• Published 8th Aug 2012
  • 9,548 Views, 497 Comments

Outside the Reaching Sky - Karazor

Equestria's first interstellar journey

  • ...


Being mentally connected to a datanet while the ship around her went through a Gate transition was possibly the most disorienting thing Twilight Sparkle had ever experienced in her long life.

The sensor readings turned into absolute gibberish for a frozen instant, flooding her mind with noise, light, pressure, and a thousand other conflicting sensations. She felt as though she were simultaneously being compressed into a point and expanding to encompass the stars themselves, simultaneously frozen and burning, feeling like she were both moving at breathtaking speed and standing completely still. Nausea, pain, pleasure, terror, all flooded her mind in painful spikes. Twilight kept an iron hold on herself, fighting to screen out the meaningless noise flooding into her from the network and her confused holodaemon. After that instant, an infinitesimally small stretch of time that seemed to last an unspeakable eternity, the sensor feeds cleared, resolving once again into a starfield with its attendant phenomena: radio waves, heat points, and the occasional cosmic ray, screech of gamma radiation, or flicker of arcane energy.

Twilight fought to keep her equilibrium, feeling several of the bridge crew drop out of the datanet, unable to cope with the wrenching, dizzying moment of the transition. Only one of them signaled their disconnection before severing contact, and she hoped they were okay; that transition had been a lot nastier than she'd expected. The test ship's crew hadn't been hit nearly that hard, reporting only mild dizziness and one case of nausea. Dauntless's more sophisticated sensors were probably the culprit, or possibly the vastly greater distance she'd covered. Possibly a combination of the two. While the sensors reached out, working to resolve their position, Twilight made a note in her personal file: Dial down sensor sensitivity before next jump, to avert possible side effects.

Fortunately, both the sensor operator and the navigator had endured the jump well, and they set to work. They plotted beacon stars, checked the local pulsars, and searched around for the nearest star. Their results showed that the Dauntless had jumped exactly where she was supposed to; five and a half light years from the home system, at the outskirts of another stellar system. A gas giant was nearby, passing slowly in its great, centuries-long orbit of its mother star, haloed by a collection of small, rocky moons. The telescopes had mapped this system with a fair degree of accuracy, and part of their mission here was to double-check those charts and readings.

Twilight assimilated these facts swiftly. They were exactly where they should be, the ship was undamaged and still functioning smoothly apart from the impact on the crew, and there was no immediate threat in view.

:Disengage from immersion, stand down alert status: she sent out, feeling the acknowledgment of everypony else connected to the datanet, and terminated her own connection.

The first thing that Twilight noticed as she roused from her communion with the arcanotechnological interface was the stink of bile pervading the bridge. Somepony had been vomiting, almost certainly one of those who'd been forced to disconnect by the jump shock. She looked around quickly, trying to find the source and see if her help was needed.

Behind her, the senior weapons officer was curled into a ball, shivering. The orange-coated unicorn had her eyes squeezed tightly shut and she was making a low, quiet whining sound in the back of her throat. The assistant gunner was bent over her, talking quietly, stroking the older mare's mane with her forehoof while a disc-shaped janitorial drone worked to clean up the pool of vomit next to her. The damp slurping sound of the janitor drone’s vacuum did absolutely nothing to help Twilight settle her own stomach.

“There, Amber, it's okay,” the pegasus ensign whispered, “Medical's on their way. Just hold on, it'll be all right. You're tough, Amber, just hold on.”

The comms officer was sitting with his head leaning against his panel, breathing heavily but otherwise alright, and the bridge engineer was sitting with her eyes closed, muttering a series of numbers under her breath that Twilight recognized as a Fibonacci sequence.

