• Published 3rd Oct 2012
  • 32,846 Views, 450 Comments

Pericynthion - Skystrider



While trying to escape, Nightmare Moon pulls something into Equestria that doesn't belong.

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Ember

Author's Note:

This story was originally published on October 1st, 2012. Looking back now, I can hardly believe it has been so long. Time really does fly.

Normally, I dislike author’s notes, but while making some typographical and formatting edits to this story in preparation for further chapters, I realized that I owe a continuity explanation to new readers. Back when this was first written, the Ender’s Game movie was still a ways off. Though I wrote this story in such a way that a reader would need no prior knowledge of the book, I see now that some details would be confusing if a reader had only seen the movie.

So to my new readers, I say that if you have only seen the Ender’s Game movie, I would recommend reading the book. This story follows the book’s continuity, which is a little different. If you haven’t seen the movie or read the book… that’s perfectly fine. You won’t be lost.

To my old readers, I can’t thank you enough for your support and inspiration over the years, and I look forward to finishing this story for you.

Pericynthion ☽

It’s hard to hold a grudge for a millennium. One hundred years, two hundred, even three was easy, but a thousand? Nightmare Moon just didn’t have the heart for it… or the head, or any kind of form to speak of. The Elements had banished her so thoroughly that the only remnant of her likeness was the shadowed profile on her beloved moon.

May Celestia stare at it every night, she thought ruefully.

Oh, she had tried to hang onto her fury, her rage, the deep-seated jealousy and bitterness that had fueled her transformation oh so long ago, but like tightly-clenched sand, emotion simply flowed away grain by grain until after countless years, all that remained was dullness.

A consciousness and a vague sense of her moon were all she had left. Her only possessions were her memories, and Nightmare Moon refused to let those fade. Without her memories, she would lose the meaning behind her banishment and the reason for her eventual revenge.

Not even Celestia was all-powerful. The evening would come when Nightmare’s banishment would end. Then she would regain her form, and like the smoldering fire that becomes a raging inferno with a gust of air, she knew her anger and hatred would return once she had a body that could feel. Her emotion would fuel her magic as never before, and nothing would stand in her way, for Nightmare Moon had been preparing for hundreds of years.

After the first few centuries, when the emotional battery of her memories had run dry, she had turned to cold analysis, reviewing every act from her transformation to her banishment. How young she was… how foalish. It was easy for Nightmare to see, now that she was removed from her passions, just how easily her defeat had come. It had been arrogant to believe Celestia could not wield the Elements on her own, and though she was proven wrong on that fateful day, Nightmare Moon also witnessed the means to her eventual victory. No one pony, alicorn or not, could contain all of Harmony at once. Nightmare remembered vividly how Celestia’s mane changed color from its natural pink to the pastel hues of the aurora; it was all she could see as her body faded away.

It was the last time she had seen her sister.

Celestia had traded a part of her own power to use the elements without help… a last ditch effort to stop Nightmare without killing her.

The foal… now there was nothing Celestia could do when the banishment ended. It had taken the combined power of the Divine Sisters to wield the Elements against Discord – she doubted Celestia could handle even her original three now. Who would she rely on this time, her “little ponies?”

So Nightmare Moon had spent the next few centuries reviewing everything she had learned about the arts arcane, and about her own divine power. In her mind, she played, and replayed, the chess game that would be the fight against her sister. This time, there would be no underestimation, no arrogant assumptions. This time, Celestia would pay for what she had done.

This time, Celestia would die.

Could she do it? Nightmare had wondered a long time when the thought occurred to her. When she first came into being, Nightmare Moon had dreamed a foalish dream: Her sister locked in her own castle, forced to bear witness to a glorious eternal night. Lu-no… Nightmare Moon would have never thought of harming her sister, only of finally achieving the recognition she long deserved. But here in the cold absence of emotion, in the simple analysis of what her sister would do, it was clear that the Solar Princess would always oppose her, always strive to regain the balance.

It had to be this way. Once she understood that, preparing the spells and laying her plan was easy. After all, she had nothing but time.

But one cannot spend forever envisioning even the most intricate of magic spells, and despite her efforts to look otherwise, Nightmare Moon was still a very young alicorn. Compared with Lun– her previous life’s span, the days of her banishment would easily outnumber the days before it. She could only spend so much time going through old memories before they started to repeat.

It was at this point that Nightmare Moon began to simply let her mind drift, reaching out to the far remnants of what had once been her divine power. Though the Elements had done well to seal her, not even they could cut off everything. Beyond the dull sense of her beloved moon, Equestria itself was completely obscured; that much was certain. But in the other direction, towards the cold black of the stars, some of her strength still remained. Nightmare could hear the stars singing to their lost mistress, and it was to this ambient choir she lost herself for decades.

Peace.

The alicorn drifted, almost forgetting herself in the void.

Even without eyes to see it, her disembodied consciousness pieced together a mental map of the cosmos more detailed than any Nightmare had made in life. She began to “see” it as a shadowy tapestry made of black fog and strung with the brilliant diamonds that were her stars, each calling to her in its own voice…

…until one day, a blinding golden light seared across the tapestry, a clarion call amidst ambient bells.

Had she a mouth, she would have screamed. Jerked out of her reverie, Nightmare Moon experienced a brief return of her emotions, but it was not the anger she so desired. It was stark fear.

The light was like the tightly focused beam that searches for ships lost at sea. It churned across her tapestry at an incredible speed while raspy clicking voices echoed behind the sweeping beacon. It settled first on the empty space behind her, the hole in her senses she knew to be Equestria. Then it settled on her moon.

Nightmare knew an instant of terror as she felt a mind behind the light. It was so different, a mind not of now, but of what was and what will come… a mind not of I, but of we. It was searching, hungrily, but not for her, and in an instant it was gone. The Lunar Princess reeled, trying to regain her mental footing. Though she couldn’t see the light on her tapestry anymore, she couldn’t shake the feeling it left behind, as if something was resonating within her to vibrations coming from somewhere else.

