Fate of the U.N.S. Moon Dancer

by Shrink Laureate

Chapter 4

“Good morning, Admiral!” chirped the pony cheerfully. She danced across the walls to greet Sunset, leaping from screen to screen.

Sunset yawned. “Morning, Moon Dancer.”

“I made coffee for you,” said the pony.

This produced a smile. Sunset blinked sleep out of her eyes as she reached for the steaming mug.

“Are you still wearing those old pyjamas?” called Solar Flare from the next room.

Sunset looked down. “What? These aren’t old. They’re only… uh…”

“Older than I am?” suggested Solar.

“I only bought them yesterday,” she snarled through her coffee. “Can’t have been more than twenty years ago.” She picked up the second mug of coffee and took it through to Solar Flare, who was sat at a terminal reviewing the AI’s results.

“Thanks,” she said, gratefully receiving the mug. She added, “Morning, Sunshine.”

“Welcome back. How was Panama?”

“Hot. Very pretty, though. Huge numbers of butterflies, all over the place.” She gestured broadly.

“What’ve we got, then?” asked Sunset.

Solar brought up a list of audio files. “Computer’s flagged a few promising clips. It’s still translating some of them.”

“I found you a good one!” sang Moon Dancer, tapping a hoof against the first item, a clip only two minutes and twenty seconds long.

The quality of the reception had improved a great deal since the communications relay had reached the gravitational focus at 591 AU where it could pick up a signal from Equestria. The round trip to the far side of Sol and back added a week’s delay to signals that were already eighty-five years late. The probe was still searching for the exact sweet spot, but for now they and dozens of other teams were emailed a few minutes of useful audio each day.

With some real material to work from, Sunset and her friends had been training Moon Dancer to understand the alien language. She was getting there, slowly.

Solar Flare played the clip, while Moon Dancer helpfully brought up the transcript that she’d produced.

“…that everypony is adapting well to the conditions here.” Twilight Sparkle’s voice came out loud and clear, if a little tinny, through the hiss and crackle of noise. She sounded a little older, a little deeper, but still with the same enthusiasm that Sunset remembered. As she listened, a smile slowly crept across her face. “The lower gravity does take some getting used to, though it’s actually quite fun to bounce around in, particularly for those ponies who’ve never been able to fly before. In fact, sometimes the hardest part is getting everypony to stop playing around when there’s work to do.” She laughed, and another pony laughed with her.

Sunset’s smile broke into a broad grin. Partly from hearing Twilight’s voice for the first time in centuries, and partly from the reassurance that ponies hadn’t changed all that much.

“And what of the lunar inhabitants?” asked a stallion’s voice in a nondescript but refined accent. It sounded like the interviewer was in the studio, while Twilight was coming through a radio.

“They’ve been quite welcoming, actually. Ever since that first mission centuries ago, we’ve been sure to leave a positive impression with the nyx each time we visit. It is their home, after all. They’re quite intelligent, and well aware of the ponies and other creatures living on the surface.”

“Have any of the nyx expressed an interest in visiting Equestria?” asked the interviewer.

“Often, but sadly that isn’t possible yet, even though both Princesses Celestia and Luna have said they’re welcome to visit. Their bodies are adapted to the moon’s gravity, and simply wouldn’t be able to survive the much higher gravity of our world, nor the stress of launching into space. We’re happy to show them pictures and illusion spells of life on the surface. And we’re looking into magic that could make it possible some day.” Twilight spoke with the confidence of a mare who regularly made new things possible.

“Before you launched, some ponies were concerned that the same could happen to ponies - that living on the moon for so long might weaken them to the point where they could no longer return to Equestria,” said the interviewer. “Is that a real risk?”

“Yes, and it’s a risk we take seriously. Everypony spends a large part of each day engaged in physical exercise designed to maintain muscle and bone strength…”

The recording devolved into noise again, then came to an abrupt end.

“I’m afraid that’s all I could get of it,” said Moon Dancer apologetically, her ears flopping down. She perked up again and asked, “But it’s a good one, right?”

Sunset nodded, unable to speak for the moment.

“That was her, wasn’t it?” asked Solar. She’d been following the transcript that Moon Dancer provided, even though it was an approximation at best.

“I… yes, that was Twilight Sparkle. She… she’s alive. She’s out there and she’s alive.”

