• Published 8th Aug 2012
  • 9,867 Views, 489 Comments

Outside the Reaching Sky - Karazor



Equestria's first interstellar journey

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Preparation

Twilight Sparkle set the smartscroll on her desk with a sigh, rubbing her eyes. Every time she thought they were almost ready, a new host of questions and problems manifested. They were on schedule, moving along exactly as expected, but it still felt like she was running in place.

She glared at the programmable surface of the smartscroll. This one was a request from the shipyards for the Bureau of Technology (the government branch formed from the company formerly known as Thaumatech Incorporated) to release several prototypes that were in their final stages of development. Twilight had convinced her friends, fellow beneficiaries of the deceased Duran Thirk who’d bequeathed the company to them, to merge the huge corporation with the Equestrian government. She’d since come to regret that, as Princess Celestia had appointed Twilight as head of the new Bureau of Technology and made her responsible for its enormous, sprawling research and production departments. Celestia had never expressed anything other than total satisfaction with the way Twilight had done her job with the BoT in the last eighty years, though Twilight herself knew that she’d had a number of major failures and a whole host of smaller ones. She had them written down in a list somewhere, so she could be certain she wouldn’t make the same mistakes again.

The lavender unicorn sighed again and turned to her right. The illusory screen of her desk terminal flicked to life at a thought-prompt, and Twilight’s personal holodaemon obediently retrieved the details of the first requested prototype for her perusal. Twilight rubbed her face again, and started reading.

Two hours of research later, she’d approved three of the shipyard’s requests, forwarding them to Spike so the young dragon could assemble the information and material to send up on the next few supply runs and denied a fourth. The prototype of the newest version of the gravity generators would have increased the Dauntless’s acceleration by almost ten percent… but several tests had hinted at a dangerous instability. The rate of failure was extremely low, but they absolutely couldn’t afford to use a piece of equipment that might kill the entire crew if it hiccupped, and Twilight wondered why in the world the shipyard supervisor had even bothered to make that request. She had to know that Twilight would veto something that risky!

She was so engrossed in her work that she didn’t even hear her office door open. She didn’t hear her secretary clear his throat, either; he finally had to ping her terminal to gain her attention.

Twilight started when the prompt appeared on her screen, and looked up guiltily at the dark grey figure of her receptionist. “Oh! I’m so sorry, Numbers, I didn’t even notice you there!”

The unicorn stallion smiled gently. He was quite used to his boss being so engrossed in her work that she lost track of the world around her; his predecessor and mentor had warned him about that tendency when the older stallion had retired. “Not a problem, Ma’am, I hadn’t been standing here long.” Ordered Numbers glanced back over his shoulder. “The Field Commander of the Border Wardens is here for your two o’clock appointment.”

“It’s two already?” Twilight glanced at the clock display on her terminal. “Goodness, the day just zooms by! Please, show her in!”

The stallion gave an elegant bow of his white-maned head, retreating back to the outer office and closing the door behind him. Twilight drew a mental breath, readying herself. She’d already met all four of her other friends in preparation for the planned voyage, but she’d deliberately left this one for last. She’d been… difficult to deal with at times over the last few decades, though less so for Twilight than for some of the others. Twilight was half-expecting to face a bit of a challenge convincing her friend to accept the lavender unicorn’s command for the duration of this mission, not to mention the other matters that she knew were guaranteed to make the other pony angry.

The door opened again, and Twilight heard the clicking sound of metal on tile along with the slight whine of cybernetics that accompanied Rainbow Dash wherever she went. Numbers held the door open for the cyan-coated pegasus as she prowled into the room. There was nothing deliberately or overtly menacing in her gait, but her movements were far smoother than was normal for a pony, and most didn’t realize that the slightly uncanny style of her movements was due to the habit she’d picked up of carefully placing each rear hoof in the spot vacated by the corresponding forehoof as she walked. She'd gotten so smooth and quick with that way of moving that most ponies didn't even notice that it wasn't natural, only coming away with a nagging sense of unease. The overall effect was unsettlingly feline, and Rainbow had been doing it for so long that she probably didn’t even realize she was using her altered gait.

Twilight mentally shook her head, taking care not to show her feelings on her face. This might be more difficult than she’d thought. Rainbow had developed that gait while she was patrolling the frontier with her Wardens, and she didn’t usually do it in the city unless she was expecting a fight. Darn. I was hoping she wouldn’t be this wary until later. Maybe she heard about what Fluttershy and I were discussing.

The unicorn took a moment to assess her friend. It had been a few years since she’d last seen the aggressive pegasus, but she didn’t look all that different. Three of her legs were cybernetic; two had been replacements for limbs irreparably damaged in an operation with her Border Wardens, while her left foreleg had been intentionally replaced; Rainbow had liked the handy bladed weapons and strength enhancements she’d had incorporated into her artificial left foreleg, and had decided to replace the other foreleg as well. The three metal legs and one natural hoof produced an odd-sounding uneven rhythm when the multicolored mare walked, especially on the smooth stone tiles of Twilight’s office. The cybernetic limbs also whined whenever she moved, a slight noise just above the threshold of audibility that drove Twilight nuts nearly every time she was in the same room as the pegasus, especially since Rainbow almost never sat completely still.

Rainbow’s other cybernetics were less obtrusive. Despite the vicious scar on her face, legacy of a dragon’s claw that had torn out her right eye, her eyes could be taken as natural until one got close. The left eye, like her left front limb, had been an intentional replacement; Rainbow actually had her left eye preserved in a jar somewhere in her home in case she ever wanted it back. She brought it out sometimes when she wanted to shock someone. Her muscular enhancements and dermal reinforcement, on the other hoof, weren’t visible at all unless one had specialized sensors or particular spells. Twilight could see light reflecting off of the neural interface link half-concealed in the Warden’s multicolored mane just behind her left ear that let the Warden commander interface with most arcanotechnological devices. Rainbow had been one of the first ponies to receive an interface implant, and this was probably the newest model; she liked to upgrade as soon as stable new versions were available.

