• 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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(2) Homebound Rebooted: No Sol-iciting Allowed

Author's Note:

Lastly, while I'm hesitant to release any sort of major spoiler post regarding the end of the plot, since even that seemed to be up in the air. I have about a dozen different versions of the outline, but the following is the list of chapters that were slated for writing and completely planned out. All 50. That's right, I only got through half of the story before real life burnt me out on it. But I did some pretty good puns and hated to waste them. Note that it's for the revised/rebooted chapters too, so not everything's the same.

Consider it the last lore entry unlocked.

Act I: The Captain and the Horses
(1) Bound to Be
(2) No Sol-iciting Allowed
(3) Wingmen
(4) Start of a Stable Relationship
(5)Aboard and Abroad
(6) Wigs
(7) Treda Softly (←- we had a planet named treda lol)
(8) Sealing the De'al
(9) Cities Built on Hills
(10) All the King's Men/Glass Cannons

(I) Jonesy

Act II: Guardians and Soldiers
(12)  Brewing Storms in Coffee Pots
(13) Backflip
(14) Sticking the Landing
(15) Ties
(16) Comprassion/Compression Compassion think of a better pun
(17) Ponies Turn Out
(18) Like a Dull Sword and a Thousand Catapults
(19) Operation Cheer-up the Captain
(20) Dutybound
(21) Our Sole Burden
(22) Bullets and Blades Part One
(23) Bullets and Blades Part Two
(24) Mission Man
(25) Promises Break You First

(II) Laser Beams!

Act III: Until the End
(26) Ponies Aren’t People
(27) Warm Milk
(28) Dirty Diamonds
(29) That Smell After Rain/Rainy Days
(30) Violet Lights
(31) Jackson-of-All-Trades
(32) From Worse to Worser
(33) Sometimes We Win
(34) Lithobreaking

(III) Wing It

Act IV: Defining Hope
(35) Sometimes We Die
(36) A Big But
(37) Sechura Place in My Heart
(38) Part of a Hole
(39) A Lie of a Mission
(40) People Aren’t Ponies
(41) The Alpha and the Omega/Matter V Energy
(42) The Roads a Man Must Walk
(43) Are Labyrinthine
(44) Crepuscular

(IV) Just a Diplomatic Ship

Act V: Life and Death
(45) Mere Crystalline Structures
(46) The Eye of the Calm
(47) Welcome to the Galaxy
(48) The End of an Era
(49) One Hundred Billion Stars
(50) Did You Know, You’re All My Very Best Friends
(51) The Thing Everyone Deserves
(52) Home

(V) Tempest Edge (Epilogue)

Last but not least the image that was to be the cover after chapter 25 and for the duration of the 3rd act:

I sat overlooking a window on a balcony. It was summer, or late spring, I guessed. The air smelled of humid trees, and it blew hard across the side of Canterlot. Stretched out below the palace were a series of forests, valleys, and a river going through a village. I'd been placed up in one of the taller towers, and my crew spread themselves out amongst the lower levels. Art's room had a nice balcony.

It'd been around seven in the evening when we landed, so without any business talk, the Princesses let us settle in. I appreciated it, since it let me talk gameplan with Art and send a message to the Homebound telling them we'd be staying the night. The ship's pilot, Evo, put the vessel in orbit and awaited further instructions, letting the more power-intensive systems go silent to save energy.
Art shut the door behind him and sat next to me. "Long day."

I shrugged. "Yeah. You and the others get dinner yet?"

"Got back at nine."

"Took them an hour and a half to cook you a meal?"

"There were some miscommunications about dietary restrictions." He chuckled. "They're herbivores."

I'd taken most of my gear off, but the datapad and Emtac's processor still sat on my right arm, though I told him to revert to standby mode until I needed him. Roland and Lilian helped unload a few key components from the Fate, which included a small generator for our equipment, and lugged it up around a hundred thousand flights of stairs to our area of the palace.

"I was busy," I said, and he gave me a sideways glance. "Sending data to the ship. Talking strategy with Emtac."

"Why?"

"And then I spent twenty minutes talking to one of the maids about where the library is in this place."

"You talked to an AI about strats and not me?"

I gave him a deadpan glare. "Because the library means information. If I can get a way for that translator power to work on their books, I'll have a free source of knowledge that those Princesses can't control. Objective info."

"I'm hurt." He chuckled, but looked out to the setting sun. The last rays of pinkish light disappeared behind a mountain on the horizon. He sighed, and looked back to me. "But seriously, good idea, even though we're basically doing the same thing to them."

"What?" I gave him my best impression of his sideways look.

"Controlling information. That's what this little game of ours is going to be about, I think. We need to discuss what we tell them, and what we don't."

I flattened my expression, and looked out at the sunset again, Art following my gaze. "You're not suggesting I be honest. That's not like you."

"We're both honest people, I know that." I saw him shake his head out of the corner of my eye. "But I'm being logical. This is Earth, and these aren't humans. Tell them the truth of why we care about this place, and it could jeopardize everything. No alliance. Nothing."

I looked down and fiddled my thumbs in a circle. "Anything involving humans that links them to this planet. The story stays as this. We detected a new system we hadn't noticed before. We are the exploration crew. We're making contact due to a malfunction in the reactor that means we have less time. This is the new truth. Make sure the others know it."

"Will do."

"Tomorrow, I'll make the pitch to Princess Celestia. Luna said she controlled the diplomacy side of things. Meanwhile, you talk to Luna. See what you can learn about Equestrian culture. The next day, I'll confront Luna and ask her about any of Celestia's possible grievances with the deal. You talk to Celestia and use your knowledge to sweeten the deal. Communication in between."

"Sounds good, boss," he said, and lifted a glass of water he'd brought from inside his room and laid on the armrest. "Cheers: to new allies and eternal fame."

"Cheers." I held up an empty hand, cupped in the shape of a goblet since I lacked any refreshment, and we both chuckled. "Library's in a different wing of the palace. Exit out the way we came in, take a left, couple hundred meters that way. Purple arch, then right down there should be the main library. I'll try to meet you there after breakfast."

"Speak'in of food, you should eat up," he said, nudging me. "I'll get word around to the crew and meet you in the morning."

"Where would I be without my second reminding me to eat?" I asked the cool air. The last of the sun's pink light disappeared, and I left Art to get eaten up by bugs.

I left the guest-room tower and meandered down the stairs to one of Canterlot Castle's many winding hallways. Over ten meters wide and tall, the marble tunnels gleamed with torches. Light danced across the walls and the carpets took on reddish hues. The place smelled clean, but not the clinical, chemical clean of the Homebound.

It took twenty minutes for me to remember I didn't know how to get to the kitchen. I went up some steps and peered out of a tower's window, only to see the many towers, arches, and walkways of Canterlot blocking my view. I recognized the guest tower at the far end, though. I let out a long, pent-up sigh. I'd ask for directions, but there weren't any guards or maids around. Canterlot Castle fell silent for the night.

"Lost, are we?"

"Hubichuwah!" I sputtered, spinning around with my hands on, automatically striking at the voice behind me. My fist stopped mid-air, as if I'd punched thick, invisible floating slime. I winced, and narrowed my eyes at the large horse-thing standing behind me. Princess Luna glared, her horn alight and a blue glow enveloping my hand.

"I take it you're not good at being surprised," she droned, letting the glow fade and my hand drop to my side. I held it in my other hand, checking for any signs of bruising or injury. Or slime.

I narrowed my eyes even further at her. "I take it you're not good at not scaring people half to death," I shot back, still cradling my arm.

Her eyebrows shot up for a moment, then settled back down. "What are you doing up so late in the night, prowling about my castle, Captain?"

My face settled into a more neutral expression, but my eyes didn't leave hers. "I could ask the same thing."

"I am co-owner of not just this castle, but this country."

"So?"

She sighed, and circled around me until she was blocking the window. With her curious gaze still aligned with mine, she lifted her head until her flowing, strange hair blocked the window in full. It looked like a perfect replica of the night sky beyond.

An exact replica, I realized.

"I am the Princess of the Night. This is my domain."

"Five tungstens your sister's Princess of the Day?" I asked, grinning.

"Very correct."

"So she… owns the sun."

"Yes, in a way."

"And you basically own all of space. That's a pretty garbage deal, actually."

Her eyes narrowed again, and a huff of air blew out her snout. "Enough, Captain. Why are you sneaking about? What is the meaning of your wandering?"

"Uh, one." I counted off my fingers. "I'm hungry. Two, I wanted to explore. Three, I'm hungry." I stopped myself from repeating the sarcastic tirade, but my stomach complained too loudly in my head for me to care about diplomacy.

Her gaze softened. "Oh. That is simple, I could guide you there blindfolded." She started down the stairs, and stopped to let me catch up. "Come. We should talk on the way."

"Yay." I followed, and stayed next to her, only half a meter between us as we walked the silent halls. Her hoofsteps were near complete silence.

"I've been informed your species are omnivores. This was unexpected, but the staff will be able to provide fish for you tomorrow."

"I'll just have eggs and toast, then. If you have eggs." We turned a corner, and entered a large, rectangular room with two levels and a red, gold-trimmed carpet. I looked to the side, and saw the two largest doors I'd seen yet. I guessed we were in the entrance to the palace, now.

Luna brought me up one of the main stairways and through a door to our left. "You seem uneasy, Captain."

"How so?" I asked, but instead of getting an answer, she stopped short, and turned to me.

"Take a deep breath." She lowered her head, and her horn lit up.

"What?" I tried to ask, but was interrupted by a flash of light and a sickening cold freezing my stomach solid, followed by a burst of air and sparkles.

She faced me, and we weren't in the same spot as before, and not a millisecond passed before my hands were up again. "Hwuah! What did you do?"

"Teleported us to the kitchen," she said in a tone of voice that didn't recognize my fists being ready to sock her in the mouth. I lowered them, though, just to be nice.

"Well don't do that again," I spat, and turned to look at the place. Racks of primitive metal cutlery lined the walls, and multiple stoves, ovens, and cabinets were under them. I looked up and down, seeing a sleek, tiled floor and a marble ceiling with multiple vents built in.

