• Published 10th Jan 2018
  • 2,707 Views, 228 Comments

Back and There Again - Sun Sage



A strange gem takes Rarity to a world she almost recognizes. She's going to make it back home no matter what, but she might need some help to do it. And why is it all so familiar?

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15. Forward Steps

Aiden’s home was a bit more modest than Lynn’s, in that he hadn’t done much with landscaping, or decorating. Rarity was nonetheless eager to see the place, and didn’t mind going there first. It wasn’t far from the store, and ostensibly they needed to drop Aiden’s car off. In truth, they both had their reasons for making a stop there.

“We won’t stay long,” Aiden said, looking down the hall. “I need to grab something from my closet, can you wait here a minute? After that, we can head out. I’d give you the tour but there’s not much to see. It’s just this, the kitchen, my room, computer room, and a bathroom,” he grinned sheepishly. “None of which is really ready for guests.”

“Mmm, that’s fine, darling, you needn’t worry on my account.” Rarity replied absently, looking about the living room. He nodded and went on his way.

It was certainly a man’s home, she thought with a fond smirk. It smelled like him, which wasn’t bad, but just noticeable in that it only smelled like him. Rarity wondered idly when she’d started paying attention to such things. Her magical senses had certainly heightened on Earth, acclimating to the differences in the Aetheric Field. If her other senses had done similarly, it’d snuck up on her. Speaking of her other senses…

Once she set aside the clutter, which consisted mostly of unopened mail that she couldn’t read, the room wasn’t so much dirty as carelessly cluttered. The furniture, a small couch and a chair both positioned facing a large television, was clean and new looking. The television, to Rarity’s limited experience, looked like a newer model, though it had a light coat of dust on the screen.

The room was dimly lit, clearly by design as both lamps were on, but gave low illumination. Reaching out with her magic, Rarity opened the curtains to let the sun in. Much better, in her opinion. It would give her more than enough light for what she really wanted to see.

The back wall was lined with shelves, each bulging with pictures.

As she trotted over to get a better look, she already recognized several pictures of a much younger Aiden with his family, particularly his big sister, Moira. His father was rarest in the pictures, she made a note to ask about that. In fact… she’d not learned his name in their shared dream. Aiden hadn’t thought of him as closely as his mother or sister. There was no sense of negativity, but…

She shoved the thought aside as her eyes wandered over the other shelves. She smiled, recognizing a few faces in a group photo. Standing to the side was a slightly younger looking Grumman, and centered… many faces she didn’t recognize, and a couple she did.

Aiden and Donovan looked to be in their mid to late teens, based on Rarity’s admittedly limited research time. The rest of the faces were similarly aged, and just in case that didn’t drive it home, the commonality in uniforms made it clear this was some sort of Esper team.

“The 7th Unit, Esper Platoon Outrage, lead squad of the Second Company. ...Knight Captain Aiden Windborne, commanding,” Aiden said with a crooked grin and a sense of fond nostalgia.

“Knight Captain? What happened to that rank?”

“I stepped down after I had to order several platoons to their deaths.”

Rarity winced. “I’m sorry.”

“That’s war, to be honest. But after the way it shook me, I didn’t feel suited to command. They pinned a medal on me the day after that particular battle. I can understand why; we killed four Oni generals, and I, alongside Paladin Williams and half a dozen of our best, personally fought Grand Marshal Caedum to a standstill, forcing his retreat along with the tattered remains of his forces. It was a major turning point in the war, some would say the pivotal battle that started us on the road to victory.” He shook his head. “But I couldn’t get their faces out of my head. I kept my rank for awhile, but in the next major mission I froze up, for just a moment. I couldn’t help thinking of the next group I’d have to send to die. ...You don’t win a chess game without giving up pieces. My hesitation, even a second of it, cost us that mission. I realized I’d rather be a knight than a king, so I asked Grumman for a rank reduction. Turned out I had a better flare for small unit tactics anyway. I had a much better operational record, to my own mind, after that. Far fewer casualties, at least until the Spire Assault. ...Don’t ask me about that right now.”

She nodded. “Fair enough.” She continued looking across the pictures. Finding a particular candidate for a subject change, she grinned. “And who’s this then? She’s lovely.” She pointed up with her muzzle, gazing mischievously at a pair, grinning like fools at the camera with what was clearly a victory celebration in the background. Aiden was familiar enough, but the girl…

He chuckled. “My ex-fiance.”