The assistant gunner looked up as Twilight approached. Her dark blue eyes were a striking contrast to her light grey coat. Her red foreleg band told the unicorn her position, and her rank of Ensign. “Whatever happened when we jumped hit her hard, Ma'am. I was linked to her in the datanet when she dropped; I thought she was dead for a second. Her mind, it just… It broke... I'm sorry I dropped out, but...” The pegasus looked down anxiously at her immediate superior. The older mare hadn't varied the volume or pace of her quiet, animalistic whine, and had showed no response to the gentle touch of the forehoof on her neck. The assistant gunner looked back up, meeting Twilight's eyes anxiously. “I signaled Medical the second I saw her like that, they said they're sending somepony up right away.”

“That was the right thing to do,” Twilight told the young mare. She eyed the pegasus closely. “Are you alright, ensign...?”

“Wingblade, Ma'am. And yes, Ma'am, I'm fine. Like I said, I apologize for dropping out, but Amber needed help bad.”

“Don't apologize, Ensign. The Commander already told you that you did the right thing.” Silver Stars said, stepping up next to Twilight. “The other two are okay, Commander, just some strain. We've got a couple more casualties down in Engineering, including one who looks like he was hit as bad as Amber Mist here. Medical's already scrambling, and we should have a medic here in less than a minute. They were already halfway here; Wingblade was fast.”

“Good work, Wingblade,” Twilight said quietly. “Are you certain you're not hurt?” Being directly linked to somepony who had suffered neural shock could be lethal in and of itself, and this looked like one of the worst cases of neural shock Twilight had ever seen that hadn’t killed its sufferer outright.

Wingblade shook her head once, short, dark grey mane waving in the still air. “No, Commander, I'm not hurt at all. That jump shock and what happened to Amber made my eyes cross for a second, but I'm fine now.”

Twilight tried to contain her surprise. Either the newest generation of interface implants was able to absorb a really preposterous amount of feedback without passing it along to the wearer, or this mare had an amazingly tough mind. She opened her mouth to say more, but was interrupted when the bridge doors whisked open, admitting an earth pony and a unicorn in medical uniform. Wingblade bent down, whispering in Amber Mist's ear. “It's okay now, Amber. Help's here. Hold it together, you'll be okay.” The stricken unicorn's ear didn't even twitch.

The medics hustled up to the gunnery station, politely shouldering Twilight Sparkle and Silver Stars aside. The earth pony set a wire headpiece onto the stricken gunner's brow, adjusting it with a device he wore on his foreleg. The unicorn attached another device to Amber's chest, moving her foreleg out of the way to make room. Amber didn't flinch, didn't respond, didn't anything, just continued to emit a quiet whine.

The earth pony medic bit his lip, studying a projected screen from the headpiece intently. “We need to get her back to Medical, right now,” he said in a quiet, urgent voice. “Blue Rose, I need you to be a stretcher.”

“Got it,” the unicorn mare responded calmly. Her horn glowed, and a gentle force lifted Amber off of the ground. “Lead the way.”

The other medic nodded, then turned and hustled off the bridge, the unicorn following with the stricken gunner suspended in the air between them.

Twilight sighed. Another thing for the list; she should have done more studies about the effects of Gate drive travel on ponies linked to a data net. She hoped poor Amber Mist would recover. The Commander's horn glowed violet as she linked into the network once more for a status report, projecting the information onto a virtual screen that hovered in front of her eyes.

The sensor operator had continued to refine her information, scanning the system carefully. She'd found two small rocky planets close to the star that the Equestrian telescopes had missed. Neither looked like it could support life, which was unsurprising. This star was very small, very cool, and very old. Its planets were mostly ancient, frozen things, and if anything had ever lived here it had died long ago. Still, this was the first star system other than their own that ponykind had ever had a chance to explore, and Twilight meant to make the most of it. They were scheduled to spend at least a full day here looking around, even if the system proved to be as dull and uninteresting as it had looked from back home. Which, at the moment, it looked to be.

Twilight checked the crew status. Eight others besides Amber Mist had been stricken by the jump shock. Six unicorns, one pegasus, and one earth pony, which suggested that the implants didn't offer any particular protection against the phenomenon. The mission commander shook her head. Yes, this mistake was definitely going on the list.

