• Published 2nd May 2012
  • 5,082 Views, 250 Comments

Homebound - Retsamoreh



A space military captain, who believes that Equestria resides on the legendary, long-lost planet of Earth, attempts to save Twilight and her friends from an incoming invasion that threatens both Equestria and the galaxy while keeping them all sane.

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(10) Old Friends

-Aboard the Homebound K-196

-Twelve hours after leaving the anomaly.

-Hangar bay.

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“TACT?”

“Yes Sir?”

“The, uh, security cameras around the ship are still operational, right?” I asked, leaning against the wall. Behind me, I could hear the rhythmic thumping of feet pounding the ground. The crew was busy doing their work out. They’d gotten long enough of a break from it, and soldiers - even me - needed to keep fit. I should’ve been out there with them, really, but I needed a break to talk to TACT privately.

“Yes Sir.”

“Alright, off that topic. You said yesterday that there was a jamming device in the communications, preventing you from repairing them. Any idea why?” TACT’s screen flickered for a moment, sucking up valuable power in order to fuel his giant brain. Having an AI was costly in terms of power usage sometimes, which was why we had a separate AI core just for that reason. If need be, TACT could operate on his own power for thousands of years. You know, just in case we needed to do that.

“I Do Not Fully Understand It Myself, Sir, And Am Mostly Unable To Explain What Happened. I Assume The So Called ‘Magic’ In The Anomaly Interfered With The Communications, But It May Also Be That A Jamming Device Was Placed Soon After We Entered, And The ‘Magic’ Removed It When We Left.”

“So someone’s a spy? It’s about time we found one and strung him up for all the other potential spies to see. I do so love that kind of punishment,” I hissed, looking over my shoulder to the cadets, now doing laps around the hangar. Worse, this entire situation seemed to stump TACT, and anything that stumped an advanced AI was a bit beyond me.

“Presumably, Sir.”
“Alright. Back to the cameras, then. Just wanted to confirm something.... Okay, uh, I need you to keep an eye on the crew; monitor them. If one of them’s a spy, I want to nail them good. But... wait, what if the spy was left back on Equestria with Art? Oh nonono... this is bad.” I clenched my teeth, half my brain trying to figure out how to solve this problem, and the other half berating me for being so stupid as to let one of my crew be a spy. “TACT, I probably should’ve asked this earlier, but do we still have those probes? I don’t remember if we left them on Equestria or not.”

“They Are Still In The Cargo Manifest, Sir.”

“Good. Think you can, maybe, launch one? Have it contain a message directed to Celestia and Commander Boyo. Message reads, uh: Sorry to interrupt whatever you’re up to, but all the cadets are now officially promoted to ensign and he can give them their pips any time he wants. Also, new information suggests one of the crew from the Homebound is a spy, and it might be one of the cadets on Equestria. You may want to look into that. End message. Got it? Oh, and the promotion thing. I’ll be promoting these guys as soon as we get to Gantoris. Not that you care.”

“Wireless Uplink Secured. Probe Activated And Message Stored. A Crew Member Will Need To Fully Release The Probe Into Space, Sir.”

“Send a message to Roland and Dylan’s datapads. After lunch, I want them on it. No breaks. Word it how you want.”

“Acknowledged, Sir.”

“And how are the communication repairs going?”

“I Estimate They Will Be Completed Within Three-And-A-Half Hours, Sir. Right After Lunch.”

“Brilliant, now- HEY!” I shouted, turning to face the crew. “What do you think you’re doing? I see you slacking off there! That’s right! I want five sets of lunges across the width of the hangar! I’ll join you in a second....” I brushed a hand through my slicked-back hair, nodding with sick satisfaction as it came away greasy. I had shaved my head for a good number of years in the Wing. Anything longer got caught in helmets or was a perfect target for baddies to yank on. I wore a sleek grey bandanna back then. The style sort of faded out, and I don’t remember when I exactly decided to let it grow. So it goes.

“TACT. Do you, uh, have any idea what kind of exercises a pony would do? I can’t have them just watching while the rest of us sweat, and I literally have no idea what they would be doing.”

“No Data Available. I Suggest You Ask One Of Them.”

“Thanks a bunch, you overhyped pile of wires,” I muttered, grinning a little as TACT took that as an excuse to go mess with some other part of the ship, his mushroom insignia fizzling into the regular blue screen. I stepped out to the middle of the hangar, where Twilight and her friends were staring out of the massive blue energy field and into the emptiness beyond. Stars flickered past at varying speeds, almost like a waterfall of light; one thing was for certain, the ship wasn’t still. Her friends were still mesmerized by the swirling mass of shiny things outside the ship, so Twilight was the only one to turn and smile at me. At least she wasn’t holding a grudge from last night.