Solar stood up to stand close to Sunset. She was taller than Sunset now, and her long hair reached down her back. Where once Sunset looked like the older sister, now it was the other way around. “You knew that already, from Luna’s interview,” she said softly.

“I know, but it’s… hearing her voice. She’s the same pony, exactly the same. The same curiosity, the same love of discovery, all these centuries later. It really is her.” Sunset wiped her eyes messily. “Sorry, I… I’ll be okay in a minute.”

“You don’t need to be composed, not with me. Let it out.” Solar rested her arms loosely on Sunset’s shoulders.

“Thanks,” said Sunset, sniffling.

“You miss her,” said Solar. It wasn’t a question. They’d talked about Twilight before.

Sunset nodded anyway. “She’s so brilliant. So smart. She sees right to the heart of things. And so dense at the same time. Like she doesn’t see the obvious things.” She clutched at the fabric of Solar’s shirt. “She comes at everything with an open mind. And she’s so good that she sees the good in everypony.”

Solar rested her forehead on Sunset’s. This was almost ritual for the two now. “She changed you.”

“She…” Sunset broke off, coughed, and sniffed. “She made me who I am. She believed in me, when I didn’t believe in myself, when I’d given up. She had no reason to, but she trusted me. She gave me a chance I never gave myself. She made me better. Every day, since then, I try to be better, and every day it’s because of her.”

“You want to see her again.”

Sunset nodded again. “I want to say ‘thank you’. I want to show her all the things I’ve done, tell her about my friends. I want her to be proud of me. It’s selfish, really, I know.”

“Selfish is fine,” whispered Solar.

“And I want to hear all about her adventures.” She smiled. “Equestria always sounded so much more exciting when she talked about it. I’m sure she has plenty of new stories now. Centuries of them.”

“A lot can happen in four hundred years.”

A worried frown flickered across Sunset’s face. “How did she sound to you? She sounded happy, right?”

“She sounded, um, nice.”

“Nice?” asked Sunset, drawing back.

Solar looked guilty. “Okay, fine, she sounded like a horse. You know languages aren’t my strong suit, and Equish isn’t the easiest to learn.” Solar scratched her face. “I mean, I think I heard her say ‘wings’ near the beginning. Or maybe it was ‘interview’. Or it could have been ‘team’.”

After a pause, Sunset said, “Do you mean,” followed by a breathy nasal gasp that sounded like, “hngu?” Solar nodded hopefully. “Sorry, that means ‘gravity’.”

“I knew that!” contributed Moon Dancer, using one hoof to push her glasses up her muzzle.

Solar deflated. “I’ll just stick to astronomy, shall I?”

Sunset patted her on the back. “What news is there from the telescopes?” she asked, looking at the screen.

“It’s pretty much the way you thought it would be, actually,” said Solar, leaning over to bring up a map of the 23 Librae system, incorporating all the latest information from the big research teams at Ceres, Geneva, Pyongyang, Phobos and Panama. “Most of the focus has been on the inner planets, but the signal is coming from somewhere a very long way out, three or four hundred AU at least. I’m not even sure it’s part of the same system. It could be a stray rock passing through.”

“It’s in the same system, I promise. It’s been there for millennia. Are there any visuals yet?”

“Nope. The big telescopes are still scanning the inner system, using wobble and occlusion to track down all the inner planets and moons, and found nothing habitable there.” The display zoomed into the middle of the 23 Librae system, with its cluster of labelled planets and moons. “But the outer system is harder to map, even with the whole Ceres/Vesta array. If we can pinpoint the source, maybe we’ll be able to persuade them to give us telescope time.”

“You tried looking for the signal I suggested?”

“I tried, but couldn’t narrow it down. Nobody on Earth knows what the spectrum of magic even looks like.”

“I know. Sorry I can’t be more specific, but nopony in Equestria was looking at chemical spectra when I left.”

“You said you knew what they were, though?”

“Yes, but it was considered redundant when you could just cast a spell to work out what something was made of. Nopony thought of applying it to distant objects. The same for so many of the sciences, really, magic made us lazy.”

“It’s still hard to imagine. But you’re sure this ‘Crystal Faire’ will show up?”

“Absolutely. It’s the biggest magical event of the year, lights up the whole country in aurora. We just need to keep watching until we catch it.”