Rarity’s eyes went wide. I’m an idiot… “Oh… yes, I’m sorry, I’m not sure why’d I think-”

“No no, if it was a bad memory it wouldn’t be up there,” he waved her off, smiling easily. “We were together for a couple years, but honestly it was as much ‘friends leaning on each other’ as anything. When I proposed, the war was still on and we felt we were seizing the moment. It’s just as well we never found free time to hunt down a justice of the peace. Within a couple months of the war ending, we realized we wanted different things. I wanted to get away from it all, she wanted to go back home and help rebuild. Honestly I think we both realized we weren’t ready to get married. We were only twenty, and that’s old enough for some but… it’s pretty young. She made the better of the two choices, but even if I’d gone with her I don’t think we would have lasted. We’re still in touch from time to time. She has a girlfriend who treats her well, so I’m happy about that.”

“It’s still unfortunate that you ended up alone.”

“Yeah… ehh, it didn’t last though. And here we are.”

She grinned up at him. “Here we are.”

He returned the smile, then blinked, remembering. “Right, reason I went to my room there. I have a gift, if you’d like.” He held out a small, silver star with a sword atop it, tip facing up. “This is the insignia for a Knight in the Esper Corps. Specifically it’s my old one. We sort of field promoted you back on the way to Veritech, but I’d like you to have this, just the same. Err… unless you’d prefer your own, or not want it at all, or-”

It glowed in a delicate blue aura as Rarity took it reverently from him. That same aura suffused his hand for a moment, tightening and warming before fading away. She looked him in the eyes as the pin attached itself to the holster she wore for the translators. Still not breaking eye contact, she saluted. “It’s my honor, sir,” she said with complete seriousness.

He snorted, reddening. “Mine as well, Knight Rarity,” he said, returning the salute. “Of course, if we’re making it official you’ll need to be sworn in and so forth. Don’t worry, the Esper Corps is much less formal than other military branches. It sort of had to be, under the circumstances.”

“I think I’d like that, actually. I never sought out this sort of thing back home, though I managed to find conflict often enough. I’m not sure what’s changed, but it feels like the right decision here. I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t something in the air.”

“Hmm… you might just be joking, but that’s been studied, actually. It’s believed that the Aetheric Field affects us to an extent, beyond just empowering us to use magic. A little gut feeling here, a touch of courage there… it’s like The Force… if The Force was actually cheering on Jedi instead of making them feel bad every time they had fun.”

Rarity giggled. “You do know my knowledge of Star Wars is limited to what I got from you during our little magical mind meld-”

“That’s Star Trek.”

“My point exactly. Highly fuzzy.”

“You are, by human standards. I like it though; your coat is lovely.”

“Why thank you, darling, although that’s not what I meant,” she replied with an eye roll, playfully sticking her tongue out at him. They were alone; it was okay to be a little unladylike.

“Yeah… but it was worth saying. Anyway we’ll get around to a proper Star Wars marathon before you leave. There’s a few movies you need to see, honestly, in order to have a proper appreciation for Earth culture. Diplomatic necessity,” he concluded gravely.

“I see,” she said with equal gravity, playing along. “Speaking of necessities… I’m still making you a suit, and myself a proper dress, before much longer or I’m simply going to lose my mind.” She grinned up at him. “Something appropriately slinky and easy to dance in… for the victory party when we have my way home secured.”

He returned the grin. Rarity noted he did an admirable job of hiding the touch of pain in his eyes. “Damn right. We’ll give you a helluva sendoff.”

She shook her head, smiling up at him. “Hmm, to be honest, I’m hoping I won’t be alone on that trip, and that it will be them giving us a sendoff. Grumman did mention wanting to formally open relations between our worlds. Who better than an Esper, since you already bridge the gap a bit between human and pony?”

He started, tilting his head slightly. Had he forgotten about that? “Huh…”

“You did say you’d stand by me no matter what…”

“Yeah… yeah I sure did,” he smiled. “Sorry, I’m used to saying goodbye to people. Old habit.”

