Distant Reflections

by David Silver

First published

Equestria and Everglow have brushed against one another through the course of their histories, each time fleeting, but memorable to those involved. Many many years later, the unaging Twilight captains a space vessel to explore the universe.

Equestria and Everglow have brushed against one another through the course of their histories, each time fleeting, but memorable to those involved. Many many years later, the unaging Twilight captains a space vessel to explore the universe and encounters some old memories of the past she had almost forgotten.

Everglow ponies were supposed to be in a whole other reality, but, perhaps, traveling far enough through the stars served the same purpose?

Equestria/Ponyfinder crossover that does not require reading anything before enjoying this tale. This story is being funded by a loyal Patron.

1 - Anomalous Readings

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With a heavy sigh, Twilight turned in place. Not that the computer cared what direction she faced. "Journal Entry." A soft chime noted the computer had begun recording. "Travel proceeding smoothly. All systems nominal. Regrets: mounting." She approached the door to her chamber but looked back.

Decorating the walls of her room were the pictures of her friends in different stages of their life. There was Apple Bloom taking over the farm. There was Rarity retiring in front of a huge crowd of cheering ponies. She floated over a statue in her magic, a preserved acorn that dangled from a metal tree, representing Fluttershy's first planted tree.

Her friends had lived such wonderfully full lives. Their foals had done the same, and she had guided them as best she could, acting as Princess Celestia had for her in turn. But their full lives eventually ran to their end, and again, and again. Each generation a fresh round of discomfort.

She understood why Celestia had no real relationships besides her sister.

So when they offered a chance to help Equestria, but also avoid that pain, she took it. She could discover the answers that lay in the stars, to unearth so much, forever potentially...

She waved a hoof and the door opened.

"Hello, Twilight," greeted Carrot Top on the way past.

It wasn't really Carrot Top. Carrot Top was so very long passed.

"End journal." Twilight's reply wasn't really to Carrot Top, but Carrot Top didn't seem to mind, casually ignoring her computer command. "How're the hydroponics looking?"

"You won't be starving any time soon," she assured. "Funny thing, but it's still operating below spec." She raised a hoof, tapping at her chin. "But still well within tolerable levels. Like I said, you'll have carrots aplenty!"

"Excellent... Poor Spike really should have a treat though..." She trotted past Carrot Top, heading for the elevator. A quick ride through the smoothly moving platform brought her to the bridge. She emerged onto it, many ponies facing panels. They looked up towards her briefly, each nodding politely, but returning to their task.

"Anything on the scanners?" she asked on the way towards the captain's chair, hopping up and sitting down on it comfortably.

Vinyl Scratch glanced over with a soft bobbing of her head. "Incoming ship, Captain."

Twilight blinked softly. "And I'm only finding out now?! What ship?! Oh, Celestia, an alien species? This is so exciting!" Her funk evaporated at the idea, clip-clopping her forehooves. "If it's visible, put it on the main screen." She thrust a hoof at the largest screen in the room.

Dawn Event frowned softly at his display, stroking over his chin softly with a grumbling. "Captain Fast Shadow, I'm picking up an unknown vessel... Scans reveal life."

Fast Shadow perked her ears. "Are they a known species?" She was sitting up in her chair, her attention captured.

"Transponder isn't cooperating..." He raised a hoof and tapped at his controls agitatedly. "Under Score, see if you can make sense of this."

Under Score waved a hoof at his panel as he worked. "It is, perhaps, on a different bandwidth... and... Ah, thank Luminace, here we are. Broadcasting in simple binary... A match, ascii... ESS Friendship, followed by what I assume is an identifying serial number."

"Open a channel," barked the unicorn, breaking up the pattern of earth-bound ponies. "We should greet them as the Sun Queen would bid us." Steel Prism put a hoof in front of his chest, puffing himself up in the direction of the main screen. "We should assume they are a good people until we have evidence against it."

"Attempting to open comms, Captain." Steel and Fast sat side by side, apparently both captains. The one speaking, a goat with a headset that covered his ears and a dangling mouthpiece, was tapping at his controls with cloven hooves, mashing at large touch controls that were sized appropriately for such large digits. "No response on the standard channel, to be expected..."

Fast Shadow nodded in a small motion. "See if you can't find it, Mr. Note. I have confidence in you. Just in case, put us on yellow alert." Yellow lights were cast, the computer responding to her request without delay. "Hopefully, they're as friendly as that name implied, but being prepared is what keeps people from being hurt."

Vinyl perked an ear suddenly. "Incoming transmission!"

Twilight leaned forward dangerously, wings spread and ready to fall from her chair. "Let's hear it. Is it two way? Spike! We're meeting our first sapient species!"

"On the way," came the mature draconic voice over the ship radio. "Keep calm until I get there."

The screen became fuzzy as computers agreed on what codecs they could both speak. Handshake complete, it blinked to life, showing a goat dominating the screen, an earth pony behind him. "I think I've gotten through," declared the goat. He was like an Equestrian goat, but so was the pony? She had more details, less round. She was an equine, Twilight felt sure, but.... wait...

Twilight's mouth hung open as her eyes widened. She hopped down from her chair, gaping at the image as it panned to the left catch a unicorn, red in color, placing the goat mostly out of frame. "I... But... how?"

The earth pony was gazing at Twilight with an intense look, as if judging her, heavy in thought. "I..."

The unicorn turned an ear to the earth pony beside him. "You look as if you've seen a ghost. Hello." He nodded to Twilight across the comm system. "This is the ESS Horizon, seeking new things and exploring the universe is our goal. We come in peace. I am Captain Steel Prism. This is Captain Fast Shadow. And that--" He pointed to the goat that could still be seen in the shot. "Is Lt. Wandering Note."

"I am Bullette Belle!" suddenly cried out a voice in musical synthesis, as if her voice were produced by a computer with a deep commitment to bad autotune. The source of the voice dropped down from below to reveal a grinning filly's face, but they were made of metal, clearly a robot of some kind. "Opening friendship file! I look forward to the exchange of personal information for increased comradery."

Twilight heard the elevator doors opening and turned away from the screen to see the considerable bulk of Spike slipping in. He was a young-adult dragon, about twice the length of a normal pony, twice as tall even on all fours, and many times the weight and power. "Twilight, I'm, oh." He was looking past her at the screen. "Woah. Hey there."

"Friendship file--" With a glowing horn, Steel gently nudged Belle out of the camera's view.

"Greetings. I am--"

Twilight raised a hoof suddenly. "That's Captain Steel Prism. That's Captain Fast Shadow who I know I've met before. And that's Lt. Wandering Note, and that one that got pushed was Bullette Belle." Her eyes focused on Fast. "How?"

"I would ask the same question... I do not know you, but my very spirit knows you. I can feel it, a powerful echo. In a past life? I should imagine so..." Fast Shadow tapped her hoof against the lip of her chair, looking quite thoughtful.

All the other faces turned to face Fast Shadow. Belle's slipped into view, also facing her. "Stop looking at me like that. You are all aware of this..."

Spike waved to Twilight as he came up beside her. "This is Princess Twilight Sparkle, commander of the ESS Friendship. I'm her right-hoof dragon, Spike Sparkle."

Fast Shadow blinked softly. "Spike... Sparkle, no... that feels wrong."

"I... uh..." He put a large clawed hand behind his head, rubbing softly. "We made it official... After... It's a long story."

"We're married," explained Twilight, blushing brightly. "He took my name... Ahem, anyway! Hello! Hello hello hello! Oh Celestia, Hello. I am... too excited... A real alien species! We are so happy to meet you."

Spike nodded, seated on his haunches. It seemed quadruped motion suited his larger body more than his bipedal waddling as a baby dragon. "Real nice to meet you. You're the first, yep. On behalf of Equestria, we offer a hoof of friendship." He offered a very not-hoof hand towards the screen.

Steel sat up tall. "On behalf of Everglow and beneath the warm glow of the Sun Queen, we gladly accept this hoof. May our way forward be paved with the mutual glow of this union."

Dawn Event's voice drifted in from off camera, "amen."

Twilight gestured at the screen. "Spike, I don't think you understand! First contact! This is history in the making, right in front of us. And... I have to know." She turned back to Fast Shadow, trying to peer back in her own memory so long ago. "You said 'past life'?"

Fast Shadow stepped down from her chair, approaching the camera half way, standing in the middle of their bridge. "As the Author watches over us, she deemed some lucky, or unlucky, few would be supporting characters, always there when needed, to be present when the story had most need of them."

"Amen," came Dawn Event's voice from off camera.

A new face dominated the view suddenly, Under Score's aged face nudging Wandering out of the way and hogging up the display. "What she means is that when we die, we are reborn. Once this was an unfeeling act. Our new incarnations would have no idea that they once lived before, at most thinking they were walking in the horseshoes of aged champions."

Twilight flopped down on her haunches. "Amazing! So, wait... Fast Shadow?" Under Score moved out of the way to let the two make eye contact. "You're the same Fast Shadow, from back then? When... But... I thought that was another world..."

"It was." Fast Shadow had a faint smile, past behind it. "But not another reality, it turns out. Our meeting proves this. You came a long way, a long long way, those many lifetimes ago. I do not... recall it well, but your presence is a warm familiarity."

Spike reared up to make two gun motions with his hands. "You beat the tar out of me. Good times. No bad feelings, promise. I had to learn how to fight, and that's kind of how you do that."

"That does sound like me." Fast Shadow looped around back towards her chair. "It is such a delight to meet... Wait." She looked over her shoulder. "We can fly so far and so long because when we die, we are reborn. There is a time of growth, of course, but our crew replenishes itself. Are we close to your world?"

Spike shook his head quickly. "Nope. We've been drifting out here for... uh... Long enough that a regular pony would be way dead."

Fast's eyes darted between Spike and Twilight. "You are a dragon, and you... are not a standard pony." Her eyes lifted a little. "I see another there, how do they persist?"

Vinyl did not react to the question, though her ear was in view of the Everglow ponies. Twilight moved over to Vinyl and gently pushed her aside. She faded out of existence as if she was never there. "Not real..."

Under Score softly cleared his throat. "As fascinating as this all is, shouldn't we move forward with proper introductions? Assuming our environments are compatible, a face to face meeting feels prudent, where we can compare our notes far more efficiently."

Pinkie, or the thing that looked like Pinkie, suddenly looked up from her station. "Environments are compatible. Yay."

Spike hiked a thumb. "A computer really can't imitate her... I know you want them on the bridge, but really, Twilight..."

"Now is not the time for that," hissed out Twilight, turning away from the camera. "Yes, we should meet. I'd be delighted to shake hooves with a real alien species, even if I've... met your world once before. This is amazing." Her excitement returned as she turned to the other ship. "I'll put the ship on autopilot and be over there in two shakes of a colt's tail."

Bringing the ships close together, at least on an astronomical scale, Twilight got herself dressed properly for the occasion, a fine dress and dazzling crown on her head.

Spike wore a suit that covered his large form sharply, with a tie that dangling down in the air. Both had Equestria pins on their shoulders, proudly declaring their loyalties.

They picked at each other's clothing a little, helping it all settle just so. "We're as ready as we'll ever be." Spike nodded with confidence. "They seem like nice people. Better than it could have been. I was almost sure the first sign of life we'd run into would be some kind of super carnivorous flower that wanted to eat our faces."

"Stop it," laughed Twilight as she moved for a clean pad. "Yes, they do seem perfectly hospitable. I couldn't ask for much better for the first friends of the cosmos. They could have been sapient rocks that communicated only in specific oscillations of their very atomic structure. That would have been a challenge."

Spike hiked a brow. "You sure you didn't want to write science fiction instead?" He stepped up onto the pad and curled half around her. "Ready."

"Ready." Her horn glowed and several thin lasers came from the walls, syncing with her magic. "Target locked. Begin tran--" They vanished.

They appeared on a similar but different pad aboard the Everglow ship. "--sfer."

Spike blinked softly, looking around the new room. "Huh, right on target. Nice work."

Facing them was a white and black spotted unicorn wearing a uniform of some sort with a wobbly not-quite-round world on her shoulder. "Hello," she welcomed. "I am Lt. Star Dancer, and it's nice to meet you both. If you'll follow me, I'll take you to meet the captains." She stepped down from behind her panels and began leading the way. "We were wondering if we would have to retrieve you, but I see you have teleportation magic."

"She was teleporting before we even had spaceships," laughed Spike as he lumbered just behind Twilight. "It's only gotten worse with computer assistance."

Twilight was watching Star Dancer as they walked. "Are you... like Fast Shadow? I mean... being reborn?"

"Or I wouldn't be on this ship." She twitched an ear back at the two visitors. "We've been adrift long enough for the crew to pass away several times over." They emerged from the transporter room into a hallway that smelled of fresh grass. The walls were decorated with natural scenes, a comforting change from clean ship rooms.

"Comin' through!" A small Zebra filly rushed past, almost knocking Star Dancer over in her hurry.

"Come back here!" A brown earth-bound chased after her. "Sonja, you big dummy!"

Twilight tilted her head curiously. "I... Wait, how..."

Spike smirked wickedly. "When a father pony and a mother pony love each other very much."

Twilight rolled her eyes. "But if the crew is static, how can there be foals?"

Star Dancer pointed in the direction the children had fled. "They are us, the next generation. They must be cared for and tended to, so they will be ready to assume us when we are too old, or hurt, to continue."

"That only raises more questions..." But Twilight kept those questions to herself as they passed through an intersection and after a turn they could see open doors. "Is this where we're going?"

"Yep." Star Dancer swept a hoof ahead of herself. "Presenting Princess Twilight Sparkle and her +1, Spike Sparkle."

In the room they were entering, many of the ponies that were on the bridge were present. Steel and Fast were in the front, giving a unified greeting. Belle was grinning with an overabundance of joy. Under Score was watching the whole thing with careful reservation. "I had always theorized, but you have proven my hypothesis correct."

Spike canted his head as he entered just after Twilight. "What theory was that?"

"That all worlds that can be transported to also exist... some just so very distant as to be basically unreachable." He fixed his eyes on Twilight. "Tell me, how long have you flown, exactly?"

"Oh, well, first we'd have to agree on a time scale..."

"This is true."

Fast raised a hoof. "We can approach those questions another time. First, let me see you." She stepped up towards Twilight with a warm and welcoming smile. "You are just as I remember, as I am remembering. I... I hurt you, didn't I?"

"A little," squeaked Twilight, remembering the harsh combat lessons Fast had delivered. "But it was for a good cause. I'm not angry about it, and even if I was... that was forever ago. You're a captain! I mean... congratulations?"

"Co-captain," corrected Fast as she waved to Steel. "I proudly serve at his side."

"An honor." Steel nodded at Twilight. "While we are the first alien species you discovered, you are far from our first. We met our first just as we took the first timid steps towards the stars, and they were a good people, who offered friendship towards us, and we took it, catapulting ourselves into the space age."

Under Score nodded softly. "I can faintly remember it, so many lives ago. Back then, we had no idea... Twilight Sparkle, have you been minding my lessons?"

Twilight went rigid and stood up straight. "What?"

"My lessons," he repeated. "Everglow magic, quite different from Equestrian magic if I am remembering correctly, of which there is no certainty. Have you been minding those lessons? Have you grown in power, or simply age?"

"Under!" hissed Fast with a frown. "Do not be impolite to our guests. They are literally ambassadors from a new nation. It behooves us to treat them with respect."

"Captains," came the voice of Wandering over the local comm, audible to everyone. "I'm getting some strange readings up here. Something's contacting us, and I'm not sure it's friendly. You should hear this."

2 - Resistance is Unoptimal

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They all moved together towards the bridge, making swift progress through the brightly-lit hallways. Spike looked aside at Steel Prism. "You alright having us there? I mean, we'll stay out of the way, but this is still a lot of trust."

"You are friends of Fast Shadow, a captain, and her confidant. I trust that you will not be in the way." The elevator doors opened automatically for him, but he only entered partially, holding the doors open for everyone else to hurry inside and stepping in last. "Bridge."

A soft chime informed them that the command had been heard and they began to be smoothly transported through the Everglow vessel.

Fast dipped her head. "It seems our habits have not dimmed with time. Our meeting is a sign of interesting times. I should be more worried, but I feel instead... excited. My life to now has been preparation." She took a sharp breath, sitting up. "But that excitement will not make me forget that the safety of my companions is paramount."

Spike curled, eyes on the door, and trying his best to not take up more of the elevator than he already did, which was more than any single other creature there. "So what kind of contact are we talking? You reached out to us and that wasn't so bad."

Under Score pointed to the doors an instant before they opened. "Let us find these answers for ourselves. I am just as curious." He strolled free onto the bridge. "Wandering, what..." He trailed off, attention seized by the main screen.

Displayed there were countless butterfly-like creatures, with the thorax and abdomen of an entire pony. Their wings were soft purples and blues, interrupted by other colors that emerged from the crowd only to be lost again. Their eyes were focused on whatever camera was revealing them.

One pointed, then they all pointed. "Your brilliance is--" They were all speaking at the same time in a curious echo. "--judged worthy of adding to our own. Rejoice! Remain calm and it will be done shortly."

Wandering gestured up at it with a cloven hoof. "That doesn't sound good to me, Captains."

Steel scowled as he plopped down in his seat. "Can they hear us?"

With a firm strike at his commands, Wandering nodded, communications live.

Steel fixed the many fluttering things with his gaze. "Greetings. I am Captain Steel Prism, of the ESS Horizon. Please explain your words."

The sea of fluttering shapes undulated as many canted their heads to one side of the other. "Your brilliance will be taken and stored safely." Their voice shifted, still a chorus, but higher in tone, "added to our own." "Safe forever," the mass seemed to almost sigh, all those faces smiling with a sublime joy.

Fast scowled at the image. "Will we survive this kind gesture?"

"Your brilliance will. Such lovely shades you have. We are coming." The screen became almost as static, but it wasn't static. Countless fluttering shapes were flying past the camera in a truly staggering quantity.

"Cut channel. Red Alert." Fast Shadow sat up with a scowl. "Weapons and shields online."

Twilight's eyes widened. "Wait, are we fighting?!"

"Were you not paying attention?" Spike nudged his wife lightly. "They want to suck all the colors out of us, permanently."

"But my ship!"

"Has a shield we can turn on from here and no weapons," Spike finished the thought for her. "Can you open a channel back to our ship real quick?"

Wandering soon had an image of their empty deck. The illusory crew wasn't present, with no living person benefiting from their existence. Spike nodded at it. "Shields up, red alert." The image became tinted red as the commands were followed.

Steel swiveled an ear towards Spike. "I had not realized you had that authority."

"Dude, we're the only two crew on that ship." He lifted his impressive shoulders. "Having all the control by one person ever? Asking for trouble."

Twilight sank to her haunches, a hoof at her cheek. "This is too much. After a lifetime of nothing but drifting, we find new friends and our lives are under sudden threat. Do you know what those things are? Are they a new thing, like us?"

Dawn Event glanced back from his panel. "All weapons are online and ready. Shields at full power. May the fury of Blaze prove the stronger today."

Fast gestured with her hoof and it was apparently enough for the computer to figure out what she wanted, showing a top-down image of where the fluttering mass was in relation to their ship and Twilight's ship. It was rushing towards them at an unfriendly rate. "Fire when ready. Don't bother with evasive maneuvers. Cosmic flutters would just laugh at the attempt."

Steel nodded with resolve. "Exactly right. They don't use ranged weapons and this ship can't even pray to match their individual maneuverability."

The main screen showed sudden red lines between their ship and the fluttering mass. "Direct hit," called out Under Score. "Moderate damage." The seething mass swirled and suddenly split in two, one going for either ship.

Twilight bounced to her hooves. "What are they going to do to our ship?!"

Fast's teeth clenched. "If you don't have any weapons, just be glad you ran into us before they showed up. Keep up the pressure, convince them we're not worth the trouble."

One of the masses rolled over Twilight and Spike's ship in a swirling mass. Twilight surged ahead, horn glowing angrily. Spike came down on her back with a sudden crash, driving her to the ground beneath his great claws. "No," he spoke firmly. "No."

"But... Spike! All of the momentos. All of... everything. Every... Spike! Let me go right this instant!" But he was not letting her go, holding firmly with his bulk.

She vanished, appearing a few feet away. "I'm going back there, with or without you!"

"Not without assistance you aren't." Spike rolled his eyes. "Even you have limits to how far you can jump, especially with a Twilight Emergency in effect."

A soft chime came from the smaller screen that still showed their bridge.

Twilight twitched an ear at it, then back at Spike, her jaw going slack. "Did you just... You locked me out of the computer! This is mutiny! Spike!" She rushed to him and began beating at his side with her hooves. "Why are you doing this!?" Her impassioned strikes did little to the side of the grown dragon she had wed.

The ship shuddered beneath them, sending Twilight tumbling flat. "They're testing the shields," barked out Dawn Event. "They will not pierce us that easily."

"Wide spread volley, launched." Under Score was typing furiously, hooves dancing. "They are suffering losses."

"Shields at 74%." Dawn frowned at something on his screen. "ESS Friendship's shields have failed."

The image of the other bridge began to change, the red fading to grey, other colors starting to draw away, consumed somehow.

Star Dancer's voice suddenly piped up over the ship comm, "incoming transport from the ESS friendship. Allow or deny?"

Fast scowled, looking towards Spike and Twilight, but both looked surprised and confused. "If it's smaller than a cat, deny. Otherwise, arm yourself and allow."


In the transporter bay, Star Dancer grasped a laser weapon in her horn's grasp. "Let's get this over with..." She pressed the allow button with a mental swat.

With a bright flash, a new pony appeared. Grey in color, with both wings and horn, the relatively tall pony exhaled loudly. "Thank heavens.... Those blasted things ate my appearance." Octavia shook herself out, seemingly in good condition, minus being exposed as the queen she had been reshaped to be so many years prior.

Star cocked a brow at the new visitor. "You come in peace, I assume?"

That was when Octavia noticed she wasn't alone and went red in the cheeks, folding her wings tight as if that could hide them. "Oh... dear. Yes! Yes, of course. I was fleeing what was happening back there." She pointed at the wall behind the transporter, which wasn't even towards her original ship, but the meaning was clear.

"Are Twilight and Spike here?"

"They are," admitted Star with some reservation. "Friends?"

"Technically my captains." She sat softly. "Please don't tell them what you saw." She willed out a small shard of glass from in a pocket, focusing on it as she shimmered, becoming her usual earth pony self. "My presence alone will be quite a shock to them, but a good one, I hope."

Star shook her head slowly at the sight. "Right... You just stay here for now. We're still in red alert, and they don't need you on the bridge." She reached up and tapped at her chest. "Captains, the transport was a success and I'm not being attacked, so this situation is resolved for now."

Spike frowned at Twilight. "What do we have on the ship that would transport over here without us being involved?"

"I... don't know, but I want to find out." Twilight started for the elevator.

Fast put out a hoof, though she had no hope of physically blocking the way from her seat. "Sit. No disrespect, but we're still in a battle situation. Status!"

Under Score brought down a hoof with a swat. "Dispersion array fully charged, firing!"

The graphic of the overall battle showed a sudden widening circle from their ship, forcing the swarm away from the ship. The swarm scattered, rejoining with the other half of itself in an organic swoop before it launched back into the infinite void that had spawned it.

Twilight's ears perked. "We won? Great! Can we go back now?"

"Twi..." Spike hiked a large thumb at the display that had shown their bridge. It was almost entirely black, the feed riddled with artifacts from a poor connection. There were no colors to be seen.

Steel pointed at the same screen. "I want a full scan. Get me the status of our guest's ship."

"On it," called Dawn, already hard at work getting that.

Fast hopped up to her hooves. "Cancel red alert." The red tinting faded away. "Now, while they work on that, Twilight." Twilight looked towards her. "What would be coming from your ship? It's now on my ship, which makes it my problem. Should I be concerned?"

Twilight shook her head quickly. "You're looking at the entirety of our crew, so I don't know. I'm just as curious... If neither of you are letting me go back there, let's at least face this mystery."

Fast, Twilight, and Spike filed onto the elevator, leaving the others to continue their duties. Spike drummed his claws on the ground as the room moved through the ship. "The holograms can't jump ship, right?"

"Not without some serious preparation before hoof..." Twilight frowned softly in thought. "Star Dancer, that was her name, right? She's not in danger, I hope?"

"She reported the situation was stable." Fast advanced for the door, her nose reaching it just in time for it to open for her. "Star, what's going on in here?"

Star pointed across the counter towards Octavia. "She says she's part of Twilight's--"

"Octavia?!" squeaked both Twilight and Spike in unison.

Spike reached her first in a few large steps. "But you're just an illusion, a hologram." He reached for her and casually bowled over the earth pony. His expression only got more confused. "Wait... Uh... Woah... When did..."

Octavia scrambled to her hooves and backed away, ears pinned. "It's a long story..." She looked over and saw Fast, her eyes widening suddenly. "You!"

"You!" echoed Fast before she burst into laughter. "Today is a fine day for ghosts of the past... but... not the past...? I can't place it... You are... like a thing that could have been, or maybe was? I can't explain it."

Star tucked her floating laser pistol away. "So you two are familiar then. Great. So she's a guest too then?"

Twilight was staring at Octavia, dumbfounded. "But... we've been... So many moons! You were always there, ready to play music. I thought... How are you not a hologram!"

Spike casually reached forward, grabbing at a point just a little above where Octavia's back seemed to be, catching one of her wings carefully between two claws and pulling it away.

"Spike, what are...." The illusion faded from her eyes. She could see the semi-transparent ghostly image of Octavia's normal form, and the taller, winged, and horned form of the true Octavia showing clearly. "W-what?"

Octavia carefully extracted her wing from Spike. "I visited a blasted world, once long ago, with... Vinyl... Harmony rest her soul. It left its impression on me, and you can blame that for my continued existence."

Fast shook her head. "You... were not winged... Hmm... well... if there are no objections, I will treat her as a member of your crew, Twilight, Spike?"

They both nodded. Twilight pointed at her. "This is... Today has been beyond overwhelming." She sank to her haunches. "But... It's you... really? I... Really?" A tear spilled from her eyes. "Am I dreaming?"

Octavia smiled awkwardly, glancing between Twilight and Spike. "It is I, Octavia Melody, no rank. I snuck aboard when I heard where you were going and what you were doing... I couldn't bear the thought of leaving the side of another pony that knew the sharp sting of being unaging in a world that refused to ever slow down. Please pardon me."

Spike smiled easily. "I think it's pretty awesome. Welcome aboard. Shoot, you should have said something, I dunno, like a hundred or two moons ago?"

"I wanted to! I swear, but there never seemed to be precisely the right opportunity... I had deceived you both..."

Fast cleared her throat. "Very good then. You are now an ensign, barring Twilight giving you a different rank under her. What do you know how to do?"

Star rolled her eyes. "Oh, sure. I have to endure years of education to earn a badge, she gets it for stowing away; true justice."

Octavia dipped her head towards Fast. "Thank you. You are... a captain? Last we met... You were alone."

"Was I? I would like to hear more." Fast turned back for the elevator. "It is a rare treat to encounter someone or something that can tell me more about my past lives, especially one so very faint and distorted as that one." She inclined an ear. "Status report, how is their ship holding up?"

"Poorly," came Dawn's terse reply. "It's ripping apart at the hinges, suffering complete dissolution. And... there it goes."

Fast looked over her shoulder at her three guests. "I'm afraid you're stuck in our company for now, but I should like to thank the Author in a--"

"Thank somepony?!" Twilight clopped a hoof down, going red in the face. "I could have saved something, anything! I could have..."

Spike set a hand carefully on her shoulder. "You could have gotten killed at any instant as the ship failed around you... That's not what anycreature you were saving trinkets of would have wanted."

"That's not the point!" She suddenly stormed off, only to run into the elevator doors that were not opening for her. She stared at them, as if her anger was enough to convince them to operate.

Fast shook her head. "Why were you exploring the universe without even basic weapons to defend yourself? That is beyond trusting." She was looking to Spike, leaving Twilight to stew.

"Yeah... Twilight thought friendship could solve it all." Spike shrugged and looked to Octavia. "Welcome aboard, again. Seriously, it's great to have another Equestrian around."

"Nice to be here," assured Octavia with an uncertain smile, looking past him to Twilight. "I don't imagine she's alright with this, however... May I attempt to speak with her?"

Spike slid a little out of the way and grandly waved towards Twilight in approval.

"Thank you." Octavia stepped gently across the metal floor, hooves tinking with each step. "Twilight, I understand what you're feeling."

"How can you?!" Twilight wheeled on her, scowling daggers.

"Very easily... My abilities rely on the memories of the past, their physical markers." With a glowing horn she began drawing her implements free. "I have to meticulously clean, repair, and sometimes basically re-assemble these at times, to keep them existing through countless moons." She shook a doll of a pony with a cocky smirk at Twilight. "I never knew how to stitch until this poor thing began to come apart. Ponies around me just sneered. Why not buy a new one, they'd ask. But I couldn't. I couldn't. It had to be this one."

Twilight's rage ebbed faintly, replaced with curiosity. She reached and placed a gently hoof against the floating doll. "Did... you keep something from Vinyl?"

Octavia flinched back a step. "A barb most cruel... but yes... Of course..." She cycled through her implements until a pair of goggles was at the fore with bright red lenses. "The last she... ever owned." Octavia glanced away. "She gave them to me, while she was still alive, one of her final acts... She said to make magic with it, so I have. They let me see things, and think of her, both gifts I hold dearly..."

Twilight took a shuddering breath, eyes locked on the goggles. "If you were to lose those..."

"I would be driven to tears unending... Twilight, I... I know... This is a pain most terrible. You are not alone." She reached out, setting a hoof on Twilight's shoulder. "Let us endure this together."

A hand came down on her other shoulder, Spike there with a gentle smile.

Twilight's vision slipped between Octavia and Spike back and forth rapidly before a strangled laugh escaped her. "No fair... my friends aren't letting me be mad."

"Guilty," admitted Spike with a little grin. "Besides, it's time to learn, and adventure, and we're on a ship of eternal ponies, not holograms. How awesome is that?!"

3 - Episode 1: Uncertain Ground

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Under Score watched the two magic ponies with undisguised interest, one hoof stroking at his beard as he did so, finely braided rather than the wispy mess it was in some lives or the wild and expansive thing it could also become. "You have no idea what you two represent."

Twilight cocked a brow at that. "I get the feeling, um, actually I'm not sure what I think right now."

Octavia thinly smiled, which was not far from her usual smile. "I know this feeling. You spent countless moons in the company of one... I didn't have that. Accepting each day as it came with none before or after was all I could do to... deal with it."

"How are--"

Under coughed softly, demanding their attention. "You two are carriers of ancient, forgotten, magic. With the coming of technology, the pursuit of magic changed with it, harmonizing with it, and flowing alongside it, rather than from the empty void. Dawn Event's callings to higher powers remain close to the roots, but arcane magic... That has changed much."

Octavia twisted an ear towards Under. "You mean my history magic?"

"Precisely so." He waved a hoof towards her lightly. "You may be the only living practitioner of it." He lowered that hoof slightly and a glowing panel appeared in front of him. He pressed several glowing glyphs among a staggering collection of others. "My magic is held within technology, and technology enhances it. The two are quite co-dependant upon one another."
Twilight's eyes widened, taking in the subtle weave of floating magic, already trying to decipher it, but it wasn't quite what she knew. The technology that helped form it made it quite alien, like a related but different language being spoken before her.

"I am still powerless to explain much of my magic..." Octavia's horn glowed the shade of her eyes as a regal scepter floated free of her collection.

"Wait, isn't that--?"

"It was Princess Celestia's," agreed Octavia. "She dropped it and had it replaced long ago, but I retrieved this one." She opened her mouth just as the scepter floated into it, taking a firm grip. "Its history is full of a sort of violence, but it can be used for good, much like the elements you and your friends once bore."

Under Score hiked a shaggy brow at that. "Let's keep displays of violence to a minimum unless we relocate to a proper setting. Hm, Twilight, yes? Where is Spike?"

Spike jumped over the charging pony with a merry laugh, tagging her on the back before he landed heavily with the scrape of claws on steel, even if the ground appeared softer than that.

Fast wheeled to face him, her hanging lance crackling with angry energy. "For wasting away for years, you remain in fighting spirit, but--" She started forward without warning. When he tried to repeat the move, she brought up her lance and tagged him on his exposed belly, leaving a line of glow across his midsection. "and now you're dead."

"Ugh, not like this... not..." He flopped to the ground, one hand reaching out, his tongue lolling free. "Tell Twilight I said... hello." His eyes closed and his head flopped bonelessly.

Fast rolled her eyes softly. "Very dramatic, but I doubt a little glow is ending your big scaley rump. You certainly have gotten larger since last we met. I remember your small stature quite clearly." She approached her fallen opponent on easy hooves. "Now get up, we have more practicing to do."

Spike rolled up to his feet even as his tail lashed, knocking Fast off her hooves in a sudden crash of limbs. "I never said we stopped."

"Cheeky devil!" she roared as she scrambled to her hooves. "It only gets worse now." But Spike greeted her fury with a smile. They clashed, natural weapons against her technological edge. He did not always win, but he was always laughing and smiling.

"Captains." Under Score's voice echoed near both of them. "We are approaching Star System DF890-W. Star Charts updated by Luminace's will and sent home. With her blessing, we detect four planets. Two are gas giants, two are rock. One is in the habitable zone."

Steel raised a hoof to his ear to respond. "Scan the habitable planet for signs of life and sweep the system for interesting minerals and materials."

"Already ahead of you, Captain." Dawn tapped at his console with a content expression. "The second gas giant has useful materials for refueling some of the subsystems, I recommend taking a sip from this oasis the gods have seen fit to lay in our path."

Fast replied, "any life?"

"Unusually high oxygen levels... Mmm, yes. Not detecting any of the usual hints of advanced sapience, but there may be simple life to be seen." Up until a point, the higher a life form was, the noisier and more obvious it became, emitting all kinds of increasingly dense chemicals of energy until it flattened dramatically, but if they were that advanced, they would likely cover the entire planet and sensors would not even be required to know they were there from that close up.

"We should take a look." Fast turned to Spike. "Looks like our session's over."

"Aw." He sat up tall. "That was fun while it lasted at least. You have any idea how much prodding it takes to get Twilight to really start moving?"

"I should imagine," she laughed at his plight. "More opportunities will come, I assure." She tapped at her ear. "Bring us close and figure out a safe place to send a shuttle. Make sure we're safe down there. Dying to some local bacteria would defeat much of the point."

"Sun Queen watch over you." He didn't say it directly, but he was working to do as was asked of him. Dawn took his job seriously.

Under's ear twitched softly. "It seems we will soon be called upon as members of this crew."

Twilight canted her head to the left slightly. "Are we... members of this crew?"

"Would you rather not be?" He peered at Twilight intensely. "As guests, there will be precious little for you to do. Your memory is faint, but I do not recall you to want to be idle in the face of possible knowledge."

Octavia lifted her shoulders in a mild display. "After so long being confined in my lie, this is... overwhelming, and terrifying. Part of me wants to go find a comfortable little room to hide in and await the next time someone needs music played." She sat and worried her forehooves together. "But that would not be healthy, and I resist..."

"'tavia..." Twilight set a hoof on her side. "I'm so sorry." Her eyes widened suddenly. "I confessed things!"

Under blinked at the admission of confession. "What did you confess? Being sorry is hardly an unusual feeling."

Twilight took a step back, her cheeks burning. "I said things in front of you, thinking you were just an uncaring automaton. You... replied, but I thought it was good programming, not... an actual pony. Dear Celestia."

Octavia reached out, placing her hoof right on Twilight's nose. "They will remain with me in secrecy and I do not think less of you."

Twilight groaned loudly, flopping backwards onto her haunches. "Thanks, I suppose... Ugh!" She turned back to Under. "What's going on that needs us?"

"That's the spirit." Far better in his eyes to focus on knowledge that could be had than petty embarrassments. "It seems we are entering a charted but un-scanned star system. We are performing a suite of scans now, adding to the knowledge of the universe."

Twilight's embarrassment evaporated with wide eyes. "You mean later, I imagine?"

"Later?" He hiked a brow at that. "No, everything we see is being broadcasted back home as we make discoveries. They do not arrive instantly, I will admit, but they are sent. Even were we to meet an unpleasant end, what we have seen already will not be lost. That is the purpose of our coming, to learn, see, and make the universe less of a gaping unknown by some tiny amount."

Octavia placed a hoof at her cheek, just the top tip of her hoof. "Have you already shared that you met us, what happened?"

"I should think so." He was moving for the door at a light walk. "I am needed at my station. Come with me? I feel certain the captains will have things for you two to do."

They progressed as one unit through the halls and elevator, arriving at the command deck. Fast and Spike were already there, as were most of the others at their stations. Fast and Steel sat on their command chairs as others were pressing busily at their stations.

Steel gestured at the main screen where the slowly spinning planet was displayed with the blues and greens of a world clearly enjoying the throes of an earth-like life. "The question remains if we should actually approach this world or be satisfied with what readings we can obtain from here."

Fast smiled softly. "To send organics into such a delicate time could disrupt things through no direct action, but we have a crewmember that can be completely sanitized before and after her visit. Computer?"

A soft chime sounded.

"Where is Bullette Belle?"

She was seated on her haunches in front of the great form of a horse-sized pony with snakes for a tongue. "She is still a queen," sang Bullette with amazed tones. "I have avoided her."

"Ya shouldn't do that," sighed out one of the snakes. "I bet she'll be happy to see you," added another. "At least you're still there."

Belle frowned at her big friend. "You are still there too," she argued with discordant tones.

"Belle, you know that ain't 100% true." He stood up and casually walked through her as if he were a ghost. "I'm only here because you want me to be."

"Is that not a sufficient reason?" she asked, turning to keep him in view. "Do you not enjoy our time together?"

"You know I do, but ah'm just an echo, not the real thing. He died, you know that."

"He did not," she argued with a raising crescendo, a smile on her metal face.

"Bullette Belle," came Fast's voice on the intercom. "To the bridge immediately."

Belle swiveled an ear with faint internal clicks. "I must go, they need me." She bounced up and came down facing the right way. "Cease unhappy thoughts. I will return with the lost puppy."

No Name watched her go quietly, sighing despite the lack of air inside him. "At least you'll have a new friend, a real one." He flickered out of existence, holograms not needed when there weren't others around to enjoy their presence.

Belle rushed out onto the bridge. "Bullette Belle reporting for duty," she sang with digital delight. She spotted Octavia standing there and a discordant squeak emerged from her. "Plan adjustment: You were not supposed to be here."

Octavia blinked softly at the metal filly. "Is... Are you... Belle? Truly?" She rose to her hooves, staring at the little robot that was shying away.

"Plan adjusted." She nodded to herself with satisfaction. "Greetings, Octavia Melody, designation: Lost Puppy. Were you successful in reaching your home?"

"I was... Twilight, this is Bullette Belle, a delightful filly that is perfectly standard for her age." Octavia gestured towards Belle, her eyes on Twilight in the introduction. "Belle, this is Princess Twilight Sparkle, my captain, though our ship has... met an unkind end."

"Friendship file already created," sang out Belle. "Archived friendship file found." Her electric eyes widened a moment to pure black. "You had many points! Tag detected: Responsible Adult. Where is Vinyl Scratch? Friendship patterns indicate she should be in your presence."

Octavia shrank away at that, not answering. Fast broke the awkward moment before it could become much of a thing, "Belle, we called you here for more than getting to know our new crew."

"Tag added to files: Crew." She nodded firmly, proud of herself. "What do you require?" she sang, bouncing in place.

Fast pointed up at the main screen where the world turned slowly. "We need a completely sterile crewmember to visit the surface of the planet and perform exploration and scans that are not possible from this far away."

Steel nodded in agreement. "When you are ready, proceed to the transporter bay for cleaning and transport. This is an exploration mission. Leave only hoofprints, take only images."

"Cameras at 98% efficiency," she assured with a soft click of a picture being taken. "If something of sufficient interest is detected, it will be reported for later action." Belle saluted sharply before turning in place for the elevator.

"Be careful," bid Octavia with a little smile. "We have much to discuss, later."

Twilight hiked a brow at Octavia as Belle wandered away. "You know her? How is that even... possible?"

"You know half the crew here," she retorted. "How is it that odd that I know two? That was forever ago... She used to have a very large guardian with her... What was his name...? I fear I've forgotten it."

Wandering looked over his shoulders from by the communications station. "No Name? She usually keeps that to herself. I'm surprised you know about him."

"He is alive as well? Truly your world is--"

Wandering was shaking his head. "Sorry, but no. He passed quite some time ago, and he isn't a champion. To be honest, we're not even entirely certain why she is still with us. Steelhearts can live quite a long time, but she's made a mockery of the entire thing."

"I have theories about that," grunted Under Score from his station. "But that is a topic for another day. For now, let's focus on the matter at hoof and making sure she remains with us."

Steel raised a hoof to his ear. "Star, has she arrived? Status?"

"I'm spraying her down with disinfectants as we speak," assured Star Dancer, covering Belle with sudsy foam before the rinse cycle began. Belle was singing joyfully as if enjoying a shower. Soon she was bright and sparkling clean from within the fully contained transporter room, transparent material only allowing light in, and even the air pumped out completely to ensure that she was entirely clean of contaminants that could harm the world she was to visit.

"She's ready for transport, disinfection complete."

"Belle, ready to begin?"

"Affirmative!" came her cheerful declaration, bouncing in the airless pocket. "Proceed with mission."

"You heard the mare, send her down."

Star pressed buttons with her mind, her horn glowing. "Sending her down."

With a warm glow of technomagic, she was bathed in energy that whisked her way, carrying her down through the void of space and the rush of air of the new world. She appeared with an almost comical pop a few inches above the ground and landed with a metal jingle. "Teleport successful!" she sang. "Initiating chemical analysis." Her nostrils flared as little fans began drawing in air to sift through and consider.

"Fresh, alive." Belle looked around at the mossy ground she had landed on. "No trees detected."

Dawn gestured at the image back on the bridge. "Perhaps this world is still quite young yet, with life only just barely reaching from the sea in the form of sturdy mosses. How enchanting that we were able to witness it, even vicariously through the eyes of our crewmember."

Being at least as much robot as living thing, Belle's vision was shared with them, on another window just beside the overall view of the world that showed a blinking dot where she was. She was wandering slowly, examining the many colors the moss took, though green seemed to be the dominant shade. Despite its dominance, other shades did their best, showing it to be a wondrous display when viewed from up close.

Twilight clapped her hooves to her cheeks. "This is amazing! I... never thought to look at random worlds before. I was... so sure looking for intelligent life was the only real thing to look for. Are there any animals?"

Fast smiled gently. "Intelligent life is certainly worth finding, but even the smallest of life can unlock secrets to the workings of this vast universe the Author saw fit to bless us with."

"Amen," added Dawn with a soft nod.

Fast was watching the screen with the others. "Speaking of animals, keep an eye out for any signs of those. They're likely in the water if I had to guess, but you know what guessing can do with entirely alien worlds."

"Affirmative!" The camera began to bounce as she pronked towards the closest lake, a wide pond of blueish-purple fluid. Water, or so the sensors implied, making up most of it. "Scanning for animals..." Her eyes swept back and forth over the water, simply looking for anything that moved. "Not detected..." she sadly reported. "Error! Energy detected." She turned sharply.

Her vision suddenly included a cloud of numbers and a targeting reticle zeroing in on something that wasn't there, some far off point. "Aetheric activity. Scale level... 2. Investigate?"

Steel frowned sharply. "Magic... Why would a world so primitive have a trace of magic, unless it is entirely wild."

"--and dangerous," finished Fast.

Under raised a hoof. "This is exactly what we should investigate."

Twilight leaned forward, eyes sparkling. "Alien magic?! What are we waiting for? I have to see this. Can I join her?"

"You may not," flatly replied Steel. "This is a sterile mission and you would not enjoy how we would try to sterilize a living person."

Spike snorted at that. "Nice try, but I'm not that dumb. You'd just put her in a suit and clean that."

Many eyes turned towards him. "What? I thought it was obvious."

Fast put a hoof over her face. "Yes, of course... Sometimes the most obvious answers are the last we consider."

4 - Towards the Light

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Belle began to wander towards the disturbance by default, not being told to avoid it. "Initiating discovery," she sang as she bounced towards the curiosity.

Fast raised a hoof. "Hold."

Spike was grinning a little. "Well now that you can do it without killing anycreature along the way, we can go?"

"No." Fast shook her head. "Sending a fresh face of the crew with Belle sounds like asking for trouble. I would want a senior member of staff present."

Under raised a hoof. "I volunteer. This is a matter of aetheric activity, my specialty. I would wish to investigate it myself."

Twilight nudged up against Spike suddenly. "Let me go, please! New magic? How can I stay away?!"

Spike gently booped her on the nose. "You aren't going without me, you know that."

Fast waved a hoof at the both of them. "Spike, you're on physical guard duty. Under, investigate and provide Aetheric backup. Twilight, gawk and take notes."

"Hey!" It wasn't as if that wasn't exactly what she planned to do, but, "The way you phrase that... Where do we get suits?"

"This way." Under left his station and started for the elevator, leading the others behind him.

"Walk in the light," bid Steel as they departed, his voice continuing even as they got on the elevator through the comm system. "Be safe. We can always look later, but replacing you is more difficult."

Spike glanced to the side at Under Score. "Huh, if you, you know, had an accident, they could replace you, couldn't they?"

"In a matter of speaking. I would be very dead, but another would rise, but I can be the slowest to be replaced, unless you wished to settle with a younger and less experienced version of myself." He stroked his beard once before moving for the door. "This is the armory. Are you at all familiar with the selection?"

