-Aboard the Homebound K-196
-Twelve hours after first contact
I was in a really bad position all of a sudden, and my first instinct was to count my losses and book it. At least I wasn’t getting shot at this time. On second thought, I liked getting shot at more; then I could shoot back.
“What're you talking about?" Rainbow Dash prodded. Literally. She jabbed my chest with a marshmallow hoof, which was surprisingly firm for a marshmallow. I instinctively took a step back, surprised at her forcefulness. I might react the same way if I was told my species was pretty much extinct, even though my species technically was pretty much extinct. That's another story, though, for a later day. Rainbow Dash brought her hoof back to herself and said, "I mean, we're right here, and we're ponies! We can't be extinct!"
Terribly sorry, I wanted to say, smiling a stupid goofy grin, but it appears you no longer exist.
I smiled the kind of smile any tough interrogator would’ve loved seeing on me. I was aware, of course, that if Twilight Sparkle truly wanted, she could probably tear the Homebound into itty bitty pieces, and then teleport each individual piece to an alternate dimension, where they'd either be largely ignored, or cause some kind of huge catastrophe with the populace. If Princess Celestia’s praise of her skill was anything to go by, at least. So I raised one finger to reply in a matter of fact tone that they were not in fact extinct and that TACT was referring to another brand of ponies, which were only extinct if you counted Earth being missing for so long. I was interrupted. Guess by who?
"Ooooh! If we're extinct, does that make us dinosaurs?"
"Because if I'm a dinosaur, I want to be a T-Rex!" Pinkie suddenly was right in front of my face, holding her two front hooves up in the most predatory way possible. "RWWWAAARRR-urk!"
Applejack was nice enough to spare me, yanking hard on the insane pony’s tail. One orange hoof appeared from her to block the muzzle, where Pinkie continued rambling into it. "Aw shucks, sorry about that," Applejack said, grinning sheepishly as Pinkie's tail fell back to the floor. "Go on, sugarcube."
I chuckled blandly, and licked my lips. I had to act fast, and lie faster. "H-he’s not talking about your kind of ponies. It, uh, might be something to do with the translation spell on this," I muttered, holding up the hand with the ring, "being weird, but I don't know. Translation spells - magic - I guess, uhh...."
"Can be unpredictable," Twilight Sparkle finished for me, earning a grateful smile. It was good she knew about magic more than I did. Her helpfulness just made it easier to lie. "It's alright, Mister Amb-...Captain. But what type of pony was he referring to, then?" She looked at me, eyes glinting with that draconic look that made it easy to compare her to a black hole who only devoured knowledge. I could relate. I loved knowing things - like enemy movements, weak spots... I digress. The lying had to keep going if I wanted to make it out of this. I had to avoid Earth.
"Ah, he meant the ponies from one of our older species’ civilizations, the humans, I think.” I held out my hands in a whimsical way that I remember an old ur’luk shama doing - even though I might’ve gotten it wrong since I had been looking at the shaman through the scope of a sniper at the time. “It was an ancient, almost mythical place that sort of disappeared a, say, couple thousand years ago. Technically, they're extinct, but there are still some equine-like species, mostly decending from, uh, horses, and, uh... yea. That's it. No big deal. Anyway,” I rattled off, making for the final door on this floor, where the two hallways converged once more. There were several sounds of conversation behind me. I ignored all of them, having just dodged a bullet, and my mind continued down that track while the door opened to reveal a remarkably small space, with three staircases in either immediate direction. I stomped up the one directly in front of us. I let my mind wander and focused on the clopping of hooves on metal stairs.
Bad idea. It sounded far too much like the claws of a ravenous BAI parasite.
“Who were the humans?” Twilight asked. I felt like a tiny fish that had been tossed back into the pond full of hungry sharks by the fisherman, just because I was too small. In retrospect, I had always preferring shooting the fish instead of taking the old-fashioned route of just catching them with a net or hook. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, the humans used to say.
“They’re, uh...” I whispered, stopping on the steps to thing for a moment. They all watched me, their wide eyes somehow wider. I coughed into my hand and said, “Well, they’re sort of our predecessors. Before everything was like it is now - and I mean thousands and thousands of years ago - there were only humans. They were the ones who first discovered all of this technology. They made an entire civilization spanning past even our galaxy. Then still thousands of years ago ago... poof.”
