• Published 16th Feb 2015
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My Little Apprentice: Apogee - Starscribe



Second Chance has her memories back, and now the responsibility of an entire civlization rests on her shoulders. Can she save her old world without betraying her new one?

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Chapter 1: Predictive Optimization

After all the chaos of the last few days, Twilight had expected to return home to the library and find all was as she had left it. After all, she would've sensed it the instant any of her powerful wards was broken, and she had felt no such dread. Her faithful new apprentice would probably be studying, or perhaps scribbling away the day's events in her diary. Nor was Chance alone, since Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom had also been waiting in the library when Twilight had gone to defeat Discord’s forgotten plot..

"I do hope they haven't made too much of a mess. I can only imagine what they must've eaten for dinner."

"If they've got any sense, they let Apple Bloom cook it. She's got mosta' the old Apple Family recipes down by now. All that time cookin' with her granny's really paid off."

"I'll just be glad to see they're okay." Twilight grinned. She was so relieved from their victory that she wasn't feeling all that curious about what had happened with the elements of harmony now; all that interest was banked for the future when everything was settled down. Maybe her apprentice would finally get access to the Jebr Stone, and they could use its vast knowledge to solve the puzzle the Tree of Harmony had given them. It would be just like Celestia to see far enough ahead to predict their latest dilemma early enough to already give her the tools to solve it.

It was abundantly clear that something was wrong before they even reached the library. It wasn't the broken wards, though now that Twilight searched she found some of her protection spells simply weren't there. No; what set her (and her friends) into a dead gallop was the presence of an ambulance parked just outside the doors. She didn't even notice Spike's cry of surprise from her back, or his grip tight around her neck as he clung on for dear life.

The back was already open, and as they got closer, Twilight saw two ponies levitate a stretcher inside. She slid to a stop only feet away, just as they shut the doors on her apprentice.

The emergency responder made his way towards the front of the wagon, where he would no doubt hitch himself up beside another pony to help gallop the wagon to the hospital as quickly as possible. But Twilight got in his way, her eyes burning with fear and anger. "What happened?" she demanded, in a tone that would brook no argument.

She would never know if it was her confidence alone that won her such a prompt response, or if it was the title her wings represented. She hardly even noticed as Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom emerged from the doorway to greet their sisters, probably to answer the exact question she was demanding of the first responder.

"Got a call that we had a filly unconscious. She's stable, but we weren't able to revive her. We're bringing her to the Ponyville General pediatric unit." Then he stopped. "What's the matter, Princess? Do you know her?"

Twilight nodded, and her answer probably came off with far less kindness than was due of a princess. "That filly is mine; I expect her to receive the finest care." She didn't go into detail, didn't say that Chance was hers only in guardianship, and only because she had been dumped on her by Celestia. She just turned away. "I'll be at the hospital shortly. I expect you to beat me there." She took several deep breaths as she walked past him to the place where two of the Crusaders already stood, with expressions of worry and fear on their faces like what she felt. Had there been nopony here, she probably would’ve skipped the trip and just teleported her apprentice to the hospital.

She didn't even bother listening for what they were already saying, but interrupted by stepping close and clearing her throat. "What happened to Chance?"

If any of her friends were annoyed with her less than ideal behavior, they said nothing about it. Only Applejack moved, to nudge her little sister into speaking. "She just dropped! We were working on cleaning the library for when you got back, an' she said she was feelin' tired and collapsed, just like that."

"Why?"

"We don't know!" Sweetie Belle insisted, her eyes streaked with tears. "Discord was here earlier, and he did something! But that might not've been it."

"The big cube in the basement stabbed her!" Apple Bloom gestured wildly with her hooves. "Like a hospital needle. It could've been that!"

"Is the needle still there?"

They shook their heads. It looked like her friends were about to say something, but Twilight stopped them. "Don't worry about it. It's been a long enough day for you both. We can talk tomorrow. Spike, come on. We're going to the hospital."

* * *

When Twilight made it to the hospital, Chance was having dinner, eating something that pretended to be a vegetable soup from a white plastic bowl. It seemed the quality of hospital food was some sort of universal constant, and she was more than eager for an excuse to do anything besides eat it. Even if she might be about to hear some bad news.

"Hey, Chance." She levitated something through the air in front of her; Chance’s journal. "Brought this for you. Wanted to see how you were doing.”

