• Published 2nd May 2012
  • 5,107 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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(18) Like a Dull Sword and a Thousand Catapults

-Aboard the ESS Homebound K-196
-An hour after apologizing to Fluttershy.
-Lower Hallways.
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There are moments when I miss looking out the window and seeing the universe. No clouds, no wind, and no things. Just a billion little explosions in the sky, all looking your way and giving you the biggest smile they can muster. It's a sense of smallness you can't get anywhere else; you realize, ”holy crap, the universe doesn't revolve around you”, and that scares the pants off of you or makes you feel a little better. Despite everything, you can just look out and see everything right in your window - or at least one side of everything, since I've yet to meet a man who's got eyes on the back of his head. Countless stars, nebulas, distant supernovas that exploded a billion years ago, all in your line of sight.

And that's just when the ship is still. Faster-than-light speeds are a whole new kind of crazy. Some people, mostly psychics who avoided becoming marauders, say it looks like how they feel on a psych high. Others say it looks like a great light show, like the universe is just one giant rave party going on forever and ever. I think, at number five, it's on my top ten list of things I despise.

We stared at it for an hour, sitting close together. I'd go so far as to joke about it being romantic, but I don't joke about love, and even if I did, Fluttershy? Not worth it. Half of the time, I was mentally preparing myself for what I'd say to the ponies undoubtedly gathering as close to the door as possible, making sure they'd be there with a quick message to TACT from my datapad. The demure little thing didn't even question it, the darling. So that's where I was now, facing them with something I knew would kill my pride if it went wrong. Fortunately, I never fail. Ever.

"I owe you girls an apology," I said, looking stern-faced at the seven so called "ambassadors". "Namely, for yelling at your friend and pushing off attempts to... well, to explain myself, not that there's anything to explain. It was rash, stupid, and not at all the image I want you to hold of the Wing and I. TACT... well, he told me you were all listening in." Their faces fell, each one turning to glare at the symbol on the wall panel.

"Captain Amber Has Authority Override Per AI Code-Of-Operations Chapter One, Section 42. He Asked If Their Conversation Was Private, And I Answered Factually. You Implored I Eavesdrop To Confirm Miss Fluttershy's Status. This Is Fact."

"Thank you, TACT..." I grumbled, rolling my eyes. "Point is, I'm fine with it, just don't try it if I'm in a meeting or something, aye? Anyways, I did something horrible, and I've already apologized to her and you folks, but I need to know if you forgive me."

"Oh well of course we do," Rarity said, beaming. "If anything, I admire your willingness step up for your actions like you have done."

"Shoot, everypony makes mistakes," Applejack said, nodding her worn hat at me. "Er, even if they ain't a pony, I guess."

"Point is, Jackson, you owned up to what you did, and that's good, no matter what anypony tells you," Twilight concluded, smiling at me in a way I hadn't seen her smile before. Or anyone, ever, really. It was a soft, kindly smile that demanded my heart melt into pudding. My arms tingled.

Then, "WHERE IS THE EVERYTHING?!" blasted from Pinkie, and I was too stunned to reply as her friends did everything they could to not roll on the ground in laughter. One eye twitched involuntarily, and I pointed to the hangar door, where Fluttershy was still looking at "everything", as I'd so ignorantly put it. Shaking my head as she left, I turned toward the one pony who had resorted to just glaring at me, and forced my normally proud shoulders into a slump.

"Rainbow," I said, lowering my voice to the same I remembered my father using when I was a child and he was about to tell me he loved me. "I know you're still mad at me, and you have every right to be, even, er, if I don't understand why and you refuse to tell me. So." She raised an eyebrow, clearly giving me the silent treatment. I opened my arms up in surrender. "I am giving you one free punch to the face - as long as you don't make it lethal. Take it or leave it?"

"Leave it," she said immediately. "I don't hate you, Jackson, I'm just not a... I don't know, I just don't like this place, okay? You basically just locked me up in a tin can-"

"It's actually a blend of several strong and flexible metals, none of which are tin," I interrupted, her frown deepening into a snarl. "You're free to leave whenever you want, too. It's just into the vacuum of space, where you'll last... about two minutes, maybe. Sixteen full seconds of consciousness is the average for most species, even though my own is a bit longer. Oh. Sorry, do go on."

"As I was SAYING!" she huffed, folding her hooves mid-air. "It's kind of awful in here, you've obviously got some emotional problems you're not telling us about, and we barely know anything about this so called ' Wing military' you're in other than you've got some fast stuff and shooty stuff. Tell me why I should trust you." She dropped, looking up at me with defiant, narrowed eyes. I sighed, and my gaze turned to the ponies (and dragon) surrounding me.

"Because if you couldn't, wouldn't I have betrayed you already?" I asked, Rainbow Dash's glare softening a bit at the fact. "You make a good point though, Miss Dash. I haven't given you girls a lot of information to go on regarding the Wing and the galaxy in general. Seems like a pretty poor tour if I just show you things, and give you nothing else to work with. TACT?"

"Yes, Sir?"

"How many holo-books do we have in storage?"

"Books?" Twilight asked, ears perking up. Slyly winking at the librarian, I turned towards the hangar door. "Where?"

"Currently, Our Stock Is Ten Physical Holo-Devices, With Over Nine Thousand Downloadable Texts. Nine Are Located In Cargo Crate A-6. One Is In The Captain's Quarters," the machine replied, I nodded in affirmation, and turned back to Twilight.

"I've also brought along a bunch of regular, hardback books that I store in my quarters. I've got recent stuff that I like, like Fall of an Empire, older classics like Lightspeed and What Next?, and... well, it's not something I'd read, but there's a bit of a human book we managed to scavenge from the remnants of a derelict. It was ancient, even for them, but if it survived for so long it had to be good." I looked at the ground for a moment, debating if I should tell them it was written on their planet or not. "It's called Hamlet. Good luck trying to understand it."

"This is great news! I've never gotten the chance to read a book written by a species Equestria had only just come in contact with. Heck, I don't think anypony in a long time has! May I please go in your room to get a few? Not all of them, I promise," Twilight said, practically bursting into confetti with excitement.

On second thought, I should save that simile for Pinkie. Later.

"Sure, sure. Just tell me which ones you take. Paper books can be expensive to manufacture in some places, and Lightspeed is an original copy over sixty years old. I was planning on reading it if the mission turned sour, and I've got two more... 'cause, er, I like collecting things, but they're still rare." I sighed as they walked off, Twilight forcing Spike to follow, and probably to carry all the books for her. What, I thought, you can't use your super duper levitation magic stuff to do things? Why does a magic-user need an assistant anyways? "And don't fold the pages!" I called out, chuckling at a faint confirmation. Pain lanced up my arms.

Turning back, it looked like Rarity and Rainbow Dash had wandered off into the hangar, and Applejack was pursing her lips at me in a patient kind of waiting face. "I said earlier I wanted to talk with 'ya, Jackson, and I still do. Reckon there's still some times before dinner for a conversation, pony-to, uh, you."

"Yeah," I replied, not wanting to deny any more requests from my guests. I'd already brushed her off once, and I still needed to talk to her myself. Win-win scenarios for everyone. Pain was now constantly drilling into the gashes on my arm, and it took a lot of effort to keep a straight face. Judging from her own expression, she knew what was up, and mysteriously, where.

"What's wrong with your arms?" she asked, eyes widening in concern.

"Something bad. Probably from the marauder earlier," I lied, swallowing hard. "Would you mind if we talked in the medical bay? I'll just have Aran check it out, and she's not one for gossip. Most doctors aren't."

