• Published 8th Aug 2012
  • 9,871 Views, 489 Comments

Outside the Reaching Sky - Karazor

Equestria's first interstellar journey

  • ...


The Dauntless was scheduled to leave the system the next day, a little bit after the start of the first shift. Twilight was loath to leave; they’d recorded an enormous amount of information, and there hadn’t been time to analyze even a fraction of it. There were so many things that still needed to be studied, and so much they hadn’t had time to look at! The local star was giving off some odd arcane emissions that hadn’t propagated along the gap between this star and Celestia’s sun, there were odd radio frequency noises that were probably due to tidal stresses acting on crystalline formations coming from one of the moons of the outer gas giant, and one of the rocky planets near the star was actually volcanically active, even though this system was so old that it should have cooled to a rocky ball long ago. Those things all merited extra study, and who knew what else they might find if they spent just one more day here?

But they couldn’t. Time was precious.

None of those phenomena, interesting as they were, would give them any insight into whoever had sent the Interloper. All of it had been pored over by the ship’s comm officer, Chatterbox, and the stallion had been certain that nothing they’d picked up had been sent by an artificial source. Fluttershy’s linguists and Twilight’s scientists had agreed; this was all natural, and there was no intelligent activity in this system. The Dauntless’s mission was to seek out intelligent life; therefore, with none here to find, the ship no longer needed to be here. The anomalies in this system, however fascinating, would have to be studied by a follow-up mission, probably one specifically equipped for astronomical and astrophysical research.

Regretfully, Twilight slid all the data that had been recorded into the archive, tagged it for delivery to the BoT when they returned, and disconnected from the net, stretching muscles gone sore from prolonged immobility. She’d gotten up rather early, and had been on the bridge and working since well before the nominal start of first shift. An icon glowed on the panel in front of her seat; Doctor Rosethorn wanted to talk to her.

The Commander had already gotten Rosethorn’s tentative report on the possible causes of the injuries done to her crew. It seemed that the long Gate jump had created some kind of feedback in the brains of ponies who were connected to a datanet during the jump. Rosethorn didn’t speculate on why or how, and Twilight honestly had no idea what could cause that kind of thing. It would require extensive study on a refitted Gate drive ship, and would probably take years. In the meantime, Rosethorn suggested in the strongest possible terms for nopony to be connected to the datanet the next time Dauntless made a jump. Twilight was more than a little surprised that it was evidently the jump itself that had caused the problem, rather than the sensors which she’d suspected were the culprits. It did make sense, though; how could an Engineering shipmare be injured by sensor feedback when she wasn’t even receiving a feed from the sensors, while the actual sensor operator hadn’t even dropped out of connection?

Twilight pinged the terminal for a connection to the medical bay, and was only kept waiting for a moment. One of the benefits of being a Commander, she was learning, was that others were quick to listen when she was speaking. Doctor Rosethorn’s face appeared on the screen, her red eyes serious against her green coat. “Ah, Commander. Good, I was hoping to hear from you.”

Twilight cleared her throat. “Yes, indeed, we have a matter to discuss. First, though, I’d like to thank you on your work; you may have saved other ponies who might have had similar problems.”

Rosethorn nodded. “Of course, Commander. Only doing my job.”

“And speaking of your job…” Twilight brought up a status report on the two serious casualties, projecting it on an illusory screen above her panel right next to the one the doctor’s face was looking out of. “It looks like Amber Mist and Cogsteeth are stable, is that correct?” The Commander felt a knot of tension curling in her gut. This was a hard call to make, and it had been gnawing away at her since she’d left the medical bay yesterday. She had a responsibility to her crew… but she also had a responsibility to her mission, and by extension ponykind as a whole.

The doctor winced. “I’m not sure ‘stable’ is quite the proper word. They’re still badly damaged, and we are keeping them in stasis at the moment.” The Dauntless had twenty stasis pods, devices derived from some of the chronomancy spells originally developed by the unicorn mage, Starswirl the Bearded. The spell engineered into the units froze time inside the pod, keeping the contents from aging. They were extremely power-hungry, but as long as power was maintained, the occupants could remain in stasis indefinitely. “I’m not at all happy about leaving them there; leave somepony in stasis too long, and they can be a bit out of step with the world around them once they come out. Their herds and foals have aged, but they haven’t…” Rosethorn trailed off at Twilight’s raised eyebrow.

“Yes, I’m familiar with the condition.” The unicorn observed dryly. Her lip quirked up in a smile, her tension momentarily forgotten, and her young-looking face not reflecting the fact that the mind behind it had seen a full century and more roll by. She’d seen her other acquaintances age and die, while she and her five friends just continued, seemingly untouched by the passing years. “It can be wrenching, but I’m not thinking of leaving them in stasis for years. This voyage is only supposed to last a month or so, after all, and at the end of it we’ll have them home and passed over to the specialists. In your professional opinion, do you think they’ll be ill-served by spending that much time in stasis?”

Rosethorn sighed, shaking her head reluctantly. “No. None of the studies have shown any kind of detrimental effects to the stasis procedure… as I suspect you know, Commander.”

Twilight did know. She’d supervised several of those tests herself, when the stasis pods had been in development. They’d been quite thorough. The Commander nodded calmly. “In that case, unless you have some reason that Amber Mist and Cogsteeth absolutely need to be taken back to the homeworld immediately, I am inclined to proceed with the mission. Are there any such reasons?” Twilight didn’t particularly like being so firm with Rosethorn; she respected the other mare’s judgement and compassion, and she was a decent pony. But a Commander had to be decisive, and this mission was important.

Rosethorn’s mouth twisted unhappily, but she shook her head again. “No, ma’am. Apart from the fact that they’re filling two of our twenty stasis pods, which we might need in a serious situation, there is no such reason.”