Twilight left the bridge in the capable hooves of Silver Stars, deciding to make a tour of her new ship and get to know it better. It would, after all, be home for the duration of this mission. She went to Medical first; the ponies who’d been injured by her negligence at least deserved her attention.

Three of them were already conscious by the time she arrived, sitting up and blinking owlishly. The other six were still unconscious. The two worst cases, of whom Amber Mist was one, were still making that horrible low keening sound that made Twilight shiver.

The chief medical officer, Doctor Rosethorn, was examining a bank of neural monitors when Twilight entered the facility. The mission commander chose to wait rather than interrupting the doctor's work, standing quietly behind the green-coated earth pony and waiting to be noticed.

Rosethorn finally glanced around, possibly sensing Twilight's presence. “Ah, Commander,” she said, her voice naturally warm and currently a bit distracted, “I'm afraid I'm a bit busy at the moment, but is there something I can help you with?”

“I just wanted to check on the ponies that got hurt in the jump,” Twilight answered quietly. She glanced at the readouts in front of Doctor Rosethorn, but her specialty was magic and arcane science, not biology and medicine, and she didn't have the expertise to decipher the information. “How are they, Doctor?”

“Some of them will be fine,” Rosethorn answered, tossing her head at the three ponies who'd regained consciousness. “Others... may have more lasting damage. The two worst cases in particular I suspect will never fully recover; if they ever wake up, they're likely to have permanent neural damage. One of the hospitals back home might be able to help them, but they've got specialists and equipment that I just don't have here.”

Twilight felt a pang. “Are you telling me we need to take them back to the homeworld?”

Rosethorn bit her lip anxiously. “I’m saying they need help I can’t give them, Commander.”

“Do they need that help immediately? This expedition is supposed to last for several weeks before we head back.”

The doctor paused, thinking. “I… I’m not sure. My instincts are telling me to get them home ASAP, but I don’t think time will make them worse.” She sighed. “I’m sorry, Commander, I know I’m not helping make things clearer. If you want advice, I’d say no, their condition probably won’t deteriorate, but I would like to get them home as quickly as we can.”

“All right. Keep me updated, please; I’ll make a decision when it’s time to jump back out of this system.” Twilight made a note to herself to check back in with Rosethorn before jump. “I also need to know what caused this. None of our studies suggested a Gate jump having an effect like this!”

“We’ve been concentrating on stabilizing and assessing, so I don’t have a good idea as to the cause.” Rosethorn glanced at the banks of monitors in front of her. “Now that the afflicted ponies are out of danger, we’ll run some tests and see if we can figure that out.”

Twilight’s smile was strained, but genuine. “Thank you, Doctor. I really do need to know; I don’t want the crew to be injured or impaired next time we jump.”

“We’ll get right on it,” Rosethorn assured her. Twilight made a quick round of the medical ward, talking to those ponies who were capable of speech and checking on those who were still unconscious, and then removed herself from the medical bay to let the doctors do their jobs unimpeded.

Twilight made a tour of the rest of the ship, trying to familiarize herself with her home for the next few weeks, as well as the ponies whose lives she was responsible for. She knew she wouldn’t be able to see the whole ship, not today, nor meet the entire crew; Dauntless was as large as a small city, and had more than five thousand crew on board. (5,068, to be specific, plus the seventy-two ponies Fluttershy had brought along) It wasn’t many, considering the huge size of the ship, so everypony was quite busy, and Twilight didn’t want to interrupt their jobs. She also tried to drop in on her friends as she passed their areas; Fluttershy was holding an intense-looking conference with her team when Twilight passed, so she decided not to interrupt the kindhearted mare, and Rarity was neck-deep in the guts of some large robot that Twilight hadn’t seen before, so she passed by there as well. Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie were nowhere to be found, likely doing the same thing Twilight was doing and making a tour of the ship.