It didn’t look like she’d added any more since Twilight had last seen her, but the unicorn knew her friend had been deeply impressed with some of the newer low-profile enhancements that had been coming out of the Bureau lately, so the lack of obvious new cybernetics didn’t necessarily mean much. Rainbow had definitely modified her forelegs in the last year or so, probably adding newly miniaturized disruption field generators to the bladed talons stored inside. Twilight thought she saw some extra circuitry in the pegasus’s eyes as well, but she wasn’t certain. The only parts of Rainbow she was sure weren’t cybernetic were her wings; the Bureau hadn’t yet produced anything that could match the strength, toughness, and light weight of pegasus wings, and the unicorn knew her friend would never settle for something less effective than what she already had.

Rainbow met Twilight’s eyes, and gave a nod of greeting. She glanced back over her shoulder at where Twilight’s secretary was still standing by the open door. “Thanks, Numbers, but I gotta talk to your boss in private. Scoot.” She made a slight shooing motion with one hoof.

Numbers raised an eyebrow at the curt dismissal, and looked to Twilight. The unicorn nodded, confirming her friend’s request; they needed to talk, and as a rule Rainbow was much easier to talk to with nopony else around. The elegant gray-coated stallion bowed and left the room, the door closing softly behind him. Rainbow watched the door for a moment after it closed, then smoothly moved to hop up into the spare chair in Twilight’s office.

Twilight smiled warmly at her friend. Best to start the meeting off amicably, if she could. “Good afternoon, Rainbow. How have you been?”

Rainbow’s wings flipped up and settled, a pegasus shrug. “Eh, not terrible. Had to deal with a big ol’ pack of timber wolves trying to get into Ponyville the other day. Didn’t lose any Wardens or any townsponies, so a pretty good day”

Twilight snorted. “Ponyville? Really?”

“Yeah.” Rainbow smiled absently. “Been a while since I visited there. Like, twenty years, I think?” She shrugged again. “We can usually spot and stop stuff coming out of the Everfree before they get that far, but those timber wolves look enough like trees that they snuck past our detector nets and we really had to scramble to get there in time.” The pegasus snorted. “You know Carousel Boutique’s still there? I mean, it’s a Rarity’s now, but the building’s still there.”

“Yes, I did know that, actually.” Twilight smiled, remembering. “Rarity feels nostalgic about her first location, so she maintains that branch there even though the town’s bought about all it’s going to.”

“Speaking of, how long have you had that Rarity’s just outside your HQ? That wasn’t there last time I was here.”

“Really?” Twilight tried to think back to the last time Rainbow visited her here at her office. “That one’s been here… it has to be twenty-five, thirty years now.” Rarity’s had at least one branch in every large city, (most had several) and most of the smaller cities and towns hosted a Rarity’s as well. Nearly everypony owned at least one of its products, whether one of the off-the-shelf units or a custom-ordered and special-designed model. Rarity encouraged her customers to take the latter option; “Everypony’s got different needs,” as her slogan went, “Tell us yours!”

“Man, really?” The pegasus shook her head. “I gotta remember to visit you more.” She glanced over her shoulder at the closed door. “Especially since your new secretary’s cute. He available?”

Rainbow!” Twilight scolded, “He’s a quarter your age!”

Rainbow let out a dirty snicker. “Yeah. All the hot ones are. The ones my age are all either nasty and old or dead except you and the gang, and I’m still not into fillies.” Rainbow’s look turned a little wistful. “Hey, Twilight… are we gonna stay like this forever?”

This certainly wasn’t the direction Twilight had expected this conversation to go, but she had plenty of time allotted for this meeting, so she was willing to go along with her friend. It had been far too long since they’d just sat and talked, anyway. “Possibly. I talked to Celestia about it when I realized we weren’t aging the way we should be, and she said it was similar back when she and Luna first bonded to the Elements, along with their four friends. Back then, though, the Elements made all six of them larger almost immediately, which obviously hasn’t happened to us, but the bonding does seem to have stopped our aging much like it did with the Princesses.”

Rainbow’s mouth twisted. “Does that mean I’m gonna grow a horn and get all big? Man, I hope not, that’d kill my airborne agility, and I don’t have the time to learn magic.”

“I don’t know, Rainbow.” It bothered Twilight how little she knew about the Elements and their effects. “When Celestia and her friends found the Elements and used them to fight Discord, the previous holders had been dead for a long, long time, and nopony really knows what happened to them. It’s hard to tell what they normally do to their holders.”

“Hey, wait, the Princesses had friends that held the Elements? What happened to them, anyway?” Rainbow asked. “I’ve never heard of them before.”

“Yes, there were six of them, just like us. Celestia was Magic, and Luna was Kindness. As to what happened to the others… they died.” Twilight’s voice was quiet. “They’re immortal, but not indestructible. They died in battles, accidents, one died of disease. They've been mostly kept out of the histories by the Princesses’ request, because Luna and Celestia don't like to remember their loss.”

Rainbow glanced down at her cybernetic forelegs, blinking her artificial eyes. “Heh. Well, I guess I know which of us is gonna eat it first, huh?” She laughed, grimly. “Heck, if it hadn’t been for some of Duran’s medical gadgets, I’d probably be dead already. That dragon got me pretty good.” She gave a wintery smile. “’Course, my Wardens got him even better, afterward. They were ticked.”

“From what I read in the reports, you could have avoided those injuries.”

The pegasus snorted. “Yeah, save my hide and lose three of my ponies. It was either take that hit myself or let the dragon get ‘em, and that’s not really a choice, is it? Not like I actually died. ‘Sides, it made ‘em fight harder when they thought their boss had just gotten gacked.”

“I suppose that isn’t really a choice, then.” Twilight cocked her head. Rainbow was clearly feeling talkative, and she might as well take advantage of it before getting down to business. “Rainbow, I’ve been meaning to ask… you replaced your left foreleg, why haven’t you done the same for your hind leg? I know it has to affect your balance.”