“Hmph. Get over it,” she said with a feigned haughty tone, shutting her eyes and lifting her muzzle skyward. “You’ll need more than a spaceship to get rid of me at this point.”

Chuckling, he nodded. “I’m glad to hear it. But speaking of… you ready to go get that spaceship?”

“Willing and able, darling. Did you do everything you needed to do here?”

“Yep, just wanted to shut a few things off and send a message to my gaming guild. Uh, computer thing. Just letting them know I wasn’t dead or whatnot.”

“Well, at least you were interacting with somepony out there, even if not in person.”

“Heh, yeah. Becoming a complete shut in wouldn’t have suited me, tempting though it occasionally was. Let’s go.”

With that, Rarity felt the aether around her coalesce, and then split as Aiden’s portal pulled them in. Without Joyeuse (and she suddenly felt rather humorously naked without it, as if she’d left home without fixing her mane) to steady her, she had to shut her eyes as the flickering between worlds began as Aiden took them towards Fort Friendship… and she’d decided it was no longer a working title. They were her friends, and that was their fortress, their bastion against the Owenses of the world.

“You okay?”

“Mmm, yes, darling, I’m fine. Without Joyeuse to help center me, the rapid aether currents and constant world changes are a bit nauseating.”

“Yeah, it’s like extreme car-sickness, I’m told. Since I’m driving, so to speak, I’m not affected.”

“It’s fine if I keep my eyes shut and just focus on the aether. Actually, it’s fascinating. How did you learn to do this?”

“It’s basically just continuously opening portals at my maximum range and pulling us through them. It’s an extension of the way I moved around in combat, since it was usually much easier to portal myself than my opponents, if they were strong at all. Portals for objects were the same. We experimented with using them to drop explosives or whatnot near the enemy, but there’s nasty potential for backfire if they have enough aetheric control to stop or reverse the portals in progress. From there, it was just a matter of refining my technique to be as rapid as possible, and building my stamina to go for long periods.”

Rarity snickered, surprising herself a bit as she did so.

“...You’ve got a surprisingly dirty mind, mare.”

“Yes well, I’ve spent too much of my free time buried in romance novels. Some of them get quite saucy.”

“I’ll bet. ...So hey, the other day you mentioned not getting why I’d had a dry spell in terms of romance. If it’s not too personal, it sounds like you’re in the same boat… and I really don’t get why.”

She chuckled, shaking her head. “If I’m being honest… it’s a combination of my own standards and priorities. I’ve always been driven by my dreams, to bring out beauty in everyone. To that end, I’ve stayed focused towards building my business, pursuing my art, to the exclusion of other aspects of life. The couple times I’ve deviated from that haven’t gone too well, for that matter.”

“You hinted at that, yeah.”

“Mmm. The first major incident there was a Prince named Blueblood. ...As it turns out, the Canterlot nobility have a penchant for acquiring a number of less than desirable traits. Prince Blueblood, as the highest ranking of them, has done a fine job of representing that.”

“I thought the princesses were the highest ranking?”

“Oh they are, but I don’t really consider them nobility in the same way. They’re above that.”

“I could see that. Given their age, if nothing else, they’d be deserving of more respect, I’d think.”

“More than just that, but you’re not wrong. In any case, I approached Blueblood at the biggest social event in Equestria… and made a complete fool of myself. Don’t mistake me, he acted like a absolute shithead-”

Aiden snerked. “We’ve been a bad influence on you. That was English… darling.”

She chuckled at his passable Equish and shrugged. “It was the right word for the situation. And he did! But that doesn’t mean I was blameless. I could have recognized what he was far sooner, but I kept trying to win him over. I wanted the fairy tale: the beautiful, hard working mare from nowhere meets her prince and they live happily ever after. It’s a stupid dream. I’d rather build my own happiness with an equal than lean on a chance meeting with a prince who’d never had to build anything. ...Which leads me to my second failed foray into love… an artistically inclined stallion named Trenderhoof… where I again made a fool of myself trying to just get his attention. Looking back, I made the same mistakes Spike had been making with me over the years.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, at first at least there was nothing wrong with my approach, per se. I wanted to impress him, show him the best sides of myself and my artistic talent, to attract him to my positive sides, as it were?”

“Sure, that’s normal enough.”