“Hello, Captain. I... you’re going to have us do what they’re doing, aren’t you?”

Clever girl.

“Yup. Sorry, Twilight. Despite what you may think, this isn’t any kind of vacation,” I said, nodding in greeting as her other friends turned to face me. Each with a varying degree of trepidation. At least they had gotten their shots. “This is about you learning how we live out in the rest of the galaxy, and right now, you’re honorary members of my crew. I, uh, well I don’t know how ponies workout, so I’m guessing it’s up to you guys. They’ve got...” I paused, looking down at my datapad. “Forty minutes left. All I want is for you to exercise along with them - err, but yeah. I can’t really punish you if you don’t, so, please?”

“Well, duh! I do plenty of training anyways. This’ll be easy as pie!” Rainbow punched the air, and I resisted the urge to punch her.

“Don’t you mean cake, Dashie?!” came the veritably annoying sound of the Pinke Menace. Fist lock-on initiating.

“Well, I s’pose. Ain’t no harm in stayin’ fit, so I’m in.”

“Oooh, I’m going to be all sweaty after this, aren’t I?” Rarity asked, looking mournfully down at her mane. Nevermind Pinksters, I wanted to knock this one out. Then again, why not all of them? Control, I thought to myself, control. You’re just stressed about the spy.

“They have showers, Rarity. I think it’s a good idea,” Twilight said. The rest of the group uttered similar agreements, and I proudly stood over the six. Wait, I thought, six?

“Where’s Spike?” I asked. I really need to pay attention better.

“Oh, Spike’s still asleep. I didn’t want to wake him.” Twilight smiled up at me. “I hope that’s not a problem. He is only a baby dragon.”

Good God, I let a baby on my ship?

“No, it’s fine. Have fun, girls,” I muttered, slinking back to the area designated for the rest of the crew to have their sweaty, grunty fun-time. They were still doing those lunges, and I could see the sweat glistening on all except for Dylan. She still hadn’t gotten out of her suit yet. Creepy, almost. I fell in line with them, right next to Aran, and went through with the motions. We never did these kinds of workouts when I was first joining. We got them for free.

Even old sods like me need to stay fit. Or sweaty. Whichever you prefer.

~=V=~

Nothing really compares to a good shower. Whether it’s hot, cold, or somewhere in between, if you’ve worked hard and know you deserve it, a shower can definitely suffice as your trophy. An actual trophy would be nice too, though. It’s a bit like having your cake and eating it, except having your cake is like finally getting enough time to take a shower, and eating it is like letting the water flow over your shoulders so you can fully appreciate that time.

So I let the water flow over my shoulders, smiling in a giddy bliss that I only felt after a job-well-done. Something was wrong though, and that was the knowledge that this wasn’t a job-well-done. This was just the cold shower before the real storm that would come thundering about and bash my head in with a mallet. Any number of things could go wrong during my mission with the ponies, which I had mentally noted to file under Operation: Homebound, and not just for irony’s sake. Well, a bit for irony’s sake. I liked naming things ironically, which was why I called it the Homebound in the first place. So why not name a mission after what it isn’t? After all, I am taking these poor souls away from their home, with my sole goal being to get them back happy and, more importantly, in one piece. Maybe I just suck at irony.

The soft sound of water pitter-pattering against the tiled floor was the only thing that filled my ears in the washroom. I was the last to take a shower, meaning I got the least and coldest water. That was fine. A happy crew can make all the difference in stressful situations. A clean crew makes me happy, too. The silence of taking a nice shower in an empty washroom was also nice. For once, the hum of the engine was replaced with the hollow trickling of water, and I’d always liked water. It reminded me of home. I preferred things that reminded of me home; it was why I had wooden furniture in each of my quarters.

Showering was the only real time I had to my thoughts, so I tended to think during them.

My hair was a scruffy mess, plastered to my cranium by the clear liquid raining upon me. In the mirror on one side, I could see bits of grey peeking through the hairs. I’d have to get that fixed. Appearances mattered in this galaxy, and looking like an old man never helped anyone get respect. Having an army behind you and a couple of slick one-liners, on the other hand...