Rainbow Dash glanced back briefly at her only remaining natural leg. “Maybe I like being lopsided,” she answered with a crooked grin. “Keeps me paying attention, you know?” Twilight gave the Warden commander a level look, and the pegasus laughed. “Hey, it’s not like I’m still in the Wonderbolts or anything, I don’t need to worry about flashy precision stuff, I’m more than good enough to compensate in an actual fight, and the pseudo-myomer muscle boosters make that leg almost as strong as the fake ones anyway.”

“I’m serious, Rainbow.” Twilight didn’t want the conversation to linger on the pegasus’s short stint in the prestigious flying group. Even after all this time, it was still something of a sore point with her that she’d resigned in order to protect the group from the bad press her membership was bringing. “That can’t be the real reason, can it?”

Rainbow sobered, chewing her lip and glancing around the office. Her ears were turned back in tension, and she was silent for a long time. “You don’t have recorders or anything in here, do you?” She finally asked, and Twilight shook her head, puzzled. Rainbow sighed. Some of the cockiness fell away, making the other mare look about ten years older. “Okay, listen, I’ll tell you the real reason, but you gotta promise not to tell anyone else. Seriously.”

“I promise, Rainbow Dash.” Now Twilight was really curious.

Rainbow searched Twilight’s face closely, intently, and then heaved another sigh, closing her eyes for a moment. “Okay, I'll trust you.” She opened them again and regarded Twilight levelly. “Do you know what it’s like to lose a cutie mark?”

“Lose a…” Twilight repeated, her gaze darting to Rainbow’s right hip, where her cloud and prismatic lightning bolt were displayed boldly on the metal surface. She’d never really thought about that. Rainbow had come out of the hospital with her artificial legs already the same color as her coat, sporting a replica of her cutie mark right where it should be. It hadn’t really registered with Twilight that the pegasus had lost her natural cutie mark.

“Yeah, lose a cutie mark.” Rainbow interrupted, noticing Twilight’s glance. She twitched her head toward her artificial rear limb. “That one’s painted on, but it’s not the same. They had to take that whole leg off when my troops finally got me to the hospital. I mean, it was mangled, I saw the pictures. I was darn lucky not to lose the wing on that side; the hit went low, just got my face and my legs. The doctors had to cut what was left of my leg off to bond the cybernetic one to my hip joint, and when I woke up it felt like… like a piece of my soul had been ripped away.” She bowed her head, the fiery colors of her forelock hiding her eyes momentarily. Twilight could see the pegasus's ears laid back flat, telling the unicorn how upset her fried was even though her face wasn't showing it. “I know, all the doctors say it’s psychowhatsis, but it sure didn’t feel like it was just in my head.”

“Psychosomatic,” Twilight corrected absently.

“Whatever.” Rainbow shrugged, looking off to the side. “I know the ponies in the press like saying that my augments are stealing my soul, making me ‘more machine than pony’ and all that garbage, but that was the only time I felt like they might be right. The muscle boosters, the dermal armor, the interface unit, even the eyes, those feel fine, but that leg…” She shook her head, then looked up again to meet Twilight’s eyes. “And seriously don’t tell anypony this part, but I cried for hours when I finally went home. I felt like half a pony, but I couldn’t let anyone think the Warden Commander has feelings. Part of my mystique, ya know? Mare of Steel, even though that nickname came before the metal bits. So I held it all in, made jokes about them having to buy a new Commander from Rarity’s when this one broke, stuff like that all through the therapy they made me do to get used to the new legs. And the eye, that was harder. Then I finally got home, got rid of everypony, locked the door, and just curled up on the floor and cried. Felt like I was never gonna stop.” Rainbow sniffed and cleared her throat, then glanced down at her natural hip again. “I’m scared of what might happen if I lose the other one. There might not be any Rainbow Dash left, just the Warden Commander.” She blinked. “And why the heck am I even telling you this? Dude, I’m sorry, I came here for a meeting, not to whine at you.”

“Don’t apologize, Rainbow Dash!” Twilight exclaimed. The mental image of her friend curled up alone on the floor sobbing was like a spike in her heart. “Why in the world haven’t you talked to me about this before? Have you talked to anyone about this?” The unicorn tried to remember the last time she’d even seen Rainbow cry. The only time that was coming to mind was almost eight decades ago, just after Duran had died. Rainbow had clearly been stricken; she’d been closer to the big alien than anypony else had been, but she’d been stone-faced and unresponsive during the public funeral, and had been very quiet while they’d started going through his home, deciding what should be done with his possessions. They’d finally wound up in his bedroom, and tears had welled in Rainbow's eyes when she’d seen the picture on his nightstand.

It had been a low-quality old photo, taken shortly after Rainbow, Twilight, and Duran had returned from their involuntary exile to the world they knew as Hell’s Reach. Just before the welcome-back party Pinkie had thrown for her friends, the three had posed for a photo, with Duran in the middle, Rainbow on his right, and Twilight on his left, his long arms hugging the two ponies’ necks. All three of them were grinning, delighted and relieved that their ordeal was finally over, none of them realizing then the knife edge that the human had been balanced upon. Twilight had barely even thought about it at the time, and had forgotten the photo completely until that day, when she’d seen it on that little nightstand. It was turned toward the bed, where she knew the crippled engineer would have seen it every morning. There’d been a small, folded piece of paper tucked under the frame.

The tears had started gathering when Rainbow had seen that picture, and she’d reached out and taken the paper, setting it on the floor and carefully unfolding it with suddenly unsteady hooves. She’d looked at the short message for only a moment before sitting down hard, tears spilling down her cheeks. Twilight had gently lifted the note from the floor, holding it telekinetically in front of her. She still remembered the short letter word-for-word.