"Do what, teleport you?" She walked with me, guiding me through a series of kitchen islands to the refrigerator at the end of the room. It somehow kept the same general shape of the refrigerators we had at home.

"No. Just using your power on me without my permission." I threw open the door and looked at a bunch of hay sticking out of every side bin and shelf. Nonplussed, I punched my hand in and ruffled around for, I hoped, a tub of butter or carton of eggs.

Luna balked at my statement, and took a step back. "Very well. I will refrain from doing so in the future. I was unaware magic is taboo to your people."

"What, Art didn't tell you?" I continued rustling the poorly kept mess of a cold storage unit, until my hand rested on something cardboard-ish and, in a miraculous turn of coincident, shaped like an egg-carton. I pulled it out and turned around, still glaring. "We don't like it when psychics use their power on us, or even in general, without permission. It's a violation of personal space. Not to mention physics."

She blinked. "Your second neglected to tell me this." She continued looking at me with a blank face, but a glint in her eyes betrayed a tinge of sadness. "Forgive me. This will be rectified in the future. I will tell my sister tomorrow."

I stopped short, and softened my glare. "Thank you," I finally said, bringing the eggs over to the nearby stove, picking an iron pan off the rack with one hand, while the other opened the carton. "That means a lot, actually. Most psychics are pretty snooty about being special."

"I do have a question though." She waited for an answer, and I waved her on. "Why do you refer to it as psychic? My sister and I are both alicorns, and we use magic."

I shrugged, and fiddled with the nobs on the gas stove. They worked fine, at the very least, and a blue flame burned beneath the frying pan in moments. "Sort of interchangeable, I guess. More superstitious people call it magic. Actual people call it psych, and its users psychics." I pointed at her horn with my finger. "That, though, is something new. Sometimes their hands will glow, or eyes, but nobody's got a giant freak'n horn."

"It is not that large."

"Saw one that seemed to channel his power through a staff, once. Anyway, alicorn?" I trailed off, cracking a couple of eggs over the pan and letting them run together, yolks breaking without my intervention.

She sniffed. "Yes, and you've already been informed of the other types of pony."

"Yeah, you told me. Vanilla ponies, wingy ones that fly, and horny ones that use 'magic'. Seems about standard. Alicorns are, what, a combo of the three?"

"In a way. Also, you have forgotten to butter the pan."

"Shoot, you haven't invented non-stick?" I grunted, and marched back to the refrigerator.

"No need," she said, and her horn glowed. Out of the open door flew a bowl of solid yellow butter. "I know this is a mere business meeting for you, Captain, but I would enjoy knowing your name."

"Jackson," said, cautiously holding out one hand, away from me, to catch the bowl. "Jackson Amber. Captain is my formal title, but I've gone by a few others."

"Such as?"

I turned away from her, grabbing a spatula and mixing up the eggs to my liking, greasing the bottom with butter where I could. "Used to be an admiral, once," I deadpanned, keeping my eyes trained on the wall. "What's your full name?"

"Just Luna," she said from behind me. "Princess is my formal title."

"Anything else?"

"No."

"I'm guessing you ponies never really grasped the point of a surname, then." I chuckled, without any mirth involved. "I'm sorry if this is a bit too informal for you. It's been a stressful week. Month, really."

She didn't answer for a while, and we stood there, the only light from the dim, flickering stove beneath my late meal. It smelled good, and my stomach urged me to finish with the stove quickly.

After a minute, she sighed. "I am sorry. It has been a hard month for my sister and me as well. Your timing could have perhaps been better, but there's no way to help such things. Your informalities are easily forgiven."

"I bet we could swap some crazy stories." I chuckled again, and this time meant it. "Been in the Wing for over two decades now, and I still haven't been everywhere in the galaxy yet. How 'bout you? How long until you get to be Queen Luna or whatever?"

"My sister and I are Princesses, and that is how it will stay," Luna said. "And while I am… not as experienced as my sister, I have learned much over the years."

A real smile crossed my face, but I kept looking at the wall. "So, 'Princess of the Night', right? What else does that entail? I know I cracked the space joke earlier, but I'm curious."

I turned to face her, still smiling, and turned off the heat for my meal. I'd not be bothered to find toast. She smiled in turn. "I keep the night court open, and schedule nighttime events. I watch over ponies' dreams and keep them safe. In the evening and morning, I raise and lower the moon, while my sister lowers and raises the sun in turn. There are some other, simpler duties, such as monster hunting or other such menial tasks, but they are hardly relevant."

I kept staring at her, forcing the smile to stay put. "Uh-huh."

"You think I have lied?"

"No, no," I said, shaking my head vigorously. "Of course not. Yes. That's a- yeah. That's not true."

Luna quirked an eyebrow. "How so?"

"I'll respect whatever facade you have going. Your people can keep believing it, but be truthful with me. Nobody - no thing is powerful enough to move a moon, let alone a star. You're talking about geocentricity. It's impossible."

"For you, perhaps? Our world may not be like the ones you typically-"

"No, no. It's physically impossible. Cannot be done." I turned to face her, scowling. "No psychic I've ever heard of could do anything even remotely close to that. We'd detect that sort of thing anyway, if it were true. My ship would be frantically calling me, right now, trying to tell me that some freaky stuff is going on." I lifted up my arm, and tapped twice on my inactive datapad. "Bloody nuthin'."

She stood there, letting my outburst finish, and flickered her ears. "I am sorry. I'm not used to such… strange skepticism. Are there any other doubts you wish to share?"

I bobbed my shoulders, palms pointed up. "Nope. Well, yeah, actually. Watching people's dreams should also be impossible. I'm not an expert in mind magic, but I'm pretty sure brains aren't holoflicks."

"While I do not usually stoop as low as making bets, it may be easier to simply prove to you it is possible," she mused, watching me gather my food together without cleaning. "Tonight, then?"

"Whuhp?" I sputtered, mouth half-full with scrambled egg. I swallowed. "Nuh-uh. No staring at the inside of my brain, consciousness, whatever. You want a tour? Ask nicely."

"Very well, Jackson Amber. I will make sure to knock first."

"Whuhpeher."

"I will see you sometime later, Jackson. I believe you can find your way back to the guest quarters on your own." She stepped back, horn glowing.

"Wait," I said, gulping down another mouthful. "No, I don't-" Zzap. Princess Luna disappeared in a flash of light that stung my eyes and left an annoying, empty feeling in the room.

I let out a long sigh, and set the plate of half-eaten eggs on the counter. With my left hand, I tapped on my earpiece. "Emtac. You there?"

"Yes, sir. Need something?"

"I, uh," I uhh'd, shuffling my feet. "I need the GPS coordinates of Art and the others."

"Lost, sir?"

"Quite."

"You do not possess a HUD-capable helmet, sir. I will warn you when you walk in the incorrect direction."

"Fantastic," I muttered, turning around to get my poor excuse for a dinner and wolf it down.

"Colder."

"Shut it."

"Absolutely freezing."

~=V=~

"Homebound mission log, end." I shut my mouth, took a breath, and clenched my teeth together. The little recorder in my hands whirred, then stopped, and I looked over to my bedside table. I'd placed the mini-AI device atop it with a bottle of water earlier. Only the candle and soft glow from Emtac's case lit the bed from one side. I stared at him for a minute, wondering if it'd been appropriate to do a log in bed, with only a shirt and underwear on.

I was on Earth, I concluded. I could do anything I wanted.

I hadn't lied to the Princess, for the most part. I revealed something about myself in hopes of goading her to do the same, and she'd told me something important. That she'd be the easier one to deal with, being inexperienced compared to her sister.

"I did it," I whispered to the air. "Five years as the chief of exploration ops and we got nowhere. One random suicide mission." I rolled over on my back, and rubbed my eyes with both hands, shuddering from the relief coursing through my body like a parade. "I waited. I did my best. God damn I did my best."

I looked at the room around me again. Purple, large, circular bed in the middle. Lined with golden thread and smooth, perfect pillows. Two of which laid under my head. I'd left one of the Fate's cargo crates next to the door, and the dull metal grey looked out of place in the midst of royal decor.

"Won wars. Ended empires. Held hope itself at my fingertips and gave it to people." I shrugged. "Own a company, I guess. Bit impressive. Healthy, wealthy. Family's taken care of." I turned back to one side, and stared at the silent AI. "But who the heck is going to believe this? If I come back saying I found Earth and a bunch of horse-things rule it, I'm gone. Sploosh. Career over."

"Or worse," I said after a minute of thinking. "Art could take the blame. But… no, Art's staying."

"You don't seem at all phased I plan on leaving Art behind, at least temporarily," I said to Emtac, taking a long breath. "Well I do. Don't tell him, though, it's a surprise."

I blew out the candle, the glow from Emtac barely a dent in the near-solid darkness filling the room, and closed my eyes. The covers laid undisturbed below me, and most of the pillows sat in the right places. I didn't want to be too mean to the maids.

I twirled in my seat. The crescent-moon shaped bridge of E.S.S. Georgia twinkled, with each blurred, blinking control panel empty except a few in front of the raised captain's chair. Hard, square, and trimmed with real gold, and lacking any cushions on purpose. Outside the bridge, past the long nose of the Enigma-class battlecruiser, sat an infinite wreckage. Twisted I-beams the size of the Enigma's width floated past. Whole hangars, somehow ejected in the destruction, spun wildly. Bits still burned and exploded.

"Sir, what we do?" one of my crew demanded, turning to face me. I recognized it as one of the admirals from the College, but said nothing of it.

"Uh, I dunno. Jettison escape pods to find survivors?" I said, shrugging.

"Ok." The admiral spun around and started slapping buttons at random.

A person in different uniform strode past the captain's chair and faced me. Dylan Clover, current leader of the Wing, saluted. "We found a man who survived, sir. Shall I bring her in?"

I nodded, then stopped. "Wait, don't you need to be at Gantoris?"

