Fate of the UNS Moon Dancer

by Shrink Laureate

First published

New frontiers aren't always safe.

In her quest to reach Twilight Sparkle, Sunset Shimmer must accept that new frontiers aren't always safe.

Note: this is actually a prequel, but you really need to read Log of the UNS Twilight Sparkle first to understand this.

Edited by Solstice Shimmer.
Thanks to Oliver for fact-checking.

“I really like what you have done here. You have taken the wonder for the unknown and the strive for a better tomorrow from the science fiction genre, and molded it with FiM perfectly.”

Chapter 1

View Online

6th January, 2433

Sunset Shimmer drifted. There wasn’t much else to do.

If she had a radio, then she could talk to the crew of the UNS Moon Dancer – what was left of them – and coordinate a rescue. As it was, all she could do was wave her hands and hope somebody on the ship could see her.

If she had thrusters, or even just a bag of air, then she could adjust her trajectory to intersect the Moon Dancer.

If she had a computer, she could do the calculations to work out what trajectory she’d need to adjust to in the first place.

If she had a telescope she could at least see where the damned Moon Dancer was now.

If she had a spacesuit then she wouldn’t have this damned headache, she wouldn’t be boiling hot on one side and blistering cold on the other, her lungs wouldn’t ache from the lack of air, her mouth wouldn’t be cracked and dry from the lack of saliva, her stomach wouldn’t ache from the lack of acid, or of the food she’d vomited up, she wouldn’t feel like she was constantly on the verge of a nosebleed, her vision wouldn’t be filled with random flashes and twisty lines, her veins wouldn’t be bulging from her skin, and the blood pumping through her brain with every pulse wouldn’t be so damned loud.

What she had was herself. Her uniform, what was left of it, minus most of the spacesuit. An antique pen, that she kept in her pocket.

On one level, she knew that she was blessed to be immortal. No other person or creature could hope to survive the vacuum of space. Despite the discomfort, she was in no immediate danger. She would simply drift out here forever. Blessed. Right.

As she slowly turned, her face pointed again towards the star. Epsilon Eridani, one of the nearest stars to Sol with its own planets. It was just ten little light years from Earth. Sixty trillion miles. That was nothing, really, in the scheme of things. The universe was far, far bigger than that. Even compared to the local star cluster, that was no distance at all.

But it was also more than twice as far as any human vessel had ever travelled before. The Moon Dancer’s mission was groundbreaking – meaning there was no rescue on its way, no backup. This far from home, U.N. Fleet ships had to be their own backup, which is why they had so many redundant systems. Eventually, perhaps, the U.N.F. would raise the funds and political will to design, build and launch another expedition to this system. Though depending on the fate of the first one, that could take decades. And the chance of some future expedition even finding her when they got here? Slim. She was a single tiny dot lost in a void that made all the oceans of Earth look small.

She turned her face away from the star, tired of the harsh glare. To her other side – down, presumably, though that was a matter of perspective – was Ægir, this system’s largest planet, a gas giant slightly larger than Sol’s Jupiter. It certainly looked big from here. She didn’t know how her immortality would stack up against the heat of a star, or the crushing pressure at the heart of a gas giant, and she wasn’t planning to find out.

She was in a high orbit around Ægir. So was the Moon Dancer, somewhere, though she had no way to see it. It would take her months to circle around the planet, and the ship a similar time. The chances of them running into each other by chance were… so low as to be not worth measuring. Some part of those months she would be behind the planet, shielded from the heat of the sun. She was not looking forward to that. Even her current hot-cold rotation was better than the days of unrelenting cold she’d be trapped in as she sailed behind such a massive sunshade.

Ægir also had an eccentric orbit. That meant that one end of its six-Earth-year-long orbit was closer to the star than the other, and therefore also a little hotter. It would take Sunset a few years to fully experience that effect, as she was dragged along with it. It would probably be beautiful, in an abstract way.

Of course, eventually she might hit one of the dozen or so icy moons. That would be interesting. More likely she’d pass close enough to one that its gravity would spin her out into space, giving her a slow tour of the universe as she sailed away.

As she turned again, she caught sight of a glint of something. It didn’t look the same as the optical illusions that radiation was producing in her eyeballs. It looked small and sharply defined. She squinted, shielding her eyes with one hand, trying to identify it. It certainly wasn’t the Moon Dancer, of that she was certain, but it could have been some of the equipment from the same airlock she’d been in.

The inner door slammed shut with a solid thud, followed by the noise of internal bolts screwing into place, sealing it tight. “Inner door locked,” said Starfinder through the intercom.

There was no actual window through to the control room, but the semblance of one was provided by a screen filling one curved wall that showed Starfinder sitting at his desk, keeping an eye on various controls and readouts. He could see the occupants of the airlock in the same way.

“Confirmed,” said Sunset Shimmer. She shifted the bag on her shoulder.

“We’re ready,” said Solar Flare.

“Final check of suit integrity,” said Starfinder.

Sunset checked the equipment readout on her wrist. “Looking good here,” she said.

“All clear,” said Solar Flare.

Starfinder gave her a thumbs up. “Decompressing in three, two, one,” he said, followed by the hiss of air being pumped out of the airlock.

“Wait!” called Solar Flare, looking at the instrument panel. “I see a red light!”

“Shit!” shouted Starfinder.

They were interrupted by a brief, loud crunch of impact, a rush of air and then silence as the contents of the airlock were ripped out into space.

Sunset didn’t know what had caused the fault. Before she had time to ask, explosive decompression had forced her, Solar Flare and all their equipment out all at once. It had torn her space suit to shreds, smashed her helmet, sent her careening through space. It had nearly ripped her own arm off as equipment and sharp pieces of bulkhead tried to escape, leaving it hanging from her shoulder by tendons, though that had healed over the subsequent painful half hour, leaving her a little light-headed from the lack of blood. That too would pass.

That had to have been more than just an airlock decompressing. It had felt like half the ship had slammed into her. Had something punctured the pressurised air tanks next to the airlock? How many other crew had been caught up in it? Was the whole ship lost?

They had been scattered in all directions, but it was possible one of the other objects had ended up on a similar path to her own. As she turned, Sunset caught an irregular flickering. Something, she couldn't tell what, was close by. Whatever it was, it probably had more technology than she did, and so represented her best hope of getting out of here. She needed a way to reach it.

The first step was to stop her turn. She needed to get her bearings without being constantly disoriented. Controlling your movement in microgravity was something they taught at the U.N.F. Academy, and Sunset took the classes again every few decades to make sure she didn’t become a fossil. She’d never expected to have to do it in the vacuum of space, where you’d normally have thrusters available, but the technique was the same.

Physics does not like an object to change its angular momentum, but there are ways around that. A ballerina is able to make her turn faster by bringing her arms and legs in, or slower by sticking them out. A cat uses the same effect to land on its feet by twisting its flexible back, letting the front and back turn separately. Sunset simply needed to mimic the motions of a cat. She pulled her arms in close to her body, stuck her legs out at an angle and twisted her torso, then pulled her legs into a crouch and stuck her arms out while she untwisted. She was no cat; her efforts provided only paltry effect. Her muscles burned at the sudden large motion so soon after losing blood, and there was an insistent ache in her left shoulder where it had been nearly ripped out. After a few tries and adjustments, she corrected her motion until it was relatively stable.

Next she needed a way to propel herself. There was nothing to push against, of course, no ground, no air, no water. She had no breath left to blow. The only way to push herself was with an equal and opposite force. In theory she could have used her own blood as propellant, what little she had left, but she had no knife with which to cut herself, and even if she had it would be terribly imprecise, more likely to go wrong than not.

She took the pen out of her pocket. She took it with her on every mission. It had once been used to write the words, “Dear Princess Celestia,” but the metal tip was rusty now, useless for anything. There was no ink, of course, and if there had been it would have evaporated into space. It could do her just one last favour. Checking over her shoulder to make sure of her direction to the object, she threw the pen forwards as hard as she could.

The pen didn’t weigh very much, compared to a human being, so while it sailed away at high speed, the difference it made to Sunset’s own momentum was barely a crawl in comparison. She tried hard not to feel insulted as she watched it disappear. It was also hard to get any idea of speed without something to measure it against.

Looking over her shoulder again, she confirmed she was moving slowly closer. Wriggling herself around in another series of cat-like twists, she faced the object. As she slowly approached, she was finally able to identify it.

