. I think she’s in command. The black four-legged one that resembles a feline centaur is razor-focused. I can only taste a bit of cool concern from her and I think that she may be a true warrior. The spotted one though, aside from some worry, she’s practically exploding with pleasure at seeing us.”

“Huh! I wonder why that is?” Wandering said.



“Oh my god, they’re so cute!” Forestwalker exclaimed softly to Rosepetal.

Although Rosepetal tended to agree about two of them, cute did not mean that they weren’t dangerous. The one standing slightly in front of the others had hooves and a generally equine appearance if you discounted the horn and feathery wings. While the tallest of the group, it only came up to the Caitian’s chest level. It gave the impression of being a male, while the other similar being had what looked like wing casings and seemed female. Both had huge eyes unlike any species that she had encountered before. The third looked like a blend between reptile and one of those equines, with blue fur, talons on his forelegs, hooves on the hind legs, and golden bat-wings on his back. Those talons loosely gripped a sword that he had sheathed at his side, and somehow she believed that he knew how to use it well, and it was not simply ceremonial. He was likely the most dangerous of the lot. The title of weirdest went to the fourth member who had the same basic form as the equines, but had diaphanous wings, red glowing eyes, and what appeared to be reddish-brown chitin covering his body wherever it was not obscured by the uniforms all four wore.

“They appear to have as diverse a crew as we do,” Rosepetal commented. “What do your empathic senses tell you?”

“The one out front is cautious but eager to meet us. The female next to him is also eager, but anxious. The dragonish one is very focused and cool. However, I can’t detect the slightest thing from the red one.”

Rosepetal was surprised. “Nothing at all? Is it truly alive?”

“My nose and other senses tell me yes, but he’s just a total mental blank empathically.”

“How strange. However, it seems like it’s safe to proceed to the next stage. Let’s try to communicate, starting with the obvious.” She took a step forward and raised her voice to an authoritative level. “I am Commander Rosepetal Silpurr, and I welcome you aboard the Federation Star Ship Pegasus.”

Forestwalker snickered and quietly said, “We’re welcoming a winged horse aboard the Pegasus – how appropriate!”

Rosepetal resisted the temptation to roll her eyes while she awaited a response.



“I think the spotted one just made a joke,” Amethyst Scroll commented.

“That’s encouraging, even if I didn’t understand a word of what the leader said. Did you?” asked Wandering

“No, although a couple of words sounded vaguely familiar. Probably a coincidence though.”

“Well, that won’t stop me from doing my part.” The alicorn took a step forward. “I am Captain Wandering Path of the starship Cosmic Lotus. I bring greetings on behalf of the united races of Equis.”

While the catlike one smiled in response, it was obvious that she no more understood him than he had comprehended her words. He turned back to Amethyst. “Looks like you’re finally going to put that new spell to the test. I sure hope that works.”

Amethyst smiled reassuringly. “The language spell was developed in conjunction with Lord Path and Lady Twilight. While we had no new languages to test it, we are fully confident that it will work. Just not how well it will work.”

“Okay – it’s not as if we have much of a choice. Let’s do the little play that we rehearsed earlier.” He turned back to the alien’s leader and said, “Please pay attention,” while gesturing to Amethyst. He did not expect her to understand the words, but hoped that she would infer the intention. He faced Amethyst again, and then in an exaggerated manner, he said, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.”

Amethyst then responded with, “Yap, yap, yap, yap!”

Wandering then assumed a puzzled expression and tone of voice and replied, “Blah, blah, blah, blah?”

Amethyst also looked puzzled and replied, “Yap, yap, yap, yap?”

Wandering shrugged and said, “Blah, blah!”

Amethyst held up a foreleg and gestured for Wandering to approach. Her horn lit up with a harmless glow and she touched it to Wandering’s head. After a long moment, she drew her horn back and said, “Blah yap, blah yap?”

Wandering then responded with, “Yap blah, yap blah!” Then he looked back over to alien catlike leader. He pointed at her and then Amethyst and said, “Yap, blah?”



“What do you suppose that was all about?” the Security wolf morph asked.

“I think they were trying to show that they could teach us their language,” Forestwalker replied. “Did you see the way her horn glowed? Maybe it’s a form of telepathy?”

“Telepathy can’t translate languages,” Midnight said.

“No, not as we know it anyway. I’m not sure if it is safe,” Rosepetal said.

“Oh, come on, Rose… I mean, Commander. Isn’t it worth the risk? In fact, let me do it, please!”

Rosepetal frowned. “Are you sure about this, Forestwalker?”

The chakat nodded eagerly. “I can feel her trying to project friendliness and reassurance. I’m sure that this is the right thing to do.”

Rosepetal sighed and muttered, “Boyce is going to kill me if anything happens to you while I’m in charge. Be careful, please!”

“I will – don’t worry.” Forestwalker stepped forward to within a pace of the female equine and pointed at her, saying, “Yap, blah!”

A smile grew on the mare’s face, and she gestured for the chakat to lie on the floor so that she could easily touch her horn to Forestwalker’s head. Her purple mane fell forward as she closed her eyes and her horn started glowing. The chakat smiled reassuringly as the procedure started.

Forestwalker’s mind was suddenly overwhelmed with a flood of words and concepts, and a moan escaped hir lips. The wolf guard started forward to break it up, but Midnight ordered him back with a stern command. While shi was nowhere near as talented empathically as hir mate, even shi could tell that while Forestwalker was distressed by the overload, shi did not appear to be under attack. In fact, the little mare seemed equally impacted by whatever she was doing.

For several nerve-wracking minutes, the procedure continued until with a mutual groan, they fell apart and the mare’s horn flickered out.

Forestwalker held hir head in hir hands as if it was threatening to explode and said, “My brain hurts like it’s been pummelled by a set of antique encyclopaedias!”

“My head is pounding too,” Amethyst said.

Forestwalker blinked and almost forgot hir headache. “I understood that!” Then shi switched languages. “Do you… hear my words?”

Amethyst grinned in delight. “Yes! It worked!”

“Why does my head hurt so much?”

“While one of the words escaped Amethyst, she guessed its meaning. “The spell is…” She searched for a new word. “…not test. It makes new… connections.” She could not dredge up an equivalent word in the new language.

“Are you okay, Forest?” Rosepetal asked with grave concern.

“Aside from a pounding headache, I’m fine. If I understand correctly, it’s a consequence of making new neural pathways. However, I now have a limited vocabulary in their language. I’m hunting for words, but I can understand some of what I hear now.” Shi stood up, and then faced Amethyst. “My name is Forestwalker. Means… walk in many trees,” shi said in Equish.

The mare replied in Terranglo, “My name is Amethyst. Means…” She shrugged, lacking the word.

Rosepetal stepped up and said, “My name is Rosepetal. Welcome aboard the Pegasus.”

Amethyst blinked in surprise. Half of what the Caitian had said had not translated, but the word ‘pegasus’ had. She lifted a hoof to point at the floor. “This… pegasus?”

“Yes,” Rosepetal replied.

Amethyst turned around to look at Wandering. “Captain! The word ‘pegasus’ translates!”

“So? Wasn’t that the point of the spell?”

“You don’t understand – this isn’t one of the several hundred new alien words inserted into our vocabularies. This word already existed!”

“What? Are you sure they mean the same thing? It may just be a phonetic coincidence.”

“I can tell the difference. The meaning is the same.”

Wandering gaped in surprise. “This may just be the most significant discovery we made today. Just wait until I tell Techbird about this!”

Rosepetal looked over to Forestwalker and asked, “What are they saying?”

The chakat looked a bit confused. “They’re talking too fast for me to keep up, and there are too many words that I don’t know yet. Something about words being the same which excites them.”

“Whatever the case, I believe we have just made a peaceful First Contact and these people have nothing to do with the Swarm. While there are many puzzles yet to be answered, I only have one burning question left right now.”

“What’s that?”

Rosepetal gestured towards the two excited equines. “How in the name of the eternally shifting sands does a species with only hooves build a starship?!”

 


 

Communicating

 

In the century and a half since he had held his first Royal Court, Prince Destined Path had grown a lot more assured and confident in his role as one of the triumequirate alicorn rulers of Equestria. With so many years of experience, he no longer felt out of place in the throne room, even if he still looked like he was in his twenties. He now dealt with about a third of the royal duties, allowing Celestia and Luna more time to attend to other duties, or just to have some well-earned time off. Today, Destined was substituting for Celestia who was overseas at a conference, and he was hearing the petitions of some of the citizens before a scheduled meeting with the ministers to discuss a revision to the tax laws. He found the pegasus’ problem a lot more interesting though, and he paid close attention to what the stallion was telling him.

A flash-bang of teleportation interrupted the petitioner’s tale, and a moment later Twilight Sparkle was practically in his face.

“You have to go back in time and save them!” the Princess of Magic demanded.

Destined sighed internally, having anticipated this moment. Only his mother’s lifetime habit of stewing and stressing out over problems had caused it to be put off for this long, but he had known that she would come to this point inevitably. He looked over at the stallion and said, “Forgive me, my little pony – please excuse us for a moment. I will return to give my full attention to your petition briefly.” He turned to his head to his advisor. “Please offer Mister Silver Coin refreshments in my absence. This should not take long.”

His advisor nodded and said, “Of course, Your Highness.”

Destined then turned back to Twilight who looked ready to burst. “Let’s go somewhere private to talk about this, Mother.” His horn lit up, and with a quiet pop, they left the throne room and reappeared just as smoothly in the family’s private quarters. While Twilight was a master of magic, Destined was the master of time and space, and no alicorn could match his skill with teleportation. “Now, Mom, what is it you want me to do?” he asked, knowing full well what she was going to request.

“Isn’t it obvious? You need to go back in time and teleport to the Cosmic Lotus and warn them of the peril ahead! The mana beacon will still be working then.”

Destined sighed out loud this time. “You do realise that if I did that, it would only cause a fork in the time probability path. The Twilight Sparkle in front of me now would become a lesser probability who would never learn what happened to the ship.”

“But the new reality would have saved the entire crew, including many of our family!”

“That is assuming that they need saving. We have lost contact, so we don’t know their fate, but I believe that they are okay.”

“How can you say that? The last data that we got from them shows them in deep trouble!”

“Have you forgotten my visit to the far future? Although a lot of important details were kept from me and the others, we do know that beings from another world were part of that future. I choose to believe, as I have always suspected, that this is the moment when we first contact those other beings. Have a bit of faith in my brother – this is Wandering’s moment of destiny, I am sure of it.”

“And what if we still don’t hear from them in weeks? How confident of your feelings would you be then?” Twilight demanded.

“Mom, I could wait for a year and still do as you ask. I can do that under my own power now without even a boost from Blue Streak. Trust me – I won’t let anyone down. In the meantime though, this is Wandering’s time to shine. If anypony can achieve their goal, it’s him. And with Starry, Techbird, and all the others aboard the Lotus to help him, I’m confident that we will be hearing how they dealt with the emergency soon enough. I know that it’s going to be difficult waiting for them to get back in contact, but it will be worth the wait.”

Twilight sagged in resignation. “It’s… just so hard not knowing.”

Destined wrapped a reassuring wing around his mother and hugged her. “I know, but we’re here for you, Mom.”

After a long moment, Destined withdrew his wing and lit up his horn. “And now I had better get back to the court. I may be the Alicorn of Time, but even I can’t waste it.”



While Forestwalker could not answer Rosepetal’s question about using hooves, shi knew that the key to finding out was to learn more of the language of their unusual visitors. Although shi still had a pounding headache from the first language lesson, shi was eager to learn more. Shi faced hir teacher, pointed to hir head, and said in Equish, “More words now?”

Amethyst shook her head and replied in Terranglo, “Must rest head first.”

Forestwalker was disappointed, but shi certainly understood why. “How long?”

The unicorn pondered that question. “Half a day.” She waved a hoof to indicate uncertainty.

Forestwalker turned to Rosepetal. “Could we invite Amethyst to stay aboard and teach me?”

Rosepetal firmly shook her head. “While I don’t believe that they have anything to do with the Swarm, we still know next to nothing about them and they may still pose an unknown threat. First Contact protocols require cautious steps, and I would not be surprised if their own leader thinks the same way. We will arrange another meeting while we both assess our first meeting. There are a lot of questions that I will want to ask once you have a greater command of the language. Meanwhile we have to monitor you for any undesirable side-effects of the teaching method aside from the understandable headache.”

The chakat was disappointed, but understood the realities of the situation. “Okay, Commander, but I just want to say that I still detect no animosity or deceit from any of them… well, three of them anyway. The fourth is still a total blank to me.”

“And that’s why we’ll have another meeting soon. Be patient, Forest.”

Rosepetal turned to the obvious leader and spoke slowly and simply in the hope of the other translating for him. “Come back in half a day. We will talk more then.”

Wandering listened to Amethyst’s translation, and startled Rosepetal by answering in Terranglo. “Come back in half a day. Goodbye.”

The Federation team watched as their visitors headed back into their skiff and the airlock closed. The shuttle bay doors reopened with the air held back by the strong force field across the opening. The skiff passed smoothly through the force-field and the doors closed once more.

“Well, this is going down as one of the more interesting days in my journal,” Forestwalker said as they all turned to leave the shuttle bay.

“For all of us, Forest,” Rosepetal replied as they stepped into the decontamination room where they were met by Doctor Saarath.

As the giantess Caitian directed them to stand in booths where sensors and sterilisers ensured that they brought nothing undesirable into the rest of the ship, Rosepetal asked, “What were your impressions, Commander Midnight?”

The black chakat replied, “While I agree that these aliens are probably not inimical to us, I also got the distinct impression from the dragonish one that he was amused by the security forces watching over them. If he felt that the entire security squad in the shuttle bay plus ourselves against the four of them were of little consequence, what does that say about our odd visitors?”



Doctor Zubon had a decontamination spell ready when the skiff docked, and the team were treated with it before they were allowed to leave the vehicle. All of them then headed to the common room to have a meeting. Wandering called up a few others to attend, and soon there was a large gathering in the room. A screen was lowered, and a recording of the meeting was played in its entirety from the magitek crystal camera in Wandering’s uniform.

When the replay ended, Starry said, “You caught onto the language quickly, Wandering.”

The alicorn stallion nodded. “I may not be as good as Amethyst, but Papa Path taught me well. It has come in handy many times in my past adventures. Once I hear a word and know its meaning, it sticks. I’ll leave comprehensive translation to others though. Anyway, I’m pleased that we have made this much progress in learning their language already. It’s going to make our task a lot easier if we end up needing their assistance.”

“Speaking of which,” Playbitz spoke up, “Are we going to resume deceleration soon? I’ll have to recalculate our course if not, because otherwise we’ll miss that lovely blue and green planet that we were aiming for.” He gestured in the direction of the image on the screen that the TESS had captured of the fourth planet in the system.

Wandering said, “That lovely planet is probably home to those beings, so I am going to wait until we know more about them before encroaching on their world. I don’t wish to appear a threat to them. Which reminds me…” He turned to Eon and said, “Why the attitude? You were borderline disrespectful.”

“Oh, come on, Captain! You saw their weapons for yourself. None of them were magic-powered, and your shield alone could have easily handled all of their energy weapons,” Eon protested. “We’re all warrior-scholars and can read their body-language. Aside from that black six-limbed one, and perhaps that two-legged male, I don’t believe any of them posed a real threat to us.”

“That is no reason to be contemptuous of them. If you hope to take over from Warmaster Blue Streak eventually, that is something that you are going to have to learn. Besides, if they picked up on that, it might give them cause for concern about us. I can’t emphasise too much how important first impressions are when dealing with a new culture.”

“How many alien species have you met before?” Eon scoffed.

“Back on Equis while I was still travelling and meeting new civilisations, they were as close to being aliens as the ones on that ship over there. What is perfectly normal for you and me might be intimidating to them, and vice versa. This is too important to screw up, Eon, so at least try to be respectful when we go meet them again.”

“Okay, Captain,” the dracopony conceded.

Wandering looked around at the others gathered there. “We’ve heard what Eon thinks – so what impressions did any of you get from them?”

“There seems to be a complete lack of magic,” Amethyst replied. “I did not detect any while I was connected with Forestwalker.”

Wandering nodded. “While everyone’s attention was focused on your language spell, I did a deep scan of the ship. I was unable to detect any magic at work, or even the taint of raw mana. It would seem that despite their diversity, they all share the common trait of being totally magicless.”

“Is that even possible?” Doctor Zubon asked. “Studies have shown that magic is fundamental to all life on Equis.”

“All I can say to that is that we’re not on Equis anymore. What is fundamental on our world might be irrelevant on theirs.”

“Then how do you suppose they expected my language spell to work?” Amethyst asked.

“That’s a very good question,” Wandering said. “Perhaps they will have some surprises in store for us too. Phalanx, did you perceive anything of interest?”

“Their ship is awash with emotions, but while that landing bay had too much fear and suspicion, that was mostly emanating from the guards that they had posted further away. As I mentioned earlier, the one that Amethyst calls Forestwalker is very openly friendly and curious. The sheer amount of positive emotion that she was giving off definitely offset the bitter taste of the negative emotions. Overall, my impression is that they are afraid of something but willing to go to the effort of making peaceful contact.”

“That’s reassuring,” Wandering said. “Amethyst – how long do you think that it will take to get a good working vocabulary going?”

The hybrid unicorn took another sip of the headache potion that Zubon had provided before answering. “Provided that Forestwalker has a similar recovery time from these sessions as I do, it will take only two more to be reasonably fluent. The language spell works exponentially because it’s hardest to start from scratch to get the basic concepts down. That’s why we are currently limited to a few hundred of our mutually commonest words. The next session should extend that to a few thousand, and after that, the spell will have enough material to work with to define tens of thousands more. You should be able to work out more obscure words that Forestwalker does not know by yourself after that.”

“Excellent!” Wandering turned back to Playbitz. “We will hold off on deceleration until after the third language lesson. At that point we should know better how we wish to proceed. You may wish to recalculate our course from shortly after that.”

The pegasus nodded. “No problem, sir.”

The alicorn then addressed their Chief Scientist. “Techbird, what are your impressions of the equipment that can be seen in the GemVee recording?”

“Bearing in mind the lack of magic in use, there obviously isn’t any magitek, but their purely physical technology appears to be a match or better than our own equipment. The shuttles that can be seen parked there certainly look like the product of a multi-generational design process, and judging by their ship, almost certainly faster and more manoeuvrable than our skiff. I can only guess at the function of most things that can be seen, but considering that it isn’t just bare functional-looking equipment, I would say that it bespeaks a high degree of sophistication. I can hardly wait to get my talons on it!”

“That jibes with my own impressions, which leaves me with a puzzle. How can such a powerful and sophisticated civilisation be so afraid of a ship that is half-crippled and nowhere near as advanced as theirs?”



After Midnight dismissed the Security team, shi accompanied Rosepetal and Forestwalker to the main conference room where Boyce was waiting for them along with the other department heads. They noted a view of the shuttle bay meeting on the big screen at the end of the table as they took seats.

“That was a very interesting first contact meeting,” Boyce said without preamble. “However, you were a bit reckless, Forest, although it did seem to get us a good head-start on communicating with them.”

“I would never have done that if my senses didn’t tell me that it was relatively safe,” Forestwalker protested.

Relatively is a dangerous word in the space business. However, I can’t argue with the results.”

“I believe the risk was definitely worth it,” Rosepetal said, “but what did you find out that we haven’t heard as yet?”

“While we had every scanner on them from the moment that they entered the shuttle bay, we have been left with even more questions. First of all, although there is electronic equipment that we could detect aboard their shuttle craft, it was inadequate for the needs of such a vessel. We could not even determine its power source except that it was giving off readings identical to those of the mystery energy weapon of the Swarm. Stranger yet, every one of those four aliens were also giving off traces of that energy signature, presumably from equipment embedded in their uniforms. While I tend to agree with your assessment that they are not associated with the Swarm, they definitely have knowledge that would be of immense value to Star Fleet. Other than that, technology-wise, their modest tech only makes me more amazed that they successfully accomplished an interstellar journey.”

The head of the Astronomy Department spoke up. “Not only that, sir, but considering that we are familiar with all the nearby star systems, their starting point must have been light-centuries away.”

“Not necessarily,” a female Voxxan said. “We received a report from the CDF ship that went to investigate the weak gamma ray burst that heralded the alien ship’s arrival. It might explain a lot.”

Boyce arched an eyebrow. “And when were you planning to share that information, Lieutenant Laressi?”

The vixen’s ears pinked a little, but she replied firmly, “Sir – the report only came in as the first contact meeting began. I thought that it was prudent to concentrate on that and wait to bring up this relevant information now.”

“I see. Continue.”

Laressi touched a button on the keypad in front of her, and the view on the main screen changed to display a star-field with six barely visible spheres surrounding a patch of space that glowed faintly purple. “This is what the scout found. It took hir a long time because it is almost invisible and hard to detect at three light-days distance from Chakastra, and that has kept it from being found for this long. Captain – that purple glow is light seen through a tunnel. It’s an impossibility – an absolutely stable wormhole.”

“What about those planetoids?” Boyce asked as he peered closely at the image. “They each seem to have a symbol on them in gigantic scale.”

“Much more than that, sir.” Laressi zoomed the image on one of the spheroids, revealing thousands more symbols on a smaller scale. “I have no idea of their significance, but all of those six planetoids are engraved with those.” She zoomed out again. “The planetoids seem to have a stable relationship with each other, equally spaced in a hexagonal arrangement that faces directly at Chakastra. I speculate that it is a gateway to this stellar system.”

“Wait! If they came through that, they could have come from anywhere in the galaxy,” Boyce said, surprise evident on his face.

“You’re underestimating it, sir – if it’s totally controlled, they could be from anywhere in the universe.”

“Who could build such a thing?” Rosepetal asked.

‘I have a better question,” Boyce said. “Why did they build it and put the endpoint here?”

Midnight spoke up. “If those aliens have anything to do with the construction of that stable wormhole, I think we had better start giving a lot more respect for their level of technology.”

Boyce silently agreed.



“Captain, I’ve been waiting my entire extended lifetime to get my answers. I’m so close! You have to let me join you!”

Wandering looked at the determined face of the griffoness and knew that there was no point in arguing. “Alright, Techbird, get in the skiff. But please – try to restrain yourself while you’re there. We’re still in the earliest stages of feeling out each other. We don’t need any unfortunate incidents.”

Techbird joined the others who had previously visited the huge ship still coasting alongside their own. Wandering came aboard and closed the airlock door. Soon the skiff was on its way back over, albeit not as cautiously as it had on its first journey. The second exchange of blinking lights let them know that they were expected this time.

Techbird studied the alien ship intensely as they approached, no detail escaping her attention. She did not miss the slight glow as they passed through the force-field that constrained the air in the shuttle bay, but her eyes were quickly drawn to the vehicles and equipment within. She could hardly wait to get her talons on some of it!

The team members disembarked with the eager griffoness between them to restrain her enthusiasm, and they lined up much as they had previously as their counterparts approached. While the two centauroid creatures were the same, as was the Abyssinian-like leader, the fourth was different this time. Obviously a guard of some nature, this tiger-striped being towered over everyone else and would have intimidated virtually anyone. Fortunately Wandering was not easily cowed, and Eon merely gave him an appraising look. Phalanx scanned the creature as a matter of course and tasted his emotions – intense but not actually hostile. Techbird was oblivious to all four as her eyes were only on the technology that she longed to get hold of. Only Amethyst was a little put off by the huge catlike alien.



“Weren’t there supposed to be only four of them, sir?” the Rakshani security officer quietly asked his commander.

Midnight answered, “There were only four last time, but there’s no reason why they could not bring a fifth this time. Judging by its intense emotions and where it’s been looking, I gather it’s only interested in our equipment. Considering what we know about their own ship, that’s hardly surprising. Just stick to your instructions.”

The contact team drew up to the five from the visitors’ ship and got a closer look at the new addition.

“Rose, I can see through that new creature!” Forestwalker whispered to her co-wife.

“It appears to be some sort of living crystalline being. Fascinating! They are getting more interesting all the time. Anyway, you’re up.”

Forestwalker stepped forward and said, “Friend teach more now?”

Amethyst stepped forward to meet Forestwalker. “Yes, teach more now. Sit down, please.”

As before, Amethyst touched her horn to Forestwalker’s head and began the spell. While those two were occupied, Wandering approached Rosepetal, stopping when Midnight held up a hand to indicate he should come no closer. The stallion bent around to retrieve two small devices from a pocket in his uniform, and he held one out to the Commander.

“We talk with this,” he said in Terranglo.

Midnight quickly scanned the device with hir PADD and nodded. “It seems innocuous.”

Rosepetal took the communicator from Wandering, but her attention was not on the device. “How are you holding that with just a hoof?” she asked.

The alicorn understood enough of the words that that he had learned from Amethyst that he could gather her meaning. Having dealt with species such as the minotaurs who had grasping appendages, he comprehended her confusion. He lifted his foreleg again, turning it in exactly the way a horse could not to show the underside of his hoof. He searched his very limited vocabulary for a word. “Feel it,” he urged.

Rosepetal hesitantly reached out.

“Is that wise?” Midnight asked.

“Are you sensing any threat?” Rosepetal asked.

“No,” the black chakat admitted.

Rosepetal leaned down and put her hand upon the upturned hoof, and she saw the frog bulge a little to make contact with her fingers. It was soft, warm, and not unpleasant. Then she felt a gentle force envelope her fingers and give them a gentle pull.

Wandering smiled and said, “Hold things this way.”

Rosepetal nodded in comprehension. “Some kind of tactile kinesis. That explains a lot.” Wandering released her fingers and she stood upright and said, “Thank you.”

While the Terranglo word ‘thank’ was not in his limited vocabulary as yet, the alicorn understood the intention and smiled and replied in Equish, “You’re welcome.”

Encouraged by this exchange, the Caitian decided to try asking more questions. “You all have wings, but they are all too small to be of any use, and certainly not those insect-like ones. Why do you have them?”

This question was far too complex for Wandering to comprehend with the limited number of words at his disposal, and he shrugged helplessly. “No words yet.”

Rosepetal resigned herself to wait until Forestwalker and the unicorn finished their session in the hope that she could re-ask the question and be understood.

After several more uneventful minutes, Amethyst broke off the spell, and each of them leaned back with a groan as they rubbed their aching heads.

“Are you alright?” Rosepetal asked Forestwalker.

“Same skull-splitting headache as last time, but otherwise I’m fine,” the chakat replied.

Amethyst said, “It was as hard as the first session, but now we know many thousands of words each.”

“Are you fluent in Terranglo already?” the Caitian asked curiously.

The unicorn shook her head. “I do not know all words yet. I can guess what ‘fluent’ means. It is my talent.”

“It is still amazing. Do you understand enough to tell us why you are here?”

“We are explorers. We travelled to the Far Star to discover the unknown.” Her speech was a little stilted as she sought out the new words to use.

“Did you make the wormhole that you came from?”

“What is wormhole?”

“The tunnel in space.”

Amethyst’s face lit with comprehension. “Ah! No – it was a surprise for us.” She was going to say more but Wandering cleared his throat significantly. “You need to talk with our Captain.”

Rosepetal nodded. She understood that neither side was going to blurt out everything that the other wanted to know without better understanding each other. “When can we talk?”

Amethyst gestured to Forestwalker and herself. “We now know a few thousand words each of our languages. One more session and we will know all words. Then we will be ready to talk without problems.”

“That is fair enough. Clear communication is key to peace. We will meet again soon… what is your crew person doing?”

Rosepetal had noticed Techbird edging over towards some equipment, and the Rakshani security officer had moved to intercept her.

Amethyst rolled her eyes. “Techbird is our chief scientist. She is very, very curious.”

“I see. I am afraid that her questions must wait for another time.” Rosepetal turned to Wandering and said, “Captain, we will talk again soon. Our crew must rest up for next time.” She trusted the unicorn to clarify her words later if necessary.

Wandering got the gist of what the Caitian had said though. He held up the mate to the comm that he had given to Rosepetal. “We talk when ready.”

Rosepetal held up her comm and said, “I will wait for your call.”

The Cosmic Lotus team headed back to the skiff, herding the reluctant griffoness as the Pegasus team watched. The skiff departed and the four turned to head out of the shuttle bay. As they walked, Rosepetal held out the comm to Midnight and said, “Give this thing a deep scan.”

Midnight used hir PADD to try to analyse it and came up with puzzling results. “It does not appear to be dangerous in any way that I can detect, but on the other hand I can’t see how it can possibly function at all. It does not appear to have any conventional electronics.”

“I suppose we should give it a test then,” Rosepetal said, lifting it to her head. It only had a couple of buttons – essentially a walkie-talkie, but that was understandable. She pushed the green button, guessing that it was the ‘on’ switch, and it glowed. “This is Commander Rosepetal testing the communicator.”

A moment later, Amethyst’s voice came back. “We hear you, Commander. The comm works properly.”

“Acknowledged. Rosepetal out.” She pushed the red button and the light went out. She nodded thoughtfully. “As much as their scientist was curious about our technology, I find myself just as intrigued with theirs. Clearly they know something we don’t, and bearing in mind their usage of the unknown energy, we may have found some powerful allies.”

“Or equally powerful enemies,” Midnight pointed out.

“I agree. That’s why it’s essential that this First Contact situation must go well. While I don’t believe that the one ship out there poses a threat, we don’t know who might follow after them. While they may indeed be peaceful explorers, that does not necessarily apply to all their people. History is full of examples of how things can go wrong very quickly and easily, and Star Fleet has enough problems without creating more.”



“Is that all we’re going to do?” protested Techbird.

Wandering smiled indulgently. “Tech, I have explored and integrated myself into many cultures back on Equis, and it sometimes took me months to learn enough to fit in smoothly with them. Things continue to go very smoothly and quickly with these meetings, and I’ll be very happy if they keep progressing this well. You will just have to cultivate a little patience. It took us ten subjective years to get here – a few more days isn’t going to kill you.”

Phalanx spoke up. “Judging by the emotions that I could taste, they’re very wary of us. Slow and cautious is the best path, and please don’t try to pick up any of their technology next time.”

Techbird gave them a guilty look. “Sorry. Just don’t leave me out of any of this. I can see that I am closer to answering my Question than ever before, and it excites me immensely.”

Wandering patted Techbird on her withers. “I understand, but like I said before – be patient. Thanks to Flix, you have a healthy new body and a long life ahead of you yet. You will have time to find your Answer.”

“So – what’s our course of action, Captain?” Amethyst asked.

“While you recover from your latest session of language learning, I am going to arrange a reception for some visitors. I plan to invite some of them over to the Cosmic Lotus for a getting-to-know-you party. As Mama Twilight always likes to remind me – Friendship is Magic, and I hope to put that magic to good use. If we can convince them that we would make good allies, we may get a lot of help with our current problems.”

“Sure, we might make good allies for them, but would they be good allies for us?” Eon asked. “You tend to be over-optimistic, Captain. I advise a bit more caution.”

Wandering grinned back at the dracopony. “Guilty as charged, Eon, but I’m not totally naïve. I’m hoping that the party will cause them to let their guard down a bit, and if that doesn’t work – well, I have a back-up plan.”

“Which is…?”

“Sorry – I’m playing those cards close to my chest. I’ll tell you later if it becomes necessary.”

After they had been decontaminated, Wandering sought out Willow. The orange changeling was delighted with the prospect of entertaining a group of aliens. The prospect of dealing with several species about which she knew nothing did not daunt her in the slightest.

“I might not have a cutie mark to prove it, Captain, but this is my special talent. Just leave it to me!”



After Amethyst had been treated for her headache and followed that up with a good sleep, Wandering had her use a spell to teach him the latest batch of words of the new language, Terranglo. This was simpler and far less painful than the spell that was needed to learn a strange language from scratch, but the alicorn normally preferred learning a new vocabulary the old-fashioned way, claiming that it gave him a better understanding and feel for the language. However, time was of the essence, and when you had a resource such as the expert linguist Amethyst at your disposal, you took advantage of it. Thus he was fully prepared for their next visit to the Pegasus.

A brief exchange on the comm unit that they had left with their new acquaintances had cleared them for their third visit. Wandering managed to persuade Techbird to stay behind this time, arguing that it was his intention to invite them over to the Cosmic Lotus to entertain them and encourage them to do the same in return. The griffoness would definitely be among those who would get to see more of the alien ship then.

The scenario was unchanged when the four stepped out of the skiff, although Phalanx reported that the level of fear and tension was considerably lower this time.

“Good,” Wandering murmured. “That bodes well for our plans.” As the groups paused about three metres apart, he put on his best smile and said, “Hello, Commander Rosepetal. We are ready to learn the remaining language.”

Rosepetal returned the smile. “You learn very quickly, Captain Path.”

Wandering inclined his head towards Amethyst. “Language is Amethyst Scroll’s special talent. She learns and teaches me quickly.”

“Then I suppose that we had better let her do her task. Forest, are you ready?”

Forestwalker stepped forward. “Readier than ever. M’Lai gave me a treatment that she believes will ameliorate the effects of the learning process that Amethyst uses.” She settled down and Amethyst moved into her usual position. Her horn glowed and the two were immediately locked in the learning spell once more.

Wandering turned his attention back to Rosepetal. “While we wait, we can talk some. I want to invite you to a party on my ship.”

The Caitian frowned a little. “A party? Do you mean a diplomatic conference?”

Wandering shook his head. “I do not know the word ‘diplomatic’, but I can guess. I mean party. Food, entertainment, and fun to welcome new friends.”

Rosepetal tilted her head slightly in puzzlement. “You wish to throw a party for strangers already? We barely know each other yet! And we cannot be sure that your foods are compatible with our metabolisms.”

Again a couple of Rosepetal’s words were not in Wandering’s new vocabulary, but he gleaned their meaning. Having anticipated a problem, he gestured for Phalanx to step forward. The changeling was carrying a box which he presented to the Caitian.

Wandering said, “This box contains samples of the foods we eat. You may test them for safety.”

Midnight stepped up to take the box and shi scanned it with hir PADD before passing it on to Rosepetal. The alicorn was a little saddened that they were worried about being given some sort of booby-trap, but he had to concede that it was a wise precaution nonetheless.

Rosepetal opened the box and peered inside. There were a multitude of small, clear packets each containing a sample of different foods from cake to salmon pâté which Kale Robe had prepared for them. There were also samples of drinks in tiny jars.

Wandering said, “The drinks include fruit juices and alcohol.”

Rosepetal smiled. “A proper party indeed. Thank you. We will consider your invitation.” She put the box aside on a nearby shelf. “Seeing as you have a larger vocabulary now, I would like to ask a couple of questions about things that have us puzzled.”

“Ask your questions, and I will try to answer them.”

“First – you showed me how you can hold things with your hoof, but that still seems inadequate for a species to develop sophisticated technology. Did you get help from other species?”

Wandering realised that none of his team had carried anything by magical levitation yet, but while he did not wish to give away too much of their capabilities just yet, that one was so basic that it would very quickly be discovered. “Let me show you.”

The alicorn’s horn glowed, and the box of samples and several other objects on the shelf lifted into the air and did a dance in front of Rosepetal.

The Caitian said, “Ah! Telekinesis – that explains a lot.”

“You know of this?” Wandering asked.

“Some Terran species can use telekinesis too.”

Wandering did not know what a Terran was, but he wondered if they had any relationship to the Equians. Maybe they had the magic that these beings lacked? He made a mental note to follow up on that thought later. “You have another question?”

Rosepetal nodded. “I asked this the last time, but you did not understand then. You all have wings, but not even the biggest of them would enable you to fly, especially those insect-like ones, so why do you have them?”

The alicorn wondered if he had understood the question correctly, but he decided to give the obvious answer in the hope of clarification. “We have wings to fly.”

Rosepetal frowned. “No – that’s impossible. How can you fly with those wings? Your body mass to wing area is far too great.”

Wandering grinned and spread his wings. “This is how.” He gave a powerful flap to lift himself into the air, and then maintained a hover with slow gentle beats while still levitating the objects from his previous demonstration.

Rosepetal gaped in shock. “That… that’s impossible.”

“Eon, Phalanx – demonstrate flight for the Commander,” Wandering ordered in Equish.

Both the changeling and the dracopony launched into a hover like the alicorn, Eon’s leathery wings cupping the air in gusts while Phalanx’s diaphanous wings buzzed.

Even Midnight was a little shocked at the incredible display, while the Rakshani was a little disturbed and raised his weapon to a ready position. However, Wandering settled to the floor and folded his wings, and the others followed suit.

“Not impossible,” Wandering said smugly.

Rosepetal shook herself out of her stupor. “Obviously not, but I look forward to learning why.” She decided to put off further questions for the moment. Apparently there was far more to these strange beings than met the eye, and it was wise to learn as much as they could while treading carefully.

They all waited patiently until Amethyst and Forestwalker finished their session. As the chakat was about to get up, Amethyst threw her forelegs around Forestwalker and hugged hir. Midnight flinched at the unexpected move, but Forestwalker did not hesitate to return the embrace, and after a long while, the two parted with genuine smiles of friendship.

“How are you feeling, Forestwalker?” Rosepetal asked.

“Much better than the past two sessions, Commander. Not only do I think that the medicine was effective, but I think that with the far larger vocabulary we had to work with after the second session, it was easier to make associations with the remaining words. I just have to let things settle down in my head a bit.”

Amethyst said, “We both know the entirety of each other’s languages now. I will teach Captain Path the rest of your language when we return to the Cosmic Lotus, but before that, on behalf of my captain and my crewmates, I wish to unambiguously declare our hope and intention of making a peaceful, friendly, and mutually beneficial relationship between our two cultures.”

“Excellent. That is our hope also.” Rosepetal faced Wandering once more. “I will pass on your invitation to Admiral Kline and recommend that we pursue this relationship further. It has been a surprising pleasure to meet you and your crew, Captain Path.”

“Thank you, Commander Rosepetal. Call us when you are ready to accept our invitation, and I will send our… little ship to pick up your group.”

“Yes – I don’t think one of our shuttles would be able to access your ship.” She chose not to mention that they could probably beam over. If they did not possess that technology, there was no need to give away that capability.

“We will wait to hear from you. Until later, Commander.”

The Cosmic Lotus team boarded their skiff and departed. A bemused Rosepetal passed the box of samples to Forestwalker and said, “These are food specimens that our visitors provided. Make sure that they get thoroughly analysed. While I don’t believe that they would deliberately harm us, as you know there are certain things that one species can eat while another can’t. I don’t want any unpleasant surprises.”



“What do you think, Captain? Do you reckon they will accept the invitation?” Eon asked as they headed back to the Cosmic Lotus.

Wandering grinned. “They’re curious as Tartarus – they’ll come.”

The dracopony grinned. “Great! I think a party is just the thing after all the drama of the past few days.”

“I agree. The crew has earned a break after all the hard work put into completing repairs. And if we can make some new friends at the same time, that’s all the better.”



Admiral – I have the results of the analysis of the sample foods,” came the voice of the technician over the intercom.

“Good,” Boyce replied. “Anything dangerous to report?”

None whatsoever, provided you don’t overindulge in the alcohol,” the technician added with a chuckle. “The sample was pretty potent stuff. Anyway, we did find one extremely puzzling factor.

Boyce frowned; he did not like puzzles when it came to foods that he was meant to consume. “What is it?”

The foods are not only totally compatible with Terran biology, they are also virtually identical to Terran foodstuffs.

“What? All of them?”

Yes, sir – all of them.

“That’s impossible.”

The results speak for themselves, sir.

Boyce was stunned. Despite the fact that many foods from one planet could be consumed by beings native to another planet, there was no such thing as a total compatibility. In fact, it was common for at least half to be poisonous to non-natives, and the other half, while edible, were only similar to familiar foods. But these were identical? There was a mystery to solve here that had little to do with eating. He smiled. Finding out was going to be fun.



NOTE: For the translation sessions, I used a list of the 500 most common English words for the available vocabulary after the first session, and a list of the 3000 most common words after the second session. If a word was not on those lists, I either substituted another word, or the character used an untranslated word. That is why Wandering's speech was a little stilted occasionally.

 


 

Party!

 

As Wandering left the skiff and waited to be decontaminated, he said to Amethyst, “I would like to be updated with the full Terranglo language as soon as possible. When do you feel you will be up to doing that?”

“This session was a lot easier than the previous two, so give me six hours. I’ll grab something to eat and have a nap before getting to work on the final language spell.”

“Great! I’d love to be able to give a large number of the crew the ability to talk directly with our guests – the more, the better.”

“That may be a greater number than you think, Captain.”

“I thought that I was already being optimistic.”

