• Published 11th Apr 2016
  • 1,403 Views, 55 Comments

Eating Dessert First - alarajrogers

Sometimes I get impatient with how long I write and how long it will take before I get to a part I want to write, and then I write it anyway. This is a compendium of snippets from future parts of my fics.

  • ...

Voyage of the Harmony (Sci-Fi; Twilight, Spike, Fluttershy, Discord)

Author's Note:

This is an SF AU with ponies. Humans exist as another spacefaring race, but there aren't any in this section. Inspiration drawn heavily from the works of Cordwainer Smith, particularly "Scanners Live In Vain" and "The Game of Cat and Dragon"; also, C. S. Friedman's "This Alien Shore", which is also based on Cat and Dragon. I think most of what you need to know about the setting and the characters for purposes of understanding this piece is in the piece itself, so I won't overexplain.

With Spike on her back, Twilight trotted eagerly down the road. The Dark Queen had gifted Equestria with an especially bright moon tonight, and the close-stars beamed tiny patches of mostly red, warm sunlight, drawn from the sun so far away. It wasn't anything like the light and warmth of Queen Celestia's solar array, let alone an actual sun, but it was better than the perpetual, chilly gloom from when Queen Moon had taken power.

Queen Celestia... No. Twilight wasn't going to think about the lost queen. Not now, not while she was on Equestria. She had to stay focused. Get her crew, load up the ship, and go.

Fluttershy was the last one on her short list. Her backer, Rarity, had introduced her to Rainbow Dash, whose piloting credentials were impeccable. Rainbow had introduced her to Applejack, apple farmer turned engineer when night fell ten years ago and apples could only be grown in hothouses with grow lamps anymore. Applejack had introduced her to Pinkie Pie, an experienced cook and a mare of sufficient exuberance and cheer to make a fantastic morale officer, and no ship out there risking the Pain of Space dared to go without a morale officer.

All of them were in agreement. The mysterious Fluttershy, hardly ever seen in town, was Ponyville's best xenomedic – which would have sounded awfully like the best gardener in Cloudsdale, except for Ponyville's proximity to the Everfree Forest. Fluttershy had experience treating animals no one else on Equestria even had names for.

Also. She had a draconequus.

Twilight had only worked with the savage, snappish creatures once. The snakelike chimera had been dangerous enough that its handler had kept it muzzled and leashed all the time. It was unpredictable, randomly aggressive toward ponies for no good reason, and ornery, refusing its handler's commands more than seventy percent of the time. She'd counted.

But it had flawlessly navigated the ship through Deep Warp, allowing them to cut transit time to a third of what it would have been in the Warp Corona, and eight times faster than transit in shiftspace.

Even with Rarity's backing, Twilight could never have afforded a draconequus. They were too sadistic and prone to rage to breed well; the species was slowly dying out. And that made them fantastically expensive. Without them, ponies would be limited to transit through the Warp Corona, and would lose their technological edge over humans – who bred some small number of their kind for deliberate insanity so that they could navigate Deep Warp, but humans, like ponies, were fundamentally a harmonious species, dependent on the bonds of friendship. The disharmonious, solitary, nasty draconequui would always be better at handling the chaos of Deep Warp than even an insane human, and ponies weren't capable of manifesting the type of insanity that would let them travel Deep.

If this Fluttershy was willing to join Twilight's crew, and was either a qualified draconequus handler or was willing to lend her draconequus to somepony who was, Twilight's mission could be accomplished in a fraction of the time.

"You think she's really got a draconequus, Twilight?" Spike asked. "They're not exactly pet material, you know?"

"She lives by the Everfree and she treats the wild animals in there," Twilight said. "Who knows but maybe there are feral draconequui hiding in that forest, and she managed to tame one?"

"You don't tame a draconequus."

"Fine, she managed to get one to let her handle it. Maybe she found an egg. Ponies sometimes do find unusual eggs, you know. " She turned her head and grinned up at him.

Spike grinned back. Ponies finding an unusual egg was exactly why he was her assistant.

Fluttershy's house... had magical lamps. All over. Shining sunlight onto what would have been a charmingly bucolic scene – a bubbling brook, a garden, birds chirping in the trees – if not for the black shadows cast in the places where the lamplight fields didn't quite touch each other. Twilight frowned. She should have seen the light shining through the trees, or she should have felt a magical shield. She hadn't perceived either one. And wasn't this Fluttershy a pegasus? She couldn't have enchanted all these sunlamps. Also, didn't Fluttershy know this was dangerous? So many sunlamps would likely brand her a sun-lover, and she'd end up in a dungeon in Canterlot, or worse... Tartarus. When Twilight was a child, the legendary prison had been home only to the worst of the worst, criminals so violent and dangerous they had to be imprisoned deep underground. Now she heard rumors that Queen Moon had been throwing ponies in there for being dissidents, and she believed them.