"Here she is, sir," Dylan said, reaching around the captain's chair and procuring the Premier of the college, a red-faced draxian in a long black trenchcoat, two swords sheathed at his side.

"Hey."

"What the heck are you doing out here, Aaro?" I asked, narrowing my eyes. I stood up, but couldn't since I was glued to the seat. "You weren't at the Tolos Station."

"Yeah, I was. You had it killed, remember?"

"What?" I shook my head. "No, no, that's not- I was here to defend it just like the others."

I got up, and strode to the elevator leading to the other decks. There wasn't one there, but the tunnel simply descended into darkness. Reaching out, I grabbed the side of the lift with one hand, stopping myself short.

"Long way down."

"Only way," I said, ignoring the unknown voice. "Decks four through one are compro- wait." I spun around. "You're not my crew. The Georgia fell in the defense of the Kelta system. Years ago."

"Hah!" I shouted, pointing at a deadpan duo of my superiors. "This is a dream. Gotcha!"

"Lucidity is not a talent many have."

"Hey, sweet. Dream-voice." I pointed to the ceiling. "Shut up. My head, my rules. Come on out, little intercom-guy." I looked to the manifestation representing the leader of the Wing. "You."

He blinked.

"What is the meaning of life?"

He stepped forward and pushed me into the infinite black pit of the elevator, his face entirely emotionless.

"You know what?" I asked nobody in particular. Air rushed past me. "That's not very nice and also unexpected."

I took a deep breath, and closed my eyes. When I opened them, I stood at the fourth deck, with a regular mook standing before me. It looked like a much younger Art, dressed in the off-blue grey uniform we gave cadets. I nodded, and made sure all my parts were in one piece, scanning over my legs and hands in meticulous order.

Two extra fingers on my left hand, half a ring-finger missing on the right. Bog-standard.

"Visitor, sir," the Cadet-Art said, motioning to a door.

"Thanks." I walked forward and opened the door, only to be greeted with another large, bulky door of similar design. "Wait. No," I said, chuckling, looking back to Cadet-Art. "This is an airlock. Silly dream-man."

Art said nothing, and continued his robotic staring contest with the wall. I stepped into the airlock anyway, and the moment the inner door closed, something hit the outer one. I jerked, blinking hard. The thud happened again, and then again in a one-two pattern.

"There is no space," I said, closing my eyes and reminding myself that when I opened the door, there would be no vacuum and no depressurization. I'd be fine. I stepped forward, and hit a glowing red button on the side of the airlock.

The door slid open to reveal Princess Luna, floating in the middle of space.

"Greetings!"

"No." I punched the red button, but she slipped through before the airlock shut. "Nah. Nope. No."

Without landing on the ground, she floated before me grinning ear-to-ear. "I did inform you I would prove such a thing were possible. I can indeed traverse the dream-worlds of my subjects."

"I am not your subject," I whined, hitting the inner door open. Art didn't move. "Tell her I'm not her subject, Art."

Art made a "blarg" sound and fell face-forward into the metal floor. Typical.

"See?"

Luna ventured further into the spaceship, her silver-coated hooves hitting the ground and sticking there. "Very curious. Is this what the interior of your vessel looks like?"

"You aren't allowed in my head, Princess. No offense, but it's private."

"I was polite and knocked first, Jackson Amber. You merely let me in."

"Then I am asking you," I growled, stepping closer to the alicorn, until my face stopped six inches from hers. "Leave."

"Sir, that was a statement," Art said from the floor.

Luna's smile faded, and her head dipped toward the floor. "I see." She took on step toward the airlock, the other hoof hovering off the ground. "I had hoped to find another who appreciated the ability. I understand your desire for privacy and will depart at once. I will see you at breakfast tomorrow, Jackson Amber."

She turned around in full, ethereal tail drooping, and pressed the button with a hoof. I watched, grimacing. Psychic horse freaks or not, I'd forgotten the most important rule. They were people. Heck, I thought, the Princess must've been at least half my age at best. I cringed. The historians wouldn't count me hurting the Princess' feelings, but I reminded myself I wasn't on planet Earth for the historians.

I closed my eyes, and focused.

"Wait."

She stopped, one hoof hovering over the red inner-airlock button. I knew because I stayed in control of my dream.

So I changed it, and when I opened my eyes, the two of us stood in pure blackness, an unseen light keeping us visible to one another.

"My head, my rules."

She flinched. "I understand, Captain. I will not bother you any further. Fear not."

"No. You can stay, but just remember that it's my head, and my rules. You change nothing, get to see nothing, but the reward is that you may stay to talk. In retrospect, it's a pretty useful ability."

"I may stay?" Luna asked, ears perking up. "Thank you."

"Like, talking. Without being awake. If you could get multiple brains in here, we'd be able to have a full-blown conference meeting without wasting daylight. I won't get tired from this, right?"

"No," she said, a small smile once more forming on her lips. "And I have not experimented with this ability as often as I should. My job is to simply watch over the dreams of my subjects and make sure they are happy ones, not weave them together."

"Right," I said, rolling my eyes. "Anyways. Let's get started." A grey chair for me appeared alongside a small round table made of white plastic, and a purple cushion mirroring one of the pillows on my bed. I'd already sat down the moment before the chair appeared. "Please, sit."

"You have remarkable control over your dreams," Luna remarked, planting her rear on the purple pillow and placing her hooves face-down on the table. "It takes great concentration, even while lucid."

"I know," I said, my mouth settling into a straight, grim line. "Where I come from, there are some with powers like yours. Not dream-hopping, but mind powers all the same. Most of them use it for ill purposes." Crossing my arms, I closed my eyes and looked at her. "I helped spearhead the creation of a mind-shield technique to block them. The Labyrinthian Way."

Luna's eyes went wider than plates. "I… what? Who would use such gifts for evil? I… this explains why you were so vehement over me being here. I'm so sorry,"

"It's alright. Maybe I should've told you… more precisely why I disliked the intrusion."

"I take it your mind has been infiltrated in the past, then? I cannot imagine the feeling."

Nodding, I sipped from a cup of wine. It tasted like water. "Once. Just imagine how you'd feel if someone waltzed into your bedroom and started ruffling through your personal items, but on a higher level of... truth. Mind-readers peek at the core of people whether they know it or not. Dreams, however," I said, waving my hand to display the pitch surrounding us. "Dreams are new. I've heard stories, but never confirmed it. Most impressive."

"Thank you."

"Now what did you wish to discuss?"

The Princess looked at me for a moment, eyes trailing down to the table in thought. "Anything. I wish to know so much more about you and your people. It is true you come from a different planet, from a different solar system entirely?"

"Correct, but not every star has a world that's habitable, let alone inhabited. If I were to show you a map, it would look as if the entire galaxy were populated, but the reality is that people are much farther apart than it seems. My homeworld, for instance, would be… I'd say a thousand light-years from this system. The Wing's capital system, perhaps twice that."

"Amazing," she whispered, eyes-staring through me, still wide in wonder. "To imagine how far light itself travels in a year is near impossible, even for myself. A thousand light-years, and yet you are here. How do your people travel?"

Chuckling, I shrugged. "I know how to make the engines go vroom, not why they go vroom. The easiest way to explain it is that we make places come to us. Though, there are two methods of doing it." I summoned a miniature version of the Fate, specifically instead of the Homebound. "One is called warp. We sort of drag space, and, er, warp it around the ship. It's like surfing, but a billion times more awesome and only half as dangerous." The Fate jerked, and slowly surfed a ripple in the air around our heads before stopping once it completed a lap.

"An ingenious, if perhaps ludicrous idea," she muttered, entranced by the apparition. "What of this other method?"

"Sort of the same concept," I said, pointing at the Fate. A dotted line appeared mid-air and traced a straight path to somewhere off in the distance. "It's got a few nicknames. Jumping, fishing, reeling, or point-hopping. But mostly jumping. It follows the same concept, except…" I trailed off, letting the example model do the talking. The line scrunched up, and warped around the ship, until the beginning of the line touched the end. Then, it snapped back, but the ship stuck to the end of the line, riding it all the way to its destination.

"It brings the destination to it, moves an inch forward, and then lets go. Big power hog compared to warp, but it turns month-long trips into mere minutes. Also, in order to do it, you need either exact coordinates or a jump-buoy at the destination."

Luna continued staring, mouth shut tight. "This is very exciting, Jackson Amber."

"You have no idea."

"Am I to believe that, should an alliance be created between our two people, this technology will be shared?" she asked, smiling at me.

"No."

Her smile vanished without a trace. "I see. Is this because your people are greedy? Do you wish to keep it for yourselves and monopolize on ponies' ignorance of them?"

"Blunt of you, but no. Trade will mean these technologies are shared, and how it is distributed will be up to you. Often, when we discover less-advanced civilizations, introducing them to our technologies too fast creates… issues. Cultural schisms, rebellions, corporate monopolies, economic crashes. All in the same day."

She nodded, but didn't return the smile. "I understand. It is easy to become caught-up in these... exciting moments." Without another word, her ears perked up. "I am sorry, Jackson Amber, but I must depart post-haste. One of my ponies needs me."

"I assume you'd like to meet up again tomorrow night?"

This time, her smile genuinely returned. "Of course, my friend. I will see you at breakfast."

Then she turned around, and a wooden door, complete with a brass doorknob, appeared in the middle of the black void. She opened it, smiled at me one last time, and walked out of my head.

Mini-Fate whirred noisily around my head, and I crossed my arms over my chest. "She didn't even close the door. It just poofed. Typical."

The blackness faded, and now I sat on a hillside, coated with bright green grass. Displayed below me sat a clean park surrounded by a forest of trimmed, white-leaved trees. I took one long, slurping sip of dream-wine. The Fate flew off, and I smiled at the white towers on the horizon.

~=V=~

I walked into the dining room last, since it took me an hour to make sure my uniform from the day before still could be worn. Wing uniforms were built to withstand constant use and punishment, made with absorption-resistance fabrics and lined with flexible layers of protective material on the inside. The Captains' did, at least. I couldn't speak for the cadets'.