“I would agree, except that now that I have a full vocabulary at my recall, I’ve already started noticing a ridiculously high number of correlations between our words and theirs. With so much in place already, it will be a lot easier to use the spell, so the greater number of crew that I can process. I do wonder what it all means though.”

“Perhaps we’ll get more clues while entertaining our visitors.”

Phalanx said, “You do realise, Captain, that they will be feeling us out just as much as we will them? While we parted on good terms, I still tasted a great deal of ambient fear.”

“I’ll be counting on their curiosity. That’s exactly why we need to put our best face forward. While we’re not helpless, we can achieve a lot more with their cooperation. If we can get them to put their fears and suspicions aside, they will be great allies.”

Their conversation was held up briefly as Doctor Zubon performed the decontamination procedure after taking some samples.

“Did you find any dangerous microbes from our previous visit, Doctor?” Wandering asked.

“Nothing of any serious nature, Captain, but don’t use that as an excuse to get out of these decontamination procedures.”

“Celestia forbid!” the alicorn replied with a chuckle. “However, I intend to play host to a number of the aliens over here, and I would like to know if it’s safe to do so.”

Zubon held up her sample case. “I will analyse these immediately, but even if they come up clear, I suggest that the visitors include one of their own doctors. We can make a judicious trade of information, and they can watch for problems among their own crew.”

“I don’t want to give them a blanket list of everything that is deadly to Equians,” Wandering said with a small frown.

“I’ll prepare a database of general information on toxic substances without specific dosages and you can pass that along when you talk to them next time. Speaking of talking, Radiance Point is just outside and is dying to tell you something.”

“Oh? I hope he has some good news for me,” Wandering said as he headed out of the room.

As Zubon had said, the unicorn was waiting just outside, and he made a beeline for Wandering as soon as the alicorn appeared.

“Captain – I have some important news about the mana beacons.”

“Good news, I hope?”

“Well – a bit of good and a bit of bad.”

“Now that you’ve both excited and disappointed me, would you care to explain?”

“I can confirm that the mana beacons are functioning properly, and in fact they have been since yesterday. However, while we had always considered their range to be indefinite, our understanding of the size of the universe has taken quite a kick in the plot lately.”

“Are you saying that we are out of range?” Wandering asked with some trepidation.

“While I can’t be absolutely sure, I don’t believe so. However, I am certain that we are so far away from Equis right now that the signal from the beacon has not reached home yet. Once it does, Prince Destined can get a lock on us again.”

“And how long before that happens?”

Radiance shrugged helplessly. “How long is a piece of string? We already know that we could be hundreds or even thousands of light-years from home. Cosmic Dawn’s initial theories suggest that that there’s no limit to the distance we could travel in that strange tunnel–”

“Wormhole,” Amethyst said.

“What?”

“The aliens apparently are familiar with the phenomenon and call it a wormhole.”

“Interesting name. Anyway, while there’s no limit to how far we could have travelled, Dawn thinks the duration that we spent in the… wormhole is an indication of distance, and that we’re likely to be still in the same star whirlpool–”

“Galaxy,” Amethyst interjected.

“Can we save the language lesson for later?” Radiance asked irritably. “As I was saying, we’re probably still in the same galaxy. The mana beacon will connect again sooner or later, so we won’t be left stranded, but I have no way of knowing when that will happen.”

“Alright, we’ll just have to hope that it will be a matter of days and not months. Hmm… is there any way that we can send the signal back through the wormhole?”

“Maybe – if we get back close to it and in line with it. Seems risky to me.”

“Yeah, but it’s something to keep in mind. What about the comms? Any progress with them?”

Radiance shook his head. “Nope, and don’t expect any either. Even the most sophisticated crystal comms operate on the same basic principle – paired sympathetically linked crystals. Those links have been broken, and there’s no way to restore them without bringing the two back into physical contact once more. We’re out of communication with Equis until Destined can bring us replacements.”

Wandering grimaced. “Damn. That makes it more important than ever to ensure making an agreement with the aliens. Without a firm date to work with, we have to act as if we are on our own indefinitely.”

“I’m afraid so, sir,” Radiance agreed.



Starry met Wandering as he made his way to their room. After updating Bluequill on the events of the second meeting, it was time for him to go off-duty and get some rest. Starry gave him an eager smile, and he knew that rest was not on her mind. No sooner than they had entered their room than his mate started pestering him for information. As the only way that he had been able to persuade her to stay behind had been to promise to tell her all the juicy details later, he willingly complied. He discovered that she had quite an interest in the centauroid creatures for some reason.

“Could you transform into one of them?” she eventually asked.

Wandering lifted an eyebrow questioningly. “Is that what this is all about, Starry? You can’t wait to get your hooves on an alien?”

Starry blushed a little, but replied defiantly, “Of course not! Scientific curiosity needs to be satisfied!”

“You’re not a biologist though.”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t want to study that biology,” she retorted with a smirk.

Wandering laughed. “You’re a kinky lover, you know that?”

“And you enjoy it just as much as me,” she replied unabashed.

The stallion just shook his head in defeat. “Okay, I got a good scan of all of them, so I can do what you want. I’ll use the one named Forestwalker as the base, but I’ll modify it slightly to match my colours. But first, I had better get out of this uniform. It won’t fit after I change.” Wandering divested himself of his clothes as Starry did the same. Then his horn lit up, and his form was engulfed with magical green flames. Moments later, a solid red-furred chakat with blue and bluish-white-striped hair stood in front of the mare.

While any of the changelings aboard the ship could have emulated the chakat, the great difference in size and mass would have meant that they would have to use illusion to bolster the image, and they would be a chakat in looks alone. Wandering’s alicorn-level magic went much further. He drew on mana to create the extra mass, and he became a true replica of the lifeform. The newly created chakat smiled at Starry and said in a voice very similar to Forestwalker’s, “You like?”

Starry was busy feasting her eyes on Wandering’s new form. Although she had seen all the images that the contact team had taken of the various creatures aboard the Pegasus, it was quite another thing to see one up close and personal. For starters, it was a lot larger than she had initially thought it to be. She took in every detail, occasionally running a hoof over part of the chakat’s anatomy, causing Wandering to experience a soft thrill.

‘These creatures seem to be more sensitive to being touched,’ he mused.

“These … chakats?” Starry looked at Wandering for confirmation, which was provided with a smile and nod. “Their species has generously large udders,” Starry commented.

“I’ve seen minotaur cows with similar endowments,” Wandering replied, putting a hand under each and hefting them a bit. “Still, these are certainly on the larger end of the scale.”

Starry continued her inspection, working her way down the lower torso, noting the ever-changing convolutions of the long, thick tail. “Is that tail prehensile?” she asked.

Wandering paid attention to that appendage for the first time, and it curled exactly as desired on application of will. “I believe you’re correct. Fascinating. This is a very versatile body.”

The mare nodded in agreement and kept on checking out Wandering’s new form. She leaned down to get a closer look at the hind paws when she noticed something. She quickly shifted around for a view from the rear and said, “Lift your tail.”

“You’re usually a lot subtler than that, Starry,” Wandering replied with a smirk.

The mare just stuck her tongue out at him and said, “Just do it.”

Wandering complied.

Starry goggled for a moment, then she snrrked and she sank to the floor, bursting with laughter.

“Okay – what’s so funny?” Wandering asked.

“So… versatile!” she managed to gasp out between gales of laughter.

Realising that a straight answer from Starry was not coming anytime soon, Wandering decided to investigate. Laying down on the floor on one side, the transformed alicorn leaned back to look at the nether regions of this new body. “What the…?! Both male and female?”

The truth was there right in front of the transformed alicorn. A sheathed penis and a vulva showed that there was a lot that Wandering had not suspected about these creatures.

“How did you not notice this before?” Starry managed to ask as she got her laughter under control.

“The results of a changeling’s scans are all stored subconsciously! Plus, I was involved in a serious First Contact situation, not looking at their genitals!” Wandering protested.

Starry got up to have a closer inspection. “Well, they’re well worth looking at, lover.”

“Is that all you have to say about this?”

“You’re off-duty. I’m off-duty. Science can wait. Horny mate wants to find out what it’s like to make love to an alien.”

“You’re really obsessed with my shape-changing for kinks, aren’t you?”

“You’re the one who always plays along though.”

Wandering couldn’t find any way to counter that argument, and shi could swear that shi could feel just how aroused Starry was right now. Shi grinned and said, “Let’s find out what else this body can do.”



Making love as a dual-gendered, feline centauroid had been a uniquely exciting experience, but Wandering had needed to get some rest before getting back to work. Shi had curled up around Starry to sleep, and enjoyed pleasant dream-filled slumber until woken by the bedside alarm. After resuming his natural alicorn form and preparing for the new day, he and Starry headed to the common room for breakfast.

He was a little surprised to find Amethyst Scroll already there, and he took his meal over to her table. “Mind if we join you, Amethyst?”

“Not at all, Captain,” she replied.

“I thought that you might still be sleeping after yesterday’s effort.”

“I thought so too, but I woke up early and felt refreshed, so I decided to get to work as soon as possible. In fact, if you want to come around to my work-station straight after your breakfast, I should be ready to teach you the remainder of the Terranglo language.”

“That’s excellent. I figured that it would take you longer than this to get the spell up to date.”

“That unusual familiarity that I mentioned previously has made it a lot less effort. Using a teaching spell is always much easier when the languages have much in common. I’m not going to question why our languages have so many similarities – I’m just grateful that it has made my job simpler.”

“Does that mean that you can teach more of the crew in less time?” Wandering asked hopefully.

“Yes, as long you don’t expect me to do everypony right away.”

“Don’t worry – I’m not expecting miracles. I’ll give you a list of priorities though.”

“No problem, sir.” She picked up her plate and utensils in her magic and set them on the kitchen counter to be cleaned. “I’ll see you soon, Captain,” Amethyst said before she headed out.

Starry was already halfway through her meal, but she stopped long enough to ask, “Do you plan to have every crewmember able to talk Terranglo?”

“Yep, eventually. If we’re going to be working with these beings on a regular basis, I want every possible person to be able to talk with them without ambiguity or uncertainty. Besides, we need every advantage possible. They obviously have a huge advantage over us technologically, but I don’t believe they know anything about magic, so they might underestimate us, and having every listening ear able to understand what they are saying might pay off in some way.”

“Sounds like you’re treating them like potential enemies rather than potential allies. I thought making contacts with new cultures was your specialty?”

Wandering grinned humourlessly. “I am, and I’m telling you now that even the most promising situations can blow up in your face. Forging a relationship with a totally unknown civilisation is as dangerous as walking through a castle laden with booby-traps, both magical and mundane. We’re trying to do in a matter of days something that should properly done slowly and carefully over a period of months, if not years. The most innocent of things can turn out to be of vital importance, and overlooking or ignoring them can spell disaster for relationships.”

“So why are you throwing a party so soon? Isn’t that asking for trouble?”

Wandering grinned. “If nothing else, history shows that you can get away with a lot at an informal party that you wouldn’t in a formal meeting. To speed up the relationship between our two cultures, a relaxed and convivial atmosphere is conducive to better understanding. I also plan to be generous with the alcohol.”

Starry laughed. “Just make sure that some of the crew don’t sneak in their ‘special’ brews!”

“You got that right,” Wandering fervently agreed before taking a gulp of his coffee.

Just then, Techbird approached Wandering’s table. “I’m glad that I ran into you here, Captain. I have something very interesting to show you later that could revolutionise our propulsion systems.”

That quickly caught the alicorn’s interest. “You have me intrigued, Tech. Tell me more…”



Forestwalker trudged into the quarters that shi shared with hir mates, tail dragging a little. Admiral Boyce Kline looked up from the sofa where he was relaxing with a book while Doctor M’Lai Saarath lay along it with her head in his lap, a PADD resting forgotten on her breasts as she had drifted off in a nap. Trying not to disturb his Fifthwife, Boyce quietly asked, “What’s wrong, Forest? You look like you’ve run fifty laps of the ship.”

Forestwalker gracelessly sprawled onto a lounging cushion before replying hoarsely, “Have you tried repeating tens of thousands of words to teach the universal translator a new language?”

Boyce smiled sympathetically. “I don’t think this situation has ever come up in the history of the Federation. That was a totally unique method of learning a language, and one that our experts have no idea how to duplicate as yet.”

“Well, I now understand the language a whole lot better anyway.”

“Good. You should be able to pick up on nuances that the translator might miss when we attend our visitors’ party.”

“So you’ve decided to accept their invitation; have they indicated a time for it?”

“The party is too good an opportunity to pass up, and my gut tells me that it’s the right thing to do. I haven’t heard back from them as yet though.”

Rosepetal looked over from the table where she and Midnight were engaged in a game of Rakshan chess. “If they are anything like us, they will be preparing like crazy for the occasion. The party alone should involve a ton of work, even after I sent a message that all the foods had tested to be safe. Even so, their top priority has to be getting their crew up to speed for what is likely to be a huge effort to make a good impression. And they are going to have to try hard because the Federation is not in a position to be too trusting while we’re in a state of war with the Swarm. Although they seem to be friendly and cooperative, we cannot afford to overlook their usage of that unknown energy that is the greatest obstacle to defeating the Swarm.”

“I keep telling you that I can sense no deceit or enmity from them,” Forestwalker protested. “They obviously need our help and we should be doing our best to give it to them.”

Boyce patiently replied, “That is exactly what we would be doing if it wasn’t for the state of emergency. It’s your empathic impression of their good nature that was the primary reason for accepting their invitation, otherwise they might be getting a military escort instead.”

“I hate this war,” Forestwalker grumbled.

Midnight got up, walked over to Forestwalker and lay down beside hir to give hir lifemate a consoling hug. “We all do, love. But that’s why Star Fleet has people like us.” Shi waved a hand to indicate the entire family. “We have a balance of skills, personalities, and opinions that lets us choose the optimum path that keeps us all safe and still gives strangers the assistance they need. Star Fleet may be engaged in a war right now, but that’s not its only task. Exploring and discovering new worlds and new civilisations is at its heart, and that’s why you chose to join up after we left Earth for Chakona. But you have to accept that we can’t choose to be compassionate first.”

The jaguar-patterned chakat sighed and nodded reluctantly. Shi leaned hir head against Midnight’s shoulder. “I know. It’s just hard for me.”

Midnight stroked Forestwalker’s hair. “We’re here for you, Forest – never forget that.”

Boyce added, “We may be an odd mixture of a family, but it’s our diversity that gives us strength. Your heart is great, Forest, and we love you for that, but you need to let us do what we do best also.”

Forestwalker had hir eyes closed as shi enjoyed the gentle stroking and waves of sympathy that shi felt coming from hir mates. “I understand. Thanks, everyone.”



Word had come through from Captain Path that they were ready to hold the party whenever it suited their Star Fleet guests. However, Boyce had made some final checks with his heads of department first.

“And all your scans came up clean, Doctor M’Lai?”

“All the samples taken from both visits indicated only benign bacteria and viruses. There was not a single trace of anything that could harm any of us. Decontamination procedures can be discontinued.”

The admiral turned to Rosepetal. “The transporter can retrieve us in an emergency?”

“The alien ship’s shield against background radiation has no effect on transporter function, sir. We can already get a lock on areas within their ship. We won’t have any trouble locking onto your combadges.”

“Good.” He turned to Forestwalker. “Is the universal translator fully updated?”

“Not quite, sir,” Forestwalker replied formally. “But you know how it works. It builds its neural network based on relevant and useful words first, leaving the more obscure and specialist words until last. I doubt that you will encounter any problems unless they use terms for which we have no equivalent.”

“That’s always the case with a new language, so we can deal with that.” Boyce then addressed everyone in the room. “Has everyone got their translator earpieces activated and linked to their combadges?”

They all acknowledged readiness.

Boyce continued, “I want everyone to bear in mind that while this is a party thrown in our honour, this is also a learning experience for both our sides. Enjoy the entertainment, socialise as much as possible, even indulge in alcohol with restraint, but never forget that you represent the Stellar Federation and you will be expected to maintain the high standards that I expect of Star Fleet personnel, and especially of my crew. Keep your eyes, ears, and mind open, and try to stay out of trouble.”

“Aye, sir!” came a chorus of replies.

“The aliens’ shuttle is on its way over, sir,” Midnight reported.

Boyce nodded in acknowledgement. “The first group prepare to shuttle over.”

Due to the space restrictions within the skiff, it could only ferry over a maximum of six passengers at a time, or fewer if any of them were taurs. It had been decided that Boyce had to be among the first group as it was time for both the ships’ captains to meet. He took along Midnight for security purposes, Forestwalker to monitor the encounter empathically and to compensate for any of the Universal Translator’s shortcomings, and M’Lai with her Away-Team kit to keep a medical eye on things in case something had been missed. The second group would include Rosepetal with Harrakar, the Rakshani security officer from the second meeting; E’Sondra te Hanso, a Voxxan fem specialising in cultural studies; Chakat Sparks, the Chief Engineer of the Pegasus; and Helen Baines, a herm rabbit technician. The latter two had been chosen not only as suitable guests, but also because they might be able offer technical assistance while appraising the aliens’ technology. While Sparks had a wealth of experience and expertise, Helen had a special knack for identifying equipment and diagnosing problems.

Boyce was satisfied that they had a good mixture of scientific and military personnel for their group, and had high hopes for a peaceful and successful mission. Hopefully they would make a good first impression on their visitors, because if they turned out to be useful allies, it could mean huge repercussions in their war with the Swarm.



Wandering piloted the skiff personally to pick up the first of his party-goers. As an alicorn, he had little to fear if the aliens turned out to be hostile after all. His defences were extremely strong, and he could teleport back to the ship if worse came to the worst. Not that he thought that was likely to happen, but it was his responsibility to think of these possibilities. Mostly he was eager to meet with his counterpart at last. While he understood the security precaution of sending his First Officer to make contact with the Equians, trust needed to be built up between the two commanding officers, and as his mother would quickly point out, that involved making friends. He hoped that the party would be a success.

The alicorn piloted the ship into the shuttle bay as usual, noting a group waiting for him, with a second group standing back from the first, undoubtedly for the second load. He also noticed the lack of armed personnel lining the catwalks of the bay this time.

“Things are looking up,” he murmured to himself.

Parking the skiff skilfully, he then proceeded to exit the craft. He was quickly approached by the chakat that he had imitated the previous night, and shi smiled welcomingly.

“I’m glad that you chose to come yourself, Captain Path” shi said in Terranglo. “I would like to personally introduce you to Admiral Kline, our ship’s commanding officer and my mate.” Shi turned to indicate the human as he stepped forward with a smile on his face.

“A pleasure to meet you, Captain Path,” Boyce said, bowing slightly in lieu of offering his hand to his hoofed counterpart.

A matching smile on Wandering’s face froze as he took in Boyce’s visage. While the human’s face seemed innocent enough and the expression friendly, a strange aversion swept over the alicorn. An unreasoning chill of fear made him shudder. ‘What’s wrong with me? I’ve never seen this creature in my life, but a mere glance has me shivering in fright. I… I can’t let this go on.

Wandering quickly called upon his link to the changeling network to contact Eon’s second-in-command. ‘Phalanx! I need a big favour quickly!

Captain? What’s the problem?

I have been struck by a near-paralysing fear of the aliens’ commander. I need you to draw off the fear and help me get it under control.

I can taste it through the link, sir. I’ll… do what I can.

Despite not being present physically, the changeling was able to help considerably, and Wandering felt himself calming down. He clamped down on the errant emotion and brought himself fully back under control. ‘Thanks, Phalanx – I’m okay now.

You’re welcome, sir. Please excuse me while I get this bad taste out of my mouth.

Knowing the effect that negative emotions had on changelings, Wandering was grateful that was all that Phalanx would have to deal with.

“Are you alright, Captain?” Boyce asked him with some concern.

Wandering shook himself and plastered a smile back on his face. “Please excuse me, Admiral – I was struck by an unexpected reaction to your appearance. Is there anything in particular about your species that may have caused that feeling?”

Boyce was puzzled. “Not that I am aware of.”

“I see. I will have to look into this later. Meanwhile, there is a party waiting for you and your crew members, and I invite you to board my skiff so that we can get that under way.” Wandering gestured toward the skiff’s door.

Boyce nodded and led his group onto the skiff and the alicorn boarded after the last member. Sealing up the door, he made his way to the pilot’s chair, noting that Admiral Kline was taking a keen interest in everything that the pony did. Wandering took the skiff out of the shuttle bay with his usual skill, but half his mind was still on the totally unexpected effect that the human had upon him. It was completely unreasonable, but the mere sight of the flat furless face had filled him with incredible dread. None of the other strange beings that he had met so far had had any similar effect upon him, so why this one? And would it affect the others? It would not be a good experience for their VIP to be confronted by a ship full of panicky people. He decided to send a warning ahead.

Princess Galena!

Captain?’ came the surprised response.

I’m sending you the image of Admiral Kline. For some reason, just looking at him had a profoundly disturbing effect on me. I want you to spread the word and warn the crew about this. If they are affected also, it will give them a chance to deal with it.

So that’s why Phalanx acted so oddly a short time ago. I’m receiving the image now… and it’s not having any effect on me. I’ll ask Starry.’ There was brief pause and then Galena’s mental voice returned. ‘Wow! She locked up for a moment there. But Commander Bluequill looked also and nothing happened. I’ll try warning the others and getting their reactions too.

The link was quiet for a long while, but Admiral Kline suddenly broke the silence on board the skiff.

“I can see considerable damage on that boom, Captain.”

“Yes, that’s the solar sail mast that failed to detach before we went through the wormhole.”

“That reminds me – we picked up the remains of one of your sails. Do you need it back?”

“We recycle everything, Admiral, but I’m not sure how we can deal with such a large amount of graphene.”

“That’s another thing that I was wondering, Captain – how did you manage to manufacture such a large amount of such a high-tech material?”

Wandering was a little surprised. “We mastered mass-production of graphene decades ago. With our magitek machinery, all it takes is the right spell formula, raw material, and mana supply, and can make as much as we need. The hard part was handling so much material.”

“Spell formula? Mana? I’m afraid you’re not making sense to me.”

“I suspect that there’s a lot that each of us can learn from the other, Admiral. Pardon me for now though – I need to concentrate on docking.”

Part of Wandering’s mind went elsewhere anyway. “Galena – anything to report?

It’s puzzling, Captain. Ponies seem to be the only ones affected, especially unicorns. Griffons, changelings, minotaurs, and even zebras seem unaffected.

Wandering wondered that if unicorns were the worst affected, perhaps it had something to do with the degree of magic they wielded? That jibed with his and Starry’s extreme reaction. He would have to follow that up later. ‘How are the ponies coping?

After the initial effect, they have all calmed down again.

Yeah – I’ve settled down to a mild unease too. Make sure everypony is alerted and give them a chance to brace themselves for the human. We don’t want to cause an interplanetary incident.

Will do, Captain.

The mental conversation concluded just as Wandering powered down the skiff. He then opened the door and said, “Welcome to the Cosmic Lotus. I hope that you enjoy the reception.”

The visitors stepped out and Wandering introduced them to the reception committee consisting of Bluequill, Starry, and Galena. But while the welcome was genuine, Wandering could tell that Starry’s was a little strained. He could hardly blame her for that though, but he could not hang around to help her out because he had to leave in order to fetch the second group of invitees.

“Pardon me, everyone, but I will return soon. Commander Bluequill, I leave the Admiral and his party in your capable talons.”

“Very good, Captain,” the griffon acknowledged with a salute.

‘Nice touch,’ Wandering thought as he stepped aboard the skiff once more.



“So – Commander Bluequill, was it?” Boyce asked.

“Commander Galen Bluequill of House Longreach actually.”

“You resemble a previous visitor’s species, although you do not have the same crystalline look.”

“You are talking about Techbird, I presume. I am a normal example of the griffon species, while she has been changed by chaos magic.”

“Chaos magic?”

“Indeed. How else do you think one could of my kind be made of living crystal? She’s not a crystal pony, after all.”

“Crystal pony? I confess I am getting more confused.”

Bluequill’s beak did not betray the smirk he was feeling. “I suspect that there will be a lot of that on both our sides, Admiral.”

“I believe that you’re right, Commander.” He turned to look at Galena. “You were introduced as a Princess, I believe – does that mean that you technically outrank everyone else?”

Galena smiled and shook her head. “I am the youngest daughter of Queen Lamina, but aboard this ship, I am just another of the crew, albeit one of the chiefs of staff.”

“Are you related to Phalanx? I note that you have a much different build to him.”

“No – he’s a Red Changeling while I am a Violet Changeling, and I’m a young queen while he’s a drone.”

“I see I have a lot to learn about your kind. You resemble the ponies in many ways, but you have insect-like characteristics too.”

Galena smiled indulgently. “We changelings are a symbiotic species that evolved in conjunction with ponykind which probably shaped our appearance, but while we have some very distinctive features that has led us to be sometimes nicknamed bug-ponies, we are not in fact related to insects at all.”

“I will bear that in mind. I look forward to talking with you more.” Boyce turned to Starry next. “I can’t help but notice that you seem ill at ease. Am I causing a problem? Captain Wandering seemed to be affected that way also.”

“It’s nothing,” Starry demurred. “You and possibly your species seem to trigger an aversion among ponies. It is illogical but very real. Please forgive me if I am rude – it’s just that I am having to deal with an involuntary phobia.”

“I understand. Believe me, it’s not always smooth sailing among the races of the Stellar Federation either.”

“That’s reassuring. I hope that we can overcome this problem and work together well.”

“I hope so too, Starry Path. By the way, any relationship to Captain Wandering Path?”

“He is my mate.”

Boyce nodded. “I guessed as much, him being the same species as you.”

Starry gave a genuine chuckle. “While there’s some truth in that statement, you will find that species is no barrier to relationships aboard this ship, nor back home, especially with the changelings. As Galena mentioned, they are symbionts, and they frequently form bonds with other species, especially ponies.”

“More things to learn about your culture,” Boyce replied with a smile.

“Yes, and I hope we can learn about yours too. So, please tell us more about your companions.”

Boyce indicated the chakats next to him. “Captain Path has already met these two. Forestwalker is the chief of the biology department, while Midnight is Chief of Security. Doctor M’Lai is head of the medical department, but all of them have one thing in common with Commander Rosepetal – I am honoured to call them my wives.”

Starry smiled. “So you have herds too? At least we have that in common.”

“Herds?” Boyce echoed with a grin. “I suppose you could call them that.”

“Do you have compatibility spells too?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Compatibility spells – you know – to have foals.”

Forestwalker burst out laughing. “Oh yes, you can say that again!”

Boyce made a small smile and added, “I have had a child by each of my five mates so far.”

“Will we get to see them, Captain?”

“They are back on Chakona, living with our extended family and going to school there. Present circumstances preclude having them aboard the Pegasus.”

“Ah – I understand. What I don’t understand and has everyone bursting with curiosity is how your ship is named after one of our species if you have never met them before.”

“That’s because Pegasus was a mythological creature from many centuries in our past.”

“Pegasus singular?”

“Yes. In fact it was considered a winged horse’s name, not a race of such creatures.”

“Curiouser and curiouser.”

“Said Alice,” Boyce added.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Sorry – I was quoting from a notable work of fiction.”

“I see. However, we have a remarkable and puzzling reality to decipher.”

“The first of many, I am betting.”

Starry found herself warming up to the human in spite of the persistent feeling of aversion that she was keeping tightly under control. “Just you wait until you have to deal with Techbird’s puzzles!”

“That’s the translucent griffon, right. I noticed her fascination with our equipment.”

“That’s barely scratching the surface of Techbird’s enthusiastic pursuit of knowledge. I’m afraid you will probably be subjected to a lot more of it.”

“I worked up the ranks through engineering, so I’m quite familiar with her interest in technology. Perhaps we can exchange some information.”

“Be careful what you ask for, Admiral,” Starry replied with a smile.

Boyce smiled back, but if he could get to the bottom of the mysterious energy that these strange newcomers seem to be utilising, it would be worth any hassle.

They all continued small talk until Wandering returned with the second load of passengers. After introductions were completed, Wandering proceeded to take them to the party venue.

“Please excuse the cramped conditions,” he said as they headed down the passageways with the occasional crewmember gazing with interest at the visitors. “Since we arrived at our destination, everyone who was in hibernation has now been revived and it’s a little crowded. We’ll soon be in the Park where there’s a bit of wing room.”

The group continued on without talking until they reached the entry to the Park. Once inside, Wandering stood aside to allow their guests to get a good look at the lush surroundings. They all gaped at the plethora of plant-life and flowers filling the air with their scent. But it was the sight of all the pegasi, thestrals, changelings and griffons enjoying a flight through the large open spaces or fluttering among the branches that took their breath away. The music that was coming from the far end that was hidden by vegetation along the winding path only added to the surrealistic nature of the scene.

Wandering said, “The main events are at the far end of the Park.” He waved a hoof in the direction of the path.

“This is amazing, Captain Path. This must take up a large portion of your ship,” Boyce said as he forced himself to move along.

“Over half its length and its entire width,” the alicorn clarified. “Not only does it give us room to exercise, especially for those with wings, but the natural environment is good psychologically. Of course it also provides us with oxygen and cleans the air of musty ship smells, and we grow a large proportion of our food here.”

“I can see why you have devoted so much space to it, although if my guess is correct, this used to be the fuel tank for the rocket engines that we noticed at the rear of your craft.”

“Very observant of you, Admiral. You are quite correct. The tanks were built with conversion in mind after they fulfilled their initial function.”

“Rockets are not typically what you would find on an interstellar vessel though.”

“We used them to break orbit and provide the initial impetus before manoeuvring into position to engage our solar sail.”

Boyce looked puzzled. “Light-propulsion is an even less effective means of travelling interstellar distances. Acceleration is far too slow.”

“Unless you use alicorn propulsion in conjunction with a mass-reduction spell to get up to a significant proportion of the speed of light.”

“Mass-reduction spell? This is more of this magic that you keep mentioning?”

“Of course… oh – you lack that. I suppose it would be confusing, and it’s certainly different from the way we observed your spacecraft to be moving.”

“Are you certain that your language learning method has correctly interpreted the word? Magic isn’t real.”

Wandering had to stifle a laugh. “There’s magic all around you, and it’s very real.”

Boyce was having a very hard time refuting that argument despite everything he had ever learned. He did notice one other thing however. “Every pony that looks at me seems to react badly. Some stiffen up and others even shy away. Is that more of that reaction you said that you experienced, Captain?”

The alicorn nodded. “It’s exactly the same thing. I sent warning ahead to be prepared for you, but looking at a picture and seeing you in person are very different things. Give them a chance to adapt.”

Boyce presumed that Wandering had radioed from the skiff while returning to the Pegasus for more passengers. However, if his mere appearance was going to disrupt what could be a very important interaction between the two cultures, he would have to consider leaving early. At least the non-ponies seemed more curious and friendly.

The group wound its way through the various trees, flower beds, and vegetable gardens until they neared the end where it opened up to a large grassy area with a pond at the far end that backed up to a mound that was acting as a stage. A band was playing the music that they had been hearing since reaching the Park, and some of the crew were dancing. Tables laden with food lined the perimeter, but they looked untouched, perhaps waiting for the guests to arrive.

The visitors stood there for a while just watching everything, and the Lotus’ crew in turn looked them over. While the larger beings impressed the crew, none of them had the effect that the human had, and they drew a lot of curious gazes.

Forestwalker broke the silent watching. “Captain, I notice that the majority of the crew in here are not wearing a uniform like yours. In fact most are nude. Is this normal?”

Wandering smiled and replied, “While the uniform is required while on-duty, and recommended when off-duty due to its protective devices, the Park is one of the places where everyone can fly, exercise, or relax in total comfort. That is its major function. Most of the crew here are off-duty at the moment, so of course they choose to be comfortable.”

“So clothing is optional in your culture?”

“Aside from protective gear or official uniforms, clothing is normally a fashion statement. We do not actually require any. Is it different for you?”

“Most cultures in the Federation wear clothing all the time for various reasons. On my home world, Chakona, clothing is optional, but the majority still wear it.”

“It must be uncomfortable, surely?”

“You get used to it,” Forestwalker replied with a snicker. “However, now that I can see ponies without their uniform, I notice the symbols that you have on your hindquarters. Can you explain their significance?”

“You mean our cutie marks? We gain them when we discover our true talent or purpose.”

“So you get tattooed or something to commemorate the occasion?”

Wandering laughed. “No – they just magically appear. It’s quite a momentous occasion and we make a big celebration of it when it happens.”

“They just… appear? Out of nowhere?”

“Yes. Only for ponies though, although zebras have a version too.” The alicorn declined to mention his changeling sire’s cutie mark as that was a special exception that would have only confused the situation.

Just then, the tune that the band had been playing finished. The musicians looked at Wandering expectantly, and he took his cue. He strode up the mound and turned to face the gathering, noting that everyone had followed the group to the main event area. That suited him fine. He took one of the microphones that the band had been using and started his speech.

“I would like to formally welcome our visitors from the starship Pegasus and the Stellar Federation which they represent. While it had been our hope to discover life at the Far Star, it was only in our fondest dreams that we thought to meet another sapient species, let alone several of them. My fellow crewmembers, I would like to introduce you to our guests starting with Admiral Boyce Kline. Admiral – would you please step up here with me?”

While the speech had been made in Equish, a link behind his ear to the universal translator had kept Boyce informed as to what was being said. He made his way up the mound and faced the audience, noting the mixed reactions of the ponies but the rapt attention of the others. Wandering passed the microphone to him and Boyce began his speech, trusting in his hosts to have their own translation ability.

“Thank you, Captain Path. I’ll keep this short as this is supposed to be a party rather than a dreary diplomatic event…” He paused as there were many knowing chuckles among the listeners. “In the short time since we encountered each other, it has become very obvious that there are many differences between us, but one thing still remains the same – the desire for friendship. I hope that we can all be good friends as we get to learn more about each other.”

The human was unprepared for the enthusiastic response to that short speech, including hoof-stomping, chittering, and a few screeches from the griffons, but he decided that he must have hit exactly the right note.

“Let me introduce you to my companions. Firstly – Commander Rosepetal Silpurr, First Officer of the Pegasus and my Firstwife.”

Rosepetal walked up to stand next to Boyce and gave the crowd a short bow.

Boyce continued, “Rosepetal is a member of the Caitian species, as is Doctor M’Lai Saarath, my Fifthwife.”

M’Lai joined her husband on the mound, standing just a little taller than him.

“Next I wish to introduce Forestwalker and Midnight, both members of the chakat species. Forest is a biologist and my Thirdwife, while Midnight is my Chief of Security and Fourthwife.”

The two chakats joined him on the crowded stage and waved.

Boyce let the murmurs of the crowd die down before asking his wives to step down to make room for the others.

“Also a chakat but not one of my wives is Chief Engineer Sparks. Security Officer Harrakar ap Jantis na Kiff is a Rakshani, E’Sondra te Hanso is a Voxxan fem specialising in cultural studies, and last but not least is Helen Baines, a rabbit-morph technician who is eager to learn more about your unusual technology. Please feel free to come and talk to any of us and have chat.”

Wandering smiled and nodded gratefully at Boyce for the short but concise introduction. He then addressed the crowd once more. “Okay – enough with the speeches. This is supposed to be a party in honour of our new friends, so everyone have fun!”

The band took that as their cue to start playing once more, and the alicorn and the visitors joined the others again.

Wandering said, “At this point, I would like to invite you to do as you please. Eat what you like – all of the ingredients for the foods here were included in the samples that we sent to you for testing and have proved harmless to you. The table on the far left has purely vegetarian options which may include items which may not be suitable for your diet though. The table on the far right screened by a bush contains carnivorous options which I would appreciate if you would eat discreetly to avoid disturbing the sensibilities of some of the crew. We know you eat meat, but most ponies find it unsettling.” Again the alicorn decided not to mention that many herbivore House Path members not only were inured to meat eaters, but they also occasionally indulged in it. Lord Path had started that tradition way back when the House had been founded, and it continued to this very day. “Various drinks, alcoholic and otherwise are available too. Please mingle and enjoy yourselves!”

Many of the crew immediately started crowding around the visitors, eager to talk with these exciting new beings. Boyce attracted the attention of a couple of griffons and was soon deep in conversation with them.



Harrakar was approached by Eon and they gave each other an appraising stare. Although the dracopony had to crane his head up to look the Rakshani in the eye, he seemed unimpressed.

“So – what is your fancy long name supposed to mean?” the dracopony suddenly asked.

Harrakar frowned and replied, “It means that I am named Harrakar, sired by Jantis of the House of Kiff.”

“You have Houses too? I suppose that would make me Eon ap Blue Streak na Path.”

“Only if you had an honourable Rakshan lineage,” Harrakar replied with a scowl.

Eon snorted derisively, then asked, “Do you drink alcohol?”

“Yes – I could drink you under the table, little one.”

“Care to prove it?”

“As long as you don’t waste my time with the tame stuff.”

Eon smirked as he led the Rakshani away. “I know just the thing.”



Sparks was approached by a chrome changeling. “Hi! I’m Xeros, one of the engineering crew. I was hoping that we could talk shop?”

“Is that all?” Sparks asked curiously.

“Well – I admit to being curious about your kind. I’ve never met a centauroid species before.”

“And I have never encountered a being as strange as you before either. Shall we trade notes?”

Xeros grinned. “I’d like that.”

“Then can I start by asking why I can’t sense any emotions coming from you, or any others like you for that matter?”

“You can… sense emotions?”

“Yes – all chakats are empaths, although some are stronger than others. However I can’t detect even a scrap coming from you.”

“That’s because I’m an emotivore.”

“A what?”

“I eat emotional energy. Love and friendliness are really tasty and especially filling. Other positive emotions are good too and add flavour.”

Sparks was boggled. “You actually eat love?”

“Yes, and other emotions. That’s why we don’t leak any out.”

“How does that even work?”

Xeros shrugged. “I’m an engineer, not a biologist, arcane or otherwise. My turn for a question now.”

“Fair enough. Ask away.”

“I noticed something while you and the other chakats were up on the mound. Are you male or female?”

Sparks grinned. “I’m a herm.”

“That… does not seem to be in my vocabulary.”

“Herm – short for hermaphrodite. I’m both male and female. All chakats are herms.”

“Wow! I’ve never thought about that. I mean I’ve taken both male and female forms before, but never both at once.”

“What do you mean by taking those forms?”

“Like this.”

Sparks was extremely startled as the changeling suddenly was engulfed in green flames, leaving behind a gorgeous pink pegasus mare with a long golden mane. She winked at him and then the flames returned to replace her with a large grey-coated earth pony stallion with severely cropped mane and tail, but with muscle definition that drew the eye. The chakat gaped at Xeros for a long moment before finally saying, “You’re a shape-changer?”

“Well, duh!” the stallion replied with a roll of his eyes. “Why do you think we’re called changelings?”

“I hadn’t thought about it. By the way, you make quite a handsome pony.”

“Thanks – this is actually my favourite alter ego. And I find you quite intriguing also.”

Sparks grinned, not needing to sense the changeling’s feelings to suspect what they were. “I think this calls for some in-depth investigation.



Forestwalker and Midnight found themselves surrounded by a number of mares.

“Can I help you ladies?” Forestwalker asked.

One of the bolder mares spoke up. “My name is Sweet Dreams. We heard that you are one of several wives that Admiral Kline has. We did not realise that other species would form herds like we do.”

Forestwalker smiled. “Well, we don’t call them herds, but yes, we do occasionally form extended families.”

“Oh good. We mares all belong to herds, although none as big as yours. We were wondering something.”

“What is that?”

“How do you go about pleasing your stallion to maintain harmony in your large herd?”

Forestwalker blinked in surprise, then slowly turned to Midnight and said, “Never in a million years would I have thought I’d be asked a question like that, especially on a diplomatic mission.”

“Neither did I,” Midnight replied with chagrin. “Wanna answer her?”

“You first!” Forestwalker replied hastily.

Midnight looked at the eagerly expectant faces surrounding them. “A-heh,” was all the normally unflappable chakat could say.



A zebra mare approached M’Lai. “My name is Doctor Zubon, Chief Medical Officer of the Cosmic Lotus. I am honoured to meet a colleague.”

“Thank you. I’m curious as to the differences in medical practices between our cultures.”

“As am I, although there is one question that is uppermost on my mind at the moment.”

“Feel free to ask,” M’Lai replied, already suspecting what it might be.

“I noticed that you are significantly bigger than your co-wife, and in fact taller than everyone except the one named Harrakar. Are your and his species related?”

That was not quite the question that she had expected although it was related. “No, our species are not related, although we have superficial similarities. My height is the result of a childhood medical condition that caused uncontrolled growth until it was cured.”

“Did that medical condition inspire an interest in a career as a doctor?”