My Friends,

If you are reading this, I am likely gone. (If I’m not, then why are you going through my house? Go home!) I don’t know if I’ve ever told you the depth of gratitude I feel toward you for rescuing me from the terrible place that was my prison for so long. I’d always intended to sit down and tell you, but somehow something else always comes up, and I never seem to get around to saying it. So here it is. Remembering what the two of you have done for me is what gives me the strength to haul myself out of this bed every morning, the determination to make this crippled, useless body contribute something, and the courage to keep going when I don’t think I can anymore.

From my heart, from my soul,

Thank you. Both of you.

D.

Twilight had felt tears welling in her own eyes, reading that note, but she’d known that it must have been harder for Rainbow. Twilight and Duran had been friends, but he and Rainbow had been even closer, so close that there’d been widespread (untrue) rumors that they’d been lovers. He’d been the one she’d gone to talk to when the news outlets had started their horribly negative reports on her nascent Border Wardens and when she’d had that huge fight with Fluttershy, one of her oldest friends. He’d been the first one she’d told when she’d been accepted into the Wonderbolts, and the first one to know that she was quitting in order to protect the team’s reputation when the news reports had started to paint the stunt team as sharing the responsibility for the deaths of various creatures at the hooves of the Wardens by allowing the Warden Commander to fly with them. His death, expected though it was, had hit Rainbow harder than anyone else, but she’d refused to show any sign of it until she’d read that note.

Once she’d read it, she hadn’t been able to maintain her façade any longer. She’d tried to stumble from the room, to find someplace where no one could see her, but she’d been blinded by tears and had blundered into the wall. The dam had cracked, and the sobs had started, hard, wracking, agonized things that shook the athlete’s slender frame. Twilight had started to move toward her friend, but the grief had gripped her as well, and she’d sat down and started crying herself. Fluttershy, hearing them from the next room over, had come running, folding Rainbow into a close embrace and holding her while the younger pegasus sobbed and shook. Rarity had been moments behind her, hastening to hug Twilight, and Pinkie and Applejack had been right on Rarity’s heels, pulling Rainbow and Twilight closer to one another so they could form a group hug.

That had been the last time Twilight ever saw Rainbow Dash cry. Afterward, she’d wholeheartedly embraced her “Warden Commander” persona, wrapping herself in the image of the tough-as-nails leader of the toughest ponies in Equestria, sworn to defend the Principality from monsters and any other enemies that might threaten. She’d privately confessed her doubts and fears to Twilight occasionally, and to Applejack, her co-commander, far more often, but in public she never wavered, never hesitated. The “Mare of Steel” moniker had been well-earned.

Twilight shook herself, dragging her mind out of her memories to focus on Rainbow’s reply. “Who would I talk to, Twilight? Applejack has her own worries about her grandkids, you and Pinkie are busy most of the time, Rarity and I have never really gotten along all that well, and Fluttershy’s back to not talking to me again after we had to burn out that basilisk nest last year. And it’s not like I’m gonna go whine to Celestia and Luna! All that leaves is a counselor, but with the stuff the reporters have been saying about me and the Wardens, I can’t risk them finding out I’m seeing a counselor! It’d be all over the netlines, ‘Mare of Steel starting to rust!’ ‘Is guilt too much for the Wardens’ leader?’ Stuff like that, you know it would, and I’m not gonna let my problems hurt the Wardens, especially not now!”

“Rainbow Dash… I’m so sorry.” Twilight felt like a spike was twisting in her heart. “I didn’t realize… I should have made more time for us to talk a long time ago…”

“Aw, don’t apologize, Twilight.” Rainbow interrupted. “It’s not your fault. Heck, if you didn’t notice, that means I was doing a good job of keeping it to myself! Don’t worry, I’m handling it.”

“Yes, but…” Twilight couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d failed her friend, and badly.

Rainbow interrupted again. “Twilight, drop it, okay? Before I start regretting I said anything.” She tossed her head, signaling a topic change, and the cocky personality was suddenly back in force. “Listen, I know this meeting is supposed to be about the Dauntless, so let’s talk about that. Did you need an update or anything?”

“Er… yes.” Twilight struggled to shift mental gears. “Why don’t you give me a progress report on your preparations?”

The cybernetic pegasus nodded, back to the way she acted in public. There was no sign of the brief glimpse she’d offered Twilight of what went on behind the mask she wore. Twilight went along with it, but she surreptitiously pinged her terminal with a note to herself; she needed to sit down with Rainbow Dash in private and have a long talk. Oblivious to Twilight’s thoughts, Rainbow was starting her report, albeit in her own informal style. “Okay. Well, you met with A.J. the other day, so she probably told you the Falcons wouldn’t be ready by the departure date. Dumb things are having all kinds of problems.” Twilight nodded sympathetically. The heavy skimmer tanks would have been really nice to have, but the combined BoT and Warden development team had run into several technological problems that would probably take years to solve, and the Dauntless would be ready to leave in a month or so. “The Scorpions are fine, so we'll have light armor, but no heavies. The bad news she didn’t tell you, ‘cause it hadn’t happened yet, is that there’s a problem with the Thunderbirds. We thought they’d be good to go, but one of ‘em crashed during training ops on one of the outsystem moons. Turns out they’ve got a big problem with non-Equestrian magnetic fields, or maybe some kind of arcane interference. We’re talking a fatal problem, here, so they’re not gonna be coming along.”