I winced as the freezing water slid down my back, spattering against the criss-crossed scars that had taken residence there recently. I hadn’t had time to visit a bio-mender since my latest adventure in “nearly getting killed countless times”, so for now, I had to deal with scars. At least they hadn’t gotten my face, even though they’d managed to get everything but that. There are some things you never live down, but that’s life.

With my mind brought back to the more recent of my failures, one hand slapped against the water control nozzles. The stream stopped, and I leaned against the slick wall for a moment. Drip, drip. Drop. The water slid off of me like I was some sort of big monster hiding in each drop’s closet, ready to gobble them up if they didn’t obey mommy.

Before I could comprehend what I was doing, I already had a used towel tossed to the ground and was putting on my pants like the ship had suddenly sprouted a self destruct timer and I had two minutes to not be naked and show up to continue evacuations. From personal experience, it’s really hard to control any group of people when you’re naked, no matter how loyal they claim to be to you. My washed uniform jacket was hanging on a rack next to the sink, having gone through the automated motions and spurted out clean as a whistle. I threw on a nearby white undershirt before staring at the garmet, seeing my form in the mirror in the corner of my eye.

Then that awful sound came again: knocking. Why me?

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” I called. With one hand, I tossed on the jacket, not bothering to zip it. The other hand was busy smashing at my hair to a point where I hoped it didn’t look awful. I was still smacking at my scalp like a frantic squid by the time the door opened. It revealed none other than Twilight, her mane still shining from her own shower. Shouldn’t she have some sort of spell to dry herself off, or something? Then again, I was more concerned with what she wanted, not how her hair shined like... “Yes, Twilight?” I asked, mentally crushing the comparison of the two. If there was anything I was interested in less than love, it was love with someone who was a meter shorter than me and walked on four legs.

Yeah, yeah. I’m defensive, but this is the kind of galaxy where you so much as look at a female and everyone expects you to have some sort of gigantic crush on her - it.

“Uh, hello, Captain. I just wanted to talk a little before lunch. Do you have time?”

I looked at my wrist, specifically where my datapad wasn’t. “Appears I do,” I said slowly, raising an eyebrow in mock surprise. “I’m not done getting ready, though. Just gotta do my hair. You’re free to ask in here, though.” I stepped back towards the sink, the long hallway beside me leading to the various bathroom and washing stations that the ships housed. We had two of these areas, one on each side of the ship and right past the regular crew sleeping chambers. The design was meant to be spartan, but to me it just looked overly shiny and chrome.

My hands were slicked with gel, and an open can of the stuff laid on the edge of the running sink. “What do you need, Miss Sparkle?” I asked in what I hoped was a professional tone. The mare trotted up beside me, looking at my hands as they ran through my hair with an odd face of scholarly fascination. “If it’s about the food, I thought the medical officer had already explained that most of us are omnivores and need meat, and you’d apparently been fine with that. Having second thoughts?”

“Um, no. She already explained how the animals you eat aren’t sapient like the ones in Equestria, which is actually pretty-”

Hold on a minute, I told myself while Twilight droned on in the background. All the animals in Equestria were sapient? I suddenly felt a lot more sorry for Art and the four cadets I had left behind. Unless the spy was with him. Then I hoped he had suffered a heart attack when he got the news. Or she. I still couldn’t figure out how I missed that so many of my crew members had ended up female. Oh, right. Twilight needed something.

“- so I had to ask, since... well,” her voice softened a bit, and she looked at apparently a very interesting corner nearby, “you said if we just needed to talk to someone, we could talk to you. So I have to ask something... why us?”

“I ask myself that question every day,” I muttered instantly, tilting my head sideways to get a better look at myself in the mirror. “Sorry, force of habit,” I said a bit louder, looking down into her eyes. At least she had stopped looking at that corner. They weren’t very interesting at all. “Why you, what?”

“I mean, for all of this. Being ambassadors. My friends and I, well, we’re not exactly ambassadorial material, are we?” she asked, trotting around to my other side, and my neck complained as I turned to face her, only to realize half a second too late that I was still busy geling my hair back. “I’m just a bit confused.”

“Well the first lesson in all of this, maybe, is that sometimes the right person for the job is the wrong person - or pony,” I said, half-smiling down at her. “I’m almost glad she chose you. It’s a lot nicer than having an actual ambassador. No offense.”

“None taken. But I don’t get it! I know the Princess trusts me with a lot of things, but how can she expect us all to tell if you and the Wing are worth... well, she said you wanted to protect us like a bodyguard, so I guess she just wants to know if we can trust you. How can she expect me to know the answer to that?”