“Yes, it did. What about you?”

“My interest began as the child of my tribe’s shaman…”



Ortzi was intrigued by the alien called Helen Baines. She was like no other female that he had ever seen, and he took the opportunity to be the first to approach her. He put the friendliest expression that he could manage and approached the rabbit lady. “Hi! My name is Ortzi Goldbeak. Umm… could we talk?”

Helen was both pleased to have one of the odd aliens wanting to talk to hir, but at the same time a little concerned to be approached by one of the fiercer looking creatures. His piercing golden eagle visage was difficult to read as there were no sapient species with beaks in the Federation, but his hesitant tone was all too familiar – he was shy! Shi gave him hir warmest smile. “I’d love to have a chat. What would you like to talk about?”

“Er… please don’t take this the wrong way, but you resemble a prey species back home, and your species name translates the same, but at the same time you look tall and strong like an Abyssinian stealth warrior. It’s kind of hot.”

Helen blinked in surprise. The dual comparisons were rather odd, but was he hitting on hir? “Do you like inter-species relationships?” shi asked bluntly.

Pleased that Helen had picked up on his awkward pick-up line, he was emboldened to continue. “Yes I do. I joined the House Path Cosmic Lotus program as much to meet females of other species as to become a pioneer in interstellar travel.”

Helen decided that Ortzi could not have been too successful if he was still trying after spending years in space. Still, now that shi saw past his dangerous-looking beak and talons, shi found him to be rather cute in a clumsy sort of way. Still, there was one misapprehension shi had to clear up. “I’m not actually female – I’m a herm.”

Ortzi looked at hir quizzically. “What’s a herm?”

“I’m both female and male. Both sets of genitals.”

“Oh. Does that mean you don’t like males?”

That had not been the reaction Helen had expected. “Not at all. It’s just that most males aren’t interested in herms because we’re also part male.”

“Ah! I see. So you don’t like males?”

“What? No! I mean I like both male and female partners.” How did shi end up talking about hir sex life?

Ortzi brightened. “Oh, good. Can I interest you in a drink?”

Still flustered, Helen nodded. “I think I need one.” This was turning out to be one strange date!



E’Sondra wondered who to talk to first. With such a variety of species on board this ship, it had to provide a rich mine of information for her cultural studies. She was a little surprised to find that one had already picked her out and was currently staring at her curiously. It was one of insectoid ponies with an orange-coloured carapace, and rather cute for all its strangeness.

“Hi, I’m E’Sondra. You’re what they call a changeling, aren’t you?”

“Yep. Call me Willow. Did you know that you resemble a fox?”

The Voxxan nodded. “We have been often compared to Terran foxes. Wait! How do you know about them?”

“I don’t know these Terran foxes that you’re talking about, but we have foxes on Equis.”

“That’s remarkable if true. Must be parallel evolution. Nevertheless we’re unrelated either way.”

“Doesn’t matter really. I’m the Entertainment Director for this ship, and you have inspired me. How would you like to be in a little skit with me?”

E’Sondra giggled. “Sounds like fun. What would you like me to do?”



“You look bemused.”

Rosepetal looked down and to her left to see a blonde-maned blue-coated unicorn mare watching her. “Yes, you could say that.”

“Don’t you like parties?”

“I like them fine. It’s just that my sensibilities have been abused a little too much lately.”

“How is that?”

“I am not just the First Officer of the Pegasus but also its Science Officer. But so much of what I see on board this ship defies physics as I know it.”

The mare chuckled. “I suppose it would if you only know classic physics.”

“What do you mean by that?” Rosepetal asked with a small frown of confusion.

“Let me introduce myself – I am Moonlit Path, thaumophysicist.”

“And what exactly is a thaumophysicist?”

“It’s the science of integrating thaumaturgy with classical physics in order to determine how the universe works.”

“Thaumaturgy?”

“Magic if you will, although that’s a narrow and incomplete definition.”

“I still maintain that there’s no such thing as magic, just physics that we don’t understand yet.”

“It’s all around you, so how can you deny it? It has its own set of natural laws, just as classical physics does, and it fills in the unexplained gaps in that particular branch of science. So what makes it so hard to believe?”

“What it accomplishes is impossible!”

“That is obviously untrue. If you know the right equations, very little is impossible.”

“Then how come your ship is in such difficulty?” Rosepetal pointed out.

“Because we don’t have a complete understanding of the universe as yet, of course. We gained so much new knowledge of classical physics merely by making this journey. Can’t you concede that you have much to learn about thaumaturgy too?”

Rosepetal gave Moonlit Path a begrudging smile. “You have a point there.” A thought occurred to her and she chuckled.

“May I ask what you find amusing?”

“I just imagined myself learning a magic spell and stunning my old science teacher.”

Moonlit giggled. “That would be funny. Would you like to learn a bit of theoretical magic, Commander Rosepetal?”

“I think I would enjoy that. At the very least it might stop me from having a crisis every time I see something happening that my logical mind says is preposterous. Hmm, are you related to Captain Path?”

“He’s my uncle, actually. You will find a lot of the Path family on board this ship as the whole Far Star project was created by House Path.”

“That’s interesting. Tell me more…”



While engaging mostly in small talk with various crew members of the Cosmic Lotus, Boyce tried to keep an eye open for the rest of his companions. Early on he spotted Forestwalker and Midnight in the company of a large number of mares of all kinds. At one stage he noticed Forest pointing at him and the mares all breaking out in a fit of giggling. Even more puzzling was Midnight uncharacteristically giggling along with them. He considered asking them about that later, but decided it might be for the best if he just let it go.

He tracked down M’Lai later in a small alcove in the Park where a round table was set up. The Caitian was holding several playing cards and facing a grey-coated unicorn who was holding up similar cards in the glow of his telekinesis. Each had a stack of chips of virtually equal size in front of them, while two other players appeared to have been wiped out and were merely watching in interest. Obviously they had to be playing a game equivalent to poker, and knowing his wife’s skill with the game, it was a bit of a surprise that she was so evenly matched. Satisfied that she wasn’t going anywhere soon, he left to look for the others.

He found Harrakar and the dragon-pony by the bar with an impressive number of empty glasses in front of them. The size and mass of Rakshani let them drink far more alcohol than any other sapient in the Federation except chakats whose natural resistance to poisons (which included alcohol) made it almost impossible for them to get drunk. The dragon-pony looked totally unfazed though while his security officer was looking a little worse for wear.

“I thought that I gave orders not to over-indulge, Sergeant Harrakar?”

The Rakshani frowned and replied, “My apologies, sir. This… being must be cheating somehow.”

Eon gave the human a grin. “Just teaching your warrior a valuable lesson, Admiral.”

“And what would that be, may I ask?” Boyce asked curiously.

“Dragons can’t get drunk. We store and burn off the alcohol.”

“How do you mean?”

“Simple – like this.” Eon gave a snort and a small but steady stream of fire came out of his nostrils. By manipulating the contents of the flammable vapour, he made the flame’s colour change several times as Harrakar stared in sozzled disbelief.

“Quite impressive. Now that you’ve gotten my officer drunk though, I would appreciate it if you would keep an eye on him until we leave once more. The last thing I wish is to have an incident with an inebriated Rakshani spoiling this party.”

“Fair enough, Admiral. He’s in good claws.”

Boyce certainly hoped so as he left to check on the rest of his crew. He did not manage to track down Sparks or Baines, but he did enjoy the humorous impromptu skit that was put on by one of the changelings and E’Sondra. Who knew she had such a talent for comedy?

 


 

Steps and Missteps

 

“Is there a problem, Admiral?” Wandering asked.

Boyce was drawn out of his musing by the unexpected question. “Hmm? No – I’ve been enjoying the food and the chats for the most part.”

“But something is still bothering you, isn’t it?”

Boyce nodded. “I know the ponies are trying their best to not show it, but this aversion you have to me is getting a bit wearing. It puts a bit of a strain on any conversation that I try to have.”

“I see. Perhaps this would be a good time to get away from the crowd for a moment. I was planning to offer to show you around the ship later, but we can do that right now if you would prefer?”

“That sounds like a good idea, and I would appreciate a tour. How is the aversion affecting you though?”

Wandering gave the human a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry about that. After the initial shock, I got that under control. I’m far more used to uncomfortable situations than the majority of the crew and have learned ways to control my emotions.”

“Then let’s get started, shall we?”

As the Park was located at the rear of the ship, it made sense to simply work their way forward. Aside from a maintenance and preparation room for the Park, the crew quarters were closest to it. A griffon emerging from his quarters was happy to show it off for the benefit of their visitor, proudly displaying his House emblem adorning the wall of the small room. The common bathing facilities were next, and finally Wandering let him see the much larger quarters with private bathroom that he shared with Starry.

“I noticed that there seem to be a lot of couples among your crew, Captain – are there shared quarters for them too?”

Wandering chuckled. “Plenty, actually. The single rooms were designed such that the adjacent walls could be removed to make a larger suite for two or more occupants.”

“Ah, that makes sense for the limited space that you have available. How many have you had to convert that way?”

“About three quarters of them.”

Boyce raised a surprised eyebrow. “That many? I’m all for relationships among the crew, especially on a long journey such as yours, but that still seems high. It can’t be that easy to find a compatible person amidst a crew of this size.”

“You would normally be right, but that’s where the changelings come in.”

“The shape-changers? That surprised me when I saw it in action. Are you saying that they change their form and personality to become compatible companions?”

Wandering shook his head. “Personality – no, but form – that depends on the couple. The changelings are a symbiotic species, and because they are emotivores, they seek out suitable people in need of companionship and form a relationship with them. The changeling gives that person what they need and in return they get the emotional sustenance that all changelings require. It could be simply as a good friend, but it often grows into much more. While a changeling can feed on any positive emotion, and in fact the different sub-species have their personal taste preferences, love gives them the most energy. If the changeling is very lucky, they may find a pony or griffin who is also totally compatible with them, such as Xanth and Coldfire who have become mates.”

“I find it hard to believe that a species gets their energy needs from eating emotions.”

Wandering grinned. “Don’t worry, Admiral – it seems a bit strange to most Equians too, even as we enjoy the benefits of such relationships.”

“I saw several eating regular food though.”

“Oh, they are quite capable of eating and enjoying the taste of our food, and in fact they need water and raw material to grow and replace worn-out cells. However, they can’t extract energy from food because their biology is different.”

“Remarkable! I bet Forestwalker would find this fascinating. But if they are so different, does this mean that they can’t have children?”

“We have compatibility spells nowadays that enable drones to have foals if they desire. You have seen the result of one such union. Amethyst Scroll is a unicorn with changeling wings and chitin on her lower legs. At least one changeling trait is often passed on to the child, although it’s not always obvious.”

“I see. Do you have many children on board? I haven’t seen any so far.”

“We have just one foal, and he was unplanned. No one was supposed to get pregnant during our voyage because of the limited resources, and how it would be unfair to the child, but one exception occurred. Come with me – he should be in his parents’ room.”

Wandering led Boyce down a corridor which took them to a room that had its door open already. Peering inside, they were surprised to see Forestwalker already there. Shi noticed Boyce and waved him in.

“Boyce! You have to see this! He’s adorable!”

Wandering noticed the amused and indulgent expression on Coldfire’s face and judged that it was okay to enter. He allowed the human to precede him and they approached the double bed where Coldfire lay curled around her foal who was fast asleep.

Forestwalker said, “This is Skyborn – isn’t he the cutest thing you’ve ever seen?”

Boyce personally felt inclined to agree, but he judiciously answered, “He’s almost as cute as our cubs were when they were his age.”

The chakat looked at him with a smirk on her muzzle. “Smart answer. Anyway, I got to hold him for a little while as Coldfire and I chatted. He radiated so much happiness, it was all I could do to hand him back.”

Boyce smiled indulgently before looking at the happy mother of the foal. “A word of advice when it comes to chakats – they’re suckers for children and might snuggle your foal nearly to death.”

Coldfire laughed. “Yes, I got that impression.”

“Well, I will leave you to my mate’s tender mercies for now. Your captain is giving me a tour of your ship, and we have a lot to see as yet.”

“I’m sure that we’ll be seeing more of each other in the future, Admiral Kline.”

Wandering then led Boyce to their next destination which was the common room/mess hall which was almost empty at this time. Sparks was one of the exceptions, and shi was lying next to one of the low coffee tables and engaged in conversation with an earth pony stallion who had his forelegs propped up on the chakat’s lower torso. They seemed to be engrossed in debating an engineering topic while referencing something on the table, so Boyce did not disturb them. Hopefully Sparks was gaining some valuable insight into their hosts’ systems.

Wandering was privately amused when he realised that the stallion was a changeling whom he identified as Xeros through the network. It seemed that there was a practical demonstration of how changelings interacted with other species happening right under the human’s nose without him even realising it.

Next came a large number of rooms dedicated to a variety of research projects, all currently unattended of course. To Boyce’s surprise, the bridge came next.

“You have your bridge located well back from the bow of your ship – why is that?”

“It’s the heart of the ship, and best protected there. Besides, the forward section is dedicated to another purpose which we will get to soon. Let me show you how the bridge operates.”

Two crewpersons were still on duty, although they had very short shifts as they interchanged with other bridge crew so that they could all have the opportunity to enjoy the party. They happily demonstrated the purpose of the various stations to their human guest. Boyce found many to be quite familiar in function, although bewildering in how they actually worked, and he left with more questions than answers.

Maintenance and engineering departments were next, and the latter was even more incomprehensible to the engineering-trained human. Both he and Wandering were surprised to encounter Techbird working at one of the stations. Boyce was fascinated to see in person the translucent crystalline griffon. In defiance of all logic, the obviously inorganic creature seemed just as supple and full of life as any other being that he had met so far on this ship.

“What are you up to, Tech?” Wandering asked quietly. “Shouldn’t you be at the party?”

The griffoness was startled, and jerked her head around to look at Wandering. “Oh! Captain – I… Galena is busy schmoozing with our guests, and I wanted to pursue that idea that I told you about earlier.” She gestured at the large monitor screen on the wall in front of her. It was covered with equations and diagrams that exceeded Wandering’s expertise, but surprisingly made more sense to Boyce.

Techbird continued, “Admiral – I noticed on the recordings that we made of your ship as it approached that the star-field behind it seemed to be distorted. Upon measuring those distortions and the vectors of the ship, I determined that it was using a reactionless drive that involved manipulation of space itself.”

Boyce blinked in surprise. “That is essentially correct, although more precisely it’s space-time manipulation. At its simplest, the Pegasus contracts space and the ship moves along in that direction.”

Techbird’s smile of vindication was enormous, but she was not finished. “I extrapolated those results, and I believe that given some time and resources, I could build a version of that drive that could accelerate us to virtual speeds far greater than that of light. If we can locate Equis, we might have an alternative means of getting home.”

“What do you mean by virtual speeds?” Wandering asked.

“We’ve already determined that it is impossible to exceed the speed of light by purely physical means, but this method does not actually require doing so. Instead, by contracting space-time in front and expanding space-time behind the ship, a warp bubble would form and push the ship forward through the universe faster than light while its relative speed remained zero!”

Boyce was stunned. Merely from observing the Pegasus approaching their craft, this strange being had made a logical leap that had taken decades for humans to make. She had to be some kind of genius! There was one disturbing flaw to her idea though.

“I strongly suggest that you do not build a drive like that,” Boyce said earnestly.

The griffoness gave him a disturbingly intense stare. “Why not?” she asked.

“That is what is we call an Alcubierre Drive, and it has a very serious problem. You would probably destroy or at least irradiate anything directly ahead of you at your target destination.”

“How so, Admiral?” Wandering asked.

“Space is not just an empty void between point A and point B… rather, it’s full of particles that have mass and those can get swept up by the warp bubble and focused in regions before and behind the ship, as well as within the warp bubble itself. When an Alcubierre-driven ship decelerates from superluminal speed, the particles its bubble has gathered are released in energetic outbursts of gamma rays and extremely high-energy atomic nuclei. In the case of forward-facing particles, the outburst can be enough to destroy anyone at the destination directly in front of the ship. The further you travel, the more particles and the more energy that it gains. Go far enough and you could destroy the entire ecosystem of a planet!”

Wandering gulped. That was a serious flaw.

Techbird glared at Boyce for a long moment before she sighed. “I had not foreseen that possibility. And yet, I still feel that there is an answer to be found in those equations.”

Boyce nodded. “You are correct. Warp drive goes another level further. The only way to avoid the problem with particles in space is to leave space entirely.” Had he given away too much? Would this remarkable being figure out how warp drive took a ship into hyperspace merely from that hint? He both dreaded and eagerly anticipated the answer to that question.

“We’ll leave you now, Techbird,” Wandering said, “but I suggest you take a break and socialise a bit. I’m sure Galena would appreciate the company.” As the griffoness looked wistfully at her work, the alicorn added, “The equations can wait. I’m sure that it’s going to take more than one evening to crack that problem.”

The tour continued, but as impressed that Boyce had been so far, it was the final stop that was to be the most amazing.

“This is Engineering, and here we have the power source of the Cosmic Lotus,” Wandering announced.

At the far end of the machine-packed room was a huge spherical chamber about forty metres in diameter that occupied all the levels at the forward end of the spaceship. There were several pylons isolating it from the majority of the vessel, with the decks ending about a metre from its surface. Guardrails along the edges allowed Boyce to safely look down to the lower decks and up to another from all around the structure. There were many conduits leading from the chamber to various equipment in the engineering section – some of them obviously for fluids but others mystified the human. However, there was only one obvious entry into it, and a ramp bridged the gap between the deck and the hatchway.

“Would you like to have a look at the mini-star?” Wandering asked.

Boyce blinked in surprise. “Are you saying this is a fusion reactor? It’s nowhere near big enough for that!”

“Judge for yourself,” Wandering said with a smile. His magic carried two pair of goggles from a hook nearby. “You’re going to need this,” he said, passing one of them to the admiral.

Boyce adjusted the strap on the goggles and donned them. Wandering looked at the changeling crewperson on duty who nodded and put on a pair of goggles too. The alicorn then fitted his and walked over to the hatchway door which he unlatched and opened. Intense light flooded the room, but the goggles automatically adjusted to bring it down to bearable levels. Boyce was urged to peer through the window that the hatch had covered, and he gaped in shock. Suspended in the middle and filling over half the volume was a sphere glowing with light and heat, its surface crawling with patterns that anyone familiar with the photosphere of a star would have recognised. This was no fusion chamber, but what he was seeing had to be impossible.

“That… that’s a miniature star!” he gasped.

“Exactly as I said,” Wandering replied. “It powers our systems, light-tubes from the chamber illuminate the entire ship, heat from it is used for various purposes, and small portions of it were used to make light bombs and concussion bombs that were used to accelerate and decelerate the ship.”

Boyce was overwhelmed. This technology was far beyond anything that the Federation had produced, and here it was tucked neatly inside a starship propelled by a solar sail! Although they lacked a means of travelling faster than light, these strange beings had more than matched the Pegasus’ power capabilities. They even had artificial gravity! He pulled out a small PADD from his pocket to test for what he suspected. Confirming his hunch, the mini-star’s chamber was giving off the tell-tale indication of the Swarm’s mysterious energy – so much that it exceeded his device’s ability to measure the spectral flux density. Such an enormous amount of power under their complete control! If this was an example of what these Equians could achieve, how much of a threat could they prove to be to the Federation if they chose to be hostile rather than throwing a party?



With the tour completed, Wandering led Boyce back in the direction of the Park via a lower deck level so that they did not simply retrace their steps. On their way, they almost bumped into Ortzi and Helen coming out of a side corridor, both of whom were nervously concerned about nearly colliding with their commanding officers.

“Pardon me, sir,” Helen said, snapping a salute.

“What have you been up to, Lieutenant Baines?” Boyce asked. “I was looking for you earlier.”

“Crewman Ortzi was showing me some of the ship’s systems, sir,” shi replied.

Wandering was hoping that the human couldn’t read griffon expressions well because he doubted that was all that Ortzi had been showing the rabbit person this close to the crew quarters.

Boyce nodded. “I expect that you will have a lot to report later. Carry on.”

“Don’t get too carried away, Ortzi,” Wandering added. “You’ll have to leave something to show your friend the next time Baines visits.”

If the human couldn’t read Ortzi before, the blush that was betrayed by his ears surely must have been a giveaway. “Yes, sir!”

Wandering managed to conceal a grin as he and Boyce continued on to the Park.

The party started to wind down about an hour later, and eventually Boyce put out a call over the combadges for the visitors to rendezvous for a return trip to the Pegasus. Wandering shuttled them back over, with the Admiral going on the second trip. He paused just before exiting the skiff to talk to the alicorn.

“Thank you very much for your hospitality, Captain Path. It was both pleasant and educational.”

“You’re welcome, Admiral Kline. I hope that we can continue to further our relationship soon,” Wandering replied.

“I assure you, your ship and its crew have certainly made an impact on both me and the Federation already. We will talk again soon.” Boyce then stepped out of the craft to join Forestwalker, M’Lai and Midnight who had been waiting for him.

Wandering sealed up the door and headed back to the Cosmic Lotus, well satisfied with how events had played out. Now he had only to wait to reap some potential rewards.



Boyce spent a good deal of time debriefing every member of the crew who had attended the party. Then he called a meeting of all the heads of departments plus several other relevant crewmembers. He started with a summary of what had been learned.

“The Cosmic Lotus is crewed by a mixture of races. Primary among them seem to be the species that designates themselves as ponies. Although they do indeed possess many equine features, it is obvious they are vastly different from Terran species – even more so than an equine morph in many cases. They are separated into several sub-species including what would otherwise be considered mythological – unicorns and pegasuses.”

“They say pegasi usually,” Forestwalker offered.

“Noted, Shir Forestwalker,” Boyce replied a little curtly. “Of a similar natural build to the ponies but with insectoid characteristics are the changelings. These actually outnumber all the other species combined, but mostly serve in a symbiotic partnership with them rather than acting in dominant roles. The one exception is Princess Galena who is described as a queen changeling. Their most obvious and remarkable trait is their ability to shape-change into facsimiles of other species which are indistinguishable from the originals. I’m told that due to mass-constraints, there’s a limit to how small or big that they can become, however. Next most common are the griffons – another supposedly mythological species. Unlike the ponies, they are a lot closer to our descriptions of their species, although with a larger variety of avian and feline sections than the classic eagle-lion combination. Rounding off the crew, we have zebras that are similar in build to the ponies, a bipedal canine species they call diamond dogs, a minotaur, and even a small dragon-equine hybrid.”

“That ‘small’ dragon is over a century old, sir,” Midnight pointed out.

“Yes. Even if their year differs significantly from our standard year, that is a lot. And despite the fact that he’s bigger than the ponies, I’m told that he has a great deal further to grow as he’s only a very young dragon as yet. And he breathes fire! There are so many creatures from Terran mythology on board that starship that it can’t be a coincidence, but it’s difficult to comprehend how they are found light-years away from their presumed origin.”

“And then there’s what they call magic. Although it has been conclusively shown that there is no such thing as what we think of as magic, there is mounting evidence that we may be wrong about that. Frankly, there is no explanation for how half their equipment operates otherwise. Added to that is their power source and the mystery energy that the Swarm also employs. Gentlebeings, we are confronted by a civilisation that poses so many questions for us, we cannot be sure if they are potential new additions to the Federation, or a threat to everything and everybody we hold dear.”

“I keep telling you that I can detect nothing but friendly intentions from them,” Forestwalker protested.

Boyce frowned and replied, “Forest – there’s a saying that I’m sure that you’re familiar with: ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’ I can’t afford to assume that something so outside of our experience is totally harmless. That is why I am charging each and every one of you here today to put your best efforts into analysing all the data that we brought back from our visit to their ship, and getting me and Star Fleet Command some answers that we can rely on. For now, these Equians remain a wild card that we can ill afford to have in play.”



“So – how do you think it went?” Starry asked Wandering as they headed for the bridge. The ship had finally resumed normal operations after everything had been cleaned up post-party.

“We gave it our best shot, and I believe we impressed our guests with both the crew and the ship. I’m confident that we have made strong inroads into a beneficial relationship. Now, if we have to wait for months to get in contact with home, at least we will have an alternative to limping around this star system.”

“We came here to do research – discovering another civilisation is just icing on the cake,” Starry reminded him. “There’s still an enormous amount we can achieve with or without these Federation people.”

“While that is true, we can learn more and faster if we can forge an alliance. I believe that we have much to offer them too.”

“Give them time. After all, we only just met them a few days ago.”

Wandering chuckled. “I know, and I’m the one who talked about how long it can take to establish a relationship with a new nation. However, given their mixture of species and their adventurous nature, I hope to find kindred spirits rather than suspicious strangers.”

“Some aren’t quite strangers anymore. Have you noticed Ortzi lately?”

The alicorn stallion grinned and nodded. “Talk about the cat-bird that caught the mouse – or the rabbit in this case. He surprised me hugely. After all these years in space without a partner, he gets smitten with a bunny mare. I wonder how she feels about it?”

“According to a couple of drones that encountered them, I’d say that the feeling was mutual. Talk about an odd couple!”

“Are they sure about that?”

His partner waved a hoof airily. “You’re the one with the changeling network connection, so check for yourself.”

“I’ll take your word for it. I don’t delve that deeply into the crew’s personal space unless the situation requires it.”

The two of them arrived at the bridge, and the personnel on duty acknowledged Wandering’s arrival.

“I’m ready to relieve you, Commander,” Wandering told Bluequill. “Anything to report?”

“Yes, Captain,” the griffon replied. “While there has been no further activity from the Federation ship, we need to look at resuming our deceleration. We can’t afford to wait for them much longer.”

“What’s the problem?”

Playbitz spoke up from his station. “It’s our current orbit around the Far Star, Captain.” He threw an image up on the main screen that showed the position of the star and planets as well as the Cosmic Lotus. A line indicated their trajectory. “If we do not resume braking manoeuvres almost immediately, we will not have enough fuel for the vectoring rockets to make a rendezvous with the inhabited planet. In fact, if we don’t slow down at all, we will shoot right through this star system with no hope of returning for a long time.”

“We can’t have that,” Wandering replied. “I assume that you have recalculated our course?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then let’s get started.” Wandering took his place in the command chair and pushed an intercom button. “Engineering – prepare to resume orbital manoeuvres.”

Engineering here. Aye, Captain.



“Sir – the Cosmic Lotus has started decelerating again,” the helmsman reported over the intercom.

Boyce looked up from the report that he was reviewing at his desk. “What?! Put it on my screen.”

The image formed just in time for him to see a concussion burst and the subsequent glow of the force field that absorbed the momentum. It was quickly followed by another. He reached for the comm unit that the Equians had left with him.

“Cosmic Lotus – this is Admiral Kline. Please respond.”

After a brief wait, Wandering’s voice came back. “This is Cosmic Lotus. How can I help you, Admiral?

“I did not give you permission to resume orbital manoeuvres, Captain.”

I was not aware that I required your permission, Admiral. We stopped of our own volition, and now we have merely resumed operations.

“You are now in Federation territory and specifically in Chakona-controlled space. As a non-allied ship, we require you to subject yourselves to our directives.”

Wandering’s voice held an edge when he replied. “Admiral – are you familiar with the concept of Freedom of the Seas? We regard open space such as we are currently in as a similar situation and expect the right to safely navigate through it.

Boyce frowned, acknowledging that he had a point. Nevertheless he could not let them proceed. “Due to current circumstances, martial law supersedes that right. I am ordering you to cease your manoeuvres immediately.”

There was a long pause before Wandering replied. “Acknowledged, Admiral.

There was no further word from the Cosmic Lotus, but Boyce’s screen showed that they had stopped decelerating.

Boyce shut off the comm, dissatisfied with how the relationship with the Cosmic Lotus had now been soured.



Wandering slammed a hoof into the armrest of his chair, permanently denting it.

“Celestia damn it! After all we did, this is how they treat us?”

“I thought that we had reached some sort of rapport with them,” Starry commented. “I did not see this coming. What was that about martial law though? No one mentioned anything about it at the party.”

Wandering scowled. “I’m beginning to think that they have been keeping something from us. I put down changeling reports of suspicion and mistrust among the visitors as merely because of unfamiliarity with strangers, but now I reckon that I was being overoptimistic.”

Bluequill said, “You ponies have ever been so. You need a bit more griffon perspective. Griffonia has been Equestria’s strong claws for over a century for that reason. Time for you to be more proactive, Captain.”

The alicorn grimaced and nodded. “You’re right, Galen. And I think I have an idea how to go about it. Commander – you have the bridge. Starry – come with me.”

Wandering stormed off the bridge with Starry hastening after him. Without a word, he headed towards their room, and he locked the door behind them.

“What are you up to?” Starry asked.

“I’m going to get us some answers in a way that only I can do,” Wandering replied grimly as he started getting out of his uniform.

“Aren’t you overreacting a little?”

“I have been admonished like a foal, and we have been kept in the dark about something important enough to restrict our right to free movement. After going out of our way to be friendly, I am more than disappointed in their response.”

“Can’t you at least give them more time to explain?”

“We don’t have the luxury of time. We need answers now and we are too much at their mercy. It’s time to even out the playing field.” Green magic flames enveloped him, and moments later a chakat stood in his place. This time Wandering had chosen a tiger-striped fur pattern and long dark-brown hair. Hir size was between that of Midnight and Sparks, and with a more modest bust than his mimicry of Forestwalker’s form. “We’ve seen three of these chakats so far which leads me to believe that they are fairly common among their crew, and they all have feline fur patterns. I should be able to sneak around their ship unnoticed,” shi said in a pleasant feminine voice.

“Not without clothes, you won’t,” Starry commented.

“All three only wore a uniform top. I just need a replica made to suit me.”

“Ah! That’s why you need me,” Starry said with a grin.

Wandering nodded. “That, and I need someone aware of what I am doing. I’m going to call in Galena too. I need to maintain contact with the network without every changeling being alert to what I am up to.”

“Well, while you do that, I’ll get to work on your new outfit. What colour should yours be?”

“Red should be the safest, I think.”

“One red shirt coming up!”



Wandering teleported into the Pegasus’ shuttle bay – specifically into an alcove near the door. Having been in the bay earlier, shi had a firm lock on the place, but unfortunately that was the only area that shi had been so far, so that had limited hir choices to one. Shi waited to see if shi had triggered some sort of an alarm before shi headed for the door. Shi passed through a prep room before entering a corridor that was fortunately free of anyone at the time. That would save any awkward questions.

Wandering headed down the corridor. ‘The secret to a good infiltration is to look like you belong,’ shi reminded hirself, adjusting hir stride to look confident and with a purpose in mind.

When shi came to another door similar to the one shi had just exited, shi cautiously entered. This time the room held a couple of personnel – a male Caitian and female wolf morph. When they looked hir way, shi gave them a nod of acknowledgement which they returned and went about their business. Confident that hir disguise was working well, Wandering then continued into the next section and found hirself in another launch bay. This one did not contain utilitarian shuttle craft. No – these looked every bit like military fighter craft, each being kept in a steady state of readiness by the crew working there.

The disguised alicorn made hir way down the rows of craft, hir replica PADD held as if shi was checking things as shi went. Occasionally shi received and returned salutes from the workers – Starry had provided hir uniform with a replica combadge with a lieutenant commander’s rank. It was considered high enough to allow hir to go places without being expected to be giving commands.

After hir ‘inspection’ of the status of the fighters, Wandering concluded that they were indeed in a state of war-readiness as the imposition of martial law implied. Was it hir ship that was considered the source of the threat or some other source? Shi needed to learn more.

Shi made hir way out of that section of the ship and back to the main corridor once more. Shi eventually came to a junction point which contained what looked like an elevator. Fortunately, a crew member who came down an adjoining corridor walked up to it before shi got there. It soon opened without the need to call for it, and the human male waited patiently for Wandering to join him.

“Deck two,” the human announced.

Rather than showing hir ignorance, Wandering nodded and said, “Same for me.”

The chakat stepped out into what seemed to be a totally different ship. Rather than the more utilitarian area shi had just left, this section had a high ceiling, ornate design, large view windows, sculptures, and even a fountain. It reminded hir a great deal of Canterlot Castle.

Such an odd juxtaposition of warlike and peaceful pursuits. What kind of ship is this anyway?’ Wandering asked hirself as shi continued on, almost forgetting to keep up hir purposeful air. After exploring that level and coming to the conclusion that it was made to impress, shi headed back to the elevator. Shi experimented with deck numbers and discovered crew quarters and recreational areas, workshops, and then the entrance to the Engineering Department. There shi was balked as the door refused to open for hir.

“Unauthorised access,” announced a disembodied voice.

Wandering frowned. They had no such restricted areas on the Lotus, and it had slipped hir mind that this ship might have such. Shi hastened back to the elevator to leave the area. The door opened, but before shi could enter, a black chakat emerged with a weapon pointed at Wandering.

“Who are you, and what are you doing on my ship?” demanded Commander Midnight.

Wandering agreed with Eon’s assessment of the weapon’s capabilities and shi had no reason to doubt that hir personal shield could easily stop it, but it would serve no purpose to fight the Security Chief. Shi had been caught, and left with only two alternatives – flee or go along with Midnight. The latter promised the possibility of more answers though, so shi raised hir hands, hoping that this gesture was universally recognised. “I surrender to your authority, Commander Midnight. I request a talk with Admiral Kline.”

“My thoughts exactly. Get on the elevator.”

Midnight escorted Wandering to the Security Chief’s office where she held hir prisoner under the watchful eyes of two of hir deputies while shi called the Admiral. It was not long before Boyce joined Midnight in the office and the two started to question hir.

“Let’s start with the obvious – who are you?” Boyce asked. “There isn’t a chakat resembling you in our records.”

Wandering was loath to reveal hir secret ability to shape-change, but shi could not see any reasonable alternative. Shi still lacked vital information and shi would never learn anything more if shi simply teleported away, and shi did not know enough about these people to brazen hir way through the questioning. “I am Captain Path,” shi replied.

Boyce’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “You’re a changeling then?”

“No, I’m an alicorn. My mother is an alicorn, but my sire is a changeling queen. I inherited the ability to shape-change from him.”

“A queen? Like Princess Galena?”

“Yes, only he’s a chrome changeling. Queens can assume fertile male forms unlike drones. Dad prefers being male.”

“Can you resume your normal form then?”

“As long as these guards don’t shoot me as I do so,” Wandering replied. Shi wasn’t really concerned about the weapons, but shi wasn’t about to give away any more secrets.

Midnight addressed the two guards. “Their shape-changing involves what looks like fiery effects. Don’t be startled by them.”

The guards nodded acknowledgement, and Wandering resumed his normal form. The uniform hung uncomfortably on his body, but he ignored it.

Boyce asked, “How do I know that I am actually addressing Captain Path and not a changeling pretending to be him?”

“I suppose you will have to take my word for that, but I can say that I would not send a drone to do this.”

“How did you get aboard my ship?”

Wandering shrugged. “I snuck on.”

“Some more of this so-called magic of yours, I suppose. Why were you spying on us?”

“Why won’t you share with us?” Wandering retorted. “We opened up to you completely, showed you around my ship, answered all your questions, threw you a party, and yet you give so little in return! The last straw was when you banned us from continuing our deceleration. How arrogant are you to presume control vast volumes of empty space?”

“We have a lawful claim, and reasons to enforce it.”

“Yes – reasons. Reasons for all those fighter ships that I saw earlier. Why are you so afraid of us, Admiral?!”

“We’re the ones asking the questions, Captain Path,” Midnight said sternly.

“I’ve answered more than enough questions over the past couple of days. Now it’s your turn. You’re obviously not peaceful explorers like us, so that makes me suspect the opposite.”

“You’re wrong, Captain. We desire nothing but peace, but we have no choice than to be ready for war,” Boyce said sadly.

“And how are we a threat to you? You have dozens of fighter ships, and I suspect you have many other weapons at your call. We have none whatsoever.”

“You have those energy balls that you use to propel your ship. One of those could severely damage my ship.”

“Oh yes, I can just see it now. As I slowly turn the Cosmic Lotus with my vectoring rockets so that I can point my vessel directly at yours, you remain frozen in terror at what is to come,” Wandering replied with all the scorn that he could pour into his voice.

Boyce had no answer to that. However, there was still one other thing that needed to be addressed. “The nature of your energy source is an unknown quantity to us, and therefore a risk.”

Wandering sighed. “It’s clear to us that you know nothing of mana and magic. You merely fear out of ignorance.”

“How can we believe in magic when it has always proven to be nothing more than misdirection and illusion?”

“Nothing more? Can I ask you one question then? How did you conceive children with no less than three different and totally unrelated species? Even we can’t do that without magic. Or is that an illusion too?”

That question floored Boyce. He had always put their conception down to the manipulation of the Rakshan deities, but how exactly had they made him super inter-fertile? Magic was such a glib answer, but here was an entire civilisation that claimed to use it on a daily basis. “You have a point, but that also means that you are an even greater potential danger to us. We cannot afford to have you wander through our star systems with impunity.”

“WHY?!” Wandering shouted as he leaned forward, practically in Boyce’s face. “Why do you fear us so much?”

“Because the power that you wield is the same one that has destroyed worlds and killed tens of thousands of Federation citizens. We are at war with a merciless enemy, Captain Path, and if you are even remotely connected to them, then you may be our enemy too,” Boyce replied with deadly seriousness.

Wandering leaned back and considered what Boyce had just said. He nodded and said, “I am not your enemy, Admiral, not unless you make me one. Just let us continue without interference. We will respect your sovereignty to the inhabited world that you call Chakona and will not attempt to land there without your permission. We just wish to explore and learn, and while we would prefer to do so in your company, we will do so even without it.”

“Perhaps we could have allowed that eventually, but now there’s the matter of you spying on a Star Fleet vessel. I cannot simply ignore that,” Boyce replied a little sadly.

“I would say discovering more than spying because the latter implies hostile intentions. But this ship does have me a bit puzzled. Why is it part warship and part opulent cruise ship?”

“The Pegasus is the flagship of the First Fleet. As such, it is tasked to not only fight battles, but also to entertain dignitaries and diplomats. Star Fleet is more than just a military force – we prosecute peace as well as war, and diplomacy is our strongest tool.”

“Then be a diplomat and agree that this was just a misunderstanding. I will return to the Cosmic Lotus and we will continue to peacefully engage in our mission.”

“I’m afraid that I cannot allow you to go back, Captain,” Boyce said sternly.

Wandering sighed. “And I’m afraid that I cannot agree to stay. Very well, you leave me no choice.”

Wandering’s horn lit up, and the guards reflexively fired to stun him, but as the alicorn had surmised, his shield harmlessly absorbed the blasts. Then he disappeared.

“Damn! He’s a teleporter!” Midnight blurted out.

“Which explains how he snuck aboard the ship,” Boyce agreed. “Two can play at that game though. Prepare boarding teams. We’re going to introduce them to Federation transporter technology.”



Wandering reappeared in his room where Starry had been waiting for him. Upon seeing him in his natural form, she said, “Uh-oh. Things went wrong, I gather?”

“Yeah. Tripped a security alarm and got caught by Commander Midnight and taken to be questioned by Admiral Kline. I decided to be candid and tried to persuade him to be reasonable, but I think things have just gotten worse rather than better.”

“I hate to say this, but I didn’t think it was a wise idea from the start.”

“Maybe not, but I nevertheless learned a lot. They’re afraid of our magic. Apparently they’re fighting an enemy that uses it, and they are associating us with them.”

“That’s silly. We’ve done nothing but be nice and friendly – with your jaunt over there the single exception.”

“Mistake or not, at least we have a better idea of how things actually stand between us.” Wandering pulled off the now useless Federation top and started getting into his ship uniform. “It’s time we took things back into our own hooves. We’re going to resume our deceleration whether Admiral Head-up-his-plot wants us to or not.”

Starry could tell that Wandering was angry despite a relatively calm exterior. Name-calling just wasn’t in his nature. Arguing with him right at this moment would not achieve anything, so she just went with the flow. She followed him out as he stormed off in the direction of the bridge.

As soon as he hit the bridge, Wandering said to Playbitz without preamble, “Have you got a new deceleration program ready?”

“Been keeping one constantly updated, Captain.”

“Good stallion. Set our course.” Wandering informed Engineering to start up the system before even sitting down in his chair.

Radiance Point had just reported readiness and Wandering was about to tell Playbitz to engage when three columns of sparkling energy appeared on the bridge. As the surprised bridge crew watched, they resolved into the forms of Commander Midnight, Admiral Kline, and Sergeant Harrakar. Each had a large and dangerous-looking weapon held at the ready.