Applejack, fortunately, was neither deeply absorbed in what she was doing nor hard to find. Twilight found her in one of the Wardens’ equipment storage rooms, supervising several quartermaster's assistants who were putting away some pieces of gear that had been delivered at the last minute.

“Well, howdy, Twilight!” The orange earth pony exclaimed, “Nice of you to drop by!” She sounded like Twilight had just stopped by Sweet Apple Acres for a visit, rather than coming to check up on the Wardens’ preparations. It was weirdly prosaic, especially in the vast, echoing cargo space, surrounded by cranes and glowing forcebeams moving huge pallets of supplies and anonymous chunks of machinery into place in an intricate dance, and Twilight felt a strange pang of nostalgia. “Keep back a second, we’re bringin' Number Twelve through, and she takes up a lot of space!”

Twilight stood to the side as one series of heavy, ringing impacts grew closer, and an enormous metal figure loomed in the doorway next to her. It was quadrupedal, its low-slung boxy body carried by four long, insectile legs, and each foot was nearly as large as Twilight herself. It carried a pair of huge cannons on its upper pair of arms, and the lower pair was adorned with bladed talons that hung down below its torso, almost touching the ground as the giant moved. The whole thing stood nearly five meters tall. Its controller followed just behind it, an earth pony stallion with an interface implant, his face set in a mask of concentration as he carefully helped the monster to guide itself through the tight space.

The Commander's eyebrows climbed. A technogolem! Goodness, they’ve changed.

“Right, stop there for a second, Russet!” Applejack’s shout carried easily over the ringing noise. The looming technogolem halted in place, carefully keeping the talons of its feet retracted so as not to damage the deck. “Heh, you look surprised, Twi. Guess you ain’t seen one a’ the Mark Tens before?” The orange mare walked over to where Twilight stood, relieving the Commander of the need to shout to be heard.

“No, I don’t go by Rarity’s headquarters very often. The last one of these I saw was a Mark Two.” Twilight looked up at the looming figure of the technogolem, now standing perfectly still. “Goodness, I knew Rarity had been building them bigger, but I hadn’t realized quite how… imposing they had gotten. It looks like she’s eliminated the wooden components, as well.” The last technogolem Twilight had seen had had large parts of its body made out of wood or fiber, and had had control cables and motive components dangling from several places. This one, besides being more than twice the size, was all metal as far as she could see, covered by smoothly curving armored plates with almost no gaps. Even the legs looked considerably sturdier. Rarity must hate making these, Twilight thought, studying the smooth, nonreflective metal that covered the golem, which completely and conspicuously lacked any of the ornamentation Rarity loved to build into her domestic robots.

Applejack nodded. “Yep. She’s gotten all the breakable bits behind the armor, too. Don’t rightly know all the specifics, but I guess making the frame all-metal means she could get ‘em bigger, and put some bigger guns on ‘em.” She looked the looming figure over, green eyes shining in pride. “Couple a’ these things, and half of the critters we run in to will just take off runnin’. Even the big ones’ve mostly learned not to mess with these; ‘bout the only thing that can hurt ‘em is a great big hydra, a dragon, or a crystal colossus.” The Warden commander paused. “Well, that or a gemfly swarm; nearly lost one last year when a bunch of bugs got in under the armor and started eating its brain. Had to shut off the poor thing’s shields and hit it with flamethrowers, and Rarity had to just about rebuild ‘er when we got ‘er home. They’re expensive, though, we’ve only got twelve of ‘em, and they’re all coming along on this trip.” Applejack’s expression turned a little sour. “Since the Falcons up and quit on us, we needed something with heavy guns, and the Mark Tens are pretty much all we’ve got that’ll fit what we need. Ordered two more of ‘em from Rarity as it was, and Twelve here had some problems with her crystal matrix or some-such.” Applejack walked up to the silent technogolem and gave it a solid thump with her hoof. The machine didn’t budge at all. “Barely made it onboard before cutoff. We just finished running checks on ‘er, and now we’re putting her with her sisters. Heh, if you ain’t seen one of these before, you oughta see her in combat stance.” She turned to address the stallion standing next to the looming technogolem and raised her voice more than was probably warranted. “Russet! Put Twelve in combat stance!