It was Solar Flare.

She was dead, of course. Her helmet was missing, as was her left leg. The blood had quickly drained from her body through the wound, leaving her skin pale. The water in her tears had all evaporated into space, leaving just a faint crust of salt on her face.

Solar Flare was tumbling backwards, most likely propelled by the blood pouring from her leg. Sunset approached slowly, unable to control her movement, until finally she passed close enough to reach out, grab her suit and hold on. Now they were both spinning but more slowly, and she had to hold on tight or risk drifting away.

Clambering up to Solar Flare’s face, Sunset mouthed, “I’m sorry.” No sound came out, of course. The movement made her lips crack, but they healed up straight away.

Aside from the missing leg and helmet, most of Solar Flare’s spacesuit was intact. Sunset twisted round to access the controls on the suit’s wrist. There were a dozen flashing red warnings that she dismissed. She paged through to navigation.

According to the readout, the UNS Moon Dancer was a hundred and thirteen kilometres away, and that distance was increasing with every second, but it wasn’t accelerating. Not as bad as she’d feared, then. At least it wasn't a moving target. It was, roughly speaking, down – which is to say, towards the planet – but even knowing that she still couldn’t see it with her own eyes. A helmet would have augmented her view with helpful labels, but neither of them had one. She tried to contact the ship, and got nothing, not even a ping. Most likely the spacesuit’s radio was damaged, and that was buried among the many warnings.

She checked the suit’s propellant levels and found they were good. She tried a very quick burst from each of the suit’s thrusters, holding on tight to make sure she wasn’t dislodged. All but two of them were functional. She told the suit to compensate for that, then nudged gently with the thrusters one way then another until the two of them had stopped turning and were pointed at the Moon Dancer. Checking the direction one more time, she burned the thrusters to accelerate. After confirming that the motion was correct, she ramped the thrusters up to high. After a few seconds, their motion relative to the Moon Dancer settled then began to drop.

This was good. She was going in the right direction now. It would only take her a few days to reach the ship at this speed, and that E.T.A. was dropping every second. Of course, when she arrived she’d have the opposite problem: slowing down. She didn’t particularly feel like hitting the hull like a meteor, so she made sure to stop burning when there was still enough propellant left to reverse her motion, and coast the rest of the way. She cut when the needle hit 55%, checked the E.T.A. again and found it had dropped to just under nine hours. Much more reasonable.

Nine hours coasting through space, watching the ship get slowly bigger. Just herself, her thoughts, and the dead body of a friend she was clinging to.

As long as the Moon Dancer didn’t move in the next nine hours. Then she’d be screwed.


The girl jumped. Or rather, flinched, let go of the hand-hold, pulled her arms and legs in and started spinning away. She waggled both hands at the hand-hold, trying to catch it again, but found her body moved back as she thrust her arms forwards, making the wall seem to dodge her grasp.

Sunset offered the girl her hand. She took it, and Sunset pulled her back upright. “You need to be careful of hand-holds. Don’t let go. Without them you won’t be able to move.”

“Thanks.” She took a moment to catch her breath. “Um, I guess you’ve done this before, then?”

“A little,” confirmed Sunset. “And it was quite a long time ago, so I’m fairly rusty.”

The girl furrowed her brow. “How come? Did you grow up on one of the stations?” Given the high cost of lifting mass into orbit, even now, it was rare to meet somebody who’d lived in space.

The instructor called out, “Okay, everybody, we’ll leave the plating on for five more minutes before giving you a break. Remember to stay in control of your turning. Use the hand-holds, keep your speed low, and use the absolute minimum of force. And try to avoid the patch of vomit over there,” he said, indicating the corner where one boy’s breakfast had been deposited. The other students variously shuddered, laughed or making puking noises. “All right, all right, settle down. It always happens to somebody in the first class. You get over it.”

The girl prodded her feet downwards as if trying to touch the bottom of a swimming pool. “I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to this,” she confessed quietly.

“You will, I promise. Everyone does, eventually.” She let go and floated to the opposite wall, grabbing a hand-hold to steady herself. “Now push yourself gently towards me.”

The girl nodded and shoved on hand against the wall, sending herself hurtling head-first into Sunset Shimmer’s arms. She’d been expecting that, though, and caught her. “Use a little less than that, I think.”

“Sorry,” said the girl, looking up at her. “I didn’t think it would be so much.”

“It’s okay, just keep the movement small and controlled, keep a level head and push away gently.” She guided the girl’s hands back to the hand-hold, then swapped walls again. “Okay, come to me.” The girl pushed off again, much more gently and sailed across the gap to grasp Sunset’s outstretched hand. “There, much better.”

“I was still turning,” she said. “Like I was falling over. How do I stop that?”

“You need to push from lower down, near your centre of mass. Like this,” she said, lowering her hand to stomach level and giving the wall a gentle nudge, sending her smoothly over to the other wall. “Now you.”

The girl mimicked her motion, sliding her hand down the wall to stomach level before tapping it into the wall. She moved across the gap at a reasonable speed, and daintily took Sunset’s hand at the other side. Her ginger hair floated around her like a halo, and she had a big grin on her face.

“Thank you!” she said breathlessly, gripping Sunset’s fingers with her own.

“Nothing to it,” replied Sunset with a smile.

“Oh, I didn’t catch your name earlier. I’m Solar Flare.”

“Sunset Shimmer.”

“Oh, were you named after the Admiral?”

Sunset chuckled. “Something like that.”

She’d miscalculated. As the spacesuit’s propellant level approached zero, the pressure dropped, reducing the force of the thrusters. That meant she needed to fire the thrusters for longer to achieve the same effect. There were systems to compensate for that by adding pressure, but they weren’t perfect. This was never normally supposed to happen.

She'd intended to cancel most of her motion as she approached, then coast slowly for the last few hundred metres. Instead she was pushing the thrusters as hard as she could, and hoping it would be enough to prevent her colliding with the hull. She would not have the freedom to manoeuvre around the outside of the ship by thrusters.

Now they were close enough to see it, the Moon Dancer itself was clearly turning. This was not a good sign. The crew would have corrected that straight away if they could. The burst dorsal airlock slowly passed by beneath them, giving her a view of the tangled mess of warped metal. It looked like one side of the cylindrical airlock had been sliced open with a breadknife, and the air tanks behind it had definitely burst, which would explain some of the force with which they’d been ejected. But that tangled maze of sharp metal would not be her way in.

Ships of the U.N.F. are built around redundancy. They have multiple of everything, separated into isolated sections. The Moon Dancer had two bridges, a dozen engines, three F.T.L. field generators, twelve fuel tanks, eight water tanks, nineteen life support systems, thirty-six magnetic bottles of antimatter and four external airlocks. When the nearest help is sixty trillion kilometres away, you bring your own reinforcements.

Sunset wanted to reach the ventral airlock, on the opposite side of the ship from the damage. That had the most chance of escaping whatever had damaged the ship. As the ship drew closer, too fast for her liking, it turned and she caught sight of her target. Nearby she saw another hole in the hull. This one looked to have been punched in rather than out.

Their relative motion had slowed enough to avoid an outright collision, but Sunset would still hit the ship faster than she preferred. On this course they would simply bounce off the hull. Instead she needed to reach one of the ladders that wrapped around the outside of the ship.

So she leapt. A dramatic leap of faith, made less cinematic by the fact that it took half a minute to reach her destination. She grasped hold of the handle on the side of the ship and held on tight as her body whipped past, fighting her own relative momentum.

The metal hull was cold to the touch, in the way that space isn't. Space isn’t actually cold, because it’s so empty. There’s nothing for the heat to transfer to. But the surface of the ship was cold, and Sunset could feel the chill creeping up her arm as she held on. She wished she at least had some gloves.

Once her motion had settled down, she started slowly climbing the ladder, hand over hand with her legs sticking out into the void. It was slow movement. The slow turn of the ship lent her a centripetal force that wanted to cast her back into space, and she knew if she let go for even a moment she’d be lost.

Eventually she reached the ventral airlock. Waving her hand over the controls, she briefly panicked when they took several seconds to flicker into life. She tried the buzzer first, but there was no response. That meant there was nobody manning the airlock controls. There was no fingerprint sensor on the outside, of course, and the camera didn’t recognise her. The system wasn’t made to expect somebody to approach the door without a spacesuit. She had to tap in a depressingly long sequence of passcodes to persuade the airlock of who she was, then give it the override code to open up.