“Mmm. But when that wasn’t getting anything beyond polite recognition, I became more desperate, rather than simply being direct with him. My showing off in order to catch his eye reached… frankly comical levels that I’d prefer not to go into. Applejack can tell you that story more properly, though you’d get a more entertaining, exaggerated version out of Rainbow Dash.”

“I’ll keep that in mind someday. How’s that like Spike, though? I remember you mentioning him, and his crush on you I believe, but…”

“Well, it’s along the same lines. Setting aside the age difference, a lot of what he does for me, though especially early on in our friendship, was an attempt to win me over, impress me. The thing is, it worked. I was impressed; I just wasn’t romantically interested. Of course, part of that was his age, but another part was the notion that he somehow wanted to sweep me off my hooves, get me to fall for him so completely that he wouldn’t actually have to talk to me about it. He would ‘win’ my affections, like a prize rather than something I decided on.”

“It’s not an unusual approach, especially the younger you are.”

“Certainly true, and I didn’t hold it against him at all, even if it didn’t work out the way he may have wanted. He’s a very sweet, noble, wonderful friend, and I won't hear a word against him. But I was, and am, a mare who prides herself on being forward and not avoiding confrontations. Had he confessed his feelings and asked me directly… at some point other than when he thought we were about to die… I can’t say for certain I would have turned him down, because I would have respected that approach enough to give it a chance.

“...Or so I tell myself… because again when it came to Trenderhoof I did the same sort of thing he’d been doing, only I was much worse at it. Spike is endearing, sincere, and earnest in his efforts. I’ve no doubt his behavior towards me would be little different without any romantic aspirations.” She sighed. “I, on the other hoof, made a complete fool of myself, rivaling anypony for disingenuous, humiliating actions.”

Aiden chuckled, and she heard him walking over to sit by her. She leaned against him, feeling a bit better as his hand rubbed her shoulders gently. “Love’s hard. Give me a good fight and I know what to do, even if I don’t always enjoy it. I have three ex-girlfriends that would tell you I’m better with Oni than women.”

Rarity giggled lightly, and nuzzled his cheek. “I’m sorry they felt that way. I must say I'd rather design an entirely new fashion trend than try to navigate a first date. The ideal is one thing, but the practice is..." She trailed off, frowning slightly, and opened her eyes to look towards the center of Aiden’s pocket world. “Aiden, stop a moment, inside your dimension, please.”

He cocked an eyebrow, but did as asked.

She’d felt something… it was as if… she snorted with quiet amusement. It was as if she could feel Pinkie Pie sneaking up on her. Of course, that was ridiculous, though I cannot use the word ‘impossible’ with her. Nonetheless… there was something there. She noted, as she had before, that they were on the outskirts of this enclosed space. Away from the road and a few buildings here and there across the one third kilometer diameter, they inhabited an empty field of grass with a couple trees nearby. The same light level as the real world permeated here, as she noted that today it was bright, though she could make out no sun in the sky. During the Veritech raid it had been dark, and starless.

She didn’t need to ask why Aiden put them off to the side when in here. The cars on that road… though she thankfully couldn’t see into them from where she sat, were the graves of everyone who’d died here in that horrible instant. She hated to think it, but a morbid part of her mind wondered why this relatively small, seemingly enclosed space didn’t smell like a tomb. For that matter, why did the grass seem to be alive? On a whim, she reached out with her magic and plucked a small flower nearby, drawing a quiet gasp from Aiden. Aether permeated everything like a blanket, reminding Rarity of how it was dangerous for those without magic to be in here. Yet the flower, despite its infusion of magic, seemed normal enough. Absently, she tucked it behind her ear.

None of that, disconcerting and confusing though it was, contributed to what she was feeling. After a few seconds, a hand squeezed her withers. “Rarity?” he asked, sounding quietly shaken.

“I… don’t know, darling. I feel… a presence, perhaps? Something… someone… happy. It’s as though someone is laughing in the distance.”

He snorted softly. “I can’t imagine much in here being happy, but I’d love to take your word on that. Can you be more specific though? ...Sorry but, the longer I stay in here…”

“Ah, yes of course, I’m sorry, darling. I can’t narrow it down… just a feeling. Goodness knows I can never locate Pinkie before she jumps out at me even when I have a sense that she’s about to. Let’s continue.” She wrapped her tail around him, as well as a forehoof, keeping him there as she shut her eyes before the world began shifting again.