“Yes, Ma’am, Com… lieutenant!” The golem’s earth pony handler barely kept himself from addressing Applejack as ‘Commander.’ He frowned in momentary concentration. The technogolem shifted stance immediately with a sudden, fluid grace, adjusting its footing with a quick boom boom boom of heavy, metallic impacts, and the cannon-arms lifted and pointed aggressively while the talon-arms spread out, ready to grab and rend. A sharp stink of ozone reached Twilight’s nose, almost making her sneeze, and the blue-white lightning of a disruption field wreathed the monster’s metal claws. There was a subtle tension to the technogolem’s pose, making the thing feel almost alive. Twilight felt a sudden spike of adrenaline, which was amplified by Applejack’s reaction.

Woah, woah woah!” Applejack yelled. “Shut those power claws down, Russet! Shut ‘em down!

“Yes, lieutenant!” The earth pony stallion frowned again, and the diffuse lightning abruptly faded away. “Sorry, ma’am! Twelve shouldn’t have done that, I only told it to shift position.” The stallion’s voice was abashed, and Twilight could see a hint of a flush under his light brown coat.

Applejack snorted. “Better take ‘er back to the test bay, then. Move it, trooper!” The Warden nodded wordlessly, focusing his attention on the technogolem, which shifted back to a more docile pose. Its fluid grace seemed to have vanished, and it turned a bit clumsily to make its way back through the door it had entered by. The golem’s Warden controller followed it closely, watching its feet and legs with an intent expression on his face as he made sure it cleared the door without hitting anything.

Applejack shook her head as she turned back to Twilight, and the unicorn belatedly noticed that her friend had donned a foreleg band in the time since she’d left the bridge. It was bright gold, the color of the command branch, and adorned with the symbol indicating a senior lieutenant. Rainbow Dash had told Twilight that both Warden commanders would both be temporarily stepping down from their ranks during this mission, but it hadn’t really, completely registered with Twilight at the time. The Wardens all knew both Applejack and Rainbow Dash on sight, of course, but it was still a significant gesture from the two Warden leaders to let Twilight be the only pony aboard with the rank of Commander. Some of their own ponies outranked them at the moment, including both Silver Stars and Night Breeze.

“Tarnation,” Applejack said, adjusting her hat. “Sorry ‘bout that. Russet probably just got excited and Twelve picked up on it. He’s usually a lot more level-headed than that or he wouldn’t be a golem controller.” The orange-coated mare blinked, evidently remembering something. “Aw, shucks. That was my fault, Twi, I’m sorry. You’re one a’ Russet’s personal heroes, of course he got excited. I never should’ve had him put Twelve in a combat stance.” That made sense. The technogolems weren’t intelligent, but they did respond to their handlers’ emotions. It took a particular kind of mind to handle a golem; their artificial intelligence needed a very specific kind of partial guidance. A handler couldn’t give it too much direction, because that could confuse it, but too little guidance and a technogolem could become extremely dangerous and unpredictable. They also needed to have solid control over their emotions; feeding a technogolem the wrong emotion at the wrong time could be disastrous, as they’d nearly seen. It was flattering to Twilight to know that somepony with the kind of calm, even temper that was needed in a golem handler looked up to her that much. Applejack shook her head, clearly a bit disgusted with herself. “Well, I’ll let ‘im run those tests anyway. It’ll be good for him.” She looked back up again, grinning at her commander and friend. “Anyway, what can I do for ya?”

Twilight smiled, telling the orange mare with her expression that there was no harm done. “Nothing really, I’m just going around, getting used to the ship. It’s so big!”

Applejack laughed. “Yep, sure is! Whooee, it was a job rounding up all the supplies we were gonna need, let me tell you!”

“I imagine!” Twilight sobered. “Oh, there’s something else I should probably let you know about. We had a few very serious casualties during the Gate jump, including one of the Warden ponies on the bridge. Amber Mist.”