She trotted up to the door and knocked. Once, twice. Nothing.

She knocked again. And again. Still nothing. Was Fluttershy even home?

The top of the door – it was in two parts that swung independently – opened a crack, and she caught just the faintest glimpse of a pink mane and a pony face before the pony behind the door stammered, in a whispery feminine voice, "Nopony's home, sorry, we're not buying any, you can leave now!" and slammed the top door shut again.

Twilight tried to open the door with magic, but the inhabitant had already locked it again. She banged on the door with her hoof. "I'm not selling anything!" she shouted. "I'm a friend of Rainbow Dash!"

The top door opened again, a crack. "Rainbow Dash?" the soft, breathy voice asked.

"Yes. I'm the captain of the Harmony, a trading vessel heading out in a few days, and I've hired Rainbow on as the pilot."

"If you know Rainbow Dash," the voice said, almost accusingly, "then who is her favorite Wonderbolt?"

Twilight blinked. "Uh... she never said who her favorite was. She went on and on about a few of them – I think one of them was named Spitfire? And, uh, Soaring? Sorry, I don't follow sports and I didn't know I'd have to take a quiz."

"Why are you here?"

"Uh... well, Rainbow told me you were the best xenomedic in Equestria." This, like everything else Rainbow had said (except her braggadocio about her own talents – the Pilot Rating Board, and the sports news that Twilight had Spike pull from archives at the library, backed her up on those), was probably an exaggeration. "I wanted to ask you to join my crew."

"Not interested!" The door slammed again. Then opened slightly again. "Um, if that's okay with you." And slammed again.

Spike had been wandering around, looking at the property. He came up to the door. "This is amazing, Twilight! She's got, like, an entire habitat arranged out here. Just like in space, except she's doing it on a planet!"

"She'd kind of have to. She's got very limited sunlight to work with... though I still wonder how she gets away with that. Everything I've heard of Queen Moon... well, let's just say I haven't heard a lot of good things."

"You shouldn't talk like that," the crack in the door whispered. "Her spies are every—wait, is that a baby dragon?"

"I'd like to think I'm a little bit older than a baby," Spike said, somewhat indignantly, puffing his chest out.

Some hasty whispering behind the door, too quiet for Twilight to make out, and then the top door opened again, this time all the way. "You are! You're a baby dragon! Oh, wow, you're so adorable! I never thought I'd see a baby dragon!"

The mare who was suddenly gushing about Spike had to be Fluttershy. She was butter-yellow, with an immense, perfectly styled waterfall of pink mane that Twilight suspected Rarity had to be jealous of, and big blue eyes that were now lit with excitement. "Miss... if I let you in to talk, will you let me pet your dragon?"

"Yes," Twilight said.

Spike puffed his chest out even more. "It isn't up to her, it's up to me. And I say... I never turn down pets from a beautiful mare. I'm Spike the Dragon, and if you let us in you can pet me as much as you like."

"Suave, Spike," Twilight whispered, amused.

"I try."

The bottom door finally opened. "Come in. Would you like tea? I have tea brewing. Oh, but do dragons even drink tea?"

"I love tea," Spike said. "The hotter the better. If you put hot spices in it, like cayenne pepper or something, even better."

"Oh! Oh, I do have some very hot tea. Di – uh, a house guest of mine likes very hot and spicy things too. Oh, and you, miss?"

"I'm a captain, actually, but you can just call me Twilight. And yes, I'd love some tea. Earl Grey, maybe? Hot?"

"Oh, of course, Captain Twilight," Fluttershy said hurriedly. "Let me just go get the water started."

She didn't, in fact, just go get the water started. What she actually did was disappear into the kitchen until the tea kettle started whistling, and then came back out with three cups of tea. "Here you go," she said, setting them down. She then knelt down next to Spike and started stroking his head. "Oh, you're so warm."

Spike leaned back, an expression of apparent bliss on his face. Twilight knew him well enough to know he wasn't bowled over like he'd been when he'd first met Rarity, but Spike loved attention and affection. In space, most ponies had assumed he'd be an arrogant jerk, like most gunnery dragons (and probably most dragons, period, regardless of profession), and had steered clear of him. Twilight had always thought that was tragic; Spike was the sweetest person she knew.

"I assume you're Doctor Fluttershy?"

"Oh, um, just Fluttershy is okay? If that's all right?"

"Well, then I insist that you just call me Twilight."