Incensed, and not wanting to let go of the emotions so recently restored to her, Nightmare forced herself to concentrate, attuning her mental map to the… beacon that had just raked over her. The ambient song of her stars shifted until, there, below the fog of the tapestry, she could again see the sweep of light. Its target was close, far inside any of her stars, yet well away from Equestria or her moon. Nightmare Moon paused, willing complete stillness from herself lest it detect her and return with its blinding attention, but the beam of light remained steady on its target.

It was odd, the light seemed to rest on something, yet Nightmare knew there was nothing there; after her moon, it was an impossibly far distance to the nearest star. Curious, she looked more closely. Now that most of her terror had dissipated, the alicorn realized the importance of what she was observing. The beacon wasn’t showing clearly anymore, instead, the black fog was obscuring it. Strange, Nightmare thought, if the tapestry is supposed to represent the space between the stars, how can something be below it?

As she thought the word, she adjusted the hold on her power, reaching out, reaching below her tapestry of space to follow the beacon. That was when everything opened up to her.

There were rocks… hundreds of them, no, thousands of them spread along a wide orbit far from Celestia’s sun. Some were as big as mountains, and others were nearly the size of her moon. She pulled back, marveling at the revelation. At a casual glance, the tapestry was still there as she knew it, unchanged. She looked below again.

The beam was focused on one rock in particular. It was massive… one could fit all of Canterlot and its supporting mountain inside. As the alicorn stretched her consciousness as far as she could, she sensed the clicking, raspy voices of the beam stop and something else entirely begin. There were simply no words to describe it.

Nightmare Moon, despite the name she had chosen for herself, had never worked with dreams. That had been… a specialty of her previous self, before the transformation. It had taken a solid month of observation before she realized what she was sensing from the beam of light. The mind, or minds (her exposure had been so brief and disorienting, she wasn’t able to remember which) behind the beacon were sending dreams. The truth had surprised Nightmare in two ways. First, this was nothing like Lu-her skill. She had gently guided restless ponies through their slumbers with whisper-soft spells, settling agitated minds and calming frayed nerves. This light was overpowering; it was like a voice shouting itself hoarse across the void. Second, this was not magic at all. Even without a horn with which to sense the ether’s vibrations, Nightmare Moon could tell she was witnessing something else entirely. The most startling realization of all was that there must be living beings inside that desolate rock in space, otherwise what would be the purpose of the dreams? Was she witnessing some other kind of alicorn, tending to its own herd? She tried to peer again beyond the fog, to see what was out there, but beyond the place where the light shown, all was intangible, outside the borders of her reality.

Wrapped in the here and now, her consciousness drifted. The Night Princess contemplated the celestial tapestry of smoky fog and shining diamonds before her. On this side was the existence she had come to know over countless years and belowbelow was something new.

But an unknown could be dangerous. A brief look into that light had left her blinking. What would happen if she reached out for it? Her banishment would end eventually… what would be the point of outlasting her imprisonment all these years if she wasn’t around when the spell was lifted?

However, now that she knew the light existed, just beyond her ken, and that it illuminated more than she could possibly imagine… no, there was no way Nightmare could ignore all that through the untold centuries to come. She was the terror of Equestria – let the beacon and whatever was on the other side be afraid of her.

She extended herself, grazed the light, and was pleased to find none of the previous terror. The voices were intent upon their target and now instead of being the object of their scrutiny, she was along for the ride. An image began to take shape, and though she had never experienced it herself, Nightmare recognized the creation of a dream.

The return of three-dimensional space was jarring to a mind so long accustomed to displaced consciousness. Though it only appeared to be a non-descript hospital room, Nightmare drank in every detail. A large bed with rails sat far higher than she would have expected. Bathed in the bright light of a nearby window, it was clearly the focal point of the room, and of the dream. The sunbeams illuminated dust motes throughout the air, and as she gazed at their swirling patters, she noticed row upon row of metallic boxes set on counters around the edges of the room. Some appeared to be containers with endless drawers and cabinets. Others emitted a low hum and displayed odd patterns of dancing lights. She would have walked over to examine them more closely, but Nightmare was disappointed to find that she had no body in this place, or even a presence to speak of. She knew instinctively that she was a mere observer, relegated to watch in the same manner as the dreamer. Was this the way she had done it before? Was she a spectator to the very dreams she wove for her subjects? Maybe had she taken an active role and revealed her presence, they would have been more grateful, would have understood all she did for them…

The alicorn’s thoughts and observations were interrupted as the presence of the actual dreamer made itself known. Nightmare Moon looked at him, and though she knew the dreamer was something different, something outside of what she knew, the only concept supplied by her mind was “colt.”

It was infuriating, but it made a backwards sort of sense as she considered it. The mind doesn’t question itself in a dream – it sees what it is meant to see. The dreamer knew what he was, and his sense of self filled his role in the dream with no need to elaborate. Though what she clearly “saw” wasn’t a pony, all her mind provided was a sense of a young male, so she perceived a colt.

The dreamer appeared to be strapped to the bed, needles and tubes protruding from long appendages (those aren’t hooves… but it’s still a colt). He looked around, wide-eyed, as Nightmare Moon felt another presence enter the room.

The vibrations of the new creature were gold, and as it appeared, the alicorn briefly saw the color of the beacon’s light reverberate throughout the walls of the dreamscape. This was the sender, she realized, the chattering mind of I and we that had briefly swept over her and pierced the fog of her tapestry. This time, there was no mental substitution; she saw the creature clearly for what it was, as did the dreamer, to his apparent horror.

It was easily taller than Celestia. Nightmare thought briefly of the changelings who lived on Equestria’s far frontier, but quickly dismissed the image… this was much worse. It stood on two stocky legs, and out of an armored, chitinous trunk sprouted four arms, two major above two minor, each ending in a clawed talon. Two lithe antennae sprouted over bulbous, multi-faceted eyes on its v-shaped head. The alicorn was momentarily glad for her lack of physical presence when she saw the creature’s mandibles, each supported by muscular jaws.

The creature was soon joined by its fellows who multiplied seemingly out of thin air. Alike in their green-and-black hides, the… bugs, she decided to call them, began to swarm around the colt’s bed. They reached out and took sharp instruments from trays that materialized from nowhere, as things often do in dreams, and leaned menacingly over the (not) colt. Curiously, where Nightmare would have expected a hungry gleam in their eyes, or at least some sign of interest, she found only a dull lack of expression, like puppets controlled by a distant master. Somehow, this made their next actions even more terrifying.