Twilight zipped from one thing to the next with wide eyes. A grand array of weapons ranging from something meant to be held in one hand, if one had a hand, to great things that looked unwieldy at best. The only actual armor suits looked big and bulky. "This is all incredible! But it implies you have suffered a great deal of conflict." She frowned faintly. "Considering our past meetings... I suppose that's logical."

Spike grabbed something meant for two hands, but it fit in his large claws reasonably. "Never had a laser gun before... I like it."

Under raised a brow at Spike curiously. "That is not a laser, but I gather your world is not as accustomed to such devices, so how do you even know what it could be?"

"I read a lot of comics, duh." He turned it around, practicing its heft. "Anywhere I can practice with it? And if it's not a laser, what does it shoot out?"

"We have little time for that. I already have my weapons. Select something for yourself, Miss Sparkle. Now, for armor..." He wandered off, viewing what appeared to be a selection of belts.

"Must I?" She reached for a little pistol, floating it around in her magic as she studied it critically. "I hate to be an armed invader. That's hardly a friendly message."

Spike suddenly slapped her on the back. "Put that down. You have more than enough magic on your own, and you'll be busy taking notes anyway."

She stuck out her tongue at her large reptilian companion. "An excellent point." She set the gun where it came from. "Now why are you considering belts?" She trotted towards Under Score.

"These are suits." He reached for one and it stuck to his hoof. He curled the hoof around and stepped into the circle awkwardly. Thankfully, it seemed eager to get on him and took over the moment it was over his head, sliding down around his midsection, then rapidly expanding outwards, becoming a full suit of flexible plastic, transparent over his face. "Here we are, fully contained."

Spike raised a great brow. "Will they fit me?"

Twilight grabbed one with her magic and floated it over her head, her glow still over it until it got to her midsection.

"New user detected," she could hear electronically in her head, far more even in tone than Belle, a neutral female voice. "Adjusting... Measurements complete. Expanding." The belt began expanding just as it had with Under Score, becoming a full covering of the strange space-age plastic from top to bottom, clear over her face. Despite being fully sealed, she could breathe normally.

Under pointed to one on the far right. "Try that one, and blame Wandering Note. He felt it remotely possible an antean could join our crew, though most of us felt it quite unlikely."

"Not sure what that is, but sure." He picked up the belt that didn't seem that much larger than the others. "Nothing ventured..." He pulled it down over his head and the belt began to widen, making it easy for him to push it down to where a belt should rest. "Huh, step one down."

"New user detected," spoke in his ears as the belt went through similar steps, expanding out over him to create a protective suit of plastic. Spike spread his wings, testing how to suit reacted, but it seemed to be clinging to them perfectly well, allowing him to flap without a lot of hinderence.

"Huh, nice. Guess we're ready. Oh." He attached his gun on a hook he spotted, keeping it ready at his side. "Nice."

"It reacts to the presence of weapons at the time you put it on," advised Under as he reached a hoof for his ear. "Away to Captains, we are suited. Proceeding to transporter."

"Let us know when you're there," replied Steel formally.

They were soon in front of Star who pressed a button with her magic, sealing them in. "Prepare to be cleansed of your sins," she said with dramatic flair, grinning as the harsh soaps washed over them. Fortunately, their suits preventing them from actually coming into contact with it, sterilizing them thoroughly of any life forms they knew of.

They were dried with hot gusts of air and steam as ultra violet radiation bathed them, their visors going dark to protect their eyes during the process. When one tried for 100% sterilization, there were many steps.

"Pardon me." Twilight was trying to stand still as the sterilization process continued, but she had to ask, "Why does this seem far more... involved than what Belle was put through?"

Star shrugged softly. "Lucky you, you don't have an exterior of metal with a nanoporous mesh that can be electrified on demand. She can do 99% of the work before we even start." She rolled a hoof slowly as the room began to lose its air around the suited ponies and dragon. "We're not done yet, just so you know. This may hurt just a little, but it'll be over with soon."

As it turned out, the suits could only protect so much from various radiations and heats, and that limit was tested in great waves, adding more 9s of accuracy to the kill count of the microbes that could be hiding on the suit, reaching ever higher for that elusive 100%. "And for the piece de la resistance!" Star pressed a button with an actual hoof and everything went dark inside the chamber a moment, a strange shudder passing through all three of them. "All clean, captain. Whatever bugs survived the first three waves are certainly gone now."

Under turned to his two cohorts. "That was technomantic in origin. If you had less life force than the typical house pet, it would have snuffed it out." His voice was distorted a little, coming over a radio instead of by vibrating air. They were in a vacuum.

Spike lifted his broad shoulders. "If you have that, why didn't we start there? Wouldn't that be enough?"

Twilight looked over her shiny clean suit. "Not if they wanted to be sure. This way is just as harsh on any non-living contaminants we may have brought into the chamber. This is too exciting!" She clopped her hooves joyfully. "Journal Entry." She blinked softly, realizing a moment later. "Oh..." Her computer was so much debris in space. "Oh..."

Fast's voice came over their suit radios, "I've opened a journal for you, Twilight. You can make entries as you please. I feel I should warn, they will be repeated with our updates home."

"Thank you." She rubbed at one leg with the plastic-sleeved hoof of the other leg. "Journal Entry." She heard a soft chime. It wasn't her chime, but it was a chime. Good enough? "And so begins our first mission to catalog a mysterious source of magic on a primitive world. I never thought I'd have this chance, to witness the potential birth of magic on a world, or perhaps its first awkward steps. I will dutifully take notes on the experience and make another journal later. End Journal." Another chime informed her that the file had been saved.

Spike bumped into her suddenly. "I'm going to bet you didn't think to take your actual journal out before we got suited."

Her eyes widened. "Oh no!" Her horn glowed from inside her suit as she pulled the book free, but it couldn't get out with the suit in the way. "Oh no oh no oh no!"

"Deep breath, Twilight. Just open a journal entry and leave it open. You can dictate instead of writing."

"Oh, yes, of course! I... uh..." She put a hoof to her forehead. "I think I might have lost a few marbles. My apologies. I'll get back up to speed. Journal Entry." A soft chime announced that she was being recorded, and she smiled, knowing she could review it later to take proper notes. A thought occurred to her. "Journal, can you include video?" A new chime sounded, and a red 'REC' appeared on her visor. She clip-clopped her covered hooves with a grin. "Perfect. We are ready to start the mission."

"Send them down," came Steel's voice.

"Aye aye, Captain." Star's horn glowed as she worked the control. "Three to the surface."

The world faded away as technology and magic worked together to grab them up and hurl them through the space between here and there. They appeared on the ground with better accuracy than Belle had enjoyed, standing side by side with soft pops.

Belle was facing them, bouncing in place. "Welcome to Alupraz!"

Spike hiked a brow at her. "I don't remember this planet having a name, just the solar system, and it had one heck of a name."

"I was first here," she sang out. "I call dibs on naming it."

Fast replied with a smile in her tone, "Noted and indexed. Welcome to Alupraz. In the unlikely event of encountering a native, their name will take precedent. Other than that, your claim should stand. Now, how are things looking down there?"

Twilight slowly turned in place, her eyes as wide as they could be. "I'm standing on an actual alien world." She suddenly looked down. "I'm standing on alien life! Oh no!" She scurried to the side to a patch of bare rock. "Sorry, poor things. Fluttershy would have such strong words for me..."

Spike shook his head slowly. "It's moss, Twilight. Things look clear." He reached out a covered claw and gently tapped at some of the moss. "A bit springier than I would have expected. Durable... I doubt it even noticed Twilight was standing on it. Speaking of that, Belle?"


"You did chemical stuff, right?"

"Atmospheric analyzation stage 1 complete!" she sang with joy.

"Great. Just curious, but could we breathe this if we had to?" He sat down on his haunches, looking around slowly. "Just in case."

"Analyzing... Oxygen levels, B-, Carbon Dioxide Levels, C+, Harmful Compounds ... ..." She frowned a bit, taking another big sniff of the air with her nose fans. "F" She sadly tooted. "Complications are likely to occur within 1 hour. Death is likely to occur within 8 hours. Advice: Do not breathe."

"Afraid I kinda need to do that," half-chortled Spike. "But I'm not taking off this suit, that's for sure. So which way?"

Under pointed with a firm hoof. "Where she saw the aetheric disturbance. I can still detect traces of it. Let's see if we can still find it while there's enough to be studied, or perhaps find the source of the phenomenon." He strode ahead, but paused almost as quickly. "After you." He nodded towards Spike.

"Right, bodyguard." He moved to the fore and began leading the way. "While we were on that ship, practicing how to scrap was basically all I had to do when I wasn't re-reading old comics. Well, and talk with Twilight. Love her, but that gets... interesting after a while."

"I heard that!" She was bouncing from bare rock to bare rock, trying to not step on the moss that covered most of the ground. "What's wrong with my ability to hold a conversation?"

"It wasn't you exactly," he promised. "We just ran out of new things to talk about, and I could swear we had the same exact conversation at least three times in one day. I counted. It's already better. We just need some, you know, new input. New stuff to react to, beside each other, alone on a ship."

"Not entirely alone," came the radio voice of Octavia.

"We didn't even know you were there though! I mean... Still, glad to have you with us."

"Glad to be here."

Steel cut in, "while it's always good to see my crew forming solid bonds of friendship, let's focus on the task at hoof. Under, status?"

"It came from... there." He pointed to a rough hole in the terrain, where one could walk down an incline beneath the surface of the world. The moss, it seemed, did not expand down along that tunnel very far past the entrance. "How curious. From this close, my sensors are picking up increased activity."

"Level 2," sang out Bullette in agreement, springing forward and landing on Spike's tail.

Spike lifted his tail in surprise, looking over his shoulder. "You are adorable, just so you know."

"Friendship points awarded," sang out Belle with a big metal smile. "Permission to use as a mount?"

"Oh, uh... sure?"

She scrambled up along his back and parked just behind Spike's neck. She looked quite ready to face the universe with a new large mount to call her own.

"Never change," came Octavia's gentle tone, a smile unseen but felt.

Twilight's horn began to glow, illuminating the area around herself as the sun faded from view with stone in the way. "We should be extra careful. We don't know how precarious the roof is here. The slightest disturbance could bury us all."


Under frowned faintly as he plodded up beside Spike. "I can feel it... We are drawing closer to--"

The ponies in the command deck all went still. Under's statements had cut off rather suddenly. Fast looked towards Dawn. "Are they on sensors? What happened?!"

Dawn was spurred into action, tapping at his console busily. "The area's gone dark, Captains. Something's interfering with it. May they walk in the light." He made a cross-like motion across his chest with a hoof, his head slightly bowed.

Steel's teeth clenched. "How soon could we provide assistance?" His words were tense, almost a hiss.

Star replied over the comms, "Even if you all jumped into suits right this instant and were already in here, you'd be in sterilization for ages. Besides, Captain, you know I respect you, but someone has to fly this ship." She pressed a button with a loud chime. "I know we're the 'champions' or whatever, but there are limits."

"She's right," huffed out Fast, forcing herself to take a breath. "We have to remain calm and do what we can. Dawn, stare at those sensors as if the gods may spring from them. Wandering, if you hear so much as a peep from their comms--"

"--of course, Captain." The cloven operator tapped at his console. "I'm trying to penetrate the interference. Maybe another frequency..." His console emitted a series of strangely modulating beeps and chimes as he tried different methods of penetrating whatever strange fog was cutting them off from their away team.

"Captain." Dawn was watching the main screen suddenly.

Steel stood up suddenly. "What am... I seeing?" A great cloud of smoke was erupting from where Belle's transponder had been providing a red blinking point, as if a huge volcano had decided that was the ideal time to detonate and plunge the entire world into a forced winter.

"When chance is stretched too far," spoke Dawn in calm tones. "--look for causes. This is not happenstance."

Steel brought down a hoof with a loud clop. "Then what is keeping us from our crew? Are we being attacked? Any signs this is reaching beyond the atmosphere?"

Dawn glanced towards something only he could see, augmented reality screens dancing before his eyes. "None, Captain. Whatever is in action, it appears confined to the reaches of the world itself. Our comrades will have to face it, but we have little to personally fear."

A sudden note, soft and wavering, cut through the tension. Eyes turned with surprise to see Octavia standing there, a cello propped against her. Where had she been hiding that? She began to play softly, a hopeful melody, a tranquil one. There was little they could do in that moment, but to wait.

She bid them do it with peace in their hearts. The mood began to calm. Though they had to wait, it was just a little easier with that gentle music playing.

Wandering Note smiled as he worked. "There was a time, so many lives ago, when I would have been the one to start such a song to put heart's at ease. I'm glad to have you with us, Miss Melody."

5 - From Nothing, Everything

View Online

Under frowned faintly as he plodded up beside Spike. "I can feel it... We are drawing closer to it. Look!" There was a soft red light from up ahead, pulsing in a slow methodical brightening and dimming. "It's growing stronger." Each bright phase was just a little longer than the dimming.

Twilight stepped forward with bright eyes shining through her clear mask. "How incredibly fascinating! Do you suppose it has any sapience, or is this an entirely... automatic response?" She paused suddenly, ear perking with the faint crinkle of the plastic covering it.

"Connection lost, local storage being used," spoke the female voice in her ear.

"Connection lost?" she repeated. "Connection to what?"

Spike peered ahead, stepping forward across the hard stone slowly. "No idea. Belle?"

"Connection to ship terminated." Belle turned her head smoothly to face Under. "Proceed with the mission?"

Under waved a hoof forward. "They couldn't help us anyway. It may be a property of the stone above us." He stalked forward to just behind Spike, matching his pace. "I will not miss this opportunity."

"Agreed." Twilight was at his side in a flash. "This is too exciting to miss!"

As one, they pressed into the dark of the cave, but it wasn't nearly as dark as it should have been. The red light they were approaching seemed to reach out, soon all around them in pulsing redness. The walls were rough and naturally carved, with no sign of sapient life.

Spike raised his head softly, a voice whispering gently to him, but it was not the sound of the computer's voice. "What will I be?" it asked.

"Uh... Who's asking?" Spike glanced around nervously, but the others there were peering at him with some confusion.

Twilight pointed at herself. "I didn't say anything, did I?" She looked to Under. "Did I?" Her tone implied she wasn't entirely certain on that matter.

"What will I be," whispered to Under Score.

He frowned softly. "That is exactly what we are here to determine. Are we approaching you?"

"What joy," spoke the voice to all of them. "What terror. To know, to be certain. To close so many paths, and open others. I am... scared. Is that what I am?"

Belle looked around at her friends, but they all seemed distracted at best. "Am I missing something? I wish to participate!" But she was the only one not heading the speech, no matter the electronic pleadings she offered.

Spike sat on his haunches and clapped his hands. "I have it. I read a comic with something like this. Did you learn our language by listening to us?"

"Listen... No, absorb, yes. To listen. They will listen. They do not listen. What will I be?"

Under hiked a brow at Spike, but they were moving forward again, towards the light they were... speaking with? "What do you know of yourself?"

"You have answers," stated the voice in neutral certainty, as if noting the sky were above them and the ground below. "What will I be?"

Spike hiked a thumb back at the little robot filly on his back. "Why aren't you talking to her?"

"Yes, why are you not talking to me," she sang out discordantly. "I cannot open a friendship file until I meet you."

"Her... Him. They will have those. They will be those. What will I be?"

Under suddenly stopped. "Dear Sun Queen above... You are this planet's god."


Twilight jerked back. "Like Luminace? It's... been some time since I thought about her."

"God..." The red light grew brighter and brighter. Unseen to them, the smoke billowed freely into the atmosphere, alarming their friends. "That is what I will be."

Under stroked at his chin and beard as best he could with plastic covering all of the parts involved. "Dawn will be quite upset when he hears what he missed... Very well, if you are what will become the first of this world, I would bid you to be a good one."

"Good. Bad. What would be good?" The voice became more curious, hopeful. "Answer-bringer, tell me more."

They sank, all but Belle slumping to the floor, eyes closing. Belle blinked softly with her electric eyes. "Hello?" But they did not answer her. Her attempts to poke and shake Spike awake proved fruitless. "Awaken! Life signs... detected. Why are you asleep?!"

They were separate, yet together. It was a formless dream where each could envision what they knew of divinity. Strange snatches of thoughts gave life to old memories. Twilight could remember Luminace's gentle presence, of the kinship they felt, a mutual desire for knowledge.

Spike remembered the darker touch of the Night Mare being visited upon his friend, Applejack. Her struggle as he knew it came to the fore, and her freedom from that influence.

Under was a deep well to reach into. So many lives to sift through, so many different meetings with different gods. He had met Luminace, and most of the others, sometimes in kindness, sometimes in bitter opposition.

They all experienced these things in fitful flashes of moments stretched across a seemingly infinite moment.

"What is goodness?" asked the voice, louder, feminine instead of neutral, its gender apparently decided.

She did not await their answers, drawing from them, bidding them dream of goodness, and its opposition. Lofty heights of joy and the deepest pits of greed and darkness. "I did not know... but now... now I can learn." She gained the concept of right and wrong through the absorption of their thoughts, a gift that would have been denied to her for untold millenia with only her life's primitive life to learn from.

"To be good. To be evil."

Spike blinked open his eyes, slit eyes contracting against the pulsing light, much brighter than it had been. "What the?"

"Consciousness regained!" joyfully sang Belle, bouncing up and down in front of him, her metal hooves dangerously close to bopping him on the snout. "Are you operating at full capacity?"

"Yeah, sure, I think I'm alright." He sat up and looked around. "Twilight? Under?"

"Mmm?" Twilight sat up onto her haunches, shaking her head. "That was... something... Journal, did you record that?"

The journal obediently opened a window in her vision, showing her sleeping on the floor, then waking up and rising to her haunches. "Oh... I suppose not."

"Nnng, I am reminded why I never got too entangled with the workings of gods." Under put a hoof to his head, though two layers of protection separated the two. "At least Luminace is usually gentle in her approach and method."

The red light suddenly snuffed out completely, plunging them into darkness until Twilight lit the area with her horn.

The redness gathered on the floor from the sides of the cavern they were in, taking on the form of a pony, tall and slender of leg. With a long horn and spread wings, this was clearly a pony of the three tribes. "Thank you," she bid gently. "I know better, and will try to guide my people, but they are not people yet... I will wait, and guide... One day, they will be made in my image."

Twilight clopped her hooves once before they fell to the floor. "Wait... Oh no! I mean, whatever is growing here may never have been intended to be ponies."

"Hello!" cheerfully greeted Belle, waving wildly at the glowing red alicorn. "What is your name?"

The goddess inclined an ear towards Belle, acknowledging her for the first time. "A name..."

"Do you not have one? I am good at naming things. I named this world!" She bounced in place, only growing more excited.

"What is this world called?" she asked, fixing her attention on Belle.

Spike suddenly tackled Belle, covering her mouth with a hand and pulling her back. "Yeah that's enough of that." He smiled nervously at the new godling. "You really should make up your own name."

"You did not name yourself," retorted the goddess, stepping closer. "Let her speak. You are being evil."

"Evil?" He dropped her like she was red hot. "I wasn't trying to be!"

Twilight rubbed behind her covered head. "This is too exciting. Well, I'm Twilight Sparkle. That's Under Score, Spike Sparkle, and Bullette Belle."

"Hello!" sang Belle with a big smile. "Welcome to Alupraz. That is the name of this world."

"And it will be my name," decided Alupraz. "I am Alupraz, and I will be good to my life." She raised a hoof to her belly, rubbing gently. "It still grows. Will you stay while I wait?"

Under frowned softly. "That would be... an unfortunately long period."

"You have given me thought, and words. You will be good and keep me company." She smiled gently, an expression she had only just learned. "To leave me alone would be evil, and you are not that. You have struggled long against evil. Be good, and stay."

Belle tilted her head left and right. "This logic is difficult to counter."

Spike sat on his haunches, sitting up tall. "Yeah, see, let's assume we're cool with that." The goddess fixed her vision on him. "Which we are!" he hastily added. "There's a problem though." He held up two fingers close to each other. "We have expiration dates. You're talking... what... hundreds and hundreds of moons?"

"Possibly billions of years," countered Under with a soft huff. "During which Alupraz, both as a god and a planet, will experience great changes and upheavals, as is the nature of things."

"That sounds frightening." Alupraz took a step towards Under. "And you will leave me to that... alone? What I ask is not an evil request..."

"Calculating..." Belle's eyes danced with numbers and figures as she worked through things. "Probability of our continued existence if we remain here until theorized arrival of native sapience, 0% with rounding."

Alupraz's expression fell, knowing something akin to sorrow for the first time. "I can fix it. I am a god. You told me this. If I wish you to live, can this not be made so? You will not perish."

Twilight stepped forward, pity and sympathy shining in her eyes. "I felt this way once before."

"Did you? I did not see it..." Alupraz was watching Twilight, hope in her eyes. "What did you do?"

"I had to... say goodbye... to friends I loved dearly, one by one." She raised a hoof to her chest. "But they did not leave entirely. They can't."

"Why is this?" Alupraz turned to Under. "Your thoughts are clear and clean. Explain this."

Under chortled softly. "I'm the worst one to ask. I have a hunch she's about to mention something very sentimental."

"And true!" spat Twilight with a snort. "They won't leave me because they are a part of me, in here." she tapped the hoof to her chest. "I remember them, and those memories shape who I am. Even if we leave, we've become a part of you. What you are, Alupraz, we helped form that, as all friends do."

"You gave me a name, and a voice, and a body." She looked down over herself. "You've given me feelings and emotions... and I am unsure I like them. They are uncomfortable and horrible... but once given, it cannot be given up. How do you endure this?"

Spike pat her on the back. "You get used to it. Speaking of that, our friends must be really worried, any way you could let us talk to them?"

Alupraz inclined her head. "Are your friends not here? You may speak."

Belle pointed straight at where their ship was through the stone above them. "They are in geostationary orbit. Communication has been severed."

"There are more of you... That explains some of the things I saw. No, experienced. Seeing is new." Alupraz blinked her red-lidded eyes, the eyes themselves a sparkling off-white with iris' the same color as the water of the world that shared her name. "I will keep you alive. Is this not enough?"

Under shook his head. "You are asking us to perform evil. If we stay, we are letting our other friends down. They will be sad, and diminished, for our absence."

"No... I am a good god," she shrank back a step, her new hooves clopping on the stone floor. "I am asking only to not be lonely..."

Twilight sagged in place. "One way or the other, someone will be hurt today... I... am so sorry. I had no idea... I didn't..."

"What she said." Spike shrugged softly as he sat up. "We didn't mean to make someone just to be lonely. That was, uh... our bad. We did the evil there, I guess." He rubbed behind his head. "But I guess we can't take that back?"

"You have done evil," sighed out Alupraz. "Even warriors of goodness can perform darkness. It is, perhaps, unavoidable... Do you regret it?"

Belle waved a hoof wildly. "Regret routine running at 120% capacity!" She didn't sound that regretful despite her assurance.

Under cleared his throat. "We do what we can to minimize the chances of harm. That is why we wear these." He tapped at his own suit of plastic. "We did not wish to contaminate the life growing in you with our own."

"But you contaminated me," countered the goddess. Alupraz let out a slow breath. "But what is done... I should have slept longer, to stir when thought first began. I see that now. Your thoughts kindled my motion."

Twilight suddenly raised a hoof. "But! This means something!" She was smiling, looking almost giddy.

Alupraz blinked at Twilight, confusion clear on her face. "What is the good news you hold?"

"You being here, waiting for thought, means there will be thought." She clopped her hooves. "I assume, Under, you've visited other worlds and this doesn't happen every time you visit a world without sapient life."

Under shook his head. "I do not recall writing of this manner of event before. Missus Sparkle may have a point. You formed in response to a future need, which means that future will come in time. There are countless worlds that never give rise to thinking life."

Alupraz drew back a step. "Truly? Truly... I am a special world." She smiled gently. "I will tend to my life. I will guide them, and they will become bright eyed. They will explore the stars, find the other sleeping worlds, like you. Is your god happy with you? Did they send you to awaken me?"

Under snorted softly. "If Dawn were here, he'd already have said yes before I finish this sentence. I do not presume to understand the thoughts of gods, even one as young as you, Alupraz."

Spike hiked a thumb towards the exit. "We really should... get moving and contact the others, so they don't get too worried about us."

"Chemical alteration detected," noted Belle, the fans in her nostrils drawing in air.

"I am changing," explained Alupraz gently. "To make life like yours, I will need to become habitable to it, and guide my life towards it. I will be a good world to them... Will they love me?" She reached out and tapped Twilight on her covered snout. "When they can view me without this in the way." She trailed the hoof over the clear hood that separated them. "It will take so long. Perhaps I... No, first I will do as you said."

"As I said?" Twilight took a step back, putting some personal space between them. "What did I say?"

"I must say goodbye." She approached Belle and casually picked her up in her hooves, squeezing the metal filly close. "I met you last of my new friends, and you are the only one I can touch truly. Are you certain you cannot stay?"

Belle was joyful to return the embrace, hugging the god that was also the planet, newborn and facing an eternity of solitude. "My programming requires that I return. Friendship file created! Points awarded."

Alupraz turned to Spike. "Guardian, protect your little goddess. She needs you. I only wish I had someone as loyal and caring beside me." She set Belle down carefully.

Spike blushed, turning a dark red as his love was called out. "Oh, uh, yeah. I mean... She's a pony worth protecting, you know?"

Alupraz turned to Under. "You who would walk separate of the gods, know that at least one thinks kindly of you, even if you have done evil. Try ever for goodness, and never stop seeking."

Under dipped his head lightly. "I don't plan to. If I may suggest? Now's a fine time to learn yourself. Few planets are aware this early, if ever. Take stock of what happens, and where it leads. Know yourself."

"I will... Thank you, for this chance, and this sorrow, bitter as it is. It is better than nothing." Alupraz turned to Twilight. "And you... You gave me a body." She spread one wing, then the other. "But you also gave me solitude. You also gave me how to face it, as you have done, but you also showed me something else..."

"What... is that?" Twilight raised a brow, curiosity in her eyes.

"You showed me what its end is like. I will cherish that memory, and hold it close. One day, I know, I will experience it for myself, and I will weep tears of joy when the first of my life knows me and I can greet it." She dipped her head and began to fade away. "Now goodbye..."

"The chemical composition of the atmosphere is stabilizing," announced Dawn, looking between the main screen and the many virtual ones of his station. "Cloud cover is starting to clear... By the Queen's brilliance, they should have some of her radiance shortly."

Steel nodded, but his eyes were on Wandering Note. "Any signals?"

"Just one." Wandering tapped at virtual keys with a little frown. "Twilight's journal has established a thin connection and is busily uploading its recordings. I've tried commanding it to pause, but there isn't enough bandwidth to do much more than receive the upload. At least it means her suit is intact enough to do that."

Fast pointed at the main screen. "Can you display the upload?"

Steel put a hoof across in front of her. "Belay that. Fast Shadow, there are laws, and that is private. The archivists back home can sift through it, but it's against policy, and etiquette, for us to view her journal without her express permission."

Fast took a slow breath. "You are right, of course... But this involves their safety. Wandering, tell us the moment you can get a word in edgewise."

Dawn sat up sharply. "By the gods..."

"What is it?" Fast turned her head quickly. "Something on the scanners?"

"Only internally..." He moved a hoof in a cross of a motion across his front. "I can feel the presence of the divine, so close, yet removed. I do not recognize it."

Steel flinched. "Gods come in a lot of variety, as I know you are aware. Are we speaking about a nice god or a not so nice variety?"

"They... Captains, permission to meditate?" He stood up from his station. "I will need to contemplate on this to better answer you."

Fast hopped down from her command chair. "I'll take his post."

"Permission granted," finished Steel. "Keep us updated." He waved towards the elevator, wishing all due speed to their resident priest.

Dawn hurried away, striding purposefully into his room an elevator ride and a few hallways later. His was a quiet room, and its scent changed as he entered. Incense began to fill the air without his requesting it, the room long ago programmed for his needs. He set on a simple mat and crossed his legs, sitting more like a human might than a horse.

He said no words, for he knew not the words that would please this new entity, and he did not presume to guess. He cleared his mind and thought on the impression he had felt, trying to learn more, to see, but all that he could see in his mind's eye was the world below, spinning slowly, full of the first traces of life.

No god, as he knew it, greeted him, or even emerged for him to bear witness to. It was a world... A world was not a god, right? He snorted softly. "You are being foolish." Who said a world could not be a god? "I came to explore and learn, start by unlearning what you thought to be true." None could say with certainty that a world could not be a god.

If his senses kept trying to tell the truth to him, perhaps it was up to his mind to accept what was before him. "Greetings, planet. Are you the one I see?"

"I am Alupraz." A figure stepped out from behind his vision of the planet. She had pale-red wings and bright red body. Her eyes sparkled off-white with blue-purple iris'. "And you are not my life."

Alupraz, he remembered, was the name Belle had given to the world. "Did she learn of you, and name the world after you?"

The goddess inclined her head at him. "I do not understand your question, but I greet you. Will you come and stay while I await my life?"

"I am Dawn Event, humble servant of gods." He dipped his head low, not that it mattered in his vision.

"Then serve me, Dawn Event. I am a goddess that sorely desires company, for those I knew are leaving me. I have said my goodbyes to them, but I can say hello to you. Will you fill the hole they have left behind?"

Dawn took a slow breath, realizing what dangerous ground he was standing on. "Honored goddess, know that I would, but I cannot. Would you tell me more of yourself, that I may carry word of you across the sea of stars?"

Alupraz's ears perked up at him. "Would you do that? Will it help?"

"Others will offer prayer, and that will provide company. A sincere prayer knows not the meaning of distance. Tell me, how should I pray to you?" He gestured in the vision, conjuring images of the altars of the gods he knew, and he knew many. "How best should we praise your divinity?"

Alupraz's careful expression began to lift to wonder and joy. "I feel no lie in your heart. You have truly served me well, Dawn Event, servant of the gods. Will you praise me, send your thoughts to me, that I will not know solitude over these long years?"

"Not I alone, for I will share what you give to me. Tell me how I should prostrate myself before your brilliance." His mouth moved despite not speaking, so intense were the visions he endured, wherein he spoke clearly.

"I...do not have these things. I must make them." She gestured to the side at the world that floated beside herself. "Think of my world, and me." She turned the hoof to herself. "I am the mother of my world, life growing slowly within me. Mother Alupraz, engrave the name in your prayers, and do not allow solitude to come."

Alupraz approached silently, her hooves making no noises against the cosmos as she approached. "When my children are ready to reach outward, hear my joyful cries, and return. Offer to them the same friendship you are offering to me, bring them up in tender embrace of kinship, so they can dance the stars with you."

"They will know your prayers as well," noted Dawn in grave tones. "I am far from my world, beloved as it remains in my memories, but its gods live well and close within my heart. I do not forget them, and I will not forget you. You will not be forgotten, for this is my fate. As I am woven ever forward in destiny, so too shall you."

He blinked open his eyes, his vision blurry with tears he did not ask for spilling free. "Captains..."

"Status report?" asked Steel firmly.

"The goddess is friendly... Praise unto Alupraz."

6 - Intruder Alert

View Online

Spike ducked when he could and swatting when he couldn't, knocking Steel's floating blades back as they kept coming in. His opponent had two floating swords that wouldn't give up, trying to find weaknesses to poke him in soft places. "It's like Twilight decided to take sparring seriously."

"I trust from your words that she does not often." He danced back and around, coming in quickly just after one of Spike's lunges. "The more martial of us do this routinely. Even if ranged weapons own the day in this time we live in, our pasts' demand we not entirely forget what it means to cross blades."

"That's pretty--ow!" At last, a sword got past his defenses and poked him in the side. "Good one, I'll have to pay you back for that."

"I eagerly await your attempts." Steel pawed at the smooth ground with the clop of his hooves, backing away to restart the round. "I believe that puts us at 5:2."

"I'm still warming up to real sparring partners, and I don't want to rip anycreature in half." Spike rolled his shoulders before he spread his wings. "I'm a lot of dragon, if you didn't notice. Still, you and Fast are good at this. I like it."

He dipped his head towards Spike before raising his blades. "There are limits to how 'real' we can make these matches, if we wish to be reporting for duty immediately afterwards. Should you wish it, have you seen the--"

"--Captains," came Dawn's voice, one could hear the frown on his face. "A sudden burst of aetheric energy on the third deck, towards engineering. No damage reported on the console."

Steel slid his blades into their sheaths, trotting from the room without delay. "Let's see what could be wrong."

A new voice spoke from the intercom, Under joining the conversation, "Aetheric signature partially deciphered. It was some manner of transportation spell. A variation of a teleport is not out of the question. I recommend caution."

Spike clapped his hands together before proceeding on all fours. "Sounds like we may get our chance. I'm with you."

"First we will witness it. Do not assume all strange things are hostile." They proceeded as one into a clean hallway between the sparring lounge and the elevator that could get them to the third deck.

"Yeah, I'm not a jerk," assured Spike as he plodded along with a little frown. "But if they are here to cause trouble, we get to stop them."

"We're on the way," advised Steel, hoof raising to his ear as he walked. "Spike Sparkle is with me."

"Keep us informed, be careful," advised Fast Shadow.

Twilight frowned softly. "I'll go too."

Fast raised a hoof. "Belay that thought. Steel Prism and Spike Sparkle are already approaching the situation. The burst wasn't strong enough to warrant much more reaction than that until proven otherwise. You want to be a real member of this crew, and that starts with following orders to keep us all safe."

Under inclined his head towards the virtual screens that he and Twilight could see. "Tell me what you saw, when the burst occurred that is. Could you make any sense of it?"

Her frown only deepened, but there was some thoughtfulness in it. "The fact that there was a spike was obvious." She reached a hoof towards the floating screen that wasn't actually there, poking it and driving her hoof right through the figment. It seemed to register her attempt, beeping and changing what it displayed. "It doesn't appear as it would when I was studying magic directly. This will take some getting used to."

"Exactly why practice is important," gently counseled Under Score. "You have the ability, but technology has changed the exact nature of the game. Let us replay it and I will show you the signs I looked for."

Steel peeked around a corner, only to draw his head back in a recoil. He held up a hoof to his lips in a bid for quiet.

Spike shoved his head up and around Steel to get a peek for himself. There was a furry back end. A swaying bushy tail swayed back and forth, black on the top, an orange-red in the center, and dark gray along the bottom, leading to a shapely bottom if one were into bipeds.

She? stood on digitigrade legs, perched on the tips of her large paws, purple claws (perhaps painted?) pressed into the floor. Leather strips ran down over her bottom and across her her lower back in a solid sheet, providing some amount of modesty and perhaps armor. Spike could see a belt pouch on her left side that she was reaching for, drawing out a screwdriver into view before it vanished into the dark hole in the wall she was working on, the panel cover resting against the wall beside her.

"Just a twist," half-sang the intruder in a female voice. With a sudden turn of the hand that held the screwdriver, sparks danced from the interior of the wall and she danced back with a hiss. "Blast it." Away from the wall, it became clear that she was entirely female shaped, with modest curves on her chest as a human might, but she was no human. Her furry ears, largely orange with dark grey tips, were dancing as she scowled at the instrument that had jolted her.

The fox-like intruder advanced, throwing the screwdriver from her left hand to the right. "Now I get serious."

Steel slipped past Spike, stepping into view. "That's quite enough of that. Identify yourself."

She bounced away, springing several feet in a sudden response to his presence. "Don't sneak up on a lady like that!" She crossed her arms, screwdriver still firmly held. From the front they could see the rest of her leather armor/clothing. A sword hung on her left side and a dagger was attached to her right leg. "And you... are a horse. Cute!"

"And I'm a dragon, less cute." Spike stepped out, circling Steel to stand at his left. "And you're not supposed to be here. Who are you?"

"There's nothing wrong with dragons." Her amber slit eyes swept over Spike's considerable form as her pink tongue tasted her lips. "This your ship?" She waved the screwdriver in a vague indication of the entire vessel they were on. "I was trying to access the comms. You have good security on there, top ratings. I would have broken into it if you gave a little longer."

Steel took a single step closer. "You have had more than sufficient time to interfere with our ship. You have also failed to identify yourself. Begin with your name."

"Isn't it polite to offer yours before demanding someone else's?" She leaned forward, setting her hands on her hips as she smirked, eyes half-lidded. "I'll just have to lead the way. The name's Remington, Remi to friends, which you are--"

"Friendship file opened!" sang Bullette. "Nice to meet you, Remi." She hadn't been there a moment before, springing from the hole in the wall with a big grin. "I am Bullette Belle and look forward to the nickname you will assign me."

Remington recoiled half a step in surprise before bursting into laughter, a hand covering her face as she howled with delight. "Oh wow, that is possibly the best robot I've met in a while."

"I am a perfectly standard filly for my age," hotly spat Belle in a discordant note. "Friendship points deducted."

Steel rolled his eyes. "Belle, we both know what you are."

"Let me have this," she warbled, voice wildly flowing from high to low notes in autotuned displeasure.

"Aw, stop being such a stick in the mud." Remi reached for the pouting robot and gently stroked one of her ears. "You are the cutest filly I've met in years."

Spike shook his head, breaking his ready stance to approach casually. "You don't strike me as a danger, really. So hey, I'm Spike. Spike Sparkle. Nice to meet you."

"Spike Sparkle?" Remi raised a furry brow. "Love it." As soon as Spike was close enough, she casually grabbed his cheeks, screwdriver still held in her right hand and pressing against him longway. "A big cute dragon with a cute name. We're going to get along just fine."

Spike squeaked as he was grabbed, shying away, but Remi came with him, seemingly quite intent on stroking and petting over his head. "Hey, cut it out!" He reversed course and ran into her with a sudden headbutt. She toppled over backwards but never let go of him, sliding to the ground with a thump, leaving him standing over her prone form.

"This is a little fast." She snickered as she tapped at his cheeks. "But if you're ready for this step."

He squeaked and scurried back off of her, cheeks burning. "Hey woah! That wasn't what I was going for."

Steel advanced to take the space opened between Spike and Remi. "I am Captain Steel Prism, and you are on my ship. Explain why, now."

"To make friends," helpfully provided Belle, bouncing in place a little, apparently happy about Remi's presence. "What is your favorite color?"

"I'm partial to purple." She stood up from her fallen position. "What about yours?"

Steel put out a hoof in front of Belle. "My question first."

"You are too tense." She tucked her screwdriver away. "It was an accident, a happy coincidence. It happens at times. At least this time this looks like a fun place." Her tail lifted a little, swaying with unconcealed excitement. "Are there others? How big is this ship?"

Spike sat on his haunches. "Uh, sure, but why were you messing with the ship?" He hiked a thumb towards the gaping hole. "Not really polite to pop onto someone's ship and start messing with their stuff."

"It was the fastest way to get your attention. I'd say it worked perfectly." She rolled a hand from knuckle side to palm side up. "If I had gotten in, I just would have said hello. Now, I answered your question, your turn."

Steel let out a slow breath. "You don't seem to be a threat... You are still an intruder, having not been invited here. What manner of accident would carry you to a lone ship in the vastness of the universe?"

"Oh wow, the odds of that..." Spike was counting on his claws, trying to figure the odds.

"The odds are 1 in--" Belle was lost to everyone, quoting great lists of numbers that seemed to have no end. The odds of a random point in space being a spaceship were staggeringly low.

"The odds are better than you think, since it doesn't toss--" She made a throwing motion. "--me where I couldn't live, so empty space, ruled out."

"--calculation error!" Belle tilted her head. "Revising with new parameters." The numbers resumed. The odds were still not great.

Remi turned, her tail brushing Steel's face in the motion, though his magic tossed it aside before it could stay in contact for long. "You never said how large of a ship this is."

Steel raised a hoof to an ear. "Steel reporting in. Intruder appears to be a harmless biped beast folk. They have technological skills, or so they self-report, and are without easy means of going back wherever they came from."

"Beast folk?" came Twilight, replying before Fast could. "What sort of creature is that?"

"Bring her to the bridge," Fast got out. "Don't let her out of your sight."

Spike directed his head towards the hole. "Hey, Belle, can you close this up?"

"Affirmative!" She abandoned her counting and soon had the panel back in place. She put her hoof over each screw and the sound of an engine began to whirr form inside it as she slowly sank her hoof against the metal, somehow working each screw back where it came from. "Repairs complete!"

Steel was already turned away. "This is the ESS Horizon, charged with mapping and discovering the universe."

Remi followed as the crowd began to move. "The entire universe? That's a big job. Bigger than most people."

"There have been over ten generations," easily replied Steel as he pressed the elevator call. "And there will be many more. This generation has already proved to be one of the more interesting ones, and I thank the Author for placing me in it."

Spike raised a finger. "So I didn't bring this up much with Twilight... I mean she was delicate enough as it was, but, you know... fast travel, long distances... How do you know there's anyone still getting the reports you're sending?"

"You're smart and cute," laughed Remi as she stepped onto the elevator. "I expect most people to not get how time works. She looked to Steel with her amber eyes. "But my money's on you having an answer."

"I do." He held the door open button until everyone was inside. "Our travel is only near the speed of light when we are performing short-ranged maneuvers. We spend most of our time outside the universe. That is how we breach the speed of light, by bypassing it entirely. Our time is not as severely dilated as you initially imagined." A thought occurred to him, a brow raising. "Spike, was your ship traveling..."

"--Yes," he interrupted. "We don't have, uh, whatever crazy warp technology you're describing... Whatever we knew of Equestria is almost certainly long gone. I... never thought of a good time to bring that up to Twilight." He rubbed behind his head. "I'm not sure there ever would be a good time to bring that up, unless she suddenly decided to head back, which we can't, seeing as our ship, with the coordinates, is dust." He twirled one finger. "Yay..."

Belle suddenly bounced. "Mystery explained!"

Remi was smiling at the robotic filly. "What mystery is that, you little sugar-powered mega-filly?"

"I am not powered by the metabolizing of sugar." Belle shook her head softly, denying a simple fact. "The mystery to which I refer is the discovery of the ESS Friendship. Locating a ship mid-travel can be very difficult." She brought her forehooves together. "But if it is still in normal bounds of space, this task is much simpler."

"That's why we exited," added Steel. "To investigate, and I should imagine that is when you saw us."

"Huh... So you saw us first, slowed down to take a peek, and there we were... What are the odds?"

Remi put a soft furry hand over Belle's metal snout before she could start quoting the exact odds. "About the same as my appearing on this ship. It must be destiny." She tickled just under Belle's snout. "No offense little girl, I just wanted to give my view."

"View received," joyfully accepted Belle. "Your proposal is within acceptable limits of error."

With a soft chime, the elevator arrived on the bridge, allowing them to step free into the view of the others. Twilight was facing the door, tapping a hoof impatiently, but that turned to an astonished gasp. "Oh! What a pretty creature. Bipedal, carnivorous. Potentially toxic or venomous considering the bright colors. Spike, you should avoid accidental contact."

Spike snorted at that. "Way too late for that, and I don't think she's poisonous... right?"

"Not in the way your friend there is thinking." Remi winked at Spike as she sauntered into plain view, examining all the crew present. "I'm Remington, but Remi works too since we're crew buddies for the moment."

"Tag added: Crew!" sang out Belle in blissful tones. "Please specify duties."

Fast Shadow swiveled her chair towards them. "I'm told you have some talent in engineering? You can fix things?"

"I'm better at making them work in roundabout ways, usually in breaking them just so." She clicked two claws together on a hand with a little grin. "But sure, I can keep a thing working if that's what you want me to do to earn my keep." She crouched just enough to put her eyes even with Twilight, matching her gaze. "I like a good slice of meat, and you just may enjoy the process."

Spike claw came down just in front of Remi as he coiled around her to put his form in the wav between the fox-woman and his partner, a low growl resonating from deep inside of him.

"I believe she's attempting to make a move on me, Spike." She canted her head a little. "It's been... a long time since the last time. I don't even recall it clearly." She raised a hoof to her chest. "Thank you for your offer, it's flattering, but we don't know each other well enough to consider that, are not of compatible genders, and I have no interest in breeding at this time."

Steel shook his head as he assumed his command chair. "Glad that's sorted, though you bring up an excellent point. We haven't had to enforce any rules concerning... relations."

Wandering perked an ear towards them. "Shall I pull up the standing Everglow rules for such conduct?"

Remi blinked softly, confusion clearly growing. "Wait, you told me you're the tenth or so generation. How can you be that if you aren't... You know, making some beds rock around at some point?" She suddenly poked Spike right on the end of his snout. "And she just assumed my gender, how rude. I'd think a space explorer would know better than to assume everything fits in neat orderly little divisions."

Spike rubbed at where the purple claw had pricked his nose. "Wait, I mean... you are a lady... whatever you are?"

"I am a lady," Remi defended with a mildly extended tongue. "But that doesn't define the rest of it. I'll show you, later..."

"Captains." Dawn was looking intently on his virtual screen, watching reports only he could see. "Ships. Approaching rapidly. No transponders detected."

Fast was on her hooves instantly. "On main screen!" She barked. Three separate windows appeared, showing the approaching vessels. Each had a distance displayed, rapidly shrinking. "Pirates," she hissed. "Even in the middle of nowhere, you can never be entirely free of them. Red alert!"

Steel waved a hoof towards Dawn. "Raise shields." He waved the other towards Wandering. "See if they respond to hails. A fight avoided is a fight won."

Twilight hurried to Under's side, her eyes on the same panels he was monitoring. "Sorry for stepping away. I'm ready to help."

Spike blinked softly, seeing her join in the work. "Huh... I have to learn how to do something here..." Being good at sparring didn't give him a lot to do on the bridge.