"But... but you're a ship captain. That's much more important than being an animal doctor, isn't it? I mean, you must, uh... lead your crew. Through space." She shuddered. "Space is so scary."

"Space isn't scary," Twilight said. "It's... just another environment. Just like floating cities. You're a pegasus, so you probably came from a floating city, didn't you?"

"Cloudsdale," Fluttershy whispered. "But it was a very scary place. I don't like to fly."

"We've got habitats in space that look just like the area around your cottage!" Spike said. "Except we only run the water when the artificial gravity is on, of course. But lots and lots of animals! And tons of plants!"

"But don't you send animals up to die from the Pain of Space so ponies don't have to?"

Twilight sighed. "No. No, that's... not a myth, exactly, but it's not true either. In the beginning of space travel, ponies would go into shiftspace under spells to not feel anything – literally anything, no emotion, no sensation – because being cut off from a web of life turns out to cause a lot of pain to harmonious creatures. Ponies who went up with the ability to feel would very quickly suffer from suicidal depression and blind rage, and a lot of physical pain. The humans discovered that if you send animals up, the Pain of Space eases up, but humans don't know much about magical or metaphysical effects, so they thought the animals were somehow absorbing the Pain, and that they'd die in the humans' place. We ponies discovered that what was actually happening was that the magical fields in shiftspace, what we call the Nightmare Force, trigger any creature but a cat, dragon or draconequus into these horrible black feelings, and what resists those fields is a lifeweb in harmony. So we bring the animals up, not to die for us, but to live for us. The magic of their lives, their harmony with the habitats we create, creates a shield against the Pain of Space."

"Oh." Fluttershy considered. "Oh! That's so much better. I am so glad you explained that to me! I've always had nightmares about space, and the Pain of Space killing poor innocent creatures. I'm so glad to hear it's not true!"

"Would that make you feel better about joining the crew as our xenomedic?"

Fluttershy rapidly shook her head. "Oh, no no no. Space is still so very scary. It's up so high, and there's no gravity, except when it's artificial. And a tiny little rock could break your hull open and all the air could leak out and you'd explode in space!"

"Ponies don't explode in space," Twilight said, slightly exasperated. This mare seemed to have somehow picked up every negative myth about space there was. "That's not what explosive decompression means. And the ATK field protects us against tiny little rocks."

"But there's so many other scary things."

Twilight tried a different tactic. "I heard you have a draconequus?"

Fluttershy blushed. "Well, I don't have him. I mean, he's my friend."

Twilight was sure the chickens in the coop, the tweeting birds in the trees, and the rabbit who was... glaring?... at her, were also Fluttershy's friends, but it said a lot for her prowess with animals if she really had managed to make a pet of a draconequus. "Why do you have a draconequus for a pet if you're so scared of space?"

"Well, he needed someone to take care of him, and somewhere to live."

"But you know they're never happy unless they're in Deep Warp, right? Don't you think it's cruel to deprive him of space?"

"I... I'm sure Discord could go to space anytime he wanted to... and he is happy. He's very happy here with me."

Twilight had never heard of a happy draconequus, and didn't think such a thing was possible. "If you won't join our crew, then maybe you'd be willing to lend us the draconequus? Maybe he's very happy here with you, but I'm sure being in space would also make him happy."

"I'll ask him." Fluttershy put her forehooves to the sides of her mouth. "Discord!" she called. "Could you come down here, please?"

You couldn't ask a draconequus anything. They were animals. They couldn't talk, and their disharmonious nature made them incredibly difficult to train. And they were stupid even for animals. Cats who were trained in gunnery could communicate if they had language implants, as long as they were hooked into the gun system or some other system that could read the output of their implants. You couldn't put speech implants in a draconequus anymore than you could put them in a gecko or a fish.

Twilight did not point this out to Fluttershy. If she'd tamed a feral draconequus, maybe she did have fantastic levels of insight into their behavior and what it meant.

And then a tall, slender creature with a snakelike body, but on legs, walked – on two legs, like a human, a minotaur or a baby dragon – down Fluttershy's staircase. "Fluttershy! You have guests?" it said, in a voice exactly like a stallion's. "You should have called me down sooner!"

Twilight stared at the draconequus in shock, her eye twitching slightly. "That – that draconequus just – talked."

"How rude! Calling me 'that draconequus' like I'm some exhibit in a zoo! Discord, master of chaos, at your service, madame captain." He bowed deeply, with a feathered hat in his hand that hadn't been there a moment ago.

Twilight felt acutely nauseous, and cold, and her vision was graying out at the edges. She'd just felt the flux of chaos, only a flicker, like she was suddenly and without warning in Deep Warp for a nanosecond only. "It—how – I don't—"

"Twilight! Calm down!" Spike said, but his voice was sounding strangely far away.