"That's fine, I guess. I'd hate to have 'ya hurting on my account." Nodding, and offering only a sincere compassionate smile for me, she and I headed for the medbay. Pain now making me feel like my arms were on fire, I suddenly felt glad that my uniform jacket was long-sleeved, and that our destination was literally right around the corner. Aran was in there, fiddling with a couple of samples under a scanning device, and looking as professional as possible. I had to choke down a laugh at her expression of surprise.

"Arms," I hissed, and her eyes grew to saucers in understanding. Stepping over to her, I unzipped my jacket and shrugged it off onto the ground, and she instantly moved to unwrap the bandages. The action revealed huge, bloodied scars running up all sides of my arms, particularly the backs. Applejack gagged at the revelation, while Aran only narrowed her eyes in concern.

"I only scratched one of your arms, sir," she whispered in my ear, moving to clear one of the desks and grabbing a portable scanning device. "This will take a while. Scanning's a bit harder with this, so... could you just splay your arms out like you're doing? I might have to take a sample."

"That's what a m'rauder does?" Applejack gaped, still reeled back in disgust. "And Rarity said it didn't even touch y'all!"

"It can do this, yes," I said, forcing my eyes and external senses to dull while Aran worked her craft on my throbbing appendages. "But usually, it's a lot, lot worse. Like, being atomized and rearranged into a potted plant. I got immensely lucky."

"Shoot, I'm just glad 'yer alright, then," she said, gulping. "I... can't watch, though, because that's pretty darn horrible. Ain't ever seen anything like that, not even after that one time... Big Mac had a tree fall on him."

"It's fine, it's fine," I whispered. "Just.... What did you want to talk about, Miss Applejack?"

"You sure you don't want to wait, sugarcube- er, Captain?"

"No, no, it's fine. Trust me when I say I've been through much, much worse."

"Well-"

"A lot worse. Sorry, go on."

"Well, Jackson, I'm afraid... well, shoot, I'm just kind of having second thoughts about all of this. Just regular homesickness, I guess. The Princess said my family's farm would be taken care of, but I've always at least been on the same planet as them, and now all of a sudden I can't even send them a letter to let them know I'm doing alright, or they can't send me a letter wishing me a happy birthday?"

"It's your birthday?" I asked, eyes bulging in surprise. She chuckled and shook her head.

"Not for a bit, but that wasn't what I was saying. I just miss my family, and I was wondering if there was any way I could get back in contact with 'em, and when I could."

“Is it hard?” I asked, gritting my teeth. She raised an eyebrow, eyes forcefully looking into mine, if only for the sake of not looking at my injuries. “I mean, being away from your family for so long, not able to contact them and knowing there’s no way to know if you’re okay or not. A lot of people who join the Wing have to go through that, and I’ve heard it’s hard.”

“No ‘fense, Captain, but it’s only been a couple of days. It ain’t hard yet, but I don’t wanna wait until I gotta beg you to get in contact with ‘em. I just wanna let them know I’m alright. I don’t want it to be hard, ever. Do the people in the Wing not get to contact their families or something?” she asked, moving aside as Aran shooed her away. Taking her place, the medical officer started working on the second arm.

“They are, but when you’re defending a planet for months at a time, constantly moving and constantly getting shot at by the enemy ships or troops, you don’t really have time for it. Broadcasts are all restricted to military-use only. It gets... tough for us, sometimes. At one point I wasn’t able to contact my own family for four years, even if I was on the same planet as them, fighting for them. They told me, when I got back, that all the media propaganda surrounding my exploits were accepted as fact by ‘em. When they thought of me, all they could imagine was this fantastic, invincible super-soldier who had never lost a battle and always fought the good fight... and the looks on their faces when I finally showed up? I bet your friend Pinkie Pie couldn’t even best them.”

“I bet,” she breathed, looking through me with a far-off expression. I could easily tell what she was thinking about, just by the errant flicks of her eyes and softening of the eyes. Being in a family-orientated culture like hers would be tough for me, and I don’t think even she would be able to imagine the pain of being disconnected from family for so long. “Where’s your family now?”

I stopped. I blinked. Was there any way out of that question - a way I could redirect it?

“Dead,” I blurted out. “They died. Not recently, though, and I’ve long gotten over it. All of them - even the young ones, were military scientists, and they knew it was coming.

“Oh.... Sorry for asking, Captain. I couldn’t imagine losing my family.”

“They were prepared,” I said, closing my eyes. “It hurt, and it was hard, but when you live on a rim system almost in the middle of enemy territory, they knew it was coming. In the end, they went out like heroes, just like they knew I’d prefer. There’s even a memorial for them.”

“Sounds like they were pretty important when they.... What did they do?”

“Well, they were in charge of evacuating, and they - as a family, mind you, even while I was on the planet fighting on a continent I don’t even remember the name of - decided to stay back and make sure the evacuations went as planned. Suffice to say, they stayed until the end, and saved... if the survivor count is anything to go by, over three thousand lives.”

“Phew,” Applejack whistled, nodding in respect. “Well I... I don’t rightly know how to react to that, Jackson.”

“They died with honor, and that’s what mattered. But yeah, it was hard. Losing them was like... it felt like holding a blunt sword and facing down a thousand catapults. Like the whole universe was inside your chest and on your back all at the same time. Sincerely, Miss Applejack,” I said frowning down at her. I’d dug my way into this one, and I studied her far too sullen face. Just a minute ago, she’d been as regular as ever, but with the news that this was the kind of galaxy where families were separated on a regular basis? It was like her eyes had just retreated into her skull, unwilling to see anything more. “The Wing exists to make sure people - even ponies, don’t have to lose a family member, or a family, or anyone. That’s our job, and it’s what drives us. Every time one of us is out there, getting shot at by the enemy, sometimes we remember what we’re doing any of this for. It’s because we’re the ones getting shot at, because we can defend ourselves, and we know how to fight. We fight so that instead of the families, the fathers and the brothers and sisters being under enemy fire, we are. Back in the Galactic War, to raise morale, I made sure to remind my men that each of the enemy we killed, we saved ten people back home. That’s ten whole people, with families, and friends. Sometimes we fight for other reasons, but it remains that we fight to make sure you don’t have to. We’re soldiers. It’s what we do, and we’re always going to do it.”

“Shucks, that kind’ve puts things into perspective, don’t it? Well I never doubted ‘ya, Jackson. You’re a good pony, er, thing at heart. I think I’d know a bit about that ‘n all. Heck, if anything, ‘yer just a bit rough around the edges. Most of the Canterlot guards always seem super stiff ‘n gruff. Nice to see the rest of the... erm, everywhere, has some more personable people in their militaries. And, er, pardon my asking, but aren’t y’all super fancy and high-tech? Why use swords ‘n catapults?”

“Plasma catapults and vibro-swords. They’re not exactly low-tech.”

“Ah.”

“Anyhow, on the being-personable thing, you wouldn’t believe how many times I hear that every time I leave Wing territory, Miss Applejack,” I said, warily eyeing Aran as she walked over to a screen. Inserting the round scanning device, she ran her slender fingers over the holographic screen, sending bits of data in every other direction, and I’m pretty sure I caught sight of a DNA section appear. “What’ve you got, Ensign V!los?”

“Dear, you will not wish for your pony friend to see this,” she whispered, leaning in to squint at the screen. “Applejack, could you please leave?” She stood up, unplugging the scanning device. Stetson bobbing on her head, Applejack muttered a goodbye and left. With the farm owner gone, and no prying ears to listen to our conversation, Aran looked down at the scanning device before setting it next to my outstretched arms. She pointed at the silver orb when she spoke. “Sir, you’ll want to keep that on hand from now on.”