------------------------------------------------------

By the time they’d gotten back to the compound, the two had sat quietly, drawing strength from each other’s proximity, for longer than they’d talked. Apparently, he could have traveled through portals lying down, half asleep; it wasn’t much different from walking for him. Rarity decided it was a pleasant way to travel. Naturally, it had nothing to do with the hand gently massaging her withers again after she’d claimed, only half dishonestly, that the trip was causing her some discomfort. She could only hope traveling by plane would prove similarly enjoyable. Grumman, Valerie, Talia, and Aaron had met them in the motorpool outside Grumman’s limo. Talia and Aaron, notably, each carried a spare backpack: one for each of them. Talia also held out Joyeuse to Rarity, who took it in her magic to place near her seat in the vehicle. She smiled and nodded her thanks, getting a small smile in return from Talia.

“Knight Trellis will drive us to a private airstrip nearby,” Grumman said as they all piled into the still spacious vehicle. “From there we’ll have a rather long flight to Sacramento.”

“Isn’t that your hometown, Don?” Aiden asked.

Donovan nodded as they pulled past the main gates. “That it is, though I haven’t been back in years. Interesting coincidence, but the corporate building you’ll be visiting isn’t in a part of the city I know well. So me going along wouldn’t be much help.”

“You’re not coming with us?” Rarity piped in.

“Nah, I’ll be watching the homefront here, along with Vualez, Vera, and a few others, of course. We’re still holding Owens, and we can’t rule out the possibility that some of those unaccounted for from the Veritech raid may try to spring him. We have no intention of letting that happen.”

“I see. It’s a shame we have to worry about such things.”

“I don’t disagree, but if a little boredom is the price I pay to keep that man locked up, I’m fine with it.”

“I have every confidence he’s in safe hands, Knight Trellis,” Grumman proclaimed. “For our part, we will be visiting the corporate headquarters of Adstrum Technologies. They were, and are, a major R&D resource for the U.S. military as well as many private companies, locally and abroad. They were responsible for a number of key advancements made during the war, in large part from recovered Oni-koru technology. Several of the programming innovations of your translator are theirs to take credit for, Miss Rarity.”

“It seems I owe them a thank you, then. Hopefully I’ll owe them another soon.”

“Agreed. Although it seems this will, at best, be only a partial success, assuming all goes well. They have a mostly intact Oni vessel, albeit a small one. But notably, its Creation Engine is not salvageable. It has four backup batteries, but they’re all drained. The search continues for ways to replace that energy; we have no compatible technology to do so.”

“I remember,” Aiden said. “Don’t batteries like that store concentrated Aether as a power source for the engines, the same way Creation Engines actually draw it from the Field?”

“Exactly,” Grumman replied, seeming to focus towards Rarity as he spoke. “Despite their name, they don’t actually create energy. Any living being with the proper ability can draw aether; we have three in this vehicle that do it instinctively, and can draw more by focusing on the act. A Creation Engine does what you can do, only on a much greater scale. Unfortunately, they are very delicate pieces of equipment and humanity has only captured a handful intact. The storage batteries are much simpler, but can’t charge themselves.”

“Can’t an Esper charge them?” Donovan asked. “I’d swear I’ve heard of that being done.”

“It can, and has been done successfully,” Grumman said. “But it’s extremely inefficient, time-consuming, and potentially dangerous. Too little channeled into the battery and it will take months to charge. The more slowly the Esper channels, the more aether is lost, absorbed into the Field rather than by the battery. The Esper drains his or her aether for very little gain in battery charge; they are made to interface with the Creation Engines. Too fast is worse… once aether is channeling rapidly into a battery, the balance can shift from energy being pushed to the battery pulling energy in. The Esper doing the channeling can find themselves instead being forcibly drained of aether in seconds. As you know, that can cause cellular degradation similar to aether poisoning in a normal person.”

“Ouch,” Donovan muttered. Aiden nodded grimly.

“In an emergency, it’s an acceptable risk, especially with medical personnel on hand to cover any mishaps. There have been no fatal accidents recorded, which is why this is still very much worth pursuing. For now, even if we are charging the batteries slowly to be safe, it’s a start.”