“How long is an Equestrian year, anyway?”

“However long Celestia says it should be.” Solar made a face at her. “What?” asked Sunset.

“Your planet is weird.”

The U.N.S. Moon Dancer was not a large ship. There were no grand ballrooms on board, no officers’ dining room, no impressively long corridors or tall stairwells. She didn’t have a great amount of free space for living quarters either, so dorms with bunks were the norm.

This room was square, with six bunks on three of the walls. There was an octagonal column in the middle filled with cupboards and drawers, and divided down the middle. Like the rest of the ship, the spaces were narrow and peppered with hand-holds, ready for times when gravity cut out or the engines exceeded the inertial compensation. The power supply was stable now across the ship, but gravity had clearly been lost in this room, from the mess of personal belongings scattered over the floor.

Sunset grasped the door handle and pulled the door shut behind her with a wrench of scraping metal. The dorm was quiet and dark, lit only by a few emergency lights. Everybody who could was helping get the ship up and running.

She knelt down to pick up a holopicture from the floor. Solar Flare, Silent Running and Sunset Shimmer, all smiling into the camera. Behind them, the silver-blue hull of the experimental ship Rainbow Dash, the first craft to break through the Cherenkov barrier and make FTL travel viable. The race to Eris had left a few scratches along her hull.

Sunset ran a finger slowly across it. No matter how real the holopicture looked, it was nothing but a moment from the past.

“When does it get better?” she asked the empty room.

“Better?” queried Celestia, stepping around her. “What do you mean, better?”

“When does it stop hurting like this, Celestia? When do you… get used to losing people?”

“Why would you want to?” asked the alicorn. Her wingtips brushed against the walls as she walked around the room.

“It never seemed to bother you. I didn’t see you mourning the ponies you’d lost. You sat on that throne, all smiles and calm confidence.”

Celestia paused at the other side of the split column, looking at Sunset through the gap. “Never,” she said seriously. “I never stop caring about my ponies. I never stopped caring about you, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset stared through the narrow gap into her mentor’s imperial purple eyes framed by a luminous mane. Celestia’s expression showed comfort and compassion but no sorrow. Just as she remembered it. “How do you do it?” Sunset whispered, averting her gaze. “How do you watch them grow old and die, and keep smiling through it? You’ve ruled Equestria for centuries. You’ve seen so many ponies come and go. Thousands of them. Millions. One day you’re talking and laughing with somepony, the next they’re gone.” She slumped against the wall behind her, turning her eyes to the ceiling. “I just can’t work out how you managed it. Whatever you and Luna have, I don’t.”

Celestia took a deep breath as she resumed pacing around the room, her wingtips brushing against bunks and hand-holds. “Nor did we, at first. Our lives as warriors did not adequately prepare us for the job of ruling a kingdom. Luna and I grew up in a different world, one where life and death were cheap, even after we defeated Discord. We both saw war more times than I care to count. We saw natural disasters steal settlements away. We saw plagues run through towns like fire through a dry forest. We saw monsters end a pony’s life for no more reason than they felt like it.” She paused by a poster for a movie, tilting her head left and right to try and look around the edges of the holopicture. “Every pony who lives a full life, every pony who pursues her dream, every pony who dies doing what she loves, is something to celebrate.”

Sunset stared at the holopicture of Solar Flare in her hands. “That’s your answer? ‘Life is fragile so every day is a bonus?’ Or are you just saying I’m a spoiled little filly who grew up in safety and comfort and doesn’t know what the world is like?”

Celestia turned to look at Sunset with a stern expression. “Come, Sunset, self-indulgent pouting like that does not become you.” Her multicoloured mane flowed across the dark bedclothes. She took in an air vent in the corner, identical to three others. “There’s a lot of redundancy on this ship. Backups of backups.”

“It’s safer that way,” said Sunset half-heartedly.

“Isolated sections of the ship. Internal airlocks. Separate power supplies, life support. Convenient air closets everywhere.”

“I insisted. Thirty billion miles from home, you can’t expect a lucky rescue. You have to bring three or four of everything. Be your own reinforcements.”

Celestia stepped closer to Sunset, looking down at the picture held in her hands. “Tell me why she died.”

“She died because of me,” said Sunset.

Celestia rolled her eyes. “Care to try that again with our talk about humility taken into account?”