I was silent for a few moments, my mind running through all possible choices for my next bit of dialogue. I was treading on dangerous ground here, and spouting a witticism might earn me the wrong answer, or even a hoof to the shin. My hair was done being styled, at least, and now shimmered under the bright overhead lights like a plastic wig. Cool water ran over my hands as I worked off the excess gel into the sink. My brow furrowed.

“Maybe she trusts you do to this because you’re normal. Someone in... her position might only see the pros and cons in the big picture, because leaders like her often look at the big picture first. What she wants is someone like you; someone normal, to look at the small picture, because she’s already seen the big picture. She needs a pony, or even a group of ponies, to know if it would truly be one hundred percent worth it, allying with us. You’re here to focus on the little picture, and you seem perfect for the job. I’ve been in this position before.” I stood back, sparing a few moments to admire my complexion in the mirror.

I hadn’t been in that position before, actually. What caused me to lie was just my gut. All I could hope was that it worked.

“I... think I understand now, Captain. How long until lunch?”

I strapped my datapad to my wrist and looked down at it, raising an eyebrow in mock surprise.

“Should be starting now, Miss Sparkle.”

~=V=~

Pinkie Pie danced on the lunch table and sang about lettuce.

That about sums it up. I refuse to let myself remember anything more.

Ponies are weird.

~=V=~

“So I take it you’re following me around the ship for a reason, Twilight?

“Well, what you said about me being a student earlier. I thought about it and... well, I want to learn more about life here, not just experience it. All my other friends - well, except Spike - partnered up with one of your crew members, so I figured it would be okay if I partnered with you. Just for now, I mean. If I bother you, I’ll go somewhere else,” Twilight droned out, continuing to spell out almost an entire contract while we walked away from the hangar bay. The probe launch had gone off without a hitch, and since it was mostly made up of fuel we could be assured it would send the message before we even reached Omega. TACT said we’d most likely lose contact after it went through the anomaly, though, so there was no real way to tell.

Oh, right. Twilight. Honestly the way she could talk and talk without stumbling over her words even once was oddly endearing. In a sort of innocent way.

“So,” I said, brutally interrupting the reiteration of her life history, “you want to captain a vessel and explore the dark reaches of space? Well, it takes a lot of effort. This is actually a pretty small ship, if you knew what I know. A big explorer-classed ship? You’d need a crew of like... seventy, with our level of tech. That’s a lot of people - er, ponies to look over. It takes years of training to get to that point. Even then, you gotta start off as the lowest rank.”

“Well-”

“Shh. Observe the master at work. TACT?” I stopped before the bridge doors, just far away enough so they didn’t open on me. One hand tapped on the top pocket of my black pants, waiting for the wall panel next to me to blip on. Sure enough.

“Yes Sir?”

“Is Evo in there with Applejack?”

“Affirmative.”

“What’s he doing?” I gave a sly wink to Twilight.

“I Believe He Is Currently Bragging To Her About His Pilot Training In the Academy.”

“Is it important?”

“No. I Do Not Believe So, Sir.”

“Alright,” I said, stepping up to the door. It obediently slid aside, and I strode in with a manic grin on my face. “Evo! Just the man I was looking for!”

“Oh, this is bad, isn’t it?” Evo mumbled, spinning around in the pilot’s seat to face me. From behind the holo-screens I could still see his blushing face. Serves him right. Being a pilot wasn’t a job where you could sit around doing nothing. Especially with precious cargo; me. “I am sorry, sir. Was just having short conversation break.”

“Try not to slack off, cadet,” I grunted, looking out at the bridge window. The black blind had been placed back on, covered by a navigational map. I could just see the little red dot representing our ship coming up on the Omega system. We were over three quarters of the way there, if you asked for a rough estimate. “I need to make sure you know what you’re doing. The asteroid fields around Omega are notorious for a reason. A few miscalculated turns and we’ll all be sucked out of ten hull breaches at once. I know you’re a pilot, but they don’t train everyone for the Omega Run.”

“Oh, Omega Run was mentioned in flight class. Many failed VI tests. No worries, I pass with flying colors,” Evo shrugged, practically shivering in his seat. His eyes darted about, like a small animal looking for escape. “TACT showed me best route through fields. It will be easy as slice of cake.”

“Good. Glad to see you’ve got confidence in yourself,” I said, looking longingly at an empty spot on the navigational map. Right on the edge of Wing territory. That’s where it was. Where it had been. I had never gotten used to not seeing it on my maps. It was like a hole in your favorite sweater.