“Why?” I asked, leaning over the table to scrutinize it. My arms were still burning, and I could tell from the jolts of pain each time they twitched that moving them was a bad idea. “Is what I think on there, on there?”

“Yes, sir, you’re infected with Gam, Gee-Four-Em , and that means Miss Dash and Fluttershy are at risk of it spreading to them. Have you come in contact with either of them lately? That’s a dumb question, sorry, I personally witnessed Rainbow touch you, and you spent an hour with Fluttershy. There’s a hundred percent chance they have it now, sir, and there’s no telling what it’ll do to them-” I snarled, raising a swollen arm to shush her. The oversized feline eyes of hers just blinked back, unmoving.

“It’ll be almost a week before it starts to take in them, and if my arms are anything to go by, I’ve got the same amount of time. Did you figure out the classification?”

“Lidar variant. I assume you knew this, though. The Gam only ever attacked your people, dear. You said there was never a cure, so what are you going to do?” she asked, raising a thin eyebrow and stepping lightly to my other side. Her long arms reached out to grab more bandages and a tube of cream, ignoring my slack-jawed expression. “There’s a, as I just said, hundred percent chance they have it now, and you’re the one who’s not giving me info, sir. As the head medical officer on board this ship, I’m required to know our next move. Your next move.”

“Not... no, that’s not possible,” I whispered, neck going limp. I didn’t want to see Aran’s face, and the grey medical table was the next best thing. “I couldn’t have given it to them... there’s no way. Did you do the comparisons correctly, earlier?” She nodded, readying a strip of the bandage. Somewhere in my pile of clothes, where my datapad lay hooked onto my uniform jacket, the device bleeped. “Well until they show symptoms, I suggest we ignore it. Thing is, Aran, when I said there wasn’t a cure, I didn’t lie. There isn’t, and likely there never will be. There is, however, a counteractive drug that consistently reverses the effect. I’ve been taking it since the Gam outbreak on my homeworld, but if it’s starting lose its potency... we’re in deep trouble, or I am. I-it should work with the ponies no problem.”

“Are you positive?”

“Absolutely sure,” I lied, grimacing as the bandages were laid across my aching skin. “I’ve got a stockpile at my office in Gantoris. I’ll give it to them as soon as we get there, but they’re going to be taking it for the rest of their lives.” I paused, swallowing a black hole that had formed in my throat. Aran’s face fell as she tied the first bandage, her cat-like face slowly looking up to meet mine with a picture of wide-eyed horror plastered onto it. Wheezing, I barely managed to catch myself before I collapsed onto the table. “Wh... what have I done...?”

“You didn’t do anything,” she promptly said, moving to my other arm. “Just make sure they have a lifetime supply of your counter-measure, on your expense, and maybe spend ten or so years repaying them in any way you can, and they might forgive you. Don’t even forget about the rest of the pegasus ponies, they’ll be needing the counter-measure too, if those two are even allowed on their planet after this. Hun, could you lift your arm up for just a moment? Thank you. How much does your counter-measure even cost?” she asked, ceasing to be gentle with my arm; it felt like it had been dipped in acid, and I wasn’t sure if I was holding back tears from the revelation that I had ruined two lives or the pain.

“I only know of one place to even produce it, and if what I heard from them last is correct, they’ll need to find a new place soon,” I hissed, shoulders instinctively arching back from another bolt of lightning that decided to manifest in my extremities. “When the heck does the painkiller lotion kick in, Aran?”

“Five minutes. Supper is in seven. You’re going to need to talk to them both, eventually.”

“Right,” I said, looking over at one of the wall panels to speak to the shipboard AI. “TACT, when do we arrive at Gantoris?” I let out a long breath, watching patiently as his dome appeared on the screen.

“At Current Engine Speed, One Day. Would You Like Me To Shorten It?”

“Yea, I want to arrive there twenty minutes after dinner ends. Enough to digest a bit when we enter the atmosphere. Did the Admirals state whether or not they were taking their dropship to Maximus when we arrive? If they did, make sure they’re ready to leave beforehand, and tell everyone else, including the ambassadors, to come to the bridge. I know the girls will love seeing Gantoris for the first time. After all, you only get one chance for a good first impression.” I stood up, swinging my arms around for a second. “I can already feel it going away, thanks, Doctor V!los.” She sighed, resting a clawed, fur-covered hand under my chin in amusement.

“Do not strain yourself, Captain,” she said, turning my head to the side and getting a good view of the scars hidden under my hairline. “I am not an expert on history, as I am a doctor, but even I know you have a tendency to do that.” Long, dull claws slid point-up along my neck, and before I finished blinking she was already rushing to another panel. “I will see you at dinner, dearie.”

“Yeah, yeah, everyone wants to remind me of that,” I joked, stooping over to gather up my discarded uniform. I slipped it on, careful not to disturb the bright golden pins and heavy datapad. “What’s even on the menu for today, TACT?” I asked, already registering the increased hum of the engines in the back of my consciousness. TACT’s insignia appeared on the nearest wall panel.

“Salad, As It Has Been In Order To Preserve Relations With Non-Humanoid Herbivores. Sides Include Protein Bar And Chocolate Cookie. Drink Of Choice. We Are Running Dangerously Low On Vegetable Foods, Sir. I Recommend Ordering A More Varied Stock When We Land On Gantoris.”

“Got it, order more food to suit the ambassadors. Send that to my datapad later, please and thank-ya. Hey, Aran,” I called back, walking for the door. “I’ll be in my cabin if you need me, helping Twilight pick out her books before dinner.”

“Aye, Captain,” the ensign replied, engrossed in a stream of data scrolling across her datapad.


-10-1-3-11-19-15-14
-11-9-12-12-5-4
-8-9-19
-16-1-18-5-14-20-19,

“And how exactly do you plan to steal the Andromeda Project blueprints from Gantoris, the most heavily defended piece of space in known galactic history? Last I checked, they were even installing one of the GOD cannons you managed to bribe the draxians to sell to you. You can barely see the planet it’s so well covered by defense stations and ships, so even if you manage to land, get your data, and make it out of whatever building its stored in, how do you plan on getting past an angry fleet of people who have fought alongside you for over a decade? They know your tricks, they know how you fly, and they’ll be prepared.”

“You forget, I practically designed the defenses at Gantoris, and if there’s one thing I do, it’s make sure there’s always a loophole. Ha. Olander, why would I tell you my full plan anyways? You’re still Wing, even if we’re friends, and Brown wants my head on a pole. I’ll give you a hint, though, I’m putting together a team, and Brown won’t know what hit him.”

“You mean you’re going to attack the Wing? Are you mad? He’s already put you under our kill-on-sight list!”

“No, no. If there’s one thing I’m not going to do, it’s hurt the Wing. Stealing the Andromeda plans will dent them a bit, sure, but maybe next time they’ll not try and make a fleet-destroying superweapon and then betray the one who helped fund it. No casualties, unless I see Brown, and nobody gets hurt. I get my money and leave, Brown learns a lesson about declaring me a traitor and having my own men hunt me, and I get the plans to the most powerful weapon in the galaxy. Everybody wins. Well, except you guys, but it’s mostly Brown. That good enough?”

“I... I don’t know, man. This is some dangerous stuff you’re getting into. Where are you even going to find a group of people mad enough to raid the Wing’s best defended planet?”

“Where do you think? Where’s the one place the mad people even go anymore...?”

“You don’t...”

“Yes, Commander Olander, I’m going to the Gantoris Towers.”

“You... you are a madman, Wolf.”

“Or a genius.”