Sunset sighed with increasing frustration. “She died because she travelled light years from home, on a mission to test out a new, faster engine, and launch an array of deep space telescopes. The engine that I wanted to use to reach Equestria. The telescopes I wanted to use to see and hear Equestria.”

“So if you hadn’t pushed for this, if you weren’t there to spur humanity on, if you’d left them four hundred years ago, would they have stayed on the surface of their world, content to leave the skies alone? Would they be slumbering yet in the cradle of their civilisation?”

Sunset shook her head. “Humans have always had to explore. They push boundaries like a foal. They might have done a few things differently, but they’d be up here.”

“And would they be safe?”

Sunset looked down at the holopicture of the blue metal body of the Rainbow Dash. “I suppose not. They’d probably be even more reckless. Just like Rainbow Dash was that day.”

Turning away, Celestia reared up on her hind legs, planted her forehooves on the edge of the upper bunk, and started to push her muzzle through the rumpled bedclothes.

“Stop that,” said Sunset, upset.

“Congratulations on your promotion,” said Celestia through the fabric.


“You are the humans’ princess now, are you not?”

“No. What are you—”

“Their queen, then? Or their empress?”

“Of course not.”

“Corsair? Tyrant? Pontiff?”

“You know I’m not any of those!”

“Their Goddess?” asked Celestia, looking down at Sunset with a raised eyebrow.


Celestia dropped to four hooves in front of Sunset, her wings flaring briefly to slow her fall. “Then what are you?”

Sunset paused before answering cautiously, “I’m an admiral of the U.N. Fleet.”

“You sound uncertain. Why are you an admiral?”

“Because the U.N. like to keep me where they can keep an eye on me,” said Sunset, remembering some of the bastards she’d met in centuries past. She added, “And… it’s kind of hard not to get promoted when you outlive generations of command staff.” She slumped further down the wall.

Celestia nodded knowingly. “So as a military commander, you ordered Solar Flare to venture on a dangerous mission?”

“No,” said Sunset with a frustrated sigh. “I mean, first the U.N.F. isn’t military. I made sure of that back when the charter was signed. And experimental flights like this are all volunteer-only.”

“Meaning that everybody on board chose to be here,” pressed Celestia.

“So what, I have no responsibility?” said Sunset louder, pushing off from the wall to confront the alicorn. “Sorry, but that doesn’t fly. This whole space program is pretty much my pet project. I more or less built this ship,” she said, gesturing at the ceiling. “I’m the ranking officer on board. I have a responsibility to keep them safe!”

“Space is not safe,” said Celestia firmly. “It never was. Space is a vast abyss of lethal darkness. You didn’t make the darkness. You didn’t lead the humans into it. The danger would be there, with or without you.”

“I’m supposed to be better. I’m supposed to be making things better.”

“And you have been doing, in a hundred little ways. You aren’t a goddess, you can’t be responsible for everything that happens. Only for what you do in the world.”

Celestia wrapped her wings around Sunset and pulled her close.

“Your friend died younger than she might, but she lived doing what she enjoyed.” She spoke softly. “She loved astronomy. She loved pushing at new frontiers. And yes, she loved you, and wanted to help make your dream come true. So she took a risk, knowing it wasn’t safe.”

Closing her eyes, Sunset pressed her head into Celestia’s neck. The hand holding the holopicture dropped to her side. “Is that enough? A good life, a good death, and you accept it and move on? Is that how you manage to rule them for centuries?”

“It has to be,” said Celestia, “because the alternative is a tyrant. One who would reshape their subjects’ lives to suit themselves.” She wrapped her wings further around Sunset, enveloping her in familiar warmth.

Sunset took a few seconds to breathe in through the hair of the pony’s neck. “Is that what the real Celestia would say?” she asked.

“You’ll just have to come and ask me,” replied the apparition.

The room filled with light as the door slid open.

“Who are you talking to?” asked Silent Running from the door. He sounded concerned.

Sunset looked up, taking a second to focus. “Just my memories,” she said. “How’s the Moon Dancer? I heard from Dr Honeysuckle that you’ve been hard at work.”

“We’re getting there. She’ll be floating soon.”

“Good.” Sunset carefully placed the holopicture on Solar Flare’s bunk.

“She could use a good captain,” said Silent Running.