“Are you serious?” Twilight was aghast. The Thunderbirds were the armed shuttles that she’d planned on using as the primary method of transport from the Dauntless to any planetary surface, as the starship was far too big to land. If they weren’t available…

“Yup. Dead serious. One of my best pilots was on that ship, and if she couldn’t save it, nopony could, so the T-Birds are out.” Rainbow looked haunted for the space of an eyeblink, which almost certainly meant that the test pilot hadn’t survived the accident. “The good news is that the Kestrels’ll fit in the spaces we had planned for the Thunderbirds, barely, and the new upgrade package went smoother than we thought. The new-run Kestrels are actually better armored than the T-Birds, and they’re rugged as all get out, so we will have landers, they’ll just be a little undergunned.” Twilight breathed a sigh of relief, and the Commander grinned at her. “Yeah, I had some anxious moments there too, believe me.” Rainbow looked distant for a moment, probably accessing a file through her interface implant. “Hmm, what else… oh! Yeah, I got like a hundred times as many volunteers as I needed for the mission, so I get to pick and choose. From the whole Warden Corps, actually, everypony volunteered, down to the kids still in training.” Rainbow beamed with pride. “I’m stealing the gunnery crews from Thunder and Lightning both, so you’ll have weapons officers who’ve seen action already. Lightning's pilot was already slated for Dauntless, she's one of the best I've ever seen, so you've got a pilot with combat experience, too. Five Scorpions, plus a full platoon of battle armor, all vets. You’ll have about seventy combat Wardens total in the ground force, which I think was the max we could bring. Plus the shuttle pilots, of course. Eight of the troopers are dual-spec, they’ll be backup vehicle crews if they’re needed.”

Twilight nodded. That was both good and bad, for reasons that she’d cover in a moment. That issue was one she didn’t want to raise yet, so instead she asked, “Have you had any new developments about the Interloper?” The strange ship’s intrusion had been the catalyst for finally getting Dauntless built, after she’d been nothing more than theory and wishful thinking for more than twenty years. It had been almost a year now since the Interloper's attack, and everyone in Equestria had been watching the skies anxiously, waiting for it to return with its friends. It hadn't, yet, but that only lent urgency to the Dauntless mission. They had to find out where it had come from.

“Yeah, actually. Um…” Rainbow stared off into the distance for a moment. “I just realized I haven’t really told you any of the stuff we learned from that yet. Did Applejack mention it when she talked to you?”

Twilight shook her head. “No, she said since it was an active operation it was really your domain. We mostly talked about supplies and logistics for the mission, Warden maintenance requirements, things like that.”

Rainbow chuckled, shaking her head. “Good old A.J. The Wardens would have fallen apart without her, and I’m grateful every single day that she pitched in to help me out way back when, but good Celestia can she be boring sometimes.” She looked up with a grin. “Okay, I’ll be short ‘cause I know I’m taking longer than I should.” She actually wasn’t, Twilight had set aside quite a bit of time for this meeting, but she didn’t interrupt. “First off, they were doing tricks with their sensors and what we’re assuming are communications thingies that never occurred to us, using ‘em to spoof some of our sensors and stuff. The EM sensors, mostly, they didn't touch the thaumics or aetherics for some reason. We should have thought of those tricks, it’s a great idea and not actually that hard to do, but we never did. A.J.'s science teams are still analyzing it, working out how they were doing it, how we can do it, and how we can work through it, and we’ll probably have a few extra gadgets to stick on the Dauntless in a couple of weeks. The Library Core was a big help, actually, there’s a ton of data on stuff like this, under ‘Electronic Warfare,’ but we never thought to look for it. The new tech may cut down Dauntless’s cargo capacity, but we’ll need that extra gear if we run into whoever sent the Interloper. I had one of my tech-heads check her power distribution before I came down here, and she should have plenty of spare power for our new stuff.”

Twilight winced, but nodded. Huge as it was, the exploration cruiser was getting uncomfortably short on space, but they could make room for whatever it was the Wardens were developing. She contacted her terminal with a thought, horn glowing softly as she sent a message to the shipyard to speak to the Wardens’ engineers. Rainbow waited for the horn-glow that indicated an active thought-connection to fade before continuing, “What else… Oh yeah, we've been running projections on that ship, trying to get a feel for what it could do and what it couldn’t, and what we think the people who built it could and couldn’t do. We had to make a bunch of assumptions, ‘cause it pretty definitely didn’t work like our stuff does; it looked like it was closer to Library Core tech than Duran’s Tethinar stuff, and pretty far from the hybrid stuff we’ve been building. We think it was optimized as a stealth ship, and that’s why it was hitting so far below what it should’ve been capable of, big as it was, but that’s totally a guess. It would’ve stomped a ship built with Library Core tech flat, it could do a ton of stuff the NAIS couldn’t, but we think it was somewhere underneath what a warship should’ve been able to do. Current best guess is that its stealth gear was eating into its available space, and that’s why the Thunder and Lightning were able to kick it around the way they did. They really beat the snot out of it, we found pieces of hull plating, vented atmosphere, even bio traces that were probably crew before they got, y’know, vaporized. I’m a little surprised it was able to get out at all with the pounding it took; whatever stardrive they use might be smaller than ours, or maaaaybe more redundant. My ships got at least eight beam hits in, and five or six missiles, but the beams didn’t do the kerplode thing ‘cause they kept screwing with our rangefinders.”

Twilight facehoofed. “It’s called an induced aetheric cascade, Rainbow Dash.”

The cyberpegasus rolled her eyes. “Whatever. ‘Kerplode’ has way less syllables and it’s way more descriptive.” Twilight reflected despairingly that if the Warden Commander was calling an induced aetheric cascade ‘that kerplode thing’ then everypony was going to be calling it that, and braced herself in anticipation of many future headaches. “We gave the stuff we were able to recover to one of your tech teams, but I don’t think they’ve learned anything earthshaking yet. I’ll make sure to forward you a full report later.”

Twilight nodded absently, and then bit her lip. Hesitantly, she asked, “Rainbow… I have to ask you this officially because reporters have been asking me every day or so since it happened, but… did your ships fire first?”

Rainbow Dash shook her head firmly. “No. They didn’t. They sent an analog signal telling that ship to stop, that they were in Equestrian space, and the ship just started shooting. Thunder and Lightning didn’t respond until they fired the third salvo, in case the first two had been a mistake. That’s not what they were supposed to do, by the way. My protocol was to return fire immediately. I had a chat with Silver Stars about it, pretty much scared her tail off right before I offered her the captain’s seat on Dauntless.” The pegasus cocked her head. “Want me to send you Thunder and Lightning’s sensor and comm logs?”