One of Evo’s holo-screens was replaced with TACT’s fungal-like body, and the AI politely waited for Evo’s girlish scream to die off before addressing me. His mechanical voice echoed around the bridge, but I was too mesmerized by the returning bright red rash that had appeared on the pilot’s cheeks to commit my full attention.

“Sir. I Am Pleased To Inform You That The Long-Range Communications Have Been Fully Repaired. We Are Broadcasting Our Signal On Wing Channels And The College of Admirals Await Your Call. I Feel It Is Safe To Assume The Password Hasn’t Changed. I Recommend You Head To-”

“The navigation room. Yadda yadda, blah blah. Thanks, pal.” I dragged one hand over my face, feeling the smooth skin and rough stubble pass under it. “Twilight?” I turned to face the lavender mare, who was looking at me curiously. Although with her height, she might’ve just been looking at my butt. Creepy.

“Yes?”

“Think you could, er, not follow me for this one? It’s kind of private.” She nodded, and I smacked one of the wall panels on my way out of the bridge. No worries, those things were made to survive explosions. “TACT?”

“Yes Sir?”

“Prep a call for the College. It doesn’t matter what they’re up to; they could be in the middle of a warzone for all I care. And I don’t. They’ll answer me no matter what, because right now, I’m a ghost.”

“Yes Sir.”

I took a harsh right, and my shoulders just barely scraped past the door as it tried to open to match my pace. Within was the legendary holo-room. The epitome of recent high-end technology, some would say, but that’s a lie. We’ve had convoluted holograms for as long as I’d been alive. Didn’t stop everyone from being mesmerized by them. On one side of the wall was a simple control panel, fully equipped with a small holographic display which happily lent a rare 3D projection of TACT. The other half of the room was covered in a thick, black paneling that sported a grid of pinprick holes every centimeter. I couldn’t be bothered to know why we couldn’t just have a holo-table, but apparently people loved interactivity.

Tables are full of interactivity if you ask me.

I stopped, and listened as the door clicked into the locked position behind me. My boots had expertly stopped exactly one and a half inches away from the holo-floor. I practiced. TACT was smart, at least, and dimmed the overhead lights. It was all a bit dramatic, but it was an old, familiar feeling. I had done this exact bit of coordinated movements hundreds upon - well, I did it a lot. Sometimes in tighter situations than others, sometimes when I wanted to have a one-on-one session with another member of the Wing. Nobody could be everywhere at once, but with this thing, you didn’t have to be. I slicked back my hair and put on a professional smile.

“Channel Password, Sir?” TACT asked. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see his glowing blue form jerk just a bit with each word. I nodded, coughed into the crook of my elbow.

“Holochat channel name, College of Admirals. Password... sodding windows,” I mumbled, lips pursing as the last ironic syllable left my mouth. Do. Not. Ask.

Ever.

“Holochat connected to ESS Homebound K-One-Nine-Six,” a classy, female voice said. A welcome break from TACT, who sounded like each word he said was the start of a new sentence. To be fair, I put more funds into making TACT work right instead of making him sound like a sultry woman. Pretty sure the voice had been put in by one of the Admirals just to annoy me, but I couldn’t pin which one it was.

Being allowed the password to the College of Admirals was a special thing. The Admirals were a social bunch, and they never let anyone forget it, but the magic really happened behind closed doors and secure holo-channels. The admirals, and even the leader if I was lucky, would appear in a half-circle in front of me, with their names and titles above their heads just for emphasis. The first name appeared, along with a verbal announcement, and my breath caught in my throat.

“Premier Admiral Aaro Castlor, connecting to College of Admirals channel.”

I felt like my chest was suddenly covered up in a warm embrace, and my businesslike smirk was suddenly replaced by a wide grin. A lanky, red-skinned form came into focus, the only change in the uniform being one extra star above the insignia, and some extra room for the bulky robot arm that took up most of the man’s left half. His handsome, simple face blinked at me with a blank expression for half a moment, and he held his hands behind his back like a teacher about to punish an unruly student. With a voice like a savior angel, he spoke.

“You’re late.”

“Well,” I started, resisting the urge to fall into a laughing fit, “I ran into traffic.” My voice faded, and I looked hesitantly at the other areas where the Admirals should’ve been. Sometimes it took them awhile to answer a call, I knew, but as soon as everyone got together it would be like someone flipped a switch. My eyes drifted back to Aaro, whose expression now mirrored my own. A second passed, and we burst into laughter together. It felt good, wheezing and gurgling like that. It was real, tangible.