To his credit, the colt (what is he?) didn’t cry out in fright. His eyes were set in an odd mix of determination and resignation. Nightmare suddenly had the sense that he had seen this all before… a recurring dream then? She wanted to turn away or close her eyes, as the sharp instruments drew closer to the colt, but she was just an observing mind. She had no eyes to close, and couldn’t turn away without tearing herself wholly from the light.

Nightmare Moon didn’t know what the consequences of that would be, and she didn’t want to find out.

So the alicorn watched as the bugs leaned closer, raising their instruments to the colt’s decidedly non-pony face. Instead of tearing into his skin, as she feared they would, the instruments stopped as a brilliant silver spiral of wispy smoke erupted over the captive. Nightmare stared in amazement. Inside the spiral was an endless array of images, shifting and moving as she focused on each one. It was a life, she realized, his life. Or rather, his memories… all arranged and displayed in a glittering fractal helix.

The colt screamed as the bugs set upon the spiral with their instruments, slashing out memories, then taking each one and cutting it into its component parts. The images flashed too quickly for her to fully make out, but like the dreamer’s mind, hers filled in the blanks of what they were supposed to be: friends, triumphs, fears, losses, and family. Each image would momentarily appear whole when it was removed from the helix, just long enough for Nightmare to get a good look at it. Then the bugs set to with their instruments, razor-sharp scalpels and blinding torches of light, separating individuals and emotions, examining them under magnifying loops before letting them go to evaporate into thin air. The alicorn’s mind received details from the dreamer while she watched… there were his parents, his brother, his… his sister.

The colt’s cries continued to echo as Nightmare Moon ignored her earlier caution and tore herself from the light.

Had she a body, the alicorn was sure she would be panting heavily and sweating. Never before had she witnessed anything like this. Her own rise to power had been fueled by the terror she inspired in ponies, but this was… this was something else entirely. To attack through dreams, to bring that level of fear into a mind’s last respite… Nightmare Moon may have fantasized about giving her enemies a few bad dreams, but nothing like this.

The princess retreated as far as she could within the shroud of her moon. Though the separation from her tapestry deadened her connection to the remainder of her power, it also brought the oblivion of her early incarceration. From here, she could no longer perceive the light, and that’s exactly what she wanted.

Nightmare stayed that way for a long time.

Weeks, perhaps months, passed before she worked up the courage to return, and it was with trepidation that the night princess approached her tapestry. A tiny thrill ran through her as she failed to spot the light with an initial glance. Had it vanished? No, with a harder push below, she found it again, but it was far dimmer than it had been before.

What was happening?

She had originally meant to just observe, and perhaps learn more about the beings at the other end of the beacon, but the sight of the feeble light pushed the alicorn into action. Regardless of what she had seen the last time, Nightmare didn’t want to lose this one escape from her prison. She pushed her consciousness below, towards the beacon.

This time, there was no dream, no sudden realization of physical space. Instead, her consciousness floated amidst the light. A mix of boredom and desperation emanated from its source, and Nightmare Moon wondered at the combination of mutually exclusive emotions. She wanted to reach towards the minds on the other side of the light and inquire further, but her memory of their first encounter stopped her. She was still in an exposed and potentially dangerous position. It was probably better to remain undetected.

Immeasurable time passed. The princess supposed that their target was not yet asleep, and it relieved her somewhat to know that the powers behind the light couldn’t direct their assault through waking consciousness. Eventually, Nightmare felt a shift in the beam around her and sensed the start of a new dream.

Instead of finding herself inside as expected, Nightmare’s consciousness was buoyed above, as if looking downward through a large glass dome. Around her, the golden light flickered. The alicorn guessed that the bug-like creatures from before were outside as well. What am I seeing then, she wondered, a natural dream?

The setting this time was a temperate wood with little brush to obscure a vast carpet of pine needles. As the dreamer appeared, walking down a clear forest path next to a winding stream, Nightmare Moon noted with a hint of annoyance that he still appeared as a colt. It was a maddening sensation; her “eyes” clearly saw what was a new and alien creature, yet her mind only rendered the familiar equine form. The youth sighed with recognition as he surveyed the landscape… perhaps this was another recurring dream?

The princess’ consciousness continued to hover outside the dreamscape as the colt moved on, quickly following the path until he came upon what looked like a playground set into a clearing. In it, roughly a dozen colts and fillies played, though Nightmare continued to wrestle with her mind as to what these beings actually were. As the dreamer walked through, the other children seemed to ignore him, not even recognizing his presence until he approached the playground equipment. Then, they would push him violently out of the way. Whenever the dreamer did manage to get on, something wouldn’t work for him. The merry-go-round would sling him away at random, he would pass through certain bars on the climbing structures, and the slide seemed to have an invisible hole through which only he could fall.

Suddenly, one of the other fillies happened to follow too closely behind the colt after he passed through the hole in the slide. She fell and lay stunned. The dreamer sighed, reaching out towards the filly, but then stopped, pulling back his hooves (those aren’t hooves). Instead, he sat on his haunches, and waited with his eyes closed. The alicorn wondered, has he seen this all before?

Nightmare drew in to look more closely. Before her eyes, the not-filly changed into a shape she recognized well, one that needed no filtering by her errant consciousness. Where the filly once lay was a wolf, crouched and staring through blood-red eyes at the dreamer. The colt sat, accepting his fate. The dream went black as the wolf lunged at the dreamer, seizing his throat.

The night princess mentally shuddered as her field of view blackened, then returned to the forest scene she had seen previously. Again, the dreamer walked down the path, now with a weary sag to his shoulders. This clearly is a recurring dream, thought Nightmare, and that last iteration was not his first time experiencing it. This time, the colt did not delay, seeming to know the actions required of him. He went straight to the slide, and instead of starting down immediately like before, he waited at the top for one of the other children to come up behind and fall through with him. Another colt this time, the dreamer seized it the moment it was stunned and began dragging it back towards the forest path. As he reached the stream, the dreamer wasted no time in shoving the other colt’s head under the water. The transformation was instant this time, but the dreamer had a good grip (with hooves?) and despite the wolf’s thrashing, he held on. It wasn’t long before the beast drowned.