The grin fell away from Applejack’s face. “Yeah, heard about that. Doctors in the medbay called and told me, I think they told Rainbow, too. Cryin’ shame, she was a darn good officer, a darn good Warden, and a darn good pony. Had a little herd back home, no foals, though.”

Twilight sighed, wincing. “Well, that’s good, I suppose. Maybe. Uh… you know she’s not dead, right?”

“Yeah, but it don’t look good, ‘least that’s what Doc Rosethorn sounded like. Trust me, I've heard doctors tryin' not to tell me how bad a shape one of my Wardens was in.” Applejack mirrored her friend’s sigh. “It happens. Not the first good Warden whose brain’s gotten fried. Dangerous job, but somepony’s gotta do it. Rainbow Dash was right about that, way back in the day.” The orange mare looked off into space, green eyes thoughtful. “Lessee… Amber was your chief gunner, right? Who’s that leave you with…” Twilight was about to answer when Applejack did it for her. “Wingblade, right? Pegasus filly, off of Lightning? Gray coat, real dark blue eyes?”

Twilight nodded, impressed. Applejack had an amazing ability to remember her Wardens by name and personality, even without the benefit of an interface implant. The former farmpony had never wanted one, saying she’d always found the idea freaky, but she had a remarkable memory for ponies nonetheless. She claimed it came from dealing with her huge family. “That’s correct. She impressed me, actually; she handled the neural stress astoundingly well, and she was extremely quick to act.”

Applejack snorted a laugh. “Yep, that’s Wingblade. She’s a pretty dang cool customer under stress, and she doesn’t fall apart afterward the way some of ‘em do. Keep an eye on her, though; cool or not, she’s awful aggressive, and her instructors say she’s creepy in the net.”

“ ‘Creepy in the net?’ What exactly does that mean?”

The earth pony shrugged. “Don’t rightly know. I can’t get into the net myself, a’course, but everypony who’s ever been in the same net as her says she’s creepy. Ask Rainbow Dash, she’s one of the ones that said that. ‘Part from that, she’s really good at her job. One of the best, actually, that’s why we put her in a ship right out of Warden training.” Applejack blinked slowly, thinking. “Aw, shucks, you got Stars on the bridge to ride herd on her, don’t you? Don’t you worry none, Stars’ll keep her from getting too aggressive. Talk about a cool customer. Level-headed as a table, and rock-solid besides.”

“Yes, that’s the impression I’ve gotten. It’s how she seemed from the report on the Interloper, too; she was slow to return fire after she was attacked, but decisive once she did so. I was glad that you and Rainbow Dash assigned her as captain.”

Applejack snorted again. “Shoot, I don’t think Rainbow would’ve let me assign anypony else, even if I’d wanted to. You should’ve heard her crowin’ about how great Stars was. She went and scared the tar out of the poor mare anyway during debriefing, a’course, but she’d’ve put up a heck of a fight if I’d wanted to give Dauntless’s command to any other pony.”

Twilight nodded, surveying the purposeful chaos still going on in the cargo hold. “Well, it looks like you still have quite a bit to do here. Is there anything I could do to help?”

“Nah.” Applejack gave the Warden logistics officers a quick but thorough examination, watching their movements and behavior. “I think we got things under control here. Be done with this stuff in a couple of hours, then we’ll probably start reorganizing the other holds. Thanks, though.”

“You don’t want my help reorganizing?” Twilight asked, a hopeful tone in her voice. It was looking like she wasn’t going to have much to do on an everyday basis as Commander, and she rather wanted to have something to do. Her organizational skills were nearly peerless, doubly so with the assistance of her holodaemon and various programs that she’d written for fun.

Applejack chuckled. “Well, if you’re offerin’… I’ll send you the manifest.”

“Great!” Twilight grinned. “That’ll give me something to work on in my spare time, besides the theoretical sorcery work I brought along from the Bureau and the doctoral studies from the Thirk Academy.”

