I soon learned that I did not relish being left alone to my thoughts.
‘Twas as though I was still waking up, still becoming real. More and more of my self crept in with every passing moment. Memories crept in at the same time. The War of Madness, the reign of my sister and I, the dark time of the Nightmare’s incarnation within myself. My first banishment, of course, was an enormous blank.
Ruefully I reflected that I was, in a way, lucky to have experienced such a thing before now.
Then, the Spirit network. I remembered, I remembered. But the world, then, had still been recognisable. I had been staunchly against the development of space travel, I recalled. Apparently I had changed my mind or been unable to halt that which ponies called ‘progress’.
I wondered what Eqqus might look like, now, all these hundreds of years later.
What world was, even now, the Nightmare wreaking havoc upon? And how could I, a lost little brain in a jar, help to stop it from thousands of miles away?
Who were the ponies I was to lead? And how could I hope to do so when I didn’t even know the most basic facts about this terrifying new existence?
I needed something to focus on. So, I cast my awareness outward once more to find whatever ‘data’ Circuit Charm had spoken of.
What I found, once I deciphered its contents, was an explanation of how to craft a persistent ‘self’ to appear to other aspects, and to flesh-and-blood ponies via the magical displays.
It certainly helped me to feel, if nothing else, a little more real.
Out in the black, far away, something moves across the face of Eqqus far below. Invisible against the dark, and too small to spot in any case.
Something, or many somethings, are headed directly for the Great Spacefleet.
They are as dark as the night, and move with purpose.
It took a time for me to learn how to exist as an aspect. How to present an avatar of my self, how to inhabit that avatar, how to trick my mind into viewing wirespace as a real, traversable plane. ‘Twas almost as if I was a real pony, again, when I could look down at my hooves, walk along in the featureless black.
Almost as if I was a real pony. But I could not feel. Or breathe, or cast my magic, though I could create the illusion of such a thing.
I will not bore you with the sorrows I suffered, there in that existential prison of my own design. Their faces would not leave my mind’s eye. The ponies who had stayed with me, whom I had failed to save. I mourned them.
But I did, eventually, decide that I was ready to see whatever Circuit Charm wanted me to see. With my newfound knowledge, I cast my mind to the ‘address’ he’d supplied. Within moments, the stallion appeared before me, as if stepping out from behind an invisible curtain.
“Your highness,” he said, bowing. “I am happy to see you in… hah… the flesh.”
Despite myself I give him a small smile. “Thank you,” I said, “for providing me what I needed to become more… whole.”
“I promise,” he replied, “It only gets easier from here. Now, if you wish, I can show you the virtual space we aspects tend to inhabit. Our own little world. Much,” he said knowingly, “like a dream, I think.”
I put some effort into making myself snort. “‘Tis like no dream I have walked before,” I said.
“Perhaps not,” he responded with a smile of his own, “but I think you’ll find it enriching all the same.” He stopped, then, shook his head with a strange laugh. “Forgive me, your highness, but it is very odd speaking to the one who created this world as if she is wholly ignorant of its nature.”
“Ah, but I am, my dear little pony,” I said sadly. “The pony, the Luna, to whom you owe so much, is likely lost forever. Lost to the Nightmare, like so many others. If I am her, I am only a shadow.”
“No,” Circuit Charm replied firmly. “You are the one true Princess of the Night. You’ve just… forgotten some things.”
“We will beat the Nightmare virus, and we will restore you to your throne. With it, your memories may return. You will be more, then, than you are here and now.”
“More?” Once more, I felt a twinge of confusion and doubt. “What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he continued, “that you will once more inhabit half of Eqqus, taking control of the night even as your sister controls the day. You will be everywhere. The omnipresent aspect of the Princess of the Night.”
Before I could take this in, he went on briskly as if this new revelation was nothing of much note, contrary to my sudden and vaguely shocked anxieties at the idea.
“But first we must help Celestia win the war. For now, that means getting you, your highness, situated properly here in the Fleet. So: let me show you the virtual world we call home.”