Boyce spoke up. “Security teams are now transporting aboard throughout your entire ship. In the name of the Stellar Federation, I am ordering you to surrender control of this vessel, and I am placing you under arrest for espionage, Captain Path.”

Wandering was already aware of the boarding parties as changelings were reporting over the network. He had underestimated Star Fleet almost as much as they had underestimated him. He still had a few surprises up his sleeve though.

“I am sorry that it has come to this, Admiral. We should have been good friends. Why couldn’t you have just trusted us?”

“As it happens, I would have done so, but Star Fleet Command insisted that I detain you, and that is what I am doing. You do understand chain of command, don’t you?”

“I do indeed. Consider this my formal rejection of Star Fleet Command’s demands.”

While he had been talking, part of Wandering’s mind was engaged with all the changelings in the network. At his signal, they all simultaneously used their horns to send stunning beams at the invaders. Some of the Star Fleet security team managed to get off shots though. One made the bad mistake of trying to shoot Galena, only to have Techbird interpose herself between them. Her crystal body harmlessly refracted the energy beam. Her talons were not as kind to the offending shooter as she leapt at him with a skree of rage.

On the bridge, Pax had taken out Harrakar, his body armour proving totally ineffective against the magic blast. Midnight had reacted incredibly swiftly, diving out of the way of a follow-up burst, only to be hit by Starry instead. Boyce’s finger had jammed down on the trigger of his weapon, and it poured an unceasing beam of violent energy directly at Wandering’s chest… only to be dissipated harmlessly centimetres from impact as the alicorn dispassionately watched. Then he crushed the weapon with his telekinesis and tossed it aside.

“If I was a spy, does that make you pirates, Admiral? We both had our reasons for doing what we did, but only you threatened harm to my crew. Some of them have been hurt, but more of yours have been injured by this foolish invasion.”

“How do you know that?”

“Just as you obviously didn’t know that our horns can be weapons too, there are other things that you have yet to learn about us.”

“So – what happens now, Captain? Star Fleet will not let you simply capture us and leave you alone.”

“I have no intention of keeping you prisoner, Admiral. I have already stated my intentions – if you choose not to believe me, that is sad but not my problem. Go back to your ship, and leave us alone!”

Wandering’s horn flared and the three invaders on the bridge were teleported back to their ship – a metre above the floor of the shuttle bay.

“Starry – care to help me with clean-up?” Wandering asked as he headed for the exit.

“With pleasure, Captain,” Starry replied as she hastened to follow.

“Captain! Do you still want to resume deceleration?” Playbitz called out.

“Of course. Be prepared to engage as soon as I or Starry returns to provide the mass-cancellation spell. And put up our shield – full ship coverage!”

Wandering and Starry split up in order to cover more of the ship and teleport the Star Fleet crew back to the Pegasus. The invaders who had been stunned by the changelings were the lucky ones. Any who had tried to get a griffon to quietly surrender at gunpoint quickly discovered that the cat-birds did not believe in doing so, and responded swiftly and violently. While all of the Security forces survived, some were in need of hospitalisation as soon as they were sent back.

As soon as Wandering encountered Techbird, he asked, “Did you witness how those troops got aboard our ship?”

Techbird nodded. “A fascinating but poor substitute for teleportation. Horrendously wasteful of power too.”

“So how hard would it be to block it?”

“Pfft! Chick’s play!”

“Do it. I don’t want them to come back better prepared to deal with us next time.”

“Aye, Captain. I’ll have the shield modified soon.”

Wandering headed back to the bridge, but noticed the tell-tale feel of a mass-cancellation spell engulf the ship. Starry must have finished before him. Upon arrival at the bridge, he saw her lying on the couch that they used while concentrating on the spell.

“Did you have any problems, Starry?”

“Nothing significant, Captain. A few lightly injured crew at worst.”

“Good. We came out of this pretty well, but now I’m wondering if we can salvage anything out of this situation.”

“As long as the crew is safe, we’re doing okay. Perhaps nowhere near as good as we hoped, but we’ve survived worse.”

“Yeah – I wasn’t thrilled about our ride through the wormhole either. It pains me to think that we may have to consider going back…”

There was a pop and a flash of light to one side.

“There you are!”

The bridge crew all stared at the newcomer and then gave a cheer.

Destined grinned and waved a hoof. “Sorry that it took me so long to locate you. I’m an idiot.”

“Huh? What do you mean, Des?” Wandering asked.

“Well, I told Mom that I was not willing to mess with the timeline just to ensure your safety when in fact you may have survived your encounter with that strange phenomenon.”

“It’s called a wormhole,” Starry supplied helpfully.

“Whatever. Anyway, I said that I could wait for months to hear from you and go back in time if necessary. Then it finally got through my dense head that I didn’t have to wait – I could jump into the future without affecting it, look for your beacon, and return to the present. Sorry for the unnecessary delay. It seemed like a huge jump though. Where did you end up?”

“Have a look for yourself, Your Highness,” Playbitz said as he put the outside view up on the main screen.

The alicorn’s jaw dropped. “How… how many…?”

“Billions and billions and billions!” Starry said with a grin.

“Sweet Mama Luna! How far did you go?”

“Best guess so far – a couple of thousand light-years.”

Destined blinked. “Well… that’s a new record for me.” He turned back to the others. “So what’s been happening while we’ve been out of communications?”

Wandering and Starry exchanged glances and smirks.

“Brother – have we got a story to tell you!” the stallion replied.

 


 

Talking the Talk

 

Boyce picked himself up from the shuttle bay floor with a groan. He noted Midnight and Harrakar sprawled next to him, but while the Rakshani was still unconscious, the chakat was already starting to stir. Whether Midnight’s constitution was tougher or shi had gotten hit to a lesser degree, shi was already struggling to hir paws before hir fellow Security Officer showed any signs of recovering. Wobbling slightly despite hir four-legged stance, shi made hir way over to the Admiral.

“Orders, sir?”

Boyce just shook his head and waited. More of the boarding team started appearing, although these were placed on the floor rather than a metre above it. Evidently Captain Path had wanted to rub in his point with a pointed demonstration to the Admiral. Then he noticed some real casualties who were more than just stunned. Boyce tapped his combadge and said, “Kline to Doctor M’Lai.”

After a brief moment, a reply came. “M’Lai here, sir.

“Doctor – I want a medical team in the shuttle bay immediately. We have some casualties.”

What…? On my way, sir!

Boyce turned to Midnight. “Attend to your teammates. When M’Lai has everything under control, see me in my office. It’s time we ended this idiocy.”

Midnight nodded. “Aye, sir.”

Boyce made his way to his stateroom, pulling off parts of his body armour as he went. He dumped the lot of it in the corner behind his desk and he sat down in the chair and tapped his combadge. “Kline to Silpurr and Forestwalker. Come to my office as soon as possible.”

He listened for the acknowledgements before starting on a report on the abortive mission. When the Caitian and the chakat turned up, he asked them to take a seat and wait for Midnight to join them. There was an uncomfortable silence as they waited while Boyce continued writing. At last, the black-furred chakat turned up and the Admiral turned his attention to them all.

Before he could speak though, Midnight asked, “Are we going to make another attempt at taking over the Cosmic Lotus right away, sir?”

“No, Commander, we are not.”

Midnight nodded with visible relief. “Good. It would take a lot of planning to overcome their advantages. Our body armour is exactly as effective against their horn blasts as our ship’s shield is against the Swarm’s mysterious energy beams.”

“Probably because they’re much the same thing,” Boyce replied, “but that’s not why we’re ceasing all action against them.”

Forestwalker looked back and forth between Boyce and Midnight. “What exactly have you been doing to the Equians?” shi asked suspiciously.

“The worst possible thing,” Boyce replied with a mixture of anger and guilt. “I got an unexpected response to my report to Star Fleet Command. Basically, it seems they shit their pants and lost their minds. I was ordered to prevent the Cosmic Lotus from proceeding any further because they represented a credible threat to the Federation.”

“WHAT?! Did they even read my assessment of their crew in your report?” Forestwalker was up on hir feet and leaning over Boyce’s desk in righteous anger.

“Please, calm down, Forest. Enough stupid things have been done in the heat of the moment already.”

The chakat reluctantly sat hir hindquarters down on the deck, but her ears were focused at Boyce and her whiskers were quivering as shi impatiently awaited a reply to hir question.

Boyce sighed. “I argued with Fleet Admiral Namatjira himself that they were not a threat, but he reminded me that we are in a state of war, and if I refused his direct orders, I would be relieved of command and court-martialled. I made an official protest, but acknowledged Star Fleet’s orders. I had barely finished talking with him when the word came through that Cosmic Lotus had resumed manoeuvres. I was angry and frustrated, and in the worst possible mood to make a calm decision. I was less than diplomatic in my phrasing when I ordered Captain Path to stop. I blame myself for the situation we’re in now, but we have to put that behind us. I’ve followed Command’s orders to the letter up until this moment, but now it’s time to do things my way. First, we have to mend some bridges.”

“We invaded their ship – how do you think they are going to respond to us now?” Rosepetal asked.

“Captain Path has repeatedly said that he doesn’t want to be our enemy. It’s time to give him the chance to make good on that.”

“What about Star Fleet Command? They aren’t going to be happy,” Midnight queried.

“We’re going to make a show of compliance. I think we can still salvage this situation if we can get the Equians’ cooperation.” He looked at Rosepetal. “This is what I want you to do….”



“You did what?!” Destined face-hoofed as Wandering got to the part about his attempt to get answers to his questions by disguising himself as a chakat. “What were you thinking?!”

Wandering gave Destined an embarrassed look, glad that they were in the privacy of his office. “Not my best idea, I admit. I was frustrated beyond belief after all our efforts to make friends with the Federation people seemed to have come to nothing. I thought that if I learned what they weren’t telling us, I could resolve the situation. While we were indefinitely out of contact with home, I felt that I had to take the initiative for the sake of the ship and the crew.”

Destined sighed. “It was still premature. I’m just sorry that I didn’t track you down sooner and prevent this.” He looked at Starry accusingly. “And why didn’t you discourage him? You’re almost as much to blame.”

“I did express my misgivings, but I thought that he could get away with it. I admit that I felt that the Federation people had slighted us by keeping us in the dark, so I went along with his idea. He makes a sexy chakat too.”

Destined blinked at the non sequitur, but quickly dismissed it for now. “Anyway, what happened after that?”

Wandering continued relating the events that had led up to Destined’s return. When he had finished, the older alicorn stallion looked thoughtful for a long moment.

“Okay, first we have to re-establish communications with Admiral Kline and try to negotiate a compromise. Maybe they’ll be more receptive to a Prince of Equestria than a captain of a starship.”

“And what if they’re not?” Wandering asked. “Are you going to teleport us all back to Equis?”

“I hope not. That’s a whole lot further than I ever anticipated having to take passengers. Anyhow, that’s going to be our last resort. For now, let’s be positive and concentrate on figuring out…”

Captain Path to the bridge, please!” blurted the intercom on Wandering’s desk.

“What now?” The alicorn toggled the switch on the intercom and replied, “I’m on my way.”

With Destined and Starry in tow, Wandering hastened to the bridge. When they got there, the Pegasus was displayed prominently in the middle of the main screen as it had so often over the past few days.

“Okay, Commander, what’s the problem?” Wandering asked.

Bluequill pointed a talon at the ship on the screen. “This is our forward view. Their ship has manoeuvred directly into our path. They’re out of range for the moment, but if we continue as we are, one of our mana balls is going to impact them, or at least explode close enough to them to cause very serious problems.”

“It appears that the Admiral is very serious about preventing us from proceeding,” Wandering said with a sigh. “Okay, let’s see if we can talk this one through.”

Wandering levitated the comm that was linked to its mate on the Pegasus and activated it.

“Captain Path to Admiral Kline – please respond,” he requested in Equian for the benefit of Destined.

There was an immediate reply from the human, accented slightly by processing through their universal translator. “Kline here. I request that you stop your manoeuvres immediately, Captain Path. Please.”

Wandering’s eyebrow went up in mild surprise at the Admiral’s firmly polite request. Nevertheless he was still irked at the Federation’s initial attempts to stop them. “I’m not the one who parked their starship directly in the line of fire, Admiral. I suggest that you move.”

I am required to stop you, Captain, but you told me that you are not my enemy and have no wish to be, so I am hoping that you told me the truth and suspend your deceleration manoeuvres.

Wandering groaned. The human was correct as he had no intention of harming the Pegasus. “Playbitz – suspend operations.”

“Aye, Captain.”

Wandering spoke to the comm again. “Admiral, we have stopped as you requested. However, I must point out that we need to resume very soon in order to obtain a stable orbit.”

If necessary, we can tow you into one, Captain.

“You can do that?”

Our tractor beam can handle a ship of your size.

“Tractor beam?”

Something like your telekinesis, only with technology.

“If you can do that, why the buck didn’t you say so in the first place?” Wandering said with some asperity.

I can only apologise for my hasty ill-considered actions. I request a resumption of talks so that we may resolve the present situation.

“I don’t know, Admiral. I’m not exactly in the mood to talk at the moment…”

“Harumph!” Destined interrupted Wandering, giving him a meaningful glance.

Wandering nodded. “However, my brother wishes to open formal negotiations with the Federation.”

Your brother, Captain? I don’t believe that you introduced me to him at the party.

“That would be because he only just arrived after re-establishing contact with our beacon.”

There was a long moment of silence before Boyce replied. “I would welcome a diplomatic meeting with you and your brother, Captain.

“We will be in contact with you soon to set it up, Admiral. Captain Path out.” Wandering turned to his brother and said, “Looks like we have to get you up to speed with their language. As you’ve just witnessed, they have a very efficient translating device, but I think you’d prefer being able to speak their Terranglo.”

“It would hardly be the first language I’ve learned,” Destined replied.

Wandering turned to Bluequill. “Commander – you have the bridge. Let me know if the Pegasus does anything else at all suspicious.”

“Aye, Captain,” the griffon replied.



Boyce looked quietly thoughtful after Wandering signed off.

Rosepetal said, “If we take what Captain Path said at face value, his brother just teleported all the way from their home world which they are estimating to be around two thousand light-years away. That’s damn impressive.”

Midnight said, “The Federation’s best teleporters might have only gone a couple of hundred at most, but that’s only because they have had no mental anchor point to aim for greater distances. P5 teleporters like Chakat Swiftwalk otherwise have no known range limit.”

“But as you said, shi needs an anchor point – a place shi has already visited before – in order to accurately teleport there,” Forestwalker pointed out. “The Cosmic Lotus is in a location that is totally unknown to them after going through the wormhole.”

Boyce nodded. “Precisely. Once again, they have shown an ability superior to our best. While Star Fleet Command has a right to be concerned, it’s my opinion that we need to form an alliance with them, not treat them with suspicion and fear. They might be the key to pushing back the Swarm once and for all.”

“And save our home,” Forestwalker added.

Everyone at that meeting silently but fervently agreed.



It was agreed that the meeting would take place on the Pegasus in the area that Wandering had previously identified as being for formal affairs and diplomatic events. Boyce, Rosepetal, and Midnight waited near the elevator entrance for the appointed time. Right on schedule, the party from the Cosmic Lotus appeared. Wandering, Eon, and Phalanx were accompanied by a newcomer, which Boyce presumed to be Captain Path’s brother. Unlike the others, the blue-coated stallion was not clad in a ship’s uniform, but wore some formal regalia including golden hoof-shoes and a modest coronet on his head over his bright red mane. A symbol – or cutie mark as they called it – of a pocket-watch adorned his hindquarters, making Boyce wonder what it symbolised. He stood a little taller than his brother, and had a sense of presence that the other alicorn lacked.

Wandering stepped forward as the other stallion looked around. “Admiral, may I introduce to you my brother, Prince Destined Path.”

Destined stepped up then and offered a hoof which Boyce solemnly shook.

“Welcome aboard the Pegasus, Your Highness. Captain Path did not tell me to expect royalty.” He glanced Wandering’s way. “Does that mean that you’re a prince also?”

Wandering chuckled. “Only by relation. I have not been coronated, nor do I wish to rule. Destined, however, has been a Prince of Equestria since before I was born.”

Destined smiled serenely. “Since I was eight years old, actually. Funny story actually, but I believe we have some serious matters to discuss.”

“Indeed,” Boyce replied. “I have had a conference room set up with ponies in mind. I suggest that we proceed there and begin our talks.”

Boyce led them to a large meeting room with a huge polished oak circular table. Chairs and a padded stool for Midnight were on one side. On the other were more chairs and stools suited to the visitors that they could select from. Both Destined and Wandering chose a chair, noting its suitability for their tails to fit comfortably. Eon and Phalanx elected to use the stools – the dracopony because it was better suited for instant action in his role as security for the party, and Phalanx because he preferred it. While he was security too, his main purpose was to monitor the emotions of the Federation people during the negotiations.

When they were all seated, Destined spoke up.

“Let me formally present my credentials. I am Crown Prince Destined Path of Equestria, one of the triequirate that rules our nation.”

“May I ask what a triequirate is, Your Highness?” Boyce asked. “It does not seem to translate.”

“The triequirate is the royal body that rules Equestria, consisting of three alicorns – Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and myself.”

“No kings or queens?”

“There can only be one king or queen, but as many princes or princesses as needed. We have found that the three of us make an ideal balance. While Princess Celestia ruled by herself a millennium, she was happiest with Princess Luna by her side, and then I finally joined them when I was old enough.”

Boyce was stunned. “A millennium? How long do you ponies live, if I may ask?”

“Bearing in mind that our time-keeping may vary a bit, pony lives measure between 150 to 200 years approximately. However, alicorns are immortal. Celestia is about fifteen hundred years of age, but I am only a tenth of that so far.”

“That is quite amazing. Anyway, to have a royal governing body that has reigned continuously for that long speaks of great stability for your nation, but how do you stand among the other nations of your world?”

“Equestria is perhaps the greatest nation on Equis, with several independent nation-states that have joined ours by treaty. We are represented on the Greater Equis Council of Nations, and I am authorised to negotiate on my nation’s and our world’s behalf.”

Boyce nodded in acknowledgement. “I am Boyce Garald Kline Junior, Admiral of the First Fleet of the Stellar Federation’s Star Fleet. I am responsible for this entire sector of space, and I am authorised to speak for the Stellar Federation… normally. However, I must inform you that the Federation is currently in a state of war with an enemy that we have dubbed the Swarm. As such, normal First Contact procedures have been suspended in favour of a more cautious approach. While this has resulted in some regrettable actions so far, we are not without justification as you have demonstrated the possession and use of a power that has been totally unknown to us up until the advent of the Swarm. That power has been used to devastate worlds and slaughter many of our citizens.”

“My condolences, Admiral, but we have been totally unaware of your existence up until the Cosmic Lotus encountered your ship.”

“That was my impression, but Star Fleet Command was a little more… cautious.”

“Brain-dead is more like it,” murmured Wandering.

Destined gave his brother a stern glance before responding. “Is it possible to see examples of this Swarm, Admiral?”

“Most certainly.” Boyce touched the buttons on the virtual keypad on the table in front of him, and a hologram lit up between the people seated at the table. It showed recordings of Swarm ships firing upon Federation vessels, inflicting terrible damage or even destroying them. “These videos were taken in the early days of our encounters with the Swarm before we evolved workable battle tactics against them. Our shields have proven useless against their main beams which utilise a form of energy that we cannot even analyse. We have never encountered it before, and your ship also uses it. The miniature star that powers it is probably big enough to wipe out all life on Chakona.”

“Your concern is understandable then,” Destined said gravely. “Although it’s a bit difficult to be certain by just looking at an image, I am almost sure that I am seeing a beam of raw mana. That is horrendously dangerous even to us.”

“And what exactly is mana?” Boyce asked.

“It is the power behind all magic. It has been adapted for use in magitek devices which are used throughout the ship.”

Boyce sighed. “That is something that I have had a very hard time wrapping my head around. I am an engineer by training, and I have a very thorough knowledge of physics and how reality works. Magic seems to break so many natural laws that it has been difficult for me to accept that something of legend and folklore is a real thing.”

“There’s your problem, Admiral – your knowledge is woefully lacking. If you discount magic, you are left with a special case of physics that has all sorts of limitations. In fact,you cannot explain everything about reality without magic. Once you see how Unified Thaumophysics Theory works, you will find many of the answers that you seek.”

“In the face of overwhelming evidence, I am forced to concede that you are correct. Nevertheless, we are still faced with the problem of dealing with it.”

“Have you tried negotiating with the Swarm?”

“From our very first encounter, the Swarm has attacked without provocation and has never responded to any attempt to communicate. They are relentless in their attempts to advance upon the Federation. Improvements to our fighter vessels have enabled us to reach a near stalemate, but we still have occasional losses, and the battlefront creeps ever closer. We have failed to come up with any defence against their energy – or should I say mana – beam as yet.”

Wandering spoke up. “If you don’t have any magitek, that means you must use purely electronic equipment, am I right?” At a nod from Boyce, the alicorn continued. “I thought so. We are not unaware of electronic systems, but magic interferes with so many of them that they are not used very often. Magitek almost always can do the job as well or better. However, it does explain why your shields are ineffective against the mana streams. It would be like trying to hold water with a sieve – it’s just not capable of doing so.”

“Then you do have a way that will work?” Boyce asked.

“Of course,” Wandering replied.

“Can you supply us with such a system?”

Destined replied, “That’s where we will start negotiating, Admiral. We have something that you want, and you can help us achieve our goals. Once we reach an agreement and are recognised as ambassadors to the Stellar Federation, we can go onto the next step.”

Boyce smiled inwardly, imagining the reaction of introducing cute, colourful ponies to the Federation Council as the saviours of worlds. “I am already looking forward to it, Your Highness.”



The discussions lasted for several hours, with refreshments brought in at one stage for everyone. Eventually a satisfactory agreement was reached and the meeting broke up.

As they were leaving the room, Destined said, “I gather from what you said earlier that your superiors are not going to be happy by this end run of yours.”

Boyce smiled a little and shrugged. “I have been known to upset the apple cart occasionally. I am of the opinion that sometimes it’s better to beg for forgiveness afterwards than to ask for permission beforehand. I think that presented with a fait accompli, they will see reason.”

“I wish you good luck with that, Admiral.”

“Thank you. Can I ask you a personal question?”

“I suppose it depends on the nature of the question, but I don’t offend easily. Go ahead.”

“Your cutie mark – what does it represent?”

“Oh, that’s no great secret. It represents my talent for controlling time.”

Boyce halted and stared in disbelief. “I know that you can accomplish a lot with your magic, but that’s a big claim.”

Destined grinned. “Is it? Sometime soon I’ll tell you about the time war my companions and I fought over a century ago.” His horn glowed and his image seemed to flicker for a moment. Then his magic pulled a small device from a pouch which he held up. “I’ll let you borrow this recorder until we meet again. Check out the latest video recording later.”

Boyce nodded. “I’ll do that.”

The groups ended up where they started and made formal farewells before the Equians teleported back to their ship. Boyce decided to check out the device immediately as his curiosity got the better of him. As he figured out how it worked, Rosepetal leaned over to look at what he was doing.

“What’s that?” the Caitian asked.

“A recording device that Prince Destined Path left with me. I think I have worked out what to do. Fortunately it doesn’t seem to require magic to operate.”

A video started playing on the small screen, and Boyce immediately recognised that it showed Destined and him talking, with the others slightly ahead of them. The Admiral’s jaw started dropping as he realised what was happening as the alicorn passed the recording device over to the human. Boyce saw the angle from which the video was being taken and from, and his eyes darted to the partially open door to the conference room where he caught a glimpse of someone just within holding up the same device.

“Dear God! He wasn’t kidding.”

A couple of minutes later, Rosepetal saw the same stunned look on her husband’s face repeated in the image on the recorder.



“I had better head off home now,” Destined said. “Mom is going to kill me for not telling her sooner that I re-established contact with the Cosmic Lotus.”

“Why didn’t you tell her right away?” Starry asked.

“I wanted to be sure that I was bringing good news, so I popped over here first. I didn’t expect to be caught up in a diplomatic incident.”

“You could always not tell her,” Wandering suggested.

“Yeah, sure! You know how Mom always manages to spot when we’re prevaricating. Might as well take my lumps rather than draw it out.”

Both Wandering and Starry chuckled at the older alicorn’s discomfort.

“Anyway, I’ll probably be back very soon. Knowing Mom, she’ll probably want to come over and see for herself that everyone is okay, and seeing as I’m the only one who has a lock on the beacon now, I’ll have to guide her along.”

“Okay, we’ll be braced for your return,” Wandering said with a grin.

“Oh! Before I forget, I have something for you.” Destined pulled out two comm units. “These will replace the ones that had their links broken. I’ll retrieve those for repair when I return.”

Wandering took the units into his own magic and said, “Great! Catch you soon!”

Destined’s horn lit up, and a moment later he was gone. Wandering started heading for Engineering to get someone to install the new comm units. Starry followed along, curious to find out her mate’s state of mind after the meeting.

“So – how do you feel about the Admiral’s request for help?”

Wandering glanced at her and gave Starry a reassuring smile. “I’ve worked off my mad with him, so I’m ready to help them out. After all is said and done, we are still House Path, the final line of defence against an implacable foe. We may be thousands of light-years from home, but that will always remain true no matter how far we travel. Our new friends need us and we will not fail them.”


 

About Face

 

The Federation Starship Hyperion pulled up five hundred meters from the Pegasus which was in orbit around Harpagornis, a gas giant of the Chakastra system and its biggest planet. Communications were exchanged and Boyce made his way to the main transporter room. Shortly after he had arrived, the transporter technician activated his console, and soon a sparkling column of energetic material formed over the platform. It coalesced into the form of Port Admiral Namatjira whose eyes immediately latched onto Boyce and he frowned.

“Why is the alien ship parked in orbit here, Kline?” he asked without preamble.

Boyce stepped up to Namatjira and gave him a snappy salute which the visitor returned. “Your orders, sir, were to prevent the Cosmic Lotus from approaching Chakona at all costs. Because the ship was already on a high sub-light course through the Chakastra system, it seemed the simplest solution was to tow it into a stable orbit around Harpagornis where it can be readily located. There it would not approach Chakona and has the Dinornis Asteroid Belt between it additionally. Working with their engineering crew, we verified that their shielding would be able to handle the high-energy electron and ion radiation there, and the crew of the Lotus were happy to spend some time investigating the planet, as it seems that there are no gas giants where they come from.”

“I’m not interested in what the intruders like to do, Admiral. I also ordered that their officers be detained – have you at least done that?”

“The Captain of the Cosmic Lotus is aboard and waiting for you to interview him, sir.”

“Good. Bring me to him. Let’s get to the bottom of this once and for all!”

Boyce nodded and led Namatjira from the transporter to the nearest trans-lift. They entered it and Boyce said, “Deck two”.

The Port Admiral frowned. “That isn’t the detention level.”

“No, sir. Captain Path is not being held there.”

The high-speed lift opened up onto the atrium of deck two and the pair stepped out to see Wandering patiently waiting for them, dressed in his most formal uniform. He inclined his head briefly and said, “Port Admiral Namatjira, I presume? I understand that you wished to talk with us?”

Rather than answering Wandering, Namatjira glared at Boyce. “Why is this alien not confined?”

“Captain Path is our guest, sir. Your orders were to detain him, not incarcerate him. As he has not, in fact, committed any offence that was not a reasonable response to our actions, I could not justify any more than requesting that he stay aboard the Pegasus until you arrived, with which he complied.”

“You’re treading on dangerous ground, Kline. You know what I meant.”

“I think that this was the wiser course, sir.”

Namatjira was about to retort when Wandering cleared his throat to gain attention.

“If you gentlebeings are ready, we would like to begin negotiations.”

The Port Admiral’s glare returned to the pony. “We? Negotiations? What are you talking about?”

“Please follow me,” Wandering said. He turned and trotted away without waiting for an answer.

Feeling somewhat out of control of the situation, Namatjira followed with Boyce bringing up the rear, a slight smile on his face. Wandering paused in front of two double doors and his horn began to radiate a light purple glow. The Port Admiral visibly flinched when the same glow encased the two doors and they gently opened. The glow shut off around the doors and Captain Path’s horn simultaneously and he walked forward, followed a moment later by the halting steps of Admiral Namatjira and the more confident ones of Admiral Kline. They entered the conference room and the Port Admiral came to a startled halt when he saw what was awaiting him.

Three of the creatures described as alicorns stood facing him. While Namatjira was not a tall man, Captain Path still had to look up to meet his eyes. Not so with any of these. The largest had a white coat with a hint of pink, and a mane like a flowing aurora with twinkling points of light within. The one on her right had a dark blue coat and a mane like a nebula filled with stars. On the left, the third one was a stallion with blue coat and a fiery mane. Each had their wings spread, and the sheer power they exuded left him gaping in awe. The stallion had a serious look on his face, the dark-colored mare seemed slightly amused at the human’s reaction, while the huge white alicorn gave him a benevolent gaze.

Boyce spoke up. “Port Admiral Namatjira, may I introduce you to Princess Celestia, Princess Luna, and Prince Destined Path, the Triarchs of Equestria.”



As expected, when Twilight Sparkle had learned of the status of the Cosmic Lotus and its crew, she had wanted to immediately visit to see them for herself. Destined had managed to get her to wait until he updated his co-rulers and the leaders of House Path, who in turn had to bring the news to the Equis World Council. Twilight had to be content with talking with Wandering and Starry via crystal comm when the new ones were installed, and until all of the world leaders were informed and an initial course of action agreed upon.

While Twilight had the power to complete a long-range teleport, she still required the guidance of her son, so she and Destined arrived on the Cosmic Lotus nearly two days later. Due to the difficulty imposed by relativistic travel, Twilight had not been able to visit her family members during the entire journey to the Far Star. She was determined to make up for the lost opportunities, and Wandering, Starry, Eon, Skye, and Moonlit Path gathered for a private party with her and Destined. It was an emotional reunion, but predominantly joyful one. The troubles of the moment were forgotten for a few hours as they celebrated.

By that time, the Pegasus had towed the Cosmic Lotus into orbit around Harpagornis and research had begun. Wandering had received a request from Boyce to allow Xeros to work with Chakat Sparks on a little project that they had begun during the shindig, to which he readily agreed as the result would likely benefit both parties. Of greater surprise was the request from Ortzi to visit one of the crew of the Pegasus. Under the circumstances, Boyce could not allow that as yet, but he did give permission for Helen Baines to go over to the Lotus if she wished. He would be the last person to suppress a budding inter-species relationship, however unlikely it seemed.

As the get-together wound down, plans were made to send a delegation to the Pegasus to coincide with the arrival of Admiral Namatjira. While the Equians had every intention to cultivate a friendly relationship with the Federation, they also intended to do so from a position of strength. The orders that Boyce had been forced to carry out were an indication of how Star Fleet intended to proceed, and that was unacceptable, but with the permission of the Equian World Council, the Equestrian Triarchs would open initial diplomatic relations on behalf of their world.

With the guidance of Destined, Celestia and Luna had arrived on the Cosmic Lotus and Boyce had been invited over to meet them. While Luna was still a bit miffed at his treatment of Wandering, she and her sister had nevertheless given Boyce a warm greeting, and they spent some informal time together discussing how they would present their case to the Federation. Thus they were more than prepared when Namatjira had arrived.



From off to one side, standing unnoticed alongside Wandering up until that moment, a purple alicorn stepped forth. She spoke up, drawing the attention of the dazed admiral. “I am Twilight Sparkle, Princess of Friendship, and the Triarchs and I are here to open diplomatic relationships with the Stellar Federation.”

Namatjira noticed that this latest alicorn was slightly shorter, and while her mane stirred a little in an invisible breeze, it was nowhere near as bizarre as the other three despite the stripes. Her expression radiated a genuine friendliness, living up to her title. He nodded, overwhelmed by this encounter, recognizing that he had completely lost the initiative. Shaking himself free of his stupor, he glanced at Boyce and said quietly, “We’ll talk more about this later.” He then turned back to the visitors and gave them a tight smile and small bow. “Welcome to the Stellar Federation, Your Highnesses. Shall we begin our discussions?”

Presented with a fait accompli, Namatjira made the most of it. Despite his intention to be stern with the Equians, Celestia’s calm, almost motherly way of easing his concerns made him feel more like a foolish child rather than the second-most powerful man in Star Fleet. With all his questions answered and the alicorn princesses willing to consult on further actions, he made concessions for the Cosmic Lotus crew before winding up the meeting. Since he did not have members of the Diplomatic Corps with him, he could do little more than make an official agreement to the opening of relationships between their two sides and set a timetable for further formal talks. He did take advantage of their offer to investigate the nature of the Swarm’s mysterious weapon though. If they were intending to be allies, he would make the most of it. At this stage in the war with the Swarm, he would take any help, however unlikely, begrudgingly admitting that Boyce had been correct from the start. It did not stop him from giving the lower-ranked admiral a tongue-lashing later for his creative interpretation of his superior’s orders. In the end, all parties left with a certain degree of satisfaction with the outcome of the meeting.

As the four alicorns made their farewells and prepared to leave for Equis, Wandering made his way over to Destined.

“I’ve been meaning to ask, Des – what’s with the mane?”

Destined grinned and tamed his fiery mane and tail down to its normal, albeit slightly wild, red locks. “Gotta dress to impress, bro,” he replied. “It’s starting to wave like Mom’s and Aunties’ anyway. I just amplified it somewhat. Even I was a bit surprised at how much like flames it became. My future self must have suppressed his mane while we were there and then, and also because it’s a little over the top. Yours will probably start doing the same eventually. Hopefully you’ll do something about that dorky mane-cut before then.”

“What’s wrong with my mane-cut?” Wandering objected. “I’ve had this look for decades, and I like it.”

“There’s your problem,” Destined said with a snicker. “You’re decades out of fashion! Seriously, get a professional to look at it.”

Starry said, “I’ve been trying to convince him to try something new, but for a shape-changing alicorn, he’s unusually stubborn about changing that.”

Wandering just stuck his tongue out at them both, and they chuckled in amusement.

“It’s been good to see you all again,” Destined said, “but it’s time for us all to get back to our regular duties. I have no doubt that you’re going to be very busy now that you’ve arrived at the Far Star – or should I say Chakastra?”

Wandering laughed. “Yeah – Techbird is going nuts already. Anyway, see you soon, Des.”

The older alicorn joined up with Celestia, Luna, and Twilight, and with a parting wave, they disappeared.

Wandering turned to Starry. “Well, now that I am no longer being ‘detained’, I think it’s time we have a break and take some time for ourselves.”

“Sounds great.” They started heading towards their stateroom. “What happens next?”

“Care for a trip to another star system?”

Starry gave her mate a surprised look. “How are we going to do that?”

“Boyce has suggested that we travel with him to the front line of the battle with the Swarm and see for ourselves what is happening. He’s hoping that we can get a better idea of what is being used against them. Besides being happy to help him, I’m not a little excited about travelling faster than light and seeing another star up close.”

“And what about the danger?” Starry asked with a frown.

“He’s promised to keep us out of harm’s way, although he might not be able to keep to the exact letter of that vow.”

“Why not?”

“Because I intend to get up close so that I can get a good read on the Swarm’s weapon. At worst, my shield should be able to handle protecting the fighter ship that we intend to use at the battlefront.”

Should? That settles it – I’m definitely coming to keep your plot intact.”

Wandering grinned. “My hero.”

“We both know who is the stronger at shields, and the real scientist,” Starry retorted. “A-n-d you’ve pretty much suckered me into coming along instead of doing studies here, haven’t you?”

The stallion’s smile grew wider and he nodded.

Starry sighed. “I suppose there’s a reason why you ended up as the head of his expedition instead of me. Oh well, I suppose it’ll be fun.”

“Don’t worry – I’m sure that there will be plenty of science left for you for when we get back. Phase Two of the Cosmic Lotus expedition has only just begun.”



Boyce entered his stateroom with a sigh of relief. Although Namatjira was definitely unhappy with him, his gambit had paid off. He gave the Equians some credit for rolling out their big guns for the meeting. Even though the Princesses had been most gracious and friendly, it was hard not to be in awe of the power that they radiated. The more that he learned about these ponies, the more he became fascinated with them. And the fact that they might hold the key to turning the tide against the Swarm was heartening after all the years they had spent merely trying to hold the line.

Rosepetal was already there, and she brought a mug of his favorite brew out and placed it on the coffee table. “How did it go with Admiral Namatjira?” she asked.

“I’ve burned through every favor after this by taking the risk that I did, but I think we’re cool now. He just didn’t like getting his nose rubbed in the fact that he had overreacted to the situation.” Boyce settled onto the sofa with a weary groan and picked up the mug. “I think that if the Equians hadn’t been able to identify the mystery energy and committed to study it to aid us, things might have turned out a bit differently.”

“I think the entire Federation will gain a lot from what the Equians can show us. Short of giving them warp drive technology, I don’t think they lack much that we could give them in return.”

“Maybe not even that. That Techbird person is scarily intelligent. She might figure it out for herself just from hints and what she can observe.”

Rosepetal chuckled. “Better make a deal fast before she does then.” She sat beside him and snuggled up to her husband with a soft purr. “Or maybe I can find a Sixthwife among them for you instead.”

Boyce gave his Firstwife a long stare. “Darling – I’m only human. I can barely cope with five of you, and then only because Zhane is normally stationed at Star Base Three.”

“I don’t hear you complaining though.”

“Never!” he replied and gave her a kiss. “Good thing those Rakshan deities gave me stamina to match a male Caitian as well, right?”

“Yes, and speaking of which, we might finally be able to get an answer to how they managed to change you so much.”

Boyce nodded and thoughtfully took a sip of his hot coffee before replying, “That may be true, but I long ago stopped caring. It gave me several beautiful children with mates whom I adore. I’m not going to question my good fortune.”

“Neither will I, but I’m still curious.”

“Curious as a cat.”

“I’m a Caitian, not a cat.”

“A difference that makes no difference, is no difference.”

“Hush, you, or I’ll not be so careful with my claws tonight in bed.”

“Promise?” Boyce asked with a leer.

Rosepetal rolled her eyes. “Humans!”



Wandering left Bluequill in charge of the Cosmic Lotus and Galena in charge of the changeling network while he was absent. The changeling princess was especially delighted to have full responsibility for the first time. Boyce assigned one of his ship’s larger auxiliary craft to watch over the Equian ship while the Pegasus headed toward the battle front with its two new observer/advisors. The Admiral allowed the two ponies onto the bridge as they departed, and Wandering and Starry were fascinated by the differences and similarities to their own ship. For starters, the bridge was much roomier than their own, but it also had several more stations where the crew monitored every aspect of the starship’s performance. It also had a highly polished look to it that indicated decades of development and refinement, while the Lotus was the first of its kind and had improvements made on the fly.

Many of the bridge crew had not seen the ponies in person up until then, and many a curious glance was sent their way. However, when Boyce gave the order to proceed, they became completely professional and attentive to their tasks.

Starry gasped when she saw the main screen display what seemed to be stars leaping towards them and passing at an incredible rate. “Are we really travelling light years in seconds?” she asked.

Boyce chuckled. “No, we’re not quite that fast. It’s an artefact of travel in hyperspace. No one is totally sure what all those pseudo-stars are, although some may indeed represent stellar objects. Navigation under these conditions is accomplished purely by instruments. The light effects are quite impressive though.”

“How fast can this ship go then?”

“Hmmm… I’m not permitted to tell you exactly the maximum speed of this starship, but to put it in perspective, the trip that took you ten years subjectively to make, and forty-two according to those on Equis, would take us only a few days.”

“Amazing. Did any of your species travel between the stars like we did?”

Boyce laughed. “If they had tried, they would probably be still on their way! We never came up with a good means of accelerating a solar sail type craft to close to the speed of light as you did. So, no. None of the Federation’s members left their home system before the advent of warp drive. Thankfully none attempted an Alcubierre Drive, and treaties have been signed preventing its use as a weapon. I’m sure that our scientists are going to be fascinated with the technology… or magitek I suppose, that enabled your voyage.”

Starry grinned wryly. “Well, we’ve done it now, and I’m sure no one will be sad to move on to a faster-than-light drive. I may be immortal, but a decade is still a large chunk of my life.”

Boyce said, “Destined mentioned that you alicorns are ageless. May I ask how old you are?”

“Oh, Wandering and I are both youngsters by alicorn standards. We were both born 140 years ago, but due to relativistic time dilation, we’re actually only about 108. My mother and auntie are about fifteen hundred years old though.”

“Is that why they are so big?”

“Yeah. We keep growing, albeit very slowly.”

How many alicorns are there?”

“There are three more that you haven’t seen,” Wandering replied. “My uncle, Prince Shining Armor; his wife, Princess Cadance; and their daughter, Flurry Heart.”