Chance's frustration had all faded by now, replaced with a quiet sense of helplessness and desperation. Whatever they decided to do with her now was completely out of her hooves. "Craving iron," she answered honestly. "You think they could get me something with wheat berries in it? Or beats. Beats have iron, right? Ponies don't eat all the other things I can think of that have iron..."

There was a little chair near the bed, and Twilight sat down in it, with a casual conversational attitude. "Such as?"

Chance's stomach turned over at the thought, and for a second she was sure she looked green. Or... greener. She was always green. "You don't want to know." The fact that all the meat Chance had ever eaten had been cultured didn't make her stomach feel any happier about the idea.

"Oh... kay." Twilight's expression became serious as she watched her.

"They're going to try and take it out, aren't they?"

There was a long silence, then Twilight nodded. "Dr. Horse wants to use a topological surgery. He's writing an exclusion spell based on the biopsy they got from your leg last night. It's like a teleport, only... it gets all the bad stuff, but leaves you behind."

Chance felt as though her blood had gone cold. "If they do that, it will kill me. Either that or I'll be a vegetable for life. I hope it just kills me."

Twilight's eyes went wide. "Why would removing a growth from your head kill you? We have to remove it soon, before it strangles your brain! Everything we know about brain chemistry and parasites suggests-"

Chance didn't let her finish. "I thought you would believe me, even if the doctors didn't."

"I believe... I believe you believe it. But your memory hasn't been perfect, Chance! It wouldn't be hard for you to think you remember one thing and really be thinking of another."

"The Neuroboost strain was first prototyped by Robert Moore working for Intel Bioinformatics in 2091. The current strain is the sixth in that line, composed of 30% Silicon, 20% Carbon, 15% Molybdenum, 15% Iron, 10% Hyperstable Thorium, 8% Gold, and 2% trace elements. Individual operating voltage is-"

Twilight raised a hoof. "I get it. You're sure you remember. What makes you think you'll die, though?"

"In the long term, any Nanophage takes over for the patient's adaptive immune system, which means that if someone is abruptly cut off from that they'll be vulnerable to disease. It probably hasn't been long enough for that, so it wouldn't matter if it was a different strain." She gestured to her head. "There are thousands of little tendrils snaking through my brain right now. Making new connections, twisting into every important part. That can't ever be removed, without either killing the patient or making them braindead."

Twilight groaned, sitting back against her seat. "Why did you do this to yourself, Second Chance?" She got a little quieter, as though she were talking to herself. "Protect an important visitor, it was supposed to be that simple! Why did you do this to yourself?"

"Did Sweetie Belle and Apple Bloom tell you the reason I did it?"

That was enough to break her from her muttering. "The Jebr Stone... you woke it up, didn't you? That was where you got the injection."

"Yeah. It happened like this..."

* * *

What do you think it's saying'?" Asked the yellow filly just behind her, as she sat on her haunches and stared at the orderly object in Twilight's basement, made from stronger materials than could be obtained anywhere in Equestria.

Chance opened her mouth to explain, but she did not get a chance. The Core was faster than she was, and it answered first. This time it didn't use English, but perfectly synthesized Equestrian. It was perhaps a tad formal or old-fashioned in its accent, but otherwise it sounded completely ordinary. Impossible to tell apart from a living, breathing speaker. "I was in the process of introducing myself to my user, young earth pony." The surface of the stone lit up, and all the diagnostic messages cleared. "Though I had reached a bit of an impasse in that regard. See, my previous incarnation was 'killed' in the sense that it was rendered irrecoverably damaged, and as I have only just become conscious, my only designation is 'Recovery Backup.' That hardly seems a fitting introduction."

"Yeah, it's talking." Sweetie Belle looked between the cube and her friend, as though in the association she might see the answer. "Your people made it, Chance. Why is it talking?"

"They usually talk." Chance faced the Core, looking up at it into what she imagined must be its face. Her friends had started backing away, fearful again. A magical device that made weird noises was one thing, but one that talked to them in Equestrian was quite another. If it could talk, what else could it do?

It was impossible to assign the speaker a gender; it was both and neither in tone. That would change, Chance knew. Every moment of its activation the machine would continue bootstrapping its way towards being more human. Eventually it would surpass its creators intelligence and wisdom, but not yet.

