• Published 8th Aug 2012
  • 9,556 Views, 497 Comments

Outside the Reaching Sky - Karazor

Equestria's first interstellar journey

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Prologue: First Encounter

The two Warden cutters cruised through the void of space, silent and dark. They kept a close formation, sweeping the outer rim of the system, watching for intruders.

Of course, there weren’t any. There never were. Captain Silver Stars sighed, stretching her neck. The Warden outsystem patrol was more intended as a way to test space hardware and train crewmares, a way of preparing for Equestria’s big exploratory mission that Twilight Sparkle had been talking about for decades now. The Warden commanders, Rainbow Dash and Applejack, had taken to the project with interest, building the two small, armed cutters as prototypes and testbeds to work out the kinks and to give their ponies a chance to learn how a ship in space worked. Silver Stars had been thrilled when she’d been selected to captain the Lightning, the first armed ship in the Warden fleet and, by extension, the first armed vessel built by Equestria. She’d always loved space, always been fascinated by the endless void, and the chance to actually spend time up there had been a literal dream come true. Lightning’s sister ship, Thunder, had been completed a month later, making Silver Stars the senior Captain in the fledgling Equestrian Navy.

Of course, all that had been before she realized how tremendously boring this duty was going to be. While her fellow Wardens got to fight off creature incursions, keeping Equestria safe from the monsters that threatened it, Silver Stars and her crew got to bum around the rim of the solar system. Oh, sure, there was the occasional live-fire test where she got to blast some rocks, and that one time they got to blow some craters in that moon, and okay, that training op where they were giving orbital support to a group of power-armored Warden troops and heavy tanks during a simulated assault on Princess Luna's moon had been really cool, but even that was nothing to a veteran Warden who’d cut her teeth fighting hydras out of the Everfree or gemfly swarms from the Crystal Desert, out west of the buffalo ranges. All this patrol duty rather paled in comparison, though it did help that the ship was hers, and she loved it.

The ship was conducting a near-pass of the gas giant Taurus’s third moon, Hippocamp, and Silver Stars was fighting to keep from yawning, when the sensor officer spoke up. “Captain, I have an anomalous reading at three-three-one mark minus four-five. Signal is small on RF, thermal, and visual, but large on aetherics.”

Off the port bow and down, Silver Stars’ brain translated the bearing information automatically. It was probably nothing; they had anomalous contacts a few times every cruise, but at least it gave the crew a task to focus on. “Nav, get us a bearing change so we can get a distance fix.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” Whiterush, the navigator, confirmed, feeding the new course information to the pilot, Night Breeze. While the ship was coming to its new course, Oculus, the sensor officer, studied her instruments carefully. Her horn glowed as she interfaced with the ship’s systems, trying to resolve whatever she was looking at.

Oculus’s brow furrowed in concentration. “Oh, that’s…odd,” she mumbled to herself. Silver Stars saw flashes of data on the other mare’s screen, and discreetly popped into the net herself. The ship’s network started feeding information directly into her brain through the arcane interface she built around her horn, and she saw the refined data that Oculus was sending to Lightning’s command feed.

“Vector change!” Oculus cried out, the tan-coated mare’s voice tense with excitement. “Contact is under power!” The change was small and subtle, but stood out with the large size of the contact on the aetheric sensors. The icon in the ship’s data net changed from anomalous contact to unknown ship as Oculus updated its status. Silver Stars felt a rush of adrenaline at the revelation; the unknown vessel had been hidden behind Hippocamp as they’d approached, and it was well within missile range. Way, way inside missile range, actually. It was almost within beam range, if it was as maneuverable as the Warden cutters.

The captain wanted to gape in shock. A starship? Here? That couldn’t happen! Silver Stars pushed that shock aside immediately, as befitted the veteran Warden that she was. “Alert status!” she snapped, dropping instantly to full immersion. A siren sounded, three harsh blares that told the crew that action might be imminent.