“So few? How can a sub-species exist that way?”

“Well, while some are born, not all children of alicorns are also an alicorn. However, ponies can also ascend.”

“What do you mean by that?”

The stallion explained, “My mother, Twilight Sparkle, started life as a unicorn. She accomplished something unprecedented in magic and ascended to alicornhood. So did Uncle Shining, and Auntie Cadance ascended from a pegasus.”

“Does that happen very often?”

“Definitely not. However, alicorns seem to be born or ascend in times of great need. We serve the needs of Harmony, and we might not see another new alicorn for centuries.”

“I’m almost afraid to ask what you mean by serving the needs of Harmony. I can see that there’s going to be a lot to learn about your world and its people.”

Both alicorns laughed. “The feeling is mutual, Admiral,” Starry replied, “but that’s why we made this journey.”

“Now that is something we have in common,” Boyce said with matching good humor. “Anyhow, now that we are under way, may I offer you a tour of the ship? An official one this time,” he added with a pointed look at Wandering.

The male alicorn’s ears drooped and he gave a weak smile.

Starry chuckled at seeing her mate’s reaction and replied, “I think we would enjoy that, Admiral.”

“Excellent. Commander Silpurr – you have the bridge.”

“Aye, sir,” Rosepetal replied, taking the command chair that Boyce surrendered.

As they boarded the trans-lift, Boyce said, “Deck Three.”

The trans-lift disgorged them onto what proved to be the deck where the crew ate and recreated. With a crew of several hundred, this meant extensive facilities to keep the personnel happy and healthy. Boyce encouraged the ponies to take advantage of anything that took their fancy.

“Won’t they question our presence?” Wandering asked.

“Those Fleet combadges that I gave you automatically allow you to go anywhere that you’re authorized to do so,” Boyce said, pointing out the plain gold badges pinned to their uniforms. “Those are usually reserved for ambassadors and other dignitaries, which essentially matches your official designation. So the only thing that you will have to deal with is the curiosity of the crew.”

Starry replied, “That’s fine with us, Admiral. It will give us the opportunity to get to know each other and make some more friends. After all, friendship is magic.”

Boyce chuckled. “Now that kind of magic I understand! Anyway, considering the food that you provided for us at the party, I’m sure that you will be able to find something adequate for your needs and desires, although you may want to consult with the cooks if you have any special requirements. That said, my wives have invited you to dine with us for this evening’s meal.”

“We’d be delighted to accept,” Starry said without hesitation.

“Excellent! I’ll let Forestwalker know – shi wants to prepare something special. By the way, Rosepetal requires meat in her diet – will that bother you? There did not seem to be much concern at the party.”

“We grew up around griffons, Admiral. I doubt that anything any of you could do would be worse than their everyday table manners. Besides, we Paths are known to partake of lean meat occasionally too. We have weird parents.”

With that sorted out, the tour continued. Boyce showed them all the non-classified sections of the ship and the room that was to be theirs for the duration of the trip before ending up at his stateroom. As it was close to the end of shift, it was simpler to go there directly. He let them into the living room and said, “Make yourselves comfortable. I’m just going to check in with the bridge first. By the aroma that I can smell coming from the galley, I think Forestwalker has the food well under way. I’ll let hir know you’re here.”

“Whatever it is, it smells delicious,” Starry said as Boyce headed for the galley.

Moments later, Forestwalker emerged, smiling happily upon seeing hir guests. Shi wore nothing but a kitchen apron that had printed on it: ‘KISS THE COOK IF YOU WANT TO BE FED.’

“Welcome to our home away from home. Feel free to remove your uniforms, if you wish. We’re very informal in the privacy of our quarters.”

Wandering glanced at Starry before replying, “You’ve seen for yourself on the Cosmic Lotus our idea of informal, and we’ve seen what it’s like on the Pegasus. Are you sure about that?”

Forestwalker grinned and indicated hir apron. “Let me put it this way – I’m currently overdressed. I’m only wearing this for protection in the kitchen.”

“Okay, it would be nice to get out of uniform.”

Both ponies lit up their horns and their ship uniforms opened at the seams to allow them to simply step out of them. Forestwalker watched the procedure with a grin on hir face.

“I never get tired of watching you do things like that. You can put your clothes over on the shelf by the door.”

The alicorns’ magic folded the uniforms and levitated them onto said shelf before they turned their attention back to the chakat.

“So – do we really have to give you a kiss in order to eat here?” Wandering asked with a grin.

“If I’m doing the cooking – you bet! I’m quite into hugs too.”

Starry said, “Ponies are known to be incurable huggers, Forestwalker.”

“Then for the furthering of beneficial relationships between our species, I insist that we hug!” the chakat said emphatically. Shi crouched down and opened hir arms to welcome them in.

Starry and Wandering accepted the invitation and they had had a warm three-way hug. Then both kissed hir on the cheek, making the chakat giggle.

Boyce walked in at that moment, having taken the opportunity to divest himself of his uniform top in favor of a T-shirt. He rolled his eyes and smirked. “I figured you were up to something when I saw you wearing that apron, Forest.”

“Worked fine on you too,” shi pointed out unabashed.

“But I don’t need an excuse,” he retorted as he leaned down to kiss hir.

Forestwalker giggled again and smooched him back.

Both ponies were a bit bemused by this much more relaxed human. Admiral Kline was far more formal than their current host. He noticed their looks and smiled reassuringly.

“I wasn’t exaggerating when I said we are informal in the privacy of these quarters. We make it a strict point to keep family and work separate. It makes for a clear delineation of when to be relaxed and when to be strict members of Star Fleet. With that in mind, please call me Boyce.”

Wandering said, “Call me Wandering or Wander for short.”

“I’m still just Starry – it’s short enough already,” the alicorn mare added.

“Great! Starry, Wander – can I offer you a drink? I have a fine selection of wines and spirits.”

“How about hard ciders?” Wandering asked.

“I have an apple cider brewed on Flinders Continent on Chakona that I quite like.”

“Sounds good. I’ll try that.”

“Make that two,” Starry said.

“I’ll get back to my cooking while you three chat,” Forestwalker said, padding off in the direction of the galley.

Boyce went over to a large cupboard which opened to reveal a small wine rack, mini-fridge, and shelves with spirits and liqueurs. He found the bottle that he was looking for and selected three glasses which he proceeded to fill with the cider. He then brought two of the glasses over and placed them on the table in front of his guests. Wandering and Starry picked up one each in their magic as Boyce went back for the final glass which he raised and said, “To your good health.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Wandering replied with a smile, and they each drank some of the amber liquid.

“Mmm, that’s nice,” Starry said. “Almost as good as the cider that they brew at Sweet Apple Acres.”

“I take it that they’re big in the cider business?” Boyce asked.

“In the apple business, actually. If it has to do with apples, they have a hoof in it. Best in Equestria, and perhaps all of Equis. The Apples are friends of the family too.”

“Then I’m glad that ours compares favorably.” Boyce settled down in a chair. “Midnight, Rosepetal, and M’Lai should be joining us soon. Meanwhile, is there anything more that we can do to make you comfortable?”

“I think that Starry and I are pretty happy with things as they are,” Wandering said with a glance at Starry to confirm that opinion. She nodded and he continued, “It’s a big turnaround from our previous encounters.”

Boyce grimaced. “Yes – Forest isn’t going to let me live that down for a long time. Facing Admiral Namatjira was nothing in comparison.”

“Never argue with your wife,” Starry said with a mischievous grin.

“I know. That’s a lesson you’d think I’d have learned by now. Anyway, I was wondering if you’re still experiencing that aversion to humans. You may have noticed that there are a fair number among the crew.”

“Constant exposure has dulled it to nearly unnoticeable levels. Don’t worry about it.”

“Did it affect the Princesses too?” Boyce asked curiously.

Both Celestia and Luna have lived too long and seen too much to be bothered by it. They barely noticed it. Des and Mama Twilight made sure they had a good look at a human before they had to interact with any. They were able to mentally prepare for the encounter.”

“When did they get to see a human? I thought that they teleported straight over to the conference room from the Cosmic Lotus? Or did they just look at a picture?”

“I modelled one for them,” Wandering admitted.

The human blinked in surprise. “You have an atavistic fear of us but still shape-changed into one?”

Wandering snorted a laugh. “Yeah – and strangely I felt fine with that.”

“You have a pretty amazing talent there. How many other ponies can do that?”

“Shape-changing is a high-level spell, and only the most talented unicorns can master it. As for me – I cheat because of my genes; it comes naturally to me.”

“It’s an incredible feat though – Midnight tells me that hir scanner could not tell the difference from a real chakat,” Boyce said as the entrance to the stateroom opened.

“Alicorn-level shape-changing. It’s my special talent.”

“I’d like to put that to the test,” said M’Lai who had just walked in on the conversation.

“Welcome home, dear,” Boyce said, getting up to give her a kiss. “But try not to let your curiosity bother our guest.”

Wandering chuckled. “I’m sure we’ll find plenty of time to indulge the doctor.”

“Thank you,” the tall Caitian said. “You can call me just M’Lai. Pardon me while I change into something more comfortable.” She paused at the galley doorway to sniff for a moment before saying, “Something smells good.”

“You’re not getting a sample yet, Lai!” Forestwalker was heard to reply with a chuckle.

M’Lai pouted a little and headed off to change.

Both Starry and Wandering’s ears had swiveled in the direction of the galley, and they grinned at the interaction.

“This is so like our own family back on Equis, it’s making me a little homesick,” Starry said.

“They sound like good people to know,” Boyce replied. “I hope that I get the opportunity to meet them someday.”

“Are you sure that you’d survive?” Wandering asked.

Boyce’s eyebrow arched in puzzlement. “What do you mean?”

“A whole world that runs on magic – how would you cope with that?” the stallion asked with a smirk.

Boyce rolled his eyes. “Okay – I deserved that. But it’s not easy when your entire worldview is turned upside-down.”

“Tell me about it! We’ve gone through some very radical re-thinks over the course of this voyage.”

“I’m happy that we are getting the chance to restart our relationship. Still, things could have been worse.”

“I heard that you initially went to war with the Rakshani when you encountered each other. I’m glad that you found peace. It reminds me of how Equestria and Griffonia once were enemies. Now Griffonians vie for the honor of being part of the army of the strongest nation on Equis, or even a Canterlot Royal Guard. It was a matter of understanding them and adapting to their needs.”

“That sounds very much like what happened with us and the Rakshani. Our mutual experiences will hopefully smooth future relationships between our peoples.”

The stateroom door opened to admit Rosepetal and Midnight. They greeted their guests and both gave Boyce a nuzzle.

“Whose turn is it to cook tonight?” Midnight asked.

“Forest’s,” Boyce replied. “Judging by M’Lai’s reaction to the smell, I think shi’s making hir tuna casserole.”

Rosepetal’s smile grew. “Ooh, yes! My mouth is watering already. I had better get changed quickly.”

Midnight grinned. “Don’t worry, Rose – I’ll guard your portion from M’Lai.”

There was a round of laughter before the two wives went to change out of their uniforms and freshen up before the meal.

“So – do you all take turns to cook, despite being high-ranking officers?” Wandering asked.

Boyce nodded. “Yes – even me. Not that we do it every night, but we all cook for the entire family on a regular basis. It’s a good reminder that we are all equals in this relationship, and besides, we all have our favorites that we like to have more often. My specialty is Buffalo Wings.”

Wandering and Starry both looked surprised.

“Buffalos have wings on your world?” Starry asked.

Boyce chuckled. “No, they are actually chicken wings, but they’re called that because the recipe originated from a place called Buffalo in New York in what used to be known as the United States of America. That nation is long gone, but the dish remains popular.”

“Oh – that makes sense. I was having a hard time picturing a buffalo with wings.”

“Yes, it’s nothing like a pony with wings, is it?” Boyce asked drolly.

“Touché,” Wandering said with a smirk in Starry’s direction.

“You speak French too?” Boyce asked.

“It’s Prench, actually,” Wandering replied, intrigued that the human had recognized the word.

Boyce looked puzzled. “There are too many coincidences like that coming up.”

“I agree,” The stallion replied. “I have a feeling that it might all be part of the Answer that Techbird has been seeking for most of her life.”

“Let me know if she ever figures it out.”

They continued making small talk until all the others emerged from their rooms. M’Lai was wearing a skirt and a halter top to contain her generous endowments. Midnight also had a halter that was more like a sports bra in that it firmly contained hir more modest-sized breasts. Rosepetal came out wearing a loose-fitting robe which she explained was common casual wear for both genders back on Cait.

Forestwalker announced that dinner was ready and they all gathered around the dining table. Boyce had arranged to have a couple of pony-suitable chairs to be supplied, and Wandering and Starry were quite comfortable. Forestwalker entered with a huge baking dish which shi placed in the middle of the table.

“Boyce, dear, would you serve our guests while I fetch the salad?”

“Of course.” He looked at the ponies and asked, “I know that you said that you have had the occasion to eat meat, so will this fish be okay? Or do you want to stick to the salad?”

“Fish is fine with us,” Wandering replied. “It smells delightful.”

Starry added, “Pegasi are generally fond of fish, and as alicorns are part pegasus, we all tend to like it too.”

“I think Mom is practically addicted to smoked salmon,” Wandering said with a grin.

“Aha! That information will come in useful during tense negotiations,” Boyce said with an evil chuckle.

“Down, Evil Overlord!” Forest scolded as shi brought in a large bowl full of tossed salad.

There was a round of laughter before they all began their meal.



Starry and Wandering showered and combed each other’s manes before preparing to go to bed.

“If you ask me, I think that dinner did more towards good relationships between us than the party,” Starry said.

“An intimate family meal does have its advantages. That’s why House Path’s Informal Friday has lasted as a tradition all these decades. Everyone can let their mane down and be more natural.”

“So – can you see Equis being part of the Federation one day?”

“I don’t see why not. Unless we learn something drastically negative about it, that seems to be a logical step. However, that’s not up to either of us to decide. It’s also a bit quick. Like I said a while back – these kind of things normally take months or even years to sort through. We might be giving them a bit of priority due to their problems with the Swarm, but otherwise there are many aspects that need to be addressed first. Thankfully I don’t have to muddle through that. I just want to explore the worlds that have been opened up to us now.”

“Do you really think that we can do something about this Swarm?”

“Maybe. First we have to see for ourselves what is happening. We can’t rely totally on the Federation’s point of view alone. However, in a few days, we warrior-scholars may have to put aside our scholarly pursuits and fight on behalf of our new friends, and right now I can’t see any real reason why we should not.”


 

First Moves

 

Starry and Wandering found a Security officer standing outside their stateroom door as they left the next morning. After the fox morph briefly gave them an intrigued looking-over, he smiled and said, “Good morning, sir and ma'am. I have been assigned to assist you during your stay aboard the Pegasus. Admiral Kline also instructed me to assure you that this is for your convenience and not because of any Security issue.”

Wandering smirked. “No repeating previous mistakes, hey? Okay, first of all, irrespective of our status, my name is Wandering – let’s keep the ‘sirs’ down to a minimum. We’re here on a friendly mission, not some highly formal political meeting.”

“And you can call me just Starry,” the alicorn mare added.

The fox’s smile grew. “My name is Corporal Jason Russet – you can call me just Jason if you wish. While I’m on duty, I have to retain a certain amount of formality, but I’ll try to keep the sirs and ma'ams down to a minimum. Would you be interested in some breakfast now?”

“Just what we had in mind,” Starry replied.

“Great. Shall we go?” The Corporal headed off, and the two ponies followed the fox tod down the corridor.

As they walked side by side, Wandering noticed Starry looking at him appraisingly. “What?” he asked.

“Can’t a mare admire her mate?” she replied.

“It’s the mane, isn’t it? I can’t believe you talked me into changing it.”

Starry giggled. “You look more handsome than ever, you silly pony. Stop arguing with my taste! Between that Star Fleet ambassador uniform and your new mane style, you’re looking really dashing.”

One of the last things that Boyce had shown them before they had retired for the night was how to use the replicator in conjunction with the ship’s computer to create custom uniforms for themselves. As they were officially considered ambassadors from Equus on an observation mission, they were granted the use of the Star Fleet shirt with the white colour coding. Asked if they wanted to have pants also, Wandering had informed the human that they were not standard for pony uniforms. Their Cosmic Lotus outfits were designed to also protect them in an emergency and needed to cover more of their bodies, but on board this ship, that was obviously not an issue.

Wandering sighed. “Only for you, Starry.”

Jason chuckled along with Starry as they arrived at the trans-lift that would take them to the mess hall level.

The ponies attracted a great deal of attention from the crew as they ordered their meals and carried the trays in their magic to one of the tables. Before he sat down to eat, Wandering reared up to place his forehooves on the table and applied a small amplification spell to his voice.

“Hello, everyone. For those who have yet to meet us, I am Captain Wandering Path, and my mate is Lieutenant Commander Starry Path of the starship, Cosmic Lotus. We are here on an observation mission, mostly to learn about the Swarm, but also to get a better understanding of the Federation peoples. If you would like to have a chat with us over the next few days, feel free to approach us at any time that we’re not busy. We have a saying back home – Friendship is Magic. We would love to make some more friends while we are guests aboard your ship. I wish you all a good morning!” Wandering then seated himself and started on his meal.

It was not long before the seats at the table were filled by curious crew members. Neither pony got much of a chance to eat that morning.



While Boyce had given them a tour of the ship, Wandering and Starry both wanted to spend some more in-depth time in certain sections. They had free run of the public areas of the Pegasus, and Jason was authorised to allow them escorted access to the low-level secure areas. The high-level areas were still off-limits, however, but as those were largely military in nature, they did not much interest either of them despite being warrior-scholars.

There was one exception. That afternoon, they came upon a Security squad doing unarmed combat training. This squad was apparently separate from the one that Midnight headed up as they did not recognise any of the team. It became apparent this one’s leader was a female Rakshani who noticed the ponies observing and eventually came over to introduce herself.

“I am Lieutenant Baneth ap Quelline na Ramedar. You are the ambassadors from Equus, I believe?”

“That’s correct,” Wandering replied. “Do you mind if we watch you training?”

“Not at all. Would either of you be interested in participating in a friendly bout? It would be of benefit to Bravo Team to train with an unfamiliar species.”

“I’ll pass,” Starry replied.

“I might take you up on that later, Lieutenant,” Wandering said. “Although you might be at something of a disadvantage. Alicorns are never completely unarmed.”

“How so?” Baneth asked curiously.

“May I demonstrate?” the stallion asked.

“Go ahead,” the Rakshani replied, automatically centering her weight and flexing her knees, bracing for whatever he had planned.

Wandering’s horn lit up and a glow surrounded Baneth. She was lifted off the floor by about half a metre where she hung out of reach of the pony. Without any way of moving, she was helpless. “I see what you mean,” she admitted, but you have made a mistake in showing me this. Next time I will be prepared for it.”

Wandering grinned as he let her down again. “I sense a challenge.”

Baneth replied with a slightly predatory grin of her own. “It’s the Rakshan way, sir. Do you accept?”

He nodded. “I do. If I’m free, how about tomorrow at this time?”

“That would be acceptable. Are you going to watch more of our training session?”

“Of course. I need to be prepared too, don’t I?”

Baneth smiled broadly. She liked this pony. “I can tell that you are an intelligent warrior.” She turned to face her team. “Okay – back to training. Let’s show our visitors what they are up against when they take on any member of Bravo Team!”

There was a cheer from them before they resumed their bouts.

“Do you think you could really win a bout with her?” Starry asked.

“Without using magic? Difficult to tell, but she has a lot of physical advantages. Still, she knows nothing about ours. It should be interesting.”

Starry rolled her eyes and snorted. “Interesting. S-u-r-e!”



The ponies dined with Boyce’s family again that evening, and they related what they had been doing all day. Midnight smiled when they told hir about their encounter with Baneth and her challenge to Wandering.

“Baneth has always been keen on improving her fighting techniques. Be aware though that Rakshani have an interesting way of responding to challenges.”

“How so?” Wandering queried.

“They are always trying to prove themselves against those that they consider worthy opponents. If you manage to defeat her, be prepared to be propositioned.”

That raised the eyebrows of both ponies.

“Seriously?” Starry asked. “Despite Wandering being my mate?”

“Yes. Baneth is unmated and would be honoured to bed any male who can best her. Wandering is not obligated to accept though,” shi added reassuringly.

“That would be between Wandering and her,” Starry said.

“It doesn’t bother you?”

“It surprises me, but I see you have not learned much about pony herds. They’re not a whole lot different from your own extended family. Baneth wouldn’t be the first person to show interest in Wandering.”

“I’m still right here, y’know?” the subject of their discussion asked drolly. “And what Starry didn’t say was that I turned down all those others.”

“Do it this time in the interest of inter-world relationships,” Starry teased.

“Maybe you should proposition Boyce,” Wandering retorted. “I hear he’s looking for a Sixthwife.”

“Okay, in the interest of domestic harmony, leave me out of this, please,” Boyce said with a chuckle.

There was laughter from all around the dinner table before they switched to another subject of conversation.



Starry threw herself onto their bed with a sigh of satisfaction. “This was a good day,” she declared.

“I’ve got to agree with you,” Wandering replied, leaning over to nibble at her neck.

Starry giggled and nuzzled him back. “So – what part did you enjoy most?”

“Hmmm… I think I have to say having an entire day off without command responsibilities for the first time in over ten years and spending it all with you.”

“Ooh, you sweet talker! Now I’ll have to think of something extra special to do for you. However, I was referring more along the lines of our new friends and what they do.”

“Like the appointment that you made with their scientists to see if they can work out what magic is?”

“I suppose. I’m just as curious to see what theories they have. It’s a pity Cosmic Dawn isn’t with us. She would love this.”

“True, but while you’re fascinated with the science, I’ve been intrigued by the vast number of different races and cultures aboard this ship, and how they work so well together.”

“In other words, we’re both still focused on our specialties,” Starry summed up.

“That hasn’t really changed despite everything. So how about something trivial instead. What odd detail stood out most for you?”

The mare thought for a bit, then replied, “Ensign Morgan.”

Wandering’s eyes lit up in recognition. “Ah, yes – the equine morph. Fascinating how much like a bipedal earth pony he resembles.”

Starry smiled. “I think it goes both ways. I remember the double-take he did upon seeing us.”

“I’m thinking that we’ve been encountering too many remarkable similarities between our cultures for it to be a coincidence.”

“You’re right. Did you get a scan of the Ensign?”

“I scan all new species that I come across. I’ve done that a lot today.”

“How about transforming into Morgan’s species so I can see just how many similarities there are between us?”

Wandering raised an eyebrow and smirked. “Really? What detail are you most interested in comparing?”

“I’ll know it when I see it,” she replied innocently.

The stallion chuckled. “Okay, let’s try this on.” He stepped back and magic flames briefly engulfed his form. When they cleared, an equine morph with Wandering’s normal coat and mane colours stood there on two legs. “Oops! I should have taken the shirt off first. It’s not designed to fit this frame.”

“I can also see why they all wear pants too,” Starry added. “The reason is pretty much in my face.”

Wandering removed the shirt with a little difficulty, leaving him completely nude. “What would you like to investigate first?” he asked with a leer.

Starry licked her lips. “Let’s start with what’s right under my nose….”



The next morning, Wandering was still in morph form. Rather than immediately changing back to his normal pony form, he indulged a whim and asked the computer to make a new uniform for him.

“Mismatch between subject and previously recorded body pattern,” the computer complained.

“Oh. New data: I am a shape-changer and can assume the form of any species,” Wandering explained.

There was a pause before the computer replied, “Input accepted. Please step into scanning area for re-measurement.”

Wandering did so, following the computer’s instructions to move his arms and legs.

“Scan complete. Fabricating requested garments.”

The nearby replicator soon glowed and a pile of clothing materialised within it. Wandering donned the uniform and then stood in front of the full-length mirror to observe the result.

Starry came out of the bathroom just then and saw him posing. She grinned and said, “Handsomest stallion in either form.”

“You like?” Wandering asked with a matching grin.

“Right now I wish I wish I could shape-change too, and we could step out together like that.”

“We might have to ask Mom if she could oblige with a spell when we get back home.”

“I’ll put that on my list. Meanwhile, what are you going to do? You can’t go out of this room without giving away your secret.”

Wandering sighed. “Yeah – only a few know and they have promised not to discuss it. And I promised not to deceive anyone with a species change anyway.”

“So why make a uniform that you can’t use?”

“Souvenir!” he promptly replied. “Would you like a matching one?”

“And how do we supply measurements for a body form that doesn’t exist yet?”

“I could model it for you if there’s a mare that I can scan.”

“Now that I’d like to see even more.”

“There’s no end to your kinkiness, is there?”

Starry reared up to hug and kiss her bipedal mate. “And you love it!” she declared.

Mmm… I do indeed,” he replied before enthusiastically kissing her back.



Starry had an appointment with Rosepetal that morning. The Science Officer of the Pegasus wanted to take the opportunity to do some detailed investigation into the nature of magic, and although that was not Starry’s specific field, she knew enough to assist the Caitian in her investigations.

“Thank you for consenting to this,” Rosepetal said as she set up some exotic equipment. “While we have done our best to investigate the Swarm’s unknown energy source, it’s difficult to do much when you are trying not to get killed at the same time. These sensitive instruments can do a lot more under controlled conditions.”

“That makes sense. I hope that you can get some meaningful data from them. We have our own instruments for measuring magic, but as they are all magitek too, that does not help you much at this point.”

Rosepetal nodded. “Quite correct. Anyway, if you are ready, we can begin.”

“I’m ready. What would you like me to do first?”

“Let’s start simple; use your horn to produce light, please.”

Starry lit up her horn, and the Caitian and her assistants recorded their instruments’ readings.

“Okay, could you now pick up an object with your telekinesis?”

Starry selected a chair and raised it a metre off the floor. Again the scientists made a series of measurements before indicating that Starry could put the chair down.

“How much can you lift with your telekinesis?” Rosepetal asked.

“I’ve never pushed myself to my limit, but I could lift every loose object in this room, including all of you.”

“Are you sure about that? One of those loose objects is a set of weightlifter’s gear that I had brought in for these tests.” The Caitian indicated the barbell loaded with a full set of weights that had been brought in by an anti-grav trolley.

By way of an answer, Starry easily levitated the bar without removing any of the weights. Just for good measure, she added everything else that she could see. “Yes, I’m sure,” she replied.

Rosepetal blinked in surprise. While there were strong telekinetic Talents in the Federation, they normally lifted only one object at a time. This alicorn was handling dozens without appearing to strain in the slightest. “Umm… that’s impressive, but could you put us down for now so that we can actually do some measurements?”

Starry grinned as she complied. Doing science should be fun after all! “Just to give you an idea of my capabilities, I’ll remind you that both Wandering and I maintained a mass-reducing spell for an entire starship for hours at a stretch. I suggest you find some heavier weights.”

“I’m beginning to think I’m going to have to get hold of some neutronium before I can push your limits,” Rosepetal muttered.



Wandering spent the morning in the company of E’Sondra te Hanso. The Voxxan cultural expert was helping him interview a number of the crew in order to make comparisons of their different civilisations, and in return learning more about Equian culture and mores. The stallion was so immersed in his studies that he belatedly remembered that he had intended to have a sparring session with Baneth. He sent Jason to extend his apologies and ask to have the bout rescheduled for a later date before he went to meet up with Starry for a quick lunch. They then went back to their respective research for the rest of the afternoon.

By the time they quit for dinner, much had been accomplished by both ponies, although Rosepetal was nursing a headache from trying to comprehend the results of her research so far. As they sat around the dinner table, Boyce expressed his sympathy.

“Take it easy, Rose. You’re trying to understand at a master’s level starting from a first-year student’s understanding of the subject.”

Rosepetal nodded. “I realise that but magic contradicts so much of what I already know. If I didn’t have the evidence right before my eyes, I would not believe it.”

“Preaching to the choir, dear. Let it go for now and relax; you will have plenty of time to wrap your head around it.”

The rest of the family and their pony guests chuckled at the Caitian’s glum expression as she sighed in resignation.

Wandering decided to change the subject. “Speaking of time, how much longer until we reach the battlefront?”

“Even at top speed, it will be another day’s travel,” Boyce replied.

“That’s remarkably quick.”

Boyce grimaced. “Too quick. The Swarm got too close to Chakona before its advance was halted. Actually, to be completely honest, they are still advancing albeit slowly. They chip away at our defences relentlessly. However, at the FTL speed the Swarm travels, we have a few weeks margin if they ever break through. We’re hoping very much that you will find a way to push them back for the first time.”

“We hope so too,” Starry said. “Now that we have met new friends, we’d like to keep them.”

“Same here,” Forestwalker agreed fervently.

Wandering looked thoughtful. “Now that I’m separated from my crew, it gives me a new perspective – one lone ship in a huge universe, and an enemy we never even knew we had until now.”

“You’re not alone if that’s any consolation,” Boyce replied. “How are they enjoying their time around Harpagornis?”

“I’m embarrassed to admit that our comms have failed again. While their range is theoretically unlimited within the universe, apparently jumping out of normal space and into hyperspace breaks the connection. We’re hoping that they reconnect when we drop out of warp drive.”

“You’re welcome to send messages via our sub-space communicator. The crew of the skiff that we left behind to keep watch over the Cosmic Lotus will pass them on for you.”

“Thanks, Boyce. I promised I’d stay in touch, so I’d like to reassure them that everything is okay. I’m also curious to know what’s happening in my absence.”



While Ortzi Goldbeak’s skills as a geologist were not anticipated to be used on a gas giant, a type of planet that the Equians had not dreamed existed before, he nevertheless had some professional work to do. Harpagornis apparently had a rocky core that was at least as large as Equus, and between their magitek probes and some help from their Federation friends, he was attempting to identify its composition. It was extremely difficult but very satisfying. Nevertheless, he was glad when his shift was over, and he headed to the mess hall. The griffon spotted a familiar face as he ordered his meal, and Ortzi smiled as he seated himself beside the new temporary crew member.

“Hi, gorgeous!”

Helen Baines smiled at the griffon and replied, “Hi, hot stuff. How was your day?”

“Fun but tiring. What about you?”

“Your magitek devices are endlessly fascinating, but I’ve had enough for one day. Feel like going to the Park with me after dinner to relax and unwind?” The rabbit morph had wrangled a spot on the Away Team assigned to keep watch over the Cosmic Lotus with the very good excuse that shi could accomplish some very useful studies in the new technology while stationed there. Boyce had not been fooled for a moment when shi had applied for the spot, but could not deny that shi had a legitimate excuse. Helen was delighted to be able to spend more time with hir unusual new boyfriend. Shi did not quite understand why shi liked him so much, but shi was enjoying hir dalliance with him immensely.

Ortzi had been more than a little amazed at how easily he got along with Helen. He had always been shy with females, but this herm morph excited him. Shi was easy to talk to and laughed at his jokes. Shi liked his wing-cuddles and made him feel special. They had known each other only for days, and yet it felt like they were old friends in some ways. He reflected on what his parents might have thought of his growing relationship with hir as he leaned over to nibble hir neck with his beak. “I’d love to do that,” he replied.

Helen giggled. “Save that for the Park, lover-boy.”

The exchange was noticed by Xanth and Coldfire as they headed out of the room. The mare gave her husband a nudge and said, “What do you think? Next couple to get hitched?”

The changeling had a good taste of the emotions flooding from the duo, but he said, “They’ve known each other for only a few days, hon; stop trying to marry them off already.”

Coldfire gave Xanth a level stare. “Are you trying to tell me that those two are not head-over-hooves infatuated with each other?”

Xanth smirked. “I’d never do that. I just had a big dessert on top of my meal merely by walking past them.”

“So you don’t want seconds?” the mare asked slyly.

“Seconds and thirds, as long as you’re serving them up,” the changeling replied with a grin.

“Good answer. Where would you like your treat?”

“How about the observation room?” Xanth suggested.

“Sounds nice. Let’s go there.”

They turned in that direction and headed off.

“They make an unusual couple though, you have to admit,” Coldfire said conversationally.

“As unusual as a pony and changeling couple was once considered,” Xanth replied. “If talks with the Federation go well though, their relationship may become commonplace too.”

“You’re technically correct, dear, but a rabbit and an eagle cat-bird – you have to admit that’s stretching it.”

Xanth chuckled. “You’ve got me there.”

They arrived at the observation room and settled down in front of the wall-length window that currently faced the gas-giant planet. The room had remained unused for almost the entire journey due to the effects of relativity rendering direct observation virtually useless, but now it was an almost-forgotten place to hang out and enjoy the view while making out with a lover. The couple leaned together cheek-to-cheek and Coldfire put her wing around Xanth. No words were exchanged for a long while as they sat and watched Harpagornis slowly turn. He lapped up the love she poured out to him, and she enjoyed the croons of pleasure it gave him, secure in the knowledge that he was irrevocably in love with her too.

There was one other advantage to having a changeling mate.

“How is Skyborn?”

“Still asleep since his feeding,” replied Xanth after checking through the network with the changeling playing nursemaid to their foal.

“Excellent,” she replied and gave him a passionate kiss.

The view was quickly forgotten.



It was actually about twenty hours after Wandering made his enquiry about the Swarm that they arrived at the battlefront. The communications officer informed Boyce that there was an incoming call immediately after they dropped out of warp.

“Put it on the main screen,” Boyce ordered.

The large screen switched from the star-field to the face of a Terran wolf morph. “Admiral Kline – to what do I owe this visit, sir? The Pegasus is not suited to battle with the Swarm.”

“That is true, Commodore Harkness, but I bring what may be the first true breakthrough in decades of fighting them.”

“You have my total attention, sir. What is this miracle?”

“We have recently contacted a new civilisation, one which may be familiar with the mysterious energy weapon. If it is what they believe it to be, they will be able to supply a means of defending against it.”

“If that is true, I will be overjoyed. It’s well past time that we did something more productive than holding the Swarm at a stalemate. Do you have representatives of this civilisation with you?”

“Yes, I have two of them.” Boyce gestured to Starry and Wandering who had been standing out of everyone’s way near the entrance to the bridge. They walked over to stand next to the command chair. “May I introduce Captain Wandering Path and his mate, Lieutenant Commander Starry Path.”

The Commodore stared for a brief moment, and the ponies were amused to recognise disbelief in his eyes. He recovered quickly and smiled. “An honour to meet you. I certainly hope that you can help us out.”

“That’s what we’re here for, Commodore,” Wandering assured him.

“How can I assist you?” the wolf asked.

Boyce answered, “I am going to launch a Defender with them aboard. It has the speed and maneuverability to keep them safe if necessary, but it’s believed that their personal defences can cope with the Swarm’s weapons. From what I have seen so far, I am inclined to believe them. All we require from you, Commodore, is to provide back-up if needed, and watch for unforeseen trouble in case their efforts stir up a strong response.”

Harkness nodded. “I will assign Captain R’Mulk to the task. He has proven to be adept and flexible in dealing with the Swarm.”

“Thank you, Commodore. We will be launching in approximately fifteen minutes. Pegasus out.” The comms officer cut the connection and Boyce turned to the alicorns. “Lieutenant Karnok will be waiting for you in the launch bay. Please don’t hesitate to withdraw if you get into trouble. Good luck to you both.”

Wandering and Starry nodded in acknowledgement and headed for the trans-lift. It quickly took them to the flight deck where they had their Cosmic Lotus uniforms ready and waiting. It took them only a couple of minutes to change out of the Federation uniforms and into the magitek-enhanced spacesuits, and then they headed down the line of fighter craft to where a small vixen morph was waiting beside the ramp that led into a larger vessel that was obviously the Defender Class that they were expecting. She saluted them and let them board before following. The alicorns laid down upon two specially prepared couches and secured themselves with webbing as Karnok’s crew prepared the ship for launch. There was a flurry of communication between the vessel and the main ship, and then the vixen looked over to the ponies with a grin on her muzzle.

“I hope you two are up to this because it’s going to be a wild ride. Brace for launch!”

She did not wait for a response, and a moment later they were thrust into the acceleration couches as the ship was launched at high speed. The Defender immediately changed course to head directly for the Swarm. While the Pegasus had remained out of range of the Swarm’s weapons, it did not take long for the vessel to be within visual range of the ongoing battle. Flashes and beams of light indicated where Federation ships were engaged with the enemy, and Karnok headed towards one of the most active areas as they had planned.

R’Mulk to Karnok – I am on your tail. Try not to get it scorched.

Karnok grinned and replied, “Not a hair out of place on my fur, Captain. I promise.”

Good – let’s keep it that way.

Wandering gave the vixen a look with one eyebrow raised. She chuckled and said, “R’Mulk is an old Academy acquaintance. He wanted to go full career while I wanted more action and to go hunt pirates. We still get together occasionally though. Anyway, things are about to get interesting. I hope you’re ready to do whatever you’re going to do?”

“We’re ready to make observations first,” Starry replied. “Try to take us near one of those mystery energy bursts that cause you so much trouble.”

“Your wish is my command.”

The Defender leapt towards the thick of battle, dodging and weaving to avoid the weapons that started coming their way. They soon passed in close proximity a Swarm ship, virtually begging to be fired upon. It obliged, but Karnok skilfully avoided the beam of energy before dancing out of range again. She looked over at the alicorns and noticed both their horns were glowing.

“Well?” she asked.

Starry replied, “It’s exactly what we thought it was – raw mana.”

“Which leaves me just as much in the dark as before I knew that.”

“Mana is the power behind magic. It is a terrible and chaotic form of power to use against a starship, but it is also extremely inefficient.”

“How do you mean?”

Wandering replied, “What powers this ship’s systems ultimately?”

“Electricity. No matter how it is generated, everything on this ship runs on electricity.”

“So why don’t you throw a lightning bolt at the Swarm?”

“Because the same amount of power put into the weapons systems is a hundred times more effective.”

“Exactly. The same is true for mana and magic. An efficiently designed spell could do the same amount of damage as that raw mana beam but using only a fraction of the mana.”

“Makes sense, but can you do anything about it?”

Starry nodded and said, “While it’s a lot of power to block, I could do so. In fact, that’s exactly what I want you to do next.”

“You want me to allow my ship to be targeted?” the vixen asked sceptically.

“Yes. Don’t worry – I will shield us while Wandering does some scans of the Swarm ship.”

Karnok’s grin returned. “I did say that I wanted the excitement. Are you prepared?”

The alicorns acknowledged their readiness, and the vessel dived once more into the battle. Again, the vixen provoked a response from a Swarm ship, and again a stream of mana was sent their way. Karnok did not even flinch, trusting implicitly in the ponies’ confident assurances. She was not disappointed. The mana splattered on an unseen shield, spreading along its surface which glowed into visibility before it seemed to absorb the mana and fade out of sight again. A second mana burst came their way, only to suffer the same fate as the first.

“Yeee-haaa! First Federation ship to survive not one but two direct hits from the Swarm!” Karnok crowed.

“No need for a third,” Starry said with a small grin at the vixen’s celebrations. “Wandering has got his readings, so we can go now.”

“Sorry, but that might prove to be difficult. We seem to have attracted the attention of the Swarm after that stunt.”

The tactical holo-screen showed several ships converging on theirs.

“Let me deal with them. I think I will re-gift their donation of mana. Hold the ship still for me, please, Lieutenant.”

“Okay, but what are you up to?”

“You’ll see.” Starry’s horn lit up and she vanished.

“Where did she go?” Karnok asked Wandering.

It was one of her crew that answered, however. “Lieutenant – check out the starboard monitor!”

The vixen switched her view-screen to show the starboard side of the Defender, and her eyes widened at the sight of Starry calmly standing on the hull, seemingly unaffected by the lack of a helmet, let alone a fully-sealed suit.

Wandering caught sight of the view and noticed Karnok’s disbelieving stare. “The magitek spells in our uniforms can maintain a safe environment for us for a limited time. I’d pay more attention to what she’s about to do.”

While Starry’s horn had glowed with each usage of her magic, this time its brilliance nearly overwhelmed the camera. Then a burst of energy shot out at the nearest Swarm ship and punched through it virtually without effort. The vessel started drifting aimlessly as air and detritus was expelled through the massive hole. She repeated the attack with the next Swarm ship, then another, and then another. She might have done more, but the Swarm abruptly retreated, but not before the disabled ships self-destructed.

“Get ready to take us out of here, Lieutenant,” Wandering told the vixen.

Karnok shook herself out of dazed surprise and began to give orders to take the battle-craft away from the battlefront. Starry reappeared on her couch just as a call came in from their back-up.

What the hell was that, and can I have one too?

The vixen chuckled and replied, “Get your own pony, R’Mulk!”