“God’s sake, Amber,” the draxian managed to say between dying chuckles, his good hand running through his sleek black hair, “will you stop playing dead on every mission? It was funny the first couple of times, but now it’s just bothersome.” I crossed my arms, smirking.

“Hey, some things can’t be helped.” I rolled my eyes, deciding not to shrug. “Oh, it was a blast, though. Not literally. But man, it’s good to see you again, you glorious sod. You even kept the password-”

“Admiral Ganymede, connecting to College of Admirals channel.”

“Will you stop faking your own death already? Aaro’s already trying to push a new law that bars you from commanding suicide missions,” the smiling man said even as he fizzled into view alongside the other admiral’s right side. Aaro took a glance to his left and pointed at something out of my view.

“So what’s up with you guys, then?” I asked, the smile feeling like it was about ready to break my face in half.

“I’m checking up on the Talon Fleet,” Aaro said automatically, turning to face me as if nothing had happened. “Apparently, Captain York was having some trouble organizing. Right now the fleet is heading for Gantoris. You?”

“Heading to Omega. Most of our power and fuel is gone... uh, I’ll explain more once everyone gets here. Mede?”

“Ah,” the man said, arching his back in a stretch. “Uh, well I certainly wasn’t taking a nap or anything. Hm. I’m on Gantoris, just overseeing some stuff with Clover. Paperwork,” he said, image fizzling just enough to make me second-guess whether or not he had rolled his eyes.

“Fun,” I grunted, crossing my arms and winking at a still distracted Aaro.

“Admirals Patrick Fenway and San Uske, connecting to College of Admirals channel.” Two more figures fizzled into view; one with a mask covering his face and his uniform barely tossed on, and the other with a shaved head and suit of armor, sans the helmet. Patrick, the the former; San, the latter. They stood on Ganymede’s left.

“Christ. You plan on waking me up any other time of the day?” Patrick groaned. San chuckled, and reached for something out of my view. An armored hand came in from the side and slapped Patrick in the gut. The masked Admiral lurched forward, his eyes probably bulging. San just chuckled, and seemed to lean into a wall mid-air. Things were passing too fast. I really wanted to savor the moment, but business would have to commence soon.

“Glad to see the hero got out alive,” San said without a trace of sarcasm in his voice. “And ignore Paddy over there. He’s just grumpy because he had to wake up a bit earlier, right? Hahah- sorry. It’s like, four AM here. We’re on Parinin, actually. Just hanging out. Partying. Paddy here got drunk - I flew a plane.”

“An ‘e frigg’n crashed it right into a bloody mountain.... Lucky we had VALKs...” Patrick hissed, holding his gut in one hand and his head in the other. “Can’t we just take a break in peace. Without blowing up? I hate blowing up. Gotta hangover.”

“Oh hush. It’s not like we died,” San said between mirthful chuckles. Their holograms fizzled.

“Two more, maybe mister Clover,” Aaro said an almost sing-song voice, smiling. “I can’t wait to hear what awe-inspiring story you have for us, Amber.”

“Admirals Zalthice and Grezz, connecting to College of Admirals channel,” the sultry voice droned out. The far right of Aaro was suddenly replaced by the two massive, hulking and demonic forms the only orglockian admirals to have ever existed. The only difference was that Zalthice was smaller - thinner, and from what I’d seen, more agile. He always claimed it was because of some lab accident involving a crazy madman and some awkward DNA splicing. Never went into details, but at least he could fit into an actual formal uniform. Any other orglockian just had to wear armor and that was as formal as it got. Not like they needed any extra armor on their plated bodies. They weren’t called the demons of the battlefield without reason.

“Hey, you two. Glad to see you could make it,” I said, smiling like a fox.

“We were a bit busy, but sure! Always time for our extra duties in the Wing, right?” Zalthice said. Grezz just nodded.

“Alright,” I muttered, licking my lips. “No Clover? That’s alright. TACT, record this and give it to him as an audio-log later. Ready? Good. I’m gonna be blunt.” Castlor raised an eyebrow.

The world took a breath.

“I found Earth.”

Exhale. Silence.

“You sure?” Aaro asked, looking a bit too much like he was wondering what I’d look like in a straight jacket. It was like all the admirals had their eyebrows tied to one controller, because each and every one of them was suddenly watching me like a hawk. Except Patrick, but I could assume as much.