“Poof?” they asked in unison.
“Poof,” I said, the start of a smile sneaking up on my lips, “and now we’re here,” I finished.
Their hoofsteps still sounded like claws to me.
Refusing to dwell on that absolutely terrifying mental image, because anyone who's ever faced a BAI parasite never forgets that sound - or, usually, comes out of the encounter alive. I quickened my pace and essentially ran up the stairs like a scared child. Don’t ask why I was suddenly so afraid of those ponies, because I wasn’t, my instincts were. I’ve honed myself to run like a scared schoolchild when I hear BAI, and I’m definitely not going to change that anytime soon. If you had spent months listening to those horrible skittering sounds like I had, you probably wouldn’t have a choice in being wary of it, let alone outright scared. Because if you weren’t, you were dead.
So it goes.
A few moments and exasperated panting later, we all stood at the top of the stairs, which opened up into a small lounge, with a small indoor garden of ship-friendly plants and benches, and one of the three windows on the entire ship. The window was currently closed, thank God. Looking at space is fine, but looking at an unfamiliar space isn't fine. There was still the matter of this bothersome anomaly that would have to be addressed later. Priorities, priorities.
"And what, dear sir, was that about?" Rarity said between pants, looking at me like how a giant bug might see an even bigger can of bug spray, or perhaps the business end of a gun. I waved my hand in a dismissive way at her, instantly replacing my stoic look by brushing off imaginary dust from my jacket.
"Nothing, nothing. Instinct kicked in there for a moment. I lean towards the former when it comes to flight versus fight."
"Then what did you think you were, um, fleeing from?" Twilight asked, struggling to regain her composure.
"You don't want to know," I muttered, quickly turning around to face the lounge, more specifically, down it. The lounge, of course, was more of a very thick hallway that looked very pretty. The plants, of course, were green. Most plans were green. When I had heard that a lot of people on Gantoris had the notion in their heads that lots of the alien worlds out there had plants that looked like they had been colored by a blind person with a neon rainbow, I couldn’t help but laugh myself into a teary stupor.
TACT's mushroom-insignia popped up on one of the walls’ screens, looking very menacing - or really silly, depending on how you looked at it. The window was midway down the hall, between two doors, one of which lead to my quarters, the other leading to the holo-room. The last of the dull, paneled doors, slightly wider than normal for traffic control, sat at the far end of the hallway. The various accessories of the lounge stopped some space before the door to my quarters, which was very nice, because I didn't like having the first thing I see every morning be a bunch of dumb plants. Instead, I always opened the door to either face a closed, or very open window. Not open in the sense where the glass was gone, of course. Why would I open a window in space? Well, there are several reasons; most of which I’d rather not explain.
"That's my quarters. Technically, it's private, but if you ever need me, feel free to knock," I said as we passed by the aforementioned entry. There were several mumbles of agreement, and in Pinkie's case, a very loud outburst that sounded something like "Ok-ee, doh-kee-, loh-kee." I'm unsure if that has any specific meaning to Equestrians, but if Pinkie Pie was named after one of their gods, they might consider her some sort of priest, and it had heavy religious significance.
What a weird religion, then. But I guess it's not my place to judge.
I absently pointed to the door to the holo-room. "That's the navigation center, but everyone just calls it the holo-room, etcetera. I'll show you what I mean, later." I looked to TACT, who had hopped to a closer screen. "Oi. TACT. How long until we get to the anomaly edge?"
"Five Basic Minutes, Sir."
"Is Evo in the bridge?"
"I Believe He Is Taking A Quick Nap. Shall I Wake Him?"
"No. I'll do that. TACT, open the door.”
“Yes Sir.” The door slid open with an almost silent hissing noise, and I took a deep breath.
“EVO WE’RE UNDER ATTACK BY EMPERIUM BATTLESHIPSDON’TPRESSANYBUTTONS!” I shouted into the bridge, watching with sick satisfaction as a lumpy form in the pilot’s chair jerked around madly, spewing mindless curses that made no sense in the order he presented them in. Within seconds he had spun around to face me with eyes big enough to make one of the ponies flinch. With one hand hovering - no, twitching - right above an obscured button I assumed said “Red Alert” on it, he blinked at my smile. Then he blinked again, his features slowly loosening up like a deflated balloon. He put his hand down and offered a shy smile.