Back aboard the Pegasus, the alicorns and Karnok had just finished reporting to the Admiral.

“So, it’s exactly what you suspected it was?” Boyce asked.

Starry replied, “Yes, but that still leaves us with one very puzzling question.”

“What would that be?”

“Wandering’s scans revealed absolutely no magical activity. What species can have access to so much raw mana but have no magic defences or equipment whatsoever?”

The question hung in the air with no one offering an answer.

“There’s only one solution,” Wandering said. “We’re going to have to capture a Swarm ship.”

“That’s not as easy as you make it sound. Every ship that we have tried to capture has invariably self-destructed rather than allow themselves to be taken away.”

“How long after a ship is disabled does that happen?” Starry asked.

“It varies depending on the circumstances, but never more than a couple of minutes,” Boyce answered.

Starry gave Wandering a look before she smiled and said, “That should be adequate. Time for us to call in a specialist!”


 

Questions Answered

 

Starry and Wandering were immensely relieved when their comms had reconnected once the Pegasus dropped out of warp. In discussions between Twilight Sparkle and Commander Silpurr, it was speculated that the unique, immense strains on space-time within the wormhole had been the cause of the damage to their original comms, while dropping out of normal space into hyperspace merely caused them to lose their connection. Thus they were able to talk with Equus to request the specialist help that they required. They had also brought along a mana beacon for just this contingency, and it was not long before Destined Path appeared in the alicorns’ stateroom.

“Hello! I didn’t expect to come visiting again so soon,” Destined greeted them.

“Did we get you at a bad time, Des?” Starry asked.

“Nah. In fact, anything to do with the Cosmic Lotus expedition has priority at the moment. Big things in the works! So what’s up?”

The couple described their recent encounter with the Swarm ships along with visual aids of recordings of the event.

“As you saw, the Swarm did not hesitate to fire upon us although we took no offensive action against them. Bearing in mind that we were obviously part of the enemy fleet, it still shows a lack of reluctance to attack on sight,” Starry said. “I tried to disable all the ships that I fired upon, but as Boyce told us, they all self-destructed within a couple of minutes rather than be captured. We desperately need to learn more about those ships and their crew, but we only have a tiny window of opportunity to do it.”

“Ah – and that’s why you needed me in particular. Hmm – tricky, but doable. I can slow down the passage of time for me and a couple of others while we explore the Swarm ship.”

“Only a couple? I hoped that we could take a whole team.”

“Sorry, Starry, but it’s going to quite a strain with just three people. I’m a lot stronger now than when I first started doing this kind of thing, but it still takes a humongous amount of power to do it. The more people in the time-field, the greater the power draw. I can take Wandering plus one of the Federation people, I assume.”

“Huh? But I wanted to go. And I’m the science expert of us two,” Starry objected.

“Yes, and you’re also the stronger when it comes to defensive shields, as you pointed out yourself. I don’t want to be left unprotected while we’re in the Swarm ship, and we may need every second that you can buy us if the Swarm catches on to what is happening.”

Starry looked crestfallen. “Outsmarted myself, didn’t I?”

Wandering put a wing around her consolingly. “Don’t worry, Star – I’ll record everything for you to view later.”

“I suppose that will have to do,” Starry sulked.

“Let’s go see Boyce and tell him what we have in mind,” Wandering said.

The three of them headed to Boyce’s ready room. After he had formally greeted Destined, he called in Rosepetal and they discussed the plans that had been made. Boyce nodded thoughtfully.

“Yes, that should work. I’ll be your third team member.”

Rosepetal looked shocked. “You can’t do that, sir! You have a responsibility to the Pegasus.”

The human gave his First Officer and wife a grin. “You know it won’t be the first time that I haven’t followed standard operating procedure. Besides, I have the engineering qualifications to be useful.”

“And you know I hate it when you put yourself at risk like that.”

“My unorthodoxy is why we ended up as mates and I earned my rank. I consider the risk to be small enough to justify going along.”

“Star Fleet Command won’t like it,” the Caitian tried one last objection.

“Just like all the other times, and yet here I am. Don’t worry, Rose – we’ll be careful.”

Rosepetal sighed. “I can’t stop you, I suppose, but if anything happens to you, I won’t ever let you forget about it!”

“That’s my Firstwife! Now, please organize another raid with Lieutenant Karnok while I dig out my personal life-support suit and run diagnostics on it to make sure it’s in full working order. It’s been a while since I’ve needed it.”

“That reminds me,” Destined said. “I need to get fitted for one also. While I am capable of protecting myself, I want to be able to concentrate on my time spell and let the suit do the work. If you don’t need me for anything more right this moment, I’ll get that underway.”

When there were no objections, Destined lit up his horn and teleported home.

Boyce shook his head in wonder. “Teleporting a couple of thousand light-years and stopping time means little to him. I’m so in awe of Destined Path.”

“Don’t be,” Wandering said. “He hates that. It’s his special talent, and he trains it constantly, but he wants to be known as just a pony like the rest of us.”

“But he’s also a Prince of Equestria; he can’t be just another pony.”

“That is what makes him a great third member of the ruling triequirate. Destined was barely respected as a Prince when he started royal duties long ago, but it is his very closeness to the ordinary pony that balances out the trio. He might not have the thousands of years of Auntie Celestia, nor Mama Luna’s broad experience, but he lends a touch that neither of the others can. And he does that by staying humble, a hallmark of House Path. He does not want anyone to think of him as a mighty alicorn Prince, but rather as a pony who has the means and the willingness to help a good cause.”

“I see. Would Destined care to have dinner with us after the mission?”

Wandering smiled. “I’m certain that he’d like that.”



When Destined returned with his brand-new Cosmic Lotus-style spacesuit, Boyce informed Commodore Harkness of their intentions, and then he and the three ponies headed to the launch bay. Karnok was a bit more formal with her salute and treatment of her passengers this time, but otherwise, it was much the same as when Starry and Wandering first went out to encounter the Swarm. Karnok took them to the edge of the battlefront rather than into the melee as previously, and the Commodore’s fighters temporarily opened a gap in their defences. As expected, a couple of Swarm ships quickly took advantage of this, and they rapidly closed upon the Defender ship.

Starry teleported outside the ship as she had done previously, and let the Swarm ships fire their mana weapons. Once again, she absorbed the raw mana and returned it in the form of concise fire designed to disable both ships. She chose different targets for each though, just in case it made a difference, but each ship was left with a gaping hole in their hulls.

“We’re up!” Wandering announced and wasted no time teleporting himself, Boyce, and Destined to the edge of the hole in one of the ships, allowing the older alicorn to conserve his magic. Destined cast his spell to encompass the three of them, slowing down the passage of time to a crawl for the Away Team. Wandering then used telekinesis to move them within the hull. One thing was fairly obvious from the start.

“This looks organic,” Destined said.

“That matches all our most detailed observations from the outside,” Boyce replied. “However, I wonder how many guessed that it would be like this inside?”

The passageways and the rooms were all rounded and unlevel, seemingly flowing randomly from one point to another. The frost-covered walls were definitely not metallic, but neither did they look like common artificial materials such as plastic, and doors were conspicuously absent. Dim light seemed to radiate from nearly every surface, alleviating the worry that they might have difficulty seeing with just their spacesuit lights. All this was quickly forgotten when they came upon the first of what they presumed was one of the Swarm aliens.

The creature was definitely insect-like in appearance, with a three-segmented torso plus a head. Two pairs of legs supported the rear, largest segment; another pair of limbs with pincers on the ends were attached to the next segment, and the final one had another pair of what were clearly manipulators with a cluster of fine digits on the ends. The torso and head were not chitinous but appeared to be covered with coarse hair, and there was no sign of wings. The creature had two pairs of eyes – not compound as they may have expected, but not quite the same as the ponies’ or the human’s either. One pair faced forward, while the other two were on the sides of the head just below two feathery antennae. Mandibles surrounded its mouth and there was no sign of a nose.

“We need that specimen!” Boyce said urgently.

Wandering took the cue to teleport it to a specially prepared holding cell on the Defender. While it was not known if it would survive being exposed to vacuum, if it could, they wanted it alive for study and perhaps even find a way to communicate with its species. An analysis of the air vented from other Swarm ships indicated that a standard oxygen-nitrogen mix was suitable, as was expected due to the way they took over planets with similar atmospheres.

After that, they encountered several more in what they supposed was a control centre, although the organic look to it made it hard to be conclusive despite the electronic apparatus that seemed out of place. That was not their main goal, however. After teleporting a couple more specimens, they continued to penetrate further into the ship in the direction of their best guess as to the location of the mana weapon. The lack of straight corridors hampered this effort, and Wandering began to worry if they were going to have enough opportunity to do so. Destined was tight-lipped, but the strain of maintaining the temporal freeze was beginning to show. Nevertheless, they pushed on and eventually came to the first door they had found on the ship so far. It was more like a hatch with a single, leathery hinge, and it was closed. Boyce tried to pull it open, but it did not budge.

Destined spoke up. “Don’t try to move it. It’s outside my time field and any force that you apply to it would seem to take forever to affect it.”

“I can do a blind teleport to the other side,” suggested Wandering.

“You know that’s risky,” Destined replied.

“You may be the expert, bro, but I’m no slouch. I’ll feel the space before materializing.”

“If Boyce is willing to take the risk, I say do it.”

Boyce nodded. “This is too important to not take a calculated risk. Go ahead.”

Wandering teleported them all with more care than he could ever recall using before. He heaved a mental sigh of relief when his senses told him that there was sufficient room for all of them beyond the door, plus one other detail – there was air in there! They materialized in front of what appeared to be pens for some kind of furry creature that resembled a capybara – if capybaras had tentacles around their muzzles. There were dozens of them crowded together along most of the walls, but there were also two more of the Swarm creatures. Because they had not been exposed to the vacuum, they almost certainly were completely unharmed, and Wandering teleported them both to another holding cell. He also grabbed a couple of the cages and sent them to a separate cell. He would have taken more, but all the teleporting that he had done so far was beginning to take its toll on him, and he needed some reserve to take them all back to the Defender.

“I’ve been looking around for some kind of weapons system, but all I can see is this tube,” Boyce said. He took many photos of it from several angles, wishing that his scanners would work through the temporal field.

Wandering took a closer look at the composition of the tube. It had a sheen that looked vaguely familiar, and he reached out with his magic, only to have the spell fizzle upon contact. “Nullstone!” he gasped.

“What’s nullstone?” Boyce asked.

“It’s a naturally occurring material that neutralizes magic,” Wandering explained. “We use it to control criminals, especially unicorns, to stop them from using their magic to escape custody.”

“What has that got to do with these animals though?”

Wandering took a good look at the inside of the tube, comparing it to the penned beasts. Then he saw the two rods that protruded from the hinged cover of the tube. A horrible thought occurred to him. “Sweet Mama Luna, no!”

“What’s wrong, Wander?” Destined asked.

“I’m almost certain I know what this is for and what the weapon is.”

“Then can we go back now? I’m reaching my limit.”

“Let me grab a couple more of these creatures, and we can go,” Wandering replied. He teleported two more cages to the same cell as the first two and then nodded to Destined who dropped the temporal freeze.

In the brief moment before Wandering teleported the team away, their ears were assaulted by the keening wail of the remaining terrified animals.



“Take us back to the Pegasus,” Boyce ordered as soon as they materialized on the bridge of the Defender.

“Aye, sir,” Karnok replied, nodding to the human at the helm. “How went the mission?”

“Amazingly successful. We learned an enormous amount, and we have captured several specimens.”

“That I want to see!”

His words were highlighted by the self-destruction of the Swarm ship that the away team had just vacated.

Wandering had not waited for the explosion nor for the exchange to complete. He immediately hastened to the holding cells, but his interest was not in the Swarm. He headed straight for caged animals that he had rescued and found them wailing in their cell. It was dying down even as he scanned them thoroughly, something that he could not do properly while within Destined’s time-field. His initial guesses were confirmed, and tears of rage flowed down his cheek.

“Wander – what’s wrong?” Starry asked as the others joined him at the cells.

Wandering lifted his hoof to point at the animals. “There’s your mystery weapon, Boyce.”

The human gave him a puzzled look. “What do you mean?”

“Those creatures are virtually bursting with mana energy. I have never seen so much concentrated mana outside of Celestia and Luna.”

“Are you saying that they’re magical creatures like us ponies?” Destined asked.

“No, more like the changelings. While they thrive on emotional energy, these seem to use raw mana instead. Don’t ask me how – that’s just what I got from scanning them.”

“So, how does that translate into them being used as weapons?” Boyce asked.

“Those rods that I pointed out on the tube hatch? They’re electrodes. Give these mana-beasts a big enough shock and all that mana gets released in one burst, disintegrating the animal. The nullstone cylinder can resist the raw energy and confines the mana so that it shoots out the muzzle. That’s why the Swarm ships always had to be pointing at their target – the tubes are fixed. That’s why they don’t have magic weapons instead of raw mana – they only understood that they could get a near-unstoppable weapon by murdering these beasts one by one as living ammunition!” Wandering ended with a sob.

Starry gaped in shock. “How many thousands of them have died just to kill so many others?”

“Not thousands, Starry,” Boyce said soberly. “Millions, judging by our own experiences and what we are guessing was done to other races before the Swarm reached Federation territory.”

“They must breed those mana-beasts intensively just for this purpose. I wonder how they discovered them?” Starry mused.

“Probably by accident while conquering a planet. I’m guessing that these aren’t the only creatures that they’ve enslaved for their purposes.”

“Not that I’m arguing with you, but what leads you to that conclusion, Boyce?” Starry asked.

“Their ship. Did you notice the organic nature of it? And how the electronics and other equipment seemed out of place with the rest of the vessel? I believe that their ships are living creatures too.”

Wandering gasped. “That explains the odd readings that I was getting inside the ship. I put it down to distortions due to Destined’s time-field. It still seems incredible though – a creature that that can live in outer space!”

Boyce nodded. “I’d be sceptical too, except that I know of others.”

All the ponies looked at the human in surprise. “You do?” Starry asked.

“Yes – they’re called Stariionae, and they put our best starships to shame with regards to speed and maneuverability. They spend virtually all their lives in space, only coming to planets to get raw materials for food. There’s also a predator species that prey on them. So it doesn’t surprise me that there are other species. It helps answer another question too.”

“Which one?” Destined asked curiously.

“Why did their FTL speeds never improve? It must be their ships’ natural speed limit. The Swarm probably has no idea of warp theory; they just know that these creatures can go faster than light, making interstellar flight practical. For all we know, the Swarm may have been confined to their planet of origin until one or more of these living spaceships landed to take on raw material and they were captured somehow.”

Destined nodded. “And you never could tell what they were because the Swarm always annihilated their disabled ships. I’m guessing that all they have to do is electrocute all their mana-beasts in their cages to release enough energy to completely destroy their vessels. They seem to be a paranoid and/or xenophobic species.”

“Speaking of which, let’s get a closer look at the enemy.” Boyce turned to one of the other cells which contained the first Swarm creatures that they had grabbed. They were just as immobile as when they were taken.

Wandering scanned them and said, “They’re dead. No big surprise. Let’s check the others – they should still be alive.”

The Swarm creatures in the second cell were certainly alive. They were skittering around the cell, apparently looking for a way out, then stopping to touch antennae briefly before repeating the sequence again and again.

Wandering scanned them like the others, a look of puzzlement growing on his face. “They seem to be behaving more like ants than intelligent individuals. They appear to be operating with default behaviours rather than anything showing sapience.”

“Maybe they’re a collective intelligence?” Starry suggested. “It might take an entire crew, or perhaps a coordinating mind like changeling queens to act intelligently.”

“So – not only do they look insect-like but they also behave like them? That sounds plausible to me,” Boyce said. “Now that we have some actual prisoners to examine, I’m sure the experts will discover a lot more about our enemy. Meanwhile, we have made some amazing progress in our fight for survival against the Swarm. Star Fleet Command is going to love hearing what we have discovered, and your contributions are going to go a long way towards opening full relations between Equus and the Stellar Federation.”

Wandering sighed. “I just hope that we can find some way to rescue the mana-beasts from their enslavement.”



Wandering was a little depressed as the Pegasus started its journey back to the Chakastra System. On the one hoof, the mission had been an outstanding success. On the other though, it had revealed a far more sickening situation than he had anticipated. Both Starry and Destined had been a bit more stoic about it and he wished that he could be more like them. However, his ability to scan living things and imitate them came with a burden – a deep empathy for them. He could no more ignore the mana-beasts plight than he could a pony’s. He took some consolation in the fact that the four animals that he had rescued had all calmed down and seemed relatively happy in their new circumstances. Boyce had promised that the Pegasus’ biologists would figure out how to feed them and keep them happy and healthy, so that was one burden off his mind. Ironically, he felt no such empathy for the Swarm. He speculated that the same near-mindlessness of their captives was sparing him that unwanted feeling.

“A Fedcred for your thoughts,” came a familiar voice from beside him.

Wandering looked from the cold cup of coffee that he had been nursing for the past hour to see a Rakshani gazing at him. “Nothing worth talking about, Lieutenant,” he replied listlessly.

“That’s not the way I hear it,” Baneth said. “You’ve been in a funk for a day now, but you should be proud of what you have achieved.”

The alicorn snorted in derision. “I’ve uncovered just how much more horrific this Swarm invasion is in actuality. All I can think of is how many beings, both sapient and otherwise, have succumbed to these invaders.”

The Rakshani’s lip curled in scorn. “How about all the lives that you will save because you gave us the knowledge to fight them? How many colonists from threatened planets? How many other Federation home-worlds? What about you starting us on the path of liberating those mana-beasts of yours? You will be of no use to them if all you can do is mope over what you cannot change. Start thinking positively again!”

“Easier said than done, Baneth.”

“Then let me help you take your mind off all that. You owe me a bout, Ambassador Wandering Path. Or are you going to find another excuse to weasel out of it?”

Wandering stared at the stern Rakshani for a long moment before a half-smile grew on his face. “You’re right – I do owe you a bout. Alright – let’s do this.” Anything was better than thinking about the Swarm right now. He got up from the table and headed out of the mess hall in the company of the smug Security Officer.

When they reached a small gymnasium which was set up with mats on the floor, Wandering removed his uniform and set it safely aside. Baneth followed suit, although she did not get completely naked like the alicorn. A sports top and briefs left her modest but free to move without confining clothing. She positioned herself at one side of the gym and Wandering followed suit on the opposite side.

“Before we begin our bout, I would like to revisit your unfair advantage,” Baneth said. “Would you care to levitate me like you did when we first met?”

“As you wish.” Wandering lit up his horn and a glow surrounded the Rakshani, lifting her off the floor.

Baneth gave him a predatory smile. “Let me show you why it is unwise to reveal an advantage to a Rakshani before you actually need to fight one.” She abruptly contorted in mid-air and her feet shot out, striking the wall and sending her hurtling towards the surprised pony. She was abruptly halted again by his telekinesis almost within striking distance. She grinned toothily. “Just imagine if I had done that at half the distance.”

“I would have stopped you much sooner, but your point is made.”

“Good. You may put me down now.”

Wandering simply stopped levitating her, but the Rakshani was not caught by surprise. She made a controlled landing on the mat, coiled to spring at him. Her grin had not faded, and she gave him a wink. He grinned back.

“Shall we start getting serious?” Wandering asked.

Baneth stood up. “Yes, let’s do that. No telekinesis though.”

“Agreed – no telekinesis.”

Baneth returned to the other side of the room and turned to face the pony. She turned and gave her opponent a final assessment. Quadrupedal – fast at running and turning but lacking in hands to grasp. Flexibility greater than other four-legged creatures, but nevertheless a limiting factor. Wings capable of flight – must watch for an aerial attack. Horn – banned from levitation but still a dangerous natural weapon. Unknown but presumably high level of skill in unarmed fighting – cautiously feel him out.

Meanwhile, Wandering was doing much the same as the Rakshani. Tall, well-muscled physique – strong and with a long reach. Very flexible and very fast reactions – don’t presume she can’t attack in a manner that he could not. Long tail – tripping hazard, might be used to sweep his legs. Vicious-looking fangs – might not be used, but nevertheless should not be ignored. Skill level – presumably excellent. He was in for quite a fight. Hopefully, the decade spent on the Cosmic Lotus had not dulled his abilities. Not that Eon had let any House Path warrior-scholar get soft. He was as ready as he would ever be. “Go!” he said.

They approached each other cautiously, watching how each other moved. Then the alicorn spread his wings and charged. Baneth leapt, aiming high in anticipation of an attack from above, only to see Wandering go into a flat dive that took him under her. In the fraction of a second that it had taken her to land and twist around to face him, Wandering had planted his forehooves into the mat and pivoted around to kick with his hind legs to send him hurtling at her again. Baneth threw herself backwards, bringing her feet up to push him up and over her. She felt the air ruffle her fur as his hoof barely missed her skull, but otherwise, he was thrown out of range. They both sprang upright immediately and faced each other once more.

Baneth grinned. “Nice feint.”

“Thank you. I didn’t think that you would overlook my ability to fly, but as you must be unused to opponents who can do that, you might overreact.”

“Indeed. One less thing that you can surprise me with though.”

Wandering chuckled. “I suppose not. Round two?”

“Go!”

This time both were a lot more cautious and they circled each other for a long moment before Baneth made the first move. She spun around, whipping her long, thick tail around, the tip aimed at the pony’s head. Wandering raised his forelegs in a blocking maneuver, only to discover that her tail was much denser than he had assessed. There was much less fur and a great deal more bone and muscle, and he was knocked off-balance. Baneth did not have it all her own way, though. Her tail stung as it hit the braced forelegs which were far more immovable than they had a right to be. Obviously, there was something she did not know about the pony physique. Her spin was partially arrested because of this, and thus she was not in the proper position quickly enough to take advantage of her opponent’s momentary stumble. He recovered soon enough to block her follow-up strike, and they both leapt back out of reach.

Panting slightly, Wandering asked, “What’s in that tail of yours?”

“Non-Rakshani tend to think it’s fluffy like a Terran cat’s, but it’s actually a powerful weapon. So why do I feel like I hit a brick wall with it?”

“Earth pony stamina. If I had been standing on the ground of a planet, you would not have been able to budge me.”

“Nice to know. Are you starting to feel better now?”

Wandering was surprised to realize that he was, and said so.

“Good. Ready for round three?”

“Whenever you are.”

“Go!” Baneth cried, immediately leaping at Wandering, hoping to catch him off guard. Again she spun around, sending her tail at him. He blocked again, prepared for its extra mass this time, but it was closer than the previous time, and instead, it whipped around his limbs, trapping them. She dived away from him, rolling on the mat and yanking her tail, pulling the pony off of his hooves and sending him flying towards the wall. He braked with his wings at the last moment, but still landed heavily. He rolled onto his hooves to find himself facing Baneth’s fist a centimetre away. She extended a finger and touched his nose.

“First strike to me,” she said.

“Conceded,” Wandering admitted as he straightened up. “So – your tail is prehensile also?”

“It is,” she replied as she made her way over to her side of the room again.

“Nice to know,” the alicorn echoed Baneth’s earlier comment. “Round four?”

“Go!”

This time Wandering leapt off the mark, jinking to the right slightly. Baneth adjusted her weight to intercept him, only to see his left wing snap out. She was unable to dodge in time, and the wing’s leading edge caught her on the temple. Slightly stunned, she tipped over to her side and found a hoof planted on her chest. Another came down to tap her on the muzzle.

“Second strike to me,” Wandering said.

“Conceded,” Baneth said, and the pony let her get up. She took a couple of deep breaths and shook her head to clear her mind. By the time Wandering was ready at his end of the room.

“Wings can do far more than allow me to fly,” the alicorn informed her.

“Foolish of me not to realize that sooner,” the Rakshani confessed.

“Ready for another round?”

“Yes, but let’s make this the final one. No pulling punches this time. Whoever incapacitates the other wins the match.”

“Agreed.”

“Go!”

They approached each other cautiously, both watching carefully for an opening but wary of a feint. Baneth made the first move, leaping at the alicorn, but tucking into a forward roll. This brought her tail whipping up and over her, bearing down on Wandering. He realized that if he just dodged it, Baneth could barrel into him, so he reached up and hooked a hoof around it and yanked. Surprised by how well the pony’s hoof could grasp her tail, her roll was disrupted, and she had to hastily twist around to avoid a vicious stomp, pulling her tail free at the same time. Springing back out of the way, she set herself at the ready again. She recognized that there was yet another thing to learn about how ponies could fight, and she wondered if there was anything left for her to surprise him with. Coming to the conclusion that she did not, she decided to make the most of her speed and agility.

Wandering made the next move, however. With a snap of his wings, he leapt into the air, flipped, and then sprang off the ceiling, hurtling at the Rakshani. Baneth twisted aside and threw her arm around Wandering’s withers and heaved backwards, throwing the pony over her. The stallion’s wings were still unfurled though, and he corrected his flight to bring his hooves to the wall, springing off them in another attack. This time Baneth jumped straight up into the air and Wandering passed under her, his horn barely missing her left leg. He swung around just as she landed, sweeping with his wing, but she let her momentum take her to the floor and let the appendage pass over her before grabbing it, pulling him off balance as she swept his legs with her tail. As he fell over, she tried to hold onto the wing but it was too strong for her, and she was left holding a few red feathers. They both recovered at the same time, leaving no advantage to either. The two pulled apart, panting but grinning with the enjoyment of the bout.

As they circled each other once more, Baneth said, “Only one other on this ship has been able to beat me in unarmed combat since I took command of Bravo Team. I don’t intend there to be a second.”

“And I said that I have an unfair advantage,” Wandering reminded her.

“You promised no telekinesis,” she retorted.

“Who said that was my only advantage?” he replied as he turned his back to her.

Sensing his vulnerability, she leapt. Aware of the possibility of him bucking, she went high, intending to dodge that and land on his back… why were his back hooves glowing?

BOOM!

Baneth was slammed by something invisible that hurled her into the wall. Dazed and confused, she failed to stop Wandering from pouncing on her and throwing his hoof at her jaw. A second blow was halted as the alicorn realized that she was unable to fight back.

“Do you concede?” he asked, wary of a possible negative answer.

“I… concede,” she gasped.

Wandering got off Baneth and helped her to her feet with his telekinesis.

“What was that?” she asked, rapidly pulling herself together again.

“Papa Path named it the Thunderhoof technique. We use our earth pony magic to focus our power in our hind hooves and release it as a concussion wave. I actually toned it down because full strength can literally smash you.”

“Ha! I bet that isn’t even the end of the surprises you could pull.”

“Not quite, no. A word of warning though – don’t try challenging Eon to a serious bout. He can wipe the floor with me; you wouldn’t last more than a few seconds.”

“I think I’ll spare my pride. Meanwhile, you have bested me. I sorely underestimated you and your skills. Leaving aside the magic, your physical abilities are remarkable. I find that… very desirable in a male.”

Wandering recalled the warning that Boyce had given him, and he realized what might be coming. “In the interest of interstellar harmony and perfect understanding, may I ask your intentions?”

“I would be honoured if you would bed me tonight, mighty warrior.”

There it was – plain and unambiguous, and he had yet to decide how he would respond to the request. “Can I get back to you on that?” he asked.



“So that’s how it went,” Wandering explained.

“And did you tell her ‘yes’?” Starry asked.

“I said that I would get back to her with an answer and she agreed. I wanted to ask how you felt now that it was more than a hypothetical situation.”

“Boyce told you that you were free to refuse without insulting her, so why do you feel you need me to decide?”

“Starry – I love you. We have been mates for a decade, and I have enjoyed our relationship greatly. I don’t ever want to do anything to spoil that.”

Starry sighed and leaned forward to kiss him lightly on the lips. “Wander, you are everything that I ever wanted in a mate, and you are very sweet. However, we are both alicorns and immortal. If nothing kills us, we will live for thousands of years. We can and will get bored with each other over that time if we are strictly monogamous. Don’t turn down something new and exciting just because you think I’ll disapprove. Take up Baneth’s offer and enjoy the experience. I know that afterwards, you will still love me while she will probably be only a happy memory.”

“Have you ever considered taking another lover?” Wandering asked.

“Like you, none have appealed to me so far, and I have turned down all approaches. One day I won’t, but only if I really like them and it won’t hurt you.”

“So you’re giving your permission for me to spend the night with her?”

“No – I’m telling you to buck the hay out of her and tell me all the juicy details in the morning.”

“Now that’s the kinky mare I know and love!”



“So?” Starry asked him the next morning at breakfast.

“So I’m not talking about it until we can chat in private in our room,” Wandering replied.

“Oh, come on! Just one morsel?” She gave him her most pitiful begging look.

Wandering sighed and said softly so that only she could hear, “Baneth informed me that apparently pony stallions are better endowed that Rakshani males.”

“Ooh! Are you sure?”

“We measured it and tried it for fit several times,” he replied with a smirk.

Everyone in the mess hall was left wondering why the pony ambassador was rolling on the floor with laughter while her mate was rolling his eyes while smiling in chagrin.

 


 

Surprises

 

After the Federation scientists had determined that there were no inimical pathogens or parasites to be feared from the mana-beasts, they had been transferred to a specially prepared room with what they hoped were comfortable surroundings for them. An analysis of their biology suggested foods that might be suitable for their consumption, and several varieties were synthesised for the animals. Three out of the five offerings proved to be palatable, and the creatures were soon well-fed. They then all huddled together to sleep, mostly buried under some mattresses that had been supplied as bedding.

On the second day of their return journey, Wandering asked permission to go into their room and examine them closely in person.

“I would not advise that, Ambassador,” one of the scientists told him. “There’s too much we don’t know about them as yet, and they may be dangerous in ways we don’t know about.”

“That’s the whole point of me going in there – to learn those kinds of things. Besides, it’s not as if I don’t have defences against many forms of attack.”

The scientist turned to Forestwalker, his superior. “What do you think, Shir?”

“Ambassador Path has a point, and he certainly has more knowledge of mana than we do. I’d say to let him go, but I think I had better check with the Admiral first, considering the Ambassador’s status.” The chakat went over to a nearby comm-screen and contacted Boyce. “Admiral – Ambassador Wandering Path wishes to enter the mana-beasts’ cage and try some tests in person.”

Boyce frowned. “That may be risky. What is your assessment?”

“I have not detected any overt threat from them. In fact, I suspect that these creatures are domesticated, and while that does not preclude a form of self-defence, I believe there’s no real threat to the Ambassador. The fact that he’s a herbivore may also be a mitigating factor.”

Boyce nodded. “Anything that we can learn about these creatures would be of value to us. If Ambassador Path feels he will be safe, then allow him access. Watch him closely at all times, however.”

“I certainly will, sir. Forestwalker out.” The chakat turned back to the others and said, “I suppose you heard the Admiral’s decision. Let’s give this a go.”

Wandering was not a fool; despite believing that the mana-beasts were basically harmless, he nevertheless put up a weak shield before entering the cage. His approach was immediately noticed, and all but one retreated to their pile of bedding. The remaining one stood its ground as Wandering cautiously approached. He probed it with a spell, and while he did not learn much, it seemed to perk up a bit. The alicorn stopped and laid down with one hoof extended, and the animal crept forward to sniff it. Then the tentacles around its snout gently wrapped around his hoof. Wandering was startled to feel mana flowing from him into the animal, and he let out a surprised, “Wha–?!”

“Is everything okay?” came the worried voice of Forestwalker over the intercom.

Realising that the amount of mana flow was low and harmless, Wandering replied quietly in order to not startle the beast. “It’s alright – I was just surprised for a moment. I think it’s feeding on me.”

“Feeding? In what way?”

“It’s lapping away at my mana supply. I’m beginning to think that these mana-beasts are more similar to changelings than I had thought previously. While they eat physical food, they also need to consume mana like changelings consume love.”

“That’s actually more believable than eating emotions,” Forestwalker replied. “Don’t let it take too much from you though.”

“Don’t worry – I’m generating mana as fast as it is consuming it. I’m interested to see what it does when it’s replete.”

It took a few minutes, but eventually, the mana-beast unwrapped its tentacles from Wandering’s hoof and then went over to the other three. Everyone watched as its companions cautiously emerged and one meshed tentacles with it.

The alicorn sensed the flow of mana into it. “If I were to make a guess, I’d say it’s feeding its mate.”

“Or an offspring,” Forestwalker added. “Fascinating! I wonder how the Swarm kept these animals fed with mana?”

“Possibly food creatures that we did not see during our limited opportunity to explore their vessel.”

“I wonder what they do with all that energy?”

“Aside from staying alive? Maybe it powers some ability we haven’t learned yet, like changeling love energy powers their ability to transform.”

“It’s going to be interesting learning all their secrets. Are you done in there yet, Ambassador?”

“No – I think I’ll try to give the other two a feed also. They seem less wary now.” Wandering got up and slowly moved closer before laying down again. This time he had two hooves extended.

Cautiously the two unfed creatures came forward to sniff at the alicorn’s hooves as their companion had done. Then they also wrapped their tentacles around a hoof each and started feeding on his mana.

Wandering quietly said, “Judging by their caution and almost unnoticeable feeding, I’m thinking that they don’t harm their meal prey.”

“Up to a point, I can agree,” Forestwalker replied. “I’m reminded of vampire bats on Earth which feed on the blood of livestock. Too much feeding can be injurious, not to mention the possibility of passing on diseases. Of course it could be a commensal or mutualistic relationship, but I’m still leaning towards parasitic.”

“I don’t think disease is a problem, but you may be right about the excessive feeding. That’s going to be tricky to confirm though.”

“True, but it’s still a logical consequence.”

Wandering had to concede that shi was probably correct, but at least he was in no danger of being drained. He was getting hungry though. Using mana always worked up an appetite, and this was no different even if the use was unusual. When both creatures had enough, they left to join the other two, and they all seemed content to settle down for a nap. The alicorn decided that he had done enough for one day, and further experiments could wait for another opportunity. He wondered what Starry would think of him bringing aboard a couple of them as pets though. They were awfully cute, after all!



Boyce was positively beaming when he met up with the alicorns for lunch. Because it was mid-shift, they had it in one of the formal dining rooms rather than in Boyce’s private quarters where they had been having their meals every evening. Starry and Wandering normally preferred to eat with the crew at other times, but this was to be their final meal before rendezvousing with the Cosmic Lotus once more, and the Admiral had some news to impart as well. Neither pony needed to be an empath to tell that the news was very good.

“Spit it out before you burst,” Wandering said with a grin.

Boyce’s grin matched the alicorn’s. “I received word back from Star Fleet Command not long ago. They were so impressed with what we achieved with the Swarm that they have lifted all travel bans and ratified the agreements made between Equestria and the Federation. They have extended an invitation to come to Earth for further diplomatic talks, and in the meantime, they suggest that you visit Chakona. If you wish, the Prime Minister of Chakona would like to hold a banquet in your honour.”

“Whoa! That’s quite a turnaround from a few days ago. We would love to visit Chakona, but a banquet isn’t necessary. We’re explorers, Boyce. We like a party as much as anybody, but formal affairs are best left to the prince and princesses, and their diplomatic staff. You know we only have the title of ambassador because we’re here and they aren’t.”

“I realise that, but I suggest that you let them have this one thing. Chakona is the next world in the way of the Swarm, and you have alleviated a huge amount of worry with the discoveries you’ve enabled us to make. Let them show their gratitude and it will probably open a lot of doors for you.”

Wandering nodded. “You have a point. But do you want to know what I would really like most after that?”

“Several things come to mind, but tell me.”

“A vacation! Every single member of our crew has spent years without a holiday, and several of us have not hibernated for the entire journey. Starry and I have been on duty for over ten years, and we would love to have a break from all our responsibilities for a while. I can’t think of a better way to do it than playing tourist on Chakona for a week or so.”

“I can empathise with you there. I love my work in Star Fleet, but I always make time for my family. Speaking of which, could I offer you a place to stay a while? We have a home in Marpletown that is away from the hustle and bustle of the cities that you may like.”

Starry said, “That sounds nice, but we wouldn’t want to impose.”

Boyce chuckled. “Our place is built for a clan and is still only half utilised. Not only would we be able to put you up quite comfortably, but the family would also love to have you visit. If you doubt me, just ask Forest or Midnight. You think you threw a shindig on the Lotus? Wait until you see what a chakat party is like!”

Starry and Wandering glanced at each other and nodded. “Okay, you’re on,” Starry replied. “Besides, we’ve heard so much about your herd over the past few days, we’re curious to meet them in person.”

“Ha! Goldfur is going to get a laugh over calling the clan a herd. I’ll make sure shi gets plenty of warning. Hmmm… I’d better make sure that shi’s not on assignment at this time, although if my memory serves me correctly, shi’s not due to go out into the field again for another ten days or so.”

“It must be hard getting all the family together with so many of you in space-related jobs,” Wandering said.

“True. It’s rare that all of us are together at one time. I think that’s only happened once since we moved from Earth to Chakona.”

“Somehow I think we’ll be seeing a major portion of them anyway,” Starry said with a broad smile.

“Just wait until you get dogpiled by all the cubs!” Boyce replied with a matching smile.



Wandering and Starry made one last visit before they returned to the Cosmic Lotus. They went to the laboratory where the Swarm specimens were being kept. It was difficult to think of them as prisoners because their apparent animal-level of intelligence had not changed. Autopsies of the dead ones had not been conclusive, but their brains appeared to be inadequate to the task of being fully sapient beings, lending credence to the group-mind theory. Tests on the two living Swarm were being carried out to try to validate that idea, but with just two subjects, it was not proving to be an easy task.

One of the crew was a low-level telepath – a concept that the ponies found fascinating – but as suspected, he was not able to determine much. He could tell that there was some mind chatter but, because telepathy cannot translate, it was meaningless noise. The bulk of testing was going to have to be done by experts who were being gathered specifically for the task. Neither alicorn was able to offer any further help, and so they departed.

As the Pegasus pulled up next to the Cosmic Lotus, both Starry and Wandering were a little sad to end their side adventure but glad to be ‘home’. They both changed back into their Cosmic Lotus uniforms before returning to the ship after thanking Boyce and the others for the opportunity to see and learn so much. However, it was only a brief parting of ways because Wandering intended to have the scientists wind up their current activities in order for the ship to proceed to Chakona.

“Welcome back, Captain,” Bluequill said gravely.

“Thank you, Commander,” Wandering replied. “According to the reports that you sent me, the astronomers have been having the time of their lives.”

The griffon allowed a small smile to show. “You could say that.”

“Well, I hate to disappoint them, but they will need to wrap up their current observations and prepare for a move to Chakona. They can observe that planet if they like, but more importantly, other specialists in the crew will get their chance to pursue their interests. Besides, we’ve been invited to meet with the Chakonan government at the request of the Federation.”

“I will get preparations underway. May I ask if shore leave will be available when we get there?”

“Yes – probably for the ceremonies, but definitely afterwards. Starry and I plus a select few others will be visiting Boyce’s family the day before while all the details are being sorted out. Aside from some personal stuff, we will be keeping an eye open for any possible problems that will need to be avoided at the ceremony. We have to make a good first impression.”

“That would seem wise, sir. If you will pardon me, I will get started. I believe some of the crew will need strong incentive to put their work on hold.”

“Go ahead, Commander,” Wandering replied with a knowing smile. He clearly recalled how enthusiastic they had been when the Cosmic Lotus had been towed into Harpagornis’ orbit.

Surprisingly, it only took a couple of hours before all experiments and observations were concluded and the entire crew reported readiness. Wandering contacted the Pegasus and, a minute later, they were in tow once more. While the bridge was fully staffed, they actually had nothing to do until they reached Chakona with the exception of Wandering who was maintaining the mass-reduction spell. While the Pegasus was capable of towing the Equian ship without help, the cooperative effort between them enabled a much easier and quicker transition between the planets, and it was not long before they reached Chakona. At Techbird’s request, the Cosmic Lotus was inserted into a high polar orbit that would allow the astronomers to observe the entire planet. They were met by a small Chakona Defence Force ship purely as a courtesy, and it was accompanied by a specialist spaceship repair tender.

Arrangements had been made to make repairs and modifications to the Cosmic Lotus while in orbit around Chakona, and while they could not replace the solar sails, everything else that could be done was on the list. They would even be supplied with fuel for the maneuvering rockets once an adaptor could be devised. Wandering was impressed with the efficiency of the CDF crew. The Lotus had hardly finished settling into orbit before the first repair team had emerged from the tender and headed for the starship. Wandering noticed that they were all taurform though, and he expressed his curiosity to the Federation liaison who had accompanied the Equian crew.

Lieutenant Karnok grinned. “Looks like you got the top team working for you. Those are starwalkers, a type of foxtaur bred especially to live and work in space.”