“Tarnation,” Applejack said, shaking her head ruefully. “And I thought I liked stayin’ busy. I’ll be glad for the help, but don’t do too much, or you’ll put me out of a job!”

Twilight giggled. “Oh, I wouldn’t want to do that! I’ll see you at dinner, right?”

“Plannin’ on it. Oh, and Twi?” Applejack stepped closer to give her friend a hug that was warmly returned. “Darn good to see you again. Been way too long.”

“I think it has been for all of us,” Twilight said quietly.

Twilight quickly finished up her tour, and spent most of the rest of the shift coordinating with the various science specialists she’d brought along. The system they were in might be lifeless and largely uninteresting, but it was an absolute gold mine of scientific data. The opportunity to study an entirely different star and its attendant planets, along with the various moons, asteroids, comets, and dust clouds was incredibly valuable. They were only scheduled to stay for a day or so in this system, doing surveys and checking over the Dauntless’s systems while the drives recharged and they ran post-jump tests, but Twilight and her specialists intended to make the most of it.

She was so absorbed in what she was doing that she almost missed dinner. The unicorn had to rush to make it after her holodaemon pinged her with a reminder, and she was the last of her friends to show up. The unicorn worried a bit about how hurried she’d look, concerned that she wasn’t showing the dignity that a Commander should, but then, the most well-known Commander prior to Twilight had been Rainbow Dash, and the unicorn couldn't imagine Rainbow worrying about maintaining a dignified mien when she was in a hurry. As long as she looked purposeful, she’d probably be fine.

Twilight's friends were already talking and laughing with each other when she arrived. “Oh, welcome, darling!” Rarity exclaimed, “We were starting to worry that you'd forgotten! Here, I saved you a seat.”

Twilight sat in the proffered seat, between Rarity and Rainbow Dash, noting as she did so that Rainbow and Fluttershy were sitting on opposite sides of the table. Still, they weren't glaring or sniping at each other, which was something.

The Commander fell into the comfortable rhythm of banter with her friends, the pattern as familiar as ever despite the fact that it had been close to twenty years since the six of them had all been in the same room at the same time. The relaxed joking reminded Twilight of another dinner, more than eight decades in the past.

Duran had still been alive, and still in good enough health to travel. The seven of them had all gone out to a nice restaurant in Canterlot, celebrating the successful trials of Equestria's first powered aircraft. It had been a hilariously slow, lumbering thing by their current standards, but it had been remarkably impressive at the time. They'd all been joking and teasing each other, just like this, and had just been delivered their food.

The waiter who'd delivered it had seemed a bit nervous, and his uniform had fit poorly. Twilight had been a tad suspicious; several of them had been harassed by reporters in the past, and something about the young unicorn stallion had been drawing the lavender unicorn's attention.

He'd cleared his throat nervously, and then whipped out a notepad and asked in a hurried voice, “Rainbow Dash, Duran Thirk, how would you respond to the allegations that the two of you have been carrying on an intimate relationship in secret?”

Dead silence had fallen around the table, a stillness that had quickly spread to the rest of the restaurant's dining room. Those rumors had been rife in the year before. It had been a predictable matter; the human and the pegasus spent a lot of time together, and it was clear from even the most cursory observation of the two of them that they were extremely close. They weren't physically intimate and never had been, to the best of Twilight's knowledge, but she'd been able to understand why other ponies might have thought that. Still, the others at the table had glanced at each other uneasily; this was the first time anyone had asked either Rainbow or Duran about it in public.

The glance between the pegasus and the human hadn't been uneasy, though. Twilight had been looking at them, and she'd seen the sudden spark of devilish humor that passed between the two. Oh, that poor colt, she'd thought, fighting to keep a smile off of her face.

Duran had smothered the humor on his face almost immediately, so fast it made Twilight wonder for a moment if she'd seen it at all, and spoke in an absolutely serious voice. “Well, Dash? Tell the truth. Do you secretly long for me to make mad, passionate, pogo-stick love to you?” He'd turned as he'd said it, moving his left leg and the stump of his right out from under the table.