Twilight nodded. “All right, Doctor Rosethorn. Thank you. Unfortunately, I don’t feel like we can afford the extra time to make a detour back to the home world right now; I want to make at least three more jumps before we return, assuming we don’t find anything.”

Rosethorn nodded, still clearly unhappy, but willing to accept Twilight’s decision on the matter. “Very well, Commander. I would like to see them returned home at the earliest possible opportunity, however.”

“As soon as we can,” Twilight reassured the doctor, before cutting the connection. The Commander was genuinely concerned about her crewponies, but this genuinely was important. That didn’t change the fact that the decision left a sour taste in her mouth. Maybe if the next two jumps proved fruitless, (as she suspected they would, she wasn’t anticipating getting that lucky) then they’d make a quick stopover in the home system to get her fallen crewmares the help they needed.

Twilight brought up the mission profile. She’d been studying it last night on a smartscroll in her cabin, but going over their next stop one more time before they started the jump process wouldn’t hurt. The first jump had been short, aimed at the nearest star, just to make sure nothing went wrong. While they crew had been affected by the jump, the ship had been completely undamaged, its systems still running at full efficiency. Actually a little over what had been designated full efficiency; Monkeywrench had had time to go over the ship’s systems in operational mode over the last day, and she’d found a couple of places where they could be tweaked to give slightly better performance, so the Dauntless was currently running slightly more efficiently than when she’d left the shipyard.

The next jump was more ambitious. They’d be jumping to one of the more remote stars that had been remotely explored by Equestrian telescopes; this one was about thirty light-years away. Twenty-eight point four six, if she remembered the exact distance correctly. Still, the peering telescopes had gotten a fairly accurate survey, and as long as they didn’t try to emerge inside a planet they should be fine. Leaving a star system required the ship to be outside the star’s interference sphere, but entering one didn’t have the same concern. Even so, the plan was to jump to a point well outside the sphere’s perimeter and above the system ecliptic, just in case.

Twilight ran through the final bits of her checklist. The Dauntless was well outside of the solar interference sphere, the engines were fully pre-charged and ready, the power cores were at optimum levels, and there were no indications of mechanical or arcane faults anywhere in the system.

Twilight looked up from her illusory display, and the screen winked out the moment her eyes left it, sensing that she no longer needed it. “All right, everypony. Let’s run through the final jump preparations, and we can be on our way.” Communicating things like this verbally felt so much more clumsy and slow than a quick thoughtpulse, but she’d modified the procedures in light of the danger Gate jumps posed to datalinked ponies. Better to take a little longer to prepare than to risk having somepony still connected and risk damage when they jumped. The really tricky part was going to be the jump itself; without a direct connection, Night Breeze had to leave the calculations and the process of the jump to the ship’s daemons, so the process was going to be much slower. The pegasus mare was also concerned about possible errors; she’d corrected several while initiating the previous jump, so she was going to have to double-check the datadaemons’ output before final initiation, which would be cumbersome. She and Twilight had spent several hours off-shift going over the navigational datadaemons’ parameters and focus, and they both thought they had the problems ironed out, but Night Breeze was still going to check prior to jump. Better to be certain with something like this. They had to be very precise with their instructions; datadaemons tended to... wander when not supervised.

The bridge crew leapt into action, albeit rather quietly and calmly. Virtual screens appeared, several in front of each pony so they could look quickly from one to another, and a quiet murmur of voices filled the bridge as each crewmare spoke to the others, relaying status reports and informing the others of things like information transfers. It didn’t actually take too terribly long, but it felt to Twilight like forever after the quick responsiveness of thoughtspace inside the bridge net.

Twilight monitored the preparations from her command station, keeping a half-dozen virtual screens haloing her head and watching the information flick back and forth. Night Breeze’s preparations were particularly absorbing; the black-coated mare clearly had an unbelievably keen grasp of Gate travel equations and arcane theory. Finally, they were ready for final initiation, the drives primed and the datadaemons prepared with all the guidelines they would need. Twilight opened a shipwide channel, her voice carried by the aetheric links to every comm unit and speaker on board. “All right, everypony. We’re preparing for the jump, so all ponies should disconnect from immersion and not reconnect until I tell you it’s safe.” She sent a command to the comm net, making sure that the message was flagged for anypony who was in full link. The Commander waited several long breaths before turning to Night Breeze, nodding, and calmly ordering, “Begin the jump.”

“Aye-aye, Commander.” The sable-coated pegasus turned back to her panel, manipulating the systems with her hooves and with occasional commands from her neural implant. Regular interface, sending commands without being fully linked to the datanet, should be safe. At least, Twilight hoped so. If they couldn’t even send arcane commands to the ship without being brain-fried, then they could be in serious trouble.

Twilight shivered as she felt the energy building around her. It feels so much colder outside of the datalink. No surprise, really; the only reason it could be felt at all inside the net was that it wasn’t a purely physical feeling, and the nonphysical part bled through even under full immersion. Now, without immersion removing her physical senses, it felt much stronger, like icy needles had pushed through her flesh and were draining the warmth from her heart. She shivered, and saw the rest of the bridge crew do the same.

“Goddess, I hate this feeling,” Silver Stars muttered quietly.

“You and me both, Captain,” Wingblade replied, in a similar undertone. The gray-coated pegasus’s feathers were fluffed out awkwardly, making the slim mare look rather overweight. Everypony’s coat was ruffled, bristling in an attempt to retain body heat that wasn’t actually being lost.

“You aren’t actually cold,” Twilight said, a lecturing tone creeping into her voice despite her best efforts. “It’s a psychosomatic reaction to magical oversaturation…” She cut herself off when the ship seemed to suddenly lurch sideways, the false feeling of cold intensifying to the point where she felt like it would stop her heart. Twilight twitched in her seat, trying to compensate for the sudden moment of vertigo, and saw the rest of the bridge crew twitch similarly. Ah, so that’s what a Gate transition feels like. Interesting. Her brain felt fine, and a quick glance around the bridge showed everypony in good shape. Night Breeze looked completely fine, and she’d been the one Twilight was most worried about.