"Oh dear. She seems to be going into shock? Spike, get some damp, cool towels please. I have a stack of towels in the kitchen, on the counter; just run cold water on a couple of them, squeeze them out so they don't drip, and come back quickly."

"On it!"

"Was it something I said?" the draconequus asked, in a false-soliticious voice that had the undercurrent of a chuckle in it. "Here, let's get the dear captain onto the couch."

And then she felt it all around her, chaos, seething and mind-breaking like the Deep Warp, lifting and surrounding her. It was too much for her. In terror and shock, Twilight fainted.

When she opened her eyes again, Spike was next to her, pressing the cool compress against her forehead. "...come on, Twi, you gotta wake up. You don't faint from unusual things happening! What's wrong? You gotta wake up and tell me what's wrong!"

"I believe she may be entirely too magic-sensitive for her own good," a male voice said. Who was that? There hadn't been a stallion... no. No, wait. That was the draconequus.

"Oh, dear, is she reacting to your magic? Is there anything we can do for her? I'd bring out the smelling salts, but I don't have a lot of experience with unicorns... or ponies, really, at all..."

Twilight sat up and pointed a hoof accusingly at the draconequus, who was still standing on two legs. And wearing clothes. Aside from the top hat, she hadn't noticed earlier, but he was wearing shorts and an open jacket. "You talked!"

"I did. I do that rather often. It's actually one of my greater pleasures in life."

"Draconequui don't talk."

"Humans didn't believe in unicorns before they met you ponies, and look where you all are now."

"And they don't have magic!"

Discord smiled very thinly, the oddly pony-like jovial expression he'd been wearing replaced with his red eyes fixating on her coldly. Twilight shivered. She'd never been attacked by a draconequus, but they were nasty, fierce beasts. She'd seen plenty of training videos of what not to do near draconequui if you weren't a handler, and knew ponies who'd been nearly ripped apart by one of the beasts. "The interesting thing about magic is that to perform a spell, you have to be sapient. You can have plenty of natural magic, and there's no shortage of magical creatures on Equestria, but they don't do spells. Their bodies just perform the magic for them, and generally it's only one or two things."

"For instance," Fluttershy said eagerly, "timber wolf recombination into a mega-timberwolf. That's very much like a magical spell, but it's instinctive. They can't vary it the way you unicorns can, or the way a pegasus can approach a cloud in different ways, assessing what they want to do and how to do it."

"But draconequui aren't sapient!"

"I've been listening to him for the past five minutes, Twilight," Spike said dryly. "Pretty sure he's sapient."

"How? Are you genetically engineered or something?"

"Ma chère capitaine, you have it backwards. I'm not the one who was interfered with." He sat down on Fluttershy's coffee table. "A little bit sensitive to magic, are you? Either you swooned at my astonishing good looks and incredible erudition, or you sensed the very, very tiny opening I made to the Realm of Chaos. Do you pass out every time your ship goes in there, or have you never flown with a draconequus?"

"You-- opened a portal to... the Realm of Chaos? Is that the same thing as Deep Warp? It – it felt like I was suddenly surrounded by Deep Warp. Without a shipfield to protect me. Did you do that?"

"And I'll do it again, as often as I like. If you want me and Fluttershy on your crew, you will most definitely have to get used to it."

"Discord, we're not going to be her crew!" Fluttershy said. "I'm not her crew! I can't go to space!"

"How are you talking?" Twilight asked.

"The same way you are. Once upon a time a mommy draconequus and a daddy draconequus loved each other very much, and then the mommy draconequus laid an egg, and I came out, and they talked to me until I started talking back. Is there something particularly difficult to grasp about this concept?"

"Don't be rude, Discord. She doesn't know the history."

Discord stood up so quickly his swishing tail knocked the coffee table over. "She should know the history!" he snarled suddenly. "Ponies like her are the entire reason—"

Spike jumped onto the couch, trembling, possibly shielding Twilight with his body or possibly taking cover within the range of a magical shield if she cast one, Twilight wasn't sure. But Fluttershy, showing no fear, put her wing on his arm. "Discord. Please. She doesn't know. And if Rainbow vouches for her then I'm sure she's the kind of pony who would be very upset if she did know, and I'm sure she would take your side."

Discord was breathing hard. "She's a spacer. Ponies wanting to go to space and control every last aspect of how they do it is why I was in Petrifax for three hundred years."