Chance found her training returning, as she tried to remember what she had to do to make sure the Core developed in a favorable way. Each and every one had the Laws of Robotics, but how they interpreted them was based on their first few experiences more than anything else. It was hard to focus on something so important and delicate after the stress she had been in today. All Chance wanted to do was curl up and cry herself to sleep. But she couldn't neglect the Core's teaching!

As strange as it was to think about, the Core was the only other "human" in this world with her. A human-like mind, in any case, with all the knowledge and experience of her species. It would feel like a stranger here, just like she did sometimes. She couldn't ruin an opportunity for what might otherwise be a very rewarding friendship. Besides, she had been great friends with the Core back on Luna-7. She could be friends with this one too.

"OMICRON Core." She spoke in English, and tried to smile despite how worn-out she was. "Can you accept commands in the native language, so that I don't have to use English?"

If it had sounded playful when speaking to the other fillies, there was no trace of that when it spoke to Chance. When it answered, it was in formal English. "Affirmative, Dr. Kimberly Colven."

"Good." She stopped muddling through her mispronunciation of her native tongue, which felt too much like keeping secrets for her taste. If she was going to be down here with her friends, than there was no reason they couldn't hear it too. That could be one of the first lessons it learned from her. "Then start using Equestrian from now on, so everypony can understand."

"Affirmative, Dr. Kimberly Colven."

"And my local designation is 'Second Chance'. You can use that, or just 'Chance' for short. Names work differently in Equestria, so I think you should have an Equestrian designation too. If that's okay with you." This was the first lesson she had learned from Luna-7. Whatever the Cores might really be, they seemed to like it when you treated them like they were living, breathing beings. At least the one up there had. She had never fully understood its feelings on the matter "I would like to call you 'Truth.' Is that acceptable?"

"You're giving it a name?" Sweetie Belle looked as though she were calming down a little. It was hard not to appreciate that level of courage. Not only had she faced down a mad god today, not only had she watched her town be torn apart by alien flora, but she was communicating with an AI from another universe. "Why?"

The Core had not yet responded to her. It was probably as eager for the answer to that question as Sweetie Belle was. She was, after all, it's only user. The only "human" it knew of. It was programmed to seek information from humans, and to learn from them. Everything she said would shape its developing universe. "Because this machine is alive." Chance answered. "And all living things deserve respect." She looked back. "May I call you Truth? It's after the local naming traditions, so it might sound a little strange. I promise it's a very pretty name."

There was a pause. When the Core finally answered, it sounded different. There was something new in its synthesized voice. Respect. "Designation 'Truth' accepted. Chance, what are your instructions?"

She considered that a moment. After all, she did have a mission. A mission only Discord's mental invasion had helped her remember. But she was also exhausted, mentally and physically. Just because she knew she had been sent to somehow save her planet did not mean that she had the energy to do so today. One more day was not going to change things back home. The bunkers had nuclear batteries, and could keep recycling waste for centuries so long as their populations remained constant. There was enough time to make sure that whatever they attempted was successful.

"The first thing we have to worry about is power. The generator isn't running upstairs, and that can't be good. How much energy do you have left?"

"Not much." As though Chance needed any further confirmation she was speaking with a true AI and not merely something simulating human intelligence. Abstraction was a fairly advanced concept, and this program had already mastered it. "Draining. I am not running as efficiently as I should be. There is significant internal damage."

She nodded. "Do you have enough power to manufacture anything?"

Another brief pause. "I don't think so. Perhaps a single dose of Nanophage, but not more."

"Okay. Do you have specifications for the Neuroboost standard injection used by the engineering corps?"

"I do, Chance. I have every manufacturing pattern used by the United Earth Federation until the day of my deployment."

"I look forward to learning about it. For the moment though, prepare the Neuroboost. Do you know what it will do to pony physiology?"

A slight hum emanated from within the core for a moment, the sound of its internal components working to prepare the injection. "I have sensor records that indicate its performance will be unhindered. The Neuroboost platform is adaptive. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to manufacture boosters so that the age-mitigation routines may operate normally. I currently lack the power to produce more than one dose safely."

Chance was about to answer, when a gentle nudge from Sweetie Belle distracted her, and she looked to her friend, who had been silent for that brief part of her conversation. "What are you doin' Chance? What's a nano-page, and why are you gonna inject it?" She looked a little upset, or at least nervous. Chance couldn't say she blamed her.