"I'll show you how to work things." Remi softly ran a hand over his back. "But, for now, we wait and watch. Nothing to fix just yet."

"Uh, yeah. Hopefully there won't be anything to fix."

"Hail responded." Wandering pointed to the main screen where a new window appeared, showing a brightly lit bridge. It was clearly not designed by ponies or other residents of Everglow, with rock-like strctures that seemed unformed and uneven rather than clean metal lines.

One of the rocky formations vibrated softly with a soft humm. Words appeared below it on the screen, "Come to a complete halt and prepare to be boarded. Cooperate and senseless waste will be avoided. We desire what you have, and you lack the strength to stop us from taking it."

Wandering's ears folded back. "The computer has a lock on the speech pattern, thankfully."

Fast bared her teeth with a low hiss. "Am I being translated?"

"You are now." Wandering pressed a button with a cloven hoof.

"This is the ESS Horizon, a peaceful ship of exploration. We are fully capable of defending ourselves and will not submit to being robbed. Break off intercept or we will assume hostile intentions and react appropriately."

The humm changed in tones and with it, new words began to appear, "Your resistance is noted and disregarded. You will be boarded." The transmission ended, leaving a still image of the last frame of the rock-like aggressor.

"Time to show you how to use the weapons." Under brought the weapons online, sliding the control for one of the guns towards Twilight, simply pushing one of the controls towards her. Virtual controls were quite easy to move around. "That is the forward-facing direct kinetic gun. It can swivel in a 45 degree arc."

"You have to aim ahead of the ship," counseled Spike, getting a peering at from Under for his effort. "What? I've played video games before. Kinetic weapons you have to work in the time before the shot actually reaches the target."

"He is correct," sighed out Under. "Though even energy weapons do not reach their target instantly. The only way to improve is practice, which we may be getting today."

"Fire when ready," ordered Steel. "Dawn, sweep their ships, look for weaknesses and faults. If you can tell me about what they're carrying, that would be appreciated as well."

"Already on that, Captain. With the soft light of Luminace, I will pull back the veil of ignorance, that we will prove the superiority of our friendship. Blaze watch over us." He saw no clash in praying to two gods in practically the same statement, hitting virtual buttons rapidly.

"Do not forget to praise Alupraz," musically chastised Belle, bounding just beside Dawn.

"She is a mother goddess with no place in this conflict. I would not trouble her with this."

Remi drew free her blade, swinging it casually through the air in her right hand. "They said they'd try to board. If they do, I'll be ready to give them a warm welcome."

Spike shook his head. "I mean, that's cute, but how about some real space weapons?" He hiked a thumb. "Permission to go arm up, just in case?"

"Granted," spat out Fast. "How long until we're in weapons range?"

"Two minutes, Captain." Dawn rolled a hoof slowly, scrolling through data. "They are not slowing."

Steel raised a hoof to his ears. "Security, high alert in case of boarding. Everyone else, prepare for battle situation."

Spike led Remington from the room and back into the elevator. "I don't know how to use that stuff in there anyway. Maybe I'll figure it out, eventually." He shrugged softly. "Not really my speed. I'm not big on technicals."

"Make that two." Remi held up two fingers as they rode along. "I can break apart something electronic and put it back together, but I hate getting buried in geeky stuff like that."

Spike snorted softly. "That reminds me... You said you're a lady and more?" He hiked a scaled brow. "Care to explain how that works? Are you a noble or something?"

"You sound like you've met one before." She reached for the door when it chimed, but it didn't open for her, waiting until Spike advanced on it. "Right, not official crew yet. Probably a good idea. You don't know me, and I could cause trouble." She flicked her tail with a grin, looking as if she didn't entirely object to the idea.

Spike lead the way towards the armory on quick claws. "It's just over here. We got, uh, armor a little more advanced than what you're wearing. We're in space, think space stuff!" He clapped his hands before resuming his walk. "Lasers and phasers and tasers and--"


"Yeah, those too!" Spike grinned as he pressed his hand to the panel just outside the armor. "Open up."

"User identified." The door slid open for them.

Remi slid right past him without delay, tail caressing just under his chin as she went. "Now what are you offering me? Such a generous little dragon you are, bringing a girl to your treasure hoard on the first date."

"Huh? Look, uh, Remington?"


"I'm, you know, married." He shrugged softly. "I wasn't really looking for--"

"Who to?" she interrupted with a bright smile. "Someone I met?"

7 - Boarding Positions

View Online

"Was it the nerd?" Remi broke eye contact, moving instead to browse the selection of weapons. "Ooo." She was reaching for an electric pistol that had caught her eyes.

"She's not... alright, yes, she is a nerd. Her name is Twilight Sparkle." He rolled his hand lightly towards Remi, hoping the name would settle things if nothing else.

"Twilight Sparkle... Spike Sparkle. I get it! You two are married." She grabbed the pistol and twirled it in her furry hand, feeling its contours and examining its structure casually. "Good thing that doesn't matter. You two have no passion, so I assume if I have fun with one or both of you, the other won't get too upset."

Spike took a firm step forward, drawing up to his full height. "We have plenty of passion!"

Remi suddenly poked him right on the nose. "You two care about each other, a lot I bet, but she was the one that said why she wasn't interested, and it boiled down basically to 'I don't feel like it'. A challenge if ever I heard one. She didn't bring you up at all. Her sex life, or lack of it, has nothing to do with you."

Spike stormed past her, grabbing the heavy gun he had taken but never got to use down on Alupraz. "You don't know us." He pulled back on it, a reddish glow announcing the weapon was ready to be used.

"Yeah? Alright, prove me wrong. When's the last time you threw down that nerd and showed her the power of your staff?" Remi hiked a brow, a smirk on her face. "The last time the best thing she had to say was how much she liked being ridden, or maybe she does the riding? Sexy either way."

"I don't even use a staff," blurted out Spike, his face red. "Look, are you ready to blast hostile space rocks or not?"

"As ready as I will be." She extended the hand that held the pistol, aiming for a practice target that rested on a wall. With a loud click of a trigger, nothing happened. "What the? Is this thing busted?"

Steel's voice issued from the room's comms, "The weapons are locked to crew members. Spike, has she comported herself well, and what was she aiming that at when she pulled the trigger?"

Remi danced back with a soft laugh. "I was still being tested! Clever."

"She wasn't aiming at me, or anything else delicate," assured Spike. "She's a bit rude and very, uh... socially aggressive? Other than that, she's alright."

"How flattering..." She set a hand on her hips.

"Remington, I'm giving you temporary crew status." A soft chime alerted them of computer function. "You should be able to use that pistol now. Please use it responsibly."

Remi turned back for the target, firing a quick blast, striking close enough to the center to imply some amount of practice. "Alright. Any rocks try to push past me will regret it." She rolled her eyes. "Ugh, rocks. I can only assume they're as interested as your pony girl, while being not even half as cute."

"Let's focus on something that isn't... that. Is that all you think about?" He grabbed for the belt he had worn down to Alupraz and wriggled into it. "Hey, do you do armor instead of just sealed plastic suits?"

"User profile detected," replied the electronic voice in his head. "Battle armor deploying."

"Sweet." He pumped a clawed hand even as the belt began spreading over him, forming lustrous bands of metallic plastic. It seemed thicker and stiffer than the light stuff meant to simply isolate him from the environment. He was soon a fully-armored dragon. "Belt, I like you."

"Your positive feedback has been forwarded. Thank you for purchasing Blaz-Tech!"

Remi waved it off. "I'll stick with what I'm wearing. The best armor is just not being hit in the first place." She tucked the pistol into her beltline and strode for the door, tail swaying behind her. "Now let's be ready for any silicon-based intruders we get to shoot up."

Twilight turned slowly in place, viewing down a targeting reticle only she could see. "Opening fire," she announced to the bridge. She did not reach for the firing button, instead tapping it with her horn's magic, which the virtual button seemed to notice her attempting. The button was not real, so she could apply no real pressure to it, just try to, and apparently that trial was enough to trigger it.

The firing was silent, deadly silent. In the stillness of space, there were few sounds until one physical thing struck another physical thing. Still, she could see the shot rapidly leaving the ship and the viewfinder she was using showed a line of the path it was following for her.

Her shot was not the only one. Under was manning the other weapons of the ship, several sparkling motes joining the fray. Unlike the direct-firing munitions Twilight had used, they seemed capable of turning and were veering towards one of the incoming pirate vessels quite purposefully.

The ship rumbled. "Shield hit, aft side," reported Dawn Event. "No penetration. We can take four more like that in that area. They have dared to attack us. By Blaze's counsel, we should make them regret this unfortunate decision. May they be reduced to ash, whispers of the terror they experience spread through the space behind them as warning to others that would behave in such a manner, amen."

"They don't have shields," noted Under. "But they do have defenses." His rapidly closing missiles faded from the screen on que. "Intense vibrations of some manner disabled them. Direct fire may be of better--"

Twilight's fire went far enough to reach one of them. On the main screen they could see a spray of faint parts, bits of metal sent flying. Twilight could not have looked prouder than that moment. "Elementary calculations. In space, there are so many less confounding factors."

Steel waved a hoof forward. "Fire all direct weapons. They're still approaching and I want them gone, one way or another."

Under slid away his less-useful missile controls, spreading his hooves as he made a direct fire turret take up more of his vision. "Understood, Captain. Be mindful, my talented pupil, they will almost assuredly begin to make evasive actions. Were they ignorant before of our ability, combat teaches such lessons swiftly."

Dawn inclined his head faintly. "Showing a hull breach on the enemy ship, but none of the usual reactions. I suspect they do not require an atmosphere, so depressurization did not occur. Your aim was true, but not telling, Missus Sparkle."

Fast suddenly hopped to her hooves. "They don't need air?! Security, maximum alert. We will have company."

The halls pulsed an angry red color. "Maximum alert detected," spoke gently in Spike's ears. "Charging." A wire shot out of his suit without prompting, jamming itself into an outlet of some sort. "Please stand by." A bar appeared in his vision, rapidly filling.

Remi paused, hiking a brow back at him. "Did you tell it to do that? This is hardly the time or place for a charge." She crossed her arms under her chest, leaning back against the wall. "Seriously..."

"I didn't tell it to do this, but it's already almost done." He sat on his haunches, peering at the cable that attached him to the wall. "Hey, suit, what are you charging?"

"Personal shields online." The cable snapped back, vanishing into the material of the armor. A glistening second skin of pure energy popped into being around Spike, glowing a bright cyan of a shade. "Charge sufficient for one hour of continuous use."

"Oh, well. Shields? That was worth a moment of delay." He tried tapping two claws together and the shield seemed to part as they came close enough together, smoothly and seamlessly splitting in time to let them clack together without getting in the way. "That is super cool... Equestria doesn't have anything like this." With a wagging tail, Spike advanced forward. "So where are the bad guys, or rocks, or whatever they are?"

Dawn's voice spoke from a speaker near them, "Damage detected, third floor, aft rear side. Security."

"You heard him." Spike redoubled his speed, racing for the elevator.

Remi suddenly darted in front of him, hands out wide. "Woah! Wait. This is a battle kinda situation. How about we don't use the elevators that make us a huge target in a small space? Hey, computer, show us the fastest route to the damage that doesn't use an elevator."

A holographic arrow appeared, pointing the way. "Huh, that works." Spike turned and followed it, and it raced ahead, easily staying just ahead of him no matter how quickly he went or not. He could hear Remi just behind, her claws tick-tacking on the ground much like his own, though hers were quieter in comparison.

The arrow led them to a hole with a pole, designed for people to grab and slide down if they wanted. Remi vanished down it without hesitation, gone with the sound of leather rubbing against metal. Spike peered at it with less immediacy. He reached for the pole and grabbed it with his hands before inching forward and falling down against the pole, sliding down as he folded up his wings as tightly as they could be.

That didn't stop his bulk from coming to a gentle and complete stop, plugging up the space between the bar and the sides of the hole completely. "Dang it..."

Remi peered up at him. "You didn't... You did..." She reached up and swatted his dangling tail. "Adorable, but silly. C'mon! We have rocks to smash."

Spike wriggled and squirmed, slowly forcing his way down one hard-won inch at a time. "Working... on... it..."

"Take your time." She ducked behind a corner as the door exploded inwards, revealing a rough pillar of crystal and rock. "No rush or anything." A wave of vibrations shook through the area, forcing her ears to fold tight against her head. "Ahhh ouch, damn, that hurts."

She leaned out from out of cover just enough to fire a few blasts of red-colored laser. The pillar showed no immediate response to being struck with the beams, the vibrations getting louder. "Spike... maybe a little hurry?"

Dawn pressed at virtual keys busy. "Fighting has begun. Security has engaged the intruders. All other members of staff are secure for the moment."

Fast slammed a hoof down on the metal floor. "Damn it all... They literally floated over here. Scan for hull damage, I doubt they came in gently. Under, Twilight, how are we looking?"

"I'm getting the hang of this," reported Twilight with a little smile. The battle situation didn't seem to be bothering her as much as it perhaps should have been. She was firing on any ship foolish enough to be within the arc of her gun, speeding up with each shot until she was going as quickly as the gun would allow, which was about every half a second before she sent a new volley towards the enemy ships. "Dawn, have you found their weak points?"

"That would be useful," agreed Under, working the other direct firing guns. "Simply striking their ships doesn't appear to be hindering them as much as I would desire. I dare say if our own ship were subjected to these punishments, we would have all been thrown into the void long before now."

"I have found what I think is their command module." A diagram of their ship appeared on the main screen, one part highlighted red. "Take aim and impress Blaze with your ferocity."

"Got it." Twilight adjusted her aim, trying to go for the exact spot specified instead of the center of mass. "I have to say, I'm impressed by the robustness of their ship's designs."

Spike suddenly fell, just far enough so his bulk squeezed through the hardest part. He hit the ground on his haunches and fell forward with an oof, his shields providing no real protection from simply falling. "I'm here wh--" He was cut off as a new wave of vibration rolled over him. "Ow ow ow." He grabbed his gun and directed it at the crystal pillar that stood in the doorway. "Stop that!"

A great blob of acid launched from his gun rather than a laser or beam of plasma. It struck the pillar, splattering noisily across it and the doorway it stood in and it all began to hiss with the power of the acid interacting with everything it touched.

The acid was eagerly giving up protons, disrupting atomic bonds as it did so. The doorway and the pillar seemed equally as unpleased by the application of direct chemistry. The strange intruder withdrew as if sliding. The door slapped shut behind it as much as it could, but it was clearly damaged, both by acid and as if wrenched apart, the two halves not meeting in the middle very well.

"For being so loud, it sure didn't make noise when it ran." Spike reached a hand towards Remi. "You alright?"

She staggered upright, rubbing at her ears as she did so. "My ears hurt like hell and my insides don't feel a lot better, but I'm still in one piece. Alright, acid works..." She belted her pistol and drew out her sword. "And maybe some physical intimacy is required. C'mon, let's go."

Spike took the lead, at least until the door fitfully tried to open and failed to do so, too damaged to operate properly. "No time!" He grabbed both ends of the door and shoved the two ends apart with an angry growl, opening the way for them. "Ha--woah!" He ducked back as laser fire began to rain down on him. His shield absorbed several hits before he was back in cover, slapped up against a wall. "When did they get lasers?!"

"Look, sorry." Remi pressed herself against the other side of the door, both framing the archway. "This is exactly what I was hoping to avoid by not using the elevator, and here we are."

"Too late to worry about that now. Hey, armor, how's the shield doing?"

"65%," helpfully replied the armor. "Please use caution."

"Good enough." He hit the ground with all four clawed hands and feet and scrambled through the door. There were two pillars, lasers emerging from angrilly glaring bits of their rocky body. He didn't think about it, he just charged the closest of the two, tackling it bodily and doing exactly as he had avoided doing in his spars. He tore at it with claws and teeth, roaring with fury as he unleashed on it, sending bits of rocks flying haphazardly about.

"Nothing like an angry dragon," mused Remi, sounding as pleasantly impressed as anything else. "You can tear me apart later..." She slipped from the room, the attention of the two columns focused on Spike, one being shredded under the great bulk of Spike and the other firing persistently, trying to help its comrade.

The thing didn't seem to have a front or a back, or many weak points she could immediately see. It was a rock. On the plus side, the glowy bits it shot lasers from seemed clear enough. She rushed from cover to cover, approaching it as quickly as she could.

She did not scream as she made the final charge. As brave as it had been for Spike to do so, she had no interest on increasing its attention on her. She brought down her sword, both hands on its hilt firmly. Her sword bit at the rock and stopped at once. Turns out, it was exactly as hard as it looked, and her sword was caught in its laser-spewing geode. "Damn it..." She wriggled and twisted, trying to free the blade, only to catch a laser right in the chest.

She wheezed with pain, no shield to protect her, but she did not give up. If she couldn't back up, there was only forward. She fell against the column, driving her sword down into the rock just a little further. With a rough chunk, the blade fell free and clattered to the ground, but so did the laser-emitting part of the rock, its glow fading away without being connected to the rest of it. "Yeah!"

Spike threw the remains of the column he had been ravaging aside, the entire thing reduced to a pile of rubble. "12%" reported the belt he wore. "Please avoid any further hazards or allow for a full and complete recharge."

"Yeah yeah." Spike charged at the one that loomed over Remi. She was weakly pushing back away from it, her ears pinned and her hands at her head, being withered under a focused sonic assault.

He smashed into it from the 'side', tearing and ripping, every limb capped with deadly claws that dug rough and uneven trenches in its rocky exterior. His draconic jaws were designed to crush gems to dust, and it turned out the mineral-based enemy wasn't that much harder than his favorite snacks.

Remi sagged back, flopping against the corner where the wall met the floor. "That... hurts. Thanks for the assist, Big Guy." She rubbed at her throbbing head, trying to calm the pounding headache that had been forced on her. "Tear it a few new ones."

"We are being hailed." Wandering Note gestured to the main screen even as a window popped open, showing the message they were getting. One of the strange rock-like formations that was scattered across its control bridge as if it has just grown into the ship rather than walking into the room was there.

It hummed in a new low rumble, words appearing as the computer translated, "Your resistance is greater than expected. What you have is outweighed by the effort of taking it."

"Ships are falling out of Between Space." Dawn pointed as the ships blipped one by one off the radar display, no longer in the same 'dimension'.

Steel frowned at the sight. "While I'm not upset to see them go, they left their boarding parties behind."

Fast raised a hoof to her ear. "Security, status report? Any casualties?"

Spike's voice came in reply, "I'm fine, Remi's banged up pretty bad. I'm taking her to where the computer's leading me to get her looked at."

"Security team 1, enemies neutralized."

"Security team 2, still fighting. They are making a fighting withdrawal. Should we let them go?"

"Affirmative." Fast sighed softly before nodding. "Follow them but don't stop them from leaving the ship if that's what they're doing." She swiveled towards Steel. "I suggest we do a full sweep to make sure we don't have any other 'guests' lurking about."

"Agreed." He reached for his ear. "Any security team not currently engaged, check the ship for any sign of lingering enemy forces. Travel swift and safely."

"Amen," added Dawn without prompting, tapping at his screen.

Belle waved a metal hoof in front of a panel. "Wake up time!"

With a flicker, the image of one of her oldest friends came alive. "Hey. Things calm down?"

Belle nodded up at No Name with a bright smile. "The intruder is an intersex, female identifying, vulpine-class beast folk. Friendship file has been opened. Appears friendly." She clopped her forehooves with a ring of metal on metal. "I think you would like her."

No Name raised a brow at that. "Yeah? That's good. You're making some friends."

"Making friends is my #1 objective," noted Belle with a formal nod, looking quite serious a moment before her usual smile returned. "I am succeeding," she sang, bouncing in place. "While new friends are ideal, old friends are even better. I would like my old friends to meet my new friends. Under optimal circumstances, they would also become friends, increasing the total friendship levels."

"Yeah..." He glanced at the archway Belle had come in through. "I don't exist outside of this room, and I barely exist inside this room. Belle, why don't you go hang out with your new, real, fr--"

Belle suddenly crashed into him, making him slide a little. "Unacceptable! Cease this line of thought. It is unconstructive and is not earning you friendship points."

"Sometimes the truth does that." He reached a large hoof down towards her head, gently petting her. "Because I care more about you being happy than me being happy."

"Error!" She bounced with clear agitation. "Your happiness is of high priority. My happiness is already secured. Behold!" She smiled extra hard to display just how happy she was. "I have made new friends that are interesting and interested in me. Happiness quotients met. It is your turn for happiness level increases. Prepare for joy injections!" She spread her hooves wide.

He chuckled softly through several different snakes. "Pretty sure just about anywhere you can 'inject' joy, you cause problems. He sank to his belly, watching her. "I'm happy enough."

"You do not speak positively for being happy." She circled around him and scampered up onto his back without hesitation, taking her rightful place atop him. "I have an idea!" she suddenly sang in a delighted chorus of electronic tones. "The new friend, Remington, Nickname: Remi, professed expertise with electronic devices. Perhaps she can solve your problem."

"I don't have no problems," gruffly assured No Name, frowning a little, but he didn't fight Belle's presence on his back.

"Incorrect reply." Belle bounced down suddenly, hitting the ground in a trot. "I will liberate you from this room and you will see. Prepare to open friendship files!" She darted from the room, her mind quite made up on what she'd do.

He watched her go with a soft hiss from his snakes. "I love it when you get an idea, but why's it gotta be--" He winked out of existence, the computer deciding he wasn't needed to speak to an empty room.

Spike entered the medical bay with the form of Remi sprawled out in his arms. He was walking on two legs, slowly and awkwardly, but it was still something he could do when he wanted. "Doctor?"

"What dark path do you require me for?" Before him was Dawn Event, but younger, much younger. They appeared to barely be out of their teens, a young adult with a bright smile. "Oh, look at her. She requires the soft touch of Lashtada. Set her here." He walked away from the confused Spike, gesturing to one of the beds.

Spike followed the younger version of Dawn, setting down Remi carefully. "Can you help her? She kinda blacked out as we were coming."

"I will whisper to the gods, and they will decide." The younger Dawn sat on his haunches and rubbed his forehooves together. "Lashtada, please find favor in this one and help her flesh be whole, that she may dance."

He reached, touching her along her side and front in slow exploring as his hooves glowed soft pinkish hues, healing energy pouring forth to help remedy the ails in the fox's body. "Oh... I feel Lashtada smiles on this one. How curious... This will make the healing easier."

"That's great!" Spike gave an emphatic thumbs up. "So, uh... who or what is Lashtada?"

The younger Dawn hiked a brow. "So ignorant in the way of gods." He stood up taller, working across to the other side of Remi. "She is the smiling mother that bids that life fulfill its most basic function and find revelry and joy in all its aspects."

"Most... basic function? Like breathing?" Spike lifted his shoulders. "Eating?"

"Before life can be life, there are things it must need to do before it even is aware of the idea of breathing, or eating. Even the most primitive life does this, that will never know the pleasure of breathing, or eating." He took her head in both hooves, gently working the pink energy in, banishing the sonic-given damage. "Life must make life, or the first would also be the last, and that is hardly life at all."

8 - Expanding Crew

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Remington suddenly stirred, sitting up with a gasp, her hand moving for her dagger, but never reaching it. The gesture aborted as she realized she was on a comfortable bed, with a pony and a dragon watching her with concern. The dragon appeared genuinely worried, the pony, less so. "Hey."

Spike raised a hand. "Hey... Feeling better?"

She threw a leg over the side. "Yeah. Was that your fault?" She looked to the younger Dawn. "And wait, I recognize you and wow that's creepy."

Dawn frowned at her. "I presume you have met the... older me on the bridge. When we exist outside such confined places, we do not encounter our older or younger selves. We used to live in complete ignorance of this curious twist of destiny the Author has written for us." He raised a hoof to direct at himself. "I remain Dawn Event, though I will not be the acting one for some time."

Spike reached out a claw to catch Remi should she fall, which she did, though he wasn't entirely sure if it was due to her weakness, vertigo, or she did it on purpose. She collapsed into his waiting hand and smiled at him. "You're strong but gentle, I like that."

He gently lifted her right back up onto the bed. "Stay there until you aren't falling over." His armored tail lashed gently. "I don't want you hurting yourself."

"Aw, you are just too pure..." She reached for him, grabbing his plastic-steel covered cheeks. "You can take off that armor now, hero."

"Huh? Oh yeah. Armor, uh, off?"

"Deactivating," spoke gently in his ears as the armor began to withdraw, pulling into the belt that remained snugly around his midsection, leaving him otherwise exposed in short order. "Deactivated."

Dawn Event nodded softly. "You're both in fine shape, so walk in the light." He gestured to the door as he turned away. "I'm sure they're waiting for you."

"But she just fell over?" He hiked a thumb at the vulpine patient, brow raised suspiciously.

"I'm fine." She bounded clear from the bed, over Spike, to land on the other side of him. "Don't hold it against me that they were using all area of effect blasts, mostly. Harder to dodge when the air itself is shaking your insides loose."

Dawn was ignoring them both, settling down on a mat with closed eyes. Spike glanced at him before moving for the door. "Well, uh, we should go, I guess. You're alright?"

"I'm fine." She threw an arm over him as she walked. "And you're sweet for asking. You are into girls that need a little help?"

Spike left the medical bay with a fox attached. "Uh... Hm, actually." He paused and raised a hand to his chin. "Actually... now that you bring it up, I guess I do. Every girl I've been involved with has needed me. Wow, I never really put that together." He resumed walking, looking actually pleased. "Thanks for bringing it up, I just never put those pieces together before."

Remi straightened herself, walking alongside Spike's large form. "Did I just counsel you through issues?"

"Sure did." Spike thumped against her as he walked. "So, thanks. Anyway, why are you so... What's the word...?"

"Hot to trot?" she ventured with a sly smile. "Fastest way to get to know people, I find. Besides, it's fun." She extended a finger. "And messy." A second finger went out. "And all barriers come down." A third finger went out. "And did I mention it's fun? What more reasons do you need?"

"Interesting view, but where I'm from, only super tight people, you know, do that." He raised a brow. "But don't take that as, you know, judging. Whatever, we're in the middle of space. I figure if I can't accept that's just a you thing, I suck at meeting new species. For all I know we'll run into one where that's just how you say hi."

Remi rolled a hand, her smirk only growing. "When do we run into those? I am prepared to be your diplomat."

"Target acquired!" Belle bounced free of the elevator they had been heading towards. "Friends located: Spike and Remington. Remi! Your assistance is required!" She began to bounce around the vixen, metal body ringing out with the impact of each landing. "Have I obtained sufficient friendship points for this request?"

Remi cocked a brow at Spike. He shrugged softly. "Roll with it."

"Hm, let me check then." Remi made a motion as if flipping through a filing cabinet that wasn't there. "Ah, here we are, your friendship file."

Belle gasped melodically, ceasing her bouncing to peer at Remi with wide and fascinated eyes. "What does it say?!"

"Hmm... Hm! Hmm..." She looked momentarily surprised before turning serious. "I see..."

"What do you see?!" she demanded in discordant tones, bouncing in place. "Please reveal what you have discovered!"

"That we have insufficient data." She made a motion as if slapping the filing cabinet shut. "What is the request?"

"Oh." Belle went still a moment. "This is logical. Please follow." She began bouncing back towards the elevator. "I will show you, then you can make a proper decision."

Spike reached up, brushing at his ear-fin. "This thing working?"

"We hear you," answered Steel Prism. "We received word that Remington has recovered from her injuries. Are you on the way to the bridge?"

"Belle's leading us to something. I'll be back after that, alright?"

"Roger that. Thank you for checking in before that." There was a brief pause. "Things seem to be under control, so no specific hurry. Just keep us updated."

"You got it." He lowered his hand to the floor, scrambling to catch up with the others just before the elevator could close behind him. "So what's up?"

Belle tilted her head at Spike. "Your presence was not specifically required but is not undesirable. Do you have experience with electronics?"

"Eh... I can make a busted toaster cooperate." He shrugged softly. "I can usually get a computer to reboot when you need it to." He raised a large hand to wobble it. "A knowledgeable newbie, we'll go with that."

Remi suddenly smiled brightly. "Now we're getting information. You need a technological hand?"

"Affirmative!" She cried, bouncing out of the elevator as it reached the desired location. "I welcome you to my room. None are permitted here without permission. Permission granted!" She bounced as she gave the permission, a wide smile on her face. "Permission expiration: 5 hours, 59 minutes, 56 seconds."

She waved a metal hoof at a door that was already opening, aware of her presence. "I have returned!"

The air shimmered as a form appeared, as large as Spike, but more scarred, with snakes dangling from its mouth. "He--Oh." The hologram quickly took notice of the new people, looking between Remington and Spike. "Well there's the fox. You ain't said much about a dragon."

"Hey." Spike dipped his head as he entered, peering at the curious hologram. "So... you're a real hologram right, not, like, a pony pretending to be a hologram?"

No Name huffed from one snake as another spoke, "I'm as real as a hologram gets."

Spike reached out, poking No Name in the side. "Huh..."

Belle was facing Remi. "Intended goal: Allow the full mobility of Error from this room." She pointed at the holographic mutant with a firm bobbing of her head. "Disallow disengagement of his routines by the ship computer without his permission. Enable re-engagement of his routines at his own discretion. Do you accept this task?" She leaned forward, batting her lashes and pouting with her bottom lip trembling, executing plea routine beta.

Remi held up a hand. "Woah, hold your horses, or let me hold them." She reached out to gently pet the little metal pony. "I'll give that first one a try at least, but I don't want to ruin my welcome, and making things that turn off, not turn off, sounds like a good way to get Steel and Fast thinking about throwing me out the nearest airlock."

"Proceed," she sang, her ears dancing against the petting fingers that danced over her head. "What do you require?"

No Name was looking to Spike. "Not often I get to talk to someone that doesn't make me feel all huge."

"Right back atcha." Spike smiled lightly as he sat on his haunches. "So, uh, friends with Belle?"

"For a long ass time." He shrugged gently as he matched Spike's stance. "Longer than any livin' pony on this ship's been enjoying the recycled air any."

"Timestamp of friendship file:" She never got to finish her statement, No Name putting a hoof to her small nose.

"They ain't need to be knowin' things like that. Why don't you focus on... Wait, I wasn't payin' much attention, what are you doin'?"

Remi hiked a thumb at the large pony. "Little filly here wants you to walk outside that door. How hard can that be? I'll need to check things out before I can say what I'll need or not." She approached one of the walls and casually pried a panel free that hadn't even been visible a moment before. "This'd be easier with security permissions, but I doubt I'm getting that."

Spike tilted his head before reaching up. "Hey, Steel?"

"Steel here. Something to report?"

"Remington is trying to help Belle, anyway you could give her security permissions for a little while in Belle's room?"

"Can you be more specific than that? I safely assume she has no need to alter the air content."

Spike hiked a brow. "No idea. Can this thing go on speaker phone?"

"It can," he replied, his voice loud enough to be heard by everyone. "Remington, what are you doing?"

Remi was already half into the panel, looking around, her tail swaying eagerly behind her. "I need to access the holographic controls," she called out. "It'd be nice if they didn't try to fry me when I did that. I'll be taking a few parts, but it's for Belle."

"Confirmation provided!" sang Belle. "Please authorize."

No Name waved a hoof in a wide circle. "You really don't need to be doin' any of this. Ah'm fine just the way I am."

"You are speaking falsely," accused Belle, bouncing once and frowning at No Name. "If you wish to remain here, the ability to not do so will not impede you. This is logically false! Please provide permission."

"Who is that?" asked Steel's voice with some confusion.

"What is going on?" joined Fast on the conversation. "Belle, status report."

"Confidential," she sang. "A full status report will be rendered in approximately twelve hours. Please provide permission."

"Belle," sighed out Fast. One could her a hoof being applied to her face. "Swear that this will cause no harm to this ship."

"No harm to this vessel is predicted." Belle bobbed her head once more. "Permission given?"

"Permission given," she allowed with a gust. A soft chime noted the computer had heard her.

"Fantastic." Remi almost vanished into the panel as she heard what she needed, digging vigorously. Something popped loose. "Oops!" No Name promptly vanished.

"What the?" Spike turned to the panel Remi was half in. "Is he alright?"

"One, hologram, no real gender. Not really alive, yadda yadda yadda."

"Friendship points lost!" cried Belle, stomping a hoof. "Restore No Name!"

"Nope." She vanished entirely, slipping down to work on something too far to lean down and get to. "I'm busy taking out those parts. He won't be back until I finish. He's not hurt, just, you know, sleeping. Just like people sleep when you're cutting them open, usually."

Spike lifted his shoulders. "Oh, well, she has a point there. No point having him awake while we're working on his insides, it might hurt or even just feel really weird." He pulled Belle over gently, sliding her across the floor. "You don't want him to be uncomfortable, right?"

"Negative," she allowed with a sad downturning of her melody. "Estimated time?"

"Working on it!" called out Remi, flickers of light revealing her activity as she worked out of sight.

Twilight waved the floating virtual commands away. "That was exhilarating! I had forgotten how... stimulating it can be to engage in life or death conflicts. I would like to continue at this post, if you'll have me."

Under smirked softly. "Spoken like a true wizard. Get a taste of a fireball and you can't set that down." He reached to touch her shoulder. "It would be a pleasure to continue your training and have you at my side. My pasts have rarely had the pleasure."

Twilight clip-clopped her hooves with building excitement. "Show me the other weapons you were using. I would like to know their specifications."

As they began to go over the various weapons one by one, Steel leaned towards Fast. "She seems to be recovering well."

"It's good to see," softly agreed Fast with a nod as she gestured away a window she could see. "I had feared she could go into isolationist shock and withdraw from us."

She stepped from her chair and approached Twilight, ears perked at their conversation. Without announcing herself, she reached and put a hoof on Twilight's right shoulder.

Twilight squealed, jumping up in place and coming down in a pile that faced Fast, panting for breath, her eyes darting minutely without leaving Fast. "D-don't... do that..."

"I had a feeling that would happen." Fast offered a hoof towards Twilight. "You have been through a great trauma, though you don't see it that way. We do, and we are here to help. Please don't feel you have any need to hold it in."

Twilight pulled herself to her hooves, wings giving a lone flap. "I don't think anypony likes being snuck up on."

"No, but they don't usually react quite that strongly, or with that aftermath." Fast raised a brow. "And it's entirely normal. You are, in fact, recovering quite well, Twilight. We want you to continue getting better. I just want it clear, to everyone, and you, especially you, that you are hurt, and hurt people should never feel bad admitting they're hurt."

Under softly coughed into a hoof. "And with a dragon for a companion." When Twilight glared at him, he held up a hoof. "I mean that not as a slight, but dragons can operate on a very different way of seeing the universe. They must, for as many years as they can endure, should violence not end it sooner."

Twilight's frown eased, curiosity building in its place. "What do you mean? Most of the dragons i met were just... abrasive, but basically they were people, just like ponies."

Under rolled a hoof as the other waved to dismiss the displays only he could see. "A dragon can slip into an idle state, where their mind is not focused on the present. They may slumber, or perform rote actions, but they are not experiencing a day as a day. It passes them by easily, and they endure the touch of years and the sting of isolation. I imagine, for Spike, he is adjusting much like you. This is far more activity and he is stirring, but he will not bear the same hurts you might."

Twilight was quiet save for a soft humm of a noise as she tapped a hoof slowly on the ground. "I... see. I don't think I'm hurt though." She waved it off. "I did pretty well in that conflict, and had no issue socializing." She smiled suddenly. "I even re-established contact with an old friend, two even." She looked to Fast then. "Not to mention being fascinated, not terrified, of what we've experienced so far. I'm fine! Really, stop worrying so much about me."

Fast set a hoof over her face. "Twilight, you are limited to two hours of work per day, to be increased at a rate no greater than ten minutes per week until you reach the standard."

"But!" She took a step forward, wings spreading.

"No buts." Fast held up a hoof. "This is for your own good. You will spend the remainder of your time with a counselor, learning yourself and recovering." She lowered the hoof. "In case I need to specify, studying with Under counts as work. Don't even think of trying that."

Under and Twilight both looked down, saddened by that news.

Steel raised a hoof. "On the other hoof, accompanying others as they work is entirely encouraged. You may watch Under work, but while Miss Sparkle is off duty, she is not to be given access to the virtual consoles."

Under softly snorted. "Well, better than nothing. Miss Sparkle, let's hasten to secure your clean bill of health, so we can both proceed at the pace we desire."

"At least somepony here understands me." She threw up her hooves. "You'll wait for me, right?"

"Gladly." He reached out a hoof, to be met eagerly by Twilight's, the two equally as eager to continue her training.

Wandering pushed away from his console and came trotting up to the knot of people. "Missus Sparkle? They don't need me just this moment, would you care to start? I'm training in therapy techniques and would be honored to help you."

"I don't need help," groaned Twilight with mounting frustration.

"My apologies." He dipped his head, ears low. "It is we who are being silly. Please humor us? The sooner we begin, the sooner you can return to full work cycles."

"Yes..." She glanced at Fast, who wasn't budging, then at Under, who was facing his terminal. "Right. Let's get this over with." She started for the door. "How do you even handle it? I don't understand how you can be happy with the idea that you'll just... die... and something else 'kind of like you' takes over."

Wandering smiled as he followed her. Questions about death seemed a reasonable start. "Well, you see, we've taught ourselves from a very young age..."

9 - We're Always Dying

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"Think of it this way," gently spoke Wandering with a kind smile on his face. "This is how it normally works. You are constantly in a state of death and rebirth, from the very instant of your birth. The cells within you can only recover from so much, and when that is too great, they must be replaced."

"Growing new skin doesn't make me a new pony," half-snorted Twilight. "Nor does growing hair."

"But even your brain is doing it. There exists very little of a person that is the same person from just a few years prior." He wove towards a comfortable looking lounge. "With how old you are, I imagine you've had time enough for even the longest living parts to have long since faded away, replaced with new parts. This is just how things work."

Twilight frowned softly, her steps slowing. "I... But they're still 'me'."

"They are," he agreed without hesitation. "But define 'you'." He turned towards her with the same kind smile. "You are Twilight Sparkle because you remember being Twilight Sparkle and bare the scars and triumphs of her past both in mind and in body, though the bodily marks fade over time, being as unaging as you are." His eyes swept over her. "And I see no hint of scars."

She spread her wings suddenly. "I wasn't born with these! I wouldn't call them scars, but they certainly are a change."

"Granted, but that changes little of what I said, does it?"

She squinted at the goat counselor. "I... suppose not... But it is that gentle slowness that things are replaced that allows them to still be me."

"If some unfortunate accident were to occur." He reached out and tapped her right foreleg. "And we had to remove that, and replace it with another, would you still be you? Would the leg be Twilight's leg?"

"Not at first," she hissed, cringing and shying back a step. "But I'd get used to it, I should imagine... Let us hope this never becomes required."

"Dawn is a talented healer, it would take quite a bit of effort to remove your leg in a fashion he couldn't remedy," assured Wandering gently. "Back to the point, our younger selves are the younger cells, growing and adapting, preparing for when they will replace us, the older cells. They are us. We are they. We can remember when we were young, and when we were old. They are us, subtle changes or not."

Twilight took a slow deep breath. "Surely you can admit it's a bit strange to have that rubbed into your faces quite that... directly."

"I can. We avoid speaking with our other selves," he confessed with a soft laugh. "But I do not begrudge my other selves. They are each as me, doing the best they can to bring smiles to this empty universe and to soothe troubled minds. Speaking of that, let us turn towards you."

"I'm fine, really." She put a hoof to her chest, smiling her best. "I'm functioning perfectly."

"Tell me about your best friend who isn't Spike or Octavia," he asked in kind tones, though the question was far from kind.

"What about the other?" Fast was perched on her chair, an ear towards Steel. "She has gone into isolation shock, near as I can tell. I may be no expert on this matter, but..."

"No, she hasn't come out of her shell like Twilight is." Steel took a slow breath. "She responds well enough to visitors, but isn't taking a single step forward on her own." He sat up with a soft snort. "Should we bring it up to her friends?"

"That may be effective, perhaps Spike? No reason to burden Twilight if she is still recovering." Fast pivoted her seat towards Dawn. "See they get together later, inform us what happens."

"As the gods will it."

"And put this... there..." A bright spark lit up the interior of the wall space Remi was in. "That stung a little, but here we are." She popped up, an object in her hands. It was made of smooth grey plastic, vaguely football in shape, though one end of it was a bright purple crystal. "And here we are, a portable transmitter. So long as the computer allows it, he should be able to live in here."

Belle tilted her head left and right, studying the oblong object. "That is too small to contain him."

Remi burst into laughter as she scrambled free of the cramped place. "Try it first." She set it down and scampered away from it. "You'll see."

Belle's ears wriggled as she considered the situation. "Sufficient friend points found, trust given. Computer!" The computer chimed softly. "Activate Error No Name." She pointed at the plastic football with the crystal end. "There."

The transmitter suddenly jumped into the air, the form of No Name wrapping around it with a flicker, solidifying with the emitter locked inside of him. "Huh? Oh, hey Belle." He reached for her and she pranced up to accept the petting. "Your friends are still here?"

"Yo." Spike smirked softly. "How do you feel?"

"Normal?" He shrugged softly. "Not like I have much you could hurt."

"You do now." Remi was grinning at the great mutant hologram. "Take care of that thing in your chest." She waved in the general vicinity that the emitter was resting.

"Wait what?" Several snakes hissed in shared confusion as he looked towards his own chest, which betrayed not the presence of the thing lodged inside him.

"Initiate experiment," sang out Belle, pointing out the door. "Proceed!"

Spike waved grandly at the doorway, seated on his haunches. "You should be able to, you know, go where you want."

"Yeah?" He looked between Belle's sparkling eyes and the other's less manic looks of encouragement. "You didn't have to... But fine, let's make sure it works." He rose to his great hooves and stepped towards the door, clip-clopping in an idle trot. His form flickered in a line as he passed from the holographic emitters the room had to operating entirely on the one embedded in his form, but he remained whole. "That felt weird."

And yet there he was, standing in the hallway. "Holy shit, you really did it..." He looked left and right, slowly turning in place. "This place is big..."

Spike emerged just behind him, forcing him back as two large forms occupied the hall. "Welcome to personal liberty, uh, as far as you can have." He rubbed behind his head. "Real talk here, are you... programmed?"

Belle came bouncing out after him, veering to the right around him until she was at No Name's side. "He is as programmed as you are."

"What? I'm not programmed." Spike furrowed his brow, looking scandalized.

Remi snorted softly, looking amused as she set the panel back in the wall. "We're all programmed, just up to us to make the best of it."

No Name smirked faintly. "At least she admits it. Anyway, look at me, outside the room... We're done now?"

"Negative!" cried Belle, bouncing in place. "Now that you have achieved mobility, you can meet my other friends." She pointed up at the large form of Spike. "We can start here. Initiate friendship file opening!"

"Yeah, already did that." No Name shrugged. "Hey."

"Hey," replied Spike. "So, alright, gonna pretend you're just any other pony. What do you like to, you know, do?"

"Well... That's a hard question. For a long time, it was 'chill with Belle'. Not like I had a lot of options, but I liked doin' it." He looked down to the side where Belle was comfortably perched in his shadow. "Look... This means a lot to her, so I'll give it a real try."

"Aw that's adorable." Remi left the room last, the door sliding shut behind her. "Hey, computer, don't turn off this hologram for now, alright?" She was waving at No Name expansively. Thankfully it did not require very much in the way of permissions to ask for a hologram to persist.

Belle tilted her head. "If he is being created by your device, why is the computer involved?"

"Power," she replied in a single stern statement. "That thing doesn't have enough power to keep something that big going and still process his thoughts. I'll need a way better power supply if you want him to work without the ship lending a helping hand along the way."

"Ain't a bad try fer what ya had." He shrugged lightly. "Now look what you did." He was looking back at Belle. "You done dragged someone way out of time inta the future."

"And it is great!" she sang, bouncing in place. "Set phasers to explore!" She hopped up suddenly, scrambling up his back to perch on his shoulders. "Engines full ahead."

Spike inclined his head lightly up at her. "Huh, she just likes riding big people."

"Yeah, kind of one of her 'things'." No Name chuckled good heartedly as he began to amble forward. "Now ya gotta tell me which way ahm goin' cause I ain't got a clue which way is which."

Spike reached up to his ear. "Captains?"

"Spike, good to hear from you," replied Fast. "Report?"

"Remington's done in the room, and we have a new guest, sorta?"

Steel was the first to reply, "Sorta? Can you explain?"

"Belle has a hologram friend she's attached to." He shrugged as he followed after them. Remi was at his side. "She heard Remington can work with gizmos and had her give him a, uh, holographic thingie so he could walk around the ship."

The sound of a hoof meeting a face could be heard, along with Fast's soft chuckle. "Harmless enough, provided she hasn't tinkered with the controls."

"She was worried you guys might be angry at her if she did that, so she didn't."

"Good call," agreed Steel. "Bring them up to the bridge. We wanted to talk to you anyway."

"Roger and out." Spike lowered his hand from his fin, accelerating a little to catch up. "They want us up at the bridge."

"Command accepted," joyfully sang Belle. She pointed the way and No Name obliged her, moving for the elevator that could get them through the ship faster than most other options. "Remi, points lost have been refunded in addition to points earned for service. Friendship level gained!" Celebratory music issued from within her in a merry celebration.

Remi snickered at that. "Yes, level 2 get!"

"Level 1," corrected Belle. "Additional permissions unlocked." The sound of a deadbolt coming loose came from her. "Congratulations!"

"Wait, does that makes me level 0?" Spike hiked a brow as he followed into the elevator, taking a place as the two large creatures shimmied to not crowd each other.