“Yes, please, if you wouldn’t mind.” Twilight was relieved by the offer. The Wardens were notoriously reluctant to relinquish things like that; they'd had some bad experiences with the press in the past, and tended to drag their heels about giving anything to the reporters, even things that would paint them in a better light. “I could have Pinkie give them to the reporters and finally shut them up about you starting a war.”

Rainbow nodded curtly and stared off into space for a moment while Twilight felt a faint arcane emanation coming from the pegasus’s interface implant. “Done. They’ll be on your desk in an hour. The original boxes, not copies; there’s a shuttle bringing them down from the orbital station.”

“Thank you, Rainbow.” Twilight smiled. Rainbow was being much more accommodating than the unicorn had expected, but she really didn’t expect that attitude to continue past Twilight’s next request. Twilight drew a deep breath, bracing herself. “We’ve got something else to talk about, Rainbow Dash. I want to give Fluttershy release authority over the Warden detachment.”

“Nope.” The refusal was instant and flat, and the lack of hesitation or surprise suggested that Rainbow had expected it. “No way, no how. Fluttershy isn’t getting authority over my troops.”

“Rainbow…” Despite herself, Twilight felt irritation creeping into her voice. “This is going to be a diplomatic and exploration mission first and foremost, not a war expedition. You are not in charge, I am, and the diplomatic team has priority.”

Rainbow shrugged. “I know. A.J. and I are temporarily resigning our positions as Commanders so you can use the title. We’ll both be using the rank of lieutenant until we get home. But I’m not putting my ponies under Fluttershy.”

Twilight gritted her teeth. She’d been ready for a shouting match, an argument, not this stubborn, stolid refusal. Rainbow had been hanging around Applejack too much. “The diplomatic team has priority, and since Fluttershy’s in charge of that team it means that she outranks you.”

Another shrug. “I don’t care. Give Rarity the release authority then, she’s on the diplomatic team too.”

Twilight stared at her friend for a pair of silent heartbeats. “Rainbow, don’t you trust Fluttershy? I know you two have disagreed a lot, but you’re still friends… aren’t you?”

Rainbow started to reply heatedly, “I didn’t…!” But she paused, took a deep breath, and visibly forced herself to calm down. Definitely Applejack’s influence, Twilight thought. “I didn’t start this fight, Twilight.” Rainbow continued, in a calm voice. “I love Fluttershy as a friend, we’ve been friends most of our lives, but as a commander? No, not gonna happen. She doesn’t trust me anymore and she doesn’t like my Wardens. I get why, but that doesn’t change anything. If she has the authority to tell us when to act and when not to, she will never let us act, and that could get ponies killed.”

“And if I told you that you had to accept Fluttershy’s orders?”

Rainbow met Twilight’s eyes, a challenging look on her face. “Speaking hypothetically, I might just withdraw active Warden support for the Dauntless mission. You’d have no gunners, no security, and no lander pilots, plus no experienced pilots or ship crew, and you’d be up a jetstream without a feather if you got in a fight.”

Twilight’s gaze hardened. “And if I order you to do it?”

Rainbow’s brow furrowed in puzzlement, then her expression turned stricken. “Wait… you’re serious here? You’re not just getting my objections so you’d have reasons to change it?” Twilight stared silently at Rainbow Dash, not answering, and the pegasus’s stricken expression started to turn a little sick, her ears laying back flat. “Twilight… please, please don’t do this to me. You’re not in the Warden chain of command; we’re officially sworn to the Princesses, not to you, and you can’t order us to accept this. But… I mean, unofficially, you’re my friend, and I’d do anything for you. If Fluttershy’s holding our leash, ponies are going to die, b-but I don’t want to abandon the mission and leave my friends out in the cold! Please, don’t make me choose between my friends and my duty. Please.”

Twilight thought hard. She wondered who had told Rainbow about the possible command arrangement, and who had led the pegasus to believe that Twilight was on her side on the issue. This was a hard decision; Fluttershy hadn’t wanted the Wardens on the mission at all, and the only way Twilight had managed to mollify her was by promising that she would be able to keep the Warden ponies under control. Now Rainbow was saying that she would essentially fulfill Fluttershy’s original request anyway if Twilight went along with the compromise. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been upsetting both pegasi so badly, and if it hadn’t been so toxic to the mission, and Twilight knew darn well that they’d probably need the Wardens with whoever sent the Interloper hanging around out there somewhere. She rubbed her forehead with a forehoof, thinking, trying not to meet Rainbow’s pleading gaze. Finally, she sighed and looked up. “Rainbow, I need to call Fluttershy. I only got her to agree to support the Dauntless mission by promising her veto authority over Warden operations, and we need her, she’s the best diplomat in Equestria.”

Rainbow looked shocked and hurt by the statement. “R-really?” she said in a small voice. “You gave Fluttershy a choke-chain on my ponies without even talking to me about it?” Twilight had to steel herself against the hurt betrayal in the multicolored cyberpegasus’s voice. It was even harder knowing that she deserved it; she should have talked to Rainbow before making that promise. Wow, I really screwed up here, didn’t I? This was going to have to go on the list.

“I only talked to Fluttershy yesterday, Rainbow. I knew I’d be talking to you today, and I was planning to bring this up from the beginning. I didn’t realize you’d object so strongly.” Rainbow’s head drooped, her cockiness completely vanishing again, and Twilight hurried to reassure the other mare. “Listen, I’m going to call Fluttershy right now, with you listening. You said you’d accept Rarity’s authority?”

“Yeah,” Rainbow said, quietly, not looking up. It hurt Twilight’s heart to see her friend like this, but she wouldn’t be pushed into another hasty decision.