Silver Stars felt the bridge crew falling into immersion as well, surrounding her with the mental noise of her Wardens interfacing with the data net. Information flooded her brain, refined data pouring into her from the rest of her bridge officers. They were all unicorns except for the pilot and the weapons officer, and both of those sported the dangerous interface implants pioneered by Commander Rainbow Dash, affording them the same capability a unicorn had to mentally control and interface with arcanotechnological systems. Mentally linked to the ship, and through it to one another, the bridge crew formed a single unit able to fight and react at the speed of thought.

It was tremendously stressful and dangerous, but the speed was worth it.

:Verify ship contact: Silver Stars commanded. Secondary status feeds showed her the ship’s power core increasing output to combat levels and the other ponies of the Lightning’s crew rushing to their stations, the off-shift crew rolling out of their bunks and stumbling to their backup duty stations.

:Confirmed: Oculus replied, pulsing the refined data she’d painstakingly assembled from her sensor nets and tagging the obviously powered course changes the contact had performed. It looked like the contact had been trying to avoid them, changing course to keep itself away from the two cutters. The comm officer was already sending the first-contact package over broadband radio frequencies, and Silver Stars spared a corner of her mind to verify that Thunder had joined Lightning in the alert-status datalink. She felt her opposite number confirm, and the two ships’ comm systems meshed swiftly, enabling them to react instantly to one another’s actions.

The unknown ship hadn’t yet responded, but Silver Stars wasn’t ready to order the crew out of full immersion. At this range, missile flight time would be measured in seconds. A flash from Oculus indicated that the other vessel had started a random maneuvering pattern, but Silver Stars wasn’t worried yet. The two Warden cutters were doing the same thing, after all; it was only prudent, especially given the absurdly short range. It was interesting that the unknown wasn’t pulling anywhere near as many Gs as the Warden ships, though; beam range against it would be a good bit longer than it would have been against another Equestrian vessel. In fact, they were almost within range as it was. Blast, they’re close, Silver Stars thought. This was not good for a first-contact situation, and she ordered her two ships to open the range, hopefully putting the other crew, the aliens, as strange as that thought was, more at ease. Silver Stars shivered; everypony knew about Duran Thirk, the alien whom Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash had brought home and who had subsequently sent Equestria into a technological renaissance. Would these aliens be like him? Different? In spite of the tension of the moment, Silver Stars was excited. Duran had died long before she was born, but she’d always wanted to meet an alien.

:Debris!: came the thought-message from Oculus. Small objects had just been thrown away from the alien ship. The sensor officer focused intently on the objects, refining data on their vector and size, and… :Missiles, missiles, missiles! Incoming missiles!: The virtual icons flipped from a neutral white to a threatening red, simultaneously shifting from the thoughtshape of unknown debris to that of incoming hostile ordnance, an icon nopony had ever seen outside of training simulations. At the same instant, Oculus changed the icon of the alien ship from “unknown” to “hostile.” Its icon had suddenly become oddly fuzzy, indicating that it had become more difficult for Oculus to track. :Reclassing unknown as Intruder One:

The captain felt the chill of fear that she always felt at the start of a fight. She ignored it like the veteran she was. Orders flashed out from Silver Stars to her subordinates on the bridge and to the captain of Lightning. The Equestrian cutters instantly started widening the distance between them, maintaining their contact with each other via aetheric communication and tightbeam lasers while they brought up their antimissile defenses. Arcane barrier shields slammed into place, swiftly ramping up to full power and putting an additional layer of protection over the ships’ armor.

Both cutters armed their missiles, but they didn’t launch. :This could be a mistake or a misfire, ladies and gentlecolts: the Captain reminded her subordinates through the thoughtlink, :Keep the first-contact package going, and prepare to repel missiles, but do not fire:

:Receiving interference: Oculus pulsed. :Interference on RF band, losing thermal and visual contact with Intruder One. No effect on aetherics.: The missiles bored closer, their icons firming up as the distance closed. The whole group appeared targeted on Thunder, ignoring Lightning. Intruder One’s icon was still fuzzy with uncertainty; the Warden cutters relied on broadband sensors to pinpoint contacts, and the unimpaired signal from the aetheric sensors wasn’t enough to establish its position and vector with total confidence.