If she wasn’t already numb from witnessing the first end of the dream, Nightmare would have recoiled at the neutral expression the dreamer maintained throughout the ordeal. To see such a look on a colt’s face as it killed was shocking, even though she knew it wasn’t actually a pony. The dreamer sighed heavily as it turned back towards the playground. Its footfalls were heavy and leaden; he clearly did not want to finish the dream.

It was then Nightmare felt the familiar golden flash of the beacon. Wrapped up in her observation, she had completely forgotten about the strange consciousness enabling it. All of a sudden, she was inside the dream, floating next to the colt as he returned to the playground. A pit of fear opened within her. If they were changing things, this dream could only get worse.

The colt stopped as he saw at the other children playing, and a look of confusion crossed his face. Nightmare’s sense of dread worsened – apparently this was not how things normally went. Shaking his head, the dreamer again went to the slide. He was first pushed away by another colt, and then followed by the same filly from before. Now the dreamer didn’t hesitate, he grabbed the filly as soon as she fell, striking her to make sure she stayed unconscious. It wasn’t a long trip to the stream. Nightmare desperately wanted to look away as they drew close to the first body, but again, with no form of her own, she was locked into observing the dreamer’s actions.

As before, the not-filly changed into a wolf as soon as her head went below the water, and again, the colt was able to hold on as he drowned her. However, as soon as he pulled her back up, the form again shifted… this time to a different filly. Every bit of Nightmare’s persona froze, realizing what she was seeing before it registered in her conscious mind. On the edges of her perception, the alicorn could see the colt going through the same paralyzing horror. She didn’t know what he was looking at, though, because all she could see was the limp form of Celestia staring at the heavens, the rictus of suffocation on her pale features. This was not the radiant warrior who had banished Nightmare long ago, but instead the little playmate who used to play hide-and-seek in the throne room, and the one who would sing to her whenever she couldn’t fall asleep.

Nightmare Moon quavered at the edge of her tapestry, unwilling to expend even the minute amount of energy needed to pull away from it. She stared at the beacon, directing every bit of long burned-out hatred at the light. Hundreds of years of contemplation, consideration, and planning had led to the ultimate conclusion that she needed to kill her sister, and, and…

…and what? Nightmare channeled the maelstrom of emotion into a funnel, whipping and compressing it down into the narrow pit of analytical thought at the center of her being. A silly vision changed nothing. Her return would still precipitate a war between the goddesses, and the only result which would end in her victory was still Celestia’s complete elimination. The vision was undoubtedly horrifying, but no matter what the Solar Princess used to be, she was still the only threat to Nightmare’s existence and eventual ascendancy. She would not be killing a filly; she would be killing a tyrant – an old nag of a tyrant at that.

The princess regarded the beacon’s source, a growing malevolence welling up within her. She wished she could reach out and crush it, grinding it into nothingness as retribution for inflicting such horrid dreams. Suddenly, as Nightmare entertained a few possibilities of suitable revenge, the light went out.

Did I do that?

Even at her full power such a feat seemed… improbable. Only a few months ago, she didn’t even know a plane existed beyond the fabric of her stars.

A short breath of absolute silence passed before a howling wind erupted from below her tapestry. Across it, she felt a roar as what seemed like countless minds screamed out and then were instantly silenced. The following stillness and absence of light was shocking to the alicorn. Had she become so used to the beacon’s presence?

Numb, Nightmare pushed her consciousness below to see if anything remained. Sure enough, there was no trace of the beacon, and consequently, no light to let her see the shadowy forms on the other side. Gone were the thousands of rocks and almost any indication of there being anything on the other side.

Almost.

In the darkness, Nightmare could sense one ember, glowing with residual light. With the beacon present, she could never have made it out, much in the same way that the sun obscures even the brightest stars in the sky. Now, however, she could see it clearly.

It was the dreamer.

The Princess of the Night spent the next few months in a sort of limbo, split between her tapestry and the unknown space below it. Had it been months? With the time spent on the other side, she couldn’t be absolutely sure. She lost her sense of the moon’s movement, her only reference to the passage of time, when she descended below.

With the loss of the beacon, she could no longer interact with the dreamer, but she could still observe him as a point of light, a tiny firefly lost below her tapestry, somewhere between the moon and the stars. Had she Luna’s skill with –

Did I really just think of her name? Nightmare Moon was mortified.

If she’d possessed her predecessor’s skill in weaving dreams, she might be able to reach across the void, but even then, she doubted the range of her power.

So for lack of anything better to do, the alicorn simply observed, watching the tiny candle in the immeasurable darkness. Her idle mind wandered, considering what she knew of the dreamer from her brief glimpses into his world. Nightmare wondered what he was doing out there in the cold depths of space. The memory of those thousands of rocks began to take on new meaning. Did his kind live in the remnants of a broken world? How did they survive?

As the days wore on, the ember waxed and waned. Sometimes it flickered brightly, other times it grew so dim, the alicorn feared she had lost it altogether. As she gazed longer, Nightmare noticed that its position wasn’t exactly fixed either. The dreamer moved ever so slightly, presumably within the confines of the rock she had seen under the beacon’s illumination. From her position and sense of scale, however, his motion was almost imperceptible.

It came as a total shock when the ember suddenly took off at an unfathomable speed, directly towards her.

Lieutenant Sarah Martin was on edge. Priority runs were always harrowing, what with the no-fail status and the inevitable close scrutiny of the brass in charge, especially those riding as passengers. But the past few days had become exponentially more stressful for the tug pilot.

She had always hated 433 Eros, better known as Command School. The layout made no sense, the corridors were wider than they were tall, and the constant down-slope always gave her a feeling of vertigo no matter how strong the artificial gravity. Needless to say, Martin was not happy when given the order to stay station-side while her tug was assigned to another captain. She should have known something was up when she saw Graff’s face on the screen in Station Ops. The fat bastard never got directly involved unless it was something important.