“Ah, that wasn’t so bad that time, was it?” Twilight asked with a grin. “It looks like everypony’s…”

“Uh, Commander? I think I may have something.” Oculus interrupted. Twilight’s mouth snapped shut, and she quickly pulled up a mirror of the sensor feeds. It was distorted, still hashed with interference, and the Commander couldn’t make any sense of it; it just looked like noise.

“I’m not seeing anything here, Oculus,” Twilight said, frowning. “It looks like the sensors may not have recovered from the jump yet.”

“Ma’am, this looks... familiar. Hey, Chatterbox, turn on the ECCM, will you?” The stallion at the communications station nodded, activating the systems the Wardens had installed a few weeks before departure. They’d been designed to sort through the kind of hostile jamming the Interloper had been putting out, and Twilight had no idea why Oculus would be asking for… “Celestia’s horn!” Oculus swore shrilly, terror in her voice, “Get the shields up! Get ‘em up now!

The bridge engineer rushed frantically to get the shields raised, not even waiting for confirmation of the order, and Twilight’s jaw dropped at what was on Oculus’s screen.

The Dauntless had emerged in the middle of a fleet… an armada of starships. More maneuvering objects than Twilight could count at a glance surrounded them. Even if most of those signals were decoys like the Interloper had employed, there were still scores of ships. The jamming they had been putting out had been so intense that it had left the Dauntless completely blind until the countermeasures had been brought online. How did they know we were coming?! Twilight thought, in a moment of stunned horror.

The Commander blessed Oculus’s quick response as the first salvo slammed into Dauntless. The shields hadn’t fully solidified, but they’d come up enough to blunt the force of the missile strike, and the ship’s tough outer armor absorbed the rest. Several surface installations were damaged or destroyed, but the Dauntless wasn’t seriously damaged, and the shields slammed up to full power before more strikes could slip through.

It would be damaged before long, though. There were way too many ships out there for Dauntless to just sit and take their fire. They couldn’t run; it would take over an hour for the arcane charge in the Gate drive to dissipate, and trying to jump before then would make the drive detonate. They had to fight, and the only way they’d be able to do that effectively was to connect to the datalink. She had to try it now, they had zero time. Not even enough time to suit up; they’d have to fight in normal uniform, which could be bad if they had a hull breach.

Twilight took a deep breath, trying to ignore the terror racing through her and the feeling of her heart slamming in her chest. “Okay. I’m going to link up; you watch me, and if I look okay, sound the alert and link up yourselves.” Of all the bridge crew, the Commander was least likely to take serious injury from the jump feedback. Providing, of course, that the damage wasn’t cumulative, or worse yet, exponential. But she didn’t have another option; there were more salvos coming in, and Wingblade was going to be badly overloaded trying to shoot them down manually. The grey-coated pegasus was already frantically directing her point-defense systems without the direct link, her forehooves and wingtips flashing across the displays she called up from her panel, trying with growing desperation to shoot down as many incoming missiles as she could. There weren’t that many right now, but with the number of ships out there the amount of inbound ordnance was going to increase dramatically in a very short time. Twilight cursed the fact that they hadn’t assigned another assistant weapons officer yet, but it was far too late to change that now.

The Commander saw a similar series of evaluations chase themselves across Silver Stars’ face. The Captain arrived at the same conclusion Twilight did, and nodded somberly. “Aye-aye, Commander. We’ll watch you. Good luck.” Twilight could hear sincere respect in the other mare’s voice.

The lavender unicorn braced herself and cast the spell to send her mind into the bridge datanet. The world slowed down, information flooded her brain, and Twilight felt a palpable rush of relief despite the desperate situation. The datanet was completely clear and normal, with no trace of the sickening disorientation or painful feedback caused by the jump.

Twilight instantly went to work. The rest of the crew would follow her into immersion shortly, but their reactions would be molasses compared to hers at the moment and she had a fair bit of subjective time before the others would be available to help.

The first thing she started to analyze was Oculus’s sensor display. Twilight blanched at what she saw; there were, not hundreds, but thousands of maneuvering signals crawling in swarms across the readout, and terror gripped the unicorn. Dauntless was powerful, enormously more powerful than the Warden cutters who had first seen action, but she was nowhere near powerful enough to handle all of this. Missiles were streaking everywhere, beams were stabbing out, ships were exploding...

Wait, why were ships exploding?

She checked the vectors, and the vast majority of the shoals of missiles flashing around her weren’t headed for the Dauntless; they were being exchanged by the ships around her. This wasn’t an ambush; Dauntless had jumped into the middle of a battle! It was such an enormously unlikely circumstance that it actually made Twilight pause for a fraction of a thought to take it in.

She set the analysis datadaemons to go over several aspects of the sensor returns. There was an enormous amount to do, tasks that would normally be tackled by two or three of the bridge crew, but Twilight needed to know now, and only a fraction of a second had passed since she dropped into the net. The expert programs pored over the information, and the situation started to clarify.

First, there weren’t thousands of ships; most of those signatures were decoys. There were about eight hundred, split into two distinct groups. It was still a vast number, but not quite as overwhelming as her first impressions had suggested. Second, the smaller group, about two hundred ships, sported the same emissions signature, the same spectrograph of light reflecting from their hulls, and similar performance characteristics to the Interloper that had intruded on Equestrian space. Those were likely enemies, especially since several of them had already altered their vectors in response to Dauntless’s arrival. The other six hundred were completely and utterly different, in design, in performance, and in emissions, different enough that Twilight suspected they were from yet another spacefaring species.