:Communication attempt?: Silver Stars asked.

:Negative. Too random: The response from the comm officer was almost instant. He’d clearly been working on it already, which the captain had expected.

:Deliberate obfuscation attempt: Oculus theorized. :Now receiving multiple position indicators. Attempting to resolve.: The feed from the sensor operator flickered as she tried to figure out where exactly Intruder One was. Several contact icons now populated the fuzzy hash where the intruder ship’s icon had been before. The missiles bored in while Oculus worked, their high relative speed and deliberately erratic course giving the Equestrian ships frighteningly short beam range against them.

:Second salvo, incoming!: Oculus’s thoughts blared as another sprinkle of crimson icons studded the virtual space.

:Continue to hold fire: Silver Stars commanded. This could still be a mistake. She hoped, she hoped it was just a mistake. She really didn’t want to be known as the mare whose first contact with aliens had embroiled Equestria in an interstellar war. But it really was starting to look like a flat-out attack, mad as that was.

The first salvo entered the envelope of the antimissile defenses, and they sprang to life. Fast-tracking, rapid-firing beam weapons, mostly lasers, spat energy at the hostile ordnance, trying to swat it down before it could reach the Warden ships. The missiles didn’t cooperate, throwing themselves into corkscrews and violent evasive jags, trying to make the defense systems’ job harder. Twenty-five of the thirty warheads flared and died, scorched to nothing or shattered by the beams’ touch, but that left five.

The final five missiles detonated on contact with Thunder’s shields, flaring to sun-white brilliance against the black of the void. The impacts were staggered, the missiles prevented from simultaneous detonation by the cutter’s frantic evasions, and when the light cleared, Thunder was still there.

:Shields holding: Captain Crimson Dusk reported, :Cycling back to full. No damage incurred.:

Silver Stars let out the breath she’d been holding. Her thoughts were interrupted by Wingblade, her weapons officer. :Captain, this is clearly hostile action. May I return fire?: Interestingly, Wingblade’s thought-pulse was utterly calm. This was the pegasus mare’s first actual combat; she’d been assigned to the Lightning straight out of training, and for a first-timer to react this coolly was rare. That was also an unusually clear thought; communications under immersion were normally much more fragmentary, especially in a stressful situation. This young Warden bore watching.

:Negative, hold fire.: Silver Stars was still holding out hope that this could all be a huge mistake.

:Hostile attempting to open the range: Oculus was starting to make progress in filtering out the noise Intruder One was throwing out, convincing her systems to concentrate on the aetheric returns and using that to augment the other sensor systems. It was brilliant work, but Silver Stars could still see multiple signatures where there should only be one. Maybe it’s launched more, or maybe it’s actually several ships that were docked together?

:Let it.: Maybe they were trying to disengage, perhaps a form of apology for an accidental attack?

:Third salvo!: Oculus’s thoughts were urgent.

Okay, that’s enough. There was trying to be tolerant, and then there was just stupid. :Close range. Return fire.: If the intruder was trying to open the range, then Silver Stars decided she wanted the range close.

The two cutters fired as one, their outgoing salvos perfectly coordinated. The missiles sped outward, slightly faster than Intruder One’s ordnance, seeking a target that was difficult to see.

Intruder One’s second salvo reached the Wardens just before cutters' ordnance reached attack range. Once again, antimissile defenses sprang into action, this time having had a chance to analyze the aliens’ attack patterns. Only two enemy missiles made it through, again focusing on Thunder.

The gap between salvos had been long enough for the cutter’s shields to hit full power again, and they brushed aside the aliens’ strike. Whoever these creatures were, their missiles were slower and less powerful than the Equestrian ships’, and they didn’t reload as quickly.

