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 Equus 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 Equus 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 Equus ever since. Today, the vast majority of races and nations are proud to be counted among those represented on the Greater Equus 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.
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.
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 Equus-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 Equus 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 Equus 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 Equus. 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 Equus 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 Equus 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 Equus 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 Equus. 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 Equus 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 Equus, 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 Equus 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.”
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 Equus 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 Equus 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 Equus 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 Equus 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 Equus 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 Equus. 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 Equus, 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 Equus’ 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 Equus 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 Equus 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 Eequuss 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. “Equus 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 Equus 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 Equus 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 Equus, 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 Equus 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.”
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 Equus 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.
“Equus 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 Equus 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?”
“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.”
“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 Equus 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.
“Equus 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 Equus Control. Propulsion phase completed successfully. Minimum velocity achieved. Report when you’re ready. We’re all going to rest and recover for a while. Equus 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 Equus 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.
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. Equus 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 Equus 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 Equus 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 Equus 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. Equus 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 Equus, 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?”
“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.
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.
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 Equus.
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?”
“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. 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.”
“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.
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.”
“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?
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 Equus 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 Equus, 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?”
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 Equus. 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? 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 Equus 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.”
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 Equus, 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?”
“Because of that equation,” Dawn replied as she pointed at the screen.
“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 Equus 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 Equus, 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.
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.
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.
“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)
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 Equus, 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 Equus, 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 Equus?” 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.”
“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 Equus 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.
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 Equus 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 Equus, 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.”
TO BE CONTINUED!
This story contains a large number of original characters donated by their creators on Fimfiction as follows:
• Purple Point belongs to Alden MacManx.
• Playbitz belongs to Playbitz
• Ortzi Goldbeak belongs to anunenka
• Gizmo Gears belongs to m2pt5
• Traveling Soul belongs to Traveling Soul
• ColdFire belongs to ColdFireCZ
• Epic Prose belongs to Sylvian
• Random Dawn belongs to randomdawning
• Radiant Spark belongs to vespillo-cruentus
• Kale Robe belongs to Nagel Navari
• Emerald Green belongs to tobi
• Amethyst Scroll belongs to Dillena Monger
• Steam Shift belongs to DajoesefMan
Original characters Long Path & Free Agent created by AlaskaIsCold.
Equestria, canon MLP characters, and other My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic elements are © 2017 Hasbro.
All other original characters and story copyright © 2017 Bernard Doove.
Art is © 2017 Kat Miller.
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