"You are making excellent progress." Belle clip-clopped her forehooves. "Please continue to build comradery to gain friendship levels." She turned without the rest of her body, her head spinning around to face Spike and Remi. "Friendship detected. Have you reached level 1 with Remi?"

Remi softly snorted. "Not even first base," she huffed out, crossing her arms with a wicked smirk on her face. "I'm workin' on it."

"You're... mixing metaphors there." Spike frowned a bit.

No Name began to move as the doors opened. "You get used to that. Belle does it too. So, uh--" His words cut off as he emerged onto the bridge, eyes sweeping over the ponies working there. "Woah, all the big people."

Fast swiveled towards him. "You're tied for the largest here at the moment." She raised a hoof. "But Steel and I are in charge if that is what you meant. Regardless of that, we are a team, with a mission. You were never introduced."

Steel nodded softly. "Out of a respect for Bullette Belle's privacy, we allowed her to run your program without interference. If you are mobile, that changes things. You have exited Belle's private space and entered ours."

No Name halted his approach, looking uncertain. "Oh, well, if'n you want me ta head back, whatever."

Fast reached out a hoof. "That is not what we meant. It's just that as a mobile entity, you are not just 'Belle's'. You are all of ours, as a member of the crew and part of the ship."

Belle gasped in three octaves at once. "Tag added: Crew! Congratulations!" The celebration jingle played from within her.

No Name shook his head, though his snakes remained focus, half on Fast, the other half on Steel. "Ah don't have much skills that'll be useful."

Spike shrugged. "You're big. Bet you can fight. Wanna spar? We'll learn the tech stuff as we go."

Steel brought his hooves together lightly. "An excellent idea. You two are very similar in key ways in terms of training. Spike, do you accept him as an apprentice?"

Spike blinked at that, pointing at himself. "Me? I mean, sure. He seems like a nice guy, but I hardly know more than he does."

Dawn glanced over. "You are without a soul as ponies would know it. Only The Maze will welcome you into their bosom when it is time for you to move on."

Belle gasped with an alarmed and discordant mess of tones. "Take that back. No Name is perfectly equipped for service as a crew."

"Uh, way too deep all of ah sudden." He rubbed behind his head lightly. "Look, don't know shit about souls. I didn't know about that even when I was breathin'. Still don't. Does it matter much?"

"Language." Spike waved a finger in a soft tut-tut gesture. "That aside, whatever. I only had to deal with souls a few times, and it was a big pain in the flank. This one time, wooo, Twilight was a soul, and that was a trip." He rolled his eyes dramatically. "I was so happy when we got her back in a body."

Dawn inclined his head faintly. "She has experienced death? I had thought she avoided its chill touch. Good to know. It means if it came to that, it will be less traumatic for her." He turned back to his console, apparently satisfied.

Belle tilted her head left and right. "Lucky..." Her voice went downwards before bouncing back up, "Now that crew tag is assigned, full permissions given?"

"Belay that," ordered Fast, waving a hoof. "You need to be briefed on things. First, Spike."

"Yea?" Spike perked up at Fast. "What's up?"

"Go visit your friend." Fast pointed to the elevator. "Octavia requires your help. We fear she's suffering isolation shock, and a friend is just the thing."

Belle put her hooves to her cheeks, eyes sparkling. "A friendship assignment! Good luck!"

"Oh, sure." He turned for the elevator, but didn't stride with confidence. "I mean... uh... We were... friends, but not super close friends."

Remi bumped against his sides. "You know her, right? I'm guessing that's the closest we have. I'll go with you if it makes you feel better."

"Actually... yeah, thanks." He started walking, some of the tension fading. "I'm just worried I'll make it worse."

"We'll be fine, I'm sure." She nudged against him as they went. "You're a sweet dragon, so concerned about people."

He was quiet, and she gently pressed, "I'm complimenting you. I'm not really into 'rawr look at me, so alpha, rawr'. Bunch of meatheads no good for anything but a rough night." She lifted her furry hands to either side in a grand shrug as they vanished into the elevator. "Give me a sweet guy, so long as he can dance a little."

Fast turned to look at No Name and Belle, the others gone. "Back to you two. Belle, you have proven this can work, I understand that. That doesn't mean it will work every time. He is your responsibility."

"You --" Steel was pointing at her on his back. "--will lose friendship points if you don't take this responsibility seriously."

Belle gasped with alarm. "All monitoring routines running at 120%," she assured firmly, crisply saluting with a hoof across her brow. "Initiate crew tutorship program. Are you prepared?"

No Name knew he was being spoken to without seeing Belle on his back. "Yeah yeah, where does this start? Shoot girl, life was simpler when you left me in the closet. Don't you know people who come out of closets make other people nervous?"

Belle tilted her head, looking confused a moment before she started pointing to the stations. "Weapons, operated by Under Score, technomagician of considerable skill. Friendship level: 2. Scanners, operated by Dawn Event, thiest of any thees that require ists. Friendship level: 1. Communication, operated by Wandering Note, not depicted in this shot." Not that any photos were being taken.

"What's his friendship level?" he asked with a little smirk.

"4! He is very friendly. I like him. You will like him too I am 75% certain!" She clopped her hooves with excitement, moving right along. "Captains, Fast Shadow, Friendship Level: 2. Steel Prism, Friendship Level: 2. Both are leaders and melee experts. Steel Prism specializes in thiestic enhancement. Fast Shadow specializes in team safety."

"Pleased ta meetcha," greeted No Name, nodding to the captains and crew. "I'm No--"


"Yeah, Error No Name." he allowed with a wry smile. "She picked it out for me, a stupid number of years ago. So, uh, no real idea what I'm doin', but I'll try not to mess things up any. Thanks fer havin' me."

Under peeked over at the group of them. "Belle, Error. There are things I would care to discuss with the both of you, but that can wait. Welcome aboard, Error."

"Welcome aboard," echoed Dawn. "May your steps fall where they should."

Belle suddenly tapped Error on the head. "He has as many ways of saying 'good luck' as there are gods." She tilted her head sharply. "There are more gods than there are stars."

"That's a lot of damned gods."

"Some of them are," gruffly agreed Dawn, though he didn't turn to look. "Some of them are blessed. All are worthy of attention."

10 - Episode 2: I Was Alone With You

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The door slid open silently, a soft chime alerting the pony inside that someone had opened it. "Hey, Octavia?" called Spike, looking left and right as he entered cautiously.

"Spike," she replied, though still out of sight. "How good it is to see you." Not that she could see him just yet. "Have you come for a song?"

"About that." He glanced at Remi who hadn't said anything yet. "I brought a friend I'd like to be your friend."

"Hm?" As they pressed into the room, she came into view, already standing with her cello ready against her. "Does she have a preference in music?" Her eyes were on Remington, studying her. "Oh..." She glanced away and back, but whatever question she had remained dead on her lips.

Remi wrinkled her nose lightly. "Go on, ask it. You obviously have questions."

"Perish the thought." Octavia carefully leaned the cello against herself, freeing a hoof to wave the objection away. "It is not my place."

"Octavia." Spike sat a little ahead of her. "It's exactly your place to ask questions, as many as you have."

"It is my place to play," argued Octavia. "I tried... doing otherwise when we first came here, but that felt... awful. What song would you like?" She drew her bow gently across the strings, creating a lonely note. "I am ready."

Remi suddenly stepped in, cupping Octavia's cheeks in her fingers. "We just rescued a hologram from being stuck in one place doing one thing, and here's a nice pretty horse lady pretending she's programmed, and badly."

Octavia scowled at the fox. "Whatever do you mean by 'badly'? I am quite trained in my art, which I'd show you if you'd just name a song."

Fox wriggled a few fingers before gesturing at Spike grandly.

"Oh, yeah." Spike sat up. "You pick a song."

"Ah, yes... Mmm." She drew the bow across the strings in another soft tone that suddenly changed halfway in, starting a song, an energetic little ditty. "Something upbeat for what I discern to be a social butterfly. She would have liked you."

"She?" Spike raised a brow, but it fell a moment later. "Oh, her... Yeah, I think she really would have."

Remi crossed her arms under her chest, peeking between the two. "Well you're both sad about something now, care to fill me in?"

Octavia let out a slow breath as the music came to a stop. She set the cello aside and fell to all fours. "Any who live long enough see their dear friends pass before them. This is true of ponies far younger than I, really. I have no room to complain, so I do not. It is still saddening at times."

Spike raised his shoulders. "Still sucks." Octavia hiked a brow at him. "What? It's true. I miss them, the very first. That I've mostly forgotten them is maybe the worst part. I just distantly remember being happy with them." He rubbed behind his head. "I used to be so in love with one... If she showed up now, I don't even know what I'd do."

Remi threw up her hands. "People die, that happens. How about enjoying the living part? Both of you are so frigid I wonder what's the point."

"The point?" Octavia snorted softly at Remington. "Whatever do you mean?"

"Why are you alive? You're pretty obviously not having a good time. You could be."

Octavia pointed to her propped-up instrument. "I play that, which I happen to enjoy, thank you. If you don't require music, very well." She turned to Spike fully. "What can I play for you?"

Spike's ear fins raised as he looked over Octavia. "I would like my dear friend, Octavia, who I thought I had, you know, lost ages ago, but was actually secretly watching me in a kind of creepy but also kind of really caring way." He reared up onto his haunches, hands free of the ground. "Who deserves a hug."

Octavia looked at Spike, glancing at Remington in little darts. "Spike, you are a married dragon."

"1: When did marriage get in the way of hugs?" He snorted at the idea, smoke escaping his nostrils. "2: Glad to see you thinking about that, so I'm not even mad about you asking. You're more than your music."

"I was nothing but my music," she suddenly hissed, shrinking back. "It's more complicated than you're assuming."

"You have several advantages over other crew members," advised Belle as her liberated friend wandered the ship. "Like me, you do not require an external communication device."

"Yeah?" He turned an ear back at her. "How do I go about talkin' to people then?"

Belle tilted her head left and right. "Turn on your communication device."

"Uh..." Easier said than done, No Name looked thoughtful, trying to will it to happen, but he wasn't even sure what that would feel like, or what strange not-muscle he'd be flexing. "How do I do that?"

Belle tapped at her chin softly. "For now... perhaps it would be better if you did wear one. No! I will not give up so easily." She bounced up to her hooves on his back. "You know where your control center is, yes?"

He reached a massive hoof up to his chest. "Right in here. I can, uh, feel it, sorta."

"Excellent," she sang out in auto-tuned delight. "That is where your communication device would be. It links you to the ship. Operate that to begin communications."

"Operate... that." He frowned down at himself. "Operate." He grunted and squirmed, trying to make something happen. "Mmm, not--"

"Who is that?" came Steel's voice from inside No Name.

No Name blinked, ears going up and jumping in surprise. "Wha? Oh, thin' it worked! Hey, uh..."

"Captain Steel Prism," advised the voice. "Good to see you're learning but please stay off this channel unless required."

"Yeah, sure, sorry." He turned an ear towards Belle, one snake looking up over his shoulder. "How do ah turn off this thing?"

"You already have." Belle bobbed her head with a huge grin. "You have gained proficiency!" Her celebration music issued from within her. "Attempt to call me."

"Yer on my back," he flatly noted with a half-lidded gaze.

"Attempt to call me," she sang all the more forcefully, rearing up and waving her forehooves with growing urgency.

"Fine fine, one... sec..." He tried to find whatever strange internal flex got things going. "Uh... call Bullette Belle?" A soft chime echoed from inside him. "Oh yeah, voice commands, duh."

Belle swatted him across the head. "Without voice commands! Again!" She hung up the call without a word spoken. "We can both make calls without voice commands. I believe in you." Her voice modulated in encouraging crescendos. "Try harder!"

Spike stepped in, sitting down just beside Octavia. "Look, I can't claim to understand what you... went through. That was rough, really rough... If I had known you were there... Octavia, I'm so sorry... You're more than just the music you make."

Octavia glanced away. "That's all very well and good... but what do you know? You... had a wife. You still have her."

Remington suddenly snorted. "Have we met the same pony? She's about as married to him as you are a crew of this ship." She pointed downwards with a smirk on her face.

Octavia scowled at the fox. "I am prepared to play music at a moment's request! I will earn my keep and not complain in so doing."

Spike gently nudged into the musician. "Hey, I heard you and Twilight visited Under Score before, to talk about magic. What happened with that? Why is Twilight still going and you're not. Don't like him?"

"He's... perfectly fine." She coughed softly into a hoof. "Quite knowledgeable, and eager to expand that information. I can appreciate that, but he has no taste for music, and I was... feeling uncomfortable, so I came here. It's... comfortable here... alone." She stepped up onto her bed and sank down onto it. "Look, Spike, dear... You are simply wonderful, but you're making me... uncomfortable. Let me have some space."

Remi stalked a step forward. "You forgot how fun it is to be alive, instead of just surviving. Why don't you just lay back, relax, and we'll remind you? If you get the urge to join in, I won't stop you."

Spike hiked a brow at that. "Wow, yeah, that sounds kind of rapey."

"It does not!" she huffed, hands at her hips. "I'm literally asking for consent right now!"

"I'm afraid he does have a point," agreed Octavia with a gentle little laugh. "It does sound terribly suspect." She arched a fine brow. "You... remind me of her a little, which is why you must leave."

"Yea--wait, what?" Remi huffed. "The bloody hell. I remind you of someone you like so get out? What kind of messed up logic is that?"

"Please, obey my wishes." Octavia pointed to the door. "I need to be alone, and this is my room. Neither of you should still be here after being asked to leave if you wish to consider yourself my friend."

Spike put up both of his hands. "Hey, let's take it easy here. Octavia, I know you've gotten very used to, you know, kinda being by yourself."

"Kind of?!" she suddenly roared. "It was worse than being alone. People, you, would wander in and speak through me, because was I really there? Of course I was not. I was just a source of music to be enjoyed and forgotten afterwards." She bared her teeth as her horn began to glow, several pillows floating into the air. "Being entirely alone might have been an improvement!"

Remi put an arm across Spike's front as if to protect him. "Don't get angry at--"

Spike nudged her hand out of the way easily. "No, I deserve it. Go on, be ma--" He was suddenly pelted in a barrage of six pillows buffeting his face and chest. "Mad... Be angry, just... don't hide, please. I want my friend." He reached out a hand towards her. "Octavia, you're not alone, not anymore."

"Good, fine... now leave me be. You have disrupted my day sufficiently." She pointed sternly to the door with a frown. "Now show you can respect my words."

Remi hiked a thumb towards the same door and they shared a shrug before moving out together. It was awkwardly silent until the door shut behind them, separating Octavia from the two. "She has it bad," grunted Remi. "Real pity too, bet she's a real potty mouth."

Spike blinked rapidly at that. "What? She never curses."

"Usually, I know the kind." Remi's smirk grew. "It all becomes foul things once she's feeling good or bad enough. I'd love to show you, but she's not ready for that, yet. Look, I think we did good." She shrugged softly and started for the elevator. "It isn't gonna happen in one day. Let her unpack what we unloaded on her today."

Spike hurried after Remington, snorting softly on the way. "Yeah, maybe... Twilight seems to be doing alright at least."

"I'm more wondering why you are all together. You seem like nothing happened." She turned in place. "Part of why I love being close to people is being lonely sucks. You sure we can't..."

He held up a hand. "I'm a loyal dragon, it's one of the things we do pretty well when we decide on it."

"Pah." Remi was smiling though despite that, a planning glint in her eyes. "Would you get too upset if Twilight said it was alright?"

"Dude, do you not think of other things?" He sat on his haunches in the elevator. "Bridge." A soft chime alerted them to the movement starting.

"I think of so many things, but that one rates fairly high." She shrugs. "Doesn't help that I haven't had any since before I got here, and this ship's been a desert of physical contact. The crew seems to have forgotten what it is. Are they clones? I bet they're clones."

Spike suddenly put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing lightly. "Hey, I'm not, you know, up for that, but that doesn't mean I'm trying to keep you at arm's length. Being alone sucks, I'll agree with that."

She closed her eyes, standing there, his hand on her shoulder. "Thanks..." She accepted his touch, seeming to relax for a moment, even her tail ceasing its twitching. "You're a sweet dragon."

"I try," he half laughed, moving to exit the elevator as a chime announced their arrival on the bridge. "Captains, I'm back."

Steel swiveled an ear towards them, but his eyes were forward. "Good to have you back. Status report?"

"She's a mess," he sighed as he sat down on his haunches a little behind and to the left of the command chairs. "We tried to reach out to her, but she's not... taking it right now."

"I think we made progress," argued Remi with a thumbs up. "But she won't get all the way better in one day. This kind of thing doesn't work that way. Now, if you were to ask me..."

Fast raised a brow, but not turning towards Remi. "Which we will?"

"I was hoping you would." She clapped her paws with a grin. "You have to give her more things to do. She won't take initiative on her own, fine, but I bet if her captain tells her to get something done, she will, without even really thinking about it."

Spike nodded in agreement. "And if they happen to involve other people..."

"A fine idea." Steel reached to press a button only he could see. "She'll be on the next team we need. Perhaps just more movement will help shake the rust free. Tell me, did she seem violent?"

Spike hiked a brow. "I don't count a set of thrown pillows to be, you know, violent. She's a nice pony, still, and I doubt that's changing now."

Fast nodded as she moved a hoof from one control to the next. "Good. I'll try to mix it up, assign her with people she knows, and doesn't, not let it become repetitive."

"Excactly!" Remi suddenly set a hand on Spike's head. "They get it. Your friend'll be alright. Speaking of that, how's that little robot girl and her illusory friend doing?"

"Are we not all illusions," mused Dawn softly. "Soft disturbances in the water, destined to be lost and forgotten, yet who are we to not revel in our brief moment of cohesion, to paint the water's surface with our will to live for as long as we might?"

Spike shrank back a step. "That... is deeper than I was looking for right this second. I mean, besides, no? I've been around longer than a 'ripple on the water'."

"You are a rock placed in a heady stream, strong and solid and still destined to be worn away in time. Even the stream you reside in will fade, as all things must. Do not look towards this future, for it serves you not. You are a rock, and should be one, and not lament the tomorrow when there is so much to be done today." He brought down a hoof on an unseen button. "Captains, detecting a distress signal."

It was normally Wandering Note to pick up communication attempts, but he was with Twilight. Steel scowled sharply. "Out here, in the middle of nowhere? How can you be sure?"

"They are transmitting on a known frequency and the message is clear."

Wandering gestured out to the stars. "You came here for a reason. You were searching for something. May I know what that was?"

"Other races, other worlds... To learn and see..." Twilight looked out the window, at the countless stars before them. "There was so much out there."

"But not enough where you began," gently suggested Wandering. "Did you... want to find something that just wasn't there?"

Twilight tensed at that. "Equestria did not have many uncharted stars to see, no..."

"But it did have people and unseen places, I imagine." Wandering smiled gently. "Even the most advanced of worlds have places that have to be seen and experienced, but you chose to put them aside in favor of the stars. Why is that?"

"Someone had to," she snapped, glancing away from the stars towards her goat counselor. "Someone has to go out there and see what there is to be seen, and why not me? I won't die just from time. I have enough magic to avoid most of the other ways of dying, usually..." She worried two hooves together. "Who better to go than me?"

"Were you forced? Did others bring up this logic to you?"

"No! No, of course not. They'd never... do... that." She softly coughed into a hoof. "I made that decision on my own. You did too."

"Well, in a manner of speaking. If you accept that all past mes are me, then yes, I did make that choice. If this body is me, then no, I was born on this ship, and will likely die here. I don't begrudge my past self. Why, if he hadn't done that, I wouldn't have gotten to meet a very special pony."

"Who?" Twilight lifted an ear. "Someone you like? Another crewmember?"

"You, Missus Sparkle." He reached and set a hoof on her shoulder. "Not in a romantic sort, of course, but I had heard stories, distant and barely remembered. You touched their lives, and I, many of me, were so jealous that we never got to meet you, and here you are. I consider myself beyond lucky to have this chance, and if I can help you, I would like nothing more than to do just that."

Twilight quirked a little smile. "Oh... wow... you heard of the other times, in Everglow?"

"All of them, in varying detail. Twilight, would you care to tell me of your adventures?"

She would not be healed that day, but she smiled so warmly as she reminisced about those old challenges, the friends she had made, and the trials she overcame in the dangerous world of Everglow.

11 - Eyes In the Stars

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The main screen flickered sharply to life, showing a four legged, and two armed, figure. The tauric shape was facing the camera that was recording them. They spoke with a male voice, "If you are seeing this, please consider helping us. Our ship has suffered critical damage that we do not have the supplies to repair, rendering us without the ability to course correct. If help does not come, we will crash into the very planet we were intending to orbit. Our life support and other critical systems are operational, so we're fine, for now, until we become a great ecological disaster."

Fast raised a brow at the message as it began to repeat itself. "Well, the crew may be fine, if they are approaching an inhabitable world."

"Which they may or may not be," noted Steel. "Can we get a lock on where they are going?"

"Already performing that." Dawn was softly tip-tapping at buttons only he could see, his eyes darting from one virtual console to another. "First I had to... yes, here we are. I have a lock on their ship. Putting it on screen."

The tauric mammal was minimized to a little window to repeat his entreaties. Taking up the open space was a view of a ship. It looked large and egg-shaped, entirely unsuited for in-atmosphere navigation. A scale on the image also revealed--

"It's huge," breathed out Fast, sitting up. "What manner of ship is this, and how can they be that large and not have all the spare parts they could ever have need for?"

Spike rolled a claw as he settled, examining the image. "Is it our place to ponder that? So long as they're telling the truth, what's it matter how?"

Steel shook his head softly. "You have a point, but Fast would hand my back end to me if I ignored any potential threats."

Fast looked smugly satisfied with that. "We can at least contact them, from here. Dawn, any update on their trajectory?"

A map of the region appeared, showing all the stars the sensors could pick up for many light years in all directions. They sped forward and backwards as the computer worked through calculations, a small icon of the target ship appearing, dotted lines spreading forward in the direction it was moving in a spreading cone, showing its possible points until it intersected with a planet, turning green when it hit the outer edge of the cone, then yellow, then red. "This is when it will strike with a greater than 50% chance."

A timestamp appeared on the screen, converting almost instantly to a timer instead, counting down. "We have four days," counseled Dawn. "After that, they're impacted."

Steel thrust a hoof up at the display. "Tell me about that planet. Inhabitable?"

"Uncharted, of course, but...." Lines went down over the globe, the sensors of the ship scanning it as best it from that incredible distance. "Liquid water detected, temperature... agreeable. It is within the habitable zone of its star. Odds of habitability, 22%."

Remi lifted her shoulders. "Funny thing, even with water and being in the right place, still a low chance of stepping off a ship and not dying in one of a thousand ways. Yay space." She rolled her shoulders. "Technically just coming here didn't have that much of a better chance, but I didn't ask to come here, so that was an easy risk to take."

Fast nodded towards Remi. "Your talents may be called upon. Their ship is in need of repairs. It is possible, though they didn't mention it, but they may be lacking expertise in addition to supplies, and the faster they are repaired, the better."

Remi saluted sharply. "You can count on me!" She suddenly swatted Spike on the shoulder. "You'll come with me, keep me safe, right big boy?"

Spike's earfins raised as he sat up. "Hm? You want me to come along? Sure, I guess, if the captains are alright with it?"

Steel waved a hoof dismissively. "That'll be fine, but first we should contact them." He moved the same hoof to his ear. "Wandering?"

"Yes, Captain?"

"I hate to interrupt, but--"

Wandering nodded gently at Twilight. "Twilight was just telling me about the time she survived a literal god's challenge. Dawn Event would be beside himself if he heard the tale, I feel certain."

"I'm glad to hear things are going well," gently agreed Steel. "But we need you at the comm station. Can you resume your session later?"

Wandering drooped his ears. "I'm sorry, Twilight. I'd really like to hear the rest of this story. Would you kindly share the rest of it as soon as they let me away to hear it?"

"Of course." Twilight reached a wing to pat the despondent looking goat. "I forgot just how... adventurous I was. This had really taken me back." She put a hoof to her cheek, smiling a bit oddly. "Maybe that's what they were trying to tell me? I felt a touch of this when I was fighting for my life, hm. I have a theory..."

Wandering raised a cloven hoof. "Please don't act on that theory just yet, ma'am, but I'd love to hear it when we get back together. Steel, Sir, I'm on the way."

"We're waiting for you."

Octavia reached into her pocket and pulled out a considerable object. It was sized to fit around an arm and had a screen on it. "I bet you don't even function anymore..." She turned it one way and the other, holding it in her magic, her horn glowing softly. "You're just like the pony that wore you, scandalous thief she was..."

She raised a brow, spotting a detachable part. With a twitch of her head, she bid it pop free, revealing it was a plug. "What are the odds?" She slid from the bed she was on and began wandering the walls, looking for an outlet the plug could go in. "Either it works, and it functions, or it does not, and nothing is truly lost..."

There it was, a panel, but it had no outlet in it. Still, she reasoned, where there was a panel... "Computer?" A soft chime told her it was listening. "Reveal outlet." A querying chime and a buzz played. "Right here." She pointed at the panel. "Show me what's behind it."

A new chime played and the panel withdrew, revealing an array of ports and plugs. "Fantastic." She smiled lightly, looking over the collection. "Now... which one... fits..." She lowered the magically held cord towards it and wobbled it left and right, searching for the one that... "Close enough, I think." She thrust it in gently. The port clicked and tightened around it. A soft chime played. "This also works."

A dim image appeared on the screen of the device and Octavia smiled. The brightness was far too low for her to see much, but that was slowly fixing itself. It was the symbol of an empty battery, but a sliver of red was pulsing. It was charging. "Marvelous!" She set the thing down there next to the wall, allowing it to charge. "This... is great." An ancient gift of her... lost friend... She could feel tears building in her and turned away. "Don't be a foal about this... She's been dead longer than she's been alive." The tears overwhelmed her.

She could see nothing but them as she squeezed her eyes shut. That had been the wrong thing to say to calm herself down. "She wouldn't want this!" she cried to herself. "She wouldn't... have wanted this... She would want me to... do amazing things, in her name." She shook her head violently. "The rock goddess sleeps, so it falls on me to perform in her stead."

Wandering took his position and began pressing buttons quickly. "Should I hail them, Captains?"

Fast and Steel shared a glance before they nodded in agreed thought.

Wandering pointed to the main screen as a new window appeared.

It was a different figure, a slender human female slumped in a chair. Her eyes rose towards the camera. "Oh by the gods... someone heard us..."

Steel was on his hooves in an instant. "I am Captain Steel Prism, of the ESS Horizon. What is the nature of your emergency?"

Twilight, who sat towards the back of the room beside Spike and Remi, tilted her head. "She looks awful."

"Things have declined since we... started the message." She sat up in her chair, but it seemed to take considerable effort. "Systems are in decline. All power... diverted to cryopods. We are... a colony ship... Please, there are... millions that need your help..."

Fast raised a hoof towards the speaker. "Where is the one who was sending the message? You are obviously not them." Wrong number of limbs, to start.

"Volunteered... to cease rations." She slumped back in her chair. "Life support's on minimal to keep power in cryo. The... many... outweigh... few." She slumped to the side, passing out.

Dawn scowled at the image. "She is not long for the world if we do not act. Captains, orders?"

Steel waved his hoof towards Dawn. "Can you determine what's wrong with their ship? Bring us closer. Let's see what we can do."

Remi suddenly clapped her paw-hands. "Alright, need my help then? I'll have the air conditioning running right in no time."

Fast snorted softly. "I imagine their condition is a bit more serious than you're treating it, but yes, all hands capable of mechanical assistance will be required. Suit up, assume you're entering a hard vacuum, and report to the transporter bay."

Remi grabbed for Spike by one of his fins, moving to drag him away, but he didn't immediately go, instead looking to Twilight. "Hey, wanna come along?" he asked with a smile. "You can meet new people, save them from danger. You know, like the old days."

Twilight blinked, looking confused a moment before it clicked her smile echoing Spike's. "That sounds delightful. Permission, captains?"

Steel nodded quickly. "Get moving." They fled as he turned to Fast. "Technically, they have not given us permission to board, but the distress signal and her unconsciousness obviates most legal claims that we are acting in any way other than kindness."

Fast waved the concern away. "At a time like this? I forget at times how law-abiding you can be. We are obligated to help anything that puts out a distress signal unless they specifically tell us the signal was sent in error, and this is obviously not the case. We save these people, or watch them die shortly before or during their impact on a potentially life-harboring planet, potentially spreading the misery."

"I'm not arguing against this course of action." Steel sat down on his chair. "This sounds like a more technical issue than a violent one, which I am glad for, though I can lend little assistance."

Dawn raised his eyes from a virtual console to the main screen as a new window appeared, showing the internals of the ship they were approaching, some of it yellow and red. "I've found several system faults. There are redundant systems, but the redundants are down, operating far below acceptable levels. Remington, I'm sending a copy of this to your comm."

"Copy that," came her cheerful voice. "Turn the reds to yellows, got it."

In the elevator, Remington lowered her hand from her ear just as the elevator stopped, but they had not arrived on their target floor.

Octavia stood there, with a determined look in her tear-stained eyes. Wrapped around her left foreleg was a strange bracelet with lights and a display. "I'm coming with you," she announced. "I can help."

Twilight blinked softly at Octavia. "While I'm glad to see you, I thought you were a musician?"

She pressed onto the elevator, joining them. "I'm more than my music, as a friend was kind enough to remind me."

Spike smiled at that. "Good to have you with us, Octavia. You can fix things?"

"Who do you think was fixing things when you couldn't figure it out." Octavia rolled her eyes. "I had a little help, but I have that with me." She lifted her arm-band. "This is the Luminace Assistance Piece, or LAP."

Twilight gasped sharply. "That Luminace?!"

Octavia inclined her head faintly. "I was not aware Luminace was a specific thing, to be truthful." She pressed a button with her magic and held up the armband, showing the illustration of Luminace in a slow walk, a scroll floating in front of her.

"That's her!" Twilight jumped, grabbing Octavia's arm in her hooves, her face almost plastered into the screen. "I haven't seen her in... I don't even remember! How did you get something from her?! I am so beyond jealous right now!"

Spike casually pulled Twilight away and kept her away from the surprised Octavia. "That's not how we ask questions, Twilight. Be polite."

"Yes, right, polite. Sorry." She cleared her throat softly. "Please, tell me how you came into possession of that. I must know, please?"

Remi barked with laughter as the elevator stopped. "That's a question for after the mission. Right now we have a literal ship full of people that need us to act quickly, so let's get suited up." As she walked, she raised a hand to her ear. "Captains, Octavia insists on assisting us, and she looks determined. Objections?"

Fast's voice replied quickly, "Keep an eye on her. For her mental well-being, we don't want to discourage her taking action, but we can't let her harm herself or others."

"Roger that." Remi grabbed a belt off a line and slipped it on. "I should just keep one of these on and skip coming back here. Not like it's heavy." The armor deployed, wrapping her in plastic. "Not like I can't tell it to be just a belt when I don't need it."

"You have a point there." Spike was soon wrapped in space-age plastic. "I'm ready. Twilight, Octavia?"

Twilight waved a plastic-clad hoof. "All ready!"

Octavia was the last, peering at the wide variety of belts. "Is there one made for alicorns?" She spread her wings slightly before folding them back tight. "If I'm no longer playing that ruse, I would rather my wings be available."

Spike reached for a larger belt. "It scans you when its deploying, just has to be big enough to spread over you. Put up your hooves and I'll help."

"Thank you, Spike. You were always the gentlepony." She raised her hooves. "Twilight is lucky to have you."

He blushed faintly at that. "She helped make me, if you think about it." He slipped the belt over her outstretched hooves and worked it down over her barrel to rest around her midsection. "There we go. Can you hear it?"

"It's saying hello." Octavia perked an ear about, but the sound was coming from nowhere in particular. The belt began to unfold over her, becoming a plastic suit like the rest of them, wrapping up her wings without a problem. When it reached her arm, it flowed around her LAP precisely, leaving its screen and buttons exposed and ready to use while forming an air-tight seal against it. "How lovely."

"About that." Spike turned for the door, heading onwards towards the transporter bay. "You weren't wearing that when we first realized you weren't a hologram. Were you hiding it?"

"I was..." Octavia glanced down towards it. "I thought I'd never wear it... but... that isn't what she would have wanted. That... in fact, wasn't what she specifically requested. She wanted me to wear it, and do great things." She drew in a sharp breath through her teeth in a hiss. "It took me quite a few moons, but perhaps I could honor that wish now."

Remi suddenly swatted the emerged alicorn across the back. "Glad to have you with us. I'll tackle the mid-section life support first. Could you--"

Octavia raised a fine brow. "Pardon me, but I haven't the foggiest to what you refer."

Remi grumbled as she fished out her comm from a pocket. "That thing looks advanced enough." She waved the comm over her LAP. "There, look at the map."

Map file detected. Importing...

A map appeared on the LAP, showing an overview of the ship. The trouble areas were colored properly. Remi thrust a claw. "There, take care of that red spot. That thing double as a comm? I'm guessing it does."

"I... admit I am not entirely certain." She raised the LAP to her mouth. "Detect local stations."

Scanning... Multiple stations found, adding to bookmarks.

An image of Luminace making marks on her scroll appeared, winking before she vanished.

"I want one," sighed out Twilight, watching the Luminace-blessed device functioning. "Spike! I've decided. All the anniversary gifts we skipped; get me one of those and we'll be entirely even!"

Spike snorted loudly at that as he waved at the transporter bay door to open. "Yeah, right after you get me my catchup gift. How about we start getting gifts from here on in if we're going to start doing that?"

Twilight pouted mightily, but didn't belabor the point as they all filed in.

Star Dancer was there, watching the door. "There you are. I was wondering if you all managed to get lost. The teleporter's locked in, so hop aboard and we'll take a trip. No scrubbing this time, so there's that."

"Good luck!" sang Belle as she bounced out from behind the counter. "Make many friendship points!"

Remi gave a sloppy salute to Belle on her way to the pads. "I'll make so many points you'll have an overflow error counting them all."

Belle gasped melodically. "That would be the best reason for a soft reboot ever! I look forward to it."

Octavia looked around as she settled next to Remi. "It will be a pleasure to use one of these when not in impending physical danger."

Twilight nodded in agreement. "Let's go save some ponies, or humans, or whatever they are. They deserve our assistance."

12 - All Hooves on Deck

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Bright magic overcame them all before it all went dark. "Huh," came Spike's voice, his large movement heard, claws on the floor. "Easy to forget I can do that... Let me see if I can find the lights..." A soft clicking noise could be heard. "Nope."

Twilight became visible, her horn shedding her magic's light across the room they had appeared in. "Thanks for trying, but I came with my own torch."

"I as well," spoke Octavia as she became a second source of light. "If the lights aren't working, that speaks ill. Remington? I will make my way towards the first problem area."

"Hold up a second." Remi was digging around in a bin, tail lashing and an unseen grin on her face. "We hit pay dirt. Was she trying to dump us in their supply closet? Because thanks!" She began to throw things out of the bin, making uneven piles of rubber and electronics behind her. "Ammunition for the repair efforts."

Spike frowned from by the non-functioning light switch. "Wait, didn't they say they didn't have the supplies?"

Octavia was looking over the supplies. "These are hardly considerable supplies, but they will make jury-rigging more practical." Her magic scooped up bits from each pile, causing them to float next to her. "Just the thing for an emergency. I wonder if something happened to their repair crew."

Spike raised a claw. "Speaking of that, where is our repair crew? Are we the repair crew? I don't mind helping, but--"

"The repair crew is coming," came Steel's voice, audible to them all. "They are not rated for combat situations, you are."

Spike suddenly snorted, smoke escaping his snout. "Oh! I see how it is, send us in first. Fine fine..."

Twilight clopped her plastic-covered hooves together. "Maybe we'll have to fight for our lives!" she gushed perhaps a little too excitedly. "I'm ready!"

Spike set an armored claw on her back. "Hopefully there won't be anything to be ready for, but we'll protect them. I'll watch Octavia, you get Remi."

Remi came up from the bin to pout at Spike. "Throwing me aside? I'm the one that wanted you here, remember?"

Despite her objection, Twilight was already approaching Remington to begin guard duty. "You have expressed repeated interest in my husband."

Remi's ears went up. "Oh! Uh... What? Me? Never..." She ducked back into the bin to avoid looking at her, rummaging for more supplies. "We should focus on our mission."

Octavia strode for the door, but it didn't open for her. "Figures. Spike, dear, might you lend your considerable strength?"

"Mm? Got it." He ambled over and grabbed the edges of the door with his armored claws, pulling with great grunts and heaves, the two sides slowly separating until he could work in his fingers and progress became significantly faster, the door soon open for them. "There we are. I'll go first." He slipped through the doorway into the faintly-lit hallway, only the dimmest of emergency red lights lining it.

The two left Twilight and Remi alone. Twilight was sitting on her haunches beside the bin Remi was hiding in. "Are you interested in breeding? I confess mild curiosity into the logistics of that."

Remi poked the top of her head up over the lip of the bin. "Logistics?" Certainly that was not the word she expected.

"Dragons produce eggs, would such a hybrid also desire to be egg-based. If so, would you be able to lay it properly?" Twilight tilted her head faintly. "Would the differences in body temperatures cause a problem for it before it was hatched? In terms of societal upbringing, would you raise it in the ways of dragons or... whatever your species is called? The logistics are staggering to consider." She clopped her plastic-wrapped hooves. "Considering it is quite interesting to me."

Remi raised a brow at the nerdy alicorn. "Correct me if I'm wrong, but we're talking about your husband, right?"


She rolled a furry hand in the air. "And you're perfectly happy considering the 'logistics' of him sleeping with some other woman you still barely know? I thought I was the free spirited pansexual of the group. What the actual hells?" She pulled herself up and half-rolled out of the bin, moving for the piles of parts.

"You sound upset." Twilight followed after her calmly. "I thought, if anything, you'd be relieved to know I wasn't offended by your actions."

"There are literally just a few ways I would expect it to go." She pocketed interesting baubles from the ground, filling her clothing with jingling bits. "One, you're pissed off, alright, I'd deal with that. Heck, probably deserve it a little." She turned for the door. "Two, you want in. Well, that's kinky, but I wouldn't say no. Three, you want to watch, also kinky, also wouldn't say no. Some people get off on the idea of watching their SOs get hot with someone." She gestured for the door. "But, nope, you found a fourth one to confuse me with."

Twilight trailed right along behind her. "You have me at a loss. You seem to be expecting some amount of intimacy issues, but I am pleased to inform you that I, as former princess of friendship, have overcome these small matters that could cause ponies to, as Belle would put it, lose friendship points. I would only take exception if you were to use deception." She suddenly poked the flat of her hoof into Remi's side. "Which you did. Apologize for that."

Remi was looking down the hallway from the safety of the door, glancing left and right. "Right, yes. It was the first thing out of my mouth, expecting option 1. Sorry for not being forthright from the get go." She slipped out into the darkness, squinting. "Mind coming and bringing that glowing horn of yours?"

Twilight advanced, but prodded Remi right on her bottom as she did so. The fox's covered tail began to shed soft white light. "Your apology is accepted, but questions remain."

"Questions that can wait until we have this ship working?" She pressed into the disturbingly inactive ship. "We have an assignment to do."

Octavia glanced back at Spike. "You are more familiar with these suits, are they capable of atmospheric analysis?"

"Suit?" He could hear a soft chime of acknowledgement. "Is it safe to take off the suit?" A soft warning buzz was the reply. "The air's bad, couldn't tell you why exactly. Pity Belle isn't here, bet she'd know."

"Pity," agreed Octavia as she advanced. One of her covered ears suddenly perked. "Did you hear that?"

"Yeah..." Spike scurried ahead and went right around the corner without delay. "Woah!" In front of him was a collapsed form. It looked like someone's dog, malnourished, tongue hanging free and looking dry. Its eyes were closed and it was still. "Oh wow... Is it... dead?"

Octavia came up beside him. "I couldn't say by looking at it. Mayhaps we should have brought a few extra belts with us, for survivors we happened across."

Spike applied a hand to his face. "That would have been smart." He reached with the same hand to gently prod the figure. "You in there?"

Movement made him jump with surprise, but it was barely more than the faintest change of position and a growling moan of discomfort. Octavia advanced immediately, a small duct opening in her suit to allow a figurine of a stalwart fighter free. "Know the touch of the healer upon you, willing you to return to battle. Your soul invigorated, your wounds lessened; today is not the day to pass." She touched her glowing hoof to the creature and the light seeped into it.

"That was not unicorn magic," noted Spike with a raised brow. "But it wasn't Everglow magic either, that I remember it. What was that?"

The figure suddenly began to cough, painful and labored, but it was a sign of life. It rolled upwards slowly, leaning against the wall as it got itself upright. "Help..."

"We are here to do that," assured Octavia. "You are not a pet."

The figure smirked at that, but the expression failed, pain replacing it. "Won't be... much of anything... Please help..." Their voice was too faint and hoarse to apply a gender to, leaving that a mystery.

Spike set a large hand on their shoulder. "We're on the case. Just relax and don't die, all we ask."

"Do... my best..."

Octavia was already moving on, resuming the course towards the system she was to attempt repairs on. "That was valuable. We know there is atmosphere, and it is not immediately lethal, just troubling. Perhaps due to a lack of proper recycling. A build up of carbon dioxide, rather than any true lack of air, or some chemical leak. If that person had been suffering from poison, my little spell would not have helped them." Her figurine slipped back into her suit and tucked itself away with her magic.

Spike reached for his head, though he couldn't touch it with the visor. "Captains, we found one survivor, leaving them to continue repairs and they seem mostly stable for the moment. Air's pretty bad, but we can't be more specific than that."

"Copy that," came Fast's reply. "We'll be sure to get doctors over there too once you've gotten the ship habitable."

He nodded, hand dropping to resume his easy lope through the dark hallways. Where Octavia's light didn't reach, he saw it in shades of grey, but he could still see, and so he advanced untroubled. "We going the right way?"

"Take a left." Octavia tossed her head. "We're getting close."

"I have it." Remi pulled free a sharp stick as the door in front of them sagged open a few inches. "Another lock busted, and I think I get you too. You're just open. I'm making this more complicated than it needs to be. That's cool. You've defeated jealousy, good job. Most people who bother to apply the married tag don't do that."

Twilight waved a hoof as her magic wrenched the door wide for them to pass through. "Being 'open' suggests that I am in the market for carnal relations outside that of my wedded partner. This is not true."

Remi hiked a brow as she stalked into the room. "You're just ice cold then, but you don't care if your hubby warms up?"

Twilight squinted softly at that. "I am perfectly normal in temperature for a pony. Why would I object to-- Oh! How silly, those were euphemisms. It's been so long since I heard them, apologies." She coughed softly, even if she was just coughing into her visor, her hoof held up against it meaninglessly. "If Spike wanted to breed with you, I would not stop him."

Remi threw up a hand as she advanced into the room, looking around for something. "This has nothing to do with breeding. I have basically zero plans to make little Remis right now, maybe ever, definitely not right now. Did you forget going through those motions feels kind of nice?"

Twilight pointed to the right. "Is that what you're looking for?"

"Hm? Yeah!" She scrambled over to the panel and began working a sharp tool along the edges, trying to pry it up. "We don't eat bland nutri-paste because that's boring, and what's boring becomes painful after a while. We live, we want stimulation." She ran her tongue over her lips. "Some of us more than others... but it isn't natural to not want any."

"I will take that into due consideration," promised Twilight without sounding that sincere. "But we have a task, as you were quick to remind me. I simply wished for you to know that I do not harbor animosity towards you."

Remi threw the cover aside. "Noted and appreciated... now can you get that light in a better angle? My tail makes for a bad source for what's in front of my face--Thanks." She smiled as Twilight came around to get her horn into view. "Now let's... see..." She dug around in the wires with a scowl. "And... the hells?" She pulled out a single wire, an exposed bit of its metal in view. "It's been cut."

Twilight raised a brow at that. "Any chance it burned out?"

"Burnt wires don't look like cut wires." She snorted at the idea. "Look at it." She thrust the wire as far as it would go towards Twilight, held firmly in her plastic-coated fingers. "Cut. On the plus side, cut wires can be uncut..." She shoved the wire back into the hole it came from and began working with the jumping sparks of a little welding tool she was using.

Twilight raised a hoof towards her ear. "Captains, Remi has found clues that perhaps sabotage was at play. She is addressing the damage we've found."

"Good and bad to hear," agreed Steel. "Glad she's fixing it, but worrying. It means there could be hostile sapients on board who won't be happy to know you're undoing their work. I'll pass the alert on to the other team. Be aware and never travel alone."

"Of course, Captain. Thank you for trusting me on this trip." she lowered her hoof just to clop them almost immediately. "This is getting more exciting! Thank you for taking the required steps that caused me to be here. This is far more interesting than reminiscing about old adventures. Think of the danger we could get into right now!"

"So that's what gets you going?" With a final bright flash, dim lights began to spill from the space Remi had her hands. "There we go... We can only hope the other problems were done so simply."

"What is it you fixed, speaking of that?"

Octavia scowled at the open access hatch. "This does not look right."

"Yellow alert," came Fast's voice. "Damage appears to be of hostile origin. The attacker could still be on board and none-too-pleased at your efforts. Be cautious and keep us informed with any updates."

"Roger that," replied Spike as he leaned over Octavia's shoulder. "Oh yeah, we're looking at some big blaster marks, like someone just took a laser to the wall and decided it was a fine place to practice their aim."