Silver Stars watched intently as her ships’ first salvo reached the location of Intruder One. Wingblade had been carefully updating the missiles’ robotic brains with Oculus’s refined information, and she’d deliberately had her cybernetic minions spread themselves among all the contacts. A few of the missiles wandered off-course and self-destructed, misled by the devilishly effective interference still coming from the intruder, but the others stayed obedient. A few more were lost, destroyed by the intruder’s missile defenses, which included what were clearly missiles designed to hit other missiles, a fiendishly clever idea that Silver Stars mentally resolved to mention to her superiors when she got home.

The rest struck home. All but one of the signal returns vanished, the level of interference dropping significantly, but the intruder’s rate of acceleration didn’t slow.

:Decoys!: Oculus thought-blurted in a moment of insight. :Hostile using decoy platforms!:
It was another fiendishly clever idea. Silver Stars was starting to worry. How many other tricks did the intruder have under its saddle?

:Can you refine? Screen out the false returns?: Wingblade’s thought was creepily focused.

:Trying: More blips were starting to appear, Intruder One evidently launching more decoys, and the interference was strengthening again.

Lightning’s acceleration dropped suddenly, her spinal aetherbeams drinking greedily of her power core’s output to send lances of force outward. The intruder’s vector lurched suddenly, the drunken motion and drop in acceleration coinciding with the invisible flash of the aetherbeams. At the same moment, Oculus detected a flash of gas molecules reflecting the light of Celestia’s distant sun. :Got her: Wingblade’s thoughts snarled. :A piece of her, at least.:

The hostile hadn’t exploded; the interference was enough to obscure its exact position and prevent Wingblade from getting the range precise enough to induce an aetheric cascade. Still, the beam had clearly punched through at least part of Intruder One.

:Good work. Do it again.: Silver Stars told the young pegasus, receiving a flash of affirmation in reply. Nearby, Thunder’s aetherbeams flared in imitation of her sister, a sudden hard argent glare erupting from the approximate position of Intruder One. There was a flare of hope from Lightning’s bridge crew, and a flash of mixed elation and shame from the weapons officer as Thunder’s gunner managed to do what she’d tried and failed, but the interference didn’t cease, nor did the intruder’s course lurch as it had when Wingblade had hit it. Thunder had evidently scored a kill on another of the intruder’s decoys.

The battle went on, crawling outward along the system ecliptic. Intruder One scored several more hits with its missiles, but failed utterly to breach the Warden ships’ barrier shields, while Thunder and Lightning were unsure of how many hits they actually landed in the face of the alien ship’s persistent ability to foul their sensors. Every time the frustrated Oculus managed to filter out a layer of interference, a new one sprang up. Still, the tan-coated unicorn felt that she was getting closer and closer to breaching it and finally getting a good look at the interloper. In addition, the cutters had scored repeated hits, the Intruder’s acceleration had dropped, and Oculus was seeing more and more gas and debris emitting from the alien ship indicating that the Wardens were indeed inflicting damage.

Silver Stars wondered what in the world the aliens were trying to do. It was clear that they were badly, badly overmatched by the Warden cutters, but they kept fighting. They were well outside the range of the sun that would prevent Gate drive from functioning, but they didn’t run. It made no sense! They were losing, why didn't they run or surrender?

Suddenly, just as another salvo was about to reach the now wreckage-spewing Intruder One, the ship sent out a surge of power and vanished. Oculus went into overdrive, searching the immediate area, but there was nothing. Intruder One had disappeared, leaving no clue as to where it had gone.

Silver Stars maintained alert status for several minutes, waiting to see if the alien ship would reappear, but she was finally forced to order her bridge crew out of full immersion. Silver Stars followed suit, finally releasing the spell that tied her to Lightning. The virtual world of the ship’s datanet dropped away, leaving a massive, raging headache in its place, centered on the captain’s horn, and she sagged in fatigue. The rest of the bridge crew were doing likewise, the strain of the rapid-fire thoughts, calculations, and commands having taken its toll on their minds and bodies.