Twilight's eyes widened. Petrifax was the legendary ultra-secure ward of Tartarus, itself a maximum security prison. It was almost a death penalty. The Way of Harmony, practiced by all of Equestria for hundreds of years, would never tolerate executing a captive criminal, but Petrifax sealed criminals into magical sleep. Forever, in theory.

"But you're not there now. You're out. You're safe."

"For the moment."

"I... hate to ask, but... why were you in Petrifax?" Twilight asked hesitantly.

"That depends on who you ask. You want the pony version of the story?" He chuckled. "If you listen to ponies, it was because I was a terrorist, fomented chaos, and attempted to overthrow Queen Celestia and take over all of Equestria myself, and came dangerously close to doing so because I'm the most powerful chaoticist, probably ever, but certainly alive back then."

"Uh... how much of that is true?" Spike asked anxiously.

He chuckled again. "All of it."

"Discord..." Fluttershy said warningly.

"What? They won't believe me anyway." He smiled widely, cheerfully, but it never reached his eyes. "And it doesn't matter anyway because I am reformed! Fully and completely obedient to the lawful authority of Equestria, not a single spark of a desire to rule over ponies, or anyone, in my heart." Discord leaned forward into Twilight's face. "I'd give myself a halo to get the point across, but I certainly don't want you fainting again, Captain Sparkle."

Fluttershy sighed. "Discord doesn't want to tell you his version of the story," she said. "Because if he did, and you didn't believe him or you didn't care... that would be very hurtful. He's much more sensitive than he pretends to be."

"Fluttershy, you're doing this all wrong. Don't you have to wait for my back to be turned to gossip about me behind my back?"

"But I don't believe that anypony that Rainbow would have referred to me could be that cold-hearted. Have you met any of Rainbow's other friends?"

"Uh, yeah. Rarity's our backer, and she may come with us as a cat handler because her cat Opal is licensed for gunnery and Spike's still an apprentice. Applejack's signed on as our engineer, and Pinkie Pie's going to be the cook and morale officer. Which is why I need you! Not only are you a xenomedic, but you're obviously experienced at creating the kind of multi-animal habitat we need in space, so I won't need a habiteur."

Fluttershy shook her head. "We're not talking about that right now and anyway I'm not going into space. My point is, that if all of those mares vouch for you... then I think you can be trusted with this information." She turned to Discord. "Do you want to tell her, or should I?"

"Well, since you have your heart set on spilling all my secrets, who I am to stop you?" Discord asked sharply, bitterness in his voice.

"I... I mean, if it's going to cause strife in your... uh, friendship, you don't have to tell me. I was just curious."

"All draconequui are sapient, Twilight."

Twilight blinked at Fluttershy's quiet words. "...What?"

"Or they would be, if... if ponies didn't break them." Her voice went very low and quiet.

"I—" Draconequui were easily the stupidest, hardest to train animal Twilight had ever met who were physically more complex than a small lizard. They couldn't be sapient. "That doesn't make any sense."

"It does. We... uh, we do things to them. So that... so that they become like animals."

"How? How would you turn a sapient creature into something that isn't? And why?"

"Well, to begin with the how," Discord said, in a tone of false cheer that was completely at odds with what he was actually saying, "you capture adults, and when they lay eggs, you take their eggs from them. And when the baby draconequus hatches, you cut off its thumbs." For the first time, Twilight noticed that Discord had four digits on his mismatched paws, not the three that every other draconequus had, and his were longer and didn't move as a group. "You tape the fingers together so they can't move them independently. And you put them in a tank of warm water, like their egg, but with no light or sound." The bitterness he obviously felt about this was coming through more and more strongly in his voice. "You put a breathing mask on them, with a nipple in it for drinking their food, and you put them in the tank, and you close the lid. For two years. Two years of no sound, no light, no real sensation at all. No one to touch them or hold them or talk to them."

Twilight's jaw worked. She swallowed. "They'd die. Foals... foals don't live if no one touches them."

"Oh, but these aren't foals, they're draconequui, so it's all perfectly okay. They survive it just fine. Of course, after that they won't let anyone touch them, and they don't comprehend that language even exists, and they live in a state of aggression and fear that keeps them from learning much of anything. Also, did I mention that the solution they're fed isn't draconequus milk, or pony milk, or formula, but something specifically designed to have inadequate proteins and vitamins for brain growth? Physically they recover. Mentally, they do not. Ever." His voice cracked. "Pony foals have an advantage. Ponies are herd animals. Without the herd, they die. Draconequui can live through having no parents, no family, no caretakers, no one to love or care for them at all or even talk to them. You'd think that would be an advantage, but it's not. We can live through being turned into brute, mute beasts. Which means that anyone who wants to exploit our talents can do that to us, and we'll survive, so we can still be used."