Twilight nodded even though she knew Rainbow wasn’t looking at her, and turned to her terminal. A thought-prompt and it winked to life, another and it established a connection with Fluttershy’s office. The screen displayed CONNECTING, PLEASE HOLD in blinking letters, then cleared to reveal Fluttershy’s large teal eyes looking into the screen.

“Oh, hello, Twilight,” Fluttershy’s quiet voice came from the terminal speakers. “Can I help you? Did you need another meeting?”

The years hadn’t changed Fluttershy in the same physical way they’d changed Rainbow Dash, but her personality had undergone a metamorphosis. She was still soft-spoken and kind, but the shyness had vanished. A quiet, hard confidence had finally grown inside the butter-yellow mare, a strength that had rarely expressed itself before. It was sometimes hard to reconcile the soft strength of the modern Fluttershy with the shrinking violet she’d been in her youth, but Twilight had always been glad for the change. That gentle strength was what had made her the best diplomat in Equestria, brokering the unification with the Zebra lands without ever raising her voice, and forging enduring ties with the buffalo tribes and griffon clans that still held strong to this day.

“No meeting, Fluttershy. I just need to modify some of the Dauntless mission parameters. Do you have a moment?”

“Oh… certainly, Twilight.” Fluttershy gave her a gentle smile. “One moment, please.” Fluttershy moved away from the terminal, and Twilight heard her soft voice speaking in one of the griffon dialects. A much harsher voice replied in the same language, then Twilight heard a door open and close. Fluttershy returned to her desk with a softly amused smile. “Oh, my. It may take a very expensive lunch to calm him down again. What did you need, Twilight?”

“This probably won’t make you happy, but I need to modify our agreement concerning command of the Wardens.” Twilight winced inside. She hated upsetting Fluttershy.

“W-we do? How? I thought we’d worked out an agreeable compromise; I don’t want command over them, I just want to be able to tell them when not to start killing everything in sight.” The yellow pegasus’s voice was quietly upset.

“Yes, well, Rainbow Dash doesn’t think that’s a very good idea…” Twilight began.

Fluttershy interrupted her. “Really? Rainbow Dash doesn’t think so?” The diplomat’s tone hardened just a trifle. “Is she there? Can I speak to her?”

“This isn’t Rainbow asking you, Fluttershy, it’s me.” Twilight’s own voice hardened now, too. “I’m not giving them free reign. Would you agree to Rarity having release authority?”

“I told you yesterday, Twilight, all I want is to keep Rainbow’s hotheadedness from sabotaging peaceful contact! I just don’t want them opening fire on another alien ship before I get a chance to speak to them…” Fluttershy temporized, and this time it was Twilight’s turn to interrupt.

“And I told you yesterday, Fluttershy, the Wardens didn’t start that fight. Rainbow’s having the ships’ recorders sent to me in just a little while; I’d be glad to share them with you to prove it.” In Twilight’s peripheral vision, Rainbow Dash’s head jerked up in surprise. Had she not expected Twilight to have defended her?

“So they say,” Fluttershy said, the faintest hint of doubt in her voice. “They said those basilisk pups were attacking them, too, and I know perfectly well that they weren't. Basilisks don't get aggressive until their egg tooth falls off.” The pegasus paused, thinking. “Well… Rarity’s going to be my second, isn’t she? Doesn’t that mean they’d be taking their release order from me anyway?”

“It… doesn’t quite work that way,” Twilight pointed out, “You wouldn’t be able to tell them anything directly; they’d have to have the go or hold orders directly from Rarity, on her own initiative if necessary.”

Fluttershy’s wings twitched in a shrug. “I… suppose that will do. I’d be happier not having Rainbow’s thugs along at all, but I know you think we might need them, and I suppose this arrangement will do. Oh, please make sure you tell Rarity that she’s going to have additional duties; she’s going to be very busy between this, being on the diplomatic team with me, and keeping the ship’s robots running. I hope it’s not too much for her.” Rainbow Dash visibly bristled at Fluttershy’s dismissive tone when referring to the Wardens, but the aggressive pegasus stayed quiet.

“Rarity loves being busy, but I’ll tell her as soon as I disconnect here.” Twilight said reassuringly.

“All right. Did you need anything else?” At Twilight’s headshake, Fluttershy smiled gently. “Thank you, then, and if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got an offended griffon ambassador with a very large appetite who I need to treat to lunch. I’ll talk to you later.” Twilight nodded, and the screen flashed DISCONNECTED.

The unicorn turned to Rainbow. “Is that all right?”

Rainbow nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah, I can work with Rarity. She won’t be afraid to let us do our jobs if we need to.” The pegasus paused, relaxing a bit. “And Twilight… thanks. For standing up for my ponies.”

“Of course, Rainbow. I only told the truth.”

“Yeah, but sometimes ponies don’t like to listen to the truth.” Rainbow smiled, a wistful edge to the expression. “I… I miss my friends, sometimes, y’know? I miss how it used to be, back in Ponyville before we got all important and busy. It’ll be nice to have all of us on the same ship, even if we are still gonna be busy. You gonna call Rarity now?”

Twilight nodded. “Yes, I need to let her know she’ll have additional responsibilities.”

“’Kay. I’ll get out of your hair, then; got more stuff to do to get ready for launch.” The cyberpegasus flashed a quick grin. “And tell her the AR-39’s are working out great. They’re way too flashy, but with those new mirage systems no one will see them anyway until they’ve already been fragged.”

“I’ll tell her,” Twilight promised. Rainbow hopped out of the chair and prowled out of the office, looking happier than she had when she’d come in. Twilight was pleased, and resolved to make more time to talk to the Warden during the voyage. They’d have plenty of time.

The unicorn commanded her terminal to call Rarity’s headquarters. She had a high-priority line, and her call went straight to Rarity’s assistant. “Rarity's Robotics, Rarity’s office,” answered a stallion even more ornamental than Twilight’s own secretary. “Ah, Director Sparkle. I assume you’re wanting to talk to Rarity?”