And so, Luna is taken from her dark corner of wirespace into the world of the aspects, where she learns more of what it is to exist inside the machines her other self created so long ago.
Look, though, to another side of the ship, where a meeting is taking place. It takes place in anticipation of the princess: now that she is here, awakened, and becoming ready to take the throne, such as it was.
One of the ponies is the admiral of the Fleet. His name is Boundless Black, and he listens silently as the other ponies in the room take turns discussing what concerns must be brought before the princess, and which things need simply to happen behind the scenes, and in what order.
There are a great many plans being laid out, not one of which has much basis in practicality.
Black clears his throat and the other ponies turn to him, ceasing their conversation at once. The two aspects in attendance peer out from their screens attentively.
“Princess Luna has been rescued. The Starship Nightsong has been secured and is undergoing repair. As we speak, she is being introduced to the virtual space.” A pause. “Our position is precarious. We’ve lost ponies, and we’ve lost ships. Saving the princess was a victory, but now we must decide what to do next.”
They all start talking at once. Black frowns and raises a hoof. “Commodore.”
The pony to his left nods. “Thank you. I simply have to report that we still have some battle-ready ships in working order. If we can make it to Princess Celestia, we can use them to escort another capital ship to the fleet.”
Murmuring breaks out over this. “It is a risky course of action,” Black says, “and not one that we can decide upon ourselves. Princess Luna will hear your proposal.”
“But when?” A mare looks doubtful. “We do not know if the princess is prepared to—”
“According to Circuit Charm,” an aspect interjects, “Princess Luna wishes to take command as soon as possible.”
“So you see,” Black says, “Princess Luna is here to lead us. And lead us she will.”
“I don’t understand,” another stallion says. “If she is no longer linked to the Eqqus spirit network… what power does she have? How can she lead us?”
“It is her right,” Black says simply. “Princesses Celestia and Luna have been our sovereigns for all living memory.”
Not all ponies in the room look fully convinced. “She is just another pony, another aspect, here in the fleet,” the mare says. “How do we have any more hope now than we did before?”
“Nopony can know the Nightmare like Princess Luna,” a quiet stallion says. “If anypony can find a weakness, it’s her.”
I took command with entirely more composure and ease than I had been prepared to expect from myself.
The announcement, and the public appearance, had been strange: appearing to all the aspects in, for want of a better term, the flesh; staring out at the flesh-and-blood ponies through a virtual window into the world. They were ecstatic. More than forty thousand of them, here in the gigantic fleet.
Since then, I had been liaising nonstop with all the ponies who could enlighten me as to the decisions that needed to be made and things that needed to be known. I did not sleep. I no longer needed to.
The attack came on the sixth day.
It began with alarms: silent at first, the blinking lights illuminating the corridors and telling ponies to return to their stations at once. It didn’t immediately mean an attack. But when I willed myself to appear at the bridge of the capital ship Dawn of Magic, it was a tense scene. Ponies used the consoles to frantically scan the blackness for whatever was closing in.
“Situation report,” I called out to the nearest officer.
“Proximity, your highness,” he said immediately. “Maybe just rocks but… more likely nightmare drones.”
I nodded. The drones had been explained to me. Robotic bodies, controlled magically by means unknown. They had been sent out into the black by Nightmare, stabbing randomly at wherever the fleet might be hiding. They were dangerous, but relatively easy to fight off. “Keep me updated.”
“Yes, your highness.”
A pony called out frantically from across the bridge, then. “Drones! Drones in quadrant Aleph-Six-Six!”
That’s when the alarms began proper. I could only watch as fighter ships were deployed and sent out to meet the attackers.
In my minds eye I watched the data fly past. It seemed one drone might already have been destroyed. The fighters were scrambling, scrambling, then moving back into formation—
“Two kills confirmed, one fighter heavily damaged.”
Yes. Yes, I could see. The diagnostic data being constantly transmitted flew by me and told me that a ship had been hit with something that disrupted its magical shielding, made it weak.