Silver Stars sighed, glancing around at her bridge crew and starting to issue orders. This was going to be a heck of a report to write.

“Captain?” Whiterush, the navigator, croaked, “I think we just won.”

Silver Stars smiled tiredly. “That we did, Warden.”

“Wow, I hope they’re not mad at us back home,” Webster, the comms officer, piped up. “I mean, that’s the first alien ship Equestria’s ever seen, and we got in a fight with it.” He sounded a little guilty, like the aliens’ refusal to respond to his signals had been somehow his fault.

“I doubt it.” The captain shook her head, managing not to wince at the motion. “They started that fight, not us. And the Commanders sure as heck aren’t going to be mad; they picked a fight with us, and we bucked their teeth down their throat. That’s the Warden way, after all!”

“Yeah,” Night Breeze chuckled from her pilot’s couch, fanning her night-black feathers in an unconscious effort to dissipate her own postbattle tension, “Commander Dash will probably want to buy us all drinks.”

The pilot was answered with low laughs running around the bridge, and the crew turned back to their jobs, focusing on powering combat systems down and assessing the results of the fight, exactly as their Library Core training had emphasized. Silver Stars rubbed her head wearily. It wasn’t Rainbow Dash or Applejack she was worried about. No, the one whose reaction she feared wasn’t in the Wardens’ chain of command at all. She was worried about what Equestria’s head diplomat, Fluttershy, would say when Silver Stars came back with nothing but the report of a battle.

The Council had ruled largely unchallenged for generations. Few had dared dispute the united might of its most powerful members, the bare handful of exceptions having been quickly dispatched by the disciplined, well-equipped squadrons of the Council’s armed forces. More, many more, had been disrupted and left ultimately powerless by the Council’s greatest and subtlest asset: the infiltrator service.

Until now.

Now, a single, little-known world at the rim of the Council’s territory had managed to avoid disruption by the infiltrator service, and it had part of the Council deeply worried. Less than ten star-seasons ago, this world had been primitive, far from starflight, notable only for the bizarre, inexplicable abilities of its inhabitants and the unknown but formidable strength of its two powerful guardians. The infiltrator service (acting outside of official orders) had already set in motion a series of events that would leave the world devastated at the (metaphorical) hands of its own residents; the Council had enough members and protectorates already, and it did not need another primitive world to look after, and there was the matter of the conflict brewing with the Tazaft. The council couldn’t afford the distraction of integrating another primitive world.

Then, disaster struck. The infiltrator cruiser sent in for a regular examination of the world and its agents had met with quite a rude surprise. Not only had it been unable to contact the planetside agents from the system rim, not only did it find a number of ships and their attendant sensors bustling through the system that absolutely should not be there, but for the first time in almost forty great seasons, an infiltrator cruiser was actually discovered.

The cruiser’s captain had confidently assumed that the two small patrol vessels had simply stumbled across it, flying out from behind a small moon at the perfect time to spot the heavily-stealthed cruiser. Knowing that he had likely been seen, the captain had elected to attack the small ships, hoping to destroy them quickly and thus limit his degree of exposure before he could retreat back outsystem and report to the nearest infiltrator base. The infiltrator service’s specialized cruisers were the most advanced vessels in the Council fleet, and were among its most powerful combatants on a ton-for-ton basis. To make matters even more lopsided, the cruiser outmassed both of its opponents combined by a rather comfortable margin. Ignoring the messages sent by the two patrol vessels, the captain had opened fire, expecting to destroy both ships in at most three salvos before he could duck back into the safety of the interstellar void.

That was when he’d received his next surprise.