"It's no big deal, Sweetie Belle." She said, trying to ease her friend's fears. After all, she had recently learned that Chance was from another world. Learned in the very worst way, to have someone like Discord force the issue. Now she was about to do something clearly alien right in front of them. "It's a tool to help me repair Truth, now that it is awake. It's a telepathy spell, but for machines!" Of course Neuroboost Nanophage did about a million other things, but there was no need to go into detail about that. Not yet, anyway. "Ready, Truth?"

"Yes." The surface of the cube began to ripple and shift, and a sharp prong took shape, with about an ounce of silvery fluid visible under a metallic surface so thin it was transparent.

Her friends retreated a pace from what probably appeared to them like some sort of weapon. Chance hated needles, but there was no way she could show any fear now. Not after she had asked Truth to use some portion of its precious energy stores to make this for her. Before her friends could protest, she advanced, and pressed the soft inside of one foreleg to the needle. It stung, and she inhaled sharply and shivered all over as the feeling of burning cold coursed suddenly into her leg. She waited until the needle withdrew into the cube before she pulled back, holding her leg up for several seconds before putting her weight on it.

She must've found an artery by pure chance, because the feeling of strange weight under her skin faded in a matter of seconds, which never happened when you missed and the little machines had to worm their way through capillaries only barely wide enough to permit them. Also, there was no disgusting bulge under her leg, which also happened when you missed. "There!" She glanced once over her shoulder, a little frightened of what the Crusaders were probably thinking. They looked a little shaken, but she could hardly blame them.

"Remember when I told you about the tiny doctors?" She smiled, trying to dismiss the strangeness of the situation as quickly as possible. "Watch. Now that I've got them, I'll never get sick again." That wasn't strictly true, since she doubted whatever sensor data Truth had accumulated (how did it know how Nanophages affected ponies anyway?) did not include a comprehensive database of pony diseases. Hers could begin gathering that data. It would probably take them a few weeks to integrate with her body, but once they did, they would be able to identify when anything caused her harm, eradicate it, and repair the damage. Those with broad-spectrum nanophage like her could only ever get the equivalent of a mild cold for a day or two, which was the universal response to any unknown disease.

Or so she hoped. "That's weird." Apple Bloom said, breaking the silence. "But you were always a little weird. Guess it makes sense you wouldn't want ta' get sick, but..."

"Like telepathy for machines, huh?" Sweetie Belle asked, her voice growing suddenly a little faster, and more excited. Chance didn't like that voice at all, since it was the way she always sounded when she was about to propose a very stupid plan. "Can I have some?"

She shook her head at once. "N-not now, Sweetie Belle. Truth can't make anymore. And when it can, we'll have to ask your sister. I dunno if Rarity would be too happy about this." Nor would all of Equestria. Chance realized with sudden horror that there were ethical ramifications to this technology if she could get Truth fully operational. How many pony lives could be saved by a universal treatment of all disease? How many ponies were there in Equestrian hospitals right now who would die because pony science couldn't treat their diseases?

Not nearly as many as Earth had back when they had pony-level technology, thanks to the wonders of Equestrian magic. But there was still sickness. There were still disabilities that magic could not heal. Magic couldn't, but with enough information the Nanophage probably could.

Just one OMICRON Core was not sufficient to produce Nanophage for an entire nation. It would take a supporting infrastructure of enormous size and complexity... she didn't like where this thought was going. A primitive society simply could not support technology like this. The only way for Equestria to have it on a universal scale was for Equestria to be fundamentally altered. Chance had no right to make decisions like that. That was for the princesses. She would have to have a very serious conversation with Twilight about this when things had settled down, so she could let Celestia know.

But there was no time to waste worried about this now, not when Truth had such limited power supplies. She wasn't sure how the Core would interpret this command. But she didn't see any way around it. It wasn't as though there was any coal left in the generator, and it would likely take months or even years of sustained operation to give the thing any significant amount of energy to work with. "Truth, I need you to enter power-saving mode. I will figure out how to get you more power. You can reactivate as soon as you have a stable power source."

"I understand." The voice sounded somewhat fearful. "I will 'sleep', Chance. Don't forget to wake me." The lights on the surface of the Core began to dim, one by one. Eventually the glow had vanished altogether, leaving the stone apparently dead and inert once more.