Spike said, in a choked voice, "That's... that's horrible."

"They'll get around to doing it to you dragons too, Spike. Just you wait. Sooner or later, oh, what a pain it is to have to pay dragons to ride our spaceships and kill boojums for us! Wouldn't it just be so much better if they could be pets, like cats, and couldn't take care of themselves?"

"That won't happen," Fluttershy said firmly. "Dragons get too big. It takes a very strong pony to be able to restrain a draconequus if it attacks. No pony would be able to restrain a dragon."

"True. And they always have the option of using cats. Humans don't even have dragons – their gunnery teams are always a cat with a human partner. Whereas what draconequui do... is irreplaceable, and no one else can do it. As much as humans like to think they can master chaos, they can't... and ponies, at least, know better."

"Why... why didn't Queen Celestia do something about this?" Twilight whispered.

"A sun-lover, are you?" Twilight's shock and fear must have shown in his face, because he laughed. "Oh, don't worry. No one's going to rat you out to Moonie the Great. My shield spells don't allow anypony to hear or see anything near the cottage until they get close enough that we can hear them."

"Well." Twilight swallowed. She'd just met Fluttershy. The fact that Rarity, who shared Twilight's goals, had referred her to Rainbow Dash and Rainbow Dash had told her about Fluttershy, suggested that Fluttershy was not a moon loyalist, but that didn't mean she was on the side of the sun either. "It doesn't really matter what I thought of Queen Celestia, anymore, does it? She was banished or killed over a decade ago, and she's not coming back. We all live under Queen Moon now, and that's just the way it is."

"Very pragmatic of you," Discord said. "So. Now that you know the deep, dark secret of the draconequui... can you see why possibly I might have wanted to foment a little chaos, back when there were any free draconequui who could have benefited from it? Why I thought it might be a good idea to terrify ponies with the wrath of the free draconequui, so they'd make an outcry to their government to stop stealing and torturing our children? Why, when a pragmatic, sensible Queen was just looking out for the interests of her people in a universe that suddenly had another spacefaring race in it, I might have turned to an emotional young Princess for aid, and when she refused to betray her sister for the sake of countless draconequus cubs being tortured into mindlessness, I might have thought it a good idea to depose them both and rule by force?" He went down to one knee, his voice softening. "Why I might have wanted to drive ponies mad, drop the Realm of Chaos on their heads and use my magic to make them terrified, aggressive, paranoid and barely intelligent anymore... just like they were doing to my people's children?"

Twilight bowed her head. "I... I guess... if someone was doing that to pony foals... someone who ruled over me but wasn't even a pony... I might think about doing the same sorts of things." She sighed. And then added hastily, "But of course, Queen Moon has the best interest of our foals in mind. She's not doing anything like that, and obviously she's a pony too! So she'd never..."

She trailed off. Discord's head was bowed as well, but whereas her head bow had been in respect and guilt... he was shaking, eyes tightly closed, tears running down his cheeks. Fluttershy was kneeling by him, her forelegs around him.

"It's all right," she said. "You can cry if you need to. No one here will blame you. It's all right."

"It's never going to be all right," Discord choked out. "It's never going to be all right, Fluttershy, because I failed—there aren't any left—our culture, our civilization, gone, and none of us but me are anything other than animals—"

"I know. I know. It's terrible. But you're alive, and you're free, so you can have hope, right? Even if you can't ever do anything for the other draconequui, there's one draconequus who can think left and you can make sure he has as happy a life as you can."

"I'm sorry," Twilight said to him. "My race did this to you, and I'm not even sure why—wouldn't intelligent draconequui make better navigators?"

"Oh, much better," he said, lifting his head and wiping the tears off his face with the back of his lion arm. "You've never worked with as amazing a navigator as I am, I can promise you this. But—" He shrugged. "We didn't like some of our working conditions. We wanted the right to be captains ourselves, not just navigators. Or to occupy any position... just because all of us can navigate the Realm of Chaos doesn't mean some of us might not have preferred to be doctors, or cooks. And ponies said, if they gave in to our demands, before long we'd be the only ones running the ships. Because we're the only ones who can take you through what you call Deep Warp, and if we can hold every other position as well, what would stop us from shutting ponies out completely? So we went on strike, and shut down space... or at least, any ships trying to go through the Realm. Right after we'd all discovered that humanity was also in space, competing with Equestria for colony worlds and trade routes." He lowered his head again. "In retrospect... that was a rather big mistake."

Twilight's heart sank. She'd been thinking, surely Queen Celestia couldn't have known, couldn't have had anything to do with it. Queen Celestia was kind, and compassionate.