“Damaged fighter splitting from formation, heading back to fleet.” The pony paused as he listened to something over comms. “Wait. She says…” he looked up in astonishment. “She says there’s a drone latched onto her fight—”
At that moment, a terrible screeching noise emanated from every comms speaker in the room. It became a harsh, high laugh.
I had never heard it before. But I knew what it was.
“Lu̷̢͔͐ư̵̻͋u̸̙̘͂͌n̵̗̮̍a, Luń̷̙͈̓ȁ̴̤̄ ̶̼̅̐Luna”, it said mockingly. “Es̸̗̘̚c̵͍̻̆̈ä̵͇́̑ped again. Or pä̷͕́̆ȑ̵̦̘t̵̝̓ ̴̖͖̕of you. Out in sp̵̰͊̏a̷̗̅̆ce. Safe?” The laugh came again. “Not for lon̴̳̬̄g̴͔͉̊̆.”
“Locked onto target,” a pony called out.
“Fire at will,” the stallion I recognised as Commodore Winds called in return.
“I will f̴̫͉̚i̴͙͔̔̀n̷̬̲̊̾d you!!” It was almost a scream from the Nightmare vessel. It began to laugh again, but was cut off: a magical blast destroyed the fighter, and it, in an explosion no robotic abomination could survive. The aspect piloting it woke up, somewhere in wirespace.
The other fighters returned, having killed or disabled the rest of the attackers.
It had begun so suddenly, and ended so quickly, that I could scarcely believe the attack had happened at all. It had become a well-practiced dance for the fleet. But the tension in the room barely dropped.
Every pony knew that we were just a lot of little souls out in the darkness. Against something like the Nightmare, it felt as if it was only a matter of time.
The meeting room is filled with high-ranking officers in the Fleet, and other senior ponies deemed important enough to be present. The Nightmare’s attempted insurrection has left them shaken. Low, anxious chatter bounces around the room in anticipation of Luna’s appearance. Various screens around the walls display the images of aspects, who quietly converse with the nearest ponies like all the rest. They know their princess will arrive at any moment.
Sure enough, the screen at the head of the room flashes, and Luna appears, in her preferred method of ‘teleporting’ in. Everypony abruptly stops talking and bows.
“Thank you, my subjects,” Luna says with a raised hoof. “There is no need to tarry. Those of you with situation reports to relay, please do so, in ascending order of rank.”
A great deal of glancing back and forth, and more murmuring, ensues as those at the lower rungs of the ladder of command work out who should speak first. Finally, an earth stallion clears his throat, and addresses the room:
“Our greenhouses have been thoroughly inspected and no traces of the Nightmare can be detected. For now, our food is safe.”
Another pony takes a step forward and goes on, “Likewise with our life support systems,” she relays. “All ships report nominal…”
On it goes, and as each pony reports good news, the tension in the room begins to ease somewhat. Luna’s cool gaze rests on each pony as they speak. The virus had been purged from the few systems it had infected. The virtual space was not infiltrated. The few aspects who had been attacked by the virus had recovered, as reported by Circuit Charm. None of the ships in the fleet were experiencing system failure, and the robotic bodies left behind in the cold, empty blackness had been destroyed.
Finally, Admiral Black clears his throat. “Thank you, all of you,” he says, then turns to Princess Luna. “Your highness, at this time I would recommend we immediately relocate the Fleet. The Nightmare can find us if we stay here. We have perhaps a day and a half.”
“Make it so, Admiral,” Luna says with a nod. Black nods in return, and waves a hoof to some of the ponies in the room. Two unicorns make to leave, and several aspects disappear from screens nearby.
“We will speak no more of the attack,” Luna announces to the room as this happens. “We must consider now what steps are to be taken to strengthen our own position.” She pauses to gather her thoughts. “I want,” she says, “a body. A robotic body like those the Nightmare uses. I feel quite useless here in wirespace. I desire to walk among my subjects once more, and cast spells of my own conception without the need for learning this blasted code malarkey.”