Colonel Graff… he wasn’t the first International Fleet officer she had met, but to Sarah, he represented the start of it all, the spider at the center of the web. Once he had you, there was no escape; even when you thought you were clear, he always had some sticky strand attached, ready to reel you back in.

Had Martin given it more thought, instead of just getting frustrated, his involvement should have told her everything. There was only one reason why Graff was not sitting on his throne at Battle School, and only one person important enough to merit his personal involvement in something as trivial as transportation.

Her passenger… singular noun.

Getting a new tug, one that was decades more advanced than her last was surprise enough. Receiving it solely to transport one admiral to Earth was something else entirely. During the long weeks of absolute tedium that comprised inter-planetary travel, Sarah filled her time calculating fuel costs, determining how much each of her passengers or cargo pallets were worth to Hegemony taxpayers. She didn’t want to even start thinking about the number this time - she was unnerved enough already.

When the war ended, Sarah’s plan had been simple: keep her head down, do her job, finish her time, and get the hell out of the IF. She had given her youth to the service, and she wanted every possible year of freedom she could get. This assignment was the polar opposite of what she wanted – every asset in the fleet would be trained on her throughout this trip. Why Graff had chosen her was a complete mystery… it wasn’t as if he didn’t know her reputation.

Then there was the passenger himself. Honestly, she didn’t know what to expect when she met him at the gangway, wearing her dress uniform for the first time in years. It had been so long that her blues leggings were a full six inches short and she’d had to buy new ones at the last minute. Admirals usually came in two flavors, the ones too full of themselves to converse with mere mortals, and those who were so focused on “taking care of their people” that they came off as over-the-top, asking every minute detail about your life. The kid… correction, her high-ranking passenger was… painfully normal. He was engaging, cordial, and had a manner that instantly put her at ease.

Or it would have, anyway, had he not been a damned teenager wearing admiral’s stars. Martin had heard the story, hell, the whole planet had heard his story, but seeing it all right there in front of her was just too much to handle. It was like talking to a caricature.

Was he even a teenager yet? He was twelve when the war ended, a fact the news personalities loved to reiterate. How would someone like that even celebrate a birthday?

Martin snickered, envisioning a roomful of IF brass awkwardly applauding and eyeing each other as the young flag officer blew out his candles.

Then there were the vids, the scenes from Graff’s trial back home; the things that had surfaced since her passenger’s rise in fame. “Of course the killings weren’t his fault,” the talking heads would say, “of course they were in self defense, or the product of a criminally negligent training program, but still… what kind of child could do this?”

She had to admit, no matter the circumstance, watching one six-year-old brutally murder another gave her pause, especially when the murderer was the only other soul on her ship.

To his credit, the boy stopped trying to interact with her once he realized that she wouldn’t stray from standard military formality. She was his pilot. She made sure he was comfortable in his room and that he knew where he could find everything he needed on board. Beyond that, she kept to herself in the flight deck and her adjacent quarters. If she was lucky, she could avoid him for the entire trip.

She wasn’t lucky. Nearly a week into the voyage, the admiral arrived on the flight deck unannounced, and dropped himself into a jump seat without a word. Sarah had been dreading this, but at the same time, she had never been more grateful for her new tug. The ship was far faster than her old one… a week would have barely brought them an eighth of the way home. Now, with the moon entering scope range, there was only a half day of travel remaining. She could do this.

“Is there any problem with your accommodations, sir?” Martin asked, keeping her voice as level and neutral as possible.

“They’re wonderful,” he replied evenly. She could sense he was eyeing the back of her head. “I just wanted to come up here to get a look at the view.”

It was an obvious barb. Windows on interplanetary spacecraft were only something you saw in bad movies. Steering a spaceship visually was laughable when traveling at relative speed and any kind of transparent material used to make a window would be a comparative structural weakness.
The question is, Sarah thought to herself, do I rise to the bait or shrug it off? What is he playing at here?

“The desk in your room can pull up any external camera, sir.” she deadpanned, rotating the pilot’s seat so they could speak face-to-face. It wasn’t respectful to address anyone without looking at them, much less a superior. He didn’t seem the sort, but Martin didn’t want to give her passenger any reason to report on her conduct.

After a second, she noticed he was wearing his full dress uniform. Odd, considering they were underway.

“Oh, this?” The admiral withdrew his desk, unrolling the flexible tablet and powering it up as he handed it to her. “Would you mind showing me? I don’t think I have the right access codes.”

Martin took the device, mind whirring at a mile a minute. Word on her passenger had spread like wildfire among her circle of alumni once his role in the war was made public. This was the kid who had broken Battle School network security on his first day. Of course, the security programs on Launchy desks were designed to be broken as a way to test the new recruits, but it wasn’t long before he had hacked into the school’s real networks. Bottom line, her passenger did not need the access codes to the ship’s cameras.

What does he want? Sarah wondered. Could this all be just a convoluted way to interact with me? He doesn’t seem like the type to need attention; he was perfectly fine being on his own before.

She wasted no time in accessing the applicable codes and bringing up the cameras. A three dimensional view around the ship sprang to life above the desk as she handed it back to the admiral.

“That should be everything you need, sir. Enjoy stargazing and let me know if there’s anything else you require. We should be arriving in…” she glanced at the clock, “just over eleven hours now.”

Sarah turned back to her console. It wasn’t strictly proper to turn away from a superior without leave, but she thumbed a few controls, initiating diagnostics to make it seem as if there was work to be done. Not that it would fool anyone, but she didn’t think he’d stand on ceremony.

“Actually, I was wondering,” he started, his voice casual and ambivalent, “how exactly does a Battle School graduate end up flying a tug?”

Martin froze as the corners of her vision started to turn red. What the hell, she raged, has he been going through my records?

“Who says I graduated?” she hissed through gritted teeth. Sarah’s concern with protocol went right out the window as her temper flared. She hated when people got involved in her personal life, especially when they had no reason to do so.

She barely heard the smirk in his voice, but it was enough to make her clench a fist involuntarily. Why had she risen to the bait?

“If you didn’t graduate, they would have sent you home. Given that you’re in uniform, it’s pretty clear you made it to one of the follow-on programs.”