~=V=~

Body Skinners: The Early History of Bio-Mending,” Twilight read aloud, levitating a thick hardback book alongside several others. The rotund figure of her reptile assistant, Spike, stood by holding even more - although why she wasn’t levitating them too was beyond me. Her eyes widened in curiosity, and in the blink of an eye the book was held in front of my face; I half expected her to say it followed her home and if she could keep it. “What’s Bio-Mending, Jackson? ‘Body skinners’ doesn’t sound very fun, but ‘mend’ has positive implications.”

“Bio-Mending,” I replied, leaning against my wooden desk and ignoring the fact that she kept the book in my face. “Hm. It’s a bit hard to explain. Think of it like, programmable cells that you can paste onto a person. The cells merge with them, and, depending on the body-part they’re supposed to replace, form new skins, blood vessels, bone structure. It’s fairly new, and replaced machine augments for the most part. I don’t pay enough attention to that stuff, though, but you can count on the book explaining it in fine detail. Haven’t read it. Been meaning to, considering how much of my body I owe to Bio-Menders.”

“How much would that be?” she asked immediately, an unsuppressed grin sprouting on her face as the tome was dumped in Spike’s waiting arms. I tapped at my chin for a moment, brow creasing.

“I’m pretty sure my brain hasn’t been touched... and most of my internal organs. Arms, legs, eyes, ears, all not originally mine, but they work just the same. Had mechanical ones for a while - haha, you should’ve seen people’s faces when I walked in a room, back then. Scared the heck out of ‘em.” I chuckled mirthlessly, looking up at the ceiling. “Don’t miss them, though. Nothing beats having actual arms.”

“Wait, mechanical as in robot?” Twilight sputtered, looking up at me in awe. “Robotics are just theoretical in Equestria. We’re still using clockwork and steam engines. I’d heard of a unicorn inventor who thought we could do better, but he never got very far.” She stepped over to the emptied, heavy bookcase, and placed three of the hard-covers back on the shelf. Another stopped before her eyes, and she read the title out loud. “History of the Galactic Wing, and Where We Go from Here, by Chief Admiral Brown.” She waved it over to me, beaming. “And this?”

I stiffened, and said, “You might... not want to read that, actually.” Rolling my eyes, I snatched it from the air. “I keep it mostly for ironic purposes. Brown was a scumbag - lowest of the low - and he got the Wing stuck in what he called its ‘Golden Age’ for almost a decade. He wrote that shortly before he retired, and it’s just his warped view of what really happened. He even dedicated an entire chapter to slandering me and my supposed traitorous actions against the Wing. Kind of cute, really, but it’s all lies and... heh, I’d rather you not digest them.”

“Hey, it says ‘In Memory of Chief Admiral Brown’ on the first page. Did he die after he retired?” Twilight asked, trotting over to me. Behind her, Spike grunted and fell on his rear from the constant strain of the books. I raised an eyebrow.

“Nah, he’s alive and well. He faked his own death during the Octavian Crisis. Wanted to go out like a hero, I guess. No clue where he is, but I spoke with him afterward. It was... disturbing. That’s the word.”

“Wait,” Twilight said, glaring at me, then the book. “If you don’t like him, why didn’t you tell anyone else he was still alive?”

“Because,” I said, grinning, “everyone deserves to die a hero, Twilight. Even him. Any other books you were interested in?”

“Right. Well I found Hamlet. It’s pretty small for such an apparently important book. Are you sure this isn’t the table of contents?” Twilight asked, brandishing a small, plain brown book. I simply raised an eyebrow and waited for her to open it, and I had to shove down a laugh at her wide-eyed expression. “Oh.”

“Yeah, it’s longer than it looks, Miss Sparkle. Anything else you want to take to your bunk?”

“Hm...” she said, studying another of the tomes. “Sorlor: Mind of a Madman, by Jackson Amber. You wrote this? I had no idea you were an author.” I stood up, and leaned over her to look at the title. Sure enough, there it was, bright red and as thick as the palm of my hand.

“Correct. Sorlor was the emperor that caused all three galactic wars, before he was overthrown by his own second-in-command. That’s all ancient history, and mostly details my encounters with him during the war and later meetings. For someone completely insane, he’s...” I trailed off, waving my hand in a circle and looking at the ceiling. “Well there’s actually nothing positive about him, actually. Heh. Go ahead and read it.”

“Goodie,” Twilight said, quickly levitating the book to Spike’s arms. A strained groan came from the assistant, but she just rolled her eyes. “Well it looks like that’s it for us, Jackson. Your AI said we should be arriving at the planet... hm, soon. Spike, we want to get those books to my room, stat!”

“O-okay, Twilight!” the dragon youngling exclaimed, his little legs waddling out the door while an obnoxiously tall stack of books was balanced in his grasp. “I’ll meet you in the command center!”

“Bridge,” I corrected.

“Bridge!”

“Gotcha!” she called back, already putting the unused books back on the shelf with bursts of magic. “Thanks again for letting me borrow some of your books. I took a peek at those amazing holographic ‘books’ you gave me, and while I do think they’re the most technologically significant thing you’ve shown me yet, it’s nice to know you still keep classic books like these. The ring, by the way, the one Celestia enchanted so none of us have problems with the language barriers, seems to work with pre-written books as well. Isn’t that brilliant? I’ll have to have her teach me that when I get back-”

“Twilight,” I chuckled, holding up a hand to cease her rambling. I was pretty sure she had organized the books alphabetically - which was interesting, since I never bothered organizing them at all due to the fact I barely read nowadays. She balked, and turned to me. “I get it, information overload awaits your humble eyes. You sure your head’s still okay?”

“I’m fine, Captain Amber. The throbbing went away a while ago, and Lilian stopped by to tell me more about why that simulator thing did what it did. According to her, it actually works by using holograms inside the brain, which is an astonishing concept if I do say so myself. The reason it was having trouble with me was because our brains aren’t the same.”

“So to reiterate,” I said, grinning. “You sure your head’s still okay?” She blinked, eyes flicking about my face, before snorting and looking back to the shelf. Tending to her task and trying to keep herself occupied, I’d say she did an excellent job of ignoring my guffaws. “T-Twilight... ha... no, no, I’m sorry. Just the last chatterbox I want on this ship is Pinkie. I’m glad you’ve got a thirst for knowledge - not a lot of people do.”

“Really?” she asked, looking up from her duties, which by now consisted of the one book that remained. I snatched it from the air and showed it to her; the cover read Jump Drives and Long Distance Calls, How We Did It. “Huh, I must’ve missed that one... mind if I take it with me?”

“Yes, I mean no, and anyways what I meant was that the people you usually see don’t care for science. Sure, some people get smart and buy a lab coat, but there aren’t a lot of people truly looking to push the boundaries of technology, science, or medicine. Most of the tech we currently have was scavenged and improved upon, not actually discovered by ourselves through the regular means. You, though? You’ve got a genuine interest from what I’ve seen. Keep it up.”

“Thank you!” she chirped, grinning ear-to-ear and whisking the book back in her grasp. I returned the smile, leaning back on the desk and folding my arms. My jacket caught on a corner, and the farther I leaned, the more it rode up and revealed the bandages on my arm. Immediately catching on, she frowned and narrowed her eyes. “What happened to your arm?”

“Hm?” I asked, feeling my heart beat faster in my chest. “Oh, just a medical accident with Aran. Nothing big.” I stopped, nodding over at the door and a sly grin. “Well then, with dinner done, and that taken care of, I believe it’s time to round you girls up and introduce you to my good friend Gantoris.”