There were a few seconds while the attachments holding the door shut were unscrewed. She’d have been able to hear them, if she could hear anything beyond the regular thud of her own heartbeat. Once that was done, the two sides of the outer door slid slowly open.

Inside it was dark. That wasn’t a good sign.

Chapter 2

View Online

Sunset had the top bunk. She lay on it today, brushing two fingers against the ceiling above her face, skimming through a folder of old photos.

The door was kicked open by Solar Flare, carrying a bag of freshly baked croissants, the warm smell quickly filling their small room. “Hey, Sunshine, look lively. I got us a treat.”

“Hey,” said Sunset half-heartedly, without looking.

Dropping her bag on her bed, Solar hopped nimbly onto the ladder to lean over the edge of Sunset’s bunk and stare at her face. “If I didn’t know better, I’d imagine the great Admiral Shimmer had been crying.”

“Yeah, right. Like that would ever happen.”

Solar cast an eye over the old 2D photos scattered across the ceiling. “Another one?”

“Another one,” admitted Sunset. She frowned. “How’d you know?”

“’Cause you always get nostalgic when some guy asks you out,” she said, reaching up to twist one of the pictures around with a wriggle of her fingers. “That’s Rainbow Dash, right? She looks really happy. When was this?”

“Right after she got her pilot’s license,” said Sunset with a small smile. “It was the best day of her life. A great time for pilots, with the scramjets just starting to fly into space. That’s Spitfire in the background, and Pinkie Pie with the bullhorn behind her.”

Solar flicked her wrist, sending the picture back to the folder where it came from. “So who was it this time?”

Sunset took a deep breath as she wiped her palm to put the pictures away, leaving the ceiling a blank slate grey. “Silent Running.”

Solar sneered in mock disgust. “The kid that was sick in the upside-down room?”

“Hey, that’s not fair, Solar. He’s a nice kid. He’s not too bad at low-G movement now, and his astrogation is top notch. Ask him about any star, and he’ll have something interesting to say.”

“Oh really? So if he’s such a nice kid, why’d you say ‘no’?”

Sunset turned away to look at the wall. “You know why,” she said quietly. “He’s not…” She swallowed.

“He’s not a pony?” finished Solar.

Sunset stared glumly at the wall. “Yeah.”

Solar watched her for a few more seconds, curious to see if she was willing to say more. When it was clear that no more was coming, she slid down the ladder and started unpacking her shopping. She put the kettle on and pulled open cupboards, leaving Sunset with her thoughts.

“He’s not her,” whispered Sunset.

The door slid closed behind Sunset, leaving her in darkness. The airlock was still in a vacuum, so she saw nothing, heard nothing, smelled nothing, tasted nothing. Tentatively she walked hand-over-hand along the wall, fumbling for hand-holds. As she worked her way along the airlock, the gravity eased back, letting her alight onto what was now the floor.

She tried waving and tapping on the control panel at the end of the airlock but it refused to flicker into life, so instead, she felt for the manual access panel next to it and wrenched it open. A couple of tiny coloured LEDs inside showed there was at least a modicum of power present, allowing her to find the door controls. First she pulled the lever to equalise the pressure, and was disappointed to hear no hiss of incoming air, meaning the section behind the door must also be in a vacuum. She turned the wheel that unscrewed the bolts holding the sides of the door together, then pumped the handle to release the heavy metal doors. Stepping back to the door, she slid her fingers between the doors and pulled it open.

The corridor behind was dark. Red emergency lights were dotted over and around a few doorways, casting an ominous air over the enclosed space. The gravity was weak, uneven and shifting, making it feel like the corridor tilted slightly, adding to the claustrophobic effect.

She turned to the first door she came to. The panel was responsive, lighting up in slowly moving circles of colour, but said simply ‘Network unavailable’. She pulled off the cover of the manual controls, letting it clatter to the floor and slide away, reached for the release handle… and stopped.

The luminous red-yellow striped markings around the door showed it to be an ‘air closet’, one of the many air-tight rooms scattered across the ship where the crew could shelter in case of decompression. Each was large enough for three or four people at most, and supplied enough air and water to keep them alive for a few days – assumed to be long enough for help to arrive.

The corridor was still in a vacuum, she could tell by how much everything hurt. The room she was about to open had spacesuits in it, that would make her movement more comfortable. But if there were people inside here, and she opened the door…

There were no windows in air closets. They’d be a weak point, in a structure whose entire purpose was to survive extreme stresses like this one. Frustrated, she tried the panel again but it refused to answer the question of whether anybody was in there.

Grabbing the nearby handle for leverage, she pressed her ear against the door, pushing to ensure as much contact as possible. There was no air in her ears, but she hoped the vibration would be enough for her to discern something.

Sure enough, there were muffled thumps inside indicative of living people. Some of the crew in this section had survived. Sunset couldn’t talk to them. She couldn’t see them. She didn’t know their names. But knowing there were survivors gave her purpose. It wasn’t just her own life she needed to save any more.

If there was anybody hiding in there, they’d only have a few days’ air and water. It wasn’t possible to open an air closet from the inside, since lack of oxygen so often produces confusion and hallucinations, making the option too dangerous for the exact circumstances in which air closets would be used. It would be too easy for survivors to kill themselves through a simple mistake.

She’d need to re-pressurise this section before the door could be opened, or provide another way out for the trapped crew. And for that, she needed to find out what had happened to the Moon Dancer.

Sunset sat down at the little round table in their apartment, politely averting her eyes.

At the front door, Silent Running and Solar Flare shared some quiet, intimate words and a brief kiss. Solar Flare shut the door, slunk over to the table and sat down.

Neither girl met each other’s eyes. They both sat awkwardly, neither speaking. Solar pulled her gown close around herself, clutching the fabric tight in her fingers.

Sunset broke first. “So… do you want me to move out?”

“What?” Solar jerked up. “No! No no no no no.”

“You’re sure? Only…”

“No! I… Sunset, I love having you for a roommate. You’re smart and thoughtful and tidy. You’re a great cook, for a vegetarian. And I can trust you.”

“Thanks. I just thought that, maybe, you and Silent might want…”

“That… No. That’s…” she slowed down, took a breath. “That’s just a little fling. It’ll be over soon, probably. I’m, uh… sorry you had to see that,” she said more quietly.

Sunset didn’t meet her eyes, but she made a show of confidence as she said, “It’s fine, really it is.” Sunset paused before asking, “So um… Does he know?”

“Know? That you’re…” Solar glanced at the door to make sure it was closed. “Four hundred years old? An alien? His superior officer?”

“Er, yeah. One of them. Any of them.”

“No, he doesn’t. I figured you’d tell him when you wanted to. If you wanted to.”

“Thanks,” said Sunset, finally relaxing a little.

“He’ll work it out eventually, though. There aren’t that many Sunset Shimmers around.”

“I know. I’ll tell him when I think he’s ready. And when he’s been security cleared, I suppose,” said Sunset with a sigh. “Sweet Luna’s moon, my life can be so damned complicated.”

“I’m sorry,” said Solar. “I’ve gone and made it all more complicated than it needed to be.”

“Nah. Silent Running is a good-looking man, I can’t fault you.”

Solar gave her a lewd smile in return. “Yeah, well, I’m sure it’s nothing you haven’t seen before,” she said with a high tinkling laugh. Sunset tried to laugh along, unconvincingly. Solar’s face fell into a frown of disbelief. “Wait. Don’t tell me you’ve never…?”

Sunset bit her lip and shook her head, her eyes flicking to Solar and away. “I… no. I’m afraid not.”

“Not even once, in four hundred years?”

“Sorry. You know humans just don’t do it for me. No offence,” she added.

“None taken,” said Solar Flare with a smile. “But what about… y’know, back home, before you came here?”

Sunset leant forward, resting her chin on the table. “Nope. Back in Equestria I was just too focused on other things. Studying. Learning from Princess Celestia. Comparing my power to hers. Proving myself. I was barely more than a foal when I left.”

“I still can’t really imagine what it’s like there. Stories of magic and princesses seem so weird.”

“Maybe some day you’ll get to see it for yourself. I’ll introduce you.”

“That would be nice.”