But if this had happened just after ponies had made first contact with humans, the only other race to have discovered the secrets of the Deep Warp... a race that, while based in harmony as ponies were, was also more aggressive, more xenophobic since they'd had no other intelligent races on their world, and less willing to share territory? A race more willing to kill? And if the draconequui going on strike had run the risk that humanity would take over the stars and leave ponies with nothing, and if giving the draconequui what they wanted had seriously seemed as if it, too, might cut ponies off from space, leaving only the draconequui to cross the stars from Equestria?

It had been wrong. It was still wrong, and she couldn't comprehend how Queen Celestia could have let it go on for three hundred years. But... that initial decision... yes. Yes, the pony who'd been her teacher for five years, before the stars had aligned and her banished sister had returned and deposed her, could have made a cold and practical decision like that. Which made Twilight feel even more guilty.

"Oh," was all she could say, and then, again. "I'm sorry. I know that doesn't really help, but... I'm really sorry."

"Would you free us if you could?" Discord asked, looking down at her (even on his knees he was taller than she was). "Would you take the risk that maybe we might hog space travel all for ourselves, to let children who should grow up to walk and talk and think be free to do that?"

Twilight nodded. "There are humans who can manage the Deep Warp. Even if ponies can't, who's to say that maybe griffins or minotaurs couldn't learn the same trick the humans use? And ponies get along with humans – and most races, honestly – better than griffins, and pegasi and griffins make the best pilots, and if your ATK field fails you're definitely going to want a powerful unicorn aboard, and most habiteurs are earth ponies for a reason. Space travel works best when it's ponies collaborating with other races; the crew I've put together so far is mostly ponies, but we have a dragon, and probably a cat, and I'd be honored to have a talking draconequus for a navigator, if you wanted. And if I ever saw an opportunity to help you free the babies who haven't – who aren't hopeless, yet, and the eggs, and make sure they're raised by good people of whatever species... I'd take it. Because what we're doing to your kind is just wrong."

"Well then." Without warning, Discord flopped at Fluttershy's feet. "Please! Please, please, Fluttershy, please let me go to space! You have no idea how long I've longed to feel the Realms again, you can't even imagine it. Pleeeease."

"Um... I would never want to stop you, Discord. I'd miss you, but I would never want to stand in the way of you doing what you love..."

"No, you don't understand, I need you. I can't manage on my own! You have to come with me, or I can't go!"

"Discord. You can so perfectly well manage on your own, if you're in space with friends. I know that here on Equestria you can't go out in public, but of course if Captain Sparkle knows you're intelligent, you'll get along just fine with her and her crew."

"No, I won't. Ponies don't even like draconequui. And even if they did..." He looked up at her plaintively from his position on the floor. "I'm going to need a handler. I always did before, we all always did. Someone has to help us come back to ourselves when we come out of the Realms, someone has to vouch for us, and make sure we eat, and... and all those things, and I can't trust a trained draconequus handler because they'll think I'm stupid and they'll always be fighting with me to try to make me obey, like an animal. I need you." He lifted his head almost all the way to her head, which was impressive considering that most of his body was still sprawled on the floor. "Please. I promise I'll protect you from space, if you come with me and... and help me."

"But... the animals..."

"If I leave you'll have to turn the sunlamps off. My enchantment won't hold when I'm gone. If you bring them and you come with me, they'll have a nice, bright, sunny habitat, without a madmare trying to micromanage how much light they get. They'll be happier! I'll be happier! You'll be happier because you won't feel like you have to hide out at the edge of the Forest!"

"But it's space," Fluttershy said helplessly.

Spike sauntered up to her. "So, I was looking at your bookshelves and I saw you have a lot of books about animals, and notebooks where you were writing down all kinds of nature watching stuff and things from studying animals you meet?"

"Um, yes," Fluttershy said, obviously as nonplussed by the apparent non sequitur as Twilight was.

Twilight had faith that Spike wasn't just randomly interrupting, though, and his next words bore out her faith. "So, wouldn't you like the opportunity to study a dragon? At close range? A safe, pony-friendly, ba – juvenile dragon, who's used to being a research subject and can even help you organize your notes?"

Fluttershy swallowed. "Um... maybe?"

"And we might be visiting a lot of colony worlds where the flora and fauna haven't been fully catalogued yet," Twilight said. "You might discover an animal no one's ever encountered before."

Discord, now sitting next to Fluttershy rather than sprawled on the floor, pulled her onto his lap, holding her gently. "I know you're scared, Shy," he said. "But I'm scared of what might happen if I leave you here. What if Moon's goons ever do figure out who shut down Cerberus and busted me out of Petrifax?"