All four extra members of my away team sat at their end of the table, munching on eggs and buttered toast. Except Art took out several protein bars midway through and ate them instead. The other differences laid in how the crew ordered their eggs. Roland got scrambled, and the other two over-easy. I nicked one of Art's protein bars and sat next to him, peeling it open.

Princess Celestia and Luna sat at the opposite end of the table. The pink morning light filtered through the tall glass windows, casting rays across the room where dust floated like stars.

"Good morning, Captain Amber," Celestia said, smiling. "I trust you slept well?"

My eyes trailed from Celestia to Luna, the bar halfway shoved in my mouth. I closed, crunched, and swallowed in half a minute, maintaining loose eye-contact with the two.

"Had some weird dreams."

Luna raised an eyebrow, but made no other move.

"But I'm good. Nice place you've got here. Really… big tables."

Celestia's head slowly tipped downward. "Thank you. Your breakfast will be along in a moment. Please forgive the wait."

"And big doors, and big windows. I guess you are pretty tall," I lied, since the doors were twice Celestia's height and Celestia, even with her ridiculous pointy horn, stood a few inches taller than me.

"Apparently somepony reorganized one of the kitchen refrigerators," she continued, half of a smile appearing on one side of her face. "In the future, please make use of the palace staff for such needs. They are well-equipped to help with anything you might require during your stay."

I nodded, scarfing down the rest of the bar in one bite. Art stared at me, mouth open. I looked around the room, finally, and let my muscles relax. The dining room consisted of one, gigantic table stretching from door-to-door. I guessed the table sat at the same length as the Fate. Four guards stood at each corner, along with a few potted plants and general decor. Gold thread lined the red curtains, each brought aside to reveal the sunrise.

After a minute, I realized that while Celestia ate a meal similar to ours, but with more orange slices and less protein bar, Luna finished up a real dinner. Salad, some sort of mashed potato, and innumerable greenies I didn't recognize.
"To be fair, there weren't any maids out here last night, and I only saw like, one guard."

"Most of the palace has been cleared out, since the nature of your stay is different to most dignitaries. As you captain a vessel, perhaps you will appreciate the term 'skeleton crew.' I do understand the issue, though." Celestia said, taking a sip and reading a couple of papers next to her plate. Parchment instead of paper, but stacked to a fair degree, and some were rolled into scrolls and set aside.

"Today, we will speak to one another about the reason we are here," I announced, sitting up straight. A pony in a white button-up cloak thing and poofy hat appeared from one of the doors, setting in front of me some eggs, toast, and an orange. A fork, knife, and spoon floated by and set themselves on the table.

"I agree. Sometime before noon, I believe, would be best. Eleven-thirty?"

"Sounds good to me. Where?"

"My office."

Nodding, I picked up a fork between two fingers, and gingerly stabbed it into my eggs. "I can do that."

Art nudged me with his foot an instant before he interrupted. "Excuse me, but may I ask a question?"

"You may."

"Earlier, you said you used an active translation spell, and your horn sort of lit up. How can we still understand each other if you're not longer keeping it, er, on?"

Luna spoke before Celestia, her voice duller and more tired since last night. "While she prepared the staff for your arrival yesterday evening, my sister cast a more permanent spell over the palace with similar purpose. However, instead of active alteration of our perception of language, it is a… field, that surrounds us all."

"Interesting. That must take quite a lot of skill," Art said, leaning back. "What if we eventually want to leave the palace, though? How will we communicate?"

"Well for one, you could simply learn our language," Princess Luna deadpanned, blinking once at the commander with half-lidded eyes.

I leaned forward. "That's the long-term goal. He just means temporarily."

"I may have a solution," Celestia said, levitating the stack of papers so that they fell into perfect rectangular shape. "I have not used magic like this in a long time, though. I must re-learn the specifics. Enchantment magic has never been my forte."

"I may be able to help with that, sister," Luna interjected, scooting her chair back and stepping down. "I… I need sleep first, though. Good-day, sister."

"Sleep well, sister," Celestia said, nodding at her departing peer.

I took a few more bites, each time loading the fork with more than it could carry and wolfing it down anyway. The others finished up, letting a maid collect their dishes and take them to the kitchen. Art crumpled up the three protein bar wrappers, grabbed mine, and left while muttering something about finding a trash can.

The door at Celestia's end opened, and a bud-yellow pony trotted through, carrying ten scrolls stacked on her back, stuck between saddlebags bulging with paper on one side, and several feathers stuck out of the other.

"New requests, Princess," she said, ignoring us five interlopers and stopping before the princess, one hoof reaching behind her and holding up the pile of scrolls to the princess. "Abacus wasn't very fond of the changes to the city budget and has written a letter of complaint. I put it on the bottom for you, your highness."

"Thank you, Ms. Flower, but I will not be conducting requests for the time being," Princess Celestia said in between bites of toast. The aid's eyes widened, one twitched, and the stack of scrolls slowly tipped to one side and scattered across the floor.

"I-I-I- o-okay. Uh. Oh. Of course, Princess Celestia. I. Uh." Her left eye twitched, and she gathered the pile of scrolls back onto her saddlebacks. "Right! Just… no more requests."

"If they complain, please tell them that I am busy with important diplomatic matters," Celestia said, sipping from a steaming cup of tea. "And I am not to be disturbed. After that, I think you've earned a vacation for a few days."

"O-of course. I'll… go do that. Um," the mare muttered, casting a sideways glance at the five of us. We froze mid-stare, and only Art blinked once. "Who are they?"

"Diplomats from far away. Actually." She paused, taking a long, careful sip from the porcelain teacup. "I will take care of replying to the requests if you would do something for me." Looking to Art, who'd just walked through the door, she motioned to him with one hoof. "That is Commander Boyo, and he showed some interest in exploring the Canterlot Archives this morning. Could you please show him around and answer any questions he may have?"

"Will do," she chirped, shoulders sagging.

"I will take this, then," Celestia said, horn lighting up. The saddlebags weighing down the earth pony lifted up and moved beside her chair. Ms. Flower took a deep breath and exhaled, then trotted around the table to Art.

"Greetings." He bent his knees and stooped low, offering a hand out. "Artzian Boyo, but you can call me Art."

"May Flower," she replied, sticking a hoof into his hand and shaking. "But May is fine too. Or Ms. Flower, I guess. The Archives are right this way."

The short mare led him out, and the door slammed shut. By the time I looked back to Celestia, her side of the table sat clean, and she stood beside her chair. "Captain Amber."

"Yes?"

"Eleven-thirty."

"Got it." I stood up, and my crew followed. "Actually, where is the yard? A gym? Any place to exercise?"

Celestia smirked. "I realize you are military men, Captain. The Royal Guard barracks is cleared for you to use, and I extended the translation spell to cover their grounds. Simply ask any guard, and he'll point you in the right direction."

"That's it, then. Thank you."

"You're welcome. I will see you later, Captain."

With the princess gone, I turned to my team, who already stood at attention. One side of my mouth perked up. "Fantastic. Who want's to go run laps and spar?"

Roland grinned while the women's mouths dropped to thin, pursed lines.

~=V=~

Roland groaned, one cushion-wrapped hand propping him up.

"Another round?" I asked, holding a hand down and helping him up. We both panted in heavy, ragged breath, but he accepted.

"I think I'm out," he sputtered, chuckling. I brought him over to a bench to the side of the grassy, rectangular arena, and let him rest. "Clocked me good. Nearly thought I'd broken a rib."

"Well if it hurts too much, we'll get Aran to take you back to the Homebound's medbay. Speaking of…" I turned around just in time to see the two women jog forward, sweat dripping down their faces, though most of it soaked into Aran's fur. We'd all taken off the uniforms, wearing just white undershirts and pants. The Royal Guard's training grounds laid empty before us, bar a few errant, armorless guards working the weights or running laps. I surveyed the scene and grinned.

"That's ten laps, sir," Aran huffed, the two ensigns plopping down next to Roland and taking a long drink of water from a cluster of bottles near the bench.

"Well, Roland. Guess they've set your time."

"Yay," he replied without a trace of enthusiasm but quite a bit of annoyance.

"Five minute break," I said, grabbing my own bottle and downing it in three gulps. "You've got your standard unarmed defense down, Roland, but you're too stiff. You're going to break your arms if you block blows like that. And you use your fists. Bar-brawling all they teach you in the academies nowadays?"

"Yessir," Roland groaned, head flopping backward.

"And you two." I pointed at the others and waggled my finger between them. "Don't think you're free. After break, you go in the ring."

Lilian made a very unladylike sound from the back of her throat, and Aran turned to glare at me, crossing her arms. "With all due respect, sir. She is an engineer and I am a doctor. I can defend myself just fine when I need to."

"Wing doctor," I said, pointing at her. "Wing engineer." I pointed at Lilian. "Not civilians, military. Heck, you've been on minor missions before, during the Commander's field-training. I know all of you can shoot a gun and punch a face."

"Violence never sat well with me," Aran said.

"So you joined a military."

"It was necessary."

I nodded as if I understood. "For?"

"I…" she muttered, looking down. "My family served as Wing doctors during the Galactic Wars. I continue their service, as is tradition."

My breathing finally steadied, I put both hands to my hips and stared hard at her. "You lived on Feros Tyr during the wars?"

"Yes." She jerked her head back up and narrowed her eyes at me. "So if you still want to know if I can fight, there is no need to ask."

I nodded again, pouring bucket-loads of sarcasm into the gesture, and stepped backward until my feet crossed the white-paint edge of the arena. "I'm not asking if you can fight. This is just training, ensign. A sparring match is nothing compared to a real fight."

She stood up, her own breathing leveled, and put the bottle of water down. I stared at her, checking her stance and walk. Lithe body, and a few muscles pulsed along her arms and across her belly. Teryn were notorious for hand-to-hand, but I never thought that was fair since they had claws.

Athletic and agile. Doctor or not, I smiled at the idea of the fight to come. We both walked to opposite sides of the ring, the sun bearing down on us like we needed the extra weight. I took a deep breath, put one foot out, and settled into position, one foot in front of the other, ready to jump at a moment's notice.