The small patrol craft had been preposterously powerful, far, far more so than they ever should have been. They’d shrugged off the first salvo launched by the infiltrator cruiser with contemptuous ease, obliterating most of the cruiser’s missiles in flight with point-defense fire, and the few that had gotten through had accomplished precisely nothing. They’d hesitated at the hostile response, not unexpected from the relatively nonaggressive species that inhabited this system,(the response didn’t even help identify which of the local sapient species had built this preposterous level of infrastructure, though it did rule a couple out) allowing the cruiser to launch a second salvo that proved similarly fruitless, and a third had been on the way before they returned fire with weapons scaled to match their defenses. The infiltrator cruiser had barely escaped serious damage from the first salvo, managing to decoy nearly all of the patrol ships’ missiles away, but their direct-fire weapons had been harder to deal with.

The infiltrator captain had realized when the first beam punched straight through his ship that he was seriously outmatched. The cruiser’s electronic warfare systems had gone into overdrive, trying desperately to decoy the patrol ships’ fire away while the infiltrator ship made a break for the system limit. Observing what happened to his decoys, the captain realized that the only thing that had saved his vessel had been his foes misjudging the range slightly; several of his decoys had exploded violently when hit by the same beam weapon that had simply punched a clean, white-hot hole straight through the cruiser, effortlessly penetrating the ship’s armor on both sides along with everything in between. Something in that beam had caused the decoys to explode, and the captain had been devoutly grateful that it hadn’t managed to do that to his cruiser.

Even the edge offered by the cruiser’s electronic warfare systems, a gap that should have been assured against any foe, had been narrowing dangerously by the time it had reached the system’s edge. The enemy had clearly started without much knowledge of electronic warfare, but they’d been learning unpleasantly quickly over the short duration of the engagement, and the cruiser had taken several hits that damaged its EW equipment. It had been with tangible relief that the infiltrator cruiser had managed to limp over the system’s wormhole limit and vanish into FTL, thanking their great good fortune that none of the patrol ships’ hits had managed to cripple the cruiser’s wormhole drive. The cruiser had limped back to base missing half its weapons, its stealth systems blasted to uselessness, and its insystem drive functioning at barely a third of its normal capability. Almost half of the cruiser’s crew was dead or injured, its foes had barely been scratched, and worst of all, its mission had failed utterly. It was transparently clear from the sheer volume of traffic in the system that its inhabitants had not suffered the annihilating conflict that the infiltrator service had been working to guarantee, which meant that the infiltrator agents onplanet had either been killed or otherwise rendered irrelevant. Further, the cruiser hadn’t been able to properly assess the locals’ technology, which was far, far beyond what it should have been, nor had it been able to discern the cause of the sudden technological leap. There had been some initial speculation among the analysts that the ships present in the system hadn’t been local at all, but careful analysis of the infiltrator cruiser’s sensor record had revealed layers of development and traces of previous generations of technology, making an interloper unlikely, though the alternative was scarcely more palatable.

From the locals’ demonstrated level of advancement, it was highly likely that they possessed FTL capability. It could only be a matter of time before they left the confines of their own system. The Council was in a tizzy, some members trying to determine what to do, others furious that the captain had opened fire without attempting contact, when the infiltrator service came forward with additional news.

Another infiltrator cruiser had returned. This one had been sent after the crippled ship’s return, sitting well outside the system FTL limit and hiding in the interstellar dark while it listened to the signals coming from the system. Much had been indecipherable, their electronic coding methods still unknown and therefore unreadable, but this much had come through; the Six would be leaving the system in a mission of exploration. The greatest paladins and champions of their race would be out in the cold, vulnerable, outside the protection of the Two and whatever defenses had been deployed around their homeworld.

The long-term solution was still under debate, a rift of bitter disagreement forming among the Council’s founding membership, but the short-term plan would be carried out without informing the senior council. The Six would be tracked down and killed, their ship destroyed, and hopefully this would weaken both the Two and the unity of their home system, allowing the Council to take necessary steps.

Orders were sent, the part of the Enforcement Division under control of the Interventionist faction mobilized. The Six and their vessel would be hunted down and destroyed. The infiltrator service had suffered minor reversals before, but the Enforcement Division had never failed.

The dissent in the Council would fade away once the problem was removed.