“I am indeed, Diamond. Is she busy?”

The red-coated earth pony stallion glanced back over his shoulder, then returned his gaze to the monitor with a smile. “She is a bit, but she’s about ready to take a break. If you can wait just a moment, she’ll be right with you.”

“Of course, I’ll hold.” She bowed her head in thanks, and Diamond Glitter smiled at her graciously. Good heavens, he’s a pretty one, she thought to herself, knowing she was echoing Rainbow Dash from earlier. Stop it, Twilight, his herd’s full and you know it. Still, she enjoyed chatting idly with the stallion for the minute or so that it took Rarity to tear herself away from whatever she was doing. He was intelligent, quick-witted, and quite funny; she could see why Rarity kept him around. Not that she’d trade Ordered Numbers for anything, and Numbers was even smarter than this gorgeous stallion, though he could be a bit dour at times.

Finally, Diamond Glitter looked up and away from the pickup, nodded, and looked back to Twilight. “Rarity’s ready for you now. Shall I transfer the call?”

Twilight nodded. “Yes, please. And thank you Diamond, a pleasure as always.” Diamond inclined his head graciously, and the view flipped from him to another office. Rarity’s bright blue eyes were inquisitive, and Twilight could see the delicate threads of wire trailing from where they rested against her horn down the side of her face, to where Twilight knew a set of small, dexterous waldo arms would be folded against the elegant unicorn’s neck. She must have been in the middle of a project.

“Twilight! Darling! I wasn’t expecting your call! Is something wrong?”

“No, nothing wrong. Well, maybe, it depends on how busy you think you’ll be on the Dauntless.” Oh, she should have talked to Rarity about this before making that promise to Rainbow and Fluttershy. She hoped with an edge of desperation that the other unicorn wouldn’t be upset.

Rarity raised an elegant eyebrow. “Hm. Well, I had been planning to work on a new fashion line in my spare time. I do miss my hobby! But I have a feeling you have something more important for me to do, darling, so out with it!”

“Well…” The Director of the BoT chewed her lip. “You see, there’s been something of an issue…”

“Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy?” Rarity interrupted archly. At Twilight’s shocked nod, the white-coated unicorn made a noise in the back of her throat. “Hrm. Thought so. Honestly, I do wish those two would get over that silly feud of theirs. Pegasi. Even the quiet ones like to fight.” Rarity shook her head. “What did you need me to do?”

Twilight sighed. “Fluttershy wants the Wardens under the diplomatic team’s command, and Rainbow Dash doesn’t want Fluttershy having veto authority over her soldiers. The best compromise I could find was to give you command over the Wardens.”

Rarity’s eyes widened in surprise, and she spluttered for a moment. “Me? But… I’m not a Warden! I can’t command them, I don’t know the first thing about how they operate! I-I design clothes and build robots!”

“You don’t need to know how they operate, Rarity,” Twilight soothed. “You don’t really have direct command; that’s Rainbow Dash and Applejack’s job. All you’ll need to do is tell them when they can fight and when they can’t. It’s a veto and release authority, that’s all.”

“Oh.” Rarity relaxed. “Well… if that’s all, I suppose I could do that. Rainbow and Applejack know their jobs; I don’t think I’d be comfortable giving them orders, but telling them to go or stop? I think I can handle that.”

“Excellent!” Twilight beamed happily. “Wonderful! Thank you so much!”

“Oh, I’m delighted I could help you, dear!” Rarity glanced at something offscreen. “Honestly, though, I need to have a talk with Fluttershy. This nonsense between her and Rainbow just needs to stop.”

The lavender unicorn chuckled ruefully. “Well, if you can manage that you’ll be doing better than any of the rest of us have. I’ll talk to Rainbow, too, try to work on it from the other direction, for all the good that’ll do.” Rarity let out a silvery laugh of her own. “Oh, and before I forget,” Twilight added, “Rainbow wanted me to tell you the AR-39’s are working out great.”

“Oh, wonderful!” Rarity sighed happily. “You know, the Wardens are so difficult to work with sometimes. There’s no reason a robot can’t be camouflaged and pretty at the same time, but they always insisted on the drabbest, most boring possible appearance. No decoration, no flair. I have you to thank, darling, those mirage generators are just the things I needed to make those combat robots beautiful and still make them hard enough to see that Rainbow Dash and Applejack are happy with them.”

“Rainbow said they were too flashy, but that they’d work.” Twilight said with a slow grin.

Rarity rolled her eyes, clucking her tongue in irritation. “'Too flashy.' Honestly. A few gems and some gilding is hardly flashy. They’re positively mundane! And to think she used to be such a showmare.” The roboticist shook her head. “We should never have let Rainbow and Applejack become such close cohorts. They rub off on each other and make each other worse.”

Twilight snorted. “No kidding.”

“Was there anything else, darling?”

“Oh, since I’ve got you on the line… are there any problems? Is everything going according to schedule?” Twilight knew the question was unnecessary, but she asked anyway. It was the tension talking; trying to get everything ready for the Dauntless launch was wearing on her nerves, and it made the urge to micromanage harder to resist.

Rarity waved a forehoof in breezy assurance. “Oh, no problems at all, darling. The various models of maintenance robots have already been completed and delivered, and the last of the janitorial units will be finished by the end of tomorrow. Such cute little things. They’ll be aboard the next day. The combat drones and technogolems Applejack requested will be done by the end of the week; I’m actually ahead of schedule on those. We’ll be more than ready for the departure date, darling, and my assistants and I will be on board and waiting. Rarity's always delivers!” Rarity’s face scrunched up in an expression of glee. “Oooh, this is so exciting! I’m so looking forward to this trip!”

“Me too, Rarity. To be the first ponies to go to the stars…” Twilight had dreamed of this for years. She could barely believe it was already happening.

Neither unicorn had time for small talk, so they quickly said their farewells and disconnected. Despite all they’d done to get to this point, they still had a lot to do to get ready.