Aran dropped into a crouch. I didn't recognize the style, but she looked like a coiled spring. "What form is that?" I asked.

"Tek-soi. Yours?"

"Ban hoy pan. Teryn form. Friend taught me."

She raised her fists to eye-level, glaring at me from behind them. "Was he teryn?"

I did the same, pointing my elbows straight, while hers faced out. "No."

"Tsk." She took a deep, steady breath, and I kept careful watch over her muscles, looking for the hint at her first move.

"Begin."

Aran leapt up into a sprinter's stance and charged, and I shuffled forward a few feet to meet her, readying my right leg to sweep out in an arc to slam into her shins. With a yard between us, I dipped low, committing to the move only to meet open air. The teryn dodged to my left, landing on one leg while the other used her momentum to tuck, spin, and kick out toward my own legs. She connected with my side, near the kidney, and withdrew.

I staggered, falling back into defensive stance while she circled around me. Shuffling forward, I hazarded two quick jabs to the head, both blocked by her arms, then fell back half a meter. Without hesitating, she sprang forward, dancing around a punch to the head and swiping at my shin. I lifted the leg up before she hit and slammed into her gut, forcing her to whirl back, gasping.

"You went for my head?" she sputtered, putting her arms back up.

I didn't give her a break, rushing forward and sending a flurry of punches into her torso, forcing her to focus her defense there while I readied to knock her down. My kick hit the inside of her shin, and she fell at an angle.

Before she hit the ground, both of her hands shot out, one grabbing my left arm, and the other my shoulder. With a heavy push, she used me as a launch point, kicking with her free leg and swinging around me, while at the same time pushing me to the ground. She skidded to a stop feet-first, dropping to a crouch and sprinting back at me. Spinning on one foot, I wheel-kicked her in the side of the head, or I would have if she hadn't ducked and swept her leg out, hitting me at a critical point in the spin and sending me sprawling to the side. I rolled out of the way of a follow-up, jumping to my feet a few meters.

Now she stood where I started, and I in the middle of the arena.

"Full-contact. Anything goes, long as you win. You knew the rules." I panted, breathing hard under the hundred-degree sun. "Maybe except biting. And breaking. Please don't bite me."

She sneered, and we closed the circle. I didn't get to move before she kicked out, hitting my left leg, and before she touched the ground she kicked at my right. I tightened my stance, weathering the constant hits until my thighs felt like she'd beaten them with a meat tenderizer.

Then I punched her in the face the moment her hands dropped to counterweight the constant kicking. She reeled back, and I swung my arm around to her head and landed a hit on her shoulder, swinging the other in the same way, but this time clipping off the shoulder and hitting the side of her head. With both my arms occupied, she jabbed forward, both fists hitting my chest at the same time.

I took her opening and grabbed her arms, pushing her backward and sending a front-kick into her gut. She gasped, staggered, and hunched forward. Taking the time I'd earned, I dodged around her, swiping at her leg and not meeting any resistance. She toppled, and tried to roll out of the way, arms still tucked into her belly.

In the middle of her roll, she pushed out, launching herself into the air and using the momentum to land on her feet. I moved in, throwing punch after punch and only being met with a precise deflection, forcing myself closer to her with each swing. With only a third of a meter between our heads, I swung beneath her defenses. She winced, both arms lowering to deflect the blow.

I headbutted her, one hand on her shoulder while the other harmlessly bounced off her arms, only to swing back up and grab her other shoulder.

"What?" she hissed, shaking her head.

I headbutted her again, but this time she jerked backward to negate the blow, her arms rising and wrapping around mine, tangling them. I tugged back, but she held me in place, hands digging into my shoulderblades. Taking a deep breath, she jumped up, loosened her grip on me, and kicked off from my gut with both feet.

Landing on my rear, I gasped for air while she rolled back into position, once more settling into the starting stance. I stood up, breathing hard. Blood ran down her inhuman, animalistic nose and matted the fur along her neck.

"That wasn't ban hoy pan," she said between laughs.

I shrugged, holding my fists up, and chuckled. "I know. That was for fun. Sorry about your nose."

"Sorry about yours."

"But-" She sprung into motion, dancing around my reactive punch and grabbing my outstretched arm, swinging around and forcing me to follow. Despite being half my size, the woman threw me over her back, but instead of twirling me sideways like I expected, throwing my arms out to counterbalance that move, she set me right-side up. My own failure in judgement did the rest, staggering me to one side while I turned to meet her.

The set-up worked, and when I turned in full, I got a face full of the same wheel-kick I'd tried to give her.

I landed on my face, and no amount of freshly-cut, perfectly green grass can mimic a training mat. I hit hard, and laid there for a few seconds, the blades tickling my lips with each frantic pump of my lungs..

"You okay?" she asked after a bit, holding up a cloth Roland handed her. She pressed it against her face, making her voice more nasal than usual.

I groaned from the bottom of my throat, rolling over to see the cloudless sky. Lilian walked over, one hand out, and I took it without complaint. Once I finished steadying myself, she let go and handed me a cloth. "Your nose, sir."

"Thanks," I mumbled, pressing it to my face and sighing. At least I didn't have fur to stain, or a beard. A few drops of blood nevertheless fell to my white undershirt.

"That was frickin' sweet," Roland said, pumping a fist. "I didn't even last half that long."

Quirking an eyebrow, I tilted my head at him.

"Against her, I mean," he said, stepping back with both palms up. "No offense."

I held out my free hand to Aran, and she shook it. "Good job," I said in my own nasally tone. "That last bit wasn't tek-soi, though."

"I know. For fun." She smirked, and we both chuckled. We walked over to take a much-needed rest on the bench, and I told Roland he'd forgotten to run his ten laps. By the time he finished just one, I'd downed two more bottles and sat, legs spread, rubbing the outside of my thighs. Lilian wandered off, and at the third bottle, I spotted her talking with one of the guards.

"Break anything? You know we don't have enough biomend to allow standard training and PT."

"Nah, just hurts. A lot. Gonna be bruises all over the place before I inject bioment," I replied, eyes closed. "I might get sunburned, too."

"I'm going to need a shower."

"Same. What time is it?"

"Eleven," Art announced from behind us. I flinched, but didn't open my eyes. The commander's shadow fell across my face, and I enjoyed the brief respite from the sun. "I'm back from the library and you've got our first pitch in twenty, sir."

"I am aware."

"Sir… you're bloodied and look like you just went swimming. It's rude to greet royalty while in such condition."

One eye peeking open, I frowned at him, and sighed. "You hate royalty."

"Not liking something does not mean I refuse to educate myself about it. I can take over from here… and I need a good run."

"Eurguh," I grumbled, forcing myself into a sitting position, wincing at the pain in my legs and arms. They whined more when I stood, and I took two deep, steadying breaths. "I'm good. You learn anything?"

"Yeah," he grabbed my shoulder, and I saw my uniform jacket tucked under his arm. We walked across the field, and Art waved to Roland when the ensign passed by. "I learned a lot of weird stuff."

"Like?" I asked, forcing his arm off me and walking on my own. "Whole place is weird so far."

"For one, if the books are correct, those princesses are over a thousand years old."

I balked, stopping in my tracks and turning to stare at him, brow furrowed.

"I had the same reaction. It might be propaganda, but…"

"Psychics are weird." I nodded slowly. "I met with Luna last night, and she said something that sounded like they use their powers to manipulate celestial bodies."

"Same thing in the archives. Every single text said Princess Celestia raises the sun and Princess Luna raises the moon. Both are the wisest ponies in the world. And so on. It sounds like controlled media to me, which means we're dealing with some very sinister manipulators." He took a deep breath, and shook his head at the ground. "I'm worried we're playing into their hands. Er, hooves. That or we're about to make lying dictators our allies."

"We've made worse," I grumbled, and we kept walking. "But I don't know about it. Last night, Luna claimed she could extend her consciousness into dreams. That it's her responsibility, even, to monitor the dreams of her subjects."

Art's eyes went wide. "For real? That's the freakiest thing I've heard all day. I read an article about how the Empirium's leadership does the same thing, claiming they can read people's minds to scare them."

I frowned. "She did it, though. Didn't seem to know it's a violation of privacy. Went lucid, so I remember it all."

"Wow," Art trailed off, whistling one long, sour note. "You didn't... hurt her, did you? I heard stories about you locking yourself in rooms with readers or empaths. People think you're scarier than Admiral Fenway when it comes to, I don't know, that stuff. Dealing with psychics." He winced, even though he said dealing as if it were a business transaction.

We left the grounds, once more stepping on the paved path heading to the palace. The barracks sat situated between the palace and the rest of the city, as I understood. The architecture provided a stark difference, with the building itself made of red brick and square bits.

"I didn't, but I made sure she knew the rules," I said after a minute. "She's- I don't know. If you didn't just tell me they were older than most current civilizations, I'd think they were your age and half as experienced. Luna, at least. But she's powerful. If they are that old, and can toss around planets… or stars...."

Art whistled again. "We're in deep, then." We kept walking, coming up to the front entrance of the palace. I nodded at the guards, and they opened the big, eight-meter high wooden doors. Art pulled me aside before I could get close.
"One more thing, since you mentioned it. There were only two mentions of both the princesses back then, a thousand years ago. Everything else is about Celestia. It- maybe it's nothing, but it stuck out to me. It's as if her sister stopped existing for a millennium." He shook his head. "I dunno, but it seems weird to me. It's a huge inconsistency."

"Proof they're editing history?" I raised an eyebrow. "That's big. And I thought we made good liars."

"Diplomats, sir."

"Good diplomats." I patted him on the shoulder and took a step back. "Thanks for the warning."

"Oh, also, two other things," he called. "Ponies aren't big on war or fighting. Conflict is bad. They're also really, really big on friendship. A bit unsettling to me. So, uh, don't play up the military part of the Wing's operation. Or violence in general. Focus on trade, culture, and, shoot, I don't know, friendship."