The worst of the damage was to the rear of the third section, around and between the two airlocks. Ahead of that, closer to the second section, things looked less warped, and lights and controls worked. Even the gravity was more consistent here.

The full-height terminal sprang into life as she approached, filling the wall with the animated avatar of a unicorn pony with a muted yellow coat, a red-purple striped mane, dorky glasses and a big smile. She had a cutie mark of moon and stars, the same symbol that was painted on the side of the ship. She turned to greet Sunset Shimmer with, “Hi, Admiral—”

Sunset shut off the avatar program. The last thing she needed was an annoying AI burning up CPU cycles and trying to be helpful. Instead she brought up a map of the ship, showing which areas could be contacted and what the damage was.

There were two big holes in the hull on opposite sides of the third section: one of them straight through the dorsal airlock, the other close to the ventral airlock. Between them a straight line of devastation, rooms and bulkheads marked in red. Something small, fast and incredibly solid had punched its way straight through the reinforced hull and out the other side, leaving a trail of twisted material behind it.

She played back the recording of the event. The object, whatever it was, had spent just a fraction of a second inside the ship. It entered near the ventral airlock, the hole she’d seen on her way in. It skimmed the edge of the aft bridge, tearing the globe and letting the atmosphere out. It had sliced through the dorsal airlock like a tin can on its way out, puncturing the compressed air tanks next to it. Every room it touched was exposed to space. Despite internal doors it had taken less than a minute for the whole of section three to decompress.

In the Solar system, every object bigger than a fingernail was tracked by myriad automated systems, their positions relayed in real time, so ships knew to move out of the way. You couldn’t always see a fast-moving object coming, but you didn’t need to. It was all taken care of. It was practically impossible to hit anything.

The Moon Dancer was a long way from Sol. This was the first mission to reach Epsilon Eridani, and they’d barely been here long enough to count Ægir’s rings. There could be billions of objects spinning their way at high speed around the planet. The chance of actually hitting one was astronomical, but it had happened.

Section three was open to space, but according to the display the others were unharmed. There was even network communications across the gap between sections two and four, by at least three routes. This was good. Section one at the front of the ship held the FTL field generators. Section four at the rear had the actual engines. They’d need both of those if they ever wanted to get home. Section two held one of the two bridges, the one they’d have to use now the bridge in section three was destroyed. There were crew alive in the other sections, their warm bodies showing up as moving yellow blotches and against the pale blue outlines of the ship.

There were nineteen survivors in section three, weathering the storm in air closets; one of them had seven people crammed into a space barely big enough for four. The terminal labelled them as Fireplace, Plasmid, Marginalia, Honeysuckle, Mantissa, Silent Running and Epoch; and it helpfully pointed out that Marginalia had a broken arm and Epoch a concussion. Aside from the discomfort and injuries, though, they’d run out of air a lot quicker than planned. Sunset needed a way of getting them out safely.

She pulled up a call with somebody in section two. A few seconds later the face of a young man appeared in a window. She didn’t recognise him. He had dark blue hair and lighter blue skin. He also had a gash across his forehead.

He was surprised to see her, and Sunset could see hope warring with pain in his features. He said something to her, lips moving, but she couldn’t hear anything. Instead she pulled up a text chat.

Sunset Shimmer (Adm)
I need an air cage.

Splashdown (Lt)
Admiral, you’re alive? I thought s3 was open to space?

It is. Very painful.

The shock on his face deepened.

There’s an airlock near you.
come through, we’ll get you to medical asap

No. I’m fine. Just send a couple of air cages through.
And cans to pump them up.

You’re sure?

I’m sure.

where are the air cages?

In medical, left, under the second bed

In other circumstances she’d have rebuked his informality, but now wasn’t the time. Discipline was something you earned during the slow, safe times, then spent during emergencies like this.

There were four internal airlocks leading from section three to section two, and one of them was indeed near her. She drifted down the narrow curved corridor and around the corner to find it, zigzagging from hand-hold to hand-hold. Parts of the ship had lights and at least a little gravity, while others were darkened and freefall.

When opening onto a vacuum, the airlock was supposed to remove all the air from the chamber inside, but from the faint breeze as the door opened and the way the flat-pack air cages inside started to tumble out that clearly wasn’t fully working.

It was easy enough for Sunset to drag the cages through twisty corridors to the sealed door and attach the first of them. She attached a can of air and twisted the nozzle just a little. Straight away the flat tent expanded into a cube, before the sides pushed out further. Readouts flowed across the transparent sides, listing air pressure, humidity, oxygen levels and myriad other details. When they indicated it was livable, she tapped the right code into the control panel to open the door, allowing trapped sailors to spill out of the cramped cupboard.

She watched them catching their breath. A few of them said “thank you”, along with comments about the smell of seven people in one cupboard; she couldn’t hear them, but the air cage helpfully displayed subtitles for every one of them, glowing words streaming across the flexible window.

Silent Running was at the back of the group. He looked directly at Sunset as he silently mouthed the words, “Solar Flare,” her name appearing in luminous letters across the plastic sheet in front of her. His hopeful smile brought a fresh stab of pain; Sunset had to watch it collapse as she shook her head. He took a step back to allow Marginalia into the air cage in his place.

The cage was only big enough for four people, but she attached the second cage to the door before she left. Those left behind were much less cramped than before and had a spare can of oxygen to keep them going.

Sunset would come for them soon. She would get every damned sailor she could out of section three.

“So what happens if we extend the field further out the front of the ship? Say a few hundred metres. That way light’s not going to build up right in front of the hull.” Silent Running sketched a curved line a few inches in front of the blob representing a ship.

“You’re still going to get Cherenkov radiation though,” replied Sunset. “It’ll just be wherever the new boundary is.” She doubled over his line, making it more solid. “And the further you push, the more expensive it is.”

Solar Flare was sitting on a couch nearby with a mug of green tea, reading the news on an old-fashioned roll-up tablet. She was doing her best to ignore the discussion. Her job was navigation and telemetry, not propulsion.

“Why? The field power doesn’t ramp up that sharply in the lab.”

“That’s because the lab isn’t travelling faster than light. Remember, the field is carried by real particles which are themselves subject to the speed of light, so to project that past the front of the ship you need a field strong enough to allow that field itself to propagate. The edge of the field becomes sharper the faster you go, and the energy costs go way up.” Sunset added a set of arrows from the blob to the line, then more arrows behind them, then more arrows behind them until the area in front of the ship was a mess of pen scratchings. “Suddenly you’re spending 90% of your energy carrying the field itself, not the actual payload. It’s the old rocket fuel dilemma all over again.”

Just ahead of the line representing the edge of the field, Silent Running added a little circle. “Right, but all of that energy has to go somewhere. And you still have conservation of momentum, even when you’re going faster than light. I bet if you did the math, you’d find that all the extra energy you’re spending ultimately goes into pushing incoming objects away.” He added a heavy arrow leading away from the little circle.

“And for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction.” She drew a similar heavy arrow from the back of the ship. “Whatever pressure you put on anything in front of the ship will push back against the ship itself, so you have to spend more to get the ship moving. Like a superluminal snow plough, coming up against every stray ion between here and Eris. That’s going to push your costs way up. More so since you’re pushing sideways as well, which is energy gone to waste.” She drew arrows in both directions away from the little circle.

“It’s energy gone into not blowing up in a horrible fiery explosion. I’m not sure I’d call that a waste.” He regarded the now indecipherable mess of scribbles. “What are the other teams doing, anyway?”

“Officially, I don’t know, and you shouldn’t ask,” reprimanded Sunset. “Unofficially though, I think most of them are staying sub-light, using the field to save on propellant but not actually doing FTL at all. The same way the asteroid miners use it, only longer distance. If we want to get to Eris ahead of them, we need to crack the Cherenkov problem.”

“At least it gives us a way of braking when we get there. Could we do a couple of short bursts of FTL then stay sub-light the rest of the trip? We’d still get there before the other teams.”

“I guess. Feels like cheating, though, to just barely skim light speed.”

“I still don’t get why you’re so eager to win a prize you’re sponsoring in the first place. It’s not like you need the course credit. I mean, you can pretty much give yourself whatever honours you want, right? Honourary degree? Here you go, ma’am.”

“Maybe I’m having a mid-life crisis,” joked Sunset Shimmer. “But really it’s about making sure I can do whatever I’m asking other people to do. It’s not like admirals just sit around in comfortable chairs, drinking brandy and pushing little models around a map.”