“What makes them so special?”

“Well, aside from a superior spatial awareness and unbeatable ability to maneuver in freefall, they can actually survive unprotected in space for a useful amount of time.”

“What?! No force-field even?”

“Nope. Everything about their bodies is adapted to resist vacuum, radiation, and the need for air. In the event of an emergency, they can work without their spacesuits. If they push themselves into a dormant state, they can even survive for several hours.”

“And you say that our magic is impressive. Even an alicorn would quickly be killed under those conditions without a magic life-support bubble.”

“I suppose that if you have to do without magic, you learn other ways of getting around problems.”

Wandering had to agree with that assessment. He wondered what new amazing things he would learn on Chakona.

After all the crew had gotten a good look at the new planet and had settled into their assigned tasks, Wandering contacted Pegasus to say that he was ready and then left Bluequill in charge once more. He then met up with the rest of the party that would be going with Boyce down to his family home. Waiting for him were Starry, Eon, Skye, and Moonlit Path – the entire Path family aboard the Cosmic Lotus. Also present was Ixia whom Eon had requested to come along with him. Not only was Wandering loathe to interfere with their growing relationship, but he also felt it was a good idea to have a changeling along to represent her species to Boyce’s family. As Wandering was the last one there, he immediately teleported everyone to the shuttle bay of the Pegasus where they had arranged to meet up with the Admiral.

Boyce was waiting for them and he greeted the newcomers with a smile. “Welcome aboard the Pegasus to all who haven’t been here before. I’m afraid that you’ll have to get a tour at some later time though because we are expected down planet-side. I’ve already shuttled down Forest, Roseclaw, M’Lai, and Midnight, so if you care to board my personal skiff, we will get underway immediately and join them.” He indicated a small but warp-capable craft, and they all trouped aboard.

While the skiff did not have pony-style couches, it did have some taur-style ones that worked nearly as well, and Eon was comfortable enough in a biped chair. Ixia got around the problem by transforming into foxmorph form and buckling in as normal.

“Next stop – Marpletown!” Boyce announced after he got clearance from the Pegasus to depart. He skillfully maneuvered the skiff out of the bay and set it on course to their destination. “By the way, are you fond of practical jokes?”

“What did you have in mind?” Starry asked.

“Well, Goldfur and the rest of the family have been told to expect guests and that they would be from a newly-contacted civilisation. However, specifics about you Equians haven’t been released to the general public as yet, and won’t be until the ceremony scheduled for tomorrow. They don’t know that you are ponies, and so forth. Now, as Wandering and Eon learned from Forest at our First Contact meeting, you ponies are remarkably cute by our standards.”

Starry grinned. “I think I see where you’re going with this. If we take off our uniforms, you think we’ll be mistaken for cute pets or something?”

Boyce nodded. “I was thinking that Eon might make a good front for you all as a dragon isn’t cute by any standard.”

“You better believe it!” the dracopony said emphatically, but he grinned at the thought of pretending that Starry and Wandering were his ‘pets’.

“I can transform into a dragon too,” Ixia suggested. “That way you have a pair of explorers with their equine pets meeting your family.”

Wandering looked around at his family and saw the smiles of amusement on all their faces. “I think you have an agreement, Boyce. We all like a harmless practical joke.”

“Great! We’ll be there soon, so practice keeping your emotions in check. Remember that chakats are empathic, so if you want to fool Goldfur or any other chakat, you have to play it cool.”

“Won’t Forest or the others have given us away though?” Starry asked.

“I thought of that earlier and asked them to keep everything about you a secret. It’s supposed to be a surprise,” Boyce assured her.

As they closed in on their destination, Boyce angled the craft for a favourable view and gave a running commentary, pointing out the features of the world. “We are now over Flinders Continent. near the northwest end of the continent, you may be able to make out Amistad, the capital city of Chakona and the landing site of the first colonists. Southeast of that you can see an enormous lake named Silvergleam. It not only supplies water to much of the continent but is also a major source of hydroelectric power.”

“How did such a huge lake form?” Skye asked.

“It’s the legacy of a super-volcano that blew its top ages ago. The caldera that remained eventually filled with rainwater, and because there’s only one outlet for it at Silvergleam Falls, we have a virtually inexhaustible supply of fresh water.”

Eon had become alert at the mention of a volcano. “Is the continent still geologically active?” he asked eagerly.

“As a matter of fact, yes. Chakona is a relatively young world and there is certainly a lot of geothermal activity around the world.”

“Any active lava pits?”

“I believe so, yes. Ask Forest about them later; shi’s more familiar with that kind of thing. Why the interest?”

“It’s similar to the Dragon Lands. I’m a little homesick for them.”

“Fair enough. Anyway, to the south of that about halfway down the continent lies Marpletown. It’s a quiet little township that serves the timber industry in the region.”

“It seems to be a long way from the capital or another major city,” Moonlit commented.

“Yes, but it suits us. I have no difficulty getting to my ship or anywhere on the planet with this skiff, and then there’s always the Transporter beam option in an emergency. The family enjoys the relative isolation, and it has enabled us to have a clan-sized home to live in. Marpletown is linked to the high-speed train system, so travelling anywhere on the continent is only a matter of a few hours at most.”

“Sounds very nice,” Skye said. “I hope we’ll get the opportunity to do a little bit of exploring while we’re visiting. I’m quite interested in learning about the local flora.”

“Aside from the formal ceremonies tomorrow, there will be plenty of time to do that,” Boyce assured them.

“It’s what we came to do in the first place,” Wandering said. “Explore, discover, and learn! You’ll have plenty of opportunities to pursue that, Skye.”

“Thanks, Dad.”

“I still find it interesting that a pony has an adopted zebra daughter,” Boyce commented.

“One of these days I might tell you the entire story behind that,” Wandering replied.

“I’ll look forward to it. Meanwhile, we are getting close to our destination and I need to concentrate more on flying the skiff.”

Conversation lapsed as the small craft was piloted skilfully to its destination, and eventually landed with scarcely a noticeable bump. Trees could be seen through the windows, and part of a building, but little else from what appeared to be a landing pad set aside for the skiff and similar vessels.

“All ashore those are going ashore!” Boyce cheerfully announced as he unbuckled himself.

Everyone got out of their seats and couches, and the ponies and zebra started taking off their ship uniforms. Boyce showed them where they could stow them until they were needed again. Ixia had not needed to take hers off before she had shape-shifted due to the adaptation enchantments on it, and when she transformed into a dragoness, it once again changed to suit her new body configuration. Boyce opened the airlock door when everyone was ready, and they started to disembark.

Outside the craft, waiting for Boyce and his passengers were quite an assortment of beings. Foremost among them was a cougar-patterned chakat and a red foxtaur accompanied by some other chakats and foxtaurs, several fox morphs, plus a few other assorted morphs. They greeted Boyce enthusiastically before turning their attention to the dragons that had followed him.

“I’d like to introduce you to Eon and Ixia of the Equian starship, Cosmic Lotus,” Boyce announced loudly. “Please give them a warm family welcome.”

The family members crowded around to give a personal welcome to the pair before noticing the two ponies who had just then come shyly into the doorway. The cubs in the crowd were the first to react.

“Omigosh! Look at them!” one foxtaur cub cried out, drawing attention to Starry and Wandering.

“They look adorable! Especially with those wings and horns,” Goldfur said.

“They are Eon and Ixia’s travelling companions,” Boyce explained with a straight face.

Goldfur gave him a look, sensing there was something he was not telling them. Then she turned to the dragons and asked, “Is it okay to let the cubs interact with them?”

“Oh, yes – they’re quite harmless,” Eon replied with a small smirk.

Wandering shot the dragon a sharp look at that crack but otherwise kept in character.

As the two alicorns timidly stepped down onto the landing pad, the children were given permission to approach the ponies, and soon several were petting him and Starry in a not unpleasant manner.

“Look – there’s more!” one cub shouted.

Moonlit and Skye stepped out to join them, and it was obvious that the unicorn was struggling to hold down her amusement. With the crowd of delighted children about them though, even the empaths had difficulty sensing from whom it was coming. Goldfur stepped up to scratch behind Wandering’s ears, and he nickered in pleasure.

“You like that, do you?” the cougar chakat asked with a smile. “Want some more?” shi asked.

“Yes, please,” he said, leaning into the hand.

Goldfur froze and gaped.

“Aw! You stopped,” the alicorn stallion complained.

Goldfur’s eyes shifted to the Admiral. “Boyce – what’s going on?”

Boyce’s face split into a grin. “Let me introduce you to Wandering Path, Captain of the Cosmic Lotus, and his mate, Starry Path. The other two are Moonlit Path and Skye Path. Eon is only the Security Chief of their ship.”

Goldfur turned a slightly horrified look at Wandering. “Oh my god! I’ve been treating the head of an expedition from a new civilisation like a pet!”

Wandering smiled reassuringly. “Don’t panic. It’s a practical joke arranged by Boyce. We were all in on it.”

Goldfur gave Boyce a sour look. “Just you wait, mister! I’ll get even with you for this.”

Boyce just shrugged. “Your sister thought it was a funny idea too. Go give hir a hard time for not warning you.”

Goldfur just sighed and turned back to the amused ponies. “My apologies, Captain. When I saw wings on a cute pony, I naturally thought that you were the result of genetic manipulation.”

“Because I couldn’t possibly be able to fly, right?” Wandering replied.

“Exactly. Earth produced a lot of odd creatures for the amusement of the rich and decadent in the bad old days. So how come you have wings anyway?”

“Boyce knows the answer to that.”

Goldfur looked back to the human. “And that is…?”

“To fly, of course,” he replied innocently.

The chakat gave him a flat look. “Very funny. Joke’s over, Boyce.”

Starry said, “Y’know, this is the first time in over ten years when we can really stretch our wings. Shall we, Wander?”

Wandering nodded, and they both spread their wings and took off into the sky. Goldfur was not the only person left gaping at the impossible sight of two equines cavorting in the sky, unhampered by walls at last.

“Boyce,” Goldfur said quietly without taking hir eyes of the two.

“Yes, Goldie,” Boyce replied, similarly entranced despite knowing how it was possible.

“If this is a trick, you win.”

“No trick – just magic.”

“I believe you.”

The rest of the family were similarly engrossed in watching the alicorns enjoy their flight, but the cubs were extra excited.

“Hey, mom! If I got wings like them, could I fly too?” one asked.

Goldfur honestly had no answer for that one.



The demonstration of magical flight left open the minds of the rest of the family to the concept of real magic, and a few practical demonstrations had convinced them that it was not all a great hoax. With dinner almost ready, they all retired to the house to ready themselves for the meal. Reassured that clothing was optional there, the ponies and zebra chose to leave their uniforms in Boyce’s skiff. The guests were shown their rooms first and where they could freshen up, and the Equians got their first inkling of how big a chakat clan house was. Built to accommodate several families, it was still nowhere near capacity even with all the guests. Best yet, it had been constructed with an appreciation for nature, and their rooms were well lit with views of the surrounding forest. There was a huge central courtyard with gardens, lawn, and a pool in one corner. In the current warm weather, the courtyard doors were all open to allow the flow of fresh air into the house, and the scent of flowers and trees filled the atmosphere. The ponies and zebra approved heartily.

As the family gathered for the meal, they were all introduced to their guests. The Equians had already met Goldfur’s sister, Forestwalker, but they were introduced to another named Quickpaw. Goldfur’s lifemate, Garrek, a red foxtaur, introduced his co-mates, Malena and Thayla who were also red foxtaurs, plus Lorene, a four-breasted golden foxtaur. His triplet young adult sons by Malena were also there, but apparently, there were other grown-up sons and daughters who could not be present that day. There were a few much younger ones though, and Wandering soon lost track of their names. That was just the foxtaurs though. Then there were all the chakat children, both fully-grown and youngsters, and finally, there was a foxmorph trio – a male red fox named Kris, a female Arctic fox name Trina, and a herm fennec fox named Leanna, with their children, Opal, Mica, and Markus. Boyce was finally able to introduce his daughter, Kayla, and his son, Kernos, who was spending some time with his father’s side of the family rather than on Raksha. Even after adding in a few significant others, the house was still not too crowded.

“This so reminds me of home,” Starry said.

“Yeah – House Path’s banquet hall isn’t all that much bigger than this dining room,” agreed Wandering.

“Well, we don’t have staff, so everyone has to pitch in,” Forestwalker said as shi helped serve up some of the food. “All except guests, that is. By the way, we made extra non-meat options when preparing the meal, so feel free to have as much as you like.”

“Great, thanks!” Wandering replied.

Surprisingly, the guests got to eat without too many interruptions as the family politely allowed them to enjoy their repast with the single exception of one very young chakat who climbed onto Starry’s back and refused to move. The mare tolerated hir with amusement, and once dessert was finished, all restraint was lost, and they were bombarded with questions and requests for demonstrations of magic and pony-back rides. Ixia caused a sensation with her shape-changing ability too, and she was the first to retire for the evening, complaining of feeling a bit bloated with all the love and other positive feelings she had consumed in a few short hours.

Once the cubs had been put to bed, the adults continued chatting late into the evening before they started to call it a night by ones and twos, some of them needing to get up early for work in the morning. When Wandering and Starry finally headed for their guestroom, it was only because they knew they would have a full day ahead of them, and not because they were tired. In fact, the overwhelmingly friendly welcome that they had gotten had left them feeling energised, and in Starry’s case, not a little horny.

Wandering smirked at Starry’s overtures and said, “You do realise that all the chakats in this house can probably sense any hanky-panky going on in this room?”

Starry giggled as she nuzzled him. “In this house, I think that’s a feature of every night.”

The stallion had to concede the point and he put it out of his mind. He had a mate to satisfy.



The alicorns found Eon and Ixia already at the table when they came out for breakfast in the morning. The dragon was helping himself to a generous pile of bacon and eggs while the changeling settled for a mug of coffee. Various members of the family were also seated, and Leanna was serving up food. The fennec spotted Wandering and Starry approaching and gave them a smile.

“Good morning! I trust you slept well? I’m on kitchen duty this morning so let me know what you would like.”

“Yeah, we slept very well, thanks,” Starry replied. Noting what had already been served to the others, she added, “I’d like the fruit salad, and is that yoghurt?”

“Yep – plain vanilla. What about you, Wandering?”

“Cereal and scrambled eggs on toast, please. Oh – and some of that heavenly-smelling coffee too.”

Leanna grinned. “Another coffee fiend, eh? Take a seat and I’ll have your food out soon.”

The two ponies sat at the table and Ixia greeted them. Eon just waved a fork in acknowledgement while his mouth was still full of food. Boyce soon emerged from the kitchen carrying two mugs of steaming coffee and he placed one in front of the stallion.

“Good morning, Starry. Here’s your coffee, Wandering. I remember how you like it.”

Wandering smiled as he inhaled the aroma. “I suspected that it was you brewing this up. You make excellent coffee.”

“Thank you,” Boyce replied as he took a seat next to the ponies.

As Wandering took his first sip of the hot coffee, Starry asked, “Aren’t you having any food, Boyce?”

“I’ve had mine already. I was up early to get ready for today,” he replied as he pulled a small PADD from his pocket.

“When are we supposed to meet the Chakonan Prime Minister?”

“At 1100 C.U.T. That’s equivalent to about one o’clock by your reckoning.”

“So the morning is completely free?”

“Yes. Did you have anything in mind?”

“Not me – Eon,” she replied, pointing at the dracopony.

Eon looked up from his meal. “Really?” he asked hopefully.

Wandering said, “Starry and I have had a bit of a vacation already, so it’s time to let you two choose the fun.” He turned to Boyce. “Forestwalker confirmed that there’s an active lava field further south of here. Can we visit that this morning?”

“Certainly. As long as there’s somewhere that I can land my skiff, I can take you anywhere.”

“Let’s do that then. I’d be happy to do a little sightseeing before we have to get down to business.”

“What about the others?”

“We’ll ask Skye and Moonlit what they want to do when they turn up for breakfast.”

“Sounds like a plan. Looks like your food is here, so eat up and I’ll make preparations for our trip.”



Skye had elected to do a little exploration of the nearby woods with Forestwalker as her guide. Moonlit chose to go with her as she was not very interested in lava fields. Ixia naturally accompanied Eon, and Goldfur and Garrek both decided to come along too.

Once aloft, the skiff flew south at supersonic speeds at high altitude for a brief time before diving down, coming to a hover at a thousand metres. From there, the passengers could see a vast area dominated by steaming vents and bubbling mud pools.

“Over there!” Eon pointed excitedly at a small caldera.

Boyce maneuvered the skiff over to an area of bare rock that was reasonably level before setting down. He shut down the skiff’s systems before turning to his visitors with a serious expression on his face.

“I did a little reading up on this area, and while there’s no likelihood of any eruptions, there are geysers of boiling water to avoid, not to mention the mud pools that will kill you in seconds if you fall in. So please be careful out there. I don’t want to be the Star Fleet officer famous for getting the envoys from a new civilisation cooked while sightseeing.”

Everyone promised to be careful, while Eon just nodded happily.

They all exited the skiff, stepping out onto what once was flowing lava but now was barren basalt. Eon was allowed to choose the way as he had a definite goal in mind, and the others followed carefully. The air reeked of sulphur, and mist from small geysers occasionally drifted their way, but overall the walk was not too onerous. Then they started uphill as they reached the caldera.

“I think this is as close as we had better go,” Boyce said. “That is an active lava pit that occasionally will spit out gobs of molten rock.”

“Sounds perfect,” Eon declared as he spread his wings and took off towards the rim.

Boyce gaped in horror. “Stop! The heat will fry you even from the rim without protective suits!”

“Stop panicking, Boyce. Eon knows what he’s doing,” Wandering reassured him

Goldfur said, “Unless there are some major differences between our definitions of lava, no, he doesn’t!”

“Too late – he’s gone over the rim,” Boyce said.

Wandering looked at Starry. “I’ll carry Boyce and Ixia if you carry Goldfur and Garrek?”

Starry nodded and they both spread their wings and lifted into the air. Their horns lit up and glows surrounded their companions as they too levitated up off the ground.

“Wait! What are you doing?” Goldfur asked nervously as they started following in Eon’s path.

“Showing you why we’re not worried,” Starry replied with a grin.

“I can hear Eon groaning in pain!” Goldfur cried.

“I doubt it,” Wandering replied. “Don’t worry about the heat – our shields will block it.”

The alicorns and their passengers crested the rim and came to a hover. From there they could see the dragon half immersed in the red-hot lava, groaning in pleasure. He spotted them and grinned happily.

“It’s the first decent hot tub soak I’ve had in over a decade, and it’s so-o-o-o good!”

The alicorns returned his grin and laughed at the shocked expressions on the faces of their hosts.

Boyce sputtered, “But that’s… he can’t… OH, COME ON!”

“Dragons are immune to heat, Boyce,” Wandering said matter-of-factly.

The human glared at the alicorn. “Now you tell us.”

Goldfur suddenly started laughing. “They did tell me, actually, when I asked why the interest in the lava-fields. While I found it hard to believe, I saw an opportunity to get you back for your practical joke yesterday, so I asked them not to tell you and played along with the gag.”

Boyce grimaced in chagrin. “You got me good, Goldie. I should have known better.” He looked back to Wandering. “Let this be a warning to you Equians – my family is a pack of incorrigible pranksters, and the longer you stay with us, the more likely you’ll be a victim.”

Wandering chuckled. “Let me tell you about our herd-brother, Flix...”

 


 

Odd Introductions

 

Wandering and Starry regaled Boyce and the chakats with stories of their herd-brother, Flix, while Eon continued to enjoy his lava spa. They wandered around the area, watching the bubbling pools and occasional steaming plumes from geysers. The alicorns maintained passive shields to protect them all from any potential hazards, but they were not needed until they returned to the lava pit. Eon grumbled a bit about having to leave what was considered a luxurious bath for dragons, but he was mollified a little when Starry promised to teleport him back there for another soak at a later date. Now that she had a fix on the area, it was well within her range.

As the dracopony climbed out of the pit, some lava clung to his form and started to cool and harden. Eon absorbed the heat of the molten rock so that it cooled much more quickly than it otherwise would have, and then he tilted his muzzle to the sky and let out an enormous belch of flame that lasted several seconds. He finished with a sigh, then crouched down, drawing in on himself before rearing up with widespread wings and flexing his mighty muscles. All the lava that had hardened on him abruptly shattered and flew off his coat, leaving it fresh and clean. The non-Equians could only marvel at how this actually worked.

“Ah! Refreshed inside and out!” Eon said with satisfaction. “I’ve worked up an appetite though. Who else is hungry?”

“We’re due back home soon so that we can get ready for the Prime Minister’s reception,” Boyce replied. “You can get a snack, but I suggest you leave room for the banquet that they have planned for you after the ceremony.”

“Sounds good to me. Will they serve up some fresh gems at the feast?”

Boyce blinked in confusion. “Gems? I don’t follow.”

Wandering enlightened the human. “Dragons eat gemstones. Not only do they find them tasty, but they’re also a necessary part of their diet.”

“Y’know – I’m getting a little tired of being boggled,” Boyce said with an air of resignation.

Garrek asked, “How can you afford a diet like that? Gemstones are rare and expensive.”

“Not on Equus,” Starry assured the foxtaur. “At least, not the common, imperfect ones. Dragons can get by for a long time on just quartz if necessary.”

Eon stuck his tongue out in distaste. “Sure, and you ponies can get by on eating swamp grass too, but neither of us is going to do that.”

Everyone chuckled at that, and Starry said, “Don’t fret, Eon – Destined brought a fresh supply for you to season your meals. I’ll fetch it from the Lotus before we leave.”

“Thanks, Star,” Eon said with a grin.

“You have no problem teleporting up to your ship in orbit?” Goldfur asked curiously.

Starry shook her head. “There’s a mana beacon that we can home in on. That’s how our herd-brother, Destined, can find us from thousands of light-years away.”

“You haven’t met hir yet, but we have a teleporter in the family by the name of Chakat Swiftwalk. Shi works for the Star Corps like I do, and has ’ported a few hundred light-years at most, but that’s only because shi hasn’t found hir limit yet if there is one. Shi can’t teleport to a moving ship either without some sort of fix. I’m wondering if shi and you ponies employ the same technique to teleport, and if shi can use your mana-beacons to get a fix.”

“Something else for us to discover someday,” Wandering said. “But speaking of which, does anyone want to teleport back to the house?”

“I’ll take that offer,” Eon replied.

“I’ll go back with Eon,” Ixia said.

“Garrek and I could use the extra time to help get the cubs ready for the event, and it will be interesting to compare the experience to Swiftwalk’s,” Goldfur pointed out.

Wandering gave Starry a querying look. “Do you want to go or shall I?”

“You can travel back with Boyce. I know that you enjoy seeing the scenery more than I do. My preferred views are astronomical.”

“Okay, I’ll see you back at the house then.”

Starry gathered her passengers around, and with a flash of her magic, they were gone.

Wandering looked at Boyce. “Can we take a different route back?”

The human grinned. “Let’s go ahead and do that.”



The alicorn and human chatted some more while they took the scenic route home, but the subject had returned to Wandering’s herd-brother once more by the time they arrived. When Starry encountered them entering the house, she raised an eyebrow and shook her head.

“Are you still talking about Flix? I think you’re tempting fate by talking about him so much.”

“Why do you say that, Starry?” Boyce asked curiously.

“He’s the star pupil of Discord, the Lord of Chaos. If he could turn up at exactly the wrong time, it would cause maximum chaos, and thus suit him perfectly.”

Boyce chuckled. “So you think he’s kind of like Beetlejuice? Say his name three times and he’ll appear?”

Wandering laughed. “Flix isn’t quite that bad. Just saying ‘Flix’ three times won’t do anything.”

Starry glared at her mate. “Wander – stop it.”

The stallion gave her a mischievous grin, and then very deliberately said, “Flix!”

A bright flash of light filled the room, and when it cleared, a large, cast-iron bathtub on legs occupied the middle of the floor, overflowing with bubbles. The top half of the aforementioned chimera had some suds on his head, dripping onto his shoulders as he glared at the trio. He waved a back-scrubber at them accusingly.

“Don’t you know it’s inconsiderate to interrupt a guy’s bath time?!”

Wandering was chagrined. He should have known better.

Starry face-hoofed. “Boyce – meet my elder brother, Flix.”

As the human was about to reply though, a snorkel suddenly rose from the suds on the other side from Flix, followed quickly by its wearer, a rather startled orange changeling.

“What about you?” Flix asked his confused bath-mate. “Don’t you think it’s rude, interrupting our buggy-bath?”

“Oh – and his special somepony, Orlonda,” Starry added with a roll of her eyes.

Flix’s sour expression abruptly changed back to his normal impish grin. “Not just a special somepony anymore, Star. Meet your new sister-in-law!” he announced, giving Orlonda a hug.

“Sister-in-law?! You finally did it?” Starry asked incredulously.

“Eh! Celestia finally got one up on me, and Orlonda proposed as a result. The Princess married us yesterday. We’re on our honeymoon.”

“Should I ask what she was doing with that snorkel?” Boyce quietly asked in a bemused tone.

“Nope. Don’t make the situation crazier than it already is,” Wandering advised.

Flix snapped his talons and the bathtub disappeared in a flash of magic, leaving both chimera and changeling completely dry.

“Well, at least I don’t have to figure out how to get a tub out of the room,” Goldfur said from the doorway where shi had been observing the meeting along with several others attracted to the commotion.

Starry had stepped up to give Orlonda a congratulatory hug and Flix a kiss on the cheek. “Let me introduce to you Chakat Goldfur, our host and head of the family.”

As the chakat came forward to exchange handshakes with them, shi said, “Nominal head, actually. Everyone else decided that I was it by default.”

“Sorry to hear that,” Flix said. “That means you have to be the no-fun party-pooper.”

Goldfur smirked. “Occasionally, yes. I like to think that I’m not a complete stick-in-the-mud.”

Flix raised his draconic arm, two talons ready to click. “Perhaps you need a bit of a change?”

Starry dived onto Flix’s arm, dragging it down. “Flix! No! We don’t have time for your shenanigans right now. We all have to go to an official function, and we need to make a good impression. Besides, aren’t you supposed to be on your honeymoon?”

The chimera looked over to Orlonda and nodded. “How does a tour of Chakona sound like, hon?”

“Sounds fun,” she replied.

“Umm, you’re going to stand out like a sore thumb… or hoof… whatever,” Goldfur pointed out.

Orlonda’s magic fire burned, and moments later she was now a female cat morph – a nude one. Flix freed his arm and snapped his talons, and was replaced with an equally nude male cat morph. He hooked his arm with Orlonda’s and gave the watchers a cheery wave.

“Catch ya later!”

With a wave of his paw, the pair seemed to turn sideways to all three dimensions and slipped out of view.

“How did they know how to imitate cat morphs?” Boyce asked.

“Those were Abyssinians, actually – an Equian species,” Wandering informed him. “I’m more concerned about them going out in public naked. Abyssinians normally wear clothes.”

“On this world, clothing is optional, although most tend to wear clothes anyway, even if just for fashion. But it still doesn’t explain how they knew that Abyssinians resemble a species found on Chakona.”

“Probably because Flix was doing his usual job of messing with our heads,” Starry replied. “You don’t think they were really in the tub when Wandering summoned Flix, do you?”

“You have a point,” Boyce admitted. “Take nothing for granted with him, right?”

“Right. And be prepared to roll with it when he inevitably does something to you.”

“As long as he doesn’t mess with the ceremony today, I’ll live with it.”

Starry silently prayed that Flix had not heard that.



The Equians all boarded Boyce’s skiff for the flight to Amistad. The Admiral was back in uniform as this was to be a formal event, and his passengers had followed suit. The journey to Chakona’s capital city was swift and brief, but Boyce slowed down upon approaching its boundaries so that the Equians could get a good look at the sprawling metropolis from a great height.

Amistad had grown up around a bay but did not resemble any normal Equian city. It was a fusion of high technology and natural beauty so that it was often hard to tell where structures began and forest left off. Boyce did his best to play tour guide, pointing out how trees and shrubs were integrated with the buildings to eliminate heat island problems and provide both aesthetic and practical benefits. Even the tallest of structures had rooftop gardens, and all the roads were-tree-lined. There were not any skyscrapers though, which surprised the visitors.

“There’s a rigid height limit to all structures on Chakona,” Boyce explained when queried. “Where greater density is absolutely required, you will find that there are significant underground facilities. On the whole, though, the Chakonan charter mandates environmental considerations for everything, and gigantic buildings simply aren’t conducive to that kind of thing. This world was settled and developed with a very specific philosophy in mind, and you find similar designs around the planet.”

The human pointed out the various major sights of the city before he turned east and flew over the mountain ridge that bordered the sprawling metropolis on that side. A large open area was crisscrossed by roads linking pads of various sizes and shapes, some of which were occupied by vessels that the Equians realised must be spacecraft.

“As I am not permitted to land in Amistad itself except in an emergency, we’ll be landing at the spaceport,” Boyce told them as he lost altitude. “This area is in the rain-shadow of the mountains and was mostly open plains which made it easy to develop into the combination airport and spaceport for Amistad. Pardon me for a moment while I talk to Air Traffic Control.”

While the approach to the spaceport was largely coordinated by computer-controlled systems, there were still some obligations that the pilots had to deal with personally. With those out of the way, Boyce navigated his skiff to a landing pad suited to his type of vessel. Very quickly, they were on the ground and ready to disembark.

As the door to the skiff opened, Starry said, “I may be wrong, but this seems an awfully long way from the city itself. How are we to get there quickly? If I understand the local time correctly, we don’t have much of an opportunity to get there and prepare ourselves for the official greeting. Are we supposed to teleport there?”

Boyce grinned and replied, “While it’s true that we’re quite a distance from the city, that’s not a problem. Once we’re in the spaceport, you’ll see.”

The group was met at the base of the pad by a fully automated electric people-mover. Boyce encouraged everyone to board and then touched a button on the control pad. The doors closed and the vehicle took off. With computer-controlled speed and precision, they wove quickly and safely between the landing pads and headed for the huge structure that was the spaceport. The Equians got to admire the various craft as they passed by them, noting that this section was devoted to small spacecraft like Boyce’s skiff, while further away they could see what were obviously aircraft either parked or taxiing through the airfield. As they watched though, a deep rumbling noise drew their attention to the far side of the complex where a large space freighter was coming down for a landing.

The people-mover drew into the building complex and its passengers got out. It was a parking bay for several of those vehicles, and as such was quite busy. The Equians drew a lot of stares of curiosity from the various people there. In spite of the diversity of species that this planet was home to, nothing like the ponies, dragon, and changeling had ever been seen before. They just smiled and waved as Boyce herded them in the direction of his goal. First, they had to pass through Security though, and the Admiral had to show the special permit for his guests to allow them to proceed further. With his rank, this was accomplished very swiftly, and the group proceeded to the next section which turned out to be a transportation hub. Boyce handed out smart-cards to each in the group which they put into their packs. They then passed into the station without even having to pause as the systems identified that they had a valid travel card and opened the gate for them.

“We’re in luck,” Boyce said as he looked up at an information sign. “The train that is scheduled to go into Amistad is right on time.” He pointed to a platform. “We will wait there for it.”

They trouped over to the platform and Wandering looked around curiously. “There are rails next to the other platform, but none here. Why is that?”

“Maglev,” the Admiral explained. “The ultra-high speed train network passes through the spaceport, and that will take us into the city in minutes.”

“What’s maglev?”

“Magnetic levitation. You don’t have that kind of train on Equus?”

“No, only conventional high-speed rail. This will be fascinating to see.”

Wandering did not have to wait too long before the train arrived, easing into the station with a quiet hum. It was sleek and beautiful, and the Equians eagerly boarded it after the doors opened and several passengers got off.

Next stop – Amistad Central Station,” came a voice over the public address system.

The doors closed and the train accelerated smoothly and swiftly out of the station. The motion was so free from jerks and noise that they hardly noticed the movement, but soon the landscape was hurtling past them. Then they abruptly plunged into a tunnel and all that could be seen outside was the flickering of the passing lamps that illuminated the shaft.

“We’re now travelling through the Mount Catspaw tunnel, right through the whole mountain range. No need to go around or over it, so it’s a very fast direct connection to the spaceport,” Boyce explained.

Sooner than they expected, the maglev train was out of the tunnel and hurtling through the outer suburbs on its elevated track. The Equians watched as first residential areas interspersed with parkland passed by, and then the first offices and commercial areas flashed by. Mere minutes passed before the train started to decelerate as they entered what obviously had to be the central city area. The maglev pulled into Amistad Central Station with all of the Equians wishing that the journey had taken a bit longer so that they could have experienced more.

“This is where we get off,” Boyce advised. As they followed him onto the platform, he pointed out various features of the facility. “Over on the next platforms are the regular trains that service the city and suburbs. There are also tram platforms for the local services, along with connecting bus services. If you want to go anywhere in Amistad or Flinders Continent, this is your starting point.”

“So, which one do we take?” Ixia asked.

“None of them,” Boyce answered with a smile. The station is directly adjacent to the Government Centre, and unless you’re feeling lazy and wish to take a ride there, I suggest that we walk and you can play tourist.”

Wandering was surprised. “Won’t the Prime Minister be expecting something more formal than the five of us just strolling up to the Capitol Building?”

“Chakonans, and especially chakats, are a pretty easy-going people. As this is a welcoming ceremony and not a high-level diplomatic mission, we figured you would prefer this low-key arrival. Ironically, it’s faster than being picked up by a limousine at the spaceport.”

“Works for me,” Eon said. “I can do my job without clashing with the local security people.”

Boyce nodded. “I noticed that you’ve been quietly observing things since we landed.”

“Yeah. Not that I expect anything hostile, but you never can tell what the public will do, especially with something unusual like us.”

“I heard that you turned down a request for a bout with Lieutenant Baneth.”

The dracopony nodded. “The Lieutenant was too keen to prove herself to me. Someone would have gotten hurt, and that would not have been me. Wandering may have restrained himself, but I’m slated to succeed Warmaster Blue Streak, and I don’t take it easy on anyone who challenges me. If she had asked to train with me, that would have been a different matter, but she wanted a formal fight.”

“You’re that confident that you could beat her?” Boyce asked with an arch of an eyebrow.

“Baneth is strong, skilled, and smart, but she’s still outclassed. House Path trains the finest warriors on Equus, and the Warmaster is another level above the best of them. I struggle to lay a claw on Blue Streak during our training bouts, and most of the time I only can do so when he wants me to so that I can practice other moves.”

“Thank you for not harming my Bravo Team leader,” the Admiral said gratefully. “I hope you give the same consideration to the citizens here that may inadvertently cause your group problems?”

Eon gave him a toothy grin. “Just part of the job, Boyce.”

The human decided to leave it at that. By this time he had led them out of the station and onto a concourse that led them in the direction of several impressive buildings that were slightly uphill from them. To the sides were two creeks which bordered the paved area and stands of trees on the other side. Further along, Boyce pointed out the Department of the Environment building on the right and the Department of the Interior on the left. Then they came upon two large statues of humans – a man and a woman. At the base of each was a name – Ka'Turna and Cha'Turna.

Wandering stopped to look at the statues more closely, then turned to Boyce and asked, “Why do two humans have such significant statues? I look around me and I see over half the people here are chakats, and the other half mostly morph species. There are very few humans at all.”

“That’s because these two humans are of particular significance to the chakat race. Charles and Katherine Turner were the genetic scientists who perfected the taur form, and chakats in particular. The whole race and its variants owe their existence to these two. The two moons of this planet were named after them.”

“I can see why chakats would revere them.”

“It’s also a good reminder that despite their differences in physiology, every Terran species is a child of humanity in some way. While no world is perfect, the chakats have worked hard to make this the most diverse and inclusive society to be found in the entire Federation. That’s one reason why you will fit in so easily among them, and why Chakona is so grateful to you for giving them hope that their world will survive the threat of the Swarm.”

“That’s kind of a huge responsibility, Boyce. We’re not omnipotent, despite our magic.”

“No one expects more than you can give, Wandering, but what you have done already far exceeds what we have been able to accomplish for the past couple of decades. Hope is a powerful thing.”

“Then let’s hope that we can do more,” Wandering said as he resumed walking.

They approached the Capitol Building which was flanked by the Superior Court and an administration building. Mounting the steps, they crossed the forecourt and into the airy foyer. Boyce approached a reception desk with the group in tow, and a chakat seated there observed the group with an expert eye.

“Admiral Kline and the envoys from Equus, I presume,” shi queried as they arrived at hir desk.

“That is correct,” Boyce replied.

“One moment, please. The Prime Minister is expecting you.” Shi touched a button on the comm in front of hir and said, “The delegation has arrived, Shir.”

Excellent. I will be out momentarily,” came the voice from the comm.

The receptionist held out a hand to indicate a lounge area. Please wait over there. The Prime Minister will be with you very shortly.

“Thank you,” Wandering said.

The receptionist broke hir cool professional demeanour to give him a genuine smile. “And may I say welcome to Chakona. I hope I get to see more of you in the coming days.”

“Just wait until my crew comes down for some R&R!” the stallion replied with a grin.

As promised, the Prime Minister did not keep them long. Flanked by a male fox morph and a skunktaur in female mode, the pale yellow chakat with dappled spots on hir arms and back approached the group with a huge welcoming smile.

“Hello, I am Chakat Sunflare, Prime Minister of Chakona, and I am enormously pleased to meet you. You must be Captain Wandering Path.” Shi held out a hand to the stallion, having evidently been informed as to who led the group. The alicorn put his hoof in hir hand and they shook firmly.

“A pleasure to meet you, Shir Sunflare,” Wandering replied with the correct honorific. “Let me introduce my companions.” He named the others and gave Sunflare a brief idea of their roles on the ship.

“Excellent! This is Zuni, my personal aide,” Sunflare said as shi indicated the skunktaur, “And this is Andre Wyld, who is coordinating the reception for you and your crew. If you would like to accompany me to my office, we can discuss that some more.”

The group followed Sunblaze deeper into the building until they reached hir office flanked by two security guards. They nodded at hir and the others as they entered the spacious room. The chakat took hir place behind the large desk as shi invited everyone to be seated. Couches suited to the taurform were equally comfortable for all of the Lotus crew, while Boyce took a conventional chair.

Sunblaze smiled warmly. “First, before the official ceremony, let me welcome you to our world. I hear that you have travelled here the hard way.”

Wandering grinned and replied, “Well, I would not say hard, but it certainly was the long way. After experiencing FTL drive on the Admiral’s ship, I can definitely say that I prefer the shorter travel time.”

The chakat chuckled. “I have no doubt about that. Nevertheless, what you lack in warp drive, you more than compensate with your other capabilities, although even now I have a difficult time accepting that magic is a real thing. Still, if it saves our world from the Swarm, I will be a ready convert.”

“It’s still early times yet, Shir Sunblaze,” Wandering replied seriously. “We have only just started to learn about your enemy, and magic is not omnipotent.”

“I am a realist, Captain – I am aware that there is still a lot more to discover, but with your aid, I believe that Chakona, and indeed the Federation, have hope at last. Crowds are already starting to make their way to the concourse for the official welcoming ceremony because they want to see for themselves the people who may be our home’s salvation. I hope that you’re prepared to meet them all.”

Starry laughed. “I hope they are prepared to meet us! Aside from we four, the crew has not breathed the air of a planet in over a decade. I know that many are just itching to get shore leave after so long.”

The chakat chuckled. “Believe me, I know how important it is to have a holiday. Zuni has made arrangements to supply all of your crew with documents in order for them to enjoy our hospitality while on Chakona. We’ll leave that until after the ceremony and banquet though. Andre will be more than happy to make tourist arrangements for your crew after that.”

“That’s very good of you, and I’m sure that my crew will be very grateful. In the meantime though, what arrangements have been made?” Wandering asked.

“You came here via the concourse rather than PTV?”

Wandering looked at Boyce questioningly.

“A PTV is a Personal Transport Vehicle – a ground car,” Boyce clarified.

Wandering nodded in understanding. “We walked from the station.”

“Then you are familiar with the steps out the front and the wide paved area at the top of them. That will be the stage for you and your crew from which you will be able to see the people and address them. How do you plan to bring them all down? Do you require a special permit for a shuttle?”

Wandering shook his head. “Starry and I can teleport everyone down. Just tell me when to have them there and we will go back to the Cosmic Lotus and bring them down.”

“The ceremony has been scheduled to start at 1100 C.U.T., so if you can have everyone there five minutes beforehand, that would be ideal.”

“We can do that. What happens next?”