I grinned. "Don't worry, I'm great at diplomatting. Have fun, and remember to spar with Lilian. I didn't get a chance to."

He nodded, waved, and we parted ways. I'd memorized the general layout of the castle by now, sticking to the inside of the turns and cutting across hallways to my room. Sweat from the heated workout dripped from my skin, and I resisted the urge to tear my undershirt off before I reached my room.

"Welcome back, sir," Emtac chirped when I shut the door.

"Uh-huh. You ready for the big moment?" I asked, throwing my shirt aside and walking straight across the room to the bathroom.

"Indeed, sir. You have ten minutes. Shall I draw a bath?"

I snorted, running cold water from the faucet and splashing it against my face, scrubbing the dried blood with a purple towel. "Good to see you've formed a sense of humor, Emtac."

"But you didn't laugh."

I took the towel and wet it, scrubbing around my arms and chest to get off excess sweat. It took a few minutes, and the freezing water sent a shuddering shiver each time it touched me.

"By the way, sir. Thirty minutes ago you received a message from the Homebound. It was not marked urgent, so I did not deem it necessary to warn you."

I groaned, rolling my eyes at the mirror. I left my datapad in my room since it'd just annoy me during the workout, and the tubular device sat next to Emtac on the table. "Who from?"

"Ensign Arlen, sir."

"The teryn? I could've sworn a draxian managed communications. Silau."

"Shall I play it?"

I nodded, wetting the towel again and cleaning up my hair. I picked up a brush, realized Emtac couldn't see me, and sighed. "I'm listening."

Peering around the bathroom doorway, I watched Emtac's top split open, a holographic image of the clean-coated, pristine teryn man, hands behind his back, flickered into view. He coughed once into his fist, and nodded.

"Captain Amber, sir. I apologize for the recorded message, but we could not reach you at the time." He shrugged, face betraying no emotion. I pursed my lips, and went back to fixing my hair so it returned to an unruffled, slicked-back position. "I will be blunt, being up here is excruciatingly boring. We're in orbit at 27,600 kilometers per second and, finished your scan of the planet Earth, and continue to confirm that, yes, it is an exact match. The other planets, while far from visual range, tell the same story."

"Yeah, yeah," I muttered, slapping a bit of hair gel into my hands and running it over my scalp. I flinched, my already slimy fingers running over a bumpy scar I'd gotten a year ago, barely visible even with my hair back. "Skip the small talk."

"As time went on, however, we noticed something very… odd, about the Sol system. Specifically, Sol itself. Last night I ordered the AI to keep an eye on it while we got some rest, and the results are, it seems, conclusive. This system is geocentric."

I paused, one hand glued to my forehead, and my eyes trailed from the bottom of the sink to meet the mirror-me's gaze.

"We're continuing the tests, of course, sir. Even the AI seems incredulous and we're checking and re-checking the sensors for possible malfunction. Ensign Jones is performing an EVA to check them as we speak, as earlier credibility tests said there were no issues, but we didn't believe them. Until then, the system revolves around Earth. Please contact me for an update on the situation when you can, sir. Ensign Arlen out."

I shrugged the towel off my shoulders so it wrapped around my arm, and ran my hands under the cold water and towel to wipe off the remaining gel. With a last once-over with the the mirror, I stepped into the bedroom, shivering.

"Are you alright, sir? Your silence indicates distress. I too am incredulous of the ensign's claims."

"We just found Earth," I said after a minute of standing still in the room, only a few wisps of light peeking out from behind the closed curtains. "And it's guarded by two of the most powerful beings I've ever met. We are no longer walking on just thin ice, Em. We're walking over wet paper. That's covered in broken glass. And on fire."

"How so, sir?"

"The most powerful psychic I've ever met couldn't even dent a planet, let alone push around stars in their free time. If I were superstitious, I'd say we were dealing with a god." I sighed, walking to the bed and throwing the jacket on. I didn't bother to smooth it out or adjust the pin. I fastened it, took a deep breath, and turned to the mirror.

"Emtac, you're coming with me. We're about to decide the fate of the Wing."

"If only I had adrenal programming to simulate excitement."

I chuckled, and put my datapad with Emtac attached around my left arm, clicking it into place along the uniform's sockets. Next, I picked up the VALK laying under the bedside table, spinning it around to check it over. Nothing out of place, and the coordinates still pointed to the Fate's interior.

Opening the exit and making to leave, I met a grey unicorn guard standing outside the door. "Princess Celestia has sent for you. Please follow me."

I nodded, and we set off down the winding corridors, this time further toward the overhanging towers and away from the dining room, kitchens, and main hall. I didn't know when, but after five minutes I looked out the window and saw that we'd gone past the mountain ledge. Only a genius bit of marble engineering and architecture sat between me and a minute-long drop. A minute is very short when watching a clock, but I knew from experience that it'd be an eternity to fall.

"How old is this place?" I asked, moving back from the window with a disgruntled look crossing my face.

"Over nine hundred years old. Canterlot goes back as far as Equestria," the guard replied. "I forget the exact date, though. Sorry. Guards don't normally give the tours."

"You'd be a poor guard if you did," I muttered. "Seems like a boring station."

"Less than you'd think. Princess Celestia's quarters are right around this corner."

I balked, stopping short a step and catching myself on the wall before I tripped. "Whoa, wait," I called, blinking a few times. "Her personal quarters? She said her office."

He looked up at me, stone-faced, and blinked once. "I wasn't there, so I dunno. Just followin' orders." We rounded the corner, and I took a deep breath. A gigantic mahogany door, half as big as the front entrance's, stood where he pointed us to. Complete with gold trimming and a stylized sun carved into both, it towered above me.

The guard knocked, his hoof slamming five times into the wood. The sound echoed across the hallway. A trickle of ice-cold sympathy ran into my bloodstream. Every leader dealt with The Sound.

"Let him in, guard," I heard the faint voice of the princess call.

The door opened, and I stepped forward.

"Nice place," I said, and meant it. Where most of Canterlot enjoyed copious amounts of white-and-gold coloring, expensive looking carpets, and weighed me down with a clear, clinical, but altogether not unenjoyable clean smell, Celestia's room felt like a home. A light periwinkle carpet spread from wall-to-wall, and it took me another moment to realize that there was only one wall. The first room was circular, with other cylindrical alcoves intended into the sides, where rounded bookshelves displayed hundreds of tomes. Two curtains leading to different rooms sat opposite one another on the far wall.

Celestia stood in the middle, behind a dark-brown round table with the same group of scrolls from before scattered across it. Three pillows sat in triangular formation, and most of the decorations: bookshelves, windows, dressers, and the odd plant seemed to make their own three-point formation.

I kept my eyes trained on her, but my peripheral vision revealed the three windows were stained glass. I only saw the farthest design, the same stylized sun carved into the doors and tattoo'd on her rear end.

"Thank you, Captain. I apologize for the change in scenery."

"It's no problem. Not the worst treatment I've had at the hands of royalty. You and your sister have been nothing but kind to me, and I appreciate it."

She smiled. "I'm glad you think so. You and your crew have also been good guests."

"I'd hope so," I said, mirroring her smile. After a second passed, I clapped my hands together. "Well! I'm loving the place, Princess. Nice staff, very pretty… stuff. Thank you for letting my crew use the barracks' training grounds, by the way."

Celestia nodded once, and pointed to one of the cushions. "Canterlot Castle's staff is always prepared for visitors, even unexpected ones. It isn't every day we are visited by diplomats who are not only that, but soldiers and explorers."

"Wingmen are jacks of all trades, so I appreciate the compliment. Most people just think we're stock military types with no other training. I hope it's not off-putting at all, considering the peaceful nature of Equestria."

"I know word is traveling through the Royal Guard already. Do not be surprised if they become testy." Her horn lit up, and I shivered. A white light flashed on the table, and a white, purple lined teapot appeared with two cups beside it. Jasmine-scented steam wafted out of the pot's nose, and I took a deep breath of it.

I chuckled and sat on the lavender pillow, and she the orange. I grinned, putting both my hands palms down on the table. Twenty years felt like a grain of salt against the bucket load of time she'd had running a country. I played a card. "Man, I hate small talk. You do this every day?"

She levitated a cup, pouring the sweet-smelling liquid to the brim, and placed it in front of me. I waited until she'd poured her own up before I shuffled, uncomfortable in the silence. Horn still lit with a liquid-like golden aura, she lifted her cup and pressed it to her lips. I blinked. The tea looked like it'd just finished boiling. "That," she said after a sip, smiling softly, "is one of the most reassuring things I've heard in a political meeting."

"Yeah," I shrugged, ignoring the tea for the moment. "Glad you nixed the office, really. Never liked politicking. Or big offices."

Celestia took another sip. "When I spoke with Luna, she seemed to think you're less stuffy than the politicians I am used to dealing with. My office is for them, and putting you in the same category felt unnecessary."

"Your sister is both smart and a good judge of character."

Quirking an eyebrow, she gave me a sideways glance. "I thought you said you disliked small-talk?"

"I said hate, and I meant it." I put one hand on the table and fiddled with the teacup's handle, watching the liquid slosh against the sides, millimeters from spilling over with the slightest nudge. "But I don't give out compliments loosely. What else did she tell you?"

"Everything she knew. You impressed her with a preview of possible technological advances. She would love to speak again with you tonight."

I smirked. "When I'm awake or asleep?"

"That is your decision. I understand your dislike for mind-magic, and wouldn't want any of you to feel uncomfortable. True alliances and friendships are not born of caution. Speaking of…." she trailed off, setting her teacup down and pointing her eyes to mine. "It is time you told me about the organization you represent."

Removing my hand from the cup, I prodded at my datapad, slipping my fingers under between it and my arm to unhitch it from the uniform. I placed it and Emtac on the table, and maneuvered so that Emtac's holographic emitter sat in the exact middle. "First, I'd like you to meet one of my AI units. Emtac, hologram mode."