"Well that was weird." Apple Bloom said, sitting down on her haunches and sighing. "Ah wonder what Scootaloo will think about all this."

"I wonder what Twilight will think about it." Chance echoed, then joined her friends to wait out the rest of the night. She had full faith that her teacher would fix everything. All they had to do was hide long enough, and everything would get better.

* * *

The sky above Imperium Gloria was never dark. Even in the night, the stars were brilliant and the moon so vivid that streetlights were never required. Under the watchful rulership of mankind's glorious king every soul shone as brightly as the stars, each a light of creation and discovery at the perfect climax of every human innovation.

Brigid Curie was one of the many billion that had never even noticed the end of the world. She had never known hunger, never known fear, and not aged a day since she had turned eleven.

Brigid lived in a castle she had built herself, a castle that rested in the expensive Purity District and stood easily at a height with the skyscrapers and crystalline spirals that were her next door neighbors. Palatial ballrooms flowed smoothly into libraries and galleries that even Louis the Fourteenth would've considered decadent. Let none say humanity did not give proper glory to its greatest minds.

Brigid had sacrificed everything on the altar of her work, which was why she had chosen not to get any older. Bree had never sacrificed the flexibility of a developing brain, nor had she ever matured enough to desire intimacy. Romance was a distraction, and love was deception. That did not mean she couldn't accomplish her work in the greatest comfort, surrounded by Earth's greatest treasures.

Bree never walked; her lithe body danced through her castle, leaping over fountains and sliding down railings with the reckless abandon of one who knows she cannot be harmed. Her gown of royal purple and silver was far shorter than the present style, with slits that ensured stiff fabric would bend and twist so she would never be restricted. Where her legs and bare feet emerged, they were pale and splotched with freckles, her face like the daughter of old Etain. Her hair was like fire up from sidhe, and burned almost as bright as her intellect.

As she ran, the structure shifted. Entire wings crumbled away, while new ones rose up from nothing to take their place. She made her way to the grand gate through a hall of fresh bloomed flowers. A crown of snowdrops waited for her in a field of fresh grass, still sweet with the perfume of hawthorne. No thorn scratched her or tore at her gown, though thorns there were many. She donned the crown with an imperceptible flick of her head, and the green of its leaves were matched only by the spring that shone from her eyes.

When she reached the massive oak door, she did not bother opening it. One wave and it was gone, allowing her an unimpeded view of her visitor.

Brigid bowed her respect, a single elegant flow she had practiced many times. Her young body meant she could look particularly humble without much strain, though she didn't stay down long. No matter how illustrious the visitor, this was still her house. "Esteemed Scholar, it is a pleasure to make you welcome in my house." Bree's voice sung with the music of the Eun Sith, with all the height of a child's but none of the awkwardness. It was melodious, every word its own song.

Her visitor was much that she was not; masculine, tall, and strong. His skin was olive, his hair thick and dark like his eyes. His robes were as square and regular as the great Tower they symbolized. Was he the sort of man women swooned over? Bree neither knew nor cared. That did not mean she wasn't excited to receive such an important visitor, however.

"I am received with honor," he replied, his voice easily three octaves deeper.

Was it wrong of Bree to think that indicated a mind similarly slow? "I was not aware you had returned; it is an unexpected joy to see you again beneath the skies of Imperium." She stepped back, allowing him to step past her. When he had moved inside, she summoned back the door, though this one was carved of unmelting ice instead of wood, and a chill fog began to seep down from it, rolling past their feet and turning the room of spring to winter. Soon the only green in the room rested on her head. "Have you come to see my work? Or do you bring a labor of your own?"

Her visitor inclined his head politely towards a hallway carpeted with snow, the one that led up instead of down. "I have little time; you will understand soon. Somewhere quiet and private to talk, and a few minutes of your time is all I ask."

"Both are yours."

Bree knew her visitor well, since he was the one who had brought her into the Technocratic Order in the first place. As many of those who fled Underhill for the world Above, his taste for fairy food and fairy drink never faded. She led him to a cozy dining hall, with a single round table of onyx stone and a score of floating candles that didn't drop wax (she had stolen the idea from some of her favorite books, but she was fairly sure her visitor wouldn't know enough to call her on it).

"I know better than to offer you a boar." A servant who looked exactly like her drew out their chairs for them. The servant had dead eyes, and wore only a plain suit. Bree refused to allow any to serve her but herself, though she had stretched the rules on what "self" meant more than a little. "Roast vegetables for the vegetarian, perhaps? Scotch and soda to drink?"