Sarah sighed inwardly as embarrassment deflated her anger. That was a stupid thing to say, she thought. Now he’s probably wondering how I even got into Battle School in the first place.

“I washed out of Pre-Command,” the lieutenant replied, an old weariness settling into her voice, “they said that my leadership style ‘while novel and formidable in Battle School, was a liability to good order and discipline in the fleet at large.’”

“After all they invested in you,” he wondered, “they couldn’t find you a place at the Tactical or Support Schools?”

“Let’s just say I didn’t play well with others,” she spat. “Besides,” the pilot returned hotly, “wouldn’t you have seen that in my records?” As she said it, Sarah realized with a sinking feeling that she was starting to tread on very thin ice. She may have long-since torpedoed any chance at a prosperous career, but there was a cadre of people you just didn’t mouth off to in the military… her passenger being one of them.

Turning around, the lieutenant started to apologize, but was brought up short by the boy’s surprisingly amicable reply.

“I… never looked at your records,” he said, raising his hands defensively. The surprised expression on his face showed that he had similar feelings about poking into someone’s personal life.

Martin paused, confused. “Then how did you know I went to Battle School?”

Her passenger stared for a few moments, his brow furrowed, until a look of realization struck him. Apparently, he had not given the source of his knowledge much thought.

“Ah, now that I think of it, I got the impression when you first picked me up on the docks.” He laughed apologetically. “What confirmed it was how you moved through the boarding tube. You almost immediately ditched the station-side orientation, and when we hit the right-angle in the tube, you performed a textbook corner-drop.”

Sarah thought hard, trying to remember the events he described. Because of the sensitive nature of her mission, the tug had not been stationed at the usual docking ring, but tethered instead at a discreet point on Eros’ nadir. Without the ring’s artificial gravity, Martin and her passenger had to descend via a zero-g boarding tube. He was right – humans naturally kept their previous up-down orientation when subjected to zero-g. Battle School graduates, having spent hundreds of hours in the zero-g combat simulator known as the Battle Room, were conditioned to instead shift their orientation to whatever perspective best suited the environment. When she had entered the tube, she had pictured the far direction as “down” and imagined herself falling towards it. The maneuver her passenger mentioned was simply a body motion used to negotiate stars, cubical obstacles common in Battle Room games. Looking back, she had indeed done a corner-drop out of habit, and was surprised that she hadn’t noticed it at the time.

She glanced at her passenger, noting a small and hesitant smile on his face. Was that all this was, an attempt to reach out to someone because of a shared experience? It seemed so… beneath him.

The admiral hesitantly continued.

“You know, I had a teacher, another admiral actually, who made a career of ‘not playing well with others.’ It can be a surprisingly important trait, depending on the situation.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” Martin shook her head. “I’m having a hard time picturing that. Every admiral I’ve met has been either the consummate politician or a self-professed ‘man of the people.’ Both are usually windbags with a lot of volume and little substance. Uh, present company excluded… no offense.”

Great, she thought, could I possibly stick my foot any farther into my mouth?

Her passenger only chuckled. “Ever hear of Mazer Rackham?”

Sarah blinked. Of course she had. Mazer was the hero of the Second Invasion, the pilot who had inexplicably stopped the Buggers with a single volley of nuclear warheads. In his day, he had been celebrated even more than her passenger was now.

In his day… the state media had glossed over how Rackham had been involved in the war’s end, only stating that he was. No one seemed to bring up the fact that Mazer’s heroics happened nearly a century ago.

“… has more reprimands in his records than medals, and believe me, they gave him a lot of medals,” the admiral said, not seeing Martin’s inattention. “His attitude probably saved his life, and by extension, the rest of humanity as well. Had he been given a ‘good’ assignment on one of the capital ships, Rackham would be radioactive dust in the Oort Cloud with the rest of our fleets.”

“Sir,” Sarah asked, suddenly curious, “how is he… here? Shouldn’t he have died decades ago? How is it Mazer Rackham was your teacher?”

The pilot hoped the question might steer things away from her earlier outburst, and besides, she’d probably never again have the opportunity to find out. The truth, at least with this subject, was in short supply.

A somber look shadowed the boy’s features for a moment. He paused, seemingly choosing his words with care. “After the Second Invasion, IF Command was reeling. Their every effort at high strategy had been circumvented or simply overpowered by the Bug-by the Formics.”

Martin didn’t miss the slip of the tongue, but she didn’t interrupt. It was oddly comforting to know that her passenger hadn’t adopted the forced “politically correct” term for an enemy her generation grew up hating.

“They knew the victory was a fluke,” he continued, “the result of correct and timely intuition on the part of a squadron leader, who in fact violated orders by remaining in position and firing when he did.”

The lieutenant was dumbstruck. THIS wasn’t something they taught in schools.

“Mazer instinctively saw something that’s been missed by generations of xenobiologists, before and after.” He sighed heavily. “Unfortunately, what he saw is highly classified.”

The boy paused, flicking his eyes around the flight deck, indicating the various sensors, cameras, and microphones that supplied information to the ship’s flight data recorder. Martin quickly understood; normally the records were only used in the event of a mishap, but there was no reason the IF couldn’t access them when they arrived. Hell, if someone had connected the recorder to the ship’s ansible, any number of people could be listening in as they spoke. It was a chilling thought.

“Suffice to say that Mazer and Mazer alone was singularly qualified to select the commander for our eventual counter-attack,” he continued. “The trouble was, it would take our ships decades to reach the Formic worlds, even at high relativistic speed. So they…”

“He left too, only he took a round-trip!” Sarah blurted out as she connected the dots, mind staggering at the implications. “High v with minimal Park shift… oh… why would he do… didn’t he have a family?”

The admiral lowered his head, a somber expression clouding his face. “A wife and two children… naturally he asked for certain considerations from the government for them, but yes, he left and stayed at the highest relative speed our engines could manage at the time. He traded two years for sixty, and only returned once the Battle School program had produced promising results.”

“Like a living death.” Martin thought of the weeks she skipped every time she made a run to and from the outer IF outposts. Her family had grown accustomed to it, but now that she was approaching a year of “skipped” time relative to them, the changes were starting to become noticeable. What would it be like coming back and finding everyone you knew to be either dead or impossibly old?