The device hummed, and wisps of blue rose from the emitter, coalescing into a small, upside-down exclamation point. His dull, pleasant voice crackled to life. "Hello, sir. I see we are at the meeting. I hope."

"I really need to get you a camera, Emtac." I laughed, gesturing to Celestia. "You're between Princess Celestia and me. We've just started the meeting. Princess, this is Emtac."

She raised her head, smiling. "I assume this is one of your communication devices? It is nice to meet you, Emtac, if only by this impersonal method."

"Pleasure to meet you, your majesty. You look great today."

"Thank you."

"I'm also blind."

Shaking my head and rolling my eyes, I interjected before an AI caused a diplomatic incident. "It's not a comms unit, Princess. Emtac is an artificial intellect. An advanced computer capable of relative simulated sapience. He's a machine with a sort of personality. We use them because they can both think a thousand times faster than us and perform certain creative tasks. Emtac is an advanced model, but isn't capable of the same tasks as most AI."

"I'm useless, but good company."

"I'll use him for visual effects only during the meeting."

"Very well," Celestia said, taking another long sip of jasmine tea. "Please, continue."

I took a deep breath, and on cue, Emtac weaved together a spinning, three-dimensional version of the Wing's logo: a winged diamond. "The galaxy, Princess, is a dangerous place. Even a single star system is big enough to burden the people with managing it. Running both a planet, sometimes more, managing an entire sector of space can bankrupt even the best of them. We are a peacekeeping organization that keeps planets - systems - safe from outside harm. We help regulate disputes between peoples and, generally, make sure everyone gets along. You could call us a police force, but we aren't, as you've noticed. Our people act as diplomats aiding those we protect, explorers and scientists to seek out new worlds or further our understanding of the universe, and, when need be, soldiers to protect those who cannot do so themselves."

Emtac's image changed to a series of twelve blue circles. "Right now, the Wing oversees the protection and cooperation of twelve systems, with around twice as many habitable planets. Each government operates with free reign as long as they do not violate certain laws, which are mostly there to prevent unfairness. Governments under our protection otherwise are near autonomous. There is a small tax, of course, but the benefits and freedom it allows are worth it."
The Princess smirked, and interjected when I took a breath. "So, you are similar to bodyguards?"

"I wouldn't put it so simply, but yeah." I shrugged. "On a much, much larger scale. So, say, you had a trade dispute with one of your neighbors. You have the freedom to either sort it out amongst yourselves, or call in the Wing to mediate."

Celestia closed her eyes and let out a long breath. "You seem truthful, Captain. On the surface, there is little left to be desired in such a deal."

"I'm not asking you to accept right away, and I'm not going to force you to do anything. That's no way to make friends, in my experience."

"Then your experience has made you wise." She opened her eyes. "I believe these meetings will continue. I would prefer seeing the detailed contract before making any decisions. Nevertheless, you have our attention."

"I'm glad you see the immediate benefits of joining, Princess," I said, smiling. I wrapped a finger around the teacup's handle, lifted it, and spilled a bit of the hot, flowery liquid into my mouth. Well-brewed tea sat better with me than coffee ever did. "I'll have a copy of the contracts most planets sign made and give it to you in the morning."

"After I have educated myself, then we will resume discussion. I look forward to our continued talks." She paused, cup halfway to her lips, and looked at me with narrowed eyes. "I do have a few questions before you go."

"Shoot."

"First and foremost, what if we refuse?"

I blinked dumbly, and step my hands flat on the table. "Nothing," I said after a few seconds. "We'll still offer you our friendship via a defensive alliance alongside trade agreements. Within a few years, you could have burgeoning colonies on a few planets. It will be much, much harder than if we could fund you directly, though."

"I take it that donating your technology and funds would be out of the question."

"Wing money's tight as is. We could work out a shady deal via dummy companies and fake projects, but that's entirely unethical and there'd be public outrage." I shook my head. "We're meant to protect and serve people, not lie to them."

Celestia sighed. "It's wise of you to avoid that scenario in the first place, then. Breaking your laws, even if it meals helping Equestria, is not in anypony's interests."

I paused for a long while, the two of us ruminating in the brief, but exhausting talk. By the time I next spoke, half my tea had disappeared and the princess poured herself another. "You don't want to tie Equestria to us, do you? I don't blame you. Many think they can become independant systems by their own initiative. It's tempting to try and do everything yourself. It's also prideful." Taking a deep breath, I took a sip of the tea and furrowed my brow. "We're not a crutch to lean on. We're an umbrella. Nobody gets embarrassed about umbrellas."

A low, whooping sound escaped her mouth, and after a few repeats it escalated into a full chuckle. I blinked a couple times, leaning back an inch. After a few chuckles, Celestia put a hoof on the table and smiled. "It isn't that at all. At first glance, you've given very solid ground for Equestria to join you and it was a well-performed pitch."

"Oh." My muscles lost tension, and my shoulders briefly drooped in relief before I fixed my posture. "Thanks?"

"Perhaps, work on your small talk next time. Tomorrow we can meet at the same time, in here, with a copy of that contract."

"It's a long one."

"I assure you, I am very used to it." Without warning, she stood up in one fluid, graceful motion, and the tea set vanished in a flash of light. "I would spend more time talking with you, but I will be busy for the rest of the day. Duty calls."

"I'd be alarmed if you weren't. Running a country isn't for the lazy." I followed her lead, grabbing Emtac and clicking him back in place on my arm.

"Most of my work consists of freeing up the next few days," she said, leading me back to the huge wooden door. I took one last whiff of jasmine, and she opened the exit with her magic. We stood in the doorway, and she looked down to me, the same soft smile stuck where it'd always been.

"It was a nice talk, however short. Good luck with the politics. Fun stuff." I chuckled in a dry tone, shaking my head. I stopped a few steps outside the door, and turned to look at her. "I do have a question, and I'd appreciate an honest answer."

"Ask, and I shall be truthful," she said, golden aura still wrapped around the door handle.

I turned to face her in full, and huffed. "Are you and your sister a thousand years old?"

Celestia's smile didn't falter, but she raised an eyebrow. "And which pony told you that?"

"Not important. I just wanted an honest answer. I won't judge you, no matter what the truth is."

"Technically speaking, my sister and I are both over a millennium old."

I took a deep breath and let it out in a low whistle. "Seriously?"

"Very."

"That's… uh," blinking, I turned on my heel and took one step down the hallway, still looking at her, one corner of my mouth curving upward. "You look really good. Considering." I winked and took a few steps.

"Have a good day, Captain," she called back, shutting the door a moment later. I aimed for my quarters, shoulders dropping the instant I heard the great wooden slabs click into place.

I slammed the flat of my palm into my face. "Really? 'Considering?' What the hell?"

~=V=~

Art and I met up six hours later. After I left Celestia's impromptu meeting room and entered my own, I threw of my jacket, flopped on the bed, and purposefully threw my internal clock for a loop by sleeping until dinner.

Fish and some sort of lightly fried, sliced potato adorned the plates, surrounded by various vegetables. I ate mine within the first ten minutes and spent the rest making small talk with Celestia and Art, which boiled down to some of the other nations on their world and how they might react.

Equestria, I gathered after thirty minutes, covered almost an entire continent. The catch of their near-feudal system meant mayors had the run of the place, despite not being official lords and ladies with titles and family houses. Canterlot sat at the heart of the kingdom, and controlled things to the best of its ability.

"But you still don't have a hundred percent control?" I asked at one point.

"We don't have instant communication between towns. I'm sorry if it's a big wilder than what you're used to."

"No kidding."

The rest of the talk surrounded just how wild Equestria was. Criminals were scarce, but only because monsters took their place. I balked at the description of hydras and dragons. In terms of civilization, Equestria had no right to exist. A roaming dragon should've taken out a town here, a hydra scaring off settlers there. Canterlot sat upon a pedestal and the rest swam in chaos.

The longer we went on, the more sly looks Art threw my way. "How'd it go?" he asked once Celestia turned to speak with the chef about the new meal-plan. I glanced her way before I answered, hoping for her ears to flick in our direction, even for a moment, to confirm my suspicions.

"She didn't say?"

"I went to my room to do the work you asked. Didn't have time."

"And you left the ensigns alone?"

"They're soldiers. Most of their job is to be stand around bored."

Snorting, I shook my head. "I know. That's what I was worried about."

"So how did it go?"

Once more, I peeked over at Celestia, and saw nothing. I knew better. "I think we'll make good friends with the Equestrians. Sunny over there is just wise enough to extend our talks so she can learn more about us. You're better at paperwork than I am, so you'll go over the basic contract tomorrow."

"But there are no basic contracts. We tailor them to the government that signs them. I guess I could eliminate the, uh, unique stuff from a couple and splice one together. It'll take all night and maybe a bit of tomorrow."

"Well it'd be rude to keep her waiting. You can borrow Emtac if you want."

He sighed, closing his eyes. "Thanks. He'll be good. I'll just stay up late."

Smirking, I gave a short nod to the Princess. "And I'll be with you even if I'm not there. Blue-coat wants to see me tonight. Private meeting. Hopefully with less unwilling dream intrusions."

"Hopefully with less creepy dream intrusions?"

"Precisely. I don't like things messing in my head. Then we should meet up before breakfast tomorrow, to talk about protocol." I leaned forward, narrowing my eyes and lowering my whisper to a whisp on the wind. "What protocol we do and don't follow, I mean."

He followed my lead. "The College?"

I nodded once, and only a centimeter. "What they won't know won't hurt them."

"Risky."

"I want to be friends with these people, but there's always at least one greedy jerk in the College who will demand we put forth a harsher contract. We're going to be fair, no matter what." Mentally checking that the Princess stayed directly behind me, I gave him a quick, emotionless wink.

He nodded. "I understand."

We turned back to our meals, and I spent the rest of dinner in relative silence, answering a few errant questions about diets alien to Equestria. The single educational fact from the experience became knowing what the ponies did and did not approve of eating.

Cattle, I learned, were sapient on Earth.