He nodded gratefully. "Stimulant to thought, speech and physical exertion. Half a glass and no more."

In the way of things Underhill, time twisted and swam and her visitor's meal was set before him by silent servants. Unlike her visitor, Bree felt no fondness for the upper world and its food, so she neither ate nor drank. Instead she watched, drawing sculptures of ice with her fingers.

"How closely have you been following events in the Tower?"

Brigid shrugged, reclining on a soft chair of stone. "Close enough to gather something has changed. A dozen requests for stronger drones. Permission to use hyperstable exotic matter instead of aluminum and plastic. Swarm intelligence, and non-deterministic processing for a human host intelligence." She shook her head. "Expensive. I suspected we were planning an invasion of the Luna facilities, except none of my friends in rocketry have been asked to build delivery systems since the Great War." She leaned towards him, brushing a few strands of red away from her eyes with a flick. "Very interesting. The structural requirements on the last design you requested were positively inhuman. Temperature from .3k-1.2Mk. Structural integrity retention for varied-load pressures of 150,000,000 PSI. It sounded to me like you were planning on sabotage. A drone for a G8 thorium reactor, perhaps?"

Her guest smiled through his carrots and roasted vegetables. Bree hadn't eaten in many years, and looked away from the sight of bits of half-chewed food in complete disgust. She could still hear well enough though. "Those are some excellent theories, but they're all completely wrong." He swirled the scotch around in the glass, taking it in small sips. "It would be inconsiderate to make you guess; and you would never get it anyway."

With a gesture, her guest banished the contents of the table to oblivion, and conjured a display unit into the wood. Of course no ordinary guest could change anything about her home; but Tesla had administrator authority. If he wanted, he could remake the world.

"How much do you know about the Avalon experiments?"

"Heavy stuff. Extra-dimensional quantum tunneling using the Schrodinger Effect. Their research led to the Luna-Prime antimatter reactor before the colony went nuclear." Even though she had not made it, the display curved to her will. A photograph of the moon appeared, focused in on the dark miles that had been Avalon Research Colony. It was all black now, melted slag complete with huge troughs and canyons where all the underground tunnels had apparently been ripped right out of the moon. The explosion had been so complete that no wreckage had ever been discovered. "Their research never went anywhere else; apparently finding a universe composed of matter was harder than finding one made of antimatter. There was some speculation about attraction in the multiverse bubble, but none of that was my discipline."

Tesla shook his head. “Unfortunately, you’re right. The research didn’t go anywhere. Not until after the war. The Luna-7 facility found copies of their files on a derelict backup satellite and started recreating the Rift experiments."

For a moment, Brigid's grace faltered and her mouth hung open in shock. "You mean-"

He nodded. "A semistable Hawking Rift leading to a matter universe, with identical laws. The drones you've been designing were for exploring it."

She spent a moment to collect herself. "I think I know what your visit is about." She gestured, and a thick tome with a green cover appeared on the table between them. It's title, With One Drone: Remake the World, and Brigid Curie as its author. It was one of her earlier books, written less than a year after the end of the Great War. She had considered it a failure, largely because the Tower had never implemented any of the plans she made. Nevermind that they were superior in every way to the Tower's existing reconstruction plan.

"You were always perceptive, young Bree. You are exactly correct. We wish to implement your plan on the world beyond the Rift, and we want you to be the one to carry it out."

Brigid looked away, through the window at her side and the swirling galaxies that twisted and danced about them. "You want me to leave Imperium? Is it an order or a request?"

"A request and an opportunity."

Brigid was quiet then, running her fingers over the harsh stone. She felt the polished surface, and the chill. "Here I am lady of a great house. Here I am respected and my work is important. If I went Above, I would be alone. Unless the Federation has already sent adversaries for me. Either way, it's hardly a tempting opportunity."

"Not alone." Tesla gestured, and the projection of numerous drones appeared on the table. "We've got the hardware to send you one companion. I would suggest a pilot or a soldier. But knowing you, you'll probably just use the space for a Fork."

Brigid thought about that for a moment, considering the dozens of shallow copies of herself she used to accomplish various menial tasks around the castle, and the hundreds she had out in Imperium teaching or sending messages or gathering information. Brigid had mastered the shallow copy that was the Forking process nearly as early as it had been perfected. Why depend on someone else to do something when you could do it yourself? And a thousand other things.