“She’s got one,” said Sunset absently. “I can announce your field promotion right now if you want.”

Silent Running shut the door quietly. “No. I meant you, numskull. The crew need someone who can inspire them.”

“You can lead them as well as I can.”

“I’m an engineer. They trust me to do repairs, but I’m not the immortal admiral.” He stepped closer. “Listen. There were thirty-two people in section three, and thanks to you more of them survived than didn’t.”

“I didn’t save that last air cage.”

“No, but you inspired Lieutenant Splashdown to find a spacesuit and go fetch it. The crew look up to you. They trust you, and that’s what they need right now.”

“Even if I don’t trust myself?” she scoffed.

“Doesn’t matter. With the beating this ship’s taken, it’s going to take a miracle to get her back. That miracle is more likely with you at the helm. Now get your pony ass out there and take this ship home.”

“Realistically, we only have enough antimatter to spark a few dozen times,” said Mantissa. “The rest is in bottles too damaged to safely pour. Really, we’d be better off throwing them away before they can fail entirely and blow another hole in us.”

Silent Running was leaning over the logistics station. “Then we’d best make it count. Have Plasmid pick the generators that have the best chance of running. Once we have two going, we can use one of them to spark the rest, given time. And let me know as soon as power reaches the field emitters, we’ll need to start spooling them up.”

“Admiral on the bridge!” called out one of the sailors on the upper level as Sunset Shimmer strode up the steps to the raised platform. Silent Running straightened and walked up the steps to meet her.

“Status?” she asked, standing by the empty captain’s chair. Her expression was stern, her voice professional.

He glanced at several different panels as he replied, “Basic power has been restored to most of the ship, and we’ll have two or three generators up within an hour. All the engines look good except for #4, and we can compensate for that. Reaction control is functional as long as we have power. FTL field emitters are undamaged, but they’ll need a few hours to spool up.”

“Will two generators be enough to run the engines and the emitters at the same time?”

“Just barely. The lights will dim when we punch the emitters, and the gravity might wobble a bit, but we’ll have inertial compensation up to two Gs. It’ll be enough for her to limp home.”

“Giving us what, two or three c at best? Gets us home in three years?”

Silent Running nodded. “That’s about all the Moon Dancer has in her right now. Any faster and she won’t have enough power to feed the engines and the FTL at the same time.”

“How about if we alternated? Engines first, then FTL?”

Silent Running’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. FTL didn’t work like that: you had to run the field emitter at the same time you used an ordinary engine to accelerate. Unless…

“What are you planning, Ma’am?” he asked suspiciously. He knew her too well. She was up to something.

Sure enough, a mischievous grin crept across Sunset’s face. She leant over to the captain’s astrogation panel and tapped a button to fill the bridge’s big, spherical walls with a representation of the space around the ship: the large gas giant Ægir below them, with its intricate rings and a dozen moons, each tagged with a little label.

She plotted a course that took the ship away from Ægir, into a higher but unstable orbit, then sharply down again in a five hour dive that brought them extremely close to one of the larger moons, labelled ‘b IV / Hefring’. So close, in fact, that the moon’s gravity would fling the ship out of Ægir’s orbit entirely. At the periapsis, the point where the Moon Dancer would scrape closest to the surface of the icy moon, the line changed colour, indicating a switch into FTL mode. The line heading away from the moon was ringed by a little circular rainbow.

“So, in a dive like that, do you think you can build up enough power for a rainboom?”

Mantissa whistled as she grasped the idea. “A slingshot around that moon, then straight out through the middle of the rings. We end up pointed right at Sol. All the acceleration that goes into FTL comes from gravity rather than from our own engines, so we can build up… thirty or forty c.”

“It’s genius,” said Silent Running quietly. “It would get us home in a few months. We’re going to need four generators up to make it work.”

“It’s going to need some very careful piloting,” said Mantissa. “You can’t adjust much during slingshot, so you have to get it lined up perfectly in advance. The astrogation we’re trained on is all based around stable orbits, not stunts like this.” She turned to look at the Admiral and asked with amusement, “With respect, Ma’am, are you insane?”

“Perhaps,” said Sunset Shimmer, returning her grin. “But I think it’s time for this ship to earn its name.” She took in the room full of awestruck faces. “Let’s go dance with that moon. Who’s with me?”