Tension coiled around Twilight, “looking” like a grey mist in thoughtspace, one of those annoying virtual manifestations of emotion that persisted no matter how much the base architecture of the data systems were changed. In spite of their enormous numerical advantage, the strangers were losing, and badly. The Interloper ships were arranged in tight, disciplined squadrons that moved as one, synchronizing both their fire and their defenses, while the stranger ships seemed to act mostly independently. They swarmed together in attacks, but there was little effort to synchronize fire, and they seemed largely unable to fend off the Interlopers’ unified salvos. The stranger ships were also smaller, with slightly slower acceleration rates than the Interloper squadrons. The only thing that was saving them was the fact that they seemed to be absolutely packed with antimissile firepower, meaning that each ship took numerous missiles to kill.

Twilight watched an Interloper squadron finally fall, and was able to divine more or less what was going on. The lost squadron had been swarmed under by five times its number in stranger vessels that had closed to direct-fire range, blasting the Interloper ships with powerful beam weapons that swiftly overwhelmed the larger ships’ defenses. The Interlopers held a tremendous advantage at long range, with their synchronized fire, superior jamming, and higher speed, but the strangers were trying to use their numbers to box the Interlopers in from several sides and get in close.

It wasn’t working. For every Interloper ship that fell, a dozen stranger vessels died. Twilight watched another attempted envelopment fail drastically, three squadrons coming to the aid of the squadron that had been the target and blasting the concentration of stranger vessels, forcing them back. The Interlopers might be outnumbered three to one, but from the loss rate Twilight saw, she suspected that the original ratio had been much, much higher.

Twilight abruptly realized that she wasn’t alone in the net. A querying thoughtpulse came from somepony on another deck, somepony who had been connected before Twilight had. :Took you long enough. We took some damage. Debris strike?:

It was Rainbow Dash, which was no real surprise. If somepony needed to put themselves at risk, the cyan pegasus was nearly always the first to volunteer. Twilight wondered if Rosethorn had asked for a volunteer to test whether the feedback persisted after the jump or whether Rainbow had decided to test it on her own.

:We’re under attack: Twilight replied.

She felt surprise and shock echo back at her, a red-and-yellow tang. :Seriously? Why the heck haven’t you sounded the alert?!:

:Silver Stars will do it, as soon as she sees I’m fine. I’ve only been linked for four or five seconds.: Twilight sent a pulse of reassurance that Rainbow would probably realize was false. :Had to be sure the feedback didn’t linger.:

:It didn’t. I’ve been linked since right after jump. Why the heck haven’t you just sent the alert yourself, doofus?:

That... hadn’t occurred to Twilight; she’d been so focused on sorting out the information. She sent a wordless thought through the net to that effect linked to the data she’d already sorted, showing Rainbow what she was dealing with. :Shoot. We’re in trouble. I’ll set the alert and get outta your hair.: Twilight felt tension coiled around Rainbow’s reply, but she was grateful for the response. It was nice dealing with somepony who knew how to react in situations like this. She felt the alert racing through the network, and the rest of the bridge crew linked in so fast that Twilight suspected they’d been just about to do it anyway.

:Yes!: Twilight heard the exultant thought from Wingblade, tinged with a cold focus. :Try and get past me now.: Now that the pegasus was linked, she could direct her antimissile defenses with far greater efficiency, and Twilight could sense that the weapons officer still had plenty of focus to spare for the offensive weapons.

:Focus on these for return fire: Twilight told the aggressive pegasus, highlighting the Interloper squadrons. :The others may not be hostile.:

:Confirmed, Commander. May I return fire if fired upon?:

The clarity of the thought made Twilight pause for an instant. Oh. Goodness. I can see why Applejack said she was creepy in the network; I have trouble forming thoughts that complete. She shook the surprise off quickly. :Hold fire on others. Wait for release.:

:Yes, Commander.: The thought grumbled a bit, but there was no sense of rebellion. Even as they passed that sequence of messages, the first salvo roared out from Dauntless’s launchers, more fire than an entire Interloper squadron targeted on not the nearest enemy squadron, but one of the ones further away.

Twilight saw Wingblade’s intentions immediately. :Captain,: she pulsed to Silver Stars, :These squadrons almost in beam range: She highlighted the closest Interloper squadrons, which she realized were trying to fall back from the Dauntless’s sudden arrival, clawing frantically for distance while spitting missiles at the looming cruiser.

:They are. Helmsmare, vector change.: A series of instructions flowed from the captain to the helmsmare and the navigator, and the cruiser surged toward the retreating squadrons.

Twilight let Silver Stars direct the ship while she focused on the armada surrounding them. The strangers, the species she hadn’t seen before, had lobbed a few missiles their way, but it had been a desultory effort while they continued to focus on the Interloper squadrons. The Interlopers, on the other hoof, were clearly in the process of rearranging their entire order of battle; the squadrons nearest the Dauntless had shifted all of their fire to the Equestrian exploratory ship, and several more squadrons were breaking off from engaging the strangers and moving to support those trying to pressure Dauntless. These ships, though they resembled the Interloper in composition and performance, were much larger than the ship the Warden cutters had driven away. They were clearly more powerful as well, launching larger, faster missiles and boasting more robust defenses. They were still pygmies beside the colossal bulk of the Dauntless, but there were enough of them that the cruiser was in serious danger, especially since they clearly knew what they were doing.