Solar Flare paged to the next article, skimmed the title and said, “Huh. Hey, Sunset.”

“And does that count if you do your propulsion project with a bunch of kids?” needled Silent Running.

“Of course,” replied Sunset smugly. “Friendship is one of the most important things to learn.”

Solar said, “Hey, Sunset?” again. She flicked the article from her pad onto the wall, but Sunset wasn’t looking.

Silent Running took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I’m starting to see double. Let’s take a break. Then after lunch we can do simulations for a bunch of distances and see how much it really changes things.”

“Fair enough,” said Sunset. “You coming, Solar?”

“Yes, but read this,” she said impatiently.

Sunset Shimmer stretched her arms up, arching her back like a cat. “I’m sure it can wait till after lunch.”

Annoyed, Solar stood up, grabbed Sunset’s shoulders and turned to point her at the headline.

SETI scientists race to decode mystery signal

Professional and amateur astronomers alike have been rushing to decode a short audio clip released by UNSETI in Holland this morning, working in collaboration with the radio astronomy team at the University of Phobos. The signal was caught and relayed by a deep space probe and flagged by an AI as potentially resembling the product of an alien intelligence – though as yet no meaning has been found in it.

The analogue radio signal is believed to have originated in or near the 23 Librae system. It was captured by the deep space probe Surya 14-B9a as it passed through a ‘sweet spot’, on the opposite side of Sol at a distance of 591 AU, thanks to the unique gravitational lensing position. The 14-B9a probe has since moved from that location, and has no spare fuel to turn around, so further listening will have to wait three weeks until a dedicated communications relay, launched from Phobos this morning, reaches the sweet spot. Meanwhile telescope arrays across the Solar system are being pointed in the direction of 23 Librae in the hope of seeing something unique or identifying the specific planet of origin.

Already, some are hailing this as the first real radio signal received from another intelligence. Critics caution that the SETI program has produced a great many false alarms in the centuries it’s been scouring the sky for alien life, though they admit that many of those turned out to be significant astronomical phenomena in their own right.

A spokesman for the University of Phobos exolinguistics department admitted that their team had as yet been unable…

Sunset blinked as she read the first few paragraphs. “There’s audio?” she asked.

Solar tapped to play the sound. A hissing, popping, rustling sound filled the room. Even with the best audio filters available, any signal was still drowning in noise, but underneath that lurked an irregular sound that could maybe be a voice if you imagined really hard.

When it finished, Solar looked disappointed. “Huh. I guess maybe it’s nothing after all. Sorry for getting your hopes up.” She turned to Sunset Shimmer to find her standing there with tears forming in her eyes. “Sunset, are you okay?”

Sunset coughed. “Yes. Um. Can you play that for me again?”

Solar tapped the audio clip. It still sounded like nothing at all to her, a faint mumbling that only seemed vaguely like a voice, buried under a lot of noise. Sunset stood, eyes glazed, listening to something neither of them could hear.

When it was over Silent Running asked quietly, “What is it, Sunset? Can you understand it?”

Sunset nodded. “I think so. It’s… it was Princess Luna doing a radio interview. Talking about returning from visiting their first permanent moon base. She said… she said that Twilight Sparkle was leading the team.” She looked at the article filling the wall. “How far away was this? How long ago?”

“23 Librae,” said Silent Running. “That’s eighty-five light years away.”

“Is that all?” Sunset started laughing, a grin spreading as she sniffed tears up. “Just eighty five-light years. That’s nothing.” Solar pulled her into a hug. “I’ve found her,” Sunset mumbled into her shoulder, sobs and laughter melding. “At last, I’ve found her.”

Silent Running was on the phone. “Yes, a reservation for three, please. This lunchtime, yes, as soon as you can. And could you have a bottle of Champagne ready?”

Chapter 3

View Online

“She’s going into shock!”

“How? She’s still healing every…”

Sunset shoved the air cage towards the next corner. It was awkward pulling the bulky box-shaped tent around the narrow corridors when the only way of moving was to push yourself from one hand-grip on the walls to the next. It was slow, repetitive work.

She found her thoughts drifting to other ships, other sailors, other centuries. The crew of the mining ship Blossomforth, their sanity tested by time and isolation. Or the officers and men of the HMS Star Swirl, trapped by their own greed.

Movement caught her eye. The people inside the cage were waving their arms, and the subtitles of their silent shouting helpfully read “Look out!”, “Ahead!” and “Sunset! Look!”

She turned and saw a jagged section of hull twisting slowly towards them. A sharp, ragged edge was spinning straight for the air cage. It wasn’t fast, but she’d nearly missed it. It would take only a tiny scratch to make the balloon pop, spilling its vital contents.

She pushed off the wall, made a grab for the heavy gnarled blade with both hands, and missed. It sliced open her fingers and thudded into her chest. The disturbing crunch as it scraped against her ribs was the first real sound she’d heard in hours.

“How am I supposed to know? I’ve never operated on somebody immortal before! It’s not like we’ve got a ready supply of immortal lab rats to try things on.”

“And here to receive the award, Admiral Sunset Shimmer!”

The stage lights near blinded Sunset as she walked up to the podium, but when her eyes adjusted she saw the usual mix of reactions among the audience. Some looked up at her in awe, some with respect, but others were confused, suspicious or resentful. As she stepped up to the microphone, a few actually looked around to see if there was some mistake or trick, and the real Admiral was coming in another door.

She knew what they were all thinking: ‘she looks so young’. In a room full of students, she looked like the youngest one present. Well, two could play at that game.

“You are all so young,” she began. Further confusion spread across the audience’s faces. “Imagine where each of you will be in four years. You will have graduated. Some of you will be married, some of you will have children. Some of you will have written books, created software, crafted sculptures or designed spacecraft. Some of you will be famous for having made astounding discoveries and put your stamp on history.” She looked out at the sea of hopeful students.

“Consider, then, how great a barrier it is that the closest world beyond Sol is four light years away. How big a step it would be to leave your friends, your family and your homeland behind, never again to even receive a letter that isn’t years out of date. Humans have made such great and uncertain migrations in the past, and they will again, but is it practical to spend centuries terraforming such a distant world as we have Mars? Is there any hope of extending the wings of peaceful government over such a frontier?

“Since before you were born, field-enhanced engines have allowed us to press up against the speed of light, but not exceed it without tearing a ship apart. We had the science, but lacked the technology. With your help, that’s going to change. We will bring the stars to us.

“All of you have made critical contributions to our understanding of the field, but three, in particular, stand out.

“Team Panama with their craft, the Jumping Shark, reminiscent of the scramjets that unlocked the skies. Directing the interstellar medium through the middle of the craft allows waste energy to be recaptured, making the engines substantially more efficient.

“Team Phobos with the Skein, a flock of autonomous probes flying in laser-guided formation, where those in front protect and carry those behind. I have no doubt that a scaled up flock of these will be on its way to Proxima within the next two years, and to other nearby stars soon after. We will soon have more information about other systems than ever before.

“And finally my own Team Canterlot with our craft, the Rainbow Dash, and its characteristic ‘rainboom’ as a means of overcoming the Cherenkov radiation barrier.”

She took a deep breath. “You have all demonstrated the capacity for invention that most defines humanity. In this contest we were rivals, but now is the time for us to work together for the good of everyone.”

Pretty lights. Pretty pretty lights all over the place.

“Gahh! Where’d this blood vessel come from? It doesn’t make any sense. I can’t get the needle in when everything’s moving like this!”

“Is that stuff even going to work?”

“It’d better, or she’s going to tear herself apart.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“I’ve got a bottle of whisky in my office. I’ll hold her down, you hit her with it.”

A circle of light burst forth in beautiful colours, as the tiny craft surged forwards through the middle of it.

Eris was a little over twelve light-hours from the launch point above Phobos. Thanks to the innovative design their craft, the Rainbow Dash, reached the finish line in just four hours, well ahead of the other teams.

The space around Eris was peppered with cameras, radio dishes, telescopes and laser relays, there to capture the event in every frequency imaginable. In visible light the rainboom was nothing special, but with the right selection of false-colour filters combining radio and X-ray images it shone like a circular rainbow. And that was the picture everyone wanted to see.