“Um. I...” He looked down at his hands, cheeks reddening. “I am sorry, Captain. I should not have fallen asleep.”
“Darn right you shouldn’t have,” I grumbled, taking quick, controlled steps over to the pilot’s chair. Evo spun it around to face me, and his eyes lit up when he noticed the ponies as they filed through the door. “Anyways,” I said, sort of flapping my hand at the ponies in an uncaring “let’s get this over this” gesture, “these are the Equestrian... err, ambassadors. Twilight, Spike, Fluttershy, Applejack...” I tapped my forehead with a finger, racking my brain. “Rarity, Rainbow Dash, and Pinkie Pine. They’re ponies... except Spike is a dragon or something.”
“Pie!” the pink pony announced. I shrugged, and spun back to face Evo. Without a second thought, the cadet’s head bobbed back and forth, and he slid out from the seat to stand near the ponies. I smiled a plastic smile at him and took his place. I loved wordless exchanges like that. So much easier on the throat, although depending on who you were talking to at the time, tougher on the fists.
“Ah. Um. Pleasure to meet all you ponies. I am Evo Andres, cadet in Wing. I specialize in non-fighter class ship piloting and weapons control. You have nice hat,” the spindly man said in, somehow, a boastful voice. I’d have to ask why he and Lilian had the same last name and completely different accents. Anyways, from where I was sitting, Evo was making good pals with the ponies, so I spun around in the chair to face the open bridge window.
“TACT. Intercom on,” I grunted, shifting into a more comfortable position. TACT’s stupid little mushroom face appeared on one of the holoscreens and I huffed. “Alright, cadets. You better freak’n book it up here to your posts and get strapped down. We’re going to be at the Anomaly exit soon. Also, Lilian, good job thinking ahead and installing the pony-specific seats on the unused walls of the bridge. Intercom off.” I spun around to face Evo and the ponies. Evo was wearing Applejack’s hat and grinning like an idiot. The hat didn’t even go well with the uniform.
Some people just have no fashion sense.
“Girls, boys, settle down. Evo, I know you’re our pilot and all, but I need you to take the navigation panel for this.” The cadet nodded, and took the spot in front of the bridge window; Art had sat there before. Then he got up, his back stiff from embarrassment, and walked over to give Applejack her hat back. I rolled my eyes, and waited until the ponies (and dragon) and their attention back on me. “Alright, girls, Spike, you see those chairs lined up on the walls? I know they’re pretty far apart in some places, but I need you to sit in them. I, uh, neglected to tell you something about our ‘leaving Equestria’ part of the trip.”
“Oh, and what may I ask was that?” Rarity asked, trotting past me and to the cleanest looking of the chairs. Rainbow Dash followed in her wake, scowling at me.
“Well it better not be too important. I’ve tied myself down enough times today!”
“Now Rainbow, ain’t no reason to get fussy over it, an’ I bet he jus’ forgot about it,” Applejack said, hot on the tail of the perturbed pegasus. I sighed, and slumped ever so slightly in my seat. The farmpony nodded at me with a healthy dose of genuine smile, and I mean the kind you only get from the civilians that live on the more sparsely populated worlds. Especially from when right after you knock an invading fleet out of the sky. Those smiles were the best. I hadn’t seen one for far too long.
“Girls, girls, stop crowding him,” Twilight chided, stepping up to me. I looked down at her with an almost impassioned face, raising an eyebrow in question. “Um, Captain? What did you need to tell us?”
“Oh,” I droned, falling back into a safe, secure, monotone voice that would make TACT proud. “Well it just so happens there’s a large anomaly of unknown substance and origin that surrounds your system. To us, it is mostly invisible and is the reason why we’ve never found your planet before. We need to fly through that to get back into Wing space, and it might get a little... bumpy.”
“Bumpy how?” Twilight asked, retreating back to her seat now that the threat was active. I smiled, and glanced down at the stats rolling across the holo-screen. I vaguely heard the pitter-patter of footsteps as the four other crew-members strolled into the bridge, taking their designated seats. At least this time they knew to get buckled in, and exactly what was going to happen when we exited the Anomaly. A few words were exchanged between them, and then it came into view.