Their more effective electronic warfare wasn’t as effective as it could have been, after the Wardens’ installation of their countermeasures. The sophisticated sensors and sorting daemons, patterned after designs and concepts found in the Library Core, let the exploration cruiser see with a clarity that the Warden cutters had lacked. Oculus was able to quickly pinpoint the hostile ships and feed their coordinates to Wingblade, and after a few moments the aetheric sensors recovered from the confusion of the jump, and with their aid the sensor officer was even able to make a solid effort at separating out the decoy platforms from the real ships. Three of the Interloper ships in the squadron Wingblade had targeted with her first salvo were struck by her missiles in spite of their earnest efforts to shoot the Equestrian ordnance down, and two of them were destroyed when the powerful warheads blew straight through their defenses. The third was clearly crippled, its acceleration dropping drastically as it turned to flee, bleeding air from brutal rents in its armored hull. The crippled ship’s remaining squadron-mates shifted formation in an effort to cover their wounded companion’s withdrawal. Dauntless’s second salvo, facing the reduced defensive fire of only five ships instead of eight, scored even more heavily. Four of the remaining five ships were smashed by the cruiser’s missiles, and they died in white-hot boils of energy. The squadron of eight powerful battleships had been reduced in seconds to one fighting ship and one cripple, and the operational vessel tucked itself in front of its brutalized squadron mate, its launchers shutting down in a clear gesture of surrender as it sought to shepherd its wounded companion out of danger.

The Interloper formation shifted even more radically after the annihilation of the first squadron, leaving less than a quarter of their number to fight their original opponents while every other squadron altered course to engage the Dauntless, and their missiles came in so thickly that Wingblade had to divert her focus from offensive fire to defensive for a moment as a huge, concentrated volley roared in on the heels of a spate of less coordinated fire. Nearly a thousand enemy missiles screamed toward the Equestrian cruiser, dodging and weaving in an attempt to foil the Warden counterfire. Wingblade wasn’t able to destroy the massive salvo, but she poured point-defense fire into it with a grim determination, fighting to whittle it down to a survivable level.

Despite her efforts, nearly three hundred Interloper missiles made it past the cruiser’s active defenses to slam into her shields. They detonated in a ripple, too numerous to have been completely synchronized. That many warheads would have destroyed several Warden cutters outright.

Fortunately, Dauntless was built on an entirely different scale from the cutters, and had a titanic amount of energy to put into her defensive barriers. The shields flickered, local overloads dancing at several points where the apocalyptic energy threatened to eat them away completely, the engineers struggling frantically to shunt the overloads to different parts of the system and distribute the massive blow the cruiser was taking. The shields held, not failing at any point, though several spots were dangerously weakened. The armor was undamaged, and more importantly, they didn’t lose any of Wingblade’s point-defense installations.

It was no time to relax. More hostile ships were closing in. The next salvo would be even larger.

Twilight could swear she heard an actual snarl over the network as the weapons officer redirected her attention, no longer forced to focus exclusively on swatting missiles, and saw that two hostile squadrons had been overtaken and were now in range of the cruiser’s aetherbeams. The Interloper ships were firing their own lightspeed weapons frantically, almost certainly aware that they were within the Equestrian behemoth’s reach, but the Dauntless’s superior acceleration meant that the Interlopers couldn’t hit back at this range.

Unlike the cutters, the power plants didn’t strain to provide enough energy for the aetherbeams to fire. Also unlike the cutters, who mounted two of the powerful energy weapons in a spinal configuration, Dauntless had turrets studded across her lateral line, containing a total of a hundred and ten of the weapons. Targeting brackets blossomed around the sixteen Interloper vessels, carefully measuring location, speed, and distance, and sixteen of the beams fired, spitting the gunner’s desperate rage at the Interloper warships in unstoppable spikes of arcane power.

Every single one hit.

The countermeasures and improved aetheric sensors had allowed Wingblade to determine the sixteen ships’ positions with pinpoint accuracy, and the aetherbeams did exactly what they were designed to do. The converging pulse of energy tore a hole in the fabric of reality, arcane energy pouring forth and supersaturating the material around it. The hole lasted only a fraction of an instant, but it dumped more than enough energy into its target’s hull to blow the ship apart in a massive blast of arcane power. All sixteen of the Interloper ships simply vanished, replaced for an instant by ravening balls of scintillating light. Scores of missiles were still streaking out from the Dauntless, seeking out Interloper vessels, smashing ship after ship with hammers of light and blotting another squadron away, and then another, but the Interlopers had synchronized their fire again and Twilight quailed as she saw another massive salvo come roaring in.

Dauntless, however, was not the Interlopers’ only problem.

The refocusing of their fire had drastically reduced the pressure against the strangers, and the disorganized but still large force had rallied. Only about a quarter of the Interloper fleet was maintaining fire on their original foes, and it wasn’t enough. The strangers swarmed forward, clumping together to try to maximize their missile defenses while they bored in toward the ships still attacking them. They quickly overwhelmed one Interloper squadron, and then another. They’d been spitting the occasional missile at Dauntless, but that desultory fire had stopped almost the moment the Interlopers had shifted formation to concentrate on the Equestrian cruiser. Now they tore into the Interloper ships left to deal with them, and the tide of the battle was quickly turning.

The Interlopers saw it, too. As one, their formation shifted once again, and they started accelerating outward, headed away from the battle, clearly disengaging.

:They’re retreating.: Twilight pulsed to Silver Stars, receiving a flash of confirmation in return.

:Wingblade,: the captain sent to the weapons officer, :Cease engagement. Can you hit those missiles with ours?: The Interlopers might be withdrawing and they’d stopped spitting fresh missiles, but that massive final salvo of theirs was still incoming.

:I can try.: Targeting icons blossomed anew, these trying to center on the tiny, fast contacts speeding toward them. :Every one I hit now is one less for the defenses.: The cruiser’s big antiship launchers started cycling as fast as they could, spitting out individual missiles instead of coordinated barrages. The missiles weren’t designed for this, but, well, a hostile missile was basically a tiny, super-fast ship, and it was worth a try. Twilight threw herself into Oculus’s part of the net, lending her own trained mind to the sensor operator’s, trying to help further refine the data she was sending to Wingblade and thus improve the gunner’s chances. Linked this closely, she felt the gunner’s icy focus, and the sparkle of fear the pegasus was keeping tightly contained. Wingblade didn’t bother with thanks, though Twilight could feel a trickle of gratitude from the overwhelmed gunner.