“Right,” she confirmed, and we walked out of the door. “You haven’t told us a lot about Gantoris, actually. I’m sure it’s in one of the books, but give me a run-down.”

“Well,” I said, aiming for the door to the bridge and slowing my pace. “Gantoris is regarded as being the first planet to ‘wake up’ after the Great Restart - you’ll read about that later - and reform their society. Hundred or so years later, they build starships, starships leave, they end up in a civil war - and those starships? Those ships end up, since they’ve been cut off from their home planet- sorry, gimme a moment. TACT?” His form appeared on the wall next to the bridge door, and I waited a second before continuing. “Make an announcement that all personnel but Aran are to report to the bridge. She’s to help the Admirals with the dropship and, when they leave, report back up here. On the double.”

“Yes, Sir. Will Do.”

Twilight and I stepped into the bridge, only to be met by a boisterous laugh from Applejack and Evo, the latter arched back in the pilot’s chair. “A-and then, he said, ‘What the heck was that for!?’ Hahaha! And that is why Evo never travels with intoxicating d-drinks on his person!”

“Hoo-boy,” Applejack wheezed, leaning on his chair. “You sure have got a mighty big amount ‘a stories to tell, Evo.”

“Ah, yes! It comes with growing up on militarized world - we leave little to the imagination and go have our own adventures. Ah, but you, my friend, have not yet told me any of your own stories. What is life like back in world of ponies?”

“Belay that answer, Applejack,” I interrupted, marching in with Twilight at my side. Evo nodded to me, straightening in his seat as I stopped next to him. Just as it always was, the bridge was sparkly clean, and the glimmering holographic control panels at each wall and terminal awaited usage. “You’ll take us in, Evo?”

“Aye, Captain.”

“Good man. Twilight, Applejack, no need to take your seats just yet. TACT, what’s our estimated time until arrival?”

“Three Minutes, Sir.”

“Right then. Girls, you might want to get situated and buckled down. The trip to the Gantoris Towers - that’s where we’ll be staying, by the way - is a bumpy one. It just might be enjoyable, though... because they were beautiful when I first saw them, and the whole city has been improved tenfold, meaning while I got a slice of it, you get the whole cake.”

“Cake?” a bright, candy-coated and probably pink colored voice exclaimed from behind me. I turned on a dime, eye already twitching. “I love cake! In fact, did you know I used to be a cake baker? Cakes all day, in and out and in and out of the oven! Sometimes, I got so jealous of other ponies eating my super tasty cake, that I had to bake one all for myself!”

“Sure, Pinkie,” I growled, rolling my eyes. The rest of the ponies walked in behind her, tailed by Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy, who were engrossed in whispered conversation. “Anyways,” I said, turning to them. “Girls, strap yourselves in and get ready. I’d like to give you a brief history lesson on our next destination.

“As much as I find the technicalities of this wonderful universe rather dull so far, you still haven’t told us a lot about your home, Jackson. It’s very exciting to finally see what your people can do other than build large, cramped ships. Do go on.”

“Pfft, save it, please. That history stuff if for Twilight,” Rainbow snorted, grudgingly taking her seat. I let my glare settle on her for a second. She glared back. It was obvious where we were headed. “Sorry,” she said, finally, looking down.

“Right. Basically, a hundred or so years ago, Gantoris was one of the most advanced planets in the galaxy,” I said, watching the ponies take their place. Whether they wanted to listen to me or not, it was up to them. Behind me, the remaining crew members filed in and stood at their posts. “It was the first to figure out faster-than-light technology, and built the first fleet of ships using it. So these ships go out to explore other systems... but! They lose contact, and little did they know that meanwhile, Gantoris’ world-government had crumbled and they were fighting a civil war. This fleet, who had only just enough resources to start up a mining starbase they dubbed the Omega I, figured out something was wrong, armed themselves, and under the name ‘Galactic Wing’, went back to Gantoris to find it was being ruled by a tyrannical leader who called himself the Overmind.”

“Sounds horrible,” Twilight said, leaning against her seat to listen. “Continue, please.”

“It was. So these Galactic Wing guys, they don’t have enough men to fight the Overmind and his drone swarm, so they go around to nearby systems and start recruiting. All these systems they recruit at, they’re getting pretty advanced too, and now that they know the Wing is out there and fighting for peace and justice, they’ve finally got something to believe in, right? So they pledge their troops, and the Wing fights the Overmind. They win. We’re getting into my era here, actually. I joined the Wing during the last leg of the war. Anyways, they win, and the Gantoris people elect the Wing as their new leaders. Well these guys, they’re not leaders, they’re a military, so they agree that Gantoris can have its own government to manage them, but the Wing will be their police and army. The other systems get word of this, and knowing they’re unprotected from any other high-tech evildoers like the Overmind, pledge themselves to be in the Wing’s protection, and in return would donate men, resources, and places for permanent fortifications. That’s how we got started, and that’s why Gantoris is the Wing homeworld. It’s the home of the collective governments of all our systems, working together to make sure Wing territory is secure, and our people are happy. Since then, the Wing has been protecting it. Speaking of which, TACT, countdown?”

“Fifteen Seconds, Sir.”

“Right, right. Everyone brace. Shields on full, Lilian. Ready weapons, Roland, Dylan. TACT, be ready to open communications with Maximus.”

“Why are we powering up weapons, Jackson?” Twilight asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Just in case there’s an enemy fleet currently attacking, duh. I like to be prepared for everything,” I chuckled, looking toward the blank bridge window. “TACT, open the blinds. Countdown?”

“Five Seconds, Sir.”

I watched, and the black blind that covered our porthole slid back, revealing the mass of swirling and fluctuating space that was our home in faster-than-light travel. Out of the corner of my eyes I could see the ponies anxiously watching, eyes glued to the screen like looking away would be the end of their lives. The gleaming in Twilight’s eye reminded me of the first time I’d seen Gantoris - the flaming, constantly burning pile of rubble it once was. At least these girls would have the luxury of seeing it during its prime.

“One Second, Sir.”

Stars that couldn’t keep still were now standing at the ready, gleaming as brightly as ever, and the whole of the universe snapped back into place before our eyes. The Homebound shuddered, and even with the inertial dampers engaged, the crew lurched a bit. Startled gasps came from the ponies, and I looked out to see Gantoris and all its glory. It was just another day in the park to me, but to them, the planet must’ve been spectacular.

Its large moon floating dutifully behind it, the face of the Wing’s capital planet reflected the blue light of its star, Orion, and acted as a flashlight in the atmospheric mist that slowly drifted around the surface. Through it, we could see the ocean, and a few city-scaped continents gleaming in the sun. It was harder to see the stations and ships around the planet, but if you looked closely enough, you could just see the starlight glinting off of their hulls. They were as numerous as the stars in the sky, and at this range, the larger ones blocked out pieces of the planet like shadow-puppets.

“Applejack, remember when I said ‘like a thousand catapults?” I asked, my grin widening. In my peripheral vision, she nodded, and I gestured to one of the larger defense stations. “These are ours.”

“Communications Opened With Starbase Maximus, Sir,” TACT said, and I nodded solemnly as another voice came in.

“This is Lieutenant Commander Silus Ruck, state your registration code and authorization, please.”

“E-S-S Homebound K-One-Nine-Six. S-R-C Two-Three-One-Two-One-One. Authorization code Beta Alpha Alpha Original. We are cleared to pass?”

“Jeez, Jackson, is that you?” the voice exclaimed, and I casually rubbed my temple with the palm of my hand. “We got reports from the Omega system that you were alive, and there’s been rumors all over the place that you found a new species. What’s up, man? Oh, right, you’re cleared to pass, by the way. Power down weapons, Lieutenant Hockey.”