“It has to be. TACT was running constant tests and comparisons the entire time. Each one came up with the same answer. Logically, it has to be Earth,” I said, lowering my crossed arms and surrendering to the businesslike tone and facial expression that I was known for. For a moment, it felt like the world was spinning and my eyes weren’t going with the flow. Like I was falling, but standing still. This was the moment. The big news.

“Well...” Aaro said, looking at the ground in disbelief. One hand clutched at his forehead. “I really don’t know what-”

“Awww yeah!” San clapped his hands, looking like he was about to jump out of his armor. “Woo! I can see it now: Galactic news, the Wing first to find Earth in thousands of years. Secrets to the universe unlocked! Brilliant!” He leaned over, clapping a hand on Patrick’s shoulder. The companion to the excitable admiral didn’t seem at all phased, or that he cared even a little bit.

“Finding Earth is... remarkable. Big. I find myself distanced from the ancient humans, but I can assure you, this huge news will definitely go down in the orglockian history books,” Grezz said under his helmet, his voice sounding like it was a mile off in a distant cavern. The colors of each person were muted because of the holo-screen limitations, but I could still see the sparkle behind the helmet’s eyepieces.

“Well! What did you find, then? Lost, ancient cities? Hundreds of derelict ships waiting to be plundered and reverse-engineered? Evidence as to what exactly caused humanity to fall?” Either Ganymede or San asked. I couldn’t tell - I was too busy looking at Aaro’s far-off expression. “Oh well of course you found that stuff! It’s freak’n Earth!”

“With their technology, systems will eagerly give up their previous ownership in order to be entered into the Wing. We’ll become a galactic superpower again. In only months,” Aaro muttered, his eyes looking through me. “Did you find it all? Everything we ever dreamed would be there?”

“No,” I said

An invisible glass pane above us all shattered. Every smile turned into a harsh glare. One word radiated off of the admirals, their eyes boring it into me with each passing nanosecond. Aaro’s mouth opened just slightly, but instead of speaking, he just closed it again, automatically wetting his lips and shaking his head ever so slightly. To my surprise, it was finally Patrick that said it.

“Explain.”

“It’s a long story.”

“We have time,” Ganymede said, sighing into the palm of his hand.

“Well, it started when we went through the anomaly,” I began, mentally building a shield against the glares that dug into me. “All our systems overloaded. Shields, life support, and long-range communications were brought down instantly. It took us almost a full minute to get everything back in working order. I... from there, TACT did a system-wide scan. Came up with all the planets we know that Sol had orbiting it, each in their right order. The stars... they were in different places, and when TACT did a comparison, he came up with the spot where we know Sol should’ve been. Where we sent our own couple of research ships to aid in the galactic community project that is finding Earth. But there weren’t any ship beacons. We flew closer to the planets, giving a few a visual comparisons to what we already knew from the celestial bodies around Sol. It was right on the mark. Then we went to Earth.”

“Exciting,” Zalthice said.

“Yea, it was,” I muttered, looking at the admiral through the corner of my eyes. “When we got there... well, it didn’t look like Earth. There were none of the massive derelict fleets orbiting it, let alone any within the anomaly itself, and at first glance, there were none of the massive cities that were supposed to be covering the entire surface of the planet. They should’ve been visible from space. But when we did extensive scans... well, we found cities alright. And towns. And villages. Roads, mills, valleys, farms. It had people on it.”

“And?” Aaro urged, practically falling on his face he was leaning over so much.

“We did more extensive scans. Found out the differences in architecture and the like. We figured it wasn’t a unified planet; there were lots of countries and nations on it, all with their own leaders and capital cities. We chose one that looked right, to us, and I gathered up Art and two cadets to commence a first-contact mission.”

“Wait, wait. You commenced a contact mission without following the protocol? On such a vital mission? What the hell is wrong with you?!” Patrick yelled, getting another elbow in the gut from San. “Urrg. We know you like dodging around protocol and doing whatever the hell you want, but that... uhg!”

“Admiral, while I agree with you, we didn’t have the fuel or power to stay there for the several weeks that required us to follow general protocol for these missions. If we did, I wouldn’t be talking to you now. It was a... pivotal decision, yes, but guess what? It worked out. We spotted what looked like the nation’s capital city, and we landed. They had come out to meet us before we even exited the dropship.”

“One more step for the history books?” Aaro asked. San and Ganymede chuckled mirthlessly.

“Yea.... The people - at least these ones. They’re not human. They’re not even humanoid. I don’t think they came from humans like we all did. I think... I don’t know what to think. I still can’t get past it...” I hung my head in one of my hands, taking a deep breath. “They’re equine. Ponies.”