Against all Twilight’s expectations, the missiles actually scored hits. Only a few, true, but the massive bursts of energy put out by the antiship missiles tended to kill more than one of the incoming warheads. The salvo had been whittled down more than Twilight had expected when it reached Dauntless’s defenses.

Without missing a beat, Wingblade hurled herself into the point defense network, feverishly guiding the antimissile fire, and even spared a corner of her mind to designate targets for the aetherbeams. Those didn’t need to induce a cascade, simply punching a hole through a missile was enough to destroy it, so Wingblade didn’t bother with the extra effort of giving the heavy beams distance information and instead simply targeted and fired as fast as she possibly could. The pilot chipped in too, throwing the massive cruiser into an even more frantic evasion pattern, trying to force the missiles to chase her.

The gray pegasus did amazing work. The original salvo had been even larger than the first, and Wingblade had manage to destroy or decoy even more of them than she had the first time. Unfortunately, there were still hundreds of warheads left intact to slam into the cruiser.

The shields had come back to full power, and the engineers fed extra power to them as they strove to guard the ship. Warheads detonated against the shields in a glaring, white-hot inferno, blasting the barriers with so much energy that the huge ship disappeared behind the rippling blasts. The shields flickered, the engineers again fighting to dump energy around the grid, trying to balance out the strain. Twilight felt a shield relay elsewhere burst, the energy proving too much for the system to contain and too much for the surge protectors to absorb, and the relay detonated in a glare of energy. Fortunately, the relays were placed in reinforced areas of the ship, away from crew, just in case exactly this kind of thing from killing anypony. Internal shields and bulkheads contained the blast, preventing it from ripping out more systems, but the loss left a tiny weak point in the shield around the cruiser.

One warhead found that point. Only one, out of hundreds.

It slipped through the weakened shield, the arcane barrier not strong enough to trigger a detonation. The missile flashed in against the ship’s nose and detonated, a searing fireball ripping at the phenomenally tough armor, finding what must have been a flaw in the hull and tearing open a breach. The armor should have held against that much energy, but it didn't. More bulkheads slammed down, the ship’s redundant structure saving her from catastrophic damage, but some of the internal atmosphere bled out into the void. Twilight’s heart lurched as she realized that the escaping atmosphere had taken three unsuited crewmares out into the cruel vacuum with it.

She had to act fast. Faster than she ever had in her life.

Twilight linked herself to the sensor net, finding where the three ponies were spinning helplessly out into the void. She focused herself on them, part of her thoughts staying linked with the sensors while another part started weaving together threads of magic. In the silent bridge, amidst the rigidly still figures of the crew, Twilight’s horn began glowing more brightly, far more brightly than the interface spell called for. She fought to keep both parts of her mind in harmony, both parts focused on what they needed to do as she tracked the flailing ponies and built her spells. In a triple, simultaneous flash, three spheres of violet light appeared on the bridge with a quiet pop, dumping the three engineers, two earth ponies and a pegasus, on the floor of the bridge, where they gasped and coughed, dragging the air that was suddenly surrounding them into their starving lungs.

Twilight’s mind lurched. It was a terrible, terrible idea to cast spells while in the datanet. The shock dragged at her, ripping her mind back and forth in a hideous resonance. She fought, trying to maintain the link, but was unable to and the spell holding her in the network shattered. Twilight slumped to the floor, clutching her head in her forehooves, trying to deal with the phantom sensation of her head flying apart and scattering her brain across the bridge. Dear Celestia, I hope it’s a phantom sensation! Twilight thought in a moment of gut-clenching panic.

Fortunately, that proved to be the case. Twilight pushed herself upright, her head pounding, and glanced at the three crewmares. They all looked okay, but vacuum exposure could be dangerous. She pinged Medical through her panel, wincing as the act sent a burning flash of agony through her horn and head, and rasped out, “First aid to the bridge. Three ponies, explosive vacuum exposure.” She closed the channel immediately; there was no need to linger and chat.

Twilight grimaced, forcing her mind to settle down. She ran herself through meditation exercises designed to counteract arcane shock, feeling her brain slowly coming back together and falling under her control once more. She didn’t have time to finish, and gritted her teeth while she brought up her link spell again.

There was a screech of pain in her mind, and she was back in the network. Information flowed into her; the Interlopers were running, and Silver Stars was letting them. The enemy fleet was maintaining their disciplined formation as they withdrew, keeping the stranger vessels who were hounding them out of beam range. Their fleet had suffered heavy losses, but their discipline seemed little the worse for it.

:Commander,: came Silver Stars’ thought, touched with concern, :Are you all right?:

:Functional. Marginal.: Twilight was having trouble composing a coherent thoughtstream.

Wingblade didn’t have that problem. :You have got some serious guts, boss. Wow, spellcasting in the link and then linking up again after a drop. Gutsy.: The pegasus’s thought was tinged with golden admiration.

:Thanks. Status.:

Silver Stars was giving directives to the navigator and pilot, and flashed for Wingblade to fill the Commander in. The Interloper fleet had retreated beyond weapons range with tremendous speed, partially because Silver Stars had taken them away from the Interlopers at full acceleration the instant the aliens sought to break contact. The gunner composed and sent a report swiftly, showing Twilight the relative movements of the two alien fleets and Dauntless, illustrating the alien ships that had been lost, and outlining Dauntless’s damage, which was bad but not crippling. They could even still fight if they had to, though they’d used up nearly a third of their missiles and had a gaping hole in the armor on the nose. The damage to the shield network could probably be fixed from spares, but the hole in the armor would be a shipyard job.