“We’re just fine, I promise, and the rumors are true. What, the Admirals didn’t tell you?”

“No, no way, man. We’ve been cramped in this station for days! Right, you should be coming up on us right now. Hockey, go wave out the window for me!” I sighed, and watched as the gargantuan Starbase Maximus came into our view. Twisting, circular-shaped spires jutted out from its standard mushroom-shaped hull, windows and hangars slapped across it like afterthoughts. The entire thing was painted white, in order to seem peaceful. One could only just see the anti-ship cannons peeking out from underneath the coils. “We have a visual of you!”

“Where’s the nearest ship, Evo?” I asked, looking over the pilot’s shoulder to check scanner reports.

“Looks like it is an Aegis supercarrier, on approach vector. Titled E-S-S Yeden. They are not hailing us, sir. Appears to be patrol ship,” Evo said, busily tapping at the controls. To an inexperienced pilot, it might appear he was just arbitrarily waving his hands through a holo-screen. To me, each button pressed made sense. “We should see it... now.”

“Girls, here’s a nice picture of Wing power,” I said, grinning. Our field of view was narrow, but gradually the astonishing, jaw-dropping size of the Aegis supercarrier came up, like a graceful whale leaping out of the water in slow-motion. “Aegis class supercarrier. The single largest class of Wing vessels ever produced. Capable of holding the Homebound five times over. Twice as long as Starbase Maximus, even if it’s relatively unarmed. Currently it should be carrying... what, five squadrons of fighters, bombers, and interceptors?” I waited a second, silently observing as the huge ship passed by our window in one continuous motion. Narrow as our view was, all we could see was panel to panel sliding past us like a giant conveyor belt.

“That Is Correct, Sir.”

“That thing has to be bigger than Canterlot Castle!” Rainbow yelled, and I couldn’t help but laugh. “How many ships do you guys have like that?”

“Of the Aegis class? A couple, definitely. Most of it is hollow. As for Canterlot, you’re probably right, there,” I said, winking at the pegasus. Whether or not she disliked me, it was nice to know she enjoyed looking at Wing ships.

“Hey, Captain, was that one of those aliens? Man, what I wouldn’t give for a visual on that thing,” Silus’ voice crackled over the intercom.

“Just think big rainbow colored marshmallows and you’ll be good,” I shouted back, barely containing a snort at Rainbow Dash’s reaction.

“Aw, heck. I love marshmallows, sir. Commander always gets angry when I nick ‘em from the mess hall. What’d they taste like, if I can ask?”

“I beg your pardon, whoever you are, but we are not marshmallows, and we are not edible!” Rarity called. Her frown only deepened when the lieutenant commander only snorted into the audio device.

“Sorry, ma’am. No offense meant,” he apologized.

“Right, right, enough of the chatter. Silus, I take it we’re clear to land in Ophelius?” I sighed, casually leaning on Evo’s piloting chair even as he continued his frantic course corrections. The Aegis was already past, leaving behind a faint trail of engine residue that slowly faded in its wake, and I could just barely see the twirling form of Maximus near the side of the bridge window.

“Yes indeedy, you are a-go for landing. A docking space is already open and ready for occupancy, and on these orders... huh, how’d you book seven whole rooms in the Towers? No, no, don’t answer that. I probably don’t wanna know, ‘ya know?”

“Sir,” Aran’s voice said from the ceiling, interrupting Silus’ rambling. “The Admirals are ready to depart for Maximus and are awaiting your confirmation. Over.”

“Silus, get a dropship-ready hangar open for Admirals San Uske and Patrick Fenway. TACT, open up a line with the dropship. Evo, put the ship on drift toward the planet and position us so the dropship has a clear path to that hangar. Over.”

“Aye, sir,” Evo said, hands breezing across the console in one motion. Almost immediately, the hum of the engines stopped, and our view of the planet swung to the side. Now all we had to look at was the retreating Aegis’ gigantic engines as the ship sped about on patrol. Another, more familiar voice crackled over the radio, and I rolled my eyes.

“San Uske reporting in. And don’t worry, Paddy’s still flying this. You guys aren’t ever going to let me fly anything, are you? Right, right. Dropship is leaving the hangar and making way to Maximus.” I glanced over at the navigator control screen, a corner of my mouth lifting slightly when another blip appeared on the sensors, heading toward the marker that represented the station. “We’ll see you planetside, Jackson. Over and out.”

“Put us back on course, Evo,” I said, waiting until the Homebound was facing the ever-growing face of the planet before I turned back to the ponies. “TACT, put an objective point on for Evo, blue mark, Ophelius Docking Ports. Correct descent as needed. Lilian, power from weapons to shields and engines, balanced. Make sure our inertial dampers get a bit of the action, too.” I winked at the still googly-eyed ponies, and moved to sit down in the navigator’s chair, spinning it so I was facing them. “Any last requests before you taste the sweet, er, taste of real gravity and non-recycled air, girls?”

“I have one,” Twilight said, raising a hoof like an excited schoolgirl, and even if that comparison was apt, I nodded politely anyway. “How fast are we exactly going to enter your planet’s atmosphere?” I let a vicious, predatory grin take hold of my face, and spun around to face the bridge. We were approaching the planet incredibly fast now, and the entire view was taken up by the sleek curvature of the surface, which was still obscured by the vast cloud layer. It started as a low rumble, but ever so gradually, the ship started shaking.

“About ten galactic kilometers - that’s about a mile, if what Celestia said was true - per second. It might end up getting a little bumpy.” I gave a mirthless, gasping chuckle, even as the rumbling turned to rocking, and my hands instinctively grabbed the armrests. “Don’t worry about the shaking, it’s normal! The only reason we’re not all blacking out is actually because of a device designed to soak up all the inertia in events like this, or when the ship jumps. As you can see,” I called back to them, pointing to the window. As soon as I finished speaking and the echoes of my voice died off, the view was replaced by fluctuating orange flame.

“This is amazing!” Twilight shouted over the din, and I laughed along with her.

“Are you kidding? This is considered a hard landing! No stealth, no fancy flying, just straight up tumbling-ball-of-flame! Wait until you enter a planet without this sodding fire in the way before you say it’s amazing,” I replied, grinning despite the palpable tension the ponies were giving off. Even Rainbow Dash was slack-jawed at the mind-boggling speed we were going, which could only be observed through the infrequent breaks in the flames.

“We are coming up on Ophelius Docking Port and Gantoris Towers, sir,” Evo said, not even looking up from the controls. “Fire should dissipate in seven or so seconds. Heat shields have held. We have now successfully entered Gantoris atmosphere.”

And there it was, sparkling in the sunlight.

“It’s just like the simulation you showed me in the holo-room,” Twilight whispered, barely audible above the din the ship was intent on creating. I frowned, realizing how true her words were. The towers of the Gantoris world capital, Ophelius, firmly resembled the white spires we had observed in the faint memory of my own planet. Except unlike the couple we had witnessed the destruction of, almost all of Ophelius was made up of them, giving it the resemblance of a patch of straight, needle-sharp grass. Massive archways connected them, and thousands of miniature hover-cars flitted about like flies. Overhead, the looming bulky form of a Tiger Frigate cast a shadow on the city. I was thankful there weren’t any clouds, because it was definitely worth seeing on a clear day.

“Oh my, those towers look like diamonds!” Rarity said.

“They’re probably more expensive, too,” I replied, just as the rumbling of the ship reverted to a low shudder. “You’re looking at what on the outside looks peaceful, and on the inside is the most well-defended city in Wing space. Equipped with five GOD cannons - that’s basically some of the best weaponry in the galaxy, ladies. We are practically invincible here.”