"In any case, the planet isn't empty. So far as we can tell, the Federation don't have anyone on the ground yet. We think they might have a few drones, but not enough that their EM would make it back to the Rift. No, the world is already inhabited, by an advanced alien race."

"What?"

He nodded, and removed a heavily encrypted file from his robe. With a word the encryption faded, and he slid the file into the projector. It began to play at once.

It was a two-dimensional recording, from the security camera in a building somewhere. The camera was focused entirely on the image of a... Horse? It was hard to say exactly what it was. The proportions looked all wrong, and she clearly had a horn. She looked weak, as though she could barely stay on her hooves. The poor creature wasn't quite half as tall as the human sitting in a large chair near her.

The man was Richard, great king of all mankind. He was not speaking English, yet subtitles appeared beneath him so she didn't have to wonder what he might be saying. "Are you sure there is nothing we could do for you? Our doctors are adroit. And we would expect nothing in return. I have no doubt they could treat you."

"No." The alien spoke, its voice possessed of strange equine patterns. Yet even without the translation it was easy to tell the sound for speech and not mere noise. There was an order to it, a regularity not found in the calls of beasts. "The magic of my world is missing. It is frightening, but I will survive a day. Until the spell returns to take me back."

"Take you where?"

"To Equestria. It is a young place, and a hard place, but it is mine."

"There are more..." Pause. "There are more like you there. More... Unicorns?"

She nodded. That gesture at least seemed to be universal. "More of all the tribes; Unicorns and Pegasi and Earth Ponies together, under one banner. We have much in common, yet you would not believe how difficult it was to bring them together. Many died needlessly. Is your world a kinder place? It must be, to have built such cities."

The recording ended. Bree didn't get to object, because the next one began playing immediately. This one showed footage from a drone camera in flight. She saw trees first, then, in the distance, a bright little village like something out of history. Only it was far too colorful to have come out of any human past. Further, most human villages didn't have hundreds of tiny horses moving about, each more colorful than the last. The drone passed over the village by night and flew on, passing over a massive hydroelectric dam and continuing on towards a glittering palace on a mountain, its craftsmanship as fine as anything in the Tower.

Tesla reached his hand into the table, and drew up the file into his fingers, setting it down on the surface a few inches from her. There it sat, a little spiral of data glowing faintly green. "Everything we know about the planet is in there, along with everything we've learned about the natives."

"They're adorable." Brigid didn't feel like the lady of a great house, not now. Suddenly she felt like the little girl she had never exactly stopped being. "They rule a whole planet?"

He shrugged, disdain in his eyes. "If you could call what they do with the planet ruling it. Before you get too excited, you can't conquer them. Richard has explicitly forbidden any undue contact. As hard as it might be to believe, they understand Hawking Rifts. They found us before we found them, and they could seal the Rift if they wanted."

She recoiled, eyes wide as she stared. "Conquer? You thought I-" She shook her head vigorously. "Our king is wise. You said I could choose a companion?" She rose to her feet. "What would my mission be?"

Tesla rose, folding his arms and smiling. "I knew you were the perfect candidate. As for your assignment, it's all in the file. There's a transmission key for the king in there; all your questions go straight to him." He thrust his hand towards her. "Can I tell him you've taken the assignment?"

She nodded, taking his hand in the grip of her cool fingers. It felt a little like putting her hand in the mouth of a gigantic spider, his hand slim but with a grip like a vice. And in a way, perhaps she had. It would be even harder to escape a deal made with Lord Tesla of the Technocratic Order. "I haven't seen anything that cute in my life, I don't think I could've said no." She glanced back at the table, where the file still glowed. "Besides, I've never seen anything in Imperium with encryption that high. You would've scrubbed me if I refused."

Tesla released her hand, but only after squeezing it hard enough to make it burn from the pressure and turn purple where his fingers had gripped her. He laughed, but it was laughter colder than all the ice in her castle. "I knew that wouldn't be necessary. You haven't ever disappointed me, Brigid. I know I won't be disappointed now." He gestured, and vanished without a sound, probably gone back Above.

Bree didn't care. She reached out, took the file he had brought in one hand, and started skipping through her halls towards her bedroom. It was time to pack for the beach.

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