Twilight sighed mentally. Her ship, the beautiful ship she’d helped do design, had a hole in it. At least they were out of weapons range, and thus out of danger, at least for now. :Okay. Stand down from alert status.: Without waiting for confirmation, the Commander dropped out of the link, wincing and closing her eyes in pain. She started running through the meditation exercises again, calming her thoughts so her brain could settle down while the bridge crew stirred around her. The three engineers were still coughing on the floor, though their gasps sounded far less panicked than they had right after being teleported.

Wingblade went immediately to check on the three crewmares, while the others stayed at their stations, with Oculus monitoring the chase and Chatterbox carefully picking out and recording any radio signals he could, and a couple of stray communications laser flashes that touched the Dauntless. The medics arrived, gathered up the ponies Twilight had rescued, and guided them out; all three were able to walk. The Commander felt a flash of pride; nopony else could have saved those three.

“Ma’am.” Silver Stars’ voice interrupted Twilight’s meditations. She blinked, focusing her attention outward again. She was feeling much better, but didn’t want to try spellcasting for a while, and she devoutly hoped she wouldn’t have to. Twilight looked up, meeting the captain’s eyes, and the other mare continued, “The Interlopers just disappeared, like the one we ran into did. And that other bunch is headed back toward us.”

Twilight glanced over at her screen, which appeared obediently and showed what the sensors saw; the remaining strangers mobbing up together again and heading back toward them. She sighed, rubbing her aching head. That tight formation might mean they didn’t want to fight, or it might be an attempt to concentrate their firepower. “Don’t fire,” she said, remembering after a momentary struggle that the strangers had stopped firing on them when the Interlopers had started concentrating on the Equestrian cruiser, “Let’s see what they do.”

The disorganized mob of starships moved across the screen in a blob, and Twilight found herself shaking her head. Were these soldiers, or were they some kind of civilians in armed ships? The Interloper squadrons would have pasted them if the ponies hadn’t appeared, and Twilight hoped they realized that.

“Oh, Celestia, please, let us talk to you,” the Commander heard Chatterbox whisper, his voice thick with hope.

The strangers braked to a relative stop just outside of what they’d shown their own missile range to be, which was actually well inside Dauntless’s engagement envelope. They sat there, spreading out a bit to give themselves more maneuvering room, and did nothing. They were waiting.

Her heart in her throat, Twilight turned to Chatterbox. “Send the first-contact package.”

The stallion nodded, tension in his face, and turned to his panel. Twilight knew what the package was, an unencoded, analog signal, starting with pulses of radio representing simple numbers one through ten, and then pulsing out the first few primes. After that, it was sound, also in analog, the basic phonemes of the Equestrian language, followed by a phrase that Twilight knew the aliens wouldn’t understand, but that she and Fluttershy thought was important to include. “We are peaceful, we mean you no harm.”

The package went out, flying to the alien ships on wings of invisible light, and the bridge crew waited tensely.

“I’m getting a reply,” Chatterbox said suddenly. His voice was excited, hopeful. “It... it’s just noise.”

“Play it,” Twilight ordered, and a screech resounded through the bridge speakers that made everypony wince. “Any idea what that is?”

Chatterbox hesitated. “I... it might be an audio-visual signal? We don’t know their coding, it would just be noise to us...”

Fluttershy’s voice suddenly cut in on the bridge. “Twilight! Twilight! They’re trying to talk!

The corner of the Commander’s mouth quirked at the joy and excitement in her friend’s voice. She knew Fluttershy had been listening, the procedures she’d drafted for the mission had called for first-contact procedures to be automatically relayed to the diplomatic team. “Yes, they are, but we don’t know what they’re saying.”

They’re trying, though!” Twilight nodded. It was a positive sign. “Maybe... maybe a face-to-face meeting? If we could see each other, talk to each other, oh, I know we could be friends!

A face-to-face meeting... well, it was possible. Twilight turned to Oculus. “Is there a rocky planet in this system that we could land on?”

The unicorn nodded. “Yes, Ma’am. Hold on...” She brought up a screen and peered at it for a moment, manipulating the readout. “Um... There’s one about the same distance from the star that the homeworld is. The temperature should be survivable, but there’s no life and an inert atmosphere. We’d have to wear breathers at least if we landed there.”

Twilight felt a thrill. That was perfect, better than she’d expected, and she turned to Chatterbox. “Chatterbox, can you whip up a visual suggestion that we meet there?”

The stallion nodded. “I sure can. Give me just a minute or two.” He turned to his station, and several screens lit up. Chatterbox’s horn glowed as he quickly manipulated images, building a quick, simple cartoon. “Okay, ready. Permission to use the illusion projectors?”

“Granted.” The projectors had been part of the Dauntless’s design from day one, arcane machines that were able to project illusory images of colossal size, dozens of kilometers across. They were useless in combat; the illusions glowed, but they were too dim and too ephemeral to hide the ship or to create decoys, but this kind of situation was exactly what they were made for.

The projectors activated, projecting a vast, glowing arrow that pointed at the world Oculus had found. That morphed into a graphic of the planet, which then zoomed in to show a cartoon Dauntless and a crude image of one of the aliens’ ships sitting in orbit. A Kestrel-class shuttle left the Equestrian cruiser, and a simple airplane-shape did likewise from the alien ship. The image zoomed in further, following the two shuttles down to the surface, where they both landed, next to one another. The ramp of the Kestrel descended, and a cartoon pony stepped out. The image rotated, clearly intending to represent the view from the aliens’ shuttle, and the pony walked closer to the camera, raised a forehoof in greeting, and faded out.

Oh, I like it!” Fluttershy exclaimed.

“Let’s hope they do, too.” Twilight said. The alien ships sat there, motionless, not transmitting, for a long time. Twilight chewed her lip. “Play it again,” she ordered, and the projectors lit anew, letting the cartoon run once more.