It was so sudden, like the whole universe just completely flickered out, each and every star being swallowed by a horrible blackness that consumed your entire existence. It was one thing to look up at the stars and feel very small, but it was a completely new feeling to look up at where the stars weren’t, and feel very alone and small. It was like some shadowing figure was pushing a pillow down upon the face of the whole universe. It was scary.
It was the Anomaly.
“Alright. Crew, get to your stations. No yelling about your station’s status once we get out. Girls, don’t be scared if you black out or feel a little woozy. It won’t hurt, but it might be a bit, uh, intense. TACT?” I gripped the joysticks stuck on to the chair with a controlled firmness I could only summon when lives were at stake, and my gaze glued itself to the bridge window. My pale hands were already slick with sweat, like they knew what was coming. Good. “Hand over manual control of the ship,” I said, my voice ringing like the steel on a sword.
“All crew, this is your captain speaking, get ready to exit the anomaly. Accelerating now,” I said, pushing the handles forward as the words left my mouth. It was a practiced movement, and one that all Admirals knew. When you were in the Wing, you knew how to fly a ship or you were already dead. With that grim thought in mind, my focus shifted from the blankness of the anomaly to the numbers flashing across the holo-screen. One caught my eye, and it was decreasing by a hundred every two seconds. I remembered looking at that number right before we entered the anomaly the first time, but at least I wouldn’t be taken by surprise here and now. Whatever happened last time, would happen this time. It had to.
Red lights blared.
The last thing I felt was my face falling through the holo-screen like a deep blue ocean coming up to meet me.
6-5-1-18 UNKNOWN ENTRY.
20-8-5 CANNOT DECIPHER.
3-15-13-9-14-7 SECURITY RECORDING LOG ERROR.
19-20-15-18-13 PLAYBACK ERROR.
“I’ve never been one to doubt you, sir, but-”
“Sir, you can’t undo something like thi-”
“I said do it, Lieutenant. If the other Admiral ordered it be done, I won’t be the one to stand in his way. You have a problem with that?”
“You have the authority to stop this! This isn’t what we stand for! Jackson, you have to listen t-”
“Nobody calls me Jackson. I will be known as Admiral Amber. Somebody clean up this body.”
“Captain?” Somebody smacked my face. Hard.
“Rrg, I’m up. Shrgrsh,” I grunted, opening my eyes and blinking past the initial pain of being brutalized into consciousness. The teryn - I hadn’t bothered to remember her exact name - stood over me with a perturbed expression that I only ever saw disappointed mothers use when looking at their moronic kids screwing around. “What happen?” I slurred, rubbing my eyes when the bright lights of the bridge assaulted them. I heard her huff, muffled while the holo-screen fizzled back to life.
“You blacked out only for a few seconds the last time, Captain, and I... recommend you don’t go through the anomaly again without us knowing more about it. You lasted a full minute; we couldn’t wake you.”
“Nng. Alright,” I muttered, finally getting a chance to observe the room without my eyeballs feeling like they were going to melt out. Roland and Dylan were unbuckling the girls and Spike, while Twilight excitedly looked out the bridge window. A few of them definitely looked shaken up, and their eyes flitted about the ship like it was going to collapse any moment. Except for Twilight, though; she just looked like she was going to wet herself. It was almost cute. I had felt the same way when I had first joined the Wing, serving as a communications officer aboard the ESS Legacy. We were only attacked once, but that battle still stuck in my memory and I remember looking exactly like Twilight did. They were good times. They were gone times. But nonetheless, I couldn’t have nervous members on my ship, especially if they were inexperienced diplomats. I had to talk, or to make a speech.
“Erm, ahem. Everyone stand right over here. TACT, online?” I asked, waving Dylan, Roland, and the other crewmembers into the lowered area right in front of the pilot’s seat. It was made to fit the entire crew plus five, but with all the ponies it seemed a bit cramped. I smiled at the thought while they ordered themselves.