Twilight's eyes went huge. "He's... he's not really a computer," Fluttershy whispered. "He's three dog brains, running the whole system. They used dogs because they don't get bored being on watch all the time, but... he's wired in. He never gets to run and play. And if you know some programmers..."

"You broke into Petrifax and released a prisoner?" Twilight stared at her. "You broke into Tartarus?"

"It, um... if you know that the security system is actually kind of a dog, except with three heads instead of one... I'm not really that special. I just had insider knowledge."


Fluttershy shook her head. "I can't tell you. I can't even tell Discord. Can't take the risk."

"But if I left you behind and the Mooninites figured out you were the one... Fluttershy, they'll interrogate you, and they'll want to know your accomplices. And they'll torture you. I'm... I can't leave you behind. No matter how much I want to feel the Realms again. You freed me." Discord's head bent and turned sideways so he was looking directly at Fluttershy despite the fact that she was still in his lap. "Please, Fluttershy. Please come with me."

Fluttershy bowed her head and said something in such a tiny voice it was incomprehensible. Discord said, "What was that?" before Twilight had a chance to ask.

She lifted her head. Still in a tiny voice, but at least audible now, she said, "I'll go."

"You will?" Discord stood, lifting Fluttershy into the air as he did so. "Yes! This is wonderful news!" The nauseating feeling of raw Deep Warp fluxed around Twilight for a second, and confetti fell from the air. She swallowed the nausea back down. If he was going to be her navigator, she had to get used to that. It was probably a small price to pay to get a draconequus navigator who was intelligent enough to understand orders and self-controlled enough to not try to rip every pony's face off.

"Great!" Twilight said. "Um, we'll have to make arrangements to get you to the ship. I'm pretty sure you're not going to want to travel in a draconequus cage."

"Given how distinctive in appearance we all are, and the fact that I'm a fugitive from the law... you're correct about that. I could fake being mindless and snarly for a few minutes, but all it would take is one Wanted poster."

They didn't actually use Wanted posters anymore, but the PlaNet probably hadn't existed when he'd last been free, and Fluttershy actually had very little information technology in her home. Discord might not even know what the PlaNet was. He might have to be trained on how to use computers at all. Though the amazing thing about a talking draconequus was not whether or not he knew how to use computers, but that he knew how to talk.

"I'll make some arrangements." Applejack had been a farmer before she'd been an engineer, and farmers had to ship product. Maybe she knew someone discreet who could smuggle a person aboard a ship. "And I'll call you when I've got the details hashed out."

"I don't have a phone," Fluttershy whispered. "They're so loud when they ring."

She could change their ringtone, but Twilight was gathering that Fluttershy's anxiety levels were pathological. And wondered if she'd been this bad before she broke a prisoner out of Petrifax. And how she had done so, and how she had known of this particular prisoner, and why. But she wasn't going to get any of those answers tonight. "All right, I'll send Spike with a message, or come myself."

"Or you can send Rainbow. She knows Discord's smart."

Twilight breathed deeply. Rainbow had said that Fluttershy had a draconequus, but that he was "a royal pain to deal with." She'd been grinning when she'd said it. Dash was another spacer, used to draconequui; of course she'd known that Twilight would take her meaning to be that Fluttershy's draconequus was ornery, like every other member of the species. "I think I'm gonna have a little conversation with Rainbow about that."

"Wait, does this mean I get to work with the most stupendously awesome pegasus pilot ever, Rainbow Dash?" Discord clasped his paws in front of his heart, or where his heart probably was, anyway. "Be still my beating heart!"

"Discord, be nice," Fluttershy advised.

"Oh, I'm sincere. I'd very much like to see if that pilot is even half of what she claims to be." His clasped paws turned into a cat's cradle, steepling and running through each other, like Spike did when he had an idea that he thought was devious.

"If you can't work together with my pilot, you can't be my navigator, Discord," Twilight said. "Whatever's between you and Pilot Dash, can you keep it professional?"

"I am the very soul of professionalism. Besides, by the standards of every other draconequus out there, I could put a whoopee cushion on her seat every day and fireworks in her breakfast cereal and I'd still be infinitely more professional and easier to work with than they are."

He had a point.

Once they were out of Fluttershy's house, Spike took out the smartbook before Twilight even had to ask him to. "So I'm checking off xenomedic, draconequus, and draconequus handler, right?"

"And habiteur, don't forget." She grinned. "I think that's everyone. This is really happening, Spike! I'm really going to be the captain of a crew! Of my very own ship!"

"Well, it'd be kind of silly to register a ship in your name, get a backer, and hire crew members if it wasn't really going to happen," he pointed out.

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