This time, at the end of the cartoon, the ship at the center of the alien formation flashed its running lights once. Every ship in the formation followed suit, their running lights flashing without coordination, looking like a swarm of old-style flash cameras. Twilight tensed, wondering if that meant “yes” or “no,” and the lead ship turned, accelerating insystem, headed for the barren world the cartoon had suggested.

Twilight’s breath left her in a heavy sigh. They’d accepted. She thought. “Follow them, but keep us at a distance until we arrive in orbit,” she ordered. Silver Stars nodded, turning to address the crew, and Twilight closed her eyes.

Well, here we go.

Elsewhere, later.

The chief of staff scurried into the Admiral’s office, the door whispering open ahead of her. “Courier report for you, sir, marked urgent.”

“Ah, indeed?” The Admiral’s chair swung around, and his desk screen lit at a tap of his finger. The chief of staff fought not to step back, a habit she’d been struggling with ever since she’d joined the Enforcement branch. So many of the other Council races were larger than hers. Even sitting, the Admiral could look over her head, and his shoulders were three times as broad as hers. She remained in place, though, at rigid attention, showing no sign of discomfort. “So I see. Care to summarize for me?”

The chief of staff saluted. “Sir, Admiral Hurzz reports an unsuccessful engagement against Tazaft forces. He was engaged by a third party, and suffered heavy losses in exchange for about half the Tazaft force before he was driven off.”

The Admiral sighed. “Blast. I’d hoped to take out more of their fleet with that trap. It’s going to take forever to force them to back down at this rate, and both sides just keep losing people.” He paused, frowning. “What third party? Has one of the Council races gone completely mad and decided to throw in with the Tazaft independently?” There were rumors that the Admiral had close ties with one or two of the probationary members of the Council, who would not be pleased with something like that. At all. His reaction certainly hinted that those rumors might have substance.

“No, sir.” The chief of staff shook her head, imitating the Admiral’s species’ body language. She’d always been a gifted mimic, and had studied both of the Council’s founding races extensively back when she was an adolescent. She’d been utterly fascinated by the beings who had decided to cooperate to build an interstellar government. Still was, really. What she’d learned in her adolescent fascination proved to be a useful skill now, helping her interact with the somewhat temperamental Admiral. “Admiral Hurzz reports that a single, enormous ship appeared in between his fleet and the Tazaft forces after he sprung the trap. It was chiefly responsible for disrupting his squadrons and allowing the Tazaft to inflict serious losses, and he says that it just absorbed a huge number of missiles without noticeable damage. His report sounds troubled.”

“Good heavens, I can imagine why.” The admiral’s eyes widened in surprise. “Does he have any idea whose it was?”

“Yes, sir.” The chief of staff pulled out her datawand, instructing the admiral’s terminal to highlight the relevant part of the report. “The ship’s signature looked Equestrian.”

Equestrian?!” the admiral exclaimed in shock, his voice harsh.

“Yes, sir.” The infiltrator service had been delivering reports to Fifth Fleet HQ on the recently-encountered civilization on an almost daily basis, and the Fifth Enforcement Fleet had a pretty solid idea of what their ships looked like. It was very odd, getting information directly from the infiltrator service; they almost never worked directly with the enforcement branch. The chief of staff found it slightly worrisome; they had an unpleasant reputation, and having them showing up at the Fleet’s base left a nasty taste under her tongue.

The admiral’s jaw clenched, a subtle indicator of tension among his species. Subtle, but not rare; the mannerism was one that three Council races shared. He read the final portion of the report quickly, his eyes flicking across the screen, and let out a heavy breath at the end. “We knew they were sending a ship out, but I didn’t expect to see it this soon, or for it to be this formidable. And I... expected it to be more traceable than this. This changes things." The admiral's expression hardened. "Well, I shall have to commend Admiral Hurzz on his initiative; he’s set some decent bait, and done it subtly. Hopefully not too subtly.” The admiral’s fingers tapped his screen, quickly issuing a set of orders to the ship’s computer. “I’m dispatching reinforcements to make up his losses, plus Third Task Group as reinforcements. Hopefully, he manages to pull it off.” He turned to look directly at the chief of staff. “If he doesn’t, though, I intend to activate Plan Eighteen. As of this moment, the Tazaft are no longer our primary concern.”

The chief of staff felt a chill in her chest. “S-sir? Eighteen? Are you sure about that?” Shock almost made her slip into the trilling tones of her native tongue, a serious faux pas aboard an Enforcement ship, were every crewbeing was expected to converse in one of the Senior Council members’ languages for clarity. Perhaps it was a little unfair; the chief of staff would have had to learn an alien language, while the Admiral was conversing in his native tongue, but perhaps the species who had cooperated to found the Baltornic Council could be excused for making their languages the interstellar lingua fraca. She settled her tongue, and continued, “Sir, this… it could be a misunderstanding. An accident. The Council is still debating…” Regardless of what the debate settled on, the chief of staff doubted, seriously, that they would go this far.

“I’m aware of that, and I’m aware of the controversy over the Equestrian issue,” the admiral interrupted, coldly. “I am also aware that I am the commanding officer of this region, and that I am responsible for directing the efforts of Fifth Fleet. Send couriers to recall the other elements of the fleet; if Hurzz fails, I want to be ready to move on Plan Eighteen immediately.”

“I… I…” the chief stammered blankly for a moment, then her voice firmed as she made a decision. “Yes, sir. I’ll send the couriers right away.”

“See that you do.” The admiral nodded.

The chief of staff saluted, holding the pose until the admiral returned it, then turned smartly to leave. She hurried down the corridor, headed to her office to send the messages the admiral wanted… and one more. She had to send a courier back to Baltor, even though she might be court-martialed for it. She had to.