“That was a hell of a sacrifice. Was it worth it?” she asked.

“We won,” the admiral replied. “Though I’ll say this, after he told me his story, I never again complained about my own hardships. They only paled in comparison.”

The pilot sat for a moment, contemplating what she had just learned.

“Wait a moment,” she looked up, “if Mazer is still alive, why didn’t he command our forces?”

The boy smiled - a surprisingly genuine expression compared to the placating ones used by most admirals.

“I asked him the same thing, though I admit I was being quite petulant at the time. It’s an interesting story…”

Nightmare Moon watched with fascination as the ember arced across the void. Its speed was unlike anything she had seen before; even comets did not fly this quickly. As her moon moved relative to Equestria below, the alicorn realized that the ember was not, in fact, heading directly towards her like she originally thought. Instead the planet itself was its actual destination. It was this realization that sparked an idea in her mind, one that had consumed her over the past several days.

While the Elements were powerful, their seal was not infinite. Whatever this space below her tapestry was, she had been able to extend herself into it. If she could do so again, she might be able to latch onto the ember and use it to escape her prison. Whatever the dreamer was, and however he was moving through the void, he was going to Equestria. Surely her body and power would be returned once her consciousness was clear of the moon and the seal, Nightmare reasoned.

The question was, could she reach the dreamer’s consciousness while he was awake, and without the beacon as a guide?

The conversation had returned to the commonalities all Battle School graduates discussed: what armies they were in, which ones were strong at the time, which soldiers had the best stats, and what teachers were most reviled. As they spoke, Martin began to realize that the admiral was not that different than the other Battle School graduates she had known throughout her career. Sure, he was a little too composed for a young teenager, but honestly, how many of her compatriots could really be considered “normal?” At the end of the day, they were all kids who grew up on a space station, raised by soldiers to become soldiers.

Suddenly, the fact that he had killed two other children was no longer as unnerving. In each case, he had been defending himself – was it his fault if he was just good at fighting? Wasn’t that what they had trained him to do?

Seeing a lull in their exchange, she interjected.

“Sir,” Martin hesitated, not knowing quite how to address the subject of the murders, “those tapes they’re showing at the trial… why are they bringing those out? I’d think that’s the sort of thing that would end up buried under a ‘classified’ stamp, never to see the light of day.”

The admiral sighed. Apparently this was a topic he had addressed before, and Sarah started to worry that she had again crossed some sort of line.

Looking up at the ceiling, he seemed to weigh his words, considering how to answer. “Think of it this way: why would they put Graff on trial in the first place?”

The lieutenant looked down as she considered this. Why indeed? In a way, Graff had been responsible for their victory, finding and training the boy in front of her. Why was he being court marshaled?

It hit her all at once. “Graff isn’t on trial. You are. But… why would they want to discredit you?”

“Our victory had barely been announced when the League War erupted. You know as well as I do that the IF is only barely enforcing the peace landside, and we nearly were taken over from within when the Polemarch ordered his troops to attack headquarters.”

Martin shuddered. She had been in transit when the brief civil war, incited by the Warsaw Pact countries within the Hegemony, had attempted to take over both in space and on Earth. Had the insurrection not been defeated, she would have been killed the minute she docked.

“The peace is tenuous, and without a common enemy, the nations of Earth have gone back to jockeying for power. Battle School graduates, especially the ones who led the campaign against the Buggers, are seen as force multipliers – huge military assets to the nations lucky enough to get them. There are many people who think that if I go home, it will mean the return of American power over the world. They’re trying to make sure that even if I do go home, everyone will be too uncomfortable with me to allow any chance at formal leadership.”

The pettiness of it all turned Sarah’s stomach. This was all about nationalism? Sure, as an Aussie, she had been on the receiving end of the standard “prison colony” insults from a few British students at Battle School, but that had been about the extent of it. Hell, one of her commanders, a Turk, had made a Greek kid one of his toon leaders.

“So is this why they’re sending you to the colonies?”

He sighed. “There’s more to it than that, but let’s just say it’s the best option for everyone involved.”

The pilot shook her head. “Does that include you? What about your family?!” Sarah was shocked that her passenger didn’t seem to be even the slightest bit upset about the situation.

“My family is part of the ‘more to it,’” he began.

Nightmare Moon fixed every part of her consciousness on the ember as it arced ever closer to her moon. This was it: in mere moments it would start to pull away as it traveled towards the planet below.

She reached deep into herself, touching the very base of her divine power. The familiar restrictions of the Elements’ seal sprang up around her, but Nightmare noted with satisfaction that they mostly ended at the edge of her tapestry. As she leaned below she could feel at least some of her power marshalling as it did in the days of old.

The alicorn concentrated, imagining her horn as it once was: a locus of control over the ether that permeated the universe. She focused her energy, reaching out across the void. Nightmare pictured the ember and the mind behind it, and plunged her consciousness through the tapestry and across the gap. With every last bit of strength she possessed, Nightmare Moon grasped and held

In the tug’s flight deck, the unlikely pair sat back, regarding each other. Considering how she had originally planned to never speak to her passenger, Sarah was surprised at how she couldn’t think of anything more to say. As she regarded the admiral, something surprisingly trite popped into her head, and she couldn’t resist asking the question.

“So… what’s with the dress blues?”

The admiral blinked. After the weighty subjects they had been discussing, Sarah wasn’t surprised that it took a second for him to shift mental gears.

“This?” he asked, fingering his collar. “Oh, well, I have the sneaking suspicion that I’m going to be going from one interview to the next as soon as I arrive, so I thought I’d get used to wearing it again. I’d hate to be seen adjusting my crotch on international television,” he deadpanned.

Martin had to laugh at that. The male dress pants were notorious for being ill-fitting, and it was a common joke in Battle School that they had been designed by women. Sarah clutched her sides, the laughter resonating throughout the small flight deck, surprising even her. How long had it been since she was genuinely amused?

The admiral, for his part, egged her on, pantomiming a desperate struggle to straighten bunched-up underwear as he answered inane questions in front of an imaginary camera. In an instant, the officer was gone, and in his place was just another teenager, making fun of stiff formal clothing.