It would take twelve hours for the pictures to reach Earth. Five minutes for the media team to select and release the best pictures. Five minutes after that, pictures of that rainbow exploding into space would be on the cover of every news channel.

Is that my hand? My hand is pretty.

“Look on the bright side. With her skin glowing like that, it doesn’t matter that the lights are out.”

“Not helping! Keep that damned lamp steady!”

“Look into this mirror and tell me what you see.”

“A beautiful pony that has nothing but power and potential.” Sunset admired herself.

Celestia rolled her eyes. “Care to try that again with our talk about humility taken into account?”

Sleep now. Sleepy. Sleeeeeee…

“Oh, sweet Luna’s moon, it worked. Her heart rate’s dropping.”

“Huh? Who’s Luna?”

“Has a giant cake monster covered all the cakes in the world in cake?!”

“…the whole damned ship…”

“Miss Sunset Shimmer? I’m afraid it’s about your friend, Miss Rainbow Dash. She’s been in an accident…”

Sunset awoke, and immediately regretted it.

The myriad pains of the vacuum, that she’d more or less gotten used to, had been replaced with the hundred other pains of returning to an atmosphere. Her skin felt flushed and prickly all over, her lungs burned as oxygen worked its way back into shrivelled blood vessels, blood surged through her body, and her head was squeezed from extra pressure. Every injury she’d had recently throbbed as the freshly knitted flesh squirmed to keep healing. Worst was the one in her chest.

The dim red lights nagged at her eyes. She closed them, but it didn’t help.

She tried to take stock. There was air, clearly. There was gravity, since she was lying on a bed of some sort. There was at least some power, since various machines around her glowed and clicked. She was in one of the little recovery rooms near medical.

She remembered to breathe. It took an effort, especially with how it hurt.

“Good morning, Sunshine.”

Sunset turned her head against the complaints of her muscles. A young woman was sitting in a chair next to her bed. She had a data pad on her knees, and was looking at her with a smile. Sunset recognised admiration in her eyes.

“Dr Honeysuckle​?”

The woman saluted, but didn’t stand up or stop smiling. “Yes, Ma’am.”

“What happened? How did I get here?”

“A piece of shrapnel hit you as you were retrieving the fourth air cage. It pierced your lung and scratched your heart. Lieutenant Splashdown suited up and pulled you and the air cage back into section two.”

She looked down. She wasn’t in her uniform any more; a thin blanket covered her body. “I always wondered if being stabbed in the heart would kill me.”

“It very nearly did. Apparently your body was fighting like crazy to heal itself, but was… confused as to the best way to do that. Until they sedated you and managed to remove the pieces. You’ve got a nice scar, though.”

Sunset touched a hand to her chest. Her first new scar in four hundred years. She looked up. “Who’s in charge?” she asked.

“Silent Running is directing repairs. We’ve nearly got the forward bridge up and running.”

“Really? He’s not the most senior officer, surely?”

“No, but he knows the ship like nobody else. Nobody’s fool enough to stand in the way of the man who’s going to get them home alive.”

Sunset looked at the door. “Does everyone blame me?” she asked quietly.

“Blame you? For what?”

“For dragging them here.”

Honeysuckle looked askance at Sunset. “Are you serious? You just rescued a bunch of us from a depressurised area all by yourself – nineteen people in all, that’s everyone that was still alive in the third section – and you got stabbed through the heart while doing it. The whole crew saw it happen. So yeah, right now, I’m fairly sure they’d follow you into hell.”

Sunset didn’t find that very comforting.

“I need to see other patients. I’ll come in to check on you regularly, though.”

“Of course. Go, go.”

Honeysuckle closed the door with a gentle click, leaving Sunset alone with her thoughts and the gloom.

“I like her.” Celestia stepped out of the darkness, her focus on the door.

“You would,” said Sunset to the apparition. “She’s your kind of pony.” She buried her face in blankets and closed her eyes, hoping sleep would take her out of this discomfort and that she’d have a ship to wake up to.

Chapter 4

View Online

“Good morning, Admiral!” chirped the pony cheerfully. She danced across the walls to greet Sunset, leaping from screen to screen.

Sunset yawned. “Morning, Moon Dancer.”

“I made coffee for you,” said the pony.

This produced a smile. Sunset blinked sleep out of her eyes as she reached for the steaming mug.

“Are you still wearing those old pyjamas?” called Solar Flare from the next room.

Sunset looked down. “What? These aren’t old. They’re only… uh…”

“Older than I am?” suggested Solar.

“I only bought them yesterday,” she snarled through her coffee. “Can’t have been more than twenty years ago.” She picked up the second mug of coffee and took it through to Solar Flare, who was sat at a terminal reviewing the AI’s results.

“Thanks,” she said, gratefully receiving the mug. She added, “Morning, Sunshine.”

“Welcome back. How was Panama?”

“Hot. Very pretty, though. Huge numbers of butterflies, all over the place.” She gestured broadly.

“What’ve we got, then?” asked Sunset.

Solar brought up a list of audio files. “Computer’s flagged a few promising clips. It’s still translating some of them.”

“I found you a good one!” sang Moon Dancer, tapping a hoof against the first item, a clip only two minutes and twenty seconds long.

The quality of the reception had improved a great deal since the communications relay had reached the gravitational focus at 591 AU where it could pick up a signal from Equestria. The round trip to the far side of Sol and back added a week’s delay to signals that were already eighty-five years late. The probe was still searching for the exact sweet spot, but for now they and dozens of other teams were emailed a few minutes of useful audio each day.

With some real material to work from, Sunset and her friends had been training Moon Dancer to understand the alien language. She was getting there, slowly.

Solar Flare played the clip, while Moon Dancer helpfully brought up the transcript that she’d produced.

“…that everypony is adapting well to the conditions here.” Twilight Sparkle’s voice came out loud and clear, if a little tinny, through the hiss and crackle of noise. She sounded a little older, a little deeper, but still with the same enthusiasm that Sunset remembered. As she listened, a smile slowly crept across her face. “The lower gravity does take some getting used to, though it’s actually quite fun to bounce around in, particularly for those ponies who’ve never been able to fly before. In fact, sometimes the hardest part is getting everypony to stop playing around when there’s work to do.” She laughed, and another pony laughed with her.

Sunset’s smile broke into a broad grin. Partly from hearing Twilight’s voice for the first time in centuries, and partly from the reassurance that ponies hadn’t changed all that much.

“And what of the lunar inhabitants?” asked a stallion’s voice in a nondescript but refined accent. It sounded like the interviewer was in the studio, while Twilight was coming through a radio.

“They’ve been quite welcoming, actually. Ever since that first mission centuries ago, we’ve been sure to leave a positive impression with the nyx each time we visit. It is their home, after all. They’re quite intelligent, and well aware of the ponies and other creatures living on the surface.”

“Have any of the nyx expressed an interest in visiting Equestria?” asked the interviewer.

“Often, but sadly that isn’t possible yet, even though both Princesses Celestia and Luna have said they’re welcome to visit. Their bodies are adapted to the moon’s gravity, and simply wouldn’t be able to survive the much higher gravity of our world, nor the stress of launching into space. We’re happy to show them pictures and illusion spells of life on the surface. And we’re looking into magic that could make it possible some day.” Twilight spoke with the confidence of a mare who regularly made new things possible.

“Before you launched, some ponies were concerned that the same could happen to ponies - that living on the moon for so long might weaken them to the point where they could no longer return to Equestria,” said the interviewer. “Is that a real risk?”

“Yes, and it’s a risk we take seriously. Everypony spends a large part of each day engaged in physical exercise designed to maintain muscle and bone strength…”

The recording devolved into noise again, then came to an abrupt end.

“I’m afraid that’s all I could get of it,” said Moon Dancer apologetically, her ears flopping down. She perked up again and asked, “But it’s a good one, right?”

Sunset nodded, unable to speak for the moment.

“That was her, wasn’t it?” asked Solar. She’d been following the transcript that Moon Dancer provided, even though it was an approximation at best.

“I… yes, that was Twilight Sparkle. She… she’s alive. She’s out there and she’s alive.”

Solar stood up to stand close to Sunset. She was taller than Sunset now, and her long hair reached down her back. Where once Sunset looked like the older sister, now it was the other way around. “You knew that already, from Luna’s interview,” she said softly.