“These towers are humungous,” Twilight said, looking over to me. “Is this what all of your cities are like?”

“No,” I said, concern flashing over myself as our descent quicked. “Just the cool ones. Slow down a bit, Evo, I’ve still got to call it in. Girls, welcome to the Ophelius Docking Port, capable of holding an Aegis and then some. It’ll be the Homebound’s, well, home, until we need her again.” Spires gave way to a flat, clinically built area on the ground, that looked more like a grid than a port. Our speed slowed, and we got a fresh glimpse of several cruisers resting on slanted pillars in every other grid “square”. Tendril-like docking and stabilizer arms reached out, sealing each ship in place, and one was awaiting us. “TACT, open up a communications channel with our port.”

“Opening. Received.”

“This is Docking Port A-Eleven-Alpha,” a crackling voice said over the intercom.

“Captain Jackson Amber of the E-S-S Homebound K-One-Nine-Six. S-R-C Two-Three-One-Two-One-One. Authorization code Beta Alpha Alpha Original. Requesting permission to dock.”

“Docking permission granted, welcome back,” the voice said, and the static that accompanied it vanished, along with the voice.

“Channel Closed. Applying Necessary Changes To Engine Power For Docking,” TACT droned, and I nodded to Evo. The Homebound, large as it was, hovered just fine over the ground, and gradually inched closer to the waiting docking port.

“Hey, Jackson, if it’s alright, what’s that Beta-Alpha-Eleven nonsense you keep saying? I mean, duh, they’re codes, but what do they mean?” Rainbow asked, folding her hooves. I smirked, and winked at her.

“No problemo, Dasher. For instance, the code A-Eleven-Alpha is just an area designator and required clearance level. This is in the A-block, and it’s the eleventh one, and you need alpha clearance for your ship to access it. The code I spouted? Beta, because I’m one rank under admiral. Alpha, because as that rank I am allowed alpha clearance through Wing space. Another alpha, because the admirals give me access to special stuff. Original, because I’m a veteran admiral and get special stuff. A little to the right, Evo.”

“Yes, Captain,” the pilot numbly replied, continuing to guide us into place.

“Uh, okay, I guess?” Rainbow asked, her face scrunching up incredulously. “So, just to be clear, I’m allowed to fly once we’re out, right?”

“Right,” I said, looking back to the approaching station. “But er, stay away from anything that looks dangerous. It might take some pre-warning for the automated anti-aircraft systems to not shoot at you. Erm, on that note, TACT, make sure someone in turret control knows we’ve got a flight-capable species with us, will you?”

“Will Do, Sir.”

“We are landing, sir,” Evo said, and I turned my attention back to the front. Sure enough, our view was entirely taken up by the back wall of the docking port, which consisted of a cargo tram patiently hovering on a solid metal bridge. On each side of the ship’s view, the powerful stabilizing arms magnetically hooked themselves onto the ship with a lurching cha-chunk sound, and immediately, the engine noise vanished into thin air. “Landing successful.”

“Right,” I said, turning back to the girls. “This might feel a bit weird, you all, but I assure you you’re perfectly fine. Lilian, turn off gravity simulators and then start equalizing air pressure in here.” She nodded, and pressed a holographic button on her terminal with a swift motion. My stomach, lungs, and the rest of my body lurched in every direction, and while I cringed, it didn’t help to listen to the cries of surprise and fear from the ponies. “No, no,” I called back. “You’re all still fine, no worries.”

“A better warning would have been most appreciated, Captain,” Rarity said, slumping awkwardly in her pony-modified seat.

“Sorry. You can get out of your seats. Right, TACT, when is the pressure good for us?”

“I Estimate Five To Six Minutes. Your Ears May Still Pop. Returning To Post-Landing Duties.”

“Post-landing?” Twilight asked, already stretching her stubbly purple limbs. “Like what?”

“Sending off messages,” I said, arching my back in a stretch of my own. “Sending mission reports. Alerting Wing members we’ve arrived. Balancing power output. Ordering fuel and power core replacements. Making sure we don’t arbitrarily explode, really.”

“Ah... well I’m definitely glad he is doing that, then.”

“Your Appreciation Is Welcome, Twilight Sparkle,” TACT replied curtly, only making an embarrassed smile cross her face. “Sir, Cargo Teams Have Arrived And Are Awaiting Direction. Aran Is Helping Them Unload The Bay.”

“Mhm,” I muttered, and looked back toward the collective of ponies. “If there’s anything still in your rooms, you might want to get it. We’ve got to sterilize the entire ship, and if it stays, it’ll probably end up incinerated. You’ve got five minutes before we can step outside safely, anyways. Everypony, welcome to Gantoris.”

~=V=~

It took the ponies a while to gather their things, both their luggage from the Fate dropship and the collectables they had gathered in their rooms; the latter part of that journey being made entirely up of Twilight’s new collection of borrowed books. We, meaning the ponies and I, had all gathered in the hangar, much to the interest of the workers assigned to carry the cargo onto the tram. Curious gazes from them, of course, were no match for the adorable narrowing of the eyes from the ponies, and I could practically see the little clockwork gears grinding around in their heads and they took in the completely alien sight. Even the Fate was removed as a giant crane arm burst through the energy shield to take it away from us. In the ten minutes it took to properly equalize the ship to meet planetary standards, most of the cargo had been removed, and the girls were itching to get on with things.

Naturally, they chose to swarm me with questions.

“No, no, your head won’t explode if you go outside, Rainbow, but I can promise you’ll have the worst headache of your life. Anything else, girls?” I asked, trying not to groan in exasperation. At least two of them had retreated for a quick bathroom break, but being swarmed still wasn’t fun. Twilight raised her hoof, albeit slowly, since she had taken to shoving most of her books in her saddlebags. “Yes?”

“You said we were staying at the Gantoris Towers. Where exactly is that, and what is it?”

“Indeed, I presumed they were a high-end hotel, but with all this flippant military protection, I’m starting to doubt that,” Rarity added.

“You’re correct, they’re not a hotel. Well, they kind of are. The Gantoris Towers refer to two, very specific towers, that house some of the most important places on the planet. One tower is the capitol building, and the other is mostly for the Wing, in that it has apartments, entertainment, armory, a command center, and everything the garrison needs to stay alive and kicking. Between them is a huge bridge, which we call the Gantoris Halls. You’re going to love that place, Twilight, because it’s one giant library. Everything we know, is collected in there. Everypony here will be getting a... Spike, why are you holding those still?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. What books Twilight wasn’t able to cram into the seemingly infinite space of her bags, Spike was forced to carry, which unfortunately still meant a pile of books taller than he was.

“T-Twilight needs me to carry these for her!” he sputtered, barely able to stand. I blinked, and glowered at the aforementioned pony.

She giggled childishly, and levitated Spike’s burden into the air before he collapsed from the weight. With his strained expression revealed, it was plain as day that it would’ve been just a couple of seconds until that collapse came. “Sorry, Spike. That wasn’t very courteous of me.”

“Eh, no sweat,” he said, wiping some sweat off his scaly brow.

“Right, right. Good, good,” I muttered, turning to nod at a dockworker who was carrying a crate off. He grinned back from under his translucent mask, but his eyes were glued on the pile of cute that had collected around me like puppies. “Everypony here, as I said, will be getting their own apartment, on my floor, no worries, so you can contact me anytime you want. With the galactic tensions as high as they are, though, I won’t be able to be there for you twenty-four-seven, so... yeah. Like I said before, each member of the crew has agreed to pair up with one of you in the case you decide to explore the city a bit. I assume you’ve already chosen your pair, but I’m not aware of which.” I looked to the gathered crew behind me, who had been dutifully watching my back. “Well? Evo, you’re up.”