“Alright,” I said, ignoring TACT. “Everyone who somehow hasn’t figured it out yet, that was the anomaly. It overloads our power systems and, more often than not, forces anyone alive to black out for a while, including TACT. From what we know, it isn’t dangerous, and there’s probably a way to bypass both effects and we’ll send a couple research vessels out this way later, but for now, we’re past it and in the clear. The closest Wing territory from this point is the Omega system, and we’ll be headed for Starbase Omega itself. With what power and fuel we have left, TACT, how fast do you think we could make it to Omega with ten percent power and fuel left?”
“At Our Fastest, We Could Be There Within A Day.”
“Good, good. Keep us on autopilot for that amount of time. I want the crew and ponies to adjust their sleeping schedule back to Galactic Basic. I don’t want anyone staying awake in the middle of the night when we reach Gantoris, aye?”
“And as for you girls,” I announced, turning to face the ponies and Spike. “And the crew, of course. I’m going to need you to stick with the crew whenever we reach a Wing-controlled area. If you don’t have a crew member to buddy up with, stick to me and me only. The cities can be pretty big and confusing in the more, uh, populated areas. Got it? Good. Now... hm. Lilian?”
“Yessir?” The cadet straightened out, and her arm jerked; she had suppressed a salute. I wasn’t sure what to think of that observation. The new generation was far too formal if you asked me. When I had joined the Wing, all we had time to do was fight for survival and keep our citizens safe. Nobody saluted me then. It was all just respectful nods and a few, “Thank you for saving our arses out there, Admiral!”s.
“You’re the one who modified these chairs to fit them. I have absolutely no freak’n idea how you managed to do that with the few tools we have on this ship, but good job. When we get to Gantoris, I want you to outfit the ponies, and, uh, Spike, with some equipment. Just a headset is all I want for them at the moment, make it a holo-one, so they can get video feed too. Can you do that?”
“Can do, sir.”
“Good. Maybe I’ll design them from EPA suits and pony-capable VALKs for when we get to Han Wavel, but for now it’s up to you. Anyone have anything to say?” Evo’s hand slowly slid up, and I nodded at the accented young pilot.
“I call partner buddies with Applejack. Her hat is fabu... fab... good.”
“Ha! Well I get the rainbow one, then!” Roland exclaimed in a voice bit too loud for my tastes, pointing at the shorter cadet with a mocking finger. Evo shrunk down a bit under his glare, and in the background I saw Lilian chuckling.
“It’s Rainbow Dash! I have a name!”
“Guys, this isn’t a contest.”
“Ooh, ooh, yay! I call the big scary silent one!”
They faded as the door shut behind me. Somewhere during the insanity, I had decided staying in there wouldn’t be worth my time, because eventually the crew would discover two of the ponies would be left out, and then they’d argue over which of them got to buddy with two. With the incessant voices nothing more but a memory poking the back of my head with a stick, I took a deep breath, and headed for my cabin. Halfway there, TACT popped up on the wall panel.
“Try not to scare me like that, TACT,” I deadpanned, sighing into the palm of my hand. AIs always lacked tact for some reason.
Wait a minute.
“Erm, so. TACT. Our communications?”
“Communications Are Still Offline. However, In Exiting The Anomaly I Noticed A Hidden Jamming Device Had Been Removed. Whatever Was Blocking Me From Repairing the Damage Without Expending Massive Amounts Of Power Has Now Been Removed. I Am Able To Commence Repairs At Your Leisure.”
“When can you have them done, do you think?”
“Tomorrow Mid-Day Galactic Basic Time, At Most.”
“Good, you get on that, then.”
“Still hate you, though.”
By the time his last word had come out, I was already through my cabin door, eagerly awaiting a nice, comfortable sleep. There would be no worried over if the suicide mission would end in my death. There would be no bombs going off around me. There would be nobody knocking on my door like there was now. I suppressed a deep-throated groan, and spun on my heel. I could’ve sworn my eye twitched a little. “Yes?” I asked before the door could even finish opening itself. Before me was Roland, flanked by Dylan. Both were still in their armor, and Dylan was still in his helmet. I had seen all of the crew so far except for him, so why couldn’t I remember him from earlier?
“Uh, Captain. Dylan mentioned something to me back in the hangar, before we left the anomaly...” Roland began, and I held up a hand to interrupt him.
“He mentioned something to you?”