“I know, but it’s… hearing her voice. She’s the same pony, exactly the same. The same curiosity, the same love of discovery, all these centuries later. It really is her.” Sunset wiped her eyes messily. “Sorry, I… I’ll be okay in a minute.”

“You don’t need to be composed, not with me. Let it out.” Solar rested her arms loosely on Sunset’s shoulders.

“Thanks,” said Sunset, sniffling.

“You miss her,” said Solar. It wasn’t a question. They’d talked about Twilight before.

Sunset nodded anyway. “She’s so brilliant. So smart. She sees right to the heart of things. And so dense at the same time. Like she doesn’t see the obvious things.” She clutched at the fabric of Solar’s shirt. “She comes at everything with an open mind. And she’s so good that she sees the good in everypony.”

Solar rested her forehead on Sunset’s. This was almost ritual for the two now. “She changed you.”

“She…” Sunset broke off, coughed, and sniffed. “She made me who I am. She believed in me, when I didn’t believe in myself, when I’d given up. She had no reason to, but she trusted me. She gave me a chance I never gave myself. She made me better. Every day, since then, I try to be better, and every day it’s because of her.”

“You want to see her again.”

Sunset nodded again. “I want to say ‘thank you’. I want to show her all the things I’ve done, tell her about my friends. I want her to be proud of me. It’s selfish, really, I know.”

“Selfish is fine,” whispered Solar.

“And I want to hear all about her adventures.” She smiled. “Equestria always sounded so much more exciting when she talked about it. I’m sure she has plenty of new stories now. Centuries of them.”

“A lot can happen in four hundred years.”

A worried frown flickered across Sunset’s face. “How did she sound to you? She sounded happy, right?”

“She sounded, um, nice.”

“Nice?” asked Sunset, drawing back.

Solar looked guilty. “Okay, fine, she sounded like a horse. You know languages aren’t my strong suit, and Equish isn’t the easiest to learn.” Solar scratched her face. “I mean, I think I heard her say ‘wings’ near the beginning. Or maybe it was ‘interview’. Or it could have been ‘team’.”

After a pause, Sunset said, “Do you mean,” followed by a breathy nasal gasp that sounded like, “hngu?” Solar nodded hopefully. “Sorry, that means ‘gravity’.”

“I knew that!” contributed Moon Dancer, using one hoof to push her glasses up her muzzle.

Solar deflated. “I’ll just stick to astronomy, shall I?”

Sunset patted her on the back. “What news is there from the telescopes?” she asked, looking at the screen.

“It’s pretty much the way you thought it would be, actually,” said Solar, leaning over to bring up a map of the 23 Librae system, incorporating all the latest information from the big research teams at Ceres, Geneva, Pyongyang, Phobos and Panama. “Most of the focus has been on the inner planets, but the signal is coming from somewhere a very long way out, three or four hundred AU at least. I’m not even sure it’s part of the same system. It could be a stray rock passing through.”

“It’s in the same system, I promise. It’s been there for millennia. Are there any visuals yet?”

“Nope. The big telescopes are still scanning the inner system, using wobble and occlusion to track down all the inner planets and moons, and found nothing habitable there.” The display zoomed into the middle of the 23 Librae system, with its cluster of labelled planets and moons. “But the outer system is harder to map, even with the whole Ceres/Vesta array. If we can pinpoint the source, maybe we’ll be able to persuade them to give us telescope time.”

“You tried looking for the signal I suggested?”

“I tried, but couldn’t narrow it down. Nobody on Earth knows what the spectrum of magic even looks like.”

“I know. Sorry I can’t be more specific, but nopony in Equestria was looking at chemical spectra when I left.”

“You said you knew what they were, though?”

“Yes, but it was considered redundant when you could just cast a spell to work out what something was made of. Nopony thought of applying it to distant objects. The same for so many of the sciences, really, magic made us lazy.”

“It’s still hard to imagine. But you’re sure this ‘Crystal Faire’ will show up?”

“Absolutely. It’s the biggest magical event of the year, lights up the whole country in aurora. We just need to keep watching until we catch it.”

“How long is an Equestrian year, anyway?”

“However long Celestia says it should be.” Solar made a face at her. “What?” asked Sunset.

“Your planet is weird.”

The UNS Moon Dancer was not a large ship. There were no grand ballrooms on board, no officers’ dining room, no impressively long corridors or tall stairwells. She didn’t have a great amount of free space for living quarters either, so dorms with bunks were the norm.

This room was square, with six bunks on three of the walls. There was an octagonal column in the middle filled with cupboards and drawers, and divided down the middle. Like the rest of the ship, the spaces were narrow and peppered with hand-holds, ready for times when gravity cut out or the engines exceeded the inertial compensation. The power supply was stable now across the ship, but gravity had clearly been lost in this room, from the mess of personal belongings scattered over the floor.

Sunset grasped the door handle and pulled the door shut behind her with a wrench of scraping metal. The dorm was quiet and dark, lit only by a few emergency lights. Everybody who could was helping get the ship up and running.

She knelt down to pick up a holopicture from the floor. Solar Flare, Silent Running and Sunset Shimmer, all smiling into the camera. Behind them, the silver-blue hull of the experimental ship Rainbow Dash, the first craft to break through the Cherenkov barrier and make FTL travel viable. The race to Eris had left a few scratches along her hull.

Sunset ran a finger slowly across it. No matter how real the holopicture looked, it was nothing but a moment from the past.

“When does it get better?” she asked the empty room.

“Better?” queried Celestia, stepping around her. “What do you mean, better?”

“When does it stop hurting like this, Celestia? When do you… get used to losing people?”

“Why would you want to?” asked the alicorn. Her wingtips brushed against the walls as she walked around the room.

“It never seemed to bother you. I didn’t see you mourning the ponies you’d lost. You sat on that throne, all smiles and calm confidence.”

Celestia paused at the other side of the split column, looking at Sunset through the gap. “Never,” she said seriously. “I never stop caring about my ponies. I never stopped caring about you, Sunset Shimmer.”

Sunset stared through the narrow gap into her mentor’s imperial purple eyes framed by a luminous mane. Celestia’s expression showed comfort and compassion but no sorrow. Just as she remembered it. “How do you do it?” Sunset whispered, averting her gaze. “How do you watch them grow old and die, and keep smiling through it? You’ve ruled Equestria for centuries. You’ve seen so many ponies come and go. Thousands of them. Millions. One day you’re talking and laughing with somepony, the next they’re gone.” She slumped against the wall behind her, turning her eyes to the ceiling. “I just can’t work out how you managed it. Whatever you and Luna have, I don’t.”

Celestia took a deep breath as she resumed pacing around the room, her wingtips brushing against bunks and hand-holds. “Nor did we, at first. Our lives as warriors did not adequately prepare us for the job of ruling a kingdom. Luna and I grew up in a different world, one where life and death were cheap, even after we defeated Discord. We both saw war more times than I care to count. We saw natural disasters steal settlements away. We saw plagues run through towns like fire through a dry forest. We saw monsters end a pony’s life for no more reason than they felt like it.” She paused by a poster for a movie, tilting her head left and right to try and look around the edges of the holopicture. “Every pony who lives a full life, every pony who pursues her dream, every pony who dies doing what she loves, is something to celebrate.”

Sunset stared at the holopicture of Solar Flare in her hands. “That’s your answer? ‘Life is fragile so every day is a bonus?’ Or are you just saying I’m a spoiled little filly who grew up in safety and comfort and doesn’t know what the world is like?”

Celestia turned to look at Sunset with a stern expression. “Come, Sunset, self-indulgent pouting like that does not become you.” Her multicoloured mane flowed across the dark bedclothes. She took in an air vent in the corner, identical to three others. “There’s a lot of redundancy on this ship. Backups of backups.”

“It’s safer that way,” said Sunset half-heartedly.

“Isolated sections of the ship. Internal airlocks. Separate power supplies, life support. Convenient air closets everywhere.”

“I insisted. Thirty billion miles from home, you can’t expect a lucky rescue. You have to bring three or four of everything. Be your own reinforcements.”

Celestia stepped closer to Sunset, looking down at the picture held in her hands. “Tell me why she died.”

“She died because of me,” said Sunset.

Celestia rolled her eyes. “Care to try that again with our talk about humility taken into account?”