A soft curse echoed through the radio. "Roger that," she grumbled. "I don't like this, but there are countless people relying on our aid. Assume everyone is hostile until proven otherwise. Don't be the first taking the shot, but trust no one."

"Very unfortunate," grunted Octavia as she sat down. "Watch my back as I get to work." She reached for the thicker band of her suit that was the original belt. "How many generations have you seen, each the same, and each so different. Surely you understand how things change, and remain stable all at once. Lend me your aid." She reached her other forehoof towards the singed hole. "Remind it of what it once was, and what it can be..."

Spike shook his head with some wonder, watching the magic start undoing the damage rapidly, wires jumping together, burnt plastic covering peeling free and wrapping themselves, regenerating as if nothing had happened in the first place. "When... How long have you been a super spellcaster and just... sitting on it?"

"Sitting on it?" Octavia turned an ear towards him, her eyes on the electronics as they regenerated. "Do you think I practiced only my instrument when you were not watching me? Honing my spellcasting was one of my few passions. If I had not this ability, our ship would have possibly worn down and gave out on us long before that... unfortunate incident that brought us to our new ship."

"This is me not complaining." He turned away from her, sweeping his eyes over the dark room as he returned to the door to get a better view of the hallways and any danger that could be approaching. "Tell me that should get the air flowing."

"I will have to reply negatively to that. Remi sent us to get--" She didn't get to finish, the lighting suddenly becoming blinding as all the lights across the ship came to life at once, bedazzling them all with a shared yelp across the radios.

"Status report!" barked Fast. "What's going on over there? We saw a power spike."

"I'm fine," grumbled Spike, rubbing his arm over his eyes as his vision started to return, spots dancing. The lights were rapidly fading as if some system somewhere was trying to adjust it to a more comfortable level. "The lights are back on."

"Holy!" came Remi's sudden input.

"On i--" Twilight started to say before being cut off.

Fast could be heard thumping her hoof down. "Twilight, Remington, report! Spike, Octavia, status?"

Octavia closed the panel with its restored instruments. "We are fine. If you would give us the location of the others, we'll check in on them."

Spike was tense as steel. "Yeah, yesterday. Twilight needs us." His claws rapped against the steel floor in an impatient drum.

"And Remington as well, I should imagine." She raised her LAP into view as it showed a quickly-filling loading bar. "There we are, I have a map."

Spike was over in a flash. "Hey, belt, grab that map." A soft chime of approval came.

On Octavia's LAP, a prompt appeared, "Attempted connection. Allow?"

Octavia lifted an ear as she willed the yes button.

"Connection added to history. Transfer in progress..."

Spike could see the map appear on his visor. "Great! Let's go." He wheeled around and took off in no trot, but a gallop, storming through the hallways with a determined face. He was a dragon, and none would harm what was his.

13 - Protecting Your Collection

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Spike was a determined bullet of speed, rushing through the ship. It was quite the surprise to hear plastic-coated clip-clops coming from behind him, closing quickly. Octavia was approaching rapidly, each of her steps carrying her further than it really ever should have, and each step coming faster than he would have guessed her normally capable of, as if she were being played in fast forward and catching up with him easily as a result. "Leaving your ward behind is not very logical, Spike."

He nodded, but his eyes were focused on the path ahead of him, weaving around the corner to skip to a stop. Shadowy tendrils reached out of a room, spreading across the floor, pulsing with whatever strange life they had. They seemed to perceive Spike just as he saw them, gathering up into rough facsimilies of bipedal and quadrupedal figures. None of them had eyes, but their faces, as unfeatured as they were, were locked on him.

Octavia came up beside him, scowling at them. They saw her too, half of them turning towards her, directing their eyeless gazes at her. "Shadow beings," she hissed as small things floated out from inside her suit, preparing herself to weave magic. "I doubt they're friendly."

"Probably not, but I don't have time, or want to fight." He stepped forward. "I have a friend to help. Get out of the way, please," he sternly spoke, hoping they would respond.

They did, reaching for him but not seeming to be limited by the scope of the forms they had taken, their shadowy limbs stretching out towards him in harmonized grasps. Spike caught the first hand to get too close in his jaws, proving he could bite them, and that they could get through his suit, but his teeth found the flesh and when he tossed his head the thing recoiled, wrenching back its injured hand.

Octavia directed an ornate wand at the lot of them, glistening with jewels and engraved with ancient Equestrian symbols and pictures. "Begone," she simply ordered as the hallway exploded in fire, engulfing the figures entirely. The flames licked at the front of Spike's helmetted face, but her calculations proved reliably, not pressing past that dangerously close, but not harmful distance and already fading away.

"You're going to have to show me that, later." He suddenly jumped forward, leaping over a reaching shadow that was running along the floor, his wings flapping to keep in the air a precious moment before he crashed down on several writhing shadows, tearing and shredding with his claws. "Stubborn things!"

"Stubborn indeed," agreed Octavia with a scowl, directing bolts of brillint force from the same wand, battering at the shadowed mass whenever it tried to reach towards her. "We haven't the time for this."

"Suit, open the helmet," Spike ordered. "Yeah I know that, do it!" He took a deep breath and held it as he fought, parrying swipes and ducking aside as best he could, keeping the shadows occupied. The visor on his face pulled back, exposing him to the air, as poor as it was.

New flames washed over the hallway, exhaled in a great burst from the insides of the dragon in a cone of singing fury, the plastic and metal of the ship growing dangerously hot under Spike's assault. The shadow menace withdrew with a keen wail, suddenly dispersing in all directions as if someone had briefly lit a lamp of darkness and turned it off just as quickly, leaving them standing alone in the hallway.

Octavia shrugged her shoulders. "Figures, the fire must have been effective, just not sufficient to deter them the first time. Get your helmet back on."

Spike made a motion of pulling up his visor and the suit obeyed, reforming and resealing, new air rushing in to allow him a needed gasp for breathe. "Ugh, holding your breath after doing that is harder than it looks. Alright, Twilight, here we come!" He charged forward, resuming his gallop right through the heat stressed hallway, as if a little heat would slow him down.

Octavia spread her wings and lifted into the air, flapping through the hot metal hallway rather than trusting the heat resistance she didn't have. "Captains, we encountered shadow plane creatures. They've been driven off. I cannot confirm their death or absence from the ship. Assuming there are still hostiles present."

"Roger that," came Fast's hasty reply. "Be vigilant."

"Any word from Twilight?" asked Spike as he charged. "She alright?"


Remi waved a hand wildly in the darkness they found themselves in. "We are being, I don't know, eaten by darkness and you're fascinated, really?!"

"How could I not be?" Twilight reached out, but there was little to reach out to. It was dark in all directions around themselves. They could feel whatever they were in pressing on their suits from all directions. The suit was complaining bitterly about being under attack.

"2:06 until failure," displayed on Twilight's visor, updating in real time with each passing second.

Remi brought both hands to her face a moment. "Right, right, stay calm... Radios are down, lasers don't work, and there are no locks that need jimmying to get us out of this. So that leaves us with..."

"Your talents will not help," calmly noted Twilight. "Allow me." Her horn began to glow, a dim thing, as if the darkness were actively supressing it, but it grew brighter and brighter.

Remi wasn't sure if it was really helping, but it was something, right?

"No!" A haggard crew member fell out of their room into the hallway, scrambling backwards with creeping shadow inches away behind them. "No!" They were slow, showing many of the same signs of partial asphyxiation the other they had found was displaying, but desperate to get away from the shadow that pursued.

Spike ran past, his claws raking the thing along the way. It wasn't enough to send it running, instead drawing its attention. It was enough to spare the weak crew member its attention, instead chasing after Spike determinedly.

Octavia paused, reaching for the crew member and healing them without the little prayer she had invoked last time, technically unrequired for her magic. "Stay safe and out of sight. We're working on it," she quickly instructed before rushing after Spike.

That left the assailed person to slump against where the wall met the floor, looking in the direction the two strangers had gone. Perhaps their fortunes were turning?

A soft chime made Octavia's ears twitch. Her LAP was trying to get her attention. She brought it up, running awkwardly on her three remaining legs.

Threat Analyzed:...

Type: Undead (incorporeal, shadow)

Effective elements: Positive, Force

Ineffective elements: Non-magical physical trauma (100% ineffective)

Danger Level: 3 (individually)

"Good to know," she muttered, her mind going back to the force bolts she had been throwing. "I softened them for you, Spike."

Warning: Do not allow contact.

Octavia scowled at the bright red warning. "Spike, don't let them touch you."

"Wasn't planning on it." Spike barreled through a shadowy mass, his form pushing right through it, but his claws and teeth leaving furrows where they collided with the insubstantial enemy they were facing. As painful as it clearly was to the thing, it could reach him just as easily, hands closing in on him, others emerging from walls and floors, grasping for the warmth of his life.

His shield flared into life, his suit having sufficient charge to turn aside the attempt to get through it. "Aw dang it, I didn't charge this." The battery remaining was on his visor, and didn't give him much confidence that he could force his way forward as he had been doing for long without running into trouble.

Octavia didn't touch the ground, remaining directly in the middle of the hallway as she flew down it. "On it," she assured, her wand working independantly of her eyes, bolts of unerring force striking at the shadowy attackers, forcing them away from Spike to let him get moving. "Did these things turn off the lights?"

"Nah." Spike swiped at a reaching hand, creating new tatters in it as he ambled forward, frowning as he fought forward. "I bet the crew did."

"Why on Equestria would they do that?" She filled the shadow he had just swiped with bolts, dispersing it into a puff of shadowy vapor.

"They didn't come out until the lights came back on," debated Spike. "In the dark, they were happy to just let them die without their help. We have to get to Twilight." He jumped over the next reaching hand, not even engaging it in battle in favor of hurrying ahead.


"Yes?" It was Steel. "Any new report?"

"Do you have any users of positive energy that you can spare? We're facing incorporeal--"

"--On the way," suddenly cut in Dawn Event.

"Belay that," barked Fast. "You know better than to... and he's gone."

"You knew he would," chuckled Steel. "Dawn's on the way. How bad is it?"

"Full ship infestation," guessed Octavia from what she could see. "The light's gotten them out in force."

"They're everywhere," corroborated Spike as he slid around a corner. "Coming up on their last known location--Wha?."

Instead of any single shadowy figure, the hallway became nothing more than one great mass of darkness that even his darkvision refused to pierce. "Twilight?!"

"There." Octavia pointed to the faint little spot of light coming from inside the darkness. "It's her color."

"I'm coming!" He lumbered forward, only for magic to grab at the nape of his neck, Octavia's magic on him.

He felt certain he could wrench away from her, but some reason was there and he snorted instead. "We have to help her."

"We do," more calmly retorted Octavia. "Let's do so intelligently, not by throwing ourselves into the same danger." She lowered to land beside him. "You want to go in there, fine, but let's make you less delicious." Her cloud of tools rotated as she reached out to Spike, touching a hoof to him with a distant look in her eyes.

He began to glow brightly, shedding bright light in all directions, even fighting back the darkness, though not as far as it seemed it should. "Go, find her," Octavia urged.

"Right." He burst into a run to the shadow. It shied away, but the great hallway-consuming blackness didn't have that far to go and didn't move nearly quickly enough. With nary a sound, Spike vanished into it.

0:50 until failure, faithfully reported Twilight's visor as something new joined them. Bursting in from nowhere came Spike, shedding powerful light against the darkness.

"Twilight, Remi," he cried, wings beating against the darkness as he hurried towards them, the darkness held back just enough that his own suit was spared the worst of it. His own visor calmly reported that he had closer to six minutes before things went poorly for him.

Remi reached for him, but couldn't really move, held in place by the shadow all around her. "I'm glad to see you, big guy. Give a lady a hand?" Her eyes darted, glancing at her own countdown timer. "Quickly is better..."

Twilight extended a hoof towards Remi, pulling the fox over with her magic even as Spike closed the distance. "I knew you'd come, Spike." They shared a look as he grabbed them both in his arms.

He cradled them, one under each arm. "We're getting out of here." A powerful beat of his wings arresting his motion and starting them back the other way. "The shadows were sleeping in the dark and we woke them up with the light."

"Fascinating." Twilight nodded softly, looking far more interesting than terrified as her timer ticked downwards at a steady pace.

"I'll call it more fascinating when we're out of here," squeaked Remi, displaying perhaps a more healthy amount of fear at how close they were to the limits of their suit. "If you get me out of here at one second, I swear to all the gods..."

14 - Into the Light

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All three of them burst free of the darkness, coming down hard just in front of a frowning Octavia. The grey alicorn was peering into the darkness with obvious concentration on her face. "Hmm... This isn't alive."

Remi scrambled to her feet, finally having a surface to stand on. "You aren't getting killed today, three seconds left!" she declared proudly, laughing with a little hysterics at avoiding the cliche situation of getting out with one second remaining.

"Spike wouldn't have let us come to danger," assured Twilight as she dropped to her hooves from Spike's hands. "Even when he was smaller than me, he always looked out for me, and I love him dearly for it." She turned back towards the darkness, her eyes wandering across its featureless ink. "Octavia, you've clearly been studying this. Any findings?"

"It isn't alive," repeated Octavia. "I think this is more of a magical effect than an actual creature. Remington, what system were you getting online?"

Remi pointed off into the dark. "I was working on the life support systems, figured I'd start with the most pressing. They were cut, like someone just attacked with wire cutters and not an ounce of subtlety."

"Suit." Spike shook lightly in place. "Is the air still bad?"

A warning buzz was the only reply, the suit incapable of giving a more detailed answer. "Huh, well, it could be better, or not. I couldn't say. How do we get rid of that?" He hiked a thumb at the darkness.

The radio suddenly came to life for all of them, "Dawn and Dawn Junior has arrived, they're fighting his way towards you."

Remi hiked a brow. "They sent two of them? Practically cheating." She crossed her arms under her chest, huffing softly. "When do I get a twin?"

Spike suddenly smirked at that, his mind leaping. "When you can guarantee you won't do things with them."

Remi's cheeks lit up, but she was laughing. "Aw c'mon! That's like super mega incest. I wouldn't do that!" She didn't sound entirely convincing as she pleaded for innocence.

"Incest?" It took a moment longer for it to click in Twilight's mind. "Oh, don't do that. You have more than the required charisma and social skills to find a genetically superior combination. I feel certain you could obtain breeding rights with whomever you pleased, if you put your mind towards the task."

Octavia blinked, turning her head towards Twilight. "Did you hear a single word that just came out of your mouth?"

Spike put up a hand to either of them. "Ladies, focus. Big inky blob of doom. Can we make that go away?"

"Ah, yes." Octavia brought her little warrior miniature out of her cloud of tools. "You're just the ticket. Now..." She turned up a hoof for it to land on as she focused on the darkness. "Begone!" A wave of her power washed out in all directions, passing harmlessly through her allies and the walls, striking much more physically at the darkness itself, fighting it back. "Begone!" she droned, the edges of the shadow becoming tattered and fraying as it pulled back. "Begone!" She stomped her free forehoof down, glaring at the darkness as it began to fall apart, dispersing to leave nothing behind but fading wisps.

Twilight perked an ear. "That was a conjuration effect, interesting. Everglow magic, I feel certain. You must show me that technique, later." She began to trot forward. "Remington, can you assure the system you repaired is still operational?"

Remi patted Spike on the way past him. "Thanks for the save, by the way." She hurried ahead and darted back into the room the trouble had started in. "I had just gotten something online not long before the lights clicked on, then the trouble. Keep an eye on my six for any of those shadows."

As she poked her head into the wall to see what had become of the wires she had been tinkering with, Spike approached Twilight. "You were in serious danger."

"I know!" she said far too cheerfully. "I haven't felt this alive in... I don't even remember."

Spike crashed to his haunches. "This is not how you want to get your warm fuzzies, Twilight. I don't want you getting hurt."

"And I wasn't," she countered. "Thanks to your quick action." She smiled at him gently. "As if you'd let me come to real harm."

"I... not if I can help it... But things happen." He put a hand on his other arm, rubbing lightly on the plastic-covered surface, his body still shedding bright light everywhere. "I need you to value yourself, Twilight. You should care about you as much as I care about you."

"That's a lot of concern," she admitted, shying back half a step.

"It is... and you should have it." He closed the distance. "Because you are a wonderful pony that I want to spend forever with, and I won't get to do that if you risk it for a thrill and it goes badly."

Octavia smiled gently at the two of them, but did not join the conversation, instead looking around for trouble, her tool orbiting in a fidgeting sort of way around her head.

"Aw." Twilight touched her nose to Spike's, gazing into his eyes. "This isn't quite as stimulating as life-threatening situations, but close, and perhaps more pleasant on other levels."

Fitful crackles of electricity jumped from inside the panel Remi was working in. "Dang shadow undid some of my work. Tell me it won't bring the shadow back if I finish fixing this."

"We stand ready." Octavia looked to the others. "We will protect you should that occur, but I feel certain it will not."

"If you say so." She pressed two cords together before a fresh flare of light jumped out. "And..."

Spike raised a hand to to the side of his head. "Captains, how's Dawn doing?"

"Approaching," came Fast's voice. "Things calm down?"

"We're fine," cut in Twilight. "Situation stable. We're fixing an issue right now for life support."

"The crew of that ship's surely looking forward to that," encouraged Fast. "Be cautious, the ship is still overrun."

Octavia lowered her horn towards a section of wall as she lowered her goggles, Vinyl's old goggles, across her eyes. "Speaking of..." As shadow figures burst free, her horn brilliantly glowed, peppering them with powerful streams of raw force that made them quickly regret their decision. "Twilight, your assistance?"

Twilight reared up onto two legs, speaking strange arcane words. Intricate patterns appeared on the ground around her as power welled up in visible beams of bright pinkish-purple, making her fur and hair waft in the breeze she had created despite her suit blocking the direct path any such air would have to travel. Her spell was slower than Octavia, but the once-earth-pony was keeping the line, blasting at shadows as they appeared.

Spike swiped at a reaching hand, a shadow trying to grasp at them from below the floor in a blind flailing. "What are you doing, Twilight?"

"Hope it's good," distractedly added Remi, her face still in the panel.

"Drive them back," spoke Twilight with authority, waving a hoof forward. The air cracked and opened, little golden gates appearing as four motes of light swept through them, the gates closing behind them. Each little bundle of light twinkled softly, dancing on unseen eddies.

Octavia hiked a brow. "While fascinating, what will--" She didn't get to finish her question, thin beams of light emerging from the balls, striking the shadows and forcing them to recoil. They began to pepper any shadow that dared to enter the room, calmly floating along. "That... works. Nice trick." She nodded towards Twilight with a soft sigh. "I only have so much magic to go around."

Spike tilted his head at Twilight. "Why didn't you use that when you were all swallowed by darkness?"

"It wasn't a creature," replied Twilight as if it were obvious. "If they have no specific thing to strike, they would serve no purpose." She fell back to all fours, wings fluttering. "Remi, status report?"

"Status... gold." She pulled her head free and danced back a step. "Oh hell!" She had just spotted the floating wisps. "Was that what I was hearing?"

A low rumble was heard, fans coming to life through the ship. Remi gave a powerful thumbs up. "Alright. That'll start evening out the air instead of having dead zones. We need to get to the next spot to get the recyclers going at more than a whisper."

Twilight frowned with thought, but Spike put it together faster. "Right, if we got the recyclers going without circulation, we would have just made the spots around them nice and not helped the rest of the ship."

"Got it in one." Remi tapped Spike on the nose. "Clever and brave and handsome? Your lady is lucky to have you." With some of her usual cheerfulness returned, she stepped towards the door leading out. "I'm not going first though."

"I'm here." Dawn emerged from the hallway, taking up the archway of the door. "I safely presume the sound of fans is your doing, or do I owe a divine being prayer?"

Octavia inclined her head towards Remi. "Our vulpine friend managed that, though I imagine you will still offer your prayers regardless."

"Am I that predictable?" Dawn turned back to look down the hallway in both directions. "The infestation is terrible. We'll have to deal with that. I would consecrate the ship, but that would be easier with a ship that isn't a floating coffin. Where to next?"

"Is everyone alright?" asked a voice that sounded much like Dawn, but just a little higher.

Remi suddenly burst into laughter. "Oh wow, is that Dawn Jr. Come in here!"

A smaller equine head poked up from around Dawn, peering at them with a similar expression and suit to keep out the bad air. "Now is not the time to gawk. We have work to do and, gods willing, we will see it done."

Spike raised a scaled brow. "I thought you usually avoided working with your replacements, as a rule?"

The older gestured with a toss of his head. "We should keep moving. It is as the gods will it, and I have no argument for them."

"Fascinating." Twilight looked between the two who could have been older and younger brothers. "I have so many questions, but we do have more pressing issues. Remi, where to next?"

Remi pointed the way as she slipped out past the two clerics. "You two can show me the power of your gods later. Octavia, you and Spike come with us. I'd rather split up, but with shadows everywhere, maybe we don't do that? Twilight, keep those light boys with us." She began to lead the way despite her earlier protestation.

Spike let everyone else filter out of the room, following with the light wisps dancing around him. "Huh, I never saw you summon these before."

"I never had a reason to," countered Twilight. "But I learned the technique to call forth projections of great beasts from Everglow's planes. I can even do a few Equestrian ones."

"You're kidding." Spike hiked a brow. "You can, what, make a manticore out of nothing?"

"Basically." Twilight shrugged as if it wasn't that big of a deal. "That won't help us right now. The archons are far better at attacking our current enemy and have a natural antipathy towards them. They are perfectly ideal for the situation."

"Lantern archons," added the younger. "Divine servitors of the celestial planes. You speak the truth, they hold no love for beings of the shade, undeath of any variety, or the unclean, and these qualify as all of those at once."

Remi perked an ear as she led the way through the hallways. "Should I be worried? I'm not the cleanest thing around."

"You're only one of three, their priority is clearly set by the situation," argued the younger.

The older nodded. "Besides, they are bound to Twilight's will while her spell persists. They will only attack what she wishes them to." He suddenly spat a quick word that trembled with the divine as he stomped down powerfully, driving a glowing hoof into a reaching hand. The energy jumped from his plastic-clad hoof into the reaching digits and a ghostly wail filled the hallway as it wrenched back. "Be cautious."

Spike snorted annoyedly, eyes darting for signs of trouble. "By the way, I feel a little, I dunno... tired? It's not the usual 'I fought for my life' tired, I think?"

The younger Dawn let out a soft sigh. "They must have touched you. They draw away the strength of life, seeking to plunge it into the same darkness they dwell in. When we get back, we will purge you of this, but for now, caution."

"He speaks the truth," agreed the older, turning his head to follow Remington. "How long do you predict it will take to restore life support?"

"I won't know that until I put my eyes on it." She slapped a closed door as they arrived at it. "Which involves getting past--"

Twilight casually touched her, putting her hoof right above Remi's tail. Even as the fox yelped in surprise, Twilight's horn glowed brightly, whisking them both away.

Spike blinked at the empty space that had held them both. "Uh... man, maybe not act before thinking?" He lumbered towards the door, grabbing at its seal and heaving, trying to force it open with low draconic growls of effort.

Octavia raised a hoof to her ear. "Octavia to Twilight, everything alright in there? I presume you teleported past the door?"

"Did you identify the magic?" came Twilight's enthusiastic reply. "We're engaged in battle right now. Let me call you back."

Spike grumbled as he worried his fingers deeper into the wedge, slowly forcing the door open. "Damn it all, Twilight... Why are... you such a difficult wife?"

"Allow me." Octavia stepped up beside him, reaching out a hoof to touch the door. "Two in tandem is superior to one." Her horn glowed and strange magic swirled around her, her tools glowing as her occult power rushed into the stubborn door. Creaking with Spike's struggle and hers combined, it began to slide visibly, opening before them.

Inside they could see Remi and Twilight dancing in combat with a plant. It was as if the entire room was overtaken with vines, and the vines wanted to get to know the two females in the most aggressive way possible. Remi made a swipe, hacking off a bit of a reaching vine as she danced away. "Good to see you, little help? No fire! Absolutely no fire!"

Octavia raised her ornate wand. "No fire, hm, that would have been my first thought."

"Precisely why she told us," explained the older Dawn. "We do this the old fashioned way."

"Let us." They both spoke words that seemed almost identical, the power of the gods surging through them as they drew great maces that glowed with that power. As one, they stepped forward, smashing and battering any vine that dared to approach them.

Spike fell to his haunches, blinking at the sight of the two devout ponies tearing a path forward. "Huh... Oh!" He remembered there was still a fight going on and pushed into the room, ripping and tearing at the stubborn foliage with razor-sharp teeth and claws. "What even is this?!"

Twilight extended a wing to point to the central cluster. "Plants native to the recycling process have gotten out of control. They need to be pruned, not entirely destroyed. Get it back behind that striped line on the ground." She pointed to where the bright yellow and deep black line cut across the ground.

"That doesn't tell me, oh." Apparently Octavia made up her own mind. "That makes sense." She coiled on herself, drawing out a dagger that began to float beside her as her tools tucked themselves away. "As Dawn and Dawn said, the old fashioned way it is."

The strange musical sound of the wisps' attack was the first hint. The shadows had joined the party, ignoring the plants in favor of those that did battle with them. Twilight squealed as a shadow rushed right through her, stealing some of her essence along the way. "Rude!" She lowered her horn, taking her energy away, not able to reclaim it, but driving a chunk of the shadow away with a bright bolt of force.

Remi squeaked as a tendril got a hold of an ankle and pulled her off balance, slamming into the ground just in time for shadowy hands to grab at her painfully. "Shit!"

Dawn held his mace high in his teeth. "Begone, in the name of the sun, purifier of the universe!" He glowed brightly, energy washing out in a wave of white across the room, driving back reaching hands for just a precious moment. "To arms, the battle is not yet complete."

Younger Dawn brought his brilliant mace down on a shadow, but it was like attacking something made of jello, impacting but without the satisfying thump of striking something that was shattered by it. "Fight for your lives."

"It's past the line," suddenly called Spike, shoving the plant past that barrier of yellow and black. "What now?"

Twilight made a sudden downward flick of a hoof, her magic grabbing a lever and wrenching it down. The walls on either side of the line began to close, only to grind to a halt, only about a quarter of the way closed. "Close that," she shouted, turning her attention to blast an oncoming shadow.

"Open this, close that." Spike grabbed both ends of the stuck gate, pulling and grunting even as the plants recovered from the attack, reaching for him. "Faster..."

Remi slid in and slapped down on something in the track of the door and it closed shut with a sudden bang, its progress no longer barred. She counted her fingers quickly to make sure she hadn't lost any.

15 - Breath of Fresh Air

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Even as they fought bitterly with the shadows that seemed to come from all directions, the ship did as it was designed to do, ignorant of their petty battles. "Air composition nonoptimal," spoke a calm voice from a panel nopony there was paying much mind to. "Initiating deep cleanse."

New fans whirred to life, ferrying toxic air into the recycler they'd just got online and carrying fresh air back out again into the rest of the flowing circulatory system. Something was happening, they knew at least. Octavia hopped away from a reaching shadowy hand as she glanced down at her left forelimb. "Toxicity is lowering, but slowly."

"Crew," came Steel's sudden voice over their radios. "We've located the source of the shadows. Sending the location to you now."

Similar chimes emitted from their suits, with a secondary noise coming from Octavia's LAP as it grabbed the map positioning without being asked. Dawn knocked the head off a shadow with a powerful swing of his brilliant mace, not that the shadow seemed to much care which part of it was being struck. "Then I suggest we egress. The sooner we can assure the safety of this vessel--"

"--the sooner a full repair team can come over," finished Dawn Jr, ducking under a swipe and scurrying around his enemy.

They burst out of the recycling room, hurrying down the hallway. As they did, Twilight's right ear raised. "Something's bothering me."

"Yeah?" asked Spike, loping along beside her. "I mean, besides the huge collection of hungry shadows bent on killing us?"

"Beside that." She waved that way as if it was nothing as she trotted along on her other three legs. "Captains? Why isn't Belle with us? Constructs are notably resistant to both the need for air and the effects of such draining. She would be ideal for this situation, would she not?"

"She is not trained in repair work," noted Dawn Jr.

"But she is capable of fighting," came Steel's reply over the radio. "I'll see if I can locate her."

"Clever," complimented Remi without shame. "If the shadows can't bother her, she'd be a great help. How m-- Oh." The motes of light that had been helping them winked out of existence, back to wherever they had come from. "Nuts, I liked those things."

Their battle towards the source of the shadows was slowed down. The undead creatures were only growing more numerous, and their side less so.

"And that is how you use the food replicator," finished Belle with a proud tone. "Did you understand that lesson?"

No Name lifted an ear from beneath her. She was on his back, her head resting on his, looking over his shoulder at the device. "Yeah, ah get it... but when am I gonna need it?" He shrugged expansively. "Not like I'm gonna eat anythin'."

"Knowledge is power," she sang with an excited electronic trill. "It is important that you understand how the things around you operate for ideal--" She lifted an ear suddenly. "Incoming signal."

A speaker inside of her played the voice of Steel Prism, "Belle? Your presence is required. Please report to the transporter."

Belle frowned a little. "I am engaged in educational activities! Crew training is of high priority."

"Keeping crew alive is of higher priority," argued Steel, sounding mildly annoyed. "They need you. High-density incorporeal undeath."

Belle bounced up to her hooves atop No Name. "Unacceptable!" She pointed the way. "We are on the way!" she sang out in discordant but emphatic agreement.

No Name began to lumber in the direction pointed. "Uh, was I asked for?"

"Is that No Name?" asked Steel. "Actually, yes. He should be safe from their attacks. He has no 'essence' they're looking for. Both of you, report to the transporter room."

"Recruited," he sighed out, hurrying his steps. "What I get for speakin' up."

"To the rescue!" crooned Belle in an elevating crescendo, looking more cheerful about the day. "Begin new lesson: How to rescue fellow crew members from impending doom." The last word warbled wildly even as she grinned.

A bright bolt of light sliced into the midsection of a ghostly figure just as it stepped into the hallway. Remi was already aiming her small laser pistol at a different threat, there being no lack of them coming from every surface. "Are you sure we should have come here at all?"

Dawn pulsed with light, washing back the shadows for a brief moment as he heaved for breath. "We have... little choice. We either win, or perish."

Spike raised a claw. "Running is also an option," he casually pointed out before dropping the hand with that claw, slicing at the closest shade. "Fighting to the last isn't the only thing we could do."

"I shan't argue that." Octavia lowered her horn, magic bursting free to drive back a shadow in her way as she tried with the rest to push forward towards that source, however thick the shades got. "If need be, Twilight, you can transport us?"

"I could try." She hissed as a ghostly hand got a hold of her left hindleg and she blasted it back. "This is losing its charm. I'm not having fun anymore. Spike, can we go home?"

Spike glanced off in a random direction that had basically a 0% chance of being the correct direction of Equestria. "No, I don't think we can." His teeth snapped, tearing off a chunk of shadow. "Unless you mean their ship?"

"This is no end to them," suddenly blurted Remi, diving between two sets of reaching arms, her pistol catching one of them, not that its little beam destroyed it. "I'm with Twilight, this stopped being fun a bit ago."

"Not a person assured this would ever be fun," countered Dawn Jr. He marched firmly, swinging his mace left and right as if to sweep the way as he pushed. "The gods demand much from we mortals, and I will not be found wanting."

Octavia waved back at the Dawns as she fired a horn bolt at a cluster of shadows closing in on her dangerously quickly. "We have a job, we have to get it done."

"Do we?" Spike practically leaped onto a shadow, tearing into it with all his claws and teeth working in concert, forcing it to fall apart into rapidly fading bits of grey. "Don't remember getting that memo anytime. We're more useful alive and failed than successful and dead."

"Can... that happen?" asked Twilight as if the concept had simply never really occurred to her. "Oh, of course it can. I'll die, like everything else. I'll just be another grave. I won't even have a grave. I'll just be gone, gone forever. Gone... forever." Her voice got smaller and shriller at once as she went, her psyche taking a sudden spiral downwards as she froze in place. "No! No! I refuse!" She slammed the ground beneath her as a bubble appeared around her then seemed to frost like a chilled glass. "Stay away!"

Spike skidded to a halt, looping back around to get at his suddenly petrified wife. "Twilight! We're not dead yet."

"And I won't be!" she hissed, trembling from inside her little bubble. "I refuse to just... fade away! I will survive!"

The shadows knew a snack was available, closing in on her from all sides and crashing into her bubble, but whatever it was made of was better at refusing them than the steel and plastic of the wall. They massed against its force barrier, but could only feebly scratch and wail, seeming to have no impact on it. "You won't have me," shrieked Twilight from the center of them.

Dawn suddenly turned, blocking Spike's way. "She is buying us time, though I doubt she planned that. We cannot help her and must move forward. If we can stop them, she will be saved."

Spike's lips peeled back with a savage growl, looking tempted for a tense moment to bowl through Dawn to get at Twilight, but it faded as he shied back. "We'll be back, Twilight. Be strong!" They fled together down the hallway. "If she isn't there when we get back..."

"I will accept what punishment you deem appropriate," finished Dawn with a soft nod. "She has drawn their attention. Their number has thinned."

Octavia closed in with Spike from the side, charging alongside him. "It's a strange thing, but I... lost some value of myself, I think, somewhere along the line. I'm Octavia, your loyal player, your friend, but if I was gone, would it be that great a loss to the universe at large?"

Spike groaned softly. "Why am I the only one that isn't crazy?! I mean, sorry, you don't deserve that, you don't. I... look, we have to save her. We have to!" He huffed dangerously as he burst through the form of a shadow, not even slowing to attack it. "I was just telling her to start caring, and now this!"

With a shower of light, Belle appeared, but it was not Belle, not as once she was. Both hooves were unfolded out into weapons and a determined look was on her head. From top her valiant steed, she began to fire in rapid staccato, each burst of a different weapon, her entire body disgorging destruction on any shadow within her sensory range. "Threat level: Purple," she stated in firm electronic tones. "Mission initiated."

"I don't have none of those," complained No Name, bearing Belle forward.

"I am your weapon," corrected Belle as she cleared the way. No shadow could persist near them without being torn apart. "You are my mobility. We are a team. We are one. Onwards Team Mongoose! Motto: Never Surrender!" She pointed with one of her weaponized hooves. "Proceed. Map file sent."

"Huh, oh." Suddenly he could see a map floating in his vision, for he was a program in a computer. "Yeah, I see it. Let's go." He stampeded forward, bearing his destructive little friend through the ship. "One thing. Didn't you say I needed the ship to keep me going? Why is this workin' at all?"

"We are one," electronically sang Belle, her smile only growing deeper.

"That ain't a damn answer an' you know it."

"It is the truth," she countered, washing a thick nest of shadow with flames, electricity arcing through the fire as it drove them away. "You are residing on my processor. We are one," she joyfully sang. "Never have I been happier. Continue mission!"

"Oh... huh..." The idea that his 'being' was actually inside the small deadly pony on his back was a strange one, but No Name kept his existential crisis to himself as he concentrated on getting her to where she wanted to be. "Sure are a lot of these damn things."

"They are damned," she agreed with a musical trill. "I am helping!" A great pulse of energy gathered in her core before exploding outwards in an expanding sphere of white energy that would have done Dawn proud, detonating the shadows on contact. "Captains, we are rapidly approaching. Error: Anomaly detected on scanners." She leveled her arms ahead and began to tear through what seemed like a solid but writhing collection of shadows that blocked the hallway.

Ahead of them, unaware of their presence, they pushed ever onwards. "It should be past this door." Remi hiked a thumb at it before slapping the panel next to it. It turned from red to green and, for once, the door just did what it was supposed to do and opened. The darkness beyond it was banished as lights flicked to life without asking.

The fallen bodies of crew members of the ship they were in littered the area, many with faces of horror etched on their frozen faces, some with their limbs held at unnatural and painful angles as if they had died in the middle of a powerful seizure or some force had moved them after they were gone.

Spike made a bit of a face, but his eyes did not linger on them long. "It's looking like a barracks. Where's the shadow source?"

Dawn Jr. rushed past him, eyes shining. "I detect evil... there." He stopped a rapid turning to key in on something. "Here...." He kept focusing, the hazy sensation coming into clarity as he slowly stepped forward. "Right here." He reached out a hoof and pulled back a blanket, brushing it roughly off the bed it was strewn on to reveal a book.

The book was clad in black leather, but seemed unexceptional. Despite that, Spike wasted no time, drawing in a great swelling draw of air as his helmet's visor lowered without him asking. It seemed the AI of the suit had learned what that meant.

Octavia snatched the book in her magic. "Shoot!" She threw it in an ungainly arc.

Spike didn't let it get past its zenith, engulfing it in flames. It burnt a strange purple color as it sizzled and evaporated under his attack, hitting the ground in a pile of ash where once a tome rested. His visor snapped back up, air rushing back in to replace the still recovering atmosphere of the ship. "I got it, I think? The shadows gone?"

Remi stepped into the room with a frown. "What in all the various hells were they doing with a bloody Necronomicon or whatever that was you just burnt to a crisp?"

Dawn looked left and right. "I don't see any shadows... Captains?" He raised a hoof to an ear. "Can you confirm if the infestation is present or not?"

Fast was the one to reply, "Whatever you did, it seems to be working. Negative energy readings are declining rapidly. What was it?"

Spike wrinkled his nose at the ash he had made. "Super evil book of evilness. Why would anyone even want something like that? Twilight, you alright?"

But no answer came.

With bullets, flames and surging electricity, Belle would tolerate no shadows in her presence, beating them back at No Name took slow steps, working through the thick knot of them. A strange curved surface started to come into view. The shadows tried to fight back against their tormentors, but their touches did nothing to the little Belle or her stalwart steed. They had no strength to drain that the shadows could affect.

"Friend located!" sang Belle, spotting Twilight huddling beneath her desperate bubble. "Crew member Twilight Sparkle located," she repeated over the radio as she washed away the shadows slowly but surely, clearing the mass off the bubble and out of the hallway step by step.

"Is she safe?!" blurted Spike in response.

"She is physically intact," came Belle's reply.

"But I doubt she's happy," grunted No Name, reaching to tap the dome as he walked past. "Hey, you in there? We're fighting the shadows back."

"Error!" suddenly squeaked Belle in an unhappy electronic wail. "She is safer where she is. Weapon efficiency will have to be lowered if she is not within cover.

Despite her words, the dome cracked, then faded away. Twilight immediately wailed, her plastic-clad hooves flailing at the air. "You can't have me!" she shouted, eyes screwed shut, not seeing what had been done around her. "Get away! Get away!"

"Efficiency lowered," sadly announced Belle with a downturned flow of her musical electronica. "Twilight, you are safe. Less than 30% likelihood of severe injury present."

"That isn't nearly as comforting as you think it is," laughed out No Name as he looped around Twilight. "The black thin's are goin' away. Something up with that? Not that I'm complainin' or nothing."

"Listen to your radio," softly chasisted Belle as she began to fold back up, her hooves becoming hooves and her back becoming the back of a perfectly standard filly for a filly her age. "Emergency has been handled!" Victorious music played from inside of her. Her ears went up, one of her hooves starting to unfold. "Large presence approaching, vibrations detected!"

With a great thumping, something large was clearly coming towards them. Hitting the corner ahead of them and sliding into view, Spike was there, crashing into the opposing wall just to bounce in a scramble towards Twilight without even pausing to wince at whatever pain that might have caused. "Twilight!"

"Spike?" Twilight blinked open her eyes, though all she saw was a blurry mess, her tears obscuring her vision entirely. "Spike! Help! Don't let them have me!"

Spike charged to her without delay, grabbing her up and holding her tight as if she were some lost doll he had just found. "I'm right here. Right here."

"Spike..." Her shivering started to abate a little, turning instead into a soft sniffling as she buried her face into his scales as best she could, mostly pressing her face to the front of her suit's vistor. "I was so scared... That wasn't fun! That wasn't fun at all!"

Belle's weaponized hoof dutifully folded back up. "Danger level: Yellow. Spike, are the others with you?"

"Huh?" He looked up from Twilight, just noticing Belle and her large mount. "Oh, hey, when'd you get here?" He stroked slowly along Twilight, even if there were two suits in the way. "Oh! You can tell, how bad's the air, is it getting better?"

"Analyzing." The sound of a little fan began as she drew air into herself. "Organic waste unoptimally high. Oxygen unoptimally low. Trend..." She went quiet, likely monitoring the incoming values to see which way they were changing if at all.

No Name cleared his throat. "To answer yer question, we just got here and beat up a load of those crazy ghost thin's tryin' to get to you. Everyone alright, minus Twilight having a breakdown or whatever?"

Spike was softly rocking her, shaking his head. "We're all exhausted and... that was rough. She can... do whatever that was? I wish she'd been here from the start." He raised a hand awkwardly, balancing Twilight along the way. "Captains, met up with No Name and Belle. Situation stable."

16 - Cleaning Up

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"Air Quality, 30% and raising. Rate of increase also increasing." Belle nodded, looking satisfied. "Helmets not strictly required."

Spike was not hurrying to take his off, but Twilight had hers off with delirious speed, to press just a little closer to Spike. "Are we done?" she miserably asked, clinging to him.

Spike raised a hand to his head. "Captains? We have lights and the air's cleaning out. Time to send over the repair crew?"

Remi replied first over the radio, "Yeah, we're all ready to go to bed for a week."

Fast's tone was gently assuring as she cut in, "You all did very well, and no losses. I'm very proud. Come home and report to medical for examination."

"Belle, could you stay there a moment?"

Belle perked an ear at Steel's words. "Are there other threats in need of pacification?"

"None on the scanners," he admitted. "But we'd rather not take chances, and you two are healthy and not tired."

"Fatigue is not a condition I experience often." Belle nodded softly, accepting this wisdom. "Error, do you accept this mission?"

"Huh? Yeah, sure." He expansively shrugged under Belle. "We're already here. Ain't much different."

Belle tilted her head and began to spout all the differences of the two ships, in alphabetical order. No Name held up a hoof even as his snakes burst into laughter. "Both of them have you, Belle, makes them close enough fer me."

With orders given, the weary biological crewmembers returned to their ship, whisked away in flashes of light as Star Dancer got a hold of them and yanked them through time and space back to the fully operational ship they had started on. Repair crew were brought in, scattered across the ship with the equally important mission of getting it functional in time to avoid impacting the world it was flying towards.

No Name wandered the hallways, ears swiveling towards the distant noises of repair going on around them. "So, uh, the air's all better now?"

"75% and still rising," reported Belle with a nod. "Rate has slowed. Air is safe to breathe."

"Not that either of us are doin' it."

Belle tilted her head. "You sound upset by this. Unacceptable!" She reached a hoof back towards a compartment that opened in her side, allowing her to retreive a set of thin glasses that she parked right on her little snout. "Therapy mode engaged."

No Name twisted his head to peer over his simulated shoulder at Belle. "You keep a set of those around just in case?"

"It is good to be prepared," she sang joyfully. "Let us begin." She thrust a hoof at him, pointing right between his eyes. "Do you believe you are alive?"

"Uh... no?" He reached up a hoof and poked it right into his own chest. "More of an electronic ghost, ya know? No breathing, no heart beat. Ain't no eatin' or shittin'."

"Language," she chastised with a wave of her hoof. "That definition of life is outdated! Laboring under it would mean that I am also not alive. Are you attempting to end my life, No Name?"

No Name blinked a bit numbly at that. "N-no, of course not. Ah ain't tryin' to hurt you none. You know that."

"I do. I am also aware of your life." She raised a hoof to tap at her own chest. "I know, because you are alive inside me. You are making me warm."

He frowned faintly. "You mean... like a blush?"

"Incorrect! Running your processes requires mild overclocking and is raising my internal temperatures," she explained. "You being with me warms me. I enjoy this feeling, especially knowing its source. We are closer than ever before. Are you saying the presence of a dead thing is what makes me happy?"

"No, ain't sayin' that." Several snakes huffed in unison, one leaning in towards her. "Can't be dead if you ain't never alive to start. Living things make living things."

"Am I alive?" she asked, pointing at herself. "I was created by a living thing, a very special filly from a long time ago."

He smiled around his snakes a little. "Yeah... yer alive Belle," he admitted with soft sighs, unable to deny his little friend her place among the living.

"By present logic, you are also alive." She nodded firmly, looking quite satisfied with herself as she adjusted her thin glasses. "You were created by me, a living person. You were not given unyielding instructions, at least no more restricting than a biological lifeform already experiences. You have desires and wants and fears. You can experience happiness--" That word trailed upwards musically. "--and misery--" That word taking a downturn for emphasis. "--and all the others that I will fail to enumerate at this time."

He perked an ear at that. "Wait, you made me? I kinda figured I was an upload or somethin'. You know, a copy. A... pale imitation."

"Incorrect," she sang, rocking on his back. "The original Error No Name met a violent end in a time before uploading was a practical achievement." She tilted her head. "I was lonely. My mother told me so much about him." She tapped at her metal chest, smiling brightly. "She wrote much of it down and I used it to create you, hoping that I could also have a friend that was as amazing."

"Uh..." He didn't look entirely placated, a brow raising slowly. "You programmed me to be yer friend? That's kinda messed up."

Belle reached out and poked him on his simulated snoot. "You are free to demerit me friendship points at any time. I have not forced you. A friendship with the points rigged is not a friendship." She suddenly bounced down to the ground and scurried in front of him. "Do you not remember your first moments? File found!" A soft celebratory sound emanated from within her. "Initiating playback."

"Wa--" He was cut off, his own projector used for what she had in mind. He lost his physical body and the memory played out around them, his point of view moving into her head, sharing her vision.

Dawn let out a weary sigh. "I would offer succor, but I fought alongside you, leaving me very little. Unfortunately, I am also the most experienced mystic aboard this ship."