We all got up to leave at half past seven, a full hour since I'd sat down. Art leaned over to Roland and Lilian, asking them to get a more in-depth tour of the castle before nightfall. Both saluted, then ran down the opposite hall, uniform jackets billowing out behind them.

I unhooked Emtac and slid him off my arm, rubbing the unconstrained spot while Art fixed the device to himself. With the room cleared, Art nodded, and walked out, leaving me to tower over Aran.

"I assume you-" she started, stopped by my raised fist and glare.

"Are about to punish you. Yes," I finished in a dry tone, wrapping my hands behind my back. "The others followed orders, so they get to go take a nice, educational break from their own duties. You were insubordinate, so you get to go scouting with me."

"With all due respect, sir. I had my reasons to deny a sparring session. If you gave any other order, I would've obeyed it."

Rolling my eyes, I sighed, shaking my head. After a second, I clicked my tongue twice. "What a shame. I read the mission logs for the Homebound crew and figured Art had done his best work yet."

I clenched my fists into one another, fingers entangled and rigid. The last of the day's light swept over the valley outside the windows, and I stepped to look out. A forest sprawled over the countryside, only interrupted by a miniscule village and winding river, the cyan sky reflected in it.

"One more act of insubordination and you'll be send to the Homebound's brig."

"We have a brig?"

"No, but I'll build one if I have to. You forget we're on an active mission, not some vacation world like Parinin. Every single thing you do here must have purpose. And my ultimate purpose is to bring Earth into this galaxy, whether it be by induction or alliance. Every word will echo through these halls."

I shuddered, sucking in a deep breath, and turned my head to see her with one eye, standing at attention. "Anything to say about that."

A bulge in her throat bobbed in a swallowing motion, and she locked her eyes onto mine. "I apologize sir. I'm used to going on combat missions, and the strange, unorthodox nature of this mission confused me at the start. It won't happen again, sir."

"Good." I turned back to face the window. "And remember. The Wing is just as much as political entity as a military one. Rigidness in purpose only hurts us, so we become good at many things."

"Jack of all trades, master of some," she said, and her outline in the reflection nodded. "There are other ways the saying goes."

"And they're stupid. Overspecialization only ever hurts a society, and the Wing's lasted this long with its dual-purpose agenda. I might not be an expert at diplomacy, but it's a handy tool. Now, on to your punishment."

"Scouting, you said."

"I know," I said between chuckles, and turned to face her. "Follow me." I strode from the place, aiming for my personal chambers where the few crates sat, unloaded from the Fate. Aran jogged to catch up, and then fell behind me, then beside, unsure of her place.

"First, I want to confirm something. To that end, we need two bits of gear. Ever used a grappler?"

***

[Deleted scene - but it would go about here.]

"How's the view from up there?" Jackson's voice crackled from the comset wrapped around one side of her head, tugging gently at her hair when she arched my neck toward the ground.

"At this height and angle, less than acceptable."

"That synthrope might be low-tech, but it'll hold."

Aran sighed, one hand clenching on the rope tied to her belt, holding her to the underside of a metal archway somewhere in the palace's twisted architecture, where she sat, legs hanging down, in the middle of a curly o shape. Wind buffeted the palace towers, swirling around her and wracking her body in little shaking shivers.

The other hand reached down to her belt, and one finger tapped a black, pyramid shaped device. "An IronLeg system would be nice," she hissed, keeping her eyes on one of the towers. Nothing lay below her but the spiked triangular roof of another hallway, and nothing above but a walkway between two towers.

The Captain had given her a specific location and very specific angle that perhaps the engineer woman would've been better with. Her target: a large window on one side of another tower, near where their chambers were, from what she could tell.

"I never got to use an IronLeg as an ensign. They spoil you kids. Now, do you see it?"

"The window, yes. Anything past that, no."

She squinted, picking up her binoculars and looking through them. A light purple curtain blocked any view into the room, whatever room it was. "There's a curtain in the way."

"Neat, so what's the problem?"

"I can't… oh," Aran grumbled, clicking a button on the binocular's top. The image blurred, blinked into darkness, and red lines took shape in its place, this time with a bright red form behind them, sitting with its legs tucked under it. "This is why I don't scout, sir."

"Is the princess there?"

"The one with the star on its rear? I think so. She's the biggest one."

"Right, well the recorder, set it up at that angle, please, and then- shoot. Bad timing," he said, dropping his voice to a whisper. "Get out of there ASAP." A door slammed in the background, and the comms fell silent.
Aran stared wide-eyed at nothing, dropping the binoculars to her chest. "I hate tactical missions. Captain, come in."

She waited for five minutes, and she counted. One hand hovered over the comset to switch channels for the last fifty seconds, shaking in the wind. In the distance somewhere behind her, the sun edged closer to the horizon, light slipping across the palace towers and reddening the sky.

***

"It's a bit late for this," I said, the towel still draped over my shoulders. "I thought you wanted another go at my dreams."

"I'm sorry to intrude," she said, hoof still raised mid-step, her head staying locked onto mine. "That is, if your species is sensitive about a lack of clothing. You don't seem to be reacting, so I will simply assume you don't."

"Poor way to go about assuming things. Most people are. Also, I'm not naked." I stood up, folding the towel arm-over-arm and laying it over a rung for some underpaid servant to pick up later. "No pants is naked, at least for men." I walked over to my bed, where my active uniform lay, and began checking over my gear to make sure everything was present, and I maneuvered myself so that my back was to the Princess, despite all of my instincts screaming at me to keep an eye on her. I balled my hands tight and counted.

Luna put her hoof down. "May I ask a question?"

"Shoot."
"You are a soldier, correct?"
"Technically not. Wingmen are more of a combination of marine and pilot. Soldiers are jugheads who can only be trusted with blowing stuff up with copious amounts of firepower." I turned around to look at her, sliding on a white undershirt and grabbing my jacket from the bed. "What I do requires a bit more precision and-" I trailed off, noting her blank expression. "Yes. Yes I'm a soldier. I do the shooty."
She quirked an eyebrow. "Ah, yes. Shooties. Only at range, then?"
"Melee and ranged, but I prefer there being distance between my target and me."
"I presume you have no problem with ending another's life, then?"
I balked, the jacket snagging on my hand as I threw it over myself. I drew out a long sigh before zipping it up and facing her. "That's a dumb question. I don't do it often, but it happens. If you want to know, I do not have a problem with it unless my standing orders require me to have one."

A grin spread across her face, and she closed her eyes, chuckling. "Excelsior! I would require your services, then. Consider it both bonding experience and practice. Meet me in the gardens near your ship in thirty minutes, and will depart at once for the Everfree."

"Wait," I called, even though she and her escort departed without further answer. "What are we going to do in the Everfree, Princess?"

The door slammed shut, and I planted my rear on the bed, a puff of air escaping my lips. Looking over the room, I mentally counted my gear and ran through a series of possible scenarios. Most of them involved violence.

I placed one of the quick-fab rifles from the crate on the desk, briefly taking it apart piece by piece and counting the bits, cleaning the already spotless gun and replacing the battery. The weapon was an older model laser-rifle, one of the more popular variants from the Wing. A thick, blocky shape made it unwieldy to the untrained, and the stock, bereft of padding, reddened the arm after long use.

Clicking the pieces together, I took apart my pistol and repeated the steps, and then did the same thing for my sword. I put on my EPA suit, took out my VALK and double-checked the coordinates, and plugged Emtac in. The alarm went off as Emtac whirred to full power.

"Going on an excursion, sir?"

"Princess Blue just requested our presence in some sort of extra-curricular activity. It involves guns. Presumably."

"I did hear the conversation, sir. 'Presumably' may be a strong word to use."

Shrugging, I walked out of the door in full gear, making sure to send a message to the rest of the crew on the way out. I'd confirmed a contingency plan with Art by the time I walked past the two gigantic pony statues marking where the Fate landed.

The Princess stood in front of a strange non wheeled carriage, several of the night-guards I'd seen patrolling hitching themselves to the harness, some of them flapping their wings expectantly. The air blew steadily through the mountainside garden, coldness brushing against my face with each step forward. Yellow lantern light glowed in the garden, licking across my armor. She smiled at me, beckoning me over with a hoof.

I nodded, standing stiff in front of her and surveying the scene. "Well your majesty, you needed me?"

Luna's eyes grazed over my form, taking in the armor and weapons with narrowed eyes. Blowing air out her nose in a quiet snort, she smiled again and leapt into the back of the carriage, wings unfurling to slow her descent. "I am glad you're taking this seriously, Captain."

"I'll admit, it's hard to do that here. We doing this formal or loose?"

"Some part of me thinks there will be a difference in both of our definitions. Professional, let us say?"

"I can do professional. I have business cards, if you want one."

"Get in the chariot, Captain."

"Yes ma'am," I said without an inch of sarcasm in my voice, popping off a quick salute before sitting next to her. Notably I sat in a carriage, not a chariot. I didn't correct her because I was being professional.

Purple-ish, leathery wings flapped in front of us, dragging the cart to the sky, snapping my head back from the speed, and plunging us both into darkness. For the purpose of saving face and hair, I reached up with one hand while the other glued itself to the railing to hit a button on my neck. The bubble-mask ignited, enshrouding my head and giving me a brief moment of privacy.

"Emtact, run night-time tactical protocols," I muttered, watching as outlines of my surroundings drew themselves on the inside of my helmet. I looked over to Blue. "So, really, what are we doing?"

"Hunting a giant monster."

I blinked. "Ah, a classic. Been a while since I killed a big beasty."

"Who said we were going to kill it?"

I sighed out a lungful of air.

Comments ( 3 )

so is this like done?

*Checks the Featured List*
"This looks interesting..."
*Sees the Cancelled tag*
"Son of a...!"

But in all seriousness, good luck in your future endeavors. I just wish that I had found this story sooner. HiE stories that aren't Brony in Equestria stories, Chess Game of the Gods spinoffs, or Equestria is Heaven fics are far too rare.

8971443
No, chapter 26 was only halfway written. There was a planned total of 52 chapters, more details in the ending author's notes of chapter 26

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