“I have chosen the Applejack,” he said immediately, flashing a shy grin at the farmer. Roland, a few spaces down, chortled uncontrollably, followed by the rest of the crew collapsing into stupid giggles. “What?” Evo asked, narrowing his eyes. “My accent is not that hilarious. Sister, even!”

“I think Rarity agreed to be with me, right?” Lilian asked, stifling another bout of laughing. I turned to the pony in question, who simply nodded in a dignified air. I gestured with a waving hand to Roland and Dylan.

“I called Rainbow Dash,” Roland said, still trying to suppress a grin. Dylan, her pitch-black hair still tied in the most secure bun I’d ever seen, stood at attention and gave a prompt salute. I hadn’t seen her laugh.

“I have volunteered to monitor and counsel Pinkamena Diane Pie, sir,” she said in a crisp, authoritarian voice, and the pink pony behind me squealed with glee.

“Oh, we’re going to have so much fun!” she shouted, drawing more dockworker’s to stare at her with dumb expressions.

“Good luck with that, Dylan,” I muttered, turning to the only remaining crewmember. Aran stood, rigid and graceful as always, with her fur flat under the harsh light and eyes staring at me with a mix of hope and pity, and nodded to Fluttershy.

“I believe Miss Fluttershy agreed to partner with me. Is that still correct, Miss ‘Shy?” she asked, holding her chin up high. I looked over to Fluttershy, who nodded back. It was good to see the yellow pony had adopted a more comfortable stance and smile, no longer hiding behind her own poofy, sleek pink mane.

“And, huh, I guess that leaves Twilight and Spike...” I grumbled, turning to the two. “Right then, Spike, you’re with Lilian and Rarity.” My smirk widened at his expression of glee at the news - even I recognized the looks of complete infatuation he gave the mare, and then I looked to Twilight. “You’re with me, then, Twilight. I’ve got a... quite a bit to do, actually, but I know you can handle it. And when you want, I can trust you to go with a guard down to the Gantoris Halls for... whatever you want, really. I can’t stop you from absorbing all the information in that place. Oi!” I called to a dock worker, who seemed to be carrying the last of the cargo aboard the train. He looked at me with a raised brow, but stayed alert nonetheless. “The tram ready to go yet?”

“Yeah, this is the last box. We’ll remove the Bearclaw later, sir. If you want to load them up in the passenger car, it’s been cleared out.”

“Alright, thanks,” I said, instantly turning to one of the walls. “TACT? How’s the air pressure?”

“Optimum Safe Internal Pressure Has Been Achieved, Captain. Shall I Disengage Energy Shielding?”

“Do so, please,” I ordered, not even sparing a glance to the shield as it winked out of existence with a popping, electric noise. It was kind of like a static shock, I always thought, except more liquid and flowing. “Girls, feel free to board the tram, and mind the gap. Ensigns, would you care to help them onboard, actually?”

“Yessir,” they said in unison, stepping in tandem to the open, cushy-looking car that sat patiently in front of the cargo beds. Like clockwork - a word I think I’m going to be using a lot more now that I remember how fun it is to say - they all made to pile in the tram at once. I’m sure the dockworkers were glad they had their own control car all to themselves. Before they could get too far, I called out.

“Spike! Could I see you here for a moment, eh?” His tiny, hilariously short legs wobbled in place as he turned around and headed in my direction. “I need to ask something.”

“What’s up, Jackson?” he asked, coming to a teetering halt in front of me. I kneeled down on one knee, since the poor kid was already shorter than a regular pony and having me tower above him probably wouldn’t help anything. “Anything I can help with?”

“Yeah, well, no,” I said, eyes flicking to the girls as they loaded into the tram. Twilight, still levitating the books, was giving us a worried look. “I just need to ask, why do you... well, let them push you around so much?”

“What do you mean?” Spike asked, scratching his head. “They never push me around! Sure, Twilight can be a bit crazy at times, but it’s my job.”

“Your job is to be crushed under the weight of twenty books while Twilight is fully capable of levitating them herself?” I asked, brow raised. He balked at that, and tapped his chin in thought.

“Hm, I never really thought of it like that. Usually it’s not a problem, but I think this trip is going to Twi’s head.” I glanced back up, and Twilight was already sitting comfortable in the open car, a book twirling in her magical grasp. “She can be insensitive, but she’s like, my sister and my boss all rolled up into one. I’ve never actually seen her be deliberately mean to me, though.”

“She’s not a bad pony, just oblivious,” I muttered thoughtfully. Spike nodded. “Well alright, I guess. How did you two even meet?”

“Oh, she hatched me,” he answered nonchalantly. Twilight looked up, and faintly called out to us. Apparently, besides the cleaning crew, we were alone in the hangar now. “Oops, time to go,” he said quickly, waddling off in the direction of the tram. I sighed, and followed him, only one question burning in my mind.

What the heck?

The car, open as it was to the cool afternoon air, was relatively small, so it was three ponies to a seat, with the crew huddled around themselves near the back. Spike, of course, hopped on the seat with Twilight, and I took the frontmost one. Clicking, tingly bells sounded, and a metal door slid into place over the door. From her seat with Pinkie Pie and Applejack, Rainbow stared at me, and would’ve said something had the caravan not lurched into movement.

“Ow!” Twilight yelled, her voice muffled. Her magically aloft book had been smashed into her face from the speed, and I could faintly see the word Hamlet written on the side.

“Hey, Jackson, er, Captain Amber!” Rainbow shouted to me over the growing roar of wind. “Can I fly now?” Her friends suddenly looked to her, the same gleam a child gets when they’re handed a wrapped gift shining in their eyes. I smiled, and gave a short nod. “Aww yeah! Wings, don’t fail me now!” she bellowed, launching herself into the air. For a moment, I regretted not double-checking with TACT if the turret control was aware an unidentified rainbow-colored object would be headed their way, and part of me wondered if Rainbow could even keep up with the speeding train.

I’d never seen a living thing fly so fast in my entire life.

Glee smeared on her face like the cookie crumbs on Pinkie’s during the dinner previous, her wings were barely visible as she tailed and passed us up within seconds of leaping into the air. I could say she was like a fish in the ocean, or like a bird in the sky, or even a fighter in space, and it still wouldn’t do it justice. Rainbow streaks billowed out behind her in what I could hope was her mane and not some ethereal representation of it. The faster she went, the less sure I was that my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me and the more I wanted to believe she was actually messing up the physics of light. If this her particular psych power at work, it was beautiful.

“Does she always do that?” I asked to nobody in particular. I was answered by a chorus of laughs.

“Every day!” Twilight said, a smile equal to Pinkie’s on her face. “Why do you think she was so grumpy on the ship? She’s used to being free.”

“I don’t blame her,” I said under my breath. Rainbow, now just a small dot trailing a broken light spectrum, arced around one of the towers in the distance and came speeding back. “Not at all,” I said a bit louder, not bothering to wipe the joyal grin off my own face. Dash came careening toward us, and when she passed over, I could faintly hear a scream of a most absolute, fantastic elation emit from her lungs. I smiled wider, and looked over to Twilight.

“So, Twilight, I heard you hatched Spike. Doesn’t that make you his mom?”

“W-what?” she sputtered, almost leaping out of her seat. “No! That’s not how that works at all! We’re like... I... oh, you!”

Together, as one, we laughed with the wind in our hair, and it felt good.

~=V=~