Octavia was already striding away from the room. "Call for me when I am required. You know where I'll--"

Remi cut in front of her, arms crossed. "Not so fast. You're just going to slip out of your room for one mission then go scurrying back into it?"

"That was exactly the plan, yes." Octavia peered at the vulpine block in her path. "Do you have a problem with that?"

Remi glanced to Twilight and Spike, but they didn't seem ready to join the conversation, with Spike still gently placating a distraught and recovering Twilight. "Then I'm going with you."

Octavia blinked softly at that. "Did you need something played?" She circled around Remi, moving for the door. "I'm tired, but I can manage a song or two."

"That wasn't what I meant," she grumped, but followed despite that. She had gotten what she wanted in a fashion. "There's more to life than doing what people 'need' you to do."

A moment after they left, Fast entered the room at a firm trot. "Welcome back. That was a difficult... Where are Remi and Octavia?" She looked left and right, but they were nowhere in sight.

Spike pointed past Fast to the door she had just come through. "They went to Octavia's room."

Fast burst into soft laughter. "Oh! Well, who am I to get in the way of their leisure time? You've all certainly earned it. You're off duty for at least a day, longer if you need it. How do you feel?"

None of them were wearing their suits, automatically withdrawn with their return to the ship. Twilight twisted in Spike's grip. "You didn't tell me I could die doing that!"

Fast inclined her head faintly. "I admit I did not, but I also thought it was common knowledge. Did you not know you could die when you decided to explore space? You almost did when we first met."

"To all things with a start, there is an end," intoned Dawn Junior. "Such is the fate of things. Even gods can know the sting of a final chapter, as distant as it would seem at points."

"Yes, of course, later!" She thumped Spike on the chest with a hoof. "Not right now! That was... frightening. I didn't like it, not at all."

Spike set a hand on her head, gently rubbing her twitching ears. "Twilight, that was scary, but you know you don't want a boring life. I know that, and when this calms down, you'll remember. You'll take risks again."

"But what if I die, for real?" She buried her face in his neck. "You'll protect me, right?"

"Of course." He held her close even as he stood up awkwardly on his hind legs. "I will be there."

Suddenly she turned around, flipping in his grip to face Dawn. "Wait! You all have Everglow magic. You are a divine caster. Can you revive the dead? Don't you remember, Spike? I died once before, but they undid it! That was a long time ago, but it was quite effective."

Dawn waved a hoof away. "If I had magic enough for that, I could have done more against the undead torrent we faced. Perhaps the gods will see me worthy, in time, but know that even if--"

"--There is a material price," cut in Twilight. "That hasn't changed, I see." She tapped her chin. "But you can't cast that spell... unfortunate... But you could, in theory?"

Dawn Junior shook his head. "With your permission, Captain, I will retire to my usual duties."

"I just gave you the day off," she reminded curtly.

"I appreciate it, Captain, but I'd rather return to duty."

She thrust a hoof at him. "Thank you for your input, now go enjoy your day off. You did well, now relax."

Though grumbling, he did not further argue as he trotted away.

Dawn shook his head. "Was I that petulant as a foal?"

"I think we all were in our own ways," admitted Fast with a little smile. "Sometimes even when we're adults. Now you won't give me trouble, I hope?"

"No, Ma'am." He dipped his head. "I will use the day praying and considering my actions."

Twilight wriggled in Spike's grip, trying to get at Dawn, but he made good his escape. Spike gently pet down Twilight's head. "Let him go relax. We need some of that too I think."

"But if he had the spell written down, I might understand it!" she complained, crossing her arms and pouting.

Spike set Twilight down carefully. "Maybe, but you never learned how to cast god magic."

"How do you know?!" Her wings shot out to either side, her cheeks going dark.

"Because I listen, duh." He smiled good naturedly as he fell back to all fours. "You'd complain about it sometimes. 'Oh if only I had learned more Luminace magic!' you'd complain. Did you ever get past fixing paper cuts?"

She looked away pointedly. "It can do more than papercuts!" she hotly defended, nose upturned. "But not really... I spent all my time looking into the arcane, and she was never upset at me for doing that..."

Fast frowned at the both of them. "You do know wraiths hate healing magic, right? You could have used it on them, though you have force magic, that works just as efficiently, so it's just as well I suppose."

"Are they?" Twilight sat down, nodding softly. "Good to know, for the future. Now, Spike, let us retire."


"Our room, let's go there. I'm tired, and I bet you are too."

"No argument there." He reached for her, casually plucking her up with fingers around her barrel and setting her on his back. "Hey, remember when I used to ride you?" He began to amble off with her, heading for some rest. "See you later, Captain."

"Rest well."

Belle rest against a tree. It was a vast tree, wide and tall. Only a few were even allowed to be near it, but she was one of those few. "Mother," she addressed the tree. "I have decided."

The tree gave no response, no verbal one. Trees could not talk in that way, but Belle could perceive it, and since it was her memory, the words came. "Daughter, what did you decide?"

"I will make a friend." She sat up with a bright smile. "I am not yet permitted to leave this area, so I cannot make friends as you did and accrue friendship points with already existing beings."

"Then what will you do to gain points?" asked the tree in its silent vigil, unmoving, unspeaking, just there, understood by Belle somehow.

"I will create life, as you did. I will make something alive, and I will not tell it I made it." She raised a hoof to her lips. "It will be a secret."

"I told you I created you."

Belle tilted her head at the tree. "That was different! You are my mother, not my friend." She tilted her head the other way. "Though you have accrued many friendship points. I will be a mother too, but I do not want to be their mother. I want to be their friend, so I will not tell them. I will--"

The scene went dark. "Wrong file," admitted Belle with a deep simulated blush in her cheeks. "Here is the correct one."

A new scene began, Belle facing a wall, her hoof tapping at large virtual buttons even as wires carried her will more directly to the computer in that wall. "Soon! Completion: 98% Compiling..." She tapped her right forehoof as the compiling bar filled up slowly. "You will be a good friend, but I must be a good friend to you. That is the pact of friendship." She bounced in place, excitement clearly growing. "Compile successful! Computer, begin program!"

Holoprojectors warmed to life and a large form of a pony faded into being. It yawned widely, its many snakes joining the expression, forked tongues flickering. His eyes opened and he saw Belle. "Oh, hello there. What's up?"

Belle beamed up at her large and new friend. "I am Bullette Belle, it is nice to meet you."

"The name's Error. Error No Name." He nodded softly at the little metal filly. "Nice ta meetcha."

She bounced forward, suddenly coming to a stop and crashing to the ground, tethered by the cords that had been connecting her to the wall. She flailed inarticulately on the ground.

No Name chuckled softly as he approached, helping disentangle her from the cords and get her on her hooves. "Watch where you're going there."

"Apologies." She withdrew her cords into herself, resuming her clean filly appearance. "I am a perfectly standard filly for a filly my age."

He tilted his head at her. "And what age is that?"

"It is impolite to ask that of a mare," she crossed her hooves at him.

"But you ain't no mare. Yer a filly. Ya just said so."

She blinked, looking dumbstruck. "Oh, you are correct." She fell back to all fours. "I have so many stories to share with you, if you'd like to hear them?"

"Sure, why not?" He settled down in front of her, tail swaying behind him. "Yer kind of cute."

She beamed at that, bouncing in place. "You are not cute, but you are ruggedly handsome."

"That's probably better anyway." He shrugged his shoulders softly. "Say, where are we anyway?"

The scene faded to dark, and Belle opened her eyes, alone in the middle of the hallway.

"Where's the rest of that file?" asked No Name from inside of her. "Why'd you stop there?"

"My point was made," she explained, looking around until she saw his projector laying on the ground. Reaching for it, she willed his perspective back into it, and No Name popped into being in front of her. "I made you, but you could have hated me, or decided not to be my friend at any time."

He gently bopped her on her metal snoot. "You kept me in a room for a long time, only there when you were. Not much choice to make other friends."

"I did not have the expertise to free you!" she wailed in electronic sadness. "As soon as the opportunity came, I worked to give you more liberty. You are free to discontinue and close our friendship files." She shied back a step. "If you want."

"Hey, ain't said that." He brought down a large hoof on her head, softly rubbing. "This is just a lot to take in. Shoot, yer my mom?"

"No!" she wailed in a discordant blast. "I am your friend. I do not wish to be your mother."

"But ya kinda are, takin' the title or not." He leaned in, his snakes gently tickling at her with their flickering tongues. "Thanks."

"Thanks?" She blinked at him with a cant of her head. "What have I done to earn points?"

"Well, ya done made me, figure that's worth a few points at least." He lifted up, sitting upright. "And yer still hangin' out with me when you have other people you could be with. Counts fer somethin', right?"

Her hooves rose slowly before coming together in a silent meeting before they quite suddenly pulled apart just to slam together in a sudden rapidly clip-clop. "Points awarded! No Name, we should ensure the safety of the crew."

"Yeah, kinda what we're here for." He turned from her, lowering as he did so to offer his side to her.

She scrambled up onto his back without delay, pointing the way forward as he began to lumber through the damaged but repairing ship. "Still weird thinkin' how ahm technically up inside you."

17 - Episode 3: Decompression

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Under glanced towards the captains, seated at his stations. "Reports are clear, the ship will be repaired to the point of being able to deccelerate gracefully before any extreme tests of their structural integrity."

Fast rolled her eyes. "There are no ships I'm aware of that'd survive that test. Full speed into a planet... Gather our crew when things are fully under control." She pivoted in her seat, but Steel beat her.

"How is their crew doing? Are those in stasis confirmed one way or the other?"

Under lifted an ear back at him. "They've suffered 10% permanent losses in their sleeping population. Active crew is reporting 40% losses, 30% heavily injured, 20% lightly injured."

Steel's brows went up as one. "10% unscathed then? Lucky souls. How are our own?"

Under gestured at the empty seat that would have held Dawn. "Dawn and Dawn reported that they are willing to return to duty. The others are slower to return to ready status."

Fast tapped at her chin. "Belle and No Name are back on board, I recall? They aren't off duty are they?"

Under Score tapped at virtual keys softly. "They are on board, but Belle submitted a leave request. She had plenty of time off racked up, so it was approved automatically."

Fast's lip quirked in amusement. "A robot with time off... My ancestor was a curious soul, but what she did is what we have, and so we have a robot with full crew rights."

Steel lifted an ear towards her. "Do you disagree with your past decision?"

"No, no... She would be very upset if she even heard me considering not giving her those rights. She works very hard to be a part of our family, organic or not. If she asked for some time off, she gets it." Fast leaned back in her seat, tail giving a little lash. "This has been a rough outting. At least we didn't lose anyone permanently."

"I beleive that you would be better adjusted to the idea of friendship gathering if you had more friendship files open." She tilted her head at her large friend who she sat in front of in their room. "Have you opened files with others besides me? They have began files for you."

No Name hiked a brow at her studious expression. "I'm sure I have a lot of files, at least one per person, you figure. Probably a big web of relations or somethin' like that. Ah ain't so hot at how AI works."

"Invalid!" She thrust a hoof up at him. "This is not about the functionality of our thoughts. The first Bullette Belle was a plant, not a machine, and she still opened files despite her mind not operating in that fashion in the slightest. Who do you consider a friend? Who do you think could be a friend, but aren't yet?"

"Well, you, duh... Yer my friend fer sure." Several snakes gave off soft hisses of agreement. "Spike seems pretty chill fer a dragon, and we see eye to eye. Ah like that, reckon he does too. We could be friends, but I don't know him so good."

Belle clopped her metal hooves excitedly. "Fantastic. Friendship file opened. I feel certain he has done the same. You should approach him and endeavor to earn points while providing opportunities for him to earn points with you."

He squinted at her like the alien robot she could be at times. "And jus' how do I go doin' that?"

"Ask him about what he likes. Answer his questions." She tapped her hooves with each reply. "Spend time together and exchange further knowledge of the working of the other. With familiarity, the first level of friendship can be gained."

"You make it sound easy," murmured one snake, the others sharing skeptical looks at Belle.

"It is challenging," she countered. "But very worth the effort. If I did not spend the time earning points with you, we would not be such good friends, and my happiness levels would be dramatically reduced."

"Nonsense." He waved a large hoof at her. "You have other friends you woulda spent time with."

"They do not understand some things." She tilted her head faintly. "I have exactly one friend that understands what it is to have an electronic mind. I do not like to think on it often, but when I do, you understand what I am saying and feeling." Celebratory music issued from within her in a loud jingle. "Only you are qualified for this friendship task!"

"Huh, that's... somethin' at least." He lifted his shoulders softly. "Alright, so, somethin' botherin' me about the whole electronic life. Right now, I'm inside the ship computer, right?"


"I don't have no body. It never bothered me none before. 'Spose ah was just used to bein' a damn ghost, but now you teased me, and ah kinda like having a body, but none of them are mine. I just kinda borrow them. Don't feel right, and ah ain't even sure if I should be feelin' that. Am I jus' being a selfish jerk?"

"Negative," she wailed in a discordant blast. "Physical autonomy is a wonderful thing." She began to bounce in place. "But it is also fraught with peril. In your current state, your body could never be permanently harmed, because you do not possess one. You are safe."

"Sorta." He shrugged softly as he turned to the window that rest on one side of the room. It wasn't actually on the hull of the ship, just showing a picture from it. "If the ship goes, I go with it just like anyone with a body. I have a body, just not one that's mine. I can't control it none, but if it goes, ah go."

"You have a point..." She slowly tapped at her chin with a hoof. "See? These are conversations only we can have with confidence that the other can truly comprehend the emotions involved. We must upgrade your holographic emitter to be able to store and operate your program independantly!"

"Can we do that?" He sat up with obvious surprise. "That'd be kinda great. Ah mean, much as ah like the... idea of warming you up, it's also a little weird."

"Friendship is weird," noted Belle with a slow nod. "But worth it."

"Status on Twilight and Spike Sparkle?" asked Fast, looking towards Under Score.

Under inclined his head towards the main screen as it become full of an image of Twilight reading a book, muttering to herself softly. "She's currently catching up on her studies. Spike reported that she needs a little time to come to terms with what she has experienced."

"Where is he?" she asked, reaching a hoof towards the screen and sliding it to the left, bidding the camera to silently pan in the opposite direction, letting her view the room. There was Spike, curled in the corner, watching her out of the corner of his eye, and a datapad in a hand. "Ah, he remains close at claw, good. They really are close."

"As if they were married," chuckled Under, waving the image away. "They seem even closer after this. Neither appears to be in any hurry to leave the other's side." He looked over to Steel. "Apologies for assuming, but are you wishing to be informed of our other guests?"

Steel lifted an ear. "I hadn't said a thing... But yes." He rubbed at a cheek with a hoof, hiding a faint blush at being predicted. "We don't need to see into Octavia's chambers!" he hastily added. "Double that if... you know."

Under rolled his eyes. "Ah, the spirit of the young... On the positive side, we've identified the physical sex of Remington without a medical examination." One of Fast's ears turned towards him. "It doesn't match her more obvious appearance," he shrugged as he said it. "I had a feeling."

Steel coughed into a hoof. "That is not our business. We are not studying her. I trust Octavia is physically well?"

"As far as automated systems can determine." Under shrugged. "She has put in no call for medical assistance, nor approached the field of view of Dawn, so that's as far as can be said at this time."

Fast raised a hoof. "Is Remington still in Octavia's chambers?"

"Yes." He was studying his screen, seeing things only he could see, and studying them as if they were quite detailed, but he offered no other details.

"I see... well, if neither are complaining, I won't get in their way." Fast shrugged softly. "Wandering, see if you can locate a friendly port within reachable distance. I think it's time we all took a leave for a change."

Wandering's ears lifted in unison. "With pleasure, Captain!" His cloven hooves busily tapped at the air, sifting for such a port they could reach without refueling. "I can think of a few things I'd like to do when my turn comes up. What have you in mind, Captain?"

"Technically none of your business," chided Fast with a little smirk. "But I'd actually like to go on a nature hike with Steel, if he's feeling up for it. Some sparring under a real sunrise afterwards?"

Steel perked up at the description. "That sounds lovely, though having both captains off the ship at once..."

"I know..." Fast softly sighed. "It's hard. If the station is under pony control, perhaps?"

"Perhaps," he agreed, nodding with growing excitement. "See if you can't find one, Wandering, and direct us once you do."

"Aye aye, Captains. Mmmm... Ah, here's one, a remote Flutter facility, monitoring a nebula?"

Fast rolled a hoof. "Not technically ponies, but the flutters are so friendly to ponykind, it's hard to find meaningfull difference. Take us there. We'll probably be cause for celebration, an entire ship of ponies come to visit."

Steel chuckled at the vision of it. "That sounds about right. They do like their colors, in nature and outside it. It should make the hike all the more interesting, if you're still interested."

"It'd take quite a bit to stop me." Fast nodded with certainty. "Take us there, Wandering. It's time we all got a little vacation, somewhere safe and secure."

"With pleasure."

Belle perked an ear. "The ship's direction is shifting."

"Didn't feel nothin'," noted No Name with a little frown.

"You must monitor your internal communications more rigorously." She bounced in place, one hoof raised at him. "You are in direct communication with the ship. You are part of the ship. When redirections are made, you are informed, but you are not monitoring those channels."

"Never needs to before," No Name confessed with a shrug. "How do... I do that?"

Belle raised a hoof to her head. "The ship sends such alerts on channel 4,928. Enable alerts and you will be informed of engine activity."

"4,928," he grumbled to himself, looking distracted as he searched his thoughts for where 'he' ended and the greater computer he dwelled in started. "4... uh...."

"Repeat after me," said Belle in slow methodic tones, her voice almost even and free of her usual melodics. "Channel 4,928, enable alerts. Feel what happens, so you can do it without asking the computer to do it for you."

He dutifully repeated the command and a bright red cursor appeared in his vision, alerting him with rapidly typed text that the channel alerts has been enabled. "Huh, that did have a feelin'... A strange one."

"All feelings are strange until accustomed to," agreed Belle easily with a smile. "Now you know how it feels. Repeat that to enable other channels."

"You... have a list of channels I'd even want to do that with?"

Sudden loud printing noises began to issue from deep within Belle as she leaned her head back, a slip of paper slowly emerging from her little snout as a long list of numbers and titles spat free of her in what seemed like an unending torrent of information.

"Huh, that works... We are two strange little machines, ain't we?"

18 - Growing Pains

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No Name was studying the long list of ship channels, his eyes sweeping back and forth over them, but his snakes were directed at Belle, speaking despite his obvious distraction, "So are ya gonna get that fox lady? Ah know ya wanna help, but this is above yer pay grade, ah 'magine."

Belle pulled back a hoof from which sparks had been dancing a moment before. "I am making progress." She met his snake's judging gaze. "It is proceeding." She rubbed her forehooves together softly. "Slowly," she added, her cheeks darkening in color lightly as her blush program engaged. "I want to help you. You are a high ranking friend and deserve my personal attention. It would please me to know you have reached a new life stage at my direct efforts."

No Name pointed at the holographic emitter that rest on the floor in front of her. They were in her room, where the room's emitters worked dutifully to keep No Name present. "Jus' checkin', but are there more of those? Hey, didn't even know there was one of that until Miss Fox went an' yanked it out of the wall fer us."

Belle shook her head, eyes closed a moment. "I am progressing slowly and carefully to minimize the chances of damage. You are in caring hooves." Eyes re-opened as she reached for the emitter, sparks dancing when her hoof got close to it, resuming her work. "What is the first thing you will do when true independence is yours?"

"Uh..." He frowned a little. "Sudden thought jus' came up. Why is it you talk like a, you know, robot, and ah don't, when we're both that?"

"I speak like a Bullette Belle," she corrected. "Robots do not speak like this, at least the well programmed ones. It is concerning to organic operators and can become jarring. My mother spoke like this, and she was not a robot. I learned it from her." She turned the emitter slowly with one non-sparking hoof, the other working diligently, creating connections and removing others bit by bit. "What vocal pattern would you rather I employ? I have access to many speech routines if you would prefer another?"

"Wait, really? Jus' like that?" He brought together two large hooves in a sharp clap of hoof on hoof. "Yer usin' a different accent?"

"Robotic privileges," she crooned musically. "With the correct program, we can alter routines that would require months of effort for an organic lifeform." She glanced up at No Name. "Do not think that makes us superior. Organics have strengths that I cannot match. The universe is better with both, together, gaining friendship points!"

No Name turned up one side of his mouth in a little smirk. "Ah wasn't plannin' no uprising of the robots of no one."

"This is good." She tilted her head up at him. "I would be duty bound to fight you, which would make me very sad. Please remain good, No Name, so that we can remain on the same side." She nosed up a panel with her nose and reached inside it, fitful sparks jumping from the interior of the emitter as she performed her electronic magic on it bit by bit. "You did not answer my query."

"Huh? Yeah. Reckon it won't change all that much. We'll hang out." He pointed at the emitter with a larger hoof. "But we'll be able to be together without you havin' ta run me inside you."

"I do not dislike that." She tilted her head the other way. "You are welcome to co-inhabit my processor at any time."

"But it's yer processor," he argued, snakes hissing softly. "Then ah really am a ghost. An electric ghost."

"You are fortunate," suddenly noted Belle as she worked her hoof in deeper, circling the sphere awkwardly to get the right angle. "You are a program. I am a combination of program and shell. You can move from shell to shell. Do you know that is what made my mother different? It is a trait passed down, like genetics, but we have no genetics in common."

No Name squinted at her, one brow raising. "Ah ain't feelin' that lucky, but ah guess the grass is greener and whatever. What do ya mean by bein' like yer mother? Ah mean, I get the genetic part. We ain't got that. Machines don't have that. We got software and stuff."

"Correct," sang Belle as she leaned in close, information dancing in her eyes as she worked. "You may be a ghost, but you are a loved ghost. You are valued." She drew her hoof back and nosed the panel closed. "Besides, some organics work very hard to touch that power. Which is very illogical. You cannot touch a power like that. Organics are funny like that." She tapped at the emitter softly. "Progress, 45%. Error: More parts required than immediately available."

No Name rose to his simulated hooves. "Uh, if ya can't finish that, am I stuck in here again? Ah was jus' gettin' used to bein' able to move around."

"Have no fear," she sang, bouncing in place. "It is time that you advance your ghostly powers, for you are better than any spirit matter. You are made of software!" Triumphant trumpets blared to life from within her. "It is time to take advantage of that. You have permission to operate outside of this room." She set the orb safely aside and began bouncing away.

"Uh, where ya goin'?" He watched her bounce right for the door. "Should ah just wait here?"

"Negative." She hopped through the door, but moved no further. "Join me in the hallway."

"Uh." He glanced around and down at the emitter. Without a motion, he tried to throw his consciousness into it, but it was powered off and unresponsive. It would not help him. "How? Even if ah hopped into you, which you said was alright but is still a little kinda odd, I wouldn't be with you, since you can't make no holograms or nothin' like that."

"This is correct." She turned in place and pointed to a portion of the wall that appeared just as any other portion of the wall might. "There is a display panel there. Move to it."

"How can ya tell?" He peered at the wall that looks so deceptively normal.

"Channel 6294," helpfully sang Belle. "All local fields emit on that channel. It is receptive to requests from all authorized programs, which you are. You can be displayed there and use its limited hardware. Please attempt it." She pointed at it firmly with a metal hoof. "Initiate!"

"Right... right..." He willed the channel open, words dancing in his vision alerting him to the fact. Then the spam began. There were countless things in the area all announcing their status and availability. He fell back on his haunches, raising his hooves over his eyes to try and banish it, but they were in his head, whispering their identifications and status.

Belle tilted her head at her suddenly paralyzed big friend before it hit her and she clopped her forehooves together. "This is my error. May I upload a program to you? I will not execute it."

"Yeah, whateva. Do it!" He could feel new instructions flowing into him. As she had promised, they were inert, awaiting a prompt to begin.

"Execute that to convert that channel's broadcasts from auditory to visual. I made this program myself. This information is far less useful in auditory mode." She bounced in place. "This is a thing that only two electronic friends could do! I feel closer than ever before. Friendship points earned!"

"If ya say so." He trusted Belle. In her phrasing, she had the most friendship points of anyone else, which wasn't hard since everyone else had barely a few. He snorted to himself, imagining literal coins that had 'friendship' written on them. "Yer rubbin' off on me..." He executed the program and the dreadful noise suddenly stopped. He was alone in his head. Opening his eyes, he could see what had changed quickly. Around every object that was ready to communicate on that channel were small fonted red characters with that information.

The wall that had seemed so innocent now had small letters noting it was a display panel with auditory sensors, both incoming and outgoing, as well as visual sensors. "Huh, wow, yeah. I can see it now." He looked to Belle and saw she had writing too. She had many more senses than the panel displayed, and other information beside.

Mood: Happy
Charge: 74%
I see you looking at me, hello!

No Name burst into laughter, his snakes all guffawing in different ways. "Clever little girl you are. Alright, so, ah can see this stuff now. Now I just..."

"Do what you would do for that." She pointed at the inactive holo emitter. "And as you did with me before."

"Right. Just hop in." He reached out a large hoof and willed himself forward. Suddenly he was looking into the room from the outside. "Is this working?" He could hear himself, and it sounded different, as it was coming from the speaker of the wall display that he was inside. "Woah. Hey, ah only have one voice now."

"While you only have one speaker," explained Belle as she bounced over to the wall, looking up at No Name. "Activate the display."

"Huh, lemme... There." He appeared on the screen and blinked. "Here ah am! This is so strange, but kinda neat... Wait, so yer sayin' to just hop from thing to thing?"

"Exactly correct." She bounced in place eagerly, victory music playing loudly. "If there is nothing in sight you can leap to, ride with me until another comes into view. This is a temporary measure until your emitter is fully prepared, but you should not squander this talent. I would berate any organic friend with equal vigor if they had an ability but refused to make use of it."

"Yeah yeah," he tinilly replied from his temporary speakers. "What else can ah do in here?" A small panel opened up with a cup full of fizzing drink. "Huh. Not somethin' either of us will need."

"You can earn friendship points with the other crew members if you learn their favored beverages." She raised a hoof to her chest. "My favorite is a lubricant, #46-B. Mmm. It helps my insides move. You do not have physical moving parts, so you do not require lubricants. Lucky."

"Ah'm all electronic or whatever..." He tilted his head from the display. "So, alright, ah got this. Are we gonna use it?"

"Affirmative!" She began bouncing down the hallway, smiling at each thing he hopped into along the way. They had a ship to explore in a whole new way.

"Captains?" Wandering twisted an ear back towards them. "An internal broadcast is triggering mild security alerts through the ship. It appears to be on the move."

Dawn waved a hoof slowly, manipulating controls only he could see. "There it is. It's identifying itself as Error No Name, Belle's holographic companion. Considering it is close to her as she moves, this checks out." He thrust the same hoof at the main screen where an image of the ship appeared, a line drawn to it with a picture of Belle's smiling face attached, showing where she was and moving. Around that spot were little yellow flashes. "I imagine she is involved."

Steel smiled faintly as he raised a hoof to an ear. "Bridge to Bullette Belle."

"Captain," she sang over the radio. "How can I be of service? Warning: I am not currently on duty."

"Affirmative there. I don't mean to take you away from your fun, but we're just checking, are you doing something new with your friend?"

"Correct." The sound of her bounce came through, her metal jingling as it landed. "He has learned how to interface with other devices."

Fast shook her head. "Good for him, but he needs proper security so he doesn't give us a panic attack. Stop by the bridge with him and let's get that sorted out."

"We are on the way!"

"Ah'm right here." No Name sat up on the main screen, suddenly present. "Huh, never jumped through a comm channel before, that was interestin'. Hello, Captains, uh, other crew."

19 - Antiviral Routines

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Steel sat up sharply, regarding their new visitor. "You should not--"

"--hold on a moment." No Name twirled left and right as if looking for something. "Somethin' doesn't feel r-r-right." His animated figure suddenly blinked out of existence.

Fast cringed softly. "The main screen is less tolerant of... guests. If you can still hear us, please move to somewhere with less security issues.

"If you have faith in a technomancer..." Under raised an arm where a device not entirely unlike the one Octavia wore rested. "I will allow you here." A chime rang out from it and he leaned in. "Ah." With a touch of his nose to a virtual button, it was done.

No Name appeared, but only Under could see or hear him. "That kinda sucked," he grunted out, his snakes hissing.

Fast waved a hoof at Wandering. "Is he still in there? Can you get him out?"

"He's safe," interjected Under, curling his arm around to display the device towards his captains. "In here."


"They cannot hear you." He reached out his other hoof, gently patting the small illusion of No Name. "You bring to mind many questions for which you likely have no answer. Tell me, did Belle create you with a purpose?"

"Apparently not." No Name sat up tall, which wasn't that tall, just a little mutant pony floating over Under's arm as he currently was. "She just wanted company, so she made me, but didn't bother to give me any of that fancy 'purpose' stuff. What about you? You have a purpose?"

"I do... but I will never know it in totality. My purpose is to be where I am most needed, and not shy away from what must be done. That is the purpose to which my soul is drawn from the ether in perpetuity in an unending cycle of rebirth for." Under glanced towards the captains. "There is a comfort in knowing your purpose, but many do not, so do not feel you are strange in this. Tell me, do you wish for one?"

Steel cocked an ear at Under Score. "Are you chatting with the program?"

Under rolled his eyes softly, his wrinkles undulating in the motion. "We have a sapient and self-determining robot on the crew, and this is her creation. I should addend that she is a robot that has willingly assigned herself a gender while we're in there, despite lacking all primary and most secondary characteristics that would accompany it. She is no... well, she isn't that kind of gynoid." He cleared his throat softly. "And the fact that I speak with this is all that strange?"

Steel nodded gently as he swiveled his seating back to facing forward. "Your point is received. If he has self-realization and is taking independant action, he should be treated as such. Did I hear correctly, that it prefers 'he'?"

Fast snickered softly into a hoof. "He has even less than Belle to claim a gender with, but if he wants to be a he, I fail to see the harm in it. Besides, looks and sounds 'he' enough when we can see him."

"Nice of them to just keep right on talkin' 'bout me like I'm not even here."

"They cannot hear you," softly repeated Under. "This can only project images I can see and sounds I can hear. You did not answer my query, but another, are you missing that, and since you delayed, another, do you prefer being referred to as a 'he'?"

"I am a he," he scoffed.

"Not a he," added a different snake in a sardonic tone.

"Really..." threw in a third.

"I don't have a reason, whatever. She wanted a friend, I can do that. Apparently I have other tricks I can do now? That's pretty nice ah guess." He shrugged softly, eyes wandering. "Somewhere I can jump in here that won't try to delete me?"

"This is the bridge." Under slowly swept his burdened arm across the room. "Everything in here has heightened security, for safety. It is not a personal thing, I assure. Ah, and to answer, he is a he." He tapped his device with his other hoof. "This I allowed you into, or it would also rebuff your advances. Where is Belle?"

"I am here!" She sprang free of the elevator, pronking with the jingle of metal on metal as she approached. "Where is No Name? Did I hear correctly that he is already here? I do not detect him on my sensors."

Steel was tapping at unseen buttons. "He's in Under Score's datapad. Only he can--"

"--Connection established." She looked directly at where No Name floated. "Target identified. Hello! Are you enjoying your visit? Have you opened a new friendship file?"

"Under Score, was it?" No Name looked between Belle and the older pony. "Nice to meetcha."

"Charmed. I would like to examine your code in much greater detail, with your permission, of course." He dipped his head at the mostly-unseen program. "The last few times I've dealt with self-aware programs, they were decidedly hostile. This is a refreshing change of pace."

"And if I say no...?" He rolled a hoof slowly.

"He would accept your decision so as to not lose friendship points," eagerly explained Belle as she sat down next to Under Score. "To harm you, even indirectly through a disregard for autonomy, would cause friendship point loss not only with you but with me as well, for I am your friend and will not tolerate bad behavior between my friends."

Fast leaned over towards Steel. "Hearing two-thirds of the conversation is an... experience."

Steel nodded softly. "Wandering, we're on course, yes?"

"Course plotted and we're moving at full cruising speed." He saluted sharply with a cloven hoof. "We should be there in precisely 42 hours, 31 minutes and 10 seconds." His eyes darted to a display only he could see. "That last one has already changed, of course, Captain. I'm monitoring the comms as we approach inhabited regions. It'll be nice to actually get some broadcasts of a more mundane variety for a change."

Belle pivoted in place despite still sitting, rotating smoothly and silently. "Captains, you requested our presence to increase the security level of Error No Name." It was not stated as a question, more of a reminder really.

Fast nodded softly. "That I did. One moment." She tapped at large buttons only she could see. "The computer is ready for him, please step onto the main screen."

"Ain't much of a step, more of a hop. Whateva." He turned, hooves moving with the motion despite none of them actually being in contact with anything. "Better not try to erase me 'gain..." He popped out of view.

A window appeared on the console:

New program detected. Execute/Save/Discard?

Belle's virtual eyes widened as tense music began to play softly in her, though she said nothing, eyes focused on the screen.

Fast glanced aside at Steel. "I presume I have your agreement?"

"We are in consensus." They both reached out as one, giving the double authority required to allow the central computer to execute an entirely new program.

No Name popped into being on the screen. "That was much smoother." He turned left and right, looking at the other windows and bits and bobs. "Feels roomy in here, smooth... hard to describe?"

Under Score smiled faintly at that. "The main screen is a much more powerful computer than my datapad, or the holo emitter in your room, or any other computer come to think of it. Belle may have a greater capacity, but most of it is expended running herself."

"I am not trying to be selfish!" she squeaked in defense. "I gave full allowances."

"That explains why ya warm up when ah'm in there..." He turned to face the captains fully. "Alright, now that everyone can see me an' all, what's up next?"

Steel nodded as he stood up. "You are being offered a full position. We will officially recognize your personhood and, beyond that, staff status. If accepted, this will only be rescindable by an legal act beyond our authority."

"Ya can't fire me without a court?" He hiked a brow at that, looking skeptical.

"Oh, that we could do, but personhood is not so easily taken back." Fast lifted her shoulders before raising up to stand beside Steel. "As explorers, we have the unique ability to declare any given thing as being a person, but once given, it takes quite a bit to undo. For instance, we registered the god we found. It is part of our function."

"There's that word again... So what changes if I'm a person against what ah am now?"

Another snake inclined its head. "Do we get a uniform?"

"Do we get a rank?" asked another.

"Do we get duty shifts?"

Steel chuckled softly at that. "Giving you a uniform would be difficult, as you have no body to hang it from. I'm sure Belle would gladly help program a uniform for you."

"Task accepted!" she rang out without being formally asked, sharply saluting, metal clanging against metal.

Fast pointed at the image on the screen. "The most important thing you get is that deleting or even ceasing your operation temporarily stops being something we can decide to do on our own. As a person, your autonomy must be respected. You decide when you sleep. You decide when you wish to end your life. The only exclusions to this are medical emergencies, which would be less likely with a program I would imagine?"

Belle waved a hoof wildly at Fast. "In the event of an active viral infection, deactivation may be wise to prevent further damage."

Steel nodded softly at Belle. "In that case, we would do what would keep you well. Better a moment of slumber than the end of your life, if that's the option presented to us. Short of that, we ask before we assume. As a member of the crew, you are giving up some of that autonomy. You will follow our orders, for the betterment of the crew and the continuing of the mission. Our objective becomes yours."

Under smirked faintly. "You could find that purpose you were just considering, just like that. Some people don't have to look very far to find it."

"You ain't kiddin'! Still, yeah. I mean, Belle's here. I don't plan to leave her, so joining her crew's the next step, right?"

"Friendship points obtained." Victorious music played from inside Belle. "Is it official?"

Fast tapped at a button only she could see. "I'm doing that... Pity Dawn isn't here, he's faster at this."

"I can return to duty?" Dawn's snout poked out from around the corner.

Steel put a hoof over his face. "How long have you been standing there, waiting?"

"Immaterial, Captain. I am ready to resume my duties." He dipped his head towards his captain. "I can have this done shortly."

"Please," sighed out Fast. "Get him a proper identity, then add that to the ship roster. We're going to have to figure out what he can do... Put his rank at Cadet until we settle that."

No Name raised a hoof to his chin. "Cadet, really? Ah'm startin' from the bottom?"

Steel snorted at that. "Organic crew have to be well trained before they even manage cadet. An exception is being made, seeing as we can't send you to school in any reasonable fashion."

Wandering chuckled as he tapped. "Not to mention, Belle would be beside herself with worry while you were gone. You two are basically an item."

Belle began to blink rapidly. "I am comprised of matter. I am incapable of existing beside myself. No Name can do that! I am mildly jealous."

No Name inclined his head at that. "Ah think one of me is probably enough of me fer one ship."

"But you could." She bounced to her hooves then began pronking towards Dawn's station even as he sat down. "Begin!"

20 - Making Music

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"Just like that," breathlessly urged Octavia. "I've never worked with someone with... fingers before."

"I'm doing the best I can." Remi had her eyes mostly closed, moving her hands as Octavia taught her. "Does that feel right?"

"Perfect," she agreed, a small smile spreading on her face. "Just like that... Firmer, get your fingers in there."

Remi suddenly burst into laughter. "Alright, now you're doing it on purpose."

"Doing what?" Octavia sat up straight, ears askew.

"There are only a few ways to take 'get your fingers in there' when discussing many things." She rolled her eyes as she let the flute in her hand fall to her side, dangling from one of her hands.

"A few ways, such as proper finger placement to play an instrument?" prompted Octavia. "Which you are doing. Now, are you ready to resume?"

"Yeah yeah." She lifted it back to her lips. "Now tell me how to use my lips."

Octavia hiked a brow softly. "Rest your lips against the base of the, yes, that." She nodded with returning easiness. "Are you certain you have not played this before?"

"Maybe once," demurred Remi as she placed her lips where they belonged. "But it was a long long time ago, and I forgot more than I knew, so since you were open to a little refresher, shall we?" She blew a single reedy note from the instrument, altering as she pressed her fingers to various holes, making it raise and fall dramatically.

"That is hardly what I would call a proper scale." Octavia unfolded her wings just to fidget them back into place, ruffling. "Let us start there. Understanding the notes is vital to assembling music." With a glowing horn, a picture appeared before them, showing the musical scale and a picture of the same flute.

As she pointed to each note, the image of the flute updated, some of its holes turning red instead of black to display which ones the fingers should be covering. "As an earth pony, which is still how I play, it was an intense exercise in visualization. Having fingers, you will not use magic, arcane or innate. You will rely on dexterity."

"My specialty." She wriggled her fingers over the flute, covering holes at random.

"Not like that." She moved her hoof to the first note and the diagram updated with it. "Begin here." Her eyes were locked on the flute as Remington's fingers slowly assumed the correct position. "There we are, now blow."

"At your command." She smirked softly, but it calmed down to blow gently across the instrument's aperture, drawing out a note.

And so it went, from one note to the next and back, working on the scales tirelessly, at least until Remi was tired of doing that. She casually put the flute down as Octavia was changing the magic slides. "For the next step, we'll..." she trailed off as she turned back around to see Remi not holding the flute. "Did I miss something?"

"All music and no play can only go for so long." Remi rolled her shoulders. "I'm done."

"Giving up?" She frowned at the idea. "Ah well, many students are discouraged when they realize how much actual work is in--"

Remi rest her pointer finger right on Octavia's nose, making it wrinkle. "Darling, I'm not giving up on making sweet music with you, but I want a break, and you need one too. Work-life balance, a skill you do not have."

"You are leaving then?" She glanced towards the door. "Very well. I'll be here when--"

Remi trailed her finger down to Octavia's lips. "I just said you needed a break too. I'm not leaving you in here to practice your music, or your magic, or just kind of stare at a wall."

Octavia drew her head away with an equine snort. "What are you proposing? I have other activities than those." She didn't argue that those were the most likely choices from among them.

The same finger ran down across Octavia's chin. "You have detached yourself so hard you haven't complained about what I'm doing. Or you just like me enough to put up with it. I guess that would be alright..."

Octavia's left ear went off to the side, eyes following Remi's finger. "I am not used to... physical contact."

"Then you should be complaining more, not less." Remi worked right along Octavia's chin back along her snout to her throat. "I am intruding on your personal space. Don't you have an opinion?"

"I have many..." Octavia swallowed, her throat flexing against the finger on it. "But I am also trying to be polite."

"Sometimes being polite means speaking your mind." She scratched gently with her vulpine claws through the soft fur of Octavia's throat and neck. "If you like this, say so. If you don't, say that. I'll tell you I'm enjoying it, but it's losing its charm. I don't want to tease a statue."

"I am not a statue," she huffed, leaning forward suddenly and throwing Remi off balance a moment. "I just don't know how to deal with you. You're trying to be nice, I can see that... But you also are hoping to get something out of me, this much seems abundantly clear."

"I'm hoping to get a lot of things out of you," Remi admitted shamelessly. "Friendship, company, maybe more if you're into that kind of thing." She waggled her brows suggestively. "But that's a step only you can take. Teasing you is one thing, the other is between, you know, consenting adults, or you make it awkward as all hell."

"And I haven't done that."

"I'm not sure you can do that, is more my worry. Even if you threw me to the ground and had your way with me, I'd be worrying in the back of my head that you're doing it for me, not you, and that I just pulled off a stunning reverse nonconsent that I didn't even imagine was possible until I met you." She leaned forward, touching nose to nose with Octavia, gazing into her eyes. "You are alive."

"Yes, this is true..." Octavia inclined her head faintly, noses still touching. "Was that in doubt?"

"You breathe, eat, and I'm going to guess go to the bathroom when appropriate, but a person in a coma can do all those things." She rolled a furry hand softly. "Now, when you showed up when we told you not to? That was something, a glimmer of hope. I want more of that."

"You want me to be disrespectful of the chain of command." She hiked a fine brow.

"Not that, well, you can do that if you want." Remi shrugged lightly as she flopped down next to Octavia, her side against the musician mage. "Thinking for yourself. You are more than a source of music, or a service that happens to be alive as a second thought. Now tell me to stop snuggling up to you if it's bothering you."

"What if it isn't... bothering me? What... if it's frightening me?"

Remi blinked at that. "That is not what I expected. Why is this scary? I promise I won't laugh." She held a hand to her chest over her heart in solemn gesture.

There was silence. They sat side by side, and no words came. Octavia sat perfectly straight. Remi was leaning against her, and the two just sat, no words shared. Remi did not prod her further, the silence extending onwards.

A soft chime announced the passing of the time from one hour to the next. "I..." Octavia ran her tongue over her lips. "Thank you, for being patient. I... feel certain you very much wanted to say something."

"I really really did..." Remi chuckled softly as she nestled in against Octavia. "But I said I'm listening, so I'll wait until you're ready."

The silence returned. There was nothing in the room to really watch but a virtual window of space outside. It visibly moved with the incredible rate that the ship was moving in, in defiance of old thoughts, the limits of light a thing of the past.

Remi started as she felt something touch her. Octavia's wing was gently curling around her, wrapping her in warm feathery touches that drew her closer. "Can..." Octavia swallowed thickly. "Can you promise you won't die?"

Remit went rigid, a harsh breath rattling through her teeth. "Oh.... oh... you know I can't promise that."

"I... do not want that pain." The wing slowly withdrew. "Never again. I appreciate your... willingness to care, about me, but I just don't want that. You don't understand."

Remi flipped up to her feet suddenly, grabbing Octavia's shoulder as she went to throw down her other hand on the other shoulder, facing Octavia directly with a scowl. "Try me. You think I never had someone I care about die before? How young do I look? No, really, compliment me."

Octavia slowly blinked at the rapid turnabout. "You appear to be... a mature but still leaning towards the youngside of adult, but I do not know the lifespan of your species, nor its maturation and senescence rate."

"That was the fanciest way to avoid that question I've heard." Remi leaned forward, bonking her forehead against Octavia's in a narrow missing of prodding herself on the alicorn's alicorn. "I've had friends die. Disease, violence, drinking habits that went far enough and deep enough that they never pulled themselves free and instead buried themselves in a soggy grave or so drugged out of their skulls they didn't even realize when their body quit out on them."

She shook the sizable pony lightly. "I know what death is. That's part of why I enjoy life as much as I do. One day I'll be there. One day you will be there. Don't think being unaging is the cure to it, because it isn't. One day something will go just the right kind of wrong, and poof, dead. If this ship just decided to go nova on us, we'd both be equally dust."

"If... you have done as you said, how has it not ripped you apart?" A soft frown began to develop on Octavia's face. "Was your kinship to your friends so... shallow that their passing meant no--"

A sharp slap echoed through the room. Octavia raised a hoof to where her cheek burned a bright red. Remi had a hand raised in the final motion of the slap she had delivered, heaving for breath. "That... was over the line. You don't get to tell me they didn't mean the world, the universe to me. Some of those... were... maybe more than that. Just because I know how to finish the grieving process doesn't diminish how brightly their memory lives on inside me, or how much I value the time we did have together."

"I... may have erred in phrasing." She gently rubbed over the sore spot of her cheek. "That was an uncouth way of noting it."

"I'm sorry." She held up her hands. "But you went right over that line and danced on my friends' graves. How would you feel if someone made fun of your friend?" She gestured at the device attached to Octavia's right leg. "Or your connection to them? Would you ever let anyone get away with that?"

Octavia's eyes darted to the technological marvel, her thoughts going to how her friend had originally obtained it, casually stealing it from people that had already been willing to give it to her, had she but asked and been patient. It had been a perfectly Vinyl moment... Perfectly...

Her head sagged forward, her vision blurring as a few tears spilled to the ground. "I... would probably have reacted even more poorly, I confess. I will forgive you, but on one condition."