“Pfffft.” San contained himself, bits of holographic spittle flying from his mouth. “Seriously?”

“Seriously. Uh, they had three races. Unicorns, pegasuses- er, pegasi, and earth ponies, which I think were named in relation to the ground, not the planet. Um, but their leaders were sort of a... combination of all three. Wings and a horn. Oh, and all the ones with horns have exceptional psychic capabilities. They refer to it as magic.”

“Waaaitwaitwait. Are you sure you didn’t find something else, and they just drugged you up to think what you’re thinking? Mythical, extinct horses? I was seriously starting to believe you before you brought those up,” Ganymede said. The others nodded in agreement.

“I know, and I think there’s something huge I missed. I tried bringing up the subject of... humanity, and what they were doing on Earth, but I couldn’t bring myself to. Anyways. I talked to their leader - lovely female by the name and, uh, title of Princess Celestia. Apparently the populace believes she’s the controller of their sun.”

“Heh.”

“Oh, yea. The system is geocentric.”

“It’s not Earth,” Patrick said, not missing a beat. “Absolutely no possible way. And it can’t be geocentric, either. Captain, as much as we’re friends, ‘ya just went bloody insane and I hereby put a vote up to relieve you of your rank and position.”

“Vote denied, Admiral. We’ve been through some insane stuff in the past. Just because something a bit weirder comes up doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Remember Nathan - or the Nexus Incident?” Aaro chided, looking to the masked admiral.

“Yeah, yeah. Keep going then, Amber.” He groaned, rubbing his face and giving me a death-stare from behind his fingers.

“Ahem. Yeah. You’ll have to see it for yourself, really. Anyways. I talked to her, and she said she’d love to ally herself and Earth to the Wing. We’re free to start sending ships to set up bases and the like, as long as we don’t destroy any of the environment in any way; I personally recommend starting with space defenses. But...”

“Always a but,” Grezz hissed.

“It won’t be permanent until she feels she trusts us enough, or something. I don’t blame her for mistrusting us, even if she was pretty quick to let us go. Anyways, she gave up seven of her subjects to be ambassadors for Equestria - that’s the country - and that I would take them on a tour of Wing space. If they liked it, she’d make it permanent and probably would let us mine a little bit. I swear, gold is the second most common mineral on that freak’n planet... erm, anyways. Right now I’ve got six ponies and a small talking lizard on my ship, and they’re expecting a vacation. TACT?”

“Yes Sir?”

“Please send the detailed reports Art wrote up to each of the Admirals and Clover. And also send the recorded conversation to him, please.”

“Yes Sir.”

“Leader Dylan Clover, connecting to College of Admirals channel.”

“Sending the conversation... won’t be necessary, TACT,” a smooth, even voice said. Each of the admirals and I snapped into a salute, our heels clicking together as one. A tall, wiry man stepped into his place at Aaro’s right. “I’ve been listening in on it - sorry, Mede.”

“No apologies needed, Clover.”

“Hmph. I do believe you, Amber, but I know I’m going to have to see your companions for myself before I can confirm anything. I... heh, well you did break a lot of protocol in accepting a few of them as ambassadors. I’m looking at the report Art wrote up. It has their dossiers. What kind of name is Rainbow Dash?”

“What kind of name is Clover?” I asked.

“Touche. I like the looks of this; just make sure they do too. If we secure Earth, we’ll become one of the largest groups in the galaxy before you can even sneeze. We’ll also get a giant target painted on our heads. Not like it matters. We already do.”

“Sir?”

“I just woke up to some reports in from our spy in the Empirium. Certain... black and spiky ships have been raiding their trade routes. What’s more, I just managed to get some data from every source I have. It’s what I’ve feared, and worse.” I gulped. It was like seeing all of the horrible people you've ever met end up right on your doorstep.

“Are they going after us, Dylan?” Aaro asked, a notable tremor in his voice. His eyes searched the spot where the leader no doubt stood on the Premier's own pedastel.

“Yes. Captain, I’m afraid your ambassador’s vacation might not be at the five-star hotel they think it’ll be. If these reports are correct, we already have a target on our heads, and worse, he’s managed to somehow recruit a rather large force...” he muttered something, and delicately closed his eyes. Even though we were all thousands to billions of lightyears away, the tension was still palpable. When I looked, I wasn’t the only one fiddling with the edges of their uniform or twiddling their thumbs. Dylan looked back up, and swallowed.

“Yes. E is back.”