“Err. Yessir. She wrote it down on her datapad and sent me a message.”
“Yeah. She told me that she needs to see an engineer as soon as we get to Omega. Her, uh, voicebox broke.” I blinked. “She lost her vocal cords or something on Myrkr - back in the wars. They didn’t have any bio-menders on hand, so they had to put a false voicebox in her throat. I mean, I hadn’t noticed the first time, but... err, yea. We think it overloaded when we went through the anomaly the first time.”
“And the helmet?”
“Err, yea. I asked about that, sir. It broke.”
“You can’t just-”
“Yes sir, yes sir. I know, but it just fizzled out and fused to the rest of the suit somehow. It might have something to do with the voicebox getting messed up, since... I, oh nevermind. She just wants you to know she needs a new one. If Omega can fabricate any...”
“I’ll let them know. I need my crew in top shape if we’re going to get anything done. That means no mutes. If I can’t get you one on Omega, Dylan,” I said, looking over to the silent soldier, “I’ll place an order for a high-end fancy one on Gantoris, my treat. As for the helmet, talk to Lilian. She’s our engineer, or something.”
“Will do, sir,” Roland tried to say, but the door had already shut. I started at the locked device for the moment, the prime question in my mind sounding a bit like, “Why am I so grumpy?” Whatever the reason was for my sudden downward mood, I didn’t know, and right now all I wanted was some sleep, so I didn’t care either.
I grumbled a few foreign curses, and frowned at the silver colored ring stuck onto my fingers. Had I just heard that right? It didn’t seem to be translating the curses. When the ponies talked, it was like they were badly lip synching, and I was sure the crew and I looked the same. The ring worked with TACT, so I could assume a lot, but magic was unpredictable, like Twilight had said. It was wonky. It was weird. I had still seen weirder. I could probably deal with anything those ponies had to throw at me. I’ve fought giant alien wolves before. Rest in Peace, Fluffy. Born, unknown; died, me. I didn’t want to tempt fate.
I slid the ring off my finger and stepped up to the mirror, holding it out before me. I wasn’t unfamiliar with “magical” things. I remembered when the VALK technology had been discovered so many years ago, even if it felt more like jumbled emotions from a half-remembered dream. People back then thought it was magical. Then we reverse-engineered it, created hyper-advanced AIs, new power sources, teleporters that could take you across the vast reaches of space. “Magic” was something the galaxy was familiar with, but this wasn’t that kind of magic. This was different, and familiar all the same.
My eyes drifted from the ring to my haggard face. A few days without shaving hadn’t done much. I had always grown hair slowly, even though the doctors said I never helped the matter by getting my face blown up every time I walked out the door. But if I wasn’t getting my face torn up to protect them, who would? I blinked, and dull brown eyes blinked back, their edges marred by years of fighting and seeing fighting. Just because we had VALKs didn’t mean I never had to see people getting blown in half by enemy fire - or worse.
I sighed, tearing my eyes from the sunken face that looked like me. I looked down at my bed. The only really comfortable bed on the entire ship. Then someone knocked. At that point, I think I was too tired and annoyed to understand I had stomped over to the door, practically pushing it open faster than it could itself. Behind it was Twilight, looking up at me with the hopeful eyes of a young scholar on an adventure.
Too bad she was looking into the eyes of a haggard, annoyed war ‘vet who wanted only a bit of sleep and wasn’t about to listen to a plush unicorn for hours. I smiled anyways, and tried not to have my eyes twitch this time.
“Hello, Captain. The others all went down to the medical bay for vaccinations, but I just wanted to tell you something.”
“What,” I grunted. No time for pleasantries. Bed called.
“Well, you see, when the ship exited the anomaly, I noticed none of my friends blacked out like you warned would happen. I felt an intense magical shield envelop the area around us, and that power surge, I think, wasn’t caused by going through the anomaly, because it was because we weren’t ever going through the anomaly. It was... sort of like a teleport spell, but like nothing I’d ever seen before...”
“Cool,” I deadpanned, pressing a button. The door closed, and I pretended I didn’t hear the hoofsteps slowly moving down the hallway and that I wasn’t imagining Twilight looking like a sad puppy. “Cool,” I repeated, taking a slow, deep breath.
What she had just said, changed everything.