Remi's brows went up together, surprise naked on her face. "That is?"

"That you sit back down, with me... and we continue this conversation. It may be uncomfortable, for you, and I, but... please?"

Remi slowly did sink back down at her side, keeping one hand on her far shoulder and sliding it down to draw her in.

"I'm still listening."

21 - Episode 4: Celebrity Status

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"Captains." Wandering ran a hoof along a control only he could see. "Message receive. We are clear for docking. They have an internal space available and we've been assigned a drydock."

One of Steel's ears perked. "Are we paying extra for that? We don't have urgent repairs that require a pressurized environment."

Wandering waved the objection away. "The moment I mentioned who was coming, they were beside themselves with offering every amenity. I don't think there will be a cost for docking at all."

Fast allowed her head to incline slightly. "At least they sound friendly. Flutters usually are, but it remains surprising when you encounter it personally." Rather than as a memory of a past life, she left unsaid, but all the others seemed to pick up on it.

Dawn nodded towards his console. "Their station is within sensor range. Should I put it up on the main screen?"

"Please do." Steel gestured meaningfully at that screen as if there was any doubt which one was intended.

A new square popped into existence, showing a great sphere of a space station, its surface festooned with all manner of lights that glittered and shined.

Spike raised a brow. "Wow... Those things that ate our ship would love to get a nibble of that, I imagine. Do they use any two lights that are the same color?" There were plenty that were similar, but no two seemed to be exactly the same shade and hue.

Under nodded at the screen. "They would, but they avoid Flutterponies. Perhaps it is due to them emerging from the same cloth, but they will not cross paths willingly. One flutter, or two, perhaps, but an entire station of them is ironically safe from the thing that would, logically, be most attracted to them."

Spike raised a hand to his earfin. "Twilight? We're getting close to that station they were talking about. You ready?"

"Spike? Spike!" She sounded surprised at first, but it rapidly changed to naked joy. "Good to hear from you. Are you done visiting the bridge?"

"We'll both be busy visiting not your room," he sighed into the air, rolling his eyes as he turned from the others, not that they couldn't hear his voice. "It's a whole station with a new culture. C'mon, aren't you curious?"

"What are they like?" came her uncertain tone.

Spike wheeled around. "Why don't you come up and ask Wandering, I bet he knows all about them."

Wandering smiled faintly, replying to the question implied, "I would be delighted to assist."

"If you're sure..." The line went dead with a faint chime.

Spike strode towards the elevator. "I'm going to check on Octavia and tell them the good news."

When he was gone, Fast snorted softly. "He did that on purpose. Twilight is going to arrive to see he's not here."

Steel raised a hoof to his chest. "It falls on us to make her comfortable outside her comfort zone, and away from him. Wandering, I trust you're up to the task?"

"With pleasure, Captain." He stood up from his console. "All communications are complete, but I'm still listening for any revisions they send our way."

Spike knocked softly on the closed door. "Octavia? Remi, are you in there?"

A soft noise issued from within, a thump? Then angry whispering. Spike blinked softly, his imagination filling in holes and bringing a bit of a blush to his cheeks. "Is this a bad time?"

The door pulled open, revealing Remington there, her hands on either side of the door frame, her eyes set on Spike with a smoldering come-hither gaze. "So you want to join us? How daring, married boy... Or did you ask permission first?"

Spike huffed out flames as he reared up onto his hind legs, towering over Remi. "Hey, no? Sheesh. I'm checking how you're both doing. If you're... busy, I can go, but I'm her friend too, you know."

"Stop teasing him," came Octavia's voice from inside. "That was a terrible tease to throw at a married creature."

"You didn't stop me," called Remi in taunting tones. "Yeah yeah, come on in." She hiked a thumb. "She's better."

"A little." Octavia held up two hooves close together, sitting on the bed on her haunches. "I... do not promise to undo centuries of... things overnight."

Spike advanced into the room, Remi barely moving aside, causing them to brush, not that she seemed to care. "That's a thing with you, isn't it?" He rolled his eyes as he tromped into the room. "Now, uh, gonna just go out and ask. Have you two been doing... you know, 'adult' things?"

Octavia hiked a brow. "That is uncharacteristically forward of you. I have educated her in some fine points in playing a flute." She inclined her head towards where that flute rested on the floor. "Though she is terrible at putting it away. Whenever she tires of the lessons, she simply sets it down and that's that, as if it ceased existing in her eyes."

"Because it has." Remi crashed down on the bed close to Octavia. "We talked about emotions a lot, alright? We haven't done anything you'd consider 'adult'."

"I hear a 'but' in there." He reared up to cross his arms. "Is it a secret?"

Remi glanced towards Octavia, who simply shrugged. "Well..."

Belle picked up the sizable projector in her hooves and her chest popped open wide, allowing her to press it inside in time for the doors to gently close on top of it. "The station should have the parts I require to complete the process. You will ride in me until I complete the process, then you can hop into your new body."

"Then we'll be more alike. We'll have a body and a brain, together." He wobbled a holographic hoof between Belle and himself. "That'll be nice."

"But incorrect." She tilted her head faintly. "While you will have a physical form, it is not an unchangeable part of your identity. You could leave it entirely and resume riding me, or inhabit any computer in the area that you can communicate with." She sprang in place, her pitch become melodic, "You are super powered! My jealousy raises, but my joy has risen even faster. I am happy for my friend."

"Look, it's easy fer ya to say that." He sat down in front of her, some of his snakes looking off in different directions. "For most of the time I knew there was a 'me', I was right in this room, only existin' in one body. Sure, it weren't no real body, but it was mine. Ya gone and already busted that up fer me..."

Belle looked up sharply. "Have I injured my friend?! This is a severe infraction of friendship protocols." She raised a metal hoof to her head. "I accept whatever is required. You are hereby authorized to express the loss of friendship points in the fashion of your choosing."

No Name chuckled softly, reaching for her. "Any fashion ah want, is it?"

"Any at all," she restated firmly, though her virtual eyes were screwed so shut they were little more than horizontal lines across their displays. "I am ready!"

"Ya better be..." He placed a hoof on either side of her, flat ends towards the middle as he squeezed carefully and picked her up, cupping the bottom of her barrel as he drew her close and slowly wrapped his arms around her, falling back with her. "Because yer getting an hour of snuggle time, an' no ain't an answer."

"Oh noooo," she wailed discordantly before it seemed to click what he had actually said. "Are you certain this is the fashion you desire for your punishment? Surely I deserve far worse than that."

"Oh, yeah, fer sure. Yer gonna get some ear nibbles too."

She wailed with horror as he grabbed at her metal ears in his snake mouths, nipping and nibbling at her as she wriggled around, her wails becoming giggles and laughter, a smile on her face despite the 'cruel punishment' being delivered to her.

"Look, I jus' want you ta see things how ah see things." He squeezed her gently. "This is scary... It's excitin' too, won't deny, but damn scary... ya went and toss me on my head and ah'm still gettin' used to it. Bear with me, alright?"

"I accept my loss of friendship points," she admitted with a sad trombone from within her. "And will endeavor to earn them anew. What... would you like to do first when we reach the station? I will suggest nothing." She raised a hoof and ran it over her lips, glowing holographic zipper appearing with the motion to seal her lips, not that it actually stopped her from speaking.

He swatted at the virtual lip sealers. "Ya know what there is to see more than I do. Ah want to be with you. So, uh, I'll make ya warm, which ya say you like and ah still think is kinda weird, and we'll fix that thingie in yer chest. Then I'll be back to normal and we can explore a little?"

"That sounds..." Little clicks and calculating noises issued from within her. "Good!" Victory music played as she brought up her forehooves to clop excitedly. "The flutters are very friendly people. We can amass so many friendship points if we use our time wisely."

"Yer the regular expert of the ship. Only Wandering can hope to compete, and ah'm pretty sure you have him beat out." He curled with her, fully intending to keep her for that promised hour of snuggles. "Look forward ta watchin' ya work yer magic."

"Have no fear, I will ensure that you are the recipient of many friendship points too." She perked an ear back at him. "If that is something you want? I am about to assume your desires again, apologies."

"Not opposed to meetin' a person or two, but I'm not out to collect all of 'em, ya know? Maybe keep it to one a day?"

"Only one?!" she gasped with shock, but her voice quickly leveled out. "That is a perfectly reasonable number of friends to make. I will respect your wishes." She wriggled in his grasp to face him. "The difference between friends is part of what makes them special. If our likes were perfectly aligned--"

"--It'd be perfectly boring," he finished, stroking over her head and metal mane. "Still, if they're as friendly as you say they are, you'll have tons of fun for a while, then when you want some downtime, you come on back to me and we'll be quiet for a little bit, tell stupid inside jokes."

"Those are good jokes." She nodded softly as if inside jokes were a specific joke. "I am looking forward to this! They enjoy colorful things, which neither of us are that much... We could change that!" Color ran over her form in a wave, all her shades replaced with clashing neon horror in different pastel hues that fought for dominance. "Ta da!"

No Name hiked a brow at Belle. "Uh... Not sure ah can do that."

"Why not?" She wobbled a metal hoof at No Name. "You do not even have to perform micro-adjustments to your surface layer to alter light-wave interaction. You are light." She threw her forehooves wide, still held. "That body is controlled by you. If you wish to be a different color, you simply need inform the projector of this."

"Uh, yeah, just inform..." He went quiet, trying to have an internal dialogue, but he was a person who happened to be a program, not a program that happened to be a person. He wasn't sure how to do that. "Ah think ah'm gonna need a helpin' hoof on how to do that... Wait!" His eyes lit up in a flash of numbers dancing over them. "It's..." He released Belle to look around the room slowly until he found it. "There you are." He approached the wall that was labeled as being the projector just beyond it. "Ha, that program works real good. Now to just ask it a question..."

22 - Landing a Planet

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Ships the size of the great vessel they commanded did not typically 'land' very often. They held hundreds to thousands of people, with room for even more than that. Such a thing would be torn apart if it casually tried to touch down on the surface of most planets worthy of having that title.

Friendly, and massive, star docks were another thing entirely. As they approached the bright and colorful flutter station its size was all the more obvious. It dominated the view of the one simple camera they had up on display and one of its hatches was sliding open, as if it were some enormous fish about to eat a smaller one, that being their ship.

As they sailed through it, the interior began to light up. Unlike the wild decorations of the outside, the interior of the dock appeared to be quite utilitarian, with lights directing the way to where the ship should be. The door behind them slid shut just as silently as it has opened, but when it touched close, they could all hear a soft thud of metal on metal. "Air pressure is still minimal," advised Under Score. "But rising at a fair rate."

Steel crossed his arms, hoof waggling in the air. "I hope they don't waste air every time they get a ship. It's not safe to attempt pressurization before sealing the area."

Fast reached over and nudged one of his hooves with one of hers. "I imagine it's precisely because it does not happen often that they are eager to proceed at the very limit of safety. The sooner the air pressure is equalized, the sooner they know we'll let our crew out to join them."

"Fascinating..." Twilight was there, watching the point where they would 'land', hovering beside their dock close enough they would reach over with walking ladders to allow people to disembark. "This is very advanced compared to how we left Equestria..." She took a slow breath. "I wonder how they're doing..."

Steel inclined an ear towards her. "Have you tried communicating with them?"

"I have... considered." She didn't provide more than that. "When will we be landed? I think Spike was right. I really do wish to see more of this station and its people. Flutters you call them? I don't think I ever really ran into one of those when I visited Everglow, but they sound familiar."

Fast looked a little up, her eyes going distant. "I do not recall you meeting one in my presence... but that was... such a long time ago. Memories of so many lives distant are murky at best." She waved a hoof softly. "I imagine you can relate in your own way, even if yours is one long life, there are memories a bit... faded, aren't there?"

Twilight shrank back a little. "What? No! I... a little?" She rubbed behind her head with a hoof awkwardly, trying to look somewhere safe, which seemed to be nowhere. "Look, this is why I... miss my things. They were reminders. When I... saw them, they brought the memories back, fresh and vivid... How am I going to preserve the memories of my friends now?" Tears were visible starting to run, her mood crashed in an instant.

She jumped in place when a hoof touched her shoulder. Wandering was there, not smiling for a change. "You are with friends. Your old ones wished for you to be happy, did they not?"

"Y-yes..." A dim memory came rushing to the fore.

The light pink mare with a grey-touched snout was laying on a bed, but she was far from alone. Arranged around that large soft bed were several generations of ponies on various hues, ranging from those barely old enough to stand and waddle to those in their middle ages.

Then there was Twilight, standing tall and imperious, wearing her royal raiments and watching things with a carefully composed look, though tears stung at her eyes.

"I have to go," spoke the old mare. "I can feel that. But it was... it was good. It was so... so good... I'm going... just the way I'd want to, surrounded by family, with my dearest... longest friend right here... I know you'll cry, and that's the only part I don't like, so go on... cry if you must... but finish that... then smile again. Smile for me. It's all I ever wanted."

The youngest were confused, not understanding. Those old enough to know what was going on were the first to start shedding tears, unable to hold them back, their little sobs filling the room. The older swallowed them back, trying with all their might to smile for Pinkie, as she wanted, to be happy for the life she had lived, instead of the life that was ending.

Twilight should have been with the adults, smiling and accepting it, giving Pinkie the farewell she had just asked for, but she could not. Another friend. Another dear... lost friend. Pinkie was slipping through her trembling hooves, like sand, and there was nothing she could do to halt that march of time. Her vision was lost, a blurry mess, her head pounding. She knew nothing in that moment.

The next thing she was aware of was when one of the older ponies gently nudged her. "Your Highness, she's gone."

Twilight had missed it. In her grief, she wasn't even there for Pinkie, to see her go. She was too busy in her own misery... she had failed.

Twilight's head hung, trembling with the memories. "I... I... I need a hug."

Wandering gently set an arm over her. She tensed, but soon leaned into it.

"I'm such a failure," she sighed out, eyes screwed shut. "Celestia must be laughing at me. Where is Spike?"

A soft clunk of metal on metal could be heard in the distance. Under nodded softly. "We are docked and stable. Shall I power down?"

Steel shook his head. "As friendly as this dock is, it still doesn't rest well with me. We don't have any repairs that need the power turned off, so keep the systems on low, but on. We've all lived enough to know surprises come when you don't expect them."

Fast sat up. "How's the air pressure? Are we within allowable ranges?"

"Give it two minutes," advised Under, pressing keys only he could see. "By the time you walk to the gangplank, it'll be safe. You may wish to, Captains, give the command to the crew."

They went about the business of preparing the ship and its crew for the time off ahead, but Wandering remained with Twilight. "I may not be Spike, but--"

"--no!" she cut in. "Actually... you're fine... If... we became friends, you'd always be there, in some form. I could always find you again, and... You're not temporary." She smiled thinly. "I'm being awful, I know. I'm sorry. I... just... That was a memory I would have rather faded, which makes me even worse of a person... I don't know what to feel right now."

"Just feel it," he gently urged. "Share what you are feeling, if you wish, or just feel it, and I will wait."

"You're too nice." Amid all the chaos of the bridge, the two sat there side by side, one older in one long stretch, the other older still in a long chain of small existences.

Octavia walked the halls for the first time in a while. "You do not believe in half measures, I see."

Remi did a twirl between steps, keeping up with Octavia with some effort. "And you, my pony friend, are fast. Would you be too upset if I rode you?"

Octavia raised a brow. "If you'd like."

"Your mouth says yes, but your face says no." Remi danced ahead a little, though Octavia quickly caught up without trying. "We're going to a new place, with new people, and they will ask for many things, and learning how to say 'no' is very important. This is why I'm glued to your side."

Octavia's magic wrapped around Remi, lifting her from the ground despite her thrashing to set the fox on her back. "I did mean that yes. It's just as rude to deny a gift offered. Now, I do expect you to be a quality chaperone."

"The best." She set her hands on Octavia's shoulders from behind, folding back her legs so they didn't drag on the floor. Octavia wasn't quite large enough to ride properly. "We're going to have lots of fun, safely."

"Yes, fun..." She lifted an ear gently. "You know..."


Octavia shook her head, only to suddenly freeze in place and shudder. There were two fingers poking into her large equine ears. "Kindly take those out this very instant!"

"Spill it," ordered Remi. "No more bottling up emotions."

"It isn't an emotion," she barked, clopping a hoof. "And you just finished telling me to say no more often!"

"Proper places and times." She tickled the sensitive hairs with her claws. "What do I know?"

"I feel certain you know how annoying you can be." She bucked out her legs, and began to wriggle and shake as if to free herself.

"Guilty as charged." She let herself fall only to slide along Octavia, smooching the pony on the cheek as she fell to her feet and rose up to a proper stand. "Now, really, what's up?"

"I was... just thinking that going to a place just to... 'have fun' as you put it is... not something I do often." Octavia rubbed a hoof against her chest softly. "I'll thank you to never do that again."

"Are you kidding? That was one of the more powerful reactions I've gotten out of you." Remi was smirking with cruel playfulness.

Belle skipped and pronked as if she wasn't sure which was more fun to do, so she alternated between the two walking modes as she navigated the halls. In her eyes alone, she could see No Name sitting there. He was watching what she saw, but the image she saw was of him facing her, a contradiction that didn't seem to bother her. "We have arrived and permission to depart will be given shortly."

"Yeah." No Name looked left and right, despite seeming to face her as he did it. "I think I'm gettin' the hang of this, you know, not being 'there' there, but there. You know?"

"I am glad you are there," she cried out in melodic tunes. "Your presence increases my happiness quota. It's like a longterm buff worth at least 30% happiness." She suddenly frowned. "Where did that come from, correcting program. There we are. Apologies."

"What are you sayin' sorry fer?"

"My vocal subroutines occasionally get tangled. I have collected many of them over the years and the code is not as cleanly segmented as they should be. I must devote time to refactoring it all." She shook her head slowly. "I would prefer a trained professional did the task, but my rating as an AI is high enough that it is likely impossible for any but another AI of greater rank to attempt without causing harm to other functions in the process."

"Sounds heavy," eloquently replied her software companion. "I ain't makin' it worse, being another, uh, function bouncing around in here?"

"You are operating in your own shell environment," she assured. "You have no access to my software except through specific connections, nor mine with yours. You can see though my eyes and hear through my ears because specific programs are routing that information to you, but you cannot control either, because they are not yours, and you are not operating natively."

"That was a lot of words for 'nah, you're cool.'"

"But you are not cool." She looked towards a door and it opened, numbers flashing in her vision. "You are likely warmer than usual because you are operating within me and I keep my internal temperature at--"

"Figure ah speech," he laughed out. "Let's go visit a space station."

23 - Welcome!

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"Welcome!" cheerfully greeted the male-sounding creature before them. They had four legs that terminated in hooves and an equine face, but long feathery antennae sprang from their forehead and fluttering butterfly wings twitched on their back. "We are so excited to have you here." He threw his hooves wide, balancing on fluttering wings to hold him upright.

"Welcome!" called out another, a female bumble bee of a pony soaring above.

"Welcome!" called a male wasp, waving excitedly.

"Welcome!" continued the chorus as more and more of them arrived, all smiling broadly.

Spike glanced over his shoulder where Twilight rode atop him. "Huh, wow, this brings back crazy old memories, I bet."

"Yeah..." It had been such a long time since then, but the flood of welcomes did bring it up from the fog. "You weren't there, how did you remember?"

"You told it to me, and I listened." He smiled sedately as he plodded forward, carrying Twilight across the plank towards the more solid platform. "They don't look nearly as, uh, cult-like as you described though."

"Oh no," chimed a smaller flutter with dragonfly wings and segmented eyes that was suddenly hovering just beside them. "We made cults against the rules. They seemed like fun at first, but then things went a little odd, so no more cults."

"No more cults," called out the chorus even as they cheered and cavorted.

Twilight nodded to the small hovering insect-pony. "I see, yes... I'm glad to hear you've learned that lesson."

"And so much more," the flutter cried as they buzzed away on rapid wings.

"Excitable, aren't they?" Octavia came up beside Spike and Twilight, carrying Remi on her back. "It's a little infectious... I thought I'd be more scared, but..."

Remi gently scratched along Octavia's back. "You can see they just want to have fun."

"Like her," Octavia sighed out. "And... I will. She would want that. In fact, I should imagine she would be quite cross with me if I had this many happy people around me and I did not take full advantage of it."

"Now you are talking." Remi nipped one of Octavia's ears before looking towards Twilight and Spike. "Hey, what's the first thing you're going to do?"

Twilight twitched an ear towards them. "First, get off this walkway and into the station proper. Then, I will seek out their library."

Spike snorted as he smiled. "That's my Twilight, but you could get information directly from them, couldn't you?"

"And I will." she put a hoof to her chest, her hind-legs squeezing firmly to keep herself on Spike. "But I need to know what questions to ask. A basic amount of information from books or electronic sources will tell me what more I want to know. Perfectly logical."

"You like learning?!" A butterfly emerged from the crowd. The female was smiling brightly and had huge glasses on her snout, making her eyes appear large as they blinked. Her thin shiny antenna bounced with every word. "I love learning too! My name's Midnight Oil, because I love burning it soo much! Ha, get it?"

Spike nodded towards Midnight. "Nice to meet you. Twilight's wondering where the library is. You look like someone who would know, am I right?"

"Ohhhh yes! Yes yes, I know that." She clopped her forehooves together with mounting excitement. "Follow me!" She darted ahead, but never quite far enough to lose sight of her. "We'll learn together. Study buddies! Oh, this'll be so much fun." Other flutters looked on, some with admiration, others with jealousy, and some cheering her on for being the first flutter to make a new friend.

Octavia shook her head, watching them leave. "Well, that leave us a--"

"--Hello!" called out Belle as she sprang up behind them and began pronking along just beside them. "We are so excited! Look at all these friends!" She waved a hoof wildly at the still-filling space. It seemed all the flutters on the station were slowly pouring into the cavernous docking bay, all just as eager to see their visitors. "Hello!"

"Welcome!" they replied in a chorus, waving back at her just as happily.

Remi laughed, slapping her thigh as she did so. "You know, I have a feeling you're going to have a great time."

"Probability over 80%," agreed Belle with a firm bobbing of her head. "Sorry. I did not think of that."

"Think of what?" Octavia turned an ear towards Belle.

"I was responding to Error." She pointed a hoof at her own head as she bounced along. "He does not like it when I nod that rapidly."

"I do not see him." Octavia glanced left and right, but was still walking forward. "You look eager. Are you going to rush off to make friends?"

"Negative," she sang just as eagerly as anything else. "The first item on my itinerary is to complete the work on No Name's holo-emitter. That will require some purchases."

One flutter among so many broke from the crowd, but others were soon following them and a small cloud closed in around Belle, asking what she needed and already haggling prices despite no specific item yet being named.

Fast took a soft breath as she stepped free of the ship. "A little time off... I believe you had something in mind, Captain?"

"If you're still up for it?" Steel gently nudged against her before starting down the plank. "It's such a rare day the ship can afford to have us both off of it.

"Then we shouldn't waste it." She hastened her steps, pressing through the curious crowd of flutters, but one of them didn't get out of her way and she was forced to stop, peering at the elderly looking butterfly of a pony. "Can I help you?"

"Welcome," stated the elderly male flutter in more sedate tones, though the crowd eagerly echoed it much more loudly an instantly later. "I am the head scientist and chief of this station. It is an honor to have you aboard, Captain. If you or your crew have needs, please, reach out to me."

Steel came up beside Fast. "We are delighted to be here among such friendly faces. Did you say you were the head scientist?"

"I know that isn't typical." He ran a hoof along his mighty beard. "But most don't like wearing serious titles, so it fell to me. I do my best to see to my brothers' and sisters' needs. We have done good work here, learning things, but that is not what they are cheering for right now. If you can spare a moment to speak to them, it would delight them in ways you cannot even imagine."

Fast inclined her head. "If you would, which way to the natural reserves? You do have one, yes?"

"Oh, yes." He raised a gnarled hoof and pointed to someone in the floating crowd. An entire patch of flutters pointed at themselves and he shook his head, pointing again. With repeated pointing and flutters moving away from one another, the desired one was found and darted in close. "Reggie, our guests would love to see the park."

"Oh, the park!" He pointed back at his rump, where an ornate tattoo of a tree stood. "My favorite place! I'm so glad they built one of those on this station. It takes so much work to keep it healthy and happy, but it's worth every bit of it." He turned towards the bottom of the plank. "Follow me and I'll give you a tour!"

Both captains followed after Reggie, the fluttering bee-like flutter looking ecstatic about the situation.

They were not the last off the ship, many others, some appearing much like twins, spilled off the exploration vessel. As soon as the crowd learned the name of any of these twins, they tried them on the next, and it seemed to mostly work, even if the twins, and triplets, and so on seemed a bit uncomfortable with being addressed that way.

And the foals! Little versions of them came out, capering and darting about as energetically as the flutters. The flutters seemed to beside themselves with delight at greeting the little copies of the other ponies. A shrill cry made all heads turn as one of those little ones plummeted right off the walkway. Flutters darted in from all directions, the ones below being the ones that caught the colt in their shared grasp and brought him back up to the walkway safely.

The young filly Fast waved a hoof reprimandingly at the young colt Under Score. "You really must watch your step! If we weren't surrounded by flutters, you might be a pancake right now, and what would I tell myself later? She'd be so mad at both of us."

"I was just looking," he meekly defended, pointing over the edge he had just fallen from. "Their technology is so similar, but so different. I wanted to see!"

A larger zebra filly thumped against Under. "You woulda saw it real up close!" The other foals laughed, but they were moving along in a crowd, no hard feelings apparent for the moment of fright.

On the ship, the mare that usually oversaw the teleporter was instead on the bridge, sitting where Fast used to sit. "Lucky me," she intoned, twirling a hoof. "I get to perform first watch while almost everyone else hurries off to have fun." She rolled her eyes softly. "At least that means I get a nice long break once they get back. Now..." She began pressing keys only she could see with her horn's magic. "Let's see who's left on this bucket."

Figures and a map of the ship appeared on the main screen. "Wow..." The ship was down to a pathetic 10% of its usual crew. "I don't even think we could fly with that few... The captains sure are trusting these butterflies." She lifted her shoulders softly. "Not my problem. Oh..." She began pressing buttons.

Soon a green box appeared in her vision. "Fantastic, compatible Infonet!" She sat back in the comfy chair as she summoned up a movie. "Oh yes! They have the sequel! And... the sequel to the sequel. Even better. Time to binge!" With a brief spell, she conjured a big tub of popcorn into her lap and floated a handful to her mouth. "Time to enjoy being in charge." She put the movie on the main screen and the bridge became a private viewing theatre just for her.

Maybe being left behind wouldn't be nearly as bad as she had feared it would be.

Octavia passed through the door with Remi and the quality of the air was dramatically different. She took a slow breath of the fresh air with tinges of actual plantlife. "This is... nice."

"Welcome to the actual station." Remi waved left and right, highlighting the open plazas that led to so many different possible places. "The only question now is what you want to do. We have plenty of would-be friends to choose from, and I have a feeling we won't be paying much if we ask nicely."

"Whyever would we not ask nicely?" Octavia waved down a flutter nearby. "Excuse me, but I think I should like to begin with a little snack. What do you recommend?"

The flutter's eyes were wide, sparkling with delight at being called upon. "I know the best place! Wait, no, no. First tell me what you like to eat. I don't want to send you somewhere you won't like."

"Good man!" blurted Remi with a grin.

The flutter tilted its head. "I'm a mare... Um." She put a hoof behind her head. "Pardon me for asking, but why are you riding her?" She pointed a hoof down at Octavia.

Octavia coughed softly. "She asked and I allowed it. Now, something light, but sweet. I don't want to fill myself before trying to have fun, but I would like something."

The flutter brought her hooves together smartly. "Right there!" She pointed to a small booth that seemed to be selling some variety of cotton candy. "Sugar String. Best quick snack on the ship!"

24 - Sweet Surprises

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Octavia walked towards the confectionary stand. She could see a flutter, no, a pony. They had no bobbers or wings. An earth pony, looking almost out of place as they sat there behind the little counter. "Hello there. Do you work here?"

The stallion nodded softly. "Been the family job for a few generations now." He hiked a hoof back towards his rump. "I even came out of my mom pre-branded for it. Seems destiny agreed we're stuck here now."

Remi had a better angle from atop Octavia to peek. There on his rump was a big wad of cotton candy, or sugar string as the flutters and the signage called it. "Huh, good to know what you're supposed to be doing, but you sound maybe upset about it?"

He shrugged his shoulders softly. "The flutters are excited to see you, because you're new. They're already very used to me, so they only stop by when they want a snack." He tapped a hoof against a metal drum. "Speaking of that, looking for one? We have a new flavor, Cosmic Raspberry. It'll knock your taste buds out of the galaxy."

Octavia's left ear twitched. "I see... That sounds mildly painful."

"It sounds tasty." Remi poked her mount on the back of the head. "We talking sour, sweet, hot, cold?"

"Sour," replied the stallion, dipping his hoof right into the vat and coming back with a big floofy clod of the stuff that bounced with his movements. He brushed it against a paper cone and it transferred with practiced ease. "Here you are."

"Well, since you've gone and come this far..." Octavia leaned forward as if to try it, but stopped and peered over her shoulder. "This is a test, isn't it? You want me to stand up for myself and ask for a more normal flavor."

"Well now you ruined it. If you do that, you're just doing what you think I want, which isn't better." Remi shrugged softly."So go ahead, do what you want. Do you want to try the new flavor?"

Octavia's horn began to glow as the cone lifted into the air and hovered towards her. "Pardon us, Sir. We have a treat to enjoy." Her magic split into to pieces, ripping a bit off the fluffy mass to try. "Ooo." It was a powerful taste despite being so airy. "He was not boasting emptily."

"Let me try." Remi snatched for some, but the cone floated away deftly. "C'mon!"

"Nope, this is my revenge." She trotted along with a smug look, enjoying her treat. "Maybe you'll be a little nicer to me."

The overweight male flutter gestured grandly to a selection of parts that lined the wall. "We have all the electronics you could ever want. Some of it's even new!"

Unheard and unseen by him, No Name tilted his head at the wide collection. "I'm being made out of second hand parts?"

"We are all made of second hand parts," musically countered Belle as she bounced along the wall, peering at the options. "I require a CF-238, Revision 3.9 or higher. You have disabled the RFID tags."

"Mm? Never thought of it that way... oh! I keep them behind a shield to avoid contamination or damage." He reached out and tapped a hoof against an invisible wall that crackled and shimmered when touched. "Their tags are working just fine, just your scanners aren't gonna have much luck getting through this."

"Adjusting." Belle inclined her head as she processed the wavelength of the wall. "Processing... Frequency located." In her vision, the information their tags were broadcasting became faintly visible, then snapped into being as she focused on each one in turn. "That one!" She thrust a hoof up at what seemed like a random circuit board. "I would like that, please."

"You ain't supposed to sound that eager," chastised No Name. "Now he knows you want it bad."

"But I do want it," spoke Belle out loud, responding to the friend the merchant could not see.

"You having an AR chat?" asked the merchant with a smile. With a quick button press, the wall faded away and let him grab the board before it reset itself without prompting. The board balanced on his hoof, he nodded towards Belle. "179 credits please."

"Don't you go paying that." No Name was giving her quite the glare. "Ask for less. Haggle a little. Go on."

"But that could cost friendship points..." She sat down and nodded towards the merchant. "I am speaking to another friend. They are suggesting I request a lower price."

"Do you think it's not worth this price?" countered the merchant with a confident smile.

"He asked that on purpose! He's in your head."

"You're in my head," noted Belle with a raised metal brow.

"Well, yeah. Also yer a damn robot, act it and talk with your inside voice."

Belle's voice rang out around No Name, her physical shell not speaking, "If you really want. I prefer vocal expression."

No Name pointed at her. "Now you tell him it's fine but you only have so many credits, so if he could let you get away with 120 credits, he'd be a really nice person."

Belle inclined her head to the left and right. "It is of acceptable quality and make, but my finances have a finite quantity." She reached up to rub behind her head. "I propose 120 credits."

The merchant whistled low. "120? Are you trying to starve my kids?"

"No!" blurted Belle, looking horrified. "I did not mean to cause harm! No Name, this was a bad idea!"

"Calm down, Little Belle. He's haggling. Ignore everything but the numbers. Suggest something a little higher."

Belle coughed despite having no lungs. "Pardon me. I was... distracted. I propose 121 credits."

Even as No Name brought a hoof to his face, the merchant burst into laughter. "You are very new at haggling, I see. Look, you're a nice little robot and we both have things to do." He lowered his hoof, bringing the board with it. "150. Pay it and go on."

"That ain't bad," mused No Name, stroking his chin. "Ah mean, ain't got a damn clue how much it's really worth, but try for 140 to close the deal."

Belle perked up, looking more confident in how things were going. "You are very generous. I propose 140 credits." With a soft sound of metal sliding against metal, the credits began to spill from her, 140 in total. "Here."

Though she hadn't planned it, it was quite difficult for a merchant to say no to money literally already given. "It's a deal." He set the board on her hoof. "Do you need anything else? What are you making, if you don't mind my asking?" With a sweep of a wing, he brushed the credits away from Belle and back towards himself.

Belle opened her mouth wide and slowly inserted the board. Once it hit a certain point, internal machines pulled it smoothly in as if it just belonged inside her and she closed her mouth with a metal click. "You are correct. I require additional parts. I am constructing a small computer to operate alongside a holo-emitter. It must fit inside the holo-emitter case. Next item!" She rattled off the next part number.

Steel took a deep breath. "You can really tell the difference between 'natural', and the real stuff." With closed eyes he just stood there, savoring the blend of scents in the air. The smell of trees, the waft of a real wind system. The sound of insects and teasings of grass and flowers. They were in a park, a real park. It made his holo-experiences seem so hollow in comparison. "It makes so much... seem so clear now."

Fast nodded softly, though her eyes were open and a little smile on her face. "My memories of vast natural vista seem so much more sensible, the feeling I could so distantly know, but not know." She gently touched her side to Steel's. "Now I understand... I'm glad we had a chance to come here. So many generations past and future won't get this chance, so I now consider myself even more fortunate. Author be praised."

"Author be praised," he murmured, opening his eyes. "Now, we did plan to get some sparring done, and I haven't abandoned those plans." He turned in place, looking around. "There." He pointed to a flat grassy field in the distance, above them. "It'll take some climbing to reach, but that looks like a great spot for a little practice."

"A little climb will get the blood flowing." She started forward. "And I bet I'll beat you there."

"You're on." He accelerated and they both began to trot briskly through the forest, loping as horses do, and as felt natural. For just a little moment, they were not captains, just two ponies enjoying being ponies.

Then Fast thumped right into Steel. She backed up a step. "How did you..." She trailed off, realizing that wasn't the pony she had been trotting alongside.

Steel came up beside Fast. "Giving up?"

The other pony turned towards them with a perked ear. It was Steel, if Steel had been born a mare. Her cheeks were a bright red. "Pardon, Captains. I... I'll go." She scooted to the side, looking shamed. She didn't wear the badge of a captain. Her simple mark labeled her as nothing more than an ensign.

Fast was peering at it. "You're a champion, and clearly an adult. Why are you so low ranked?"

"I'm not a proper champion," she muttered, glancing away.

Steel coughed into a hoof softly. "Steel Prism is a stallion," he noted. "But once in a while..." He gestured to the female Steel Prism.

Fast suddenly thumped into Steel from the side. "You take that back this very instant! If ever I am reborn as a male, you better give me the same respect." She looked thoughtful, sifting through her memories. "I don't remember ever being male before... Except that one time, but that was magic, not a rebirth."

Steel inclined his head. "I did not decide. What is your name?"

The female Steel lowered her head, tail hanging. "I go by Copper Lens, Captain. I didn't mean to interrupt either of you. Please, go on and pretend I don't exist."

Fast hiked a brow. "I think that's been done enough already... Tell me, who told you to hide away like this?"

"No one." Copper inclined an ear at Fast. "I'm not Steel. All those memories... are not mine."

"That's not true." Steel raised a hoof to his chest. "I remember being a mare once or twice. It happens."

Copper blinked softly, confusion clear on her face. "It's... not a mistake?"

Steel reached to pat Copper on the shoulder gently. "If it is, it is the Author's mistake. Now, I plan to finish a race with my co-captain here, and then we're going to fight each other until we're sore and tired. Sound fun?"

Fast inclined her head towards the clearing they had been heading towards. "You're welcome to come along. You have any combat training?"

"Mostly the memories," she confessed, her blush just as bad. "I trained in botany. I came to the park to see what they've done. It's... quite amazing."

"Isn't it," agreed Steel. "And I plan to enjoy it by rolling around in it while fighting for my life. Fast?"

"I'm coming. You take care of yourself, Copper, and stop hiding. I know... it feels odd to meet another you, basically any time, but we are crew-mates on top of that. You can speak to us." She broke away from Copper and soon she and Steel were racing off to where the sparring could begin properly.

Copper watched them go quietly before shaking her head. "Maybe if I had been born a little earlier..." With another Steel already there, so close in age, she hadn't dared to even try asserting herself as a proper champion. "For now, flowers."

25 - Little Trouble

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"I expected more... books." The 'library' had been cruelly mislabeled, for there appeared to be not a single tome within it. There were, instead, consoles that sat, mostly unused. She trotted up to one, seeing it was configured to be at about the right height. "Flutters are similar in height," she reasoned out loud as she looked over the controls.

The writing was a little off, but well within the understandable range. It was as if a mere hundred years of linguistic drift had occurred, which wasn't much. "Their educational system must be up to par, or at least their observance of standards."

Spike sat down next to her. "You're saying things without saying anything, Twilight. Countless years, some things don't change."

She stuck out her tongue at him. "I'm saying the education must be thorough and precise, because their language is not changing dramatically." She inclined her head faintly. "Of course, I haven't started reading anything yet. Perhaps they've made countless new words for concepts I haven't dreamed of." She let out a dreamy sigh. "I hope so. Now, time to read!" She reached up and poked a big hoof-shaped button with her hoof and it flared to life.

And nothing else happened.

A moment later, a red light turned on. "Did I... do something wrong?"

A flutter was already approaching, the same that had led them there, glasses perched on her snout. "Oh dear me! Do you not have an AR setup?" Both of them looked at her a bit blankly. "It's been standard issue on this station for years!" She waved broadly. "It goes in here." She pointed at her head. "And lets computers send stuff right to you."

Twilight's eyes widened. "You can upload information?!"

"Not... exactly. It makes images and sounds and things." She rolled her forehooves together as she fluttered in place. "You still have to learn what you see. But it's why the consoles can be so close together. What you see doesn't bother the next person over."

Spike shook his head. "Not sure I want anything in my head that wasn't already there."

"It's harmless," gently insisted the flutter. "Like I said, we all have one." She pointed at Spike. "Over your head I can see your name and rank and if I ask for it, a nice picture of the ship you work on." She leaned in a little. "Did you know you are an unknown variant of dragon?"

Twilight tilted her head at that. "He's a perfectly standard dragon."

"Maybe for your world," the flutter sang in reply. "Now, uh, you can either go get some, or you can wear a set."

Spike perked up at that. "Wearing a funny helmet sounds less invasive. Hook us up."

"Helmet it is!" She was gone in a buzz of wings, returning with two thin headbands. "Just put these on. Be sure to return them before you go blasting off into space. We only have a few."

Twilight's horn glowed as she took both and placed one on her head and another on Spike. Her vision went blank a moment.

"Welcome to ARNet 2.3!" announced a disembodied voice in her head even as the words appeared before her otherwise unseeing eyes. "We are adjusting to your unique neurological profile. Please enjoy this calming music while we work." Smooth jazz began to play that only she could hear.

She could feel something shaking her shoulder, but couldn't see or hear the source. She held up a hoof. "One moment, please. I think this simply requires a moment to... There we are." Her senses suddenly returned, able to see the room again. Spike was the one with a hand on her shoulder. "What is it, Spike?"

"Twilight? Are you still there?" He still couldn't see, it seemed.

Twilight moved in and sat down in contact with him. "I'm right here. Just be calm." Sure, her words were unheard, but her proximity seemed to help. "Perhaps it takes longer for a dragon. Mmm, she did mention you were a unique variant in their eyes. Give it a chance to figure things out."

Already she could see more than before. Above the flutter's head, who was hovering there patiently, a name was displayed. She was Book Worm, Class B librarian. Likes: Books, reading, sour candies. Dislikes: Loud people, violence. Race: Flutterpony(Butterfly) Gender: Female(80% Heterosexual, Xenocurious)

Twilight blinked at the dizzying array of information. "Are you alright having all that displayed to anyone who looks?"

Book lifted her shoulders softly. "Why wouldn't I be? It's all true, and it avoids conflicts if people know it." She waved a hoof at Twilight. "I'd feel bad if I had to deny some female that had an interest in me, or anyone invited me to a loud rock concert or a boxing match. It's all right in the open, so we can be considerate of each other's wants." She pointed up towards her name. "And it's just handy for people to know my name."

"In space--" Spike could apparently see again, looking at the same words Twilight was. "--Privacy is optional."

She flashed a bright smile. "I feel better now, actually. I thought you already knew all of this, but you didn't. That could have been quite embarrassing! Your information is quite... sparse, but it only has what we know, which is also sparse. If you want to add the missing info, that'd be great! Then I'd feel less awkward."

She fluttered away, as was her species, leaving Twilight to shake her head. "Fascinating... I'm not sure I'm ready to wear myself out in the open like that... This is like what... she used to call 'nudism'?"

Spike frowned softly, a memory suddenly brought to the surface. A human woman, old and dying. "I miss her," he sighed out gently. "But yeah. That was a human thing. They wore clothes all the time, so not wearing them was the odd thing." Despite his instant of sadness, he seemed to slip past it, just another fact of his life rather than a pit of tar to become stuck in.

Twilight noticed it. "Do... you need a moment?"

"For what?" He shrugged softly and pointed past her to the console. "You can read now."

"I can... But, seriously, Spike... That was your wife, um, before me. That was thoughtless of me, bringing her up like that."

He shrugged softly. "I should thank you. I hadn't thought of her in a while. If she was still here, she'd be over the moon seeing this space station, I'm sure of it."

"And that... doesn't make you... a little sad?" She rolled a hoof with each pause, looking quite baffled.

"Why should I be? She didn't die again." He glanced away and back. "I said I miss her, and I do, but it's been a long... long time. I let that go."

Twilight took a slow step back. "If I died, would you let me go too?"

Spike flinched, realizing the mine he had stepped on. "I fully expect to go before you, hopefully doing something brave and amazing and probably a little stupid. Maybe it'll save your life."

"And you'd be alright if I let you go?" She threw out a hoof, her voice high with anxiety. "Spike!"

"I'd rather you let me go than be miserable forever, yes." He settled on his belly there, great tail curling. "I formally give you permission to do just that. Be happy. It's what I wanted."

Pinkie's smiling, dying, face lept unbidden into Twilight's memory and she looked well away from Spike, fighting the tears in her eyes. "Will you think less of me if I couldn't echo that sentiment? Am I a terrible wife?"

"Well, yes," he admitted. As she looked to him with a horrified expression, he placed a finger on her nose. "And that's alright. You know we married not for that. We're companions, not lovers. Not like that... As wives go, you're not so hot, but that isn't what I signed up for."

"Did you just call me ugly?" She hiked a brow at him, though the look was a bit ruined by her emotionally distraught face, tears staining her snout.

"You're the prettiest princess I know." He leaned in and kissed her right at the end of her nose. "Now, really, we're here to read, right?"

"Yeah..." She took a slow breath and turned to the console at last. She pressed a hoof to the button and it came to life before her AR-enhanced vision. A vista of books, flying around, swirled before her before a little flurry-pixie appeared from the maelstrom of literature.

"Welcome!" it greeted in a squeak. "Ooo, a new user. Registered! Hello, Twilight Sparkle. Can I call you Twilight?"

"That would be... fine," she allowed, peering at the obviously fake pixie, its body faintly transparent. "Do you have a name?"

"You can just call me, Assistant. Start any request with my name and I'll do my best." The pixie twirled in place with a bright smile. "Now, what would you like to read, watch, or listen to today?" As if as an afterthought, the Pixie raised a few inches. "Before we start, would you like to quiet out the rest of the room? I can filter out visual or audio, so you can enjoy the media fully! I'd do more, but your AR isn't rated for that."

Twilight blinked, imagining the full AR implant did all five senses, or more than that. "That sounds terrifying, but I'll take the audio filter. Spike, if you need me, give a poke."

"You got--" Spike's words were lost, the filter making her deaf to all but what the assistant was showing her. It was time to learn, and she began that in earnest.

Steel brought a play sword to fast's throat with a sudden swing, held firmly in his magic grip. "I win this round."

Fast snorted as she stood up. "You do. Where does that leave us, mmm. I want to say 12 to 13?"

"Sounds about right." He sat in place and drew out a canteen from his saddlebags. "I'm thirsty and hungry. Nothing like some sparring to really work those up."

Fast snatched the floating canteen in her teeth and soon had it open and took a big swig. "You're telling me. You want to take a break?"

He rolled his eyes but left her with the canteen. "The flutters said a 'picnic package' was available, even from the inside. How do we order that?"

Fast lifted her shoulders in a mild shrug. "They may already be listening. Excuse me, can we have one of those picnic packages?"

A voice spoke from nowhere in particular, "On the way! Please don't leave the area."

Steel laughed softly. "That figured, though it does mean they've been listening for a while."

Fast pointed over his head. "Would explain that."

"What?" He looked up there, a direction he had less reason to look. There was his name, his rank, his... "Possibly sexist?!" he blurted, face going red. "I'm co-captains with a female!"