Sunset sighed with increasing frustration. “She died because she travelled light years from home, on a mission to test out a new, faster engine, and launch an array of deep space telescopes. The engine that I wanted to use to reach Equestria. The telescopes I wanted to use to see and hear Equestria.”

“So if you hadn’t pushed for this, if you weren’t there to spur humanity on, if you’d left them four hundred years ago, would they have stayed on the surface of their world, content to leave the skies alone? Would they be slumbering yet in the cradle of their civilisation?”

Sunset shook her head. “Humans have always had to explore. They push boundaries like a foal. They might have done a few things differently, but they’d be up here.”

“And would they be safe?”

Sunset looked down at the holopicture of the blue metal body of the Rainbow Dash. “I suppose not. They’d probably be even more reckless. Just like Rainbow Dash was that day.”

Turning away, Celestia reared up on her hind legs, planted her forehooves on the edge of the upper bunk, and started to push her muzzle through the rumpled bedclothes.

“Stop that,” said Sunset, upset.

“Congratulations on your promotion,” said Celestia through the fabric.


“You are the humans’ princess now, are you not?”

“No. What are you—”

“Their queen, then? Or their empress?”

“Of course not.”

“Corsair? Tyrant? Pontiff?”

“You know I’m not any of those!”

“Their Goddess?” asked Celestia, looking down at Sunset with a raised eyebrow.


Celestia dropped to four hooves in front of Sunset, her wings flaring briefly to slow her fall. “Then what are you?”

Sunset paused before answering cautiously, “I’m an admiral of the U.N. Fleet.”

“You sound uncertain. Why are you an admiral?”

“Because the U.N. like to keep me where they can keep an eye on me,” said Sunset, remembering some of the bastards she’d met in centuries past. She added, “And… it’s kind of hard not to get promoted when you outlive generations of command staff.” She slumped further down the wall.

Celestia nodded knowingly. “So as a military commander, you ordered Solar Flare to venture on a dangerous mission?”

“No,” said Sunset with a frustrated sigh. “I mean, first the U.N.F. isn’t military. I made sure of that back when the charter was signed. And experimental flights like this are all volunteer-only.”

“Meaning that everybody on board chose to be here,” pressed Celestia.

“So what, I have no responsibility?” said Sunset louder, pushing off from the wall to confront the alicorn. “Sorry, but that doesn’t fly. This whole space program is pretty much my pet project. I more or less built this ship,” she said, gesturing at the ceiling. “I’m the ranking officer on board. I have a responsibility to keep them safe!”

“Space is not safe,” said Celestia firmly. “It never was. Space is a vast abyss of lethal darkness. You didn’t make the darkness. You didn’t lead the humans into it. The danger would be there, with or without you.”

“I’m supposed to be better. I’m supposed to be making things better.”

“And you have been doing, in a hundred little ways. You aren’t a goddess, you can’t be responsible for everything that happens. Only for what you do in the world.”

Celestia wrapped her wings around Sunset and pulled her close.

“Your friend died younger than she might, but she lived doing what she enjoyed.” She spoke softly. “She loved astronomy. She loved pushing at new frontiers. And yes, she loved you, and wanted to help make your dream come true. So she took a risk, knowing it wasn’t safe.”

Closing her eyes, Sunset pressed her head into Celestia’s neck. The hand holding the holopicture dropped to her side. “Is that enough? A good life, a good death, and you accept it and move on? Is that how you manage to rule them for centuries?”

“It has to be,” said Celestia, “because the alternative is a tyrant. One who would reshape their subjects’ lives to suit themselves.” She wrapped her wings further around Sunset, enveloping her in familiar warmth.

Sunset took a few seconds to breathe in through the hair of the pony’s neck. “Is that what the real Celestia would say?” she asked.

“You’ll just have to come and ask me,” replied the apparition.

The room filled with light as the door slid open.

“Who are you talking to?” asked Silent Running from the door. He sounded concerned.

Sunset looked up, taking a second to focus. “Just my memories,” she said. “How’s the Moon Dancer? I heard from Dr Honeysuckle that you’ve been hard at work.”

“We’re getting there. She’ll be floating soon.”

“Good.” Sunset carefully placed the holopicture on Solar Flare’s bunk.

“She could use a good captain,” said Silent Running.

“She’s got one,” said Sunset absently. “I can announce your field promotion right now if you want.”

Silent Running shut the door quietly. “No. I meant you, numskull. The crew need someone who can inspire them.”

“You can lead them as well as I can.”

“I’m an engineer. They trust me to do repairs, but I’m not the immortal admiral.” He stepped closer. “Listen. There were thirty-two people in section three, and thanks to you more of them survived than didn’t.”

“I didn’t save that last air cage.”

“No, but you inspired Lieutenant Splashdown to find a spacesuit and go fetch it. The crew look up to you. They trust you, and that’s what they need right now.”

“Even if I don’t trust myself?” she scoffed.

“Doesn’t matter. With the beating this ship’s taken, it’s going to take a miracle to get her back. That miracle is more likely with you at the helm. Now get your pony ass out there and take this ship home.”

“Realistically, we only have enough antimatter to spark a few dozen times,” said Mantissa. “The rest is in bottles too damaged to safely pour. Really, we’d be better off throwing them away before they can fail entirely and blow another hole in us.”

Silent Running was leaning over the logistics station. “Then we’d best make it count. Have Plasmid pick the generators that have the best chance of running. Once we have two going, we can use one of them to spark the rest, given time. And let me know as soon as power reaches the field emitters, we’ll need to start spooling them up.”

“Admiral on the bridge!” called out one of the sailors on the upper level as Sunset Shimmer strode up the steps to the raised platform. Silent Running straightened and walked up the steps to meet her.

“Status?” she asked, standing by the empty captain’s chair. Her expression was stern, her voice professional.

He glanced at several different panels as he replied, “Basic power has been restored to most of the ship, and we’ll have two or three generators up within an hour. All the engines look good except for #4, and we can compensate for that. Reaction control is functional as long as we have power. FTL field emitters are undamaged, but they’ll need a few hours to spool up.”

“Will two generators be enough to run the engines and the emitters at the same time?”

“Just barely. The lights will dim when we punch the emitters, and the gravity might wobble a bit, but we’ll have inertial compensation up to two Gs. It’ll be enough for her to limp home.”

“Giving us what, two or three c at best? Gets us home in three years?”

Silent Running nodded. “That’s about all the Moon Dancer has in her right now. Any faster and she won’t have enough power to feed the engines and the FTL at the same time.”

“How about if we alternated? Engines first, then FTL?”

Silent Running’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. FTL didn’t work like that: you had to run the field emitter at the same time you used an ordinary engine to accelerate. Unless…

“What are you planning, Ma’am?” he asked suspiciously. He knew her too well. She was up to something.

Sure enough, a mischievous grin crept across Sunset’s face. She leant over to the captain’s astrogation panel and tapped a button to fill the bridge’s big, spherical walls with a representation of the space around the ship: the large gas giant Ægir below them, with its intricate rings and a dozen moons, each tagged with a little label.

She plotted a course that took the ship away from Ægir, into a higher but unstable orbit, then sharply down again in a five hour dive that brought them extremely close to one of the larger moons, labelled ‘b IV / Hefring’. So close, in fact, that the moon’s gravity would fling the ship out of Ægir’s orbit entirely. At the periapsis, the point where the Moon Dancer would scrape closest to the surface of the icy moon, the line changed colour, indicating a switch into FTL mode. The line heading away from the moon was ringed by a little circular rainbow.

“So, in a dive like that, do you think you can build up enough power for a rainboom?”

Mantissa whistled as she grasped the idea. “A slingshot around that moon, then straight out through the middle of the rings. We end up pointed right at Sol. All the acceleration that goes into FTL comes from gravity rather than from our own engines, so we can build up… thirty or forty c.”

“It’s genius,” said Silent Running quietly. “It would get us home in a few months. We’re going to need four generators up to make it work.”

“It’s going to need some very careful piloting,” said Mantissa. “You can’t adjust much during slingshot, so you have to get it lined up perfectly in advance. The astrogation we’re trained on is all based around stable orbits, not stunts like this.” She turned to look at the Admiral and asked with amusement, “With respect, Ma’am, are you insane?”

“Perhaps,” said Sunset Shimmer, returning her grin. “But I think it’s time for this ship to earn its name.” She took in the room full of awestruck faces. “Let’s go dance with that moon. Who’s with me?”