Twilight had choked, and heard Rarity do the same next to her. She often found the human's amputee jokes in poor taste, and this was no exception, though the dry delivery had been rather funny. Rarity had lifted her glass to her lips, sipping to hide the smile she was trying to suppress.

Rainbow had never been good at deadpan delivery. Instead, she'd taken the opposite approach and bugged her eyes out dramatically. “Oh, dude! How did you discover my secret?!” She'd pressed a forehoof to her forehead in an imitation of Rarity's more... theatrical moments. “How can I ever live with the shame of whoa!” The pegasus had leaned back in her chair, pretending like she was about to swoon, and had evidently forgotten that she habitually turned her chair sideways to make room for her wings. She flailed her legs and wings, trying to catch her balance, but failed utterly. In a flash of cyan and rainbow, she'd pitched over backward, emitting a choked-off yell and landing on the floor with a thump.

Rarity had choked again, except this time she'd been sipping her drink, resulting in a spray of beverage blasting out of the elegant unicorn's nose.

Duran had leaned forward inquisitively to make sure Rainbow was alright, and she'd bounced up immediately with a goofy grin on her face. “Wow, careful with suggestions like that, dude. You blew me out of my seat!”

“I have been known to have that effect,” Duran had observed with utter calm, pausing to sip from his drink. This had elicited a new splutter from Rarity, who was coughing and choking, trying to get her breath back.

“Ooo, Rarity looks upset!” Pinkie Pie had observed gleefully. The pink pony had let out a loud, fake, shocked gasp, “I think you've got a rival!” Rarity had tried to choke out a denial, but she hadn't cleared her throat and nose of the drink she'd snorted out and could do nothing but splutter and cough.

Twilight had decided at that point to get in on the fun. “She does look jealous,” the unicorn had observed, peering at her white-coated friend. “But jealous of whom?” That had made poor Rarity start laughing anew.

“Indeed,” Duran said coolly, “it seems that it is I who has a rival here. I suppose I'd better,” he paused for just a beat, “hop to it.”

Twilight had groaned. Oh, Celestia, not the pogo-stick puns. Rainbow, on the other hand, had burst out laughing, the loud, slightly squeaky laugh that meant she was really busting a gut. It had taken her a few moments to catch her breath enough to gasp out, “Oh, yeah, dude, you'd better be on the bounce!

That had set off a punning contest between Rainbow, Duran, and Pinkie, while Twilight groaned and Rarity laughed helplessly, tears streaming from her eyes. On the other side of the table, Applejack had pulled her hat down over her eyes and concentrated on her food, determinedly ignoring the goofiness across from her, and Fluttershy had been seemingly trying to merge with the tabletop, blushing furiously and hoping nopony was looking.

They all had been, of course. Everypony in the restaurant was looking over at their table, most chuckling at the impromptu comedy show.

The poor reporter who'd set the whole thing off had been watching with a stunned expression on his face, like he'd just been hit in the side of the head with a board. He'd made occasional movements to write on his notepad, but aborted it each time. He'd clearly had no idea what to say.

Twilight shook herself, pulling herself out of the memory with an effort. That had been happening to her more and more over the years, those flashes of vivid memory that absorbed her attention for a time. She'd checked to make sure nothing was physically wrong with her, but nothing was, as far as she could tell. She privately suspected that she just had so many memories now that they sometimes crowded her thoughts. The unicorn had also been thinking about her long-gone human friend quite a lot lately; likely because they were finally fulfilling the dream he’d had for them, voyaging beyond their own solar system into the wider universe. She felt a small, not-quite-sad smile quirking the corners of her lips, and she turned her attention back to her friends, joining in the joking and the banter.

If any of them had similar flashes of memory, they didn't show it much, though at times each of them would pause and look a little distant, for just a moment, before resuming their conversations.