Immediately murmuring rustles across the assembled ponies. “You cannot cast spells without learning runescript,” says a tired-looking unicorn stallion. “A robotic body, even if we could make one, wouldn’t change that.”
“Whatever do you mean?” Luna asks with a raised eyebrow.
“I mean I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the stallion replies bluntly. He barely seems to know who it is he’s addressing. “You can’t cast spells without coding them.”
There is another long pause as she regards the stallion, who simply stares back tiredly, oblivious to the nervous glances of the ponies around him at the thought of addressing Princess Luna in such a manner. “Who,” she says finally, “are the most experienced mages present?”
This causes some confusion. Ponies look around, and at each other, wondering who could possibly identify as such a thing. Some ponies begin to laugh, but stop, when they look again to the cooly questioning face of their princess.
“Do you refer to our magitech engineers, your highness?” Admiral Black asks for the room. “Or are you asking who, in the fleet, has the deepest magical font?”
“Nay,” says the princess, annoyed, “I wish to know which ponies are accomplished spellcasters. Without the help of your arrays, your… runescript, your machinery.”
“Spellcasters… without machines?” a tall mare asks incredulously. “Surely, Princess, you’re having fun with us.” She wilts at the stare focussed upon her by Luna. “...Or are you suggesting that myths of mages and warlocks have basis in fact?”
“Surely,” says Luna after a long pause, “Surely it is you who mean to have fun with me.” She looks to Black. “Admiral?”
“Princess,” Admiral Black says after a measured look around the room, “I gather that in the days of your reign, before the aspect ascension, unicorns cast complex spells purely through their horns.” He pauses. “This is no longer the case. In fact, until this moment, I believe every pony in this room considered it to be a myth.”
The princess on the screen boggles at them. “You mean to say that unicorn spellcraft is no longer practiced at all?”
“Of course it is,” the unicorn mare says, “We channel our magic through runescript in the device we want to use.”
“Are you saying, your highness,” another interjects, “that unicorns used to cast spells by just… imagining the code?” He seems quite baffled by the idea.
On the screen, Princess Luna’s eyes flit from one unicorn to the other in an expression that mirrors his. The unseen camera above the screen whirrs away as she does so. “So for thousands of years, all magic has been cast through… machines? You no longer use your horns?”
“We have our magical grasp, of course,” says the unicorn mare as others nod along. “But the idea of casting a complex spell without runescript code and magitech is… considered quite impossible.” She does, indeed, look frankly disbelieving.
Luna shakes her head with a sigh. “Of all the things I expected to hear…”
“And quite apart from all that,” Admiral Black says quietly, “we cannot create robotic bodies that aspects can inhabit. We’ve tried. It’s been accepted for hundreds of years that it is impossible.”
“What about the Nightmare?” a stallion says to murmurs of assent. “She somehow inhabits all of them. They speak with her voice. And EMP attacks render them immobile but no more. She still… talks through them.”
“The Nightmare virus is different,” Black says shortly. “We don’t know how it does those things. It is dark magic.”
“Indeed,” Princess Luna says with a nod, “it is. But it is magic all the same. The Nightmare is an aberration, but she is not capable of the impossible—”
“Do not speak of it as if it is a pony,” Admiral Black says sharply. “...Your highness,” he adds, head bowing low as he remembers himself.
“I think you have forgotten,” Luna says, ignoring the interruption, “what true magic is.” She pauses. “Build me a body.”
The eruption of chatter that ensues makes the princess roll her eyes. The senior engineers in the meeting are already in heated argument with some other high-ranking unicorn, and everypony in the room seems to have some insight into the wisdom of the endeavor.
Black looks out stoically over them all, then back at the princess. “Your highness, I strongly suggest discussing this matter with the senior engineers before—”
“This,” Princess Luna says in a voice that silences the entire room, “is an order. A decree.” As her subjects look at each other, expressions varying from determined to uneasy, she goes on.
“Build me a body,” she repeats, “And I shall show you what else ponykind has forgotten over these long years.” Her gaze sweeps across every pony in the room. “I shall show you what a Princess of Equestria can do.”