Sarah thought it was a nice thing to see.

Before she could finish that thought, the transport began to shake violently. Her training immediately took over as she hurriedly turned back towards her console.

Had she a body, Nightmare Moon would have been straining from her horn to her hooves. It wasn’t that the ember was big, or powerful, but that despite its apparent closeness, it felt so impossibly far away through the ether. She almost lost it, but after everything she had undergone, the alicorn was not going to let this chance to escape pass her by. Nightmare redoubled her efforts, bending every last ounce of her will to holding on. Had a pony been looking up towards the moon at that exact moment, she would have noticed it dim ever so slightly.

To his credit, the admiral didn’t ask any questions or try to interject himself into the situation. All Lieutenant Martin heard behind her was the click of seat restraints as she looked over her console’s readouts.

Simply put, what she saw was impossible. The ship had gone from high relativistic speed to a full stop instantaneously, and it was only because of the new ship’s upgraded inertial dampers that they hadn’t been transformed into a pulpy red stain on the flight deck’s forward bulkhead. All that energy had to be transferred somewhere, though, hence the shaking throughout the hull’s damping system.

The impossibility came from the lack of any cause behind their unexpected stop. Other than the moon off to their left, there was nothing solid anywhere close to the transport, and none of the ship’s engines, conventional or otherwise, had fired since the initial up-shift a week prior. The navigation program had entered a state of recursion, unable to handle the input. She tried re-starting the program, and then its individual processes, but the result was the same each time.

“I’m… going to have to take over manually,” she said incredulously, half for her benefit, and half for the admiral’s.

“What?!”

She wasn’t surprised by his reply. Contrary to the belief of most landsiders, ships were never piloted by hand. In most cases, manual control wasn’t even possible because the required inputs came faster than a human could react to them. That wasn’t to say flying was automated, though many aspects of it were, but human control was generally limited to selecting the proper program sequences for a given scenario.

Manual control existed only for the most dire of emergencies – such as what they now faced.

Sarah felt her mind clear as hundreds of hours of training kicked in. Thumbing off the various safeties, she took direct control of the tug, applying a simple thrust vector in the hopes of moving the ship forward and dissipating the built-up energy.

Nothing happened. If anything, the vibrations got worse.

The alicorn felt a shift as the ember renewed its struggles against her grasp. Slowly, ever so slowly, she could feel herself pulling away from her moon. Just a little more, she thought, focusing on her mental grip through the ether. If she could hang on, the ember would pull her free from the prison and take her back to Equestria.

Martin’s fingers flew across the console as she tried different combinations of thrust input to reduce the ship’s vibrations. She fired up a quick simulation on a side panel to show what would happen if she cut the throttles instead… it wasn’t pretty. The energy from the previous stop would tear the tug apart.

Sarah let out a breath through clenched teeth. Her options were quickly running out.

“Admiral,” she began, her voice the even calmness of a trained soldier under duress, “I need you to get to an escape pod. You’ll need to go on your own because the tug needs constant input right now to maintain sufficient stability for launch. If I can recover this, I’ll let you know when to return. If not…”

She trailed off, suddenly not wanting to finish the statement. Training for these scenarios in the simulator was one thing, facing them was another altogether.

“I understand.”

She heard his restraints unbuckle, followed by heavy footfalls towards the door as he struggled against the shaking deck. Sarah half expected a protest, some chivalrous offer to stay and help, or a foolish insistence that she try to get to a pod as well, but none came. Protocol was clear in this case, and he was a trained soldier, professional enough to do what he was told without distracting her with needless chatter.

A slight pause as she heard the door open. “Kill the artificial gravity – it’ll make getting down there easier. Take care… and thank you.” There was an edge to his voice at the end.

Well, maybe he wasn’t completely professional, but Sarah appreciated the sentiment. She spared a half second to toggle off the ship’s artificial gravity field. A secondary display showed the boy’s movement down the corridors to the life boat hangar. He wasn’t kidding; in zero-g, he positively flew.

Suddenly, she wished she could have seen him in the Battle Room. From all that she had heard, it must have been poetry in motion.

Before long, Martin saw the status lights on an escape pod go green. A half-second later, the transport lurched slightly as the boy departed.

Nightmare Moon’s consciousness reeled as the ember’s mass suddenly dropped by several orders of magnitude. Her ties to the moon, stretched by the constant force she had been holding across the void, snapped back with a vengeance as she felt herself dragged back through the tapestry to her prison.

She screamed mentally, fearing her chance of escape had slipped through her grasp. Suddenly, it dawned on the alicorn that she still held the ember. It hadn’t escaped her magic, it had just stopped running. Instead of it pulling her away, she was now pulling it towards her.

Before she could react, the ember tore through her tapestry at great speed. Appearing above her moon, she could only stare as her grasp whipped it into a tight, unstable orbit. The Elements’ seal held, reducing her power as it passed through the barrier. It was all she could do to slow the ember, bringing it to a gentle stop on the surface before her power faded entirely.

Had she eyes, Nightmare’s would have been held wide open in surprise.

What had she just done?

The vibrations stopped almost instantly as the escape pod cleared its bay. Sarah couldn’t explain how the energy dissipated so quickly, but that didn’t stop her from breathing a sigh of relief as she killed the thrust vector and returned the ship to auto-pilot. Thumbing open a communication channel, she started to call her passenger back when she noticed something on the external sensors.

The escape pod wasn’t there.

Confused, the lieutenant pulled up the telemetry automatically generated by the ship’s computer after launch. Such info was always saved by the ship’s black box to aid in the recovery process.

The craft had separated normally, and then it… vanished?

The pilot felt panic start to rise in her gut as she checked the recordings from the ship’s external cameras. The pod was there one instant and utterly gone the next.

Thermal imaging, transponder interrogation, everything came back with the same information.

Sarah triple-checked every instrument she had as she marked the current time on the ship’s logs. She had the feeling no one would believe her when she sent out her distress call, and she needed every bit of proof available to keep herself out of the brig.

Martin could scarcely believe it herself.

Ender Wiggin was gone.