Everyone was nodding their agreement, and Rarity couldn’t help smiling. My friends, doing so much to help me get home. I have to remember moments like this. She’d hardly noticed, and even less minded, that she’d practically cuddled into Aiden in their seats next to each other. He had no obvious complaints as well. The way she was leaning, they were about the same height, and she fought the urge to simply spread out across his lap. That would be a bit much, tempting though it was. It had been an early morning. Assuming the plane wasn’t overly exciting, it might be time for a nap.

“So how are we getting the ship? Also, how’d we find out about it? I thought it’d take longer.” Aaron pondered aloud.

“We’ve actually been pursuing several options even before the Veritech raid,” Valerie answered, “But this came as a bit of a surprise. Adstrum is pretty aboveboard, so when they replied to our inquiries, after hearing of them through secondary sources, we weren’t expecting more than a show of support, or maybe a battery or two. The Esper Corps has a few people working for them, both in security and in their labs, and it’s no secret they have Oni-koru tech they’re still working with that they haven’t cracked yet. But a whole ship? It’s unexpected. As such, how we get it, borrow or otherwise, is a good question. Then again, they did contact us, knowing what we’re after.”

“So we play it by ear?” Talia muttered from her seat next to Valerie, getting a nod of confirmation.

“Exactly,” Valerie said. “It’s the reason we’re all going. We want to show we’re serious about this, and we have an in that will respect that. Adstrum has two CEOs that work together; one is an Esper.”

Aiden blinked. “You could have led with that. Who is it? I probably know the name.”

“Knight Captain Johnathan Ferreles.”

“Oh, I know that name,” Donovan said as Aiden smiled and nodded. “2nd Gen, good guy; one of the oldest of us, if I remember right. Didn’t know he made captain.”

“It was sort of an honorary promotion, basically padding his retirement pension… as well as honoring his service, since it was after the Spire Assault that basically ended the war. He left the Corps shortly after, like a lot of us,” Aiden said. “You’re right though, I already feel better about this. I didn’t know he’d done so well for himself.”

“What was his talent?” Rarity asked.

“Like most 2nd Gens, he awoke from contact with Oni-koru personal equipment,” Aiden replied. “For most, it was weaponry, like our bomberman up there.”

Donovan waved jauntily from the driver’s seat.

“But Johnathan awoke from being scanned by an Aetheric Field sensor. He can use telekinesis like any of us, but his real talent is in his perception. His senses are heightened, and adjustable, to computer-like levels of precision. He’s also a math genius, though for all I know that was true before his awakening.”

Grumman nodded. “We don’t know for sure on that, though his grades to that point put it in doubt. Either way, I believe he will be an ally in our cause here. He’s still a businessman, and answerable to the rest of the company, but I have considerable assets of my own if it comes to that. I’m hoping they will have the vision to see the advantages of this situation without needing an appeal to monetary gain. Again, that’s why we’re all going. I intend to present a united front that can make a case for the advantages of providing assistance to Miss Rarity, in the hopes of our first peaceful, interplanetary contact.”

“...And, we’re bringing weapons in case it’s a trap?” Rarity asked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Valerie confirmed. “There’s no guarantee that the information we’ve received is legitimate, though it checks out from what we can tell. No harm in being prepared and we’ve communicated such. Adstrum has agreed to that provision; we’ll show up armed for the meeting. They have security of their own, and General Grumman’s name carries plenty of weight, so we both trust each other not to do anything other than show force in case of a double-cross.”

Rarity nodded, understanding the necessity if not caring for it. She had to admit, she did feel a bit more comfortable with Joyeuse leaning against the seat next to her. And she had a good feeling about this trip. We’re going to succeed here. I’m not jinxing anything, events could go wrong... but we’ll bring them back in line, together.

Author's Note:

Welp... I wanted this done yesterday, but it needed to run longer than I'd initially intended and I was just too tired to get it finished. Work lately has included a fair bit of overtime that I can't turn down.

...Especially since I kind of need to recoup what I spent for my upcoming trip to Everfree Northwest. If you're planning to be there and want to say hi, I'd love to meet anyone interested. Either way, looking forward to the trip; Seattle's a lovely city... I feel bad for blowing up part of it in this story.

Next chapter in a couple days as we get our main plot back up and rolling.

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