“After some speeches, we will all come back inside and go to the functions room. A feast has been prepared for you all, and I assure you that we got a list of your various diets from Doctor Saarath, so everything should be suitable for your consumption. There will be various dignitaries and important people there to dine with you, not to mention some very eager scientists who are more than a little interested in meeting with new species. Don’t feel that you are under obligation to do anything for them though because this will be purely a social event. What you choose to do afterwards is up to you, however.”

“And after the banquet?”

“Accommodation has been arranged at a fine hotel for all of you. Actually, we booked its entire facilities for you to use all at our expense for the duration of your stay on Chakona. I believe you will be leaving in about two weeks to meet with the Federation Council?”

“Yes. As ambassadors for Equus, we will need to be present when our world leaders address the Council.”

“I hope you will enjoy our hospitality until then, and I trust that your crew will not abuse that hospitality,” Sunflare said with a firm smile.

Wandering understood the gentle warning and smiled reassuringly. “I will make a point of asking them to show consideration for their hosts, but they are a good crew, and I believe you will not have any problems with them.”

Starry privately thought that if there were going to be any problems, it was not going to be any of the Lotus’s crew, but a certain older brother of hers. Faust only knew what he was up to right at this moment.



Starry and Wandering materialised on the bridge of the Cosmic Lotus. Unsurprisingly, they found Commander Bluequill on duty there, although all by himself. The monitor screen showed a skeletal structure surrounding the ship, and with the ship effectively docked for repairs and maintenance, there was next to nothing for him to do, let alone any additional crew.

“Is everyone ready to teleport down to the ground, Commander?” Wandering asked.

“For the most part, yes. They are eager to get shore leave at last. You may wish to talk to Radiance Point though.”

Wandering rolled his eyes. If anypony was likely to knock back a chance to breathe the fresh air of open skies, it was going to be Point. The alicorn intended to leave just a few changeling crewmembers on board to assist with the renovations because, unlike the other species on the staff, their kind was quite at home in the enclosed environment of the starship. Radiance Point was in a league of his own though. “Have the crew line up in the common room. Starry can start teleporting them down while I have a word with our overenthusiastic engineer.”

“Aye, sir. You can tell my right hoof stallion that I can keep an eye on things in his absence.”

Starry and Wandering had already started heading for the door, but the stallion came to an abrupt halt. “I beg your pardon, Commander? Did you not understand my orders? All non-essential crew are to come down with us for the reception.”

“Sir – someone in command needs to stay on board,” the griffon replied firmly.

“We’re effectively in dry-dock for a while. Command staff don’t need to be on board.”

“I respectfully disagree, Captain.”

“This is not a military ship, Bluequill. We can and will leave some responsible crewmembers here, but it doesn’t need to be command staff.”

“Maybe not need, but I would prefer it if we did,” the griffon stubbornly replied.

Wandering frowned. Bluequill was not totally in the wrong, but the alicorn knew that the griffon needed to get into open skies again for his own mental wellbeing. However, he reckoned that he might have a way to get around the problem. “I’ll come back once we’ve teleported everyone down.” He then turned and left.

Wandering headed for Engineering. Inevitably, that was where he would find Radiance Point. Sure enough, the unicorn was there, poring over a schematic with one of the starwalker foxtaurs. The space-faring morph was barely bigger than the pony shi was consulting with, but Wandering knew that what shi lacked in stature, shi more than made up for by hir adaptations to an extremely hostile environment. Shi belonged in space, while he was only a visitor. He cleared his throat to get their attention.

Point turned and his expression brightened upon seeing the alicorn. “Captain! Did you know that the starwalkers have plans to adapt our old solar sail mounts to attach a barge docking ring? With a barge fitted with warp drive, Cosmic Lotus can travel light years in days!”

“Yes, I knew that, Point. I would never have given them permission to modify the Lotus so radically if I didn’t know exactly what they had planned.”

“Oh.” The unicorn’s face fell momentarily before he brightened again. “This is going to be fascinating stuff. I’ve been working with Voyager here on the retrofit.”

Wandering gave an acknowledging nod to the starwalker before saying to Radiance Point, “You are supposed to be accompanying your sister down to Amistad for the welcoming ceremony, remember?”

Point waved a hoof dismissively. “Sunrise Flight can go without me. She needs to be able to fly under an open sky for the first time. I need to be here.”

Wandering sighed. “I have an equally stubborn griffon up on the bridge. One of you has to go. Frankly, it should be him, and seeing as you have command rank too, that eliminates his argument for staying. So I’m letting you stay, but with the proviso that you give me daily updates. And you will take at least a day before we leave Chakona to take your sister somewhere nice, and just be siblings without responsibilities for once.”

“You’ve got a deal, Captain,” Point replied with a grin.

“Good. Carry on.” Wandering headed for the common room where he found that Starry had already managed to teleport two-thirds of the crew down. He teleported a couple of groups down to join the others gathered in the foyer of the Capitol Building before he returned to the bridge.

“All done, sir?” Bluequill enquired.

“Not quite,” Wandering replied, putting a hoof on the griffon’s arm. “You’re relieved.” He then teleported them both down to the planet.

Bluequill’s surprise was rapidly turning to mild anger before Wandering said, “I have left Radiance Point in charge. Your second-in-command fulfils your obligations, so are you now going to defy my orders?”

The griffon’s beak hung open, but no words came out. Eventually, he shook his head and replied, “No, sir.”

Wandering grinned. “Cheer up, Commander! We’re going to a celebration, not a funeral.”

The griffon humphed, but he did not protest further.

The alicorn stallion then sought out Andre Wyld whom he found looking worriedly out the glass frontage of the foyer. Wandering could see people of many different species gathering, and the spacious concourse looked to be at least three-quarters full already. Sunflare had been correct in saying that the Cosmic Lotus crew had stoked a lot of excitement among the citizenry. He wondered what was bothering the fox morph though.

“What’s wrong, Mister Wyld?”

The fox pointed, and the alicorn now noticed dark clouds on the western horizon.

“There’s a storm coming in, and the weather bureau says it’s headed straight for us. The ceremony is going to be a washout.”

“Don’t you have weather control to take care of that?” Wandering asked.

Wyld looked at the stallion with surprise. “You can control the weather?”

“Well, specially trained pegasi do. Equestria schedules the amount of rain and where it falls. Weather teams for all cities and towns ensure that gardens get their water and sunshine while outdoor events always have fair weather.”

The fox just stared at him incredulously.

“You want us to try to do something about this?” Wandering asked.

“I… suppose so. Can you?”

“We can try. Don’t want to disappoint all those people out there.” Wandering turned around to face his crew. Attention all pegasi! Who among you have had any weather control experience?”

Only three hooves went up.

Wandering pointed at one. “Blue Skies – didn’t you use to work at the Weather Factory?”

“Yes, Captain,” the mare replied.

“Right – you’re the team leader. The other two are your seconds. Now listen up! We have a storm approaching that will ruin the ceremonies, so we need to do something about it because the Chakonans can’t.”

Blue Skies said, “Sir, we can’t control a storm that size!”

“I don’t expect you to do so. I want you to try to divert it or split it – anything to ensure that we stay dry.”

“We don’t have enough pegasi to do the job though!” the mare objected.

“Get the griffons to help you,” Wandering replied.

Bluequill spoke up. “You know that griffons can’t do weather magic, sir.”

Wandering grinned. “No, but if you can sit on clouds, then you can also push them while the pegasi handle the magic. All changelings take pegasus form and do the same. Any further objections?”

While the pegasi and griffons still looked doubtful, there were no further protests.

“Okay, let’s get going!”

Wyld said, “Could you use the road entrance? We don’t want to give the crowd the wrong impression.”

“No problem. This way, everyone!”

The road entrance was on the opposite end of the foyer on the east side of the Capitol Building. Every winged crewperson headed for those doors including Starry and Wandering. Once outside, the alicorn stallion let Blue Skies take the lead, and they took off. Without a doubt, many in the crowd would still see them depart, but that would be less disturbing than taking off right in front of them. They rapidly gained height, most of them enjoying the chance to really stretch their wings for the first time in years, and they headed west.

When Blue Skies judged that they had reached the optimum point in front of the storm, she started giving directions to the team. She sent groups of griffons or changelings along with one pegasus or alicorn to strategic points. With her weather sense and experience, she judged where their efforts could be put to the best use. Then she prayed to Faust that she did not screw this up before ordering everyone to commence operations.

Blue Skies took it upon herself to make the first and most important step. She shifted a wind to slice into the oncoming storm front, parting it so that two teams could enter and begin diverting each half to the side. The griffons and changelings pushed while the pegasi did their best to buck them to make them dump their load of rainwater out at sea. As the wedge grew larger, more teams followed suit, expanding on the efforts of the first. Wandering and Starry each headed a team, putting their not inconsiderable alicorn power behind their efforts. While they had the same capabilities as pegasi, neither had any experience at this task, so they were glad to have the direction of Blue Skies.

There was not a hope that the motley crew that Wandering had thrown together could stop the storm, but they were throwing their best efforts into diverting it. When the first rays of sunshine broke through, there were cheers before they redoubled their efforts. Slowly the storm front split in two, one sliding north and the other south, leaving a narrow corridor that pointed directly at the city. When it became apparent that they could do no more before they were over Amistad, Blue Skies pulled back the teams and then had every pegasus and alicorn put their full effort into creating a jet-stream to keep the storm clouds divided. That done, the pegasus mare turned to Wandering with a smile of satisfaction on her face.

“I hope that will do, Captain?”

“Well done, Blue Skies. Let’s all go back down and reap the rewards of our efforts today.”

They all fell into line with Starry and Wandering flanking the mare as they headed for the Capitol Building.

Wyld had procured some binoculars and had been watching constantly in stupefaction as the storm front had parted before the Equians. When it became obvious that they were going to come in for a landing in front of the concourse, he hurriedly turned to start urging the rest of the Equians out to meet them. The crowd noticed and hushed as they laid eyes on the strange new beings closely for the first time as they lined up in front of the steps. Sunflare followed them out and made hir way to the podium that had been set up for the occasion. As the flying Equians arrived, silhouetted against the sun that shone between the storm clouds as if it had always been rehearsed that way, shi spoke up.

“Citizens of Chakona, it delights me to introduce to you Captain Wandering Path and the crew of the Cosmic Lotus!”

 


 

Shore Leave

 

Prime Minister Sunflare was an experienced politician, but even shi had difficulty maintaining a professional demeanour during the following hours. The Equians were new and exciting, and the stunt that they had pulled with the storm front had fanned the flames of the imagination of the gathered crowd and hirself no less. Even after spending some time with Wandering, Starry, Eon, and Ixia, shi was just as intrigued by the visitors. The news that they had brought a potential way of defeating the invading Swarm had lifted a pall over the population’s spirit, and sheer joy and delight flooded the concourse. Hir empathic senses were flooded with goodwill and curiosity, and hir smile threatened to reach from ear to ear.

Shi stood aside, happy to cede the limelight to the Equians as they introduced themselves to their audience, and explained their mission and adventures. Although they were the centre of attention, some of that goodwill would inevitably spill over to the chakat and hir administration. This was a good thing in more ways than one because, quite aside from hir career, shi was under no illusion that the battle with the Swarm was a foregone conclusion. Initial information supplied by Federation sources suggested that Chakona would have to gear up for an assault rather than the protracted defence that had them stalemated for years, and that would require resources of personnel and materiel heretofore not required. Riding the crest of popularity and excitement was going to make that task a lot easier.

When the Equians finally concluded their introduction to the people of Amistad, shi invited the visitors to join hir in a feast held in their honour. Much to the delight of the crowd, a few of the Lotus crew elected to stay and chat with the people, and the police who were controlling the throng were hastily organised to allow an orderly meet and greet while the rest of the crew accompanied Sunflare back into the government building. As they headed into the State Function Room, the chakat was unaware that every single one of those left behind was a changeling feasting on the emotions of the adoring crowd instead of the promised food inside. However, three-quarters of them were in the shape of various pony types or griffons, reflective of the relationships that they formed with other crew members. Being quite familiar with their adopted forms, they answered everyone’s questions about them, but even those changelings who retained their natural form found quite a few curious admirers. There were quite a few bloated bug-ponies by the time the meet-and-greet was shut down.

Meanwhile, the banquet that had been organised for the VIPs had been no less extravagant. Scattered among the guests were a number of other people invited to the event – some of them ministers from Sunflare’s administration, some important dignitaries from around Chakona, and several noted scientists in a variety of fields who had expressed interest in learning more about the strange new visitors. No speeches were made beyond the perfunctory one that Sunflare had given, inviting hir guests to enjoy the food and conversation. Although telekinesis was hardly unknown on that world, shi was not the only one to watch in fascination as horns had lit up to levitate utensils and glasses. However, even more fascinating was the impossible dexterity of those who had no horns and only hooves, and yet still managed perfectly well without telekinetic assistance. And the pegasi! How could feathers bend and curl like fingers?! Resisting the urge to gawp in amazement, shi made sure that every one of them had their fill of food and good company before reluctantly bringing the event to a close.

Sunflare stood up, holding a glass in one hand and tapping it with a spoon held in the other. Once shi had the room’s attention, shi smiled and said, “Once again, I welcome our visitors to our world. In order for you to enjoy it as much as possible during your stay, I have arranged to have issued to all of you special identification cards. These serve not only as visas for legal purposes, but they will also allow you to use public transport for free, and you can use them to charge all of your expenses to the government’s account.” Shi gave them a mock glare. “Within reason, of course.”

After the chuckles had died down, the Prime Minister continued. “We do this to show our thanks for what you have done, and that which you will be doing with us. All of Chakona sighed in relief with the news that at last some progress has been made in our fight against the invading Swarm, and this is the least that we can do to show our appreciation. We would also like to show off the best that this world has to offer, and I have arranged with a number of volunteers to provide assistance to you if you wish. They will be your tour guides or personal assistants if you have the need, but of course, you are quite free to travel on your own if you prefer. If any of you wish to make any special arrangements during your stay on Chakona, please see Mister Wyld who would be pleased to help you. Local hotels have been informed of your plans to visit for a couple of weeks and will be delighted to extend their amenities to all of you. So, in conclusion, on behalf of the Stellar Federation, please enjoy our hospitality.”

Sunflare was a little bemused by the odd mixture of hoof-stomps, chirps, and screeches that apparently passed for applause from hir guests before they settled down to conversation and making arrangements with the staff to enjoy their first vacation in over ten years. Some plans were prosaic, but many others intended to make the most of their opportunity. Chakona would never be the same again!



A flock of pegasi headed inland, cresting over Mount Catspaw and jinking around the spaceport. Aside from being warned away from that area and cautioned about other air traffic, the winged ponies were given permission to explore where they wished. There was no particular plan to their flight – they just wanted to enjoy the feeling of unlimited flight without the burden of expectations nor the restrictions of an enclosed space. Basically, they played and delighted in the feel of the wind in their mane and sunlight on their backs as they went sightseeing. Sometimes they would swoop down close to ground level and give the locals a thrill before heading off once more. Life was good.



For Techbird, her idea of a vacation was finding out where the nearest major library was and making a beeline for it. Galena accompanied her to the Amistad University Library along with a couple of drones. The changeling princess had a fair idea of what to expect for the next few days, and she made sure that her companion had the resources to deal with whatever her research turned up. The changelings were happy enough to attend to the crystal griffon’s needs even as they snacked on the happy scientist’s joy in discovering whole new fields of study. Seasoning it all was the hope that she would find more clues to answer the Question that drove her ever onwards. Galena had other plans though, and while Techbird was busy with her quest, the princess was looking into more of what this new world had to offer. If she could find what she was looking for, she had a proposal for her beloved.



Coldfire and Xanth took a more sedate approach to sightseeing. With the help of one of the volunteer helpers, they had hired a stroller and were taking Skyborn on his first outing. Their guide was taking them on a tour of Amistad, but they often had to pause as many of the locals wanted to have a look at their child, cooing and fussing over the foal. Because they had plenty of days ahead of them to get to see more, the couple was more than happy to stop and share their delight in the cute youngster. Xanth was almost literally bursting with the pride in his wife and son by the time they called it a day and headed for a beachside hotel. After his mother gave him a feed, Skyborn was put to bed and Coldfire joined Xanth out on the balcony that overlooked the bay that Amistad was built around. She snuggled up to her chosen mate and kissed him.

“Happy, hon?” she asked.

“As much as you and more. It’s been a perfect day, hasn’t it?”

“It has. Do you think Amistad would make a good place to settle down?”

The changeling looked at her in surprise. “Settle down? We’ve been here one whole day and you’ve already decided you want to stay?”

Coldfire giggled. “It’s been such a welcoming world – why wouldn’t I? But really, it’s about our foal. I’m thinking that we can’t go on too long as starship crew with his welfare to keep in mind. I’m just looking into possibilities of places to settle down.”

Xanth nodded thoughtfully. “It’s a bit soon to make that kind of a decision, but from what I have seen of this world so far, it would definitely be a contender for a place for us to settle down. But I think that’s a decision for the future us. Right now, present me just wants to make love to present you.” He gave her a long and heartfelt kiss.

When they pulled apart once more, she replied, “Funny – I was just thinking the same thing.”



Helen Baines had been born and bred on Earth, but shi was not enamoured with hir home-world. As a hermaphrodite, shi was frequently considered a freak even among the morph population there. Shi joined the Double H Club, more euphemistically known as the Herm Haven, when shi was a teenager, and while hir gender gained hir acceptance there, shi never met anyone for whom shi felt any attraction. Hir excellent academic achievements gained hir a scholarship to Star Fleet Academy, and at last shi was able to be hirself in the company of the various races of the Federation. Not only were there a high number of other herm species numbered among them, such as the chakats and stellar foxtaurs, there were also the cyclic herm skunktaurs, and the Merraki who started life as females until they mated and laid a clutch of eggs, upon which they all changed permanently to males. Shi was no longer a freak, but just another of the varied species that formed the greater civilisation. But shi was still alone. It was not as if shi did not want a companion, but either they turned out to be incompatible or lost interest in learning that shi was a herm. Shi could not blame those ones – most beings were attracted to the opposite sex and shi was under no illusion that being both sexes was not the same thing. However, to avoid disappointment, shi began to always let interested persons know right up front that shi was a hermaphrodite. Ortzi had been a big surprise to hir though. Not only had he not known what a herm was, he was utterly indifferent to the fact after shi had elucidated him. The griffon had found hir attractive for some reason, and he had persisted in his naïve and adorable way. For the first time in years, the rabbit morph had been intrigued. Shi could not explain it – the griffon was much larger than hir, and his talons and beak should have been a source of concern. Instead, shi got a delicious thrill in being close to him, and he had been nothing but gentle and caring, always interested in what shi liked and wanted. Shi had quickly been hooked.

Ortzi had been interested in seeing more of the city, and Helen had been happy to play guide as this was not hir first visit to Chakona’s capital. The odd couple had certainly drawn their share of curious stares, and a few people had been a little concerned about hir predator companion. However, the rabbit had felt safer than ever in his company, and shi revelled in every moment of being with him. The sun was setting over the ocean when the couple had made their way down to the beach. The earlier storm had lowered the temperature and driven away a lot of the beach-goers, and they found a relatively empty stretch of dunes to settle down on a blanket and snuggle for a while before sharing the food that they had brought with them.

As the sun began to sink below the horizon, Ortzi put a wing around hir as a fresh breeze began to blow. Shi looked up at him and found his eyes gazing back at hir fondly. Shi nuzzled him and ruffled his chest feathers, enjoying their closeness.

“Helen,” the golden eagle griffon began, “I know that we met only days ago, but I believe we share something wonderful. Will you be my special someone?”

The rabbit felt a special warmth flow through hir at that question. “You want to go steady with me?” shi asked.

Ortzi considered the unfamiliar phrase before replying. “No, I want more. I want you to consider me as a potential mate.”

Now Helen was surprised. “You’re proposing? Ortzi, do you think we can make this relationship work in the long term? We come from two very different worlds and cultures.”

“Do you care about that?” he asked simply.

Shi shook hir head. “Right now, I only care that I am with you. I have been waiting for you all my life, and I have no desire to let you go.”

“I feel the same. No hen or mare has ever interested me as you do. I don’t want that to end, so I ask you again – will you…”

Helen gave the cat-bird a fierce hug, interrupting his proposal. “Yes! Yes, I will!”

Ortzi put a foreleg around Helen and pulled hir in tighter, and the couple stayed in their embrace for several long minutes before the rabbit gently pulled away.

“There’s a hotel a hundred metres or so back that way. Will you join me tonight?”

“If that is your wish, then it would be might pleasure to accept,” he replied.

They gathered the blanket and put it in the basket that they had brought the food in before making their way leisurely in the direction of the hotel. The front desk staff was surprised to see the griffon, but after checking in a pegasus and a changeling already, they were no less professional about setting up a nice room for them. They made their way up to their suite and as soon as the door had closed behind them, Helen turned and gave hir companion a big kiss.

“Ortzi – I… I’ve never made love before.”

The griffon shrugged and said, “Neither have I. Let’s learn together, shall we?”

Helen almost shyly unfastened hir dress and let it fall to the floor. “Do you like what you see?” shi asked.

“I always have,” Ortzi replied before sweeping hir off hir feet and carrying hir to the bed.

The two made love in a clumsy but enthusiastic way, discovering what each other liked the most. Sometimes it was silly, and they both had fits of giggles, but mostly it was passionate and very pleasurable. Eventually, they were satiated, and Helen laid hir head on Ortzi’s chest as he lay on his back, breathing heavily from their exertions.

“Honey?” Helen said.

“Hmm?” Ortzi replied.

“Could you imagine what a child of a rabbit morph and a griffon would be like? Because if it was possible, I would be very pregnant with one right now.”

“You’re on heat? I should have realised. Anyway, you don’t have to imagine it if you don’t want.”

Helen lifted hir head to look at him in surprise. “What do you mean?”

“There are magic spells to make different species compatible. I’m sure that they could come up with one for us if that is what you really wish.”

The rabbit shook hir head in wonder. “This magic is going to take some getting used. So is the thought of actually being a mother. I think we can put that off for a few years yet.”

Ortzi nodded. “I agree. I think we should spend that time growing closer.”

Helen giggled. “I don’t think we could possibly be closer than we just were.”

“Silly bunny,” the griffon said before embracing hir once more. “I look forward to our future together.”

“Me too.” Shi was silent for a while before saying, “I wonder what the others are doing?”



Emerald Green and Skye Path had spent the afternoon checking out the botanic gardens. They finished the day in a restaurant in the midst of the gardens where they attracted a lot of attention from the locals. They spent the rest of the evening chatting with the patrons who spent more money on food and alcohol than they might otherwise have. The restaurant’s owner was very pleased and urged the Equians to visit again soon.



Galen Bluequill had gathered with some other griffs to stretch their wings, and after a discreet enquiry with a local guide, went on a hunting trip. It was catch and release only, but the griffons were happy to be able to exercise their skills again after so long away. Then Galen found out about local sports competitions and they went to check out a game called ‘chakker’. They were hooked immediately. Many eyebrows were raised days later when every griffon brought a haul of chakker swag back to the ship with them.



“Pass the popcorn,” Eon said.

Ixia absentmindedly passed the huge bucket to the dracopony, her eyes never leaving the screen.

Eon sighed. Chick-flicks seemed to be a universal plague. What he went through for his fillyfriend!



After the crew had dispersed to pursue their individual desires, Wandering and Starry had thanked the Prime Minister for being a wonderful host and then spent the remainder of the day playing tourist in Amistad with Boyce and Forestwalker as their guides. As no one was hungry due to the feast, they didn’t bother with a restaurant until late in the afternoon, and even then they chose a fast-food place so that they could continue walking around. The alicorns did a lot of waving and returning the greetings of the locals who had seen the Equians on the news, but generally, the people left them to enjoy their afternoon in peace before they all headed back to the spaceport. As Boyce flew them home, they discussed what they would do over the coming days, eventually deciding to do a whirlwind tour of the planet to look at its highlights.

Upon entering the chakat clan’s home, they found the cubs and some of the adults watching the television in the living room. Goldfur offered to make some refreshments while they waited for the show to end, and they could chat about the day’s events. Wandering and Starry settled onto a couch, idly looking at the TV program about a rainforest on Didwana.

“It’s an educational vid,” Forestwalker explained.

The alicorns nodded in understanding and kept watching along with the others.

Goldfur returned with tea and cookies just as the program segued into an advertisement. However, the screen abruptly darkened and the sound died away. After about two seconds of black screen, a voice started to speak while strange shapes and colours panned across the screen, all of them tinged black and silver.

Against all odds they made it. Cheered on by their home-world; driven by the need to explore; welcomed by Chakona...

The lights slowly came on to reveal a strange chimera-like being. Those from Equus knew him as Flix, but most of the chakat family were seeing him for the first time.

I am Prince Flixtradamus.” He smiled, his talons began to glow with a strange light as his large wings started to flap, raising him slowly in the black void.

And I am Princess Orlonda,” a second voice spoke up as the changeling took flight as well, her horn starting to glow just as bright.

Then they both spoke at once, their voices synthesizing together to create strange harmonic tones that caused the listeners to get pleasant shivers and chills up and down their spines and up the back of their necks. The screen zoomed in and focused on just their eyes as they began to glow.

Amistad Entertainment District – 1900 hours!

The commercial went dark with only the two sources of magic as sources of light appearing like stars. A dance beat was starting to slowly build up, that harmonic voice starting to speak again causing more of those sensations; the cadence and tempo starting to make hearts beat faster, breathing happen faster.

When I count down to zero, you will enter a brand new world – a world of pounding beats, pure melodies, and euphoria.

The screen started to light up once more, revealing a large stage with speakers upon speakers. The two beings started to spiral outward, the room changing to look like more and more like a club. Judging by how fast they were spiralling outward, it looked to be quite large.

In a universe where everything changes, stars fall out of existence, boundaries are broken, and reality shifts, one thing will always remain the same.

The pace and tempo started to pick up as the deep bass seemed to roll through the area. It looked like the room was changed into a giant circular rave stage, absolutely massive in scale.

Three!

The lasers turned on and started sweeping the room.

Two!

The UV lights started to come on and flicker, making the room shift between what it looked like normally in the dim club light and then the strange tribal motif that was revealed when the right type of light hit the seemingly invisible paint.

One!

The pair moved up as the camera followed them for what seemed like forever before it slowly panned around the grinning pair. Below them was the massive warehouse-like club in the centre of the arts district. From that vantage point, anyone could figure out where the club was, and with four hours until it opened, most could figure out a way to get there on time.

Welcome... to the Conclave!

The transmission abruptly ceased and faded back to a different commercial.

I’m a happy puppy dog!
He’s a happy puppy dog!
Ra! Ra! Ra! It’s good!

Boyce and the other adults blinked in astonishment.

“What the heck was that all about?” Goldfur demanded.

Before either alicorn could answer, there was a burst of light which faded to reveal the pair in question.

Flix grinned and said, “Hi guys! I see you caught our ad. What do you think of our new nightclub?”

“Did you just use magic to override their broadcast?” Wandering asked.

“Don’t worry, bro – I sent the network some bits to pay for it.”

Starry looked at Flix in disbelief. “You paid for an ad? How in Mama Luna’s name did you pay for all that?!” She gestured at the screen despite it not showing the nightclub anymore.”

“Like this.” Flix snapped his dragon paw talons and a pile of gold bits appeared.

Goldfur stepped up and took a handful of the coins and hefted them. “Are these pure gold? They feel like they weigh enough.”

Flix looked offended. “Of course they’re real gold. I wouldn’t cheat the people who sold the property to me.”

“How many of these have you been using to pay for things?”

“Well, I don’t have one of your electronic accounts, so… lots?”

The chakat frowned. “You can’t just dump all this gold into the market at once – you’ll depress its value and affect the economy.”

Flix rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on – you’re exaggerating things.”

Goldfur stepped up to the chimera and started wagging a finger in his face. “Nobody can leave my home in the morning and own a custom designed and fully equipped nightclub by the evening without throwing around a tonne of money. Don’t tell me that I’m exaggerating!”

Flix looked around at the other family members and gave them a sad face. “Is shi always such a stick in the mud?”

Some of the younger cubs giggled and one replied. “Yeah – mom’s always like this.”

“I see. Do you think shi needs a timeout?”

“What?!” Goldfur objected.

“Time out!” the cub agreed, and then the other youngsters gleefully added their voices and a chant started up. “Timeout! Timeout! Timeout!”

Flix snapped his talons once more and an overly ornate cord was suddenly hanging from the roof. He indicated the cord to the first cub. “Here – you may have the honour.”

Goldfur put hir hands on hir hips and glared at Flix. “What are you up to n-o-O-O-o-o-w-w-w…?”

As the chakat had been talking, the cub had pulled the cord and a trapdoor opened beneath Goldfur, sending hir plummeting into the depths. Then the trapdoor snapped shut and the floor was as unmarked as it had always been.

What did you do to Goldfur?!” Forestwalker squawked.

“I suppose shi’s in your basement,” Wandering replied.

“We don’t have a basement!”

The alicorn looked at Flix and asked with a sigh, “Where is shi, Flix?”

“Someplace where shi might learn to loosen up a bit,” he replied.

“Specifically…?”

The chimera just grinned. “Ask hir when shi gets back. Meanwhile, drop by our nightclub when you get a chance. It’s gonna be awesome!” He held up his talons once more.

“Wait, Flix!” Starry started to say.

But the talons snapped and Flix and Orlonda were gone.

“What’s going to happen about Goldfur?” Boyce asked sternly.

“For starters, stop worrying,” Wandering replied. “Flix may be mischievous, but he’s not malicious. He would never let anyone get actually harmed by his pranks.”

“You don’t know that is true for Goldfur though.”

The stallion gave the human his most serious look. “Yes, I do. He didn’t always look like he does now. He sacrificed much to save a lot of people years ago, and not only had those changes happen to his body, but he was also petrified for decades until the effects of his huge spell wore off. He’s a hero, Boyce, and while he may behave in a chaotic manner, his heart is good. Whatever has happened to Goldfur, shi’s safe and well. Whether shi’s enjoying the experience is a whole other question, but I suspect that shi’s been stuck in some awkward situation that Flix would consider amusing. Shi will survive that, I’m sure.”

Boyce rubbed his forehead to allay an incipient headache. “Are we going to have these problems when we talk with the Federation Council?”

“Probably not; he wouldn’t screw up something that important. Besides, I suspect he’ll be preoccupied with his new project. That nightclub is so him.”

Forestwalker slowly sank to the floor with relief and said, “As long as my sister is going to be fine, I suppose I’ll stop worrying. Remind me not to get into a pranking war with Flix though – I suspect that even with the whole clan versus him, we’d still lose.”

Starry nodded. “That’s what you get when you deal with the prize student of the Lord of Chaos.”



Over the following days, Starry and Wandering enjoyed travelling around Chakona, occasionally hearing news about what some of the other crew were up to. Nothing called for the captain’s attention though, and aside from ensuring that Radiance Point took his mandated break, the alicorn let himself completely relax for the duration of his holiday. He and Starry got the chance to be an ordinary couple for a change, albeit under extraordinary circumstances. They could not completely escape their notoriety, but he had always enjoyed interacting with other cultures anyway, so it was not a problem. He almost regretted having to go back to work, but his sense of responsibility drew him back to where they had started – the chakat clan’s home.

Wandering and Starry were saying their farewells to everyone when a door appeared on an otherwise blank wall. The door burst open and Goldfur charged through with a young pegasus foal riding hir back, wielding an extra-long glow-stick like a lance. The chakat skidded to a halt when shi realised where shi was and the filly sprang off hir back. One look at Starry and the foal’s eyes widened in delight. She leapt at the mare and started hugging her madly.

“Hi, Auntie Starry!”

Starry’s expression was confused. “What? Who is this?”

From behind her, Starry heard a more familiar voice. “Ooh, your mom is going to kill me, Thera.”

The alicorn mare turned to see her brother standing behind her. “When did you get here, Flix?”

“Who do you think opened that door?” He pointed at it, and only then did everyone notice that they could see some very surprised ponies on the other side including Twilight Sparkle.

“Who’s this then?” Starry asked, indicating the foal who was still attached to her legs.

“Let me introduce Princess Antikythera Path, daughter of Queen Crystal Path and Cloud Thumper. She’s a big fan of you and the Cosmic Lotus.”

“You mean she’s a changeling hybrid?” Starry looked at the madly grinning filly.

“Sure am, Auntie!” She flared with magic green fire briefly to reveal a Blue Changeling princess before resuming her pegasus form.

“And she loves chakat rides,” Goldfur added with a smile. “The Princess decreed that I was her royal steed.”

“I see that we have a lot to catch up on, Goldie,” Forestwalker said as shi stepped up to give hir sister a hug from the side.

The chakat cubs stepped up, squealing in delight, and one said to the filly, “Eeee! Hi! I’m Aura.”

“I’m Thera. Eeee!” she squealed back.

All the cubs joined the foal in squealing with joy before they suddenly all ran off together.

“Where has my daughter gone?” came a new voice from the magic doorway.

Everyone’s attention was drawn to the elegant changeling queen who entered the room.

Wandering said, “Hi, Crystal. Thera’s run off with some new friends. You should have sent us some more recent photos – neither Starry nor I recognised her until Flix introduced her.”

Crystal rubbed her head with her hoof. “She’s such a hoofful. Thumper and I are always getting her out of mischief somewhere. I suppose she will be fine in the company of children her own age.” The changeling looked around. “So I’m on Chakona now?”

“Yep. This is my home,” Goldfur answered.

“May I have a look around as long as I am here?” Crystal asked.

“I’ve been your guest for long enough, so please make yourself at home here.”

“Thank you. Now please pardon me while I go make sure that my youngest daughter isn’t starting anything too drastic.” She headed off in the direction of the sound of happily squealing children.

“This door is amazing,” Twilight said as she stood in the portal between two worlds. “I really need to examine the nature of this chaos magic more closely.”

“And that’s my mom the nerd,” Wandering announced as he trotted over to give her a hug. “As long as you’re here, Boyce and his family were throwing us a farewell dinner. Would you like to join us?”

“You would be very welcome, Princess,” Boyce added.

“No titles, please,” Twilight replied. “You’ve been like a family to Wandering, Starry, Skye, and Eon while they stayed with you, so I feel like you’re part of our House too. I’d be delighted to accept your invitation. I hope to be able to extend the same courtesy when you visit Equus.”

“Technically, all I need to do is step through that door and I’d be on Equus now,” Boyce pointed out.

Twilight chuckled. “Yes, that’s true, but it’s only mid-morning there.”

“And it’s dinner time here,” Forestwalker said pointedly. “Come to the table or starve!”



Getting the excited children to the table had been the hardest part, but then there was a lot of conversation over the extended mealtime. Goldfur talked about hir time spent on Equus, while the Equians regaled everyone with tales of their adventures on Chakona. Flix even behaved himself although he chuckled a lot at Goldfur’s earliest experiences in Equestria.

Sooner than anybody wished, it was time to go. Crystal herded a reluctant Thera back through the portal, and Twilight gave her family members a hug each before she too went through the magic doorway. It snapped shut and faded out of existence along with the one who had created it.

Wandering said, “It has been the greatest pleasure knowing you all, and Starry and I thank you for your magnificent hospitality.”

Both alicorns had to hug every member of the chakat clan before they were allowed to leave. Then they teleported to the agreed rendezvous point where they met the rest of the crew and started to teleport them back to the Cosmic Lotus. Wandering was surprised though when Ortzi stepped up with Helen by his side.

“Captain – Helen wants to join us on our ship.”

Wandering’s eyebrow shot up. “Any reason why? And even so, shi’s Star Fleet and a member of Boyce’s crew. I can’t just take hir with us.”

“Helen is my betrothed,” Ortzi replied simply.

The alicorn blinked in surprise. “Isn’t that awfully fast? You’ve only known each other for a couple of weeks.”

The griffon merely shrugged. “If you find your soulmate a couple of thousand light-years from home, you don’t let hir go. You know you belong together.”

Wandering could not argue with that. Nevertheless, he still had a problem. “Look – I’ll take hir up to the Lotus, but shi has to talk with Admiral Kline about this. Whatever he says, I won’t argue with. Am I clear?”

“Yes, Captain!” Ortzi and Helen chorused.

Once everyone was aboard the Cosmic Lotus, Wandering contacted the Pegasus from the privacy of his stateroom. By this time, Boyce had shuttled up to his ship via his skiff, and he was preparing for departure along with the Equians.

“Captain Path to Admiral Kline.”

Kline here, Captain. Are you prepared for departure already?

“Not at all, Admiral. I have one of your crewmembers here with a request.”

Oh? Put hir on, please.

By using that specific pronoun, Wandering was fairly sure that Boyce already was aware that he was a crewperson short.

Helen stepped up to the comm. “Lieutenant Helen Baines here, sir.”

Why aren’t you aboard your ship, Lieutenant?

“Sir – I request a temporary transfer to the Cosmic Lotus for the duration of our journey to Earth.”

And why would I grant that request?

“Sir – I… Ortzi and me… well, we…”

“Ortzi and Helen are betrothed, Admiral,” Wandering interrupted. “They would like to be together as much as possible.”

That was awfully fast,” Boyce replied.

“I said exactly the same thing, Boyce, but there’s one thing that you should know about griffons. They have the ability to recognise a soulmate and will pursue that relationship fiercely. My herd-mother felt the same about my herd-father and were betrothed within days. They adored each other right up until the day she died.”

I see. Nevertheless, my crewperson has hir duty to perform.” Helen started to sag in disappointment, but the Admiral continued. “It’s a good thing then that we need a specialist to continue studying your magitek systems. I can’t think of a better opportunity than right now.

Helen’s face lit up with delight. “Thank you, sir!”

Report to my ready room for your new assignment, Lieutenant. You will be joining the rest of the crew temporarily assigned to the Cosmic Lotus. And hurry it up – we depart in half an hour.

“On my way, sir!”

“Cosmic Lotus out,” Wandering concluded the transmission.

“Can you do the honours, Captain?” Helen asked.

Wandering smiled. “My pleasure, Lieutenant.” With a flare of his horn, he teleported Helen over to the Pegasus. With a smile on his face, he then headed out to the bridge.

As the alicorn stepped into the ship’s control room, he took stock of the new equipment that had been installed. Although he had been given reports on everything that had been done to his ship, this voyage was going to be as much a learning experience for him as for the rest of the bridge crew. Fortunately, they had been assigned an experienced helmsman from the Pegasus who would be training everyone on the new systems as they travelled to Earth. The Caitian female saluted the alicorn before turning her attention back to Playbitz whom she was instructing.

Wandering took his place in the command chair and hit the internal comm button. “Bridge to Engineering.”

Radiance Point here, Captain.

“Are your new toys ready, Point?”

All systems tested and warp drive ready to go, sir.

Wandering could hear the excitement in his engineer’s voice. “Excellent. Departure in twenty minutes.”

This is going to awesome, Captain!

Wandering chuckled as he cut the connection. He spent the next fifteen minutes observing final preparations and readiness reports coming in. With five minutes to go, he got a request from Baines to beam over which he granted. Moments later, the rabbit morph materialised in the designated teleport area, dressed in hir Star Fleet uniform. Helen put down hir duffel bag of personal possessions and saluted.

“Lieutenant Helen Baines reporting for duty, Captain.”

“At ease, Lieutenant. Welcome to the crew. I believe you know where to find Engineering. Got to start earning your keep.”

Helen smiled. “Yes, sir. Thank you, Captain.”

“Dismissed.” As the rabbit left the bridge, Wandering said, “Helm – is the course laid in?”

The Caitian turned and said, “Laid in and ready for departure, Captain.”

“Good. May I ask your name? I can’t just keep calling you ‘Helm’.”

“I am Lieutenant Commander M’Ranna Karranis, sir.”

“Well, Lieutenant Commander, this is not a military ship, and while we still maintain a certain level of command discipline, we tend to be less formal about addressing each other. May I call you just M’Ranna?”

The Caitian thought for a moment then nodded. “That would be acceptable, sir.”

“Great. Let’s get underway.” Wandering hit the Public Address button on his command chair. “Attention all crewmembers! Prepare for departure for Earth in one minute.” He shut off the P.A. and turned to Bluequill. “Status report!”

“All stations report readiness, Captain.”

“Excellent. Okay, people – vacation’s over. Cosmic Lotus is back on mission.” He looked over at the helm as the final seconds ticked over and gave M’Ranna a smile. “I believe the correct term is – ‘Engage!’.”

 


 

Voyage To A Blue Planet

 

Wandering kept one eye and one ear attuned to what was going on at the new helm. Although it was unlikely that he would ever need to pilot the starship, as the head of the Cosmic Lotus mission and Captain of the ship, it was his responsibility to h