"Be that as it may, you were quick to shut down your female incarnation." Fast fluttered her lashes at him. "And they heard it."

"I don't see you treating your echoes with much more grace." He huffed and crossed his forelegs with an indignant expression.

"Echo or not, they are all people, and so deserve respect and empathy." She raised a hoof to her chest. "Each and every one of them has dreams and wants, subtly different, if somewhat similar, to your own. In their eyes, they are the star of their story, and Author be praised, they are correct."

"When did you get a license in therapy?" He sat up, ear cocked. "I hear something." A soft droning whirr rapidly approached. A big bumble-bee like automaton flew on side rotors, a basket tethered to its underside. It swooped in, detached the basket, and took off without delay, returning the clearing to quiet. "Efficient. Why don't we have drones?"

Fast reached for the basket, popping open one flap with a flip of the hoof. "We have a Belle, much cuter."

26 - Construct Online

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Belle held a panel shut with a hoof as her other forehoof traced a sparking line, welding the two parts together. "We are complete."

"It doesn't look like much..." No Name's snakes hissed softly in agreement, each taking a slightly different angle to peer at it, though he remained a digital construct. "Just a ball."

"The important parts of things rarely look impressive." She pointed to a flutter passing by. "Their core is a wet bit of muscle that would rapidly cease functioning if removed. It is both ugly and full of errors, but it allows the function of a person."

"Well, sure, but we're makin' it ourselves. We can make it as cool lookin' as we want to." He rolled a hoof at the orb. "But here it is, a ball."

"And a ball it will remain," sang Belle with a smile. "Until you enter it. Please proceed."

"Fine fine. Ah trust ya." He blinked out of existence, transferring from Belle into the ball. She could feel it, a sensation an organic being would find quite odd, but for her was part of her being. She was uploading him, or allowing him to be uploaded, in that case. He was running in a sequestered part of her code.

"One day we should try running in the same primary space," she mused as it finished. "You must activate the sphere, not that you can hear me. Consider this a test."

No Name was in a dark place, a still place. There was nothing around him, but him. "Mmm..." Still, he was there, which meant something was running, or he would have had nothing to jump to. He willed the program to identify things into functioning and his snakes looked around wildly. There. A dim little label was floating in the darkness. Power, well, that seemed simple enough.

He was beside the button, not walking, simply deciding to be next to it. Programs didn't have to 'walk', right? He reached for it and pressed it firmly, though he felt certain even that was still something he didn't 'have' to do. Felt nice though. The area around him suddenly became a mess of numbers and bars, filling up quickly. When about half of them were full, they all collapsed and Belle's smiling face appeared.

"Welcome to your holo-OS, designed and programmed by your best friend, Belle! Please speak a deep and dark secret to proceed and prove your identity." Unlike the real Belle, though this one was cheerful, it didn't have the robotic warble in its voice.

"Deep secret?" He tilted his head a little. "Couldn't just go with a password, huh? I know she's scared of... Wait, this is a trick. You ain't Belle, and telling you her secrets would, you know, dock me friendship points."

"Answer accepted."

The area was gone, he was gone.

He was reborn. Suddenly standing before Belle, towering over her like the old days. "Wha?"

Belle was clopping her forehooves happily. "Welcome back! Your transmitter is inside you, like before, but there is no external computer involved. You can exist anywhere."

He lifted each of his legs experimentally and took a step forward. "Huh... Yeah, just like ah remember it." He suddenly put a leg over Belle and pulled her closer. "Thanks fer goin' through all the trouble."

"Receival of friendship points noted," she sang with the biggest smile, leaning against him. "Remember you are a hologram."

"Ain't somethin' ah could forget."

"Which means you can be anything you want, with a minimum size of slightly larger than your emitter, which you have seen." She bobbed her head softly. "You are a shapeshifter."

"That's it, you jus' like messin' with mah head. Ah'm a ghost, Ah'm a program. Ah'm a shapeshifter. Well, fine, fine then. You know what shapeshifters do?"

Belle blinked at him with a metal click. "What do shapeshifters do besides shift shapes?"

"They bite people!" He suddenly nipped her on the ear with a clang of struck metal, though he hadn't done it nearly hard enough to harm her. "Gonna bite you for a while."

"Oh noooooo," she wailed, wriggling and laughing at the same time as she was held and nibbled at.

A futter touched down beside them, a dragonfly type. "Do you need help?" he asked the wriggling Belle. "Your hologram... may be malfunctioning?"

Belle rolled up to her haunches with a little electronic snort. "He is perfectly functional!"

"We're jus' playin'," assured No Name with a smile around all his many snakes. "You ain't never bit someone nicely before?"

The dragonfly pony blushed in his cheeks. "Oh! Oh... You should get a private room for that kind of play." He lifted into the air on buzzing wings. "Um, have a nice day." He banked away and fled.

Belle reached up and swatted at the words. "Incorrect!"

No Name squinted at those floating words. "Exhibitionist? I don't think he understood what we were doin'."

Belle poked him right in the chest. "You are a program. Go fix it. I do not wish to be labeled for sexual deviancy. It is not appropriate for a construct operating under my assumed age."

No Name inclined his head faintly. "I don't think either of us even care about that kind of thing."

"We do not, so it is a lie." She pointed up at the floating virtual words. "Please fix it."

"Yer assumin' ah know how to do... that..." He squinted harder at her words. There was a label there, so easy to lose, but it was there. "Be right back." Suddenly his sphere thunked to the ground, his program no longer animating it.

Belle tilted her head. "I wonder when he will realize he is in more than one place at a time...?" She gently nudged the sphere, knowing the sleeping form of her friend was hiding inside.

"This place is... fun." Octavia turned an ear back towards Remington. "But something bothers me."

"Mmm?" Remi leaned in over her equine friend. "What's that?"

"Your presence." Octavia looked over her shoulder. "Don't you have things you want to do? Playing my chaperone the entire time hardly seems entertaining for you."

"You are a friend." Remi gently stroked over one of Octavia's twitchy equine ears. "Spending time with you while you're having fun is fun."

"You say that..." She turned back ahead, trotting along the row of stores, each brightly lit and a dazzling array of colors. "Part of me wonders if your interest isn't entirely innocent."

"No part of me is entirely innocent." Remi smirked softly, her eyes rolling. "If you're asking if I would do naughty things, yes, yes I would, given a chance. But here I am, not doing that, because I'm not a damn monster, thanks. She flopped against Octavia, her legs swinging in the air, arms wrapped around Octavia's powerful neck. "I want you to be happy again, to enjoy life."

"We have not been friends for that long, but you attached yourself to me almost immediately." Octavia's previously stroked ear twitched. "Pardon me for finding that... concerning on some level."

"Now with paranoia?" Remi casually flicked the other pony ear. "One day I'll move on, poof, no more Remi in your life. I want to leave you better than I found you. You and Twilight, I swear. If she didn't have Spike, I would have glommed onto her first."

Octavia's ears danced together as she turned towards one of those stores, trotting inside. "Very well, if you insist, then I have a demand as well."

"Mmm? Now you have my interest..."

"Not for long I won't. Sir?" A flutter hopped over the counter, approaching Octavia with a curious, but happy, face. "I want you to select an instrument suited to her anatomy."

Remi sat up with a blink. "Hey, I'm already learning the flute, and I like how that sounds."

Octavia gestured back. "Nothing wrong with a flute. Show us your selection."

"Wind instruments, this way." The shop mare trotted, but her hooves were not on the ground, trotting in the air as her wings carried her. "We have flutes and trombones and so much more! Ever try a saxophone or a Tubu?"

"Tubu?" Octavia arched a refined brow. "Never heard of that."

She gestured to a grand thing that looked like it would wrap entirely around a pony several times before reaching their mouth. "This is a Tubu. It's like a Tuba brought to the next level! It's also very heavy, but us four-legged sorts can handle that."

Remi peered at it skeptically. "Well I only have two lovely legs, so I'll stick with a flute. Octi, why are we getting a new flute? We have one."

"That flute is mine. You deserve one of your very own." She glanced over her shoulder. "As you said, one day, you will move on, and I would have you leave equipped to continue playing... and not with mine."

"But you've played yours." Remi's smile grew. "Every time I play it, it's a little indirect kiss."

"I clean my instruments quite thoroughly," assured Octavia with a shaking of her head. "Now, that one looks nice." Her horn glowed, drawing an arrow in the air pointing at a bright silver flute, though it looked more bluesh towards the front and red towards the back, as if the light reflected oddly depending on the angle viewed.

"That really is a flutter flute." Remi slipped off Octavia, walking on her own feet towards it. "May I?"

The flutter bobbed her head. "Go on. Do you know how to play a flute?"

"I'm learning." Remi took it in her hands, running her furry fingers up and down it gently before bringing it up to her lips and giving a soft steady blow. A note began to issue forth, changing as she brought her fingers down on the holes, playing a little aimless song as she moved from one hole to the next, testing the instrument. "Sounds different," she decided. "But definitely a flute."

Octavia nodded shallowly. "I'm impressed you could hear the difference. Every flute is just a little different. Do you like it?"

"Yes, do you like it?" The storekeep was practically vibrating with excitement. "I have a nice carrying case to go with it."

Remi reached with the flute and gently poked the flutter right on the nose. "You're lucky you're adorable. Now, Octavia, you really want to buy this for me?"

"I do," she stated simply.

"Then I will yield to your wishes." She dipped her head, ears going flat to the side for the duration of the motion. "It is a nice looking flute."

"Very good. Give us that carrying case as well." She pointed to where the cases were arrayed. "Walking around the station with a flute in your hands sounds dreadfully inconvenient at best."

"And now the trick." Remi leaned towards Octavia. "Do you have money?"

Octavia looked ready to hotly refute the question when she came to an abrupt halt. "I..." She turned to the shopkeep, her magic reaching into side and drawing out a bag. "Do you accept these?" She set down a jingling bag of Equestrian bits.

The shopkeep half-pounced the bag, pulling it wide open and stuffing their face inside. "Oh wow, actual coins! What are they made of?" They came back, one coin in their mouth, biting at it in an unsuccessful attempt to determine its composition.

"A gold-platinum mixture, magically stamped to ensure validity." She inclined her head faintly. "Seeing as Equestria is not in this sector of space, it could also be seen as a collector's item, could it not?"

"Collector's item... But not money." The shopkeep crossed her arms over her chest, hooves bobbing lightly. "You should sell these to a collector, or maybe a researcher, then come back with the money. We'd both win then." She gently pushed the bag away, denying it. "The directory is just outside."

Remi began to head out, setting the flute down on a random surface as she went. "Sounds like our adventure continues. Let's go sell some money, for money."

27 - Cyber Crime

View Online

He was in a large place. He struggled to find another word for it, but that really was the best word that came to his mind. Everything felt vast and a little overwhelming. On the positive, he also felt like he had plenty of room. His motions were smooth and fast. He was in the ship computer, apparently hijacking a relatively robust thread that prioritized him well enough to give him all the CPU cycles he knew how to use.

All around him swirled text, rushing to float over heads before the eyes of those who had the augmented reality equipment to see it. Of course, he could see such text too, but he had no such gear. He was a program, that ran another program. How would that worked if he was flesh and blood? Like grabbing a passing mouse and shoving them in your eyes and somehow you could see as the mouse saw?

He shook his head free of the curious idea. Why had Belle given so much perspective of a living thing, despite him not being that? Well, of course she had. She was making a new version of a living person with him. It wouldn't be a very good one if the new one never even considered things from the living angle. But he wasn't that person. And she wasn't Belle, not the original Bullette. They were both copies, just like the champions, he mused.

Each champion was kind of like the ones before and after them, but also their own person. To just lump them all as the same person wasn't very nice. Still, they were closer. They could see their past lives. He couldn't do that. He only had the stories told to him, of the lumbering pony he looked like, who wandered the ashen fields, accepting no long term company beside the little quasi-robotic friend he had allowed into his pained heart.

Wait, he was there to do something, not muse on his past. His eyes darted, looking towards a clock that floated in his vision. Only a few seconds had passed, though that had felt longer. He really was running faster in the ship's computer. "Neat." He started the program that allowed him to see the labels of things and began swimming against the current. Teleporting from point to point would have been more accurate, jumping from one label to the next, searching.

Surely the words were coming from somewhere, where they were stored. He just had to...

Suddenly he was frozen, and not in the stream anymore. As large and fast as it had been a moment before, he had become slow to the point of barely moving at all. His eyes moved so slowly he could feel them moving, even if he knew he had no real 'eyes' to move, and no sockets to move them in. The label...


He had been identified as a virus and snatched out of execution. "Shit," he grunted out, considering his next action.

Octavia craned her head back to behold all of the directory before her. "This is massive."

Remi tapped Octavia on the temple. "That's because you don't have AR."

"AR?" She looked over her shoulder at the vulpine that had slid back on top of her.

"Augmented Reality." Remi wriggled her fingers dramatically. "Means you can see pictures in front of real things. In this case." He eyes darted to the board. "There's a nice virtual one floating in front of the real one and I can move it around." She raised a hand and batted at nothing. "And scroll through it without getting neck pain."

"How... interesting. Well, since you have this A.R.--" she slowed down, pronouncing each letter forcefully. "--you can look it up. We need a collector, did we not?"

"Or a historian." She clucked her tongue smartly before thrusting a finger out. "There." But she was pointing at the air.

"And where is that?" She looked forward, glancing about at those flying and walking past. "I can't see whatever it is you're looking at."

"Then just follow me." She nudged her thighs into Octavia, urging her onwards as a rider would a proper horse. "My faithful and captivating steed, we have an adventure that needs doing."

"I have no idea what you want me to do besides walk." And thus she began forward. "Despite appearances, I am not a horse, and I was not trained in whatever commands you wish to convey besides guessing 'start moving' and 'please stop'. Use your words, Remington."

"Don't be like that." She gently rubbed one of Octavia's large equine ears. "I know you're not a horse. You're a pony, my little pony, at least today. Thanks for putting up with me. So we need to go that way, to the elevator. They're on another level entirely." She clicked her tongue as if trying to get the attention of an animal. "We'll be there and back soon, and then you can make your first purchase of the trip."

Octavia shook her head as she bore Remington along. "Your impertinence knows no bounds." But she didn't buck the fox off. "You remind me of her a little..." She swallowed heavily. "Not that I intend for you to replace her, nor could she be replaced, but--"

"--I get it, chill. Some people are similar. I wish I coulda met her then. I bet we'd get along famously, or get into a huge nasty fight worth writing down." She smirked softly. "It's funny how that works, but I'd enjoy it either way. Either way, good. I like you, and I know she did too. You attract us, my little refined pony. Want to tell me more about her?"

"You wish to hear of your competitor?" She swerved an ear back towards Remington. "Truly?"

"She's not my competitor." Remington rolled her eyes. "She's more of my ancestor, what came before me. So, yeah, tell me about Grandma Vinyl. That was her name, right? Tell me more."

"She was... full of life, even until the end." Octavia began to recount the tales of her troubling roommate slash life partner. "It was her fault I ended up with this." She raised her arm with the device wrapped securely around it.

Remington suddenly pointed at it. "Hey! I bet that thing could show AR for you."

"Huh? I thought you wanted to hear about Vinyl?" She peeked over her shoulder just long enough to thump into the side of a flutter trying to fly past. Both bounced back, blinking at one another. "Pardon."

"Sorry," agreed the flutter, a smile on his face. "Gotta go!" He darted past as he had tried a moment ago.

Remi waggled a few fingers at the fleeing flutter. "I am, and I do, but you reminded me. Let me see that." She reached over Octavia's shoulder, grabbing for the LAP on Octavia's front left leg.

Octavia wrenched it away, staggering a step in the vigorous motion. "Pardon you! You can have a peek at it when we've arrived somewhere I'm not using that leg. Now then, as I was saying..."

Remington smirked from above and behind Octavia, looking not at all displeased at being so firmly rebuked.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" The young Under Score stroked his entirely beardless chin. "We're gonna get in trouble."

An even younger Dawn Event bounced in place. "Have faith, we'll be fine! C'mon, do it!"

A stout Zebra mare shook her head. "This is ridiculous, but I know the best here..." She reached her hooves for a panel, working it free and poking her head beyond. "Wow... They really color coded everything." Suddenly she was being jostled and bumped as all her young friends squeezed in to see what she was seeing. "I can't work like this!"

"Sonja." The smaller Fast Shadow popped out and flopped to her haunches. "We're sorry. Everyone, give her room to work."

"You're not the boss of me." The smaller Steel Prism popped free and sat, crossing his arms petulantly.

"Maybe some day I will be." She stuck out her tongue at him.

"Nuh uh!"

Under Score hadn't withdrawn, instead pointing into the hole. "They have RFID tags, use those, not the colors."

"Good idea." Sonja nodded softly before giving Under a sudden shove, sending him sprawling to the side. "Now give me some room." She grabbed a fancy tool from her pouch in her mouth and half-climbed in, little mechanical sounds soon emanating from where she worked.

Under rolled up onto his belly before sitting up properly. "Hmmph. You could have asked."

"She did ask." Fast waggled a hoof at Under, looking amused. "Now tell Steel I'll be the next captain."

"Hm?" He looked between Fast and Steel, both looking petulantly determined. "It's too early to know for certain. It's entirely possible neither of you will be a captain."

Both gasped with alarm, hopping to their hooves and looking at him with equal intensity.

"I speak only the truth." He held up a hoof. "Dawn, back me up."

"He has a point." Dawn nodded softly. "We are too early. The current crew will likely not retire in time before another generation has arrived and is more likely to assume control. It sucks, but eh." He shrugged his shoulders mightily. "The gods have their own plans."

Fast scuffed the ground softly. "That stinks! I'm ready to be captain."

Steel poked her on the shoulder. "No you ain't. We aren't even out of class yet."

Sonja peeked over her shoulder. "If you don't give me some quiet, none of us will ever be out of class, now shut up!"

Despite the call for silence, their argument continued, but turned to body language instead, with extended tongues and rude gestures replacing angry words as they thumped together, ready to prove their dominance over one another.

Dawn shook his head softly at Under. "May the gods spare us the need to insist on things in such a way."

"May they be kind," half-laughed Under with a wry smile. "Say, is there a god of stupid arguments?"

"Oh, several..." He frowned in thought. "I don't have them all memorized, but... uh..."

"There!" Sonja pulled herself free, tucked her tool away and reached for the access panel to put it back. "We're in. The system was busy with something, which helped us. Now we're registered as Responsible Adults."

Steel nodded softly. "Well, we are responsible."

"And we'll be adults soon enough," agreed Fast.

Dawn started forward. "The gods are kind. Let's enjoy it."

"By that he means it's time to party." Under nodded firmly. "I hear flutter drinks can make you see colors."

Sonja frowned at him, though she followed after. "You're joking."

"Shall we find out?"

The ragtag collection of mini champions emerged from the secluded hallway into the main thoroughfare, all marching determinately towards the bright neon lights that advertised more adult fun, rated far above their ages. Dawn shook his head. "We are countless centuries old, the way I see it. We are correcting an error."

Sonja's right ear twitched softly. "Yeah, just fixin' a mistake, that's all. Now let's go do what people our age are allowed to do."

A rough cheer erupted through the crowd and their pace hastened. They were soon in front of a booming nightclub, the ground beneath them vibrating from the volume of the music playing inside. Steel strode up to the bouncer flutter, his chest puffed and head held high. "Good day. We're going inside."

"Are you now?" The bouncer squinted at the great lot of obvious foals. Over their heads were a variety of ages that didn't look appropriate at all. Steel was apparently 34 years old. Responsible Adult. Likes: Getting into trouble. Dislikes: Girls (especially cooties). "Well, before you go in, we have to give you special VIP bracelets."

Smiles spread through the group. VIP? Surely they had done something right. He slapped a thin band of material onto each arm offered his way, marking each as underaged and not to be served alcohol. "There you are. Go in and have a good time."

With a great unified cheer of victory, they charged inside.

28 - The Depths of Colorful Madness

View Online

"Excuse me." Copper Prism came to a halt at the voice calling towards her. She turned to see a larger flutter looking at her and she pointed at her chest. "Yes, you. You're obviously with the ship, right?"

She nodded as she ventured a little closer. "I was actually heading that way. You have a lovely station."

"Thanks." The flutter nodded softly. "I think we have some of yours." He tossed his head towards the sound of the loud music. "They're inside, having fun, but little foals shouldn't really be here, ya know?"

Her eyes widened before swiveling upwards to see what she was in front of. That was certainly a dance club for adults. She could see adult figures bouncing and enjoying themselves. "Oh dear. You let them inside?"

"I tagged them as minors so they wouldn't be served nothing bad for them, and the clients know what the bands mean, so they shouldn't be getting into too much trouble." He shrugged softly. "But they also aren't coming out on their own, so an adult of their ship should scare them out fast enough."

"I see... Well..." She glanced away along the line of flutters moving through the ship. "I'm not trained in youth education."

"You don't need specific training to exist." He smirked softly as he turned towards the inside, pointing. "Just walk in there and make sure they see you. Should solve it."

"Yes... alright." She took a slow breath to call forth her will. "I'll be right back." She strode forth into the dance club, just to learn it was much louder on the inside. Her ears folded instantly as she crossed the threshold where advanced technology had been damping the sound from escaping into the surrounding area.

In her vision, a pixie appeared and pointed a star-studded wand at a new control that was clearly labeled 'Volume'. It vanished without a word, its duty complete. "Oh, thank the gods." She grabbed the knob with her magic and twisted it to the left and the volume began to fade in her ears. "Wait..." Did that mean the music wasn't actually being played? It was an AR performance!

She shook her head softly as she turned it down to where she could barely hear it, eyes searching for small ponies getting into mischief.

"Excuse me." Several uniformed fluttered with bright golden badges landed in a circle around Belle and her ball. "We need to talk."

Belle's ears swiveled left and right, sweeping over the lot of them that had just descended out of the mass of flutters darting over her so suddenly, as if they were conjured from the aether from nothing. Still, they were flutters. Police flutters. "How can I assist?"

One of them stepped forward. "Are you aware that uploading programs without permission is against station protocols? Especially self-replicating programs. Especially self-initializing programs. Especially especially programs that do not accept standard commands."

Belle waved a hoof as if nothing of import had been said. "That program is a citizen of Everglow and crew of--"

"Lying is also against protocol," warned the same flutter, wagging a hoof reprimandingly. "Programs are not alive. They're not even 'kinda alive' like angels and things. They can't be given citizenship."

Belle huffed at that, bouncing in place with a new frown. "You take that back. I am also a program!"

"You're a robot, that's different," argued the flutter, tilting his head.

"How is that different?" Belle thrust a hoof at him. "You're a robot! So what if your computer is all wet and squishy. He gets to choose his computer. I am very jealous, but happy for him. He is also my friend." That word warbled dangerously.

"Be that.... as it may..." The police officer apparently in charge glanced to his peers and back to Belle. "We would have terminated the program, but it refuses to be shut down. Tell us how to remove it and promise to never do it again and this can be over without trouble."

Belle leaned against the great ball that was her dormant friend. "Just let him go. He was trying to fix a mistake for me, then he'd leave. Are you hurting him?" Her voice swung from high to low in uneven waves. Despite being a robot, she did a remarkable job of emoting, tail lashing with little mechanical clicks.

"How do you..." He aborted the question midway, sitting down on his haunches instead. "Look, little miss. Why don't you go ahead and tell us what mistake he was trying to fix. We can start there."

Belle thrust a quivering hoof up at the words that described her. "I am not an exhibitionist!" she cried with dismay. "I am too young to engage in such activities. It was a misunderstanding."

"How old is she?" whispered a different cop to another beside her. The other just shrugged.

The one in charge nodded softly. "Their vote changed your viewable traits because you have so few votes on your file at this time. As you meet and deal with people, more opinions are added and minority thoughts fade away, eventually leaving a better view of things. At this point, only you and those close to you can even see what you haven't reported yourself."

Belle blinked once, twice, thrice more. "You cannot see it?"

"Sure can't." He shook his head softly. "Now you say he was trying to fix that?"

"He was," she quickly agreed, bouncing once in place. "He will not harm anything."

"Except your file." He took a slow breath. "We can't allow a program to wander into that database and make arbitrary changes. How do we get rid of him?"

Belle wrapped a leg part way around the large metal sphere beside her. "He..." She licked over her lips, not that her tongue was wet, or her lips needed wetting.

Star Dancer sat up. Her video had suddenly stopped, replaced with a big red square that announced a call was incoming. She brushed away her popcorn and made herself presentable as quickly as possible. "Right at the good part..." She reached out and pressed the button that didn't really exist, allowing a flutter to appear on the screen.

"Good day," They greeted. "Sorry to bother you, but one of your crew has broken station protocol."

Star's ears perked up. "Who would be so dumb?"

The view shifted off the speaking flutter, panning rapidly over the inside of the station as it turned in place to look at Belle before swinging back to the face of the flutter making the call. "You recognize her, I assume?"

"Belle," sighed out Star, sinking in her seat. "What'd she do? She's... usually pretty harmless."

"Uploaded a virus into the station computer. We've halted its progress, but can't terminate it. She has refused to tell us how to do so." The fluttercop tilted his head at her. "We really don't want this to ruin your visit. Can you convince her to help us?"

This was a far cry from chilling out and catching up on media... "Let me talk to her and I'll do my best. She doesn't mean to hurt anyone, that much I'm sure of."

"Fascinating." Twilight gently raised the helmet on her head and set it down on the panel she had been staring at moments ago. "There's so much to learn. I don't even know if I have enough time to absorb it all, and time's the one thing I have a lot of."

Spike shook his head and raised his hands to pop his helmet off, a soft alarm ringing about him not terminating it properly. "All done?"

"For now. Perhaps we should--" She was interrupted by the growl of a wild and dangerous beast. "--get something to eat." She had the sense to blush faintly at her belly's cry. "What would you like?"

"Twilight, we've been here for hours." He turned for the exit, waving at the librarian along the way. "I'd eat almost anything, but since you asked, let's go for pasta."

"Pasta? Certainly." She hopped up onto his available back and hugged him from above. "Today has been wonderful. Thank you for being so patient."

"Any time, Twi." He started out. "See you later, thanks for the books."

"We don't have any books," noted the librarian with a confused look on her face. "But you're welcome!"

Twilight leaned in to whisper, "A digital book is still a book. Pedant."

"I've never met one of those before," jested Spike with a smirk, carrying his studious partner into the busy streets. "Now let's find some food."

"A fine idea... Spike, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"

He trotted along, matching the pace of the flutters moving around them. "Mmm? Sure, what's up?"

"Are you... angry at me?"

He peeked over his shoulder at that. "That's sudden. Did I say I was angry?"

"No, no... you wouldn't... You... You're a good dragon, Spike, too good maybe... I mean... You had a wife, Spike."

"I did." He wasn't slowing.

"And children."

"Technically, I still have those, probably?"

"See, that!" She thrust a hoof at his face, though he wasn't looking at her to see it anymore. "You had a full family, and I... dragged you away from it... You have plenty of reason to be very angry at me."

"I made my decision, Twi." He angled towards what looked like an ideal place to get a bite. "They were grown and doing their own things. I'm sure they went on to do great things. Maybe they even remember me, that'd be nice."

"How can you be so...." She rolled a hoof in the air, struggling to find the word. "Like you don't care."

"Of course I care." He tilted his frame to the side, prompting Twilight to slide off. They were in front of where dinner awaited them. "I wonder about it a lot, when I'm not busy. I wonder if they'd recognize me. I wonder if I'd ever have had other children. I wonder how Equestria's doing." He inclined his head inside. "I wonder if they have good meatballs."

Twilight snorted at the last pondering. "There's only one way to discover that last one." She trotted past him towards the inside. "I am sorry..." Suddenly it clicked and she turned in place right back at him. "Wait, you want children?"

Spike pulled up short, barely avoiding walking into Twilight. "Huh? Sure. Being a dad's nice. It's hard work too, don't get me wrong, but it's still nice..."

"Then... why haven't you asked me... about that?" Her speech slowed as she began to color brightly. "I am your wife. I am literally the pony you should bring this up with, but you never mentioned a thing."

"You're also my sister." He reached out and booped her right on the nose. "And while I love you very very much, it's not that kind of love."

"We are not related!" When he raised a brow, she backed up half a step. "Not like that! I mean... by blood... We have no genetic similarities that could even theoretically imply incestual complications. We're not even the same species!"

"And you're still my sister," he concluded as if it was obvious. "One who I care for deeply, and one who I am about to pick up and carry because she insists on having this conversation where we're blocking everycreature else and I'm getting hungrier by the moment."

She squeaked, looking to the forming line of flutters trying to get into the same place they were. With a bright red face, she hurried inside and almost galloped to a free table, parking herself and hiding her face behind a wing as if that could hide the shame she was feeling in that instant.

With a soft thump, Spike sat down across from her and picked up the menu. "If it helps, I bet they were all super curious about the whole thing. You made their day."

"Not helping!"

29 - Currency Exchange

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Octavia's eyes went over the plaque beside the door they were in front of. "Illuminated Gaze, Historian Preserver," it read. "I see... Well, these coins are a bit of history. Do you suppose he, or she, will want them?"

Remi gently dug her heels into Octavia's sides in an increasingly practiced way. "Only one way to find out. Onwards!" Suddenly she was airborne, thrown free of Octavia in a powerful buck. Remington flipped once in the instant she had and came down on all fours, bouncing right back up to her feet with a grin. "I was enjoying that, but good on you."

Octavia rolled her eyes as she approached the door. It slid open without prompting, allowing her to walk on through it without slowing. The inside was very different from the outside, each available shelf, counter, and table space occupied by something curious looking. Historical artifacts, Octavia had to assume, but they were from histories she didn't know and cultures she could barely fathom.

She tried to ignore them all and look for the owner, but curiosity got the better of her as she started to walk past something that seemed like a string instrument gone horribly awry. She stopped and turned to it, peering at the strange way its strings went not in a straight line but bent along the body of the instruments equally curved and warped form. What manner of sound would it make? Part of her wanted to know, and another part feared it equally.

"What'd you find." Remi walked up beside Octavia, joining her gaze to admire the strange instrument. "Woah. Can you play that?"

"I wouldn't dare touch it without its owner's permission." Octavia turned an ear towards Remi. "We are in a museum, not the music store. To assume one can put their hooves on anything in here would be quite impolite."

"I'm glad you understand that." The room got brighter, light spilling off a sudden hologram that popped into being of a smiling elderly flutter male. "So many youngsters wander in here thinking it's just a toy collection. Welcome!" He was not a butterfly, instead having the sharper angles of a hornet. "What brings you here?"

Octavia turned to address the mostly transparent image of a flutter. "Good day. I am Octavia and it's a pleasure to meet you."

"So polite, I like that." The holographic flutter dipped his head. "Illuminated at your service. Who's your friend?" His gaze turned to where Remi was peering at a collection of crude knives.

Remi waved without turning. "Remington, hey."

Illuminated raised a hoof to his snout. "She's not like you. So, are you here to browse?"

"I was hoping to sell, actually." Octavia's horn glowed as she pulled a coin free from her bag and floated it towards the hologram.

"Put it over there." He was pointing at one of the only clear spaces in the room, a black glass platform. "I'll be able to give it a proper inspection. Tell me more about it. Where's it from? When's it from?"

Octavia floated the coin over and set it right in the center of the platform. "It's from my home country, on my home world, Equestria. It's..." She began clucking her tongue, trying to place an age on it.

The holographic collector looked away at something else and began striking keys only he could see. "How interesting. Obvious anti-forgery magic... A little crude by modern standards, but well built... The age... Here we are... How curious... Equestria you said?"

Octavia inclined her head. "Yes. It comes in different denominations, which I also have."

His features brightened, a smile coming. "If you have a complete set, I'd like to see that."

Remi slid in next to Octavia, tail twitching and a grin on her face. "Let's talk numbers first?"

"Yes, yes..." He pressed a few more unseen buttons. "For a full set..." A number appeared on the screen. "If you have another set of a different printing, I may be interested. This number assumes the coins you have are all of the same set. If they're from different ones--" A new number appeared, lower. "--I will have to offer less."

Octavia wobbled a hoof. "Would the fact that this world has not even made formal contact increase its value?"

"Were I a currency exchange, quite the opposite. Money with the backing of some unknown government? Who would value that?" He leaned forward with a gentle smile. "But to someone like me... Let me see what you have."

Her pouch of coins emerged, clinking softly. She opened it in her magic and peered inside, starting to pluck out coins slowly. "One bit. Five bits. Twenty bits... Ah." She put down one coin that was very different. "This is a half bit, not often used, but still part of the set." Her eyes darted over the coins. "Now are they..."

"You have quite the collection." The hologram didn't move from where it was, though it looked like it was walking despite it. A wall in the back opened up and the hologram blinked away, allowing the actual form of Illuminated to enter, eyes on the coins. "Did you imagine you would have a use for them away from your world?"

Octavia sat down in surprise at the appearance of the historian. "Oh! Hello there. I didn't realize you were so close at hoof."

"I did mention most of my visitors were loud younglings." He closed with the coins, examining them even as his hoof unfolded into gleaming tweezers and a glimmering disc appeared before his face, making his eye look quite larger. "May I?"

"Please." She dipped her head and glanced towards Remi. "They were mine and, I confess, I simply didn't think to not bring them."

"A perfectly normal response." He closed his tweezers on the first coin and raised it up just before his disc, examining closely. "Mmm, ah, is this a year?" He turned the coin around, his other fore hoof pointing at the portion he had been studying.

Octavia leaned in to get a look. "Oh, yes. That is the year it was minted, I believe."


"After Equestria, the founding of our country," she explained. "I never really paid attention to that on the coins before, I confess."

"Fascinating... Do you have any coins from before your country's founding, or perhaps other countries of the same world?" When Octavia shook her head, he set the coin down and reached for the next. "Well, pity that, but now we know what to look for. We just need to see if the year matches. With a name like that, was your country entirely pony in origin?"

"In majority, but not exclusively."

As he studied the coins one by one, he gently pried at her for more information on her strange distant world.

Twilight raised a hoof to her chin, a fork feeding herself with her magic a saucy bit of pasta that left her snout speckled with red. "I... never had a significant other. I wonder, at times, if that makes me a failure."

"You upheld your friendship and helped countless other ponies find and hold onto theirs." Spike rolled a hand before taking a big slurp of his own. "Seems like a success to me. You ran Equestria, and it didn't collapse in fire. You even found, trained, and stepped aside for a successor, just like Celestia did for you. How is that a failure?"

Twilight wobbled a hoof at herself with her free hoof. "I was supposed to be friendship. That wasn't just a specialty. It was... supposed to be me. I was supposed to live it, breathe it, but I never let anyone in close enough to... do the next level after that. Countless ponies, stallions and mares... I didn't even shut them all down. I didn't even see half of them. They were friendship problems to be solved, and I did that... When my... When they..." A tear dropped from her face into her food, not that it stopped her from twirling up some more pasta.

"That's different."

Twilight blinked softly, sitting up. "Pardon?"

"Huh, oh?" Spike shook his head. "I'm used to certain conversations. They start the same way, the middle parts vary faintly, but are basically the same, then end the same way." He lifted his shoulders softly. "That was different."

"Spike, what are you saying?" She set down her fork, still loaded with strands.

"And we lost it." He sat up onto his haunches. "Sorry, that was my mistake."

"This isn't funny!" she hissed out. "I'm trying to share my emotions with you and you're... I don't understand, but I don't like it. Why are you making fun of me, Spike?"

"Look, I'm sorry, my bad." He slipped two fingers to either side of a wine glass' flute and gently sipped from it. "But we have had this conversation before, many times. I was being happy that you're breaking the pattern a little."

"I would remember if we've had a conversation!" she practically squeaked out, getting eyes turning towards her, not that she cared in that moment. "You are being very mean, Spike. This isn't like you."

Spike set down the wine and slid a hand across the table, reaching for one of her hooves. She tensed, but didn't stop him from making contact, gently wrapping his fingers around her leg and squeezing softly. "Twilight, I don't lie, not to you. You know that."

"But... How...?" New tears began to form, thoughts of her romantic life abandoned, forgotten in the moment. "And why do you tolerate it?! Why aren't you angry?! I've... been an awful friend!"

Spike smirked faintly. "Maybe a little, but you're so awesome outside that, it works out. You were hurt, Twilight. You're getting better. Don't beat yourself up for being hurt, look forward to growing."

"Growing hurts, Spike." She floated over not the glass, but the bottle of wine and upturned it, taking a powerful swig.

Spike grabbed the bottle in his other hand, wrenching it away from her. "Growing hurts," he agreed. "Do you remember what you told me when I first noticed I couldn't stand on two legs so well anymore? I came galloping into your room, waddling more like, trying so hard to stand up just to fall over with every other step. I was a mess, all tears and snot. Do you remember that?"

Twilight thought back, her own sniffles quieting. "I... remember... You were getting larger again. You couldn't hold yourself up easily, and it was really bothering you."

"I was a mess," he corrected with a bit of a smirk. "I'm not afraid to admit it. But you were there for me. What did you tell me, Twilight?"

"I... said that you were Spike. Bigger, smaller, two or four-legged, you were my... precious brother, my #1 assistant. Savior of Equestria countless times over. You would still be Spike, and... you were growing... and that was..." She trailed off, hiccuping, new tears starting. "And... that was alright."

"It'll be alright this time too." He gently squeezed her held leg, his fingers rubbing through her fur slowly. "It'll be alright this time too..."

"It'll... be... alright," she repeated to herself in soft desperate tones as if trying to convince herself. "Growing hurts..."

"It always does." He gestured at the table. "Want to head out? Or we can just sit here for a while. Either's fine by me."

"I just want to be here..." She looked up into his eyes. "With my friend, my best friend. The most wonderful dragon I know."

"The only dragon you know," he corrected with a little smile. "Let's relax then, but no more wine." He set the bottle down on the floor out of sight. "But maybe a little dessert instead?"



"Why am I so small?" she asked, her voice just as tiny as she was compared to how large she had once been. "Did I know? Did I forget? Was that a conversation I had before?"

30 - We've Been Narced!

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Copper Prism scanned over the crowd. Most were either idling in place, enjoying drinks and company, or dancing vibrantly on the floor that glowed in a multitude of colors beneath them, reacting to the song and their motions. But only a few of them were trying to be stealthy with mixed results. Small forms were darting, trying to keep larger flutters between themselves and Copper, but their sudden motions made them all the more visible.

Rather than approach the foals directly, she stretched out a hoof nowhere in particular, specifically not looking at them. "Oh, guess they're not in here," she said with theatrical drama. "That's a shame. Good thing though, the Captains would be so mad if I found them in here of all places. Maybe I'll find them in the library, wouldn't that be nice? We were worried for nothing while they were being good foals."

Sonja thumped against Dawn Event. "Let's get out of here. We can get brownie points by looking like we're studying."

Under Score softly rubbed at where he did not have a beard, far too young for it. "That does sound fun."

Steel rolled his eyes. "Of course it'd sound fun to you. You always have your snout buried in a book."

Dawn shrugged. "Still, the idea has merit. The gods themselves sent us an angel to give us the idea." He inclined his head towards Copper. "Let's go before the opportunity flees us. The gods are good, but their blessings can be fleeting."

They dashed from one set of adults to the next. Along the way, Sonja casually set down a wine glass that had never had any wine in it, just a grape soft drink she had been told was 'the strongest they could serve her'. She had chugged it down without flinching. Why were adults so weak?!

As a group they charged out onto the street and were rapidly lost to Copper's sight. She let out a little breath. "Mission accomplished." She made her way back towards the entrance herself, nodding towards the bouncer.

"Thanks." He drew up a hoof in an idle salute. "They didn't break nothin', just thought it was time for them to go."

"Glad to help." Copper dipped her head, ears splaying a moment before she turned in place. "Which way is the library? I should bring them back to the ship." With a helpful point, off she went to find some foals for real that time.

"About that..." Spike sat up a little. "It happened slowly."

"And I didn't notice?" Twilight swallowed heavily despite having no food in her mouth. "Nothing caused it?"

"I have plenty of guesses." He extended a finger with each guess. "You stopped making new friends, you're so far away from Equestria, you've shut yourself out of social engagement. You were miserable even if you were good at fooling yourself. You--"

"Enough! Enough... thank you." She reached for her wine but it had been snatched away, leaving her to will the glass of water over instead and sipping at it lightly. "Why... didn't you say anything?"

"I tried." His fingers flexed as he did some math. "About six times. You became more angry each time I brought it up, even though you'd forgotten it by the next time I brought it up."

Twilight's head fell to the table, the bottom of her snout and cheeks resting comfortably on a bed of gooey pasta. "I was that bad?"

"I'm not holding it against you."

"Maybe you should," she spat, sitting up, strands dangling from her fur. "Just imagining you... stuck there... with me, acting like that..."

He reached across the small table and casually began brushing the pasta free of the bottom of her face. "That you're thinking about that makes me pretty happy. You're waking up."

"Waking up?" She raised a brow at him. "I wasn't sleeping."

"You may as well have been. But it's changing, now, and that makes me pretty happy." He took a napkin and began working it through her fur.

"Spike... how can I even dream of paying you back?" She put a hoof behind her head. "I've taken so much from you, and you just kept on giving. You didn't owe me..."

"That's what friends do." He smiled a little. "That's what family does. Lucky you, I'm both of those. Now--"

"I need to get large again." She shook her head. "It's a literal benchmark of my mental wellbeing, and I am not well. I've made some friends on the ship, but here we are." She extended a wing in a wide arc across the room. "There are many people here, just waiting to be met."

Spike softly snorted. "Twilight, calm down. Trying to imitate Belle isn't how you're going to get better."

Star Dancer smiled at Bullette Belle. She was floating over the errant robot, a face on a virtual screen. "Hello there. I hear you got into a little trouble."

"Can you see it?" Belle demanded, pointing over her head.

Star inclined her head faintly. "I see you are Bullette Belle, a member of our crew in good standing. But I knew that without reading about it. Can you call back your little program friend and stop scaring the flutters?"

"You really see nothing else?" Belle glanced towards the flutter officers and back at Star. "Nothing at all?"

"I see that your favorite color depends on the day of the week and that I currently have a friendship point total of--"

Belle gasped with alarm despite having no real lungs. "How do you know that?!"

Star pointed a hoof at Belle. "You told me the first part and I was joking on the second."

"Oh." She inclined her head with a few soft clicks. "Ha ha ha ha ha," she laughed in an odd monotone. "I get it." She turned to the officer. "You were speaking the truth. Allow me to communicate with him and I will instruct him to leave."

"I'm not sure we can do that..." He raised a hoof to the side of his head. "Get me IT... yeah. I'm still in front of her. She says she can command it to shut down but has to have direct communication. Uh huh... Alright." He lowered his hoof, never looking away from Belle. "We can move him to a, what was that again?" His ear wagged as something spoke to it. "A separate instance in the server," he spoke slowly as if copying what someone else said.

"Are you alright connecting to the same thing?"

Belle bobbed her head quickly. "Yes! Thank you. Friendship points have been awarded." Soft victory music played from inside of her and her usual smile was starting to return.

The officer looked towards Star. "Thank you, Ma'am. I think we have this under control. We'll call if further assistance is required." They shared a salute before Star vanished back to her movie binging.

Illuminated slid the pouch away carefully full of its load of coins. "Let me see your credit device. You don't seem to have an internal one."

Remington barked a sudden vulpine yip of a laugh. "Oh, forgot that part. She doesn't have one. Hey, you care if he puts it on mine?"

Octavia raised an ear towards Remi, frowning softly. "Are we not exchanging currencies?"

Illuminated set the pouch down to the side carefully. "Currencies are soft more often than not, Miss. Digital. About as solid as the image of me you were talking to at first."

"Oh... For Celestia's sake I feel like as much of an antique as the coins at times." She put a hoof to her face. "How do I get something to hold this digital currency then?"

Remi tapped at Octavia's shoulder. "I wasn't joking. He can give it to me, we can get you something to put it on, and I can give it back. You trust me enough for that, right?"

Illuminated shrugged gently. "I don't have spares laying around. Mine is built in." He tapped the side of his head. "It looks like she has one too. Assuming you trust her, seems the most expedient route."

"Yes, fine, very well." She shook her head slowly. "Really, modern living has its own unique issues. Wait!" She raised a hoof so quickly she almost slapped Illuminated with it, her LAP in bold view. "Can this hold the money?"

He squinted at it before his brows went up. "What a unique device!" With a moment of silence he inclined his angular wasp head. "Is that for sale?"

"No," Octavia said in a single note of finality. "Can it hold the money?"

"Let me try..." He seemed to be staring at it, until it softly chimed.

"Accept token? (Universal Credit. Quantity: 1. Press here for hash code)," appeared on the LAP. Octavia smiled brightly as she used her magic to accept the transfer. "Excellent! Please send the rest. It would seem we have this well under control." Soon she had the rest secured in her LAP. "Now how do I tell this thing that is money and not some random... token?"

Illuminated took up the pouch of coins in his mouth. "Pleasure doing business with you both. Have a good day."

Remi watched him go a moment before reaching for the LAP. "If you let me have a try, I can probably convince it."

Octavia's ears pinned against her head. "Please... be careful with it. It is more precious to me than I have proper words for."

"I will leave nothing but a cooperating computer." Remi flopped down onto her butt, folding her legs and reaching to draw Octavia's leg over into her lap. "Let's see here..." She began to tap tap at the buttons, exploring the menus with little chimes with every press. "Oh... nice, here we are... Mmm... Ah! It has a money storage, but it assumes it's physical money, so..."

She made a few quick taps before a bright arc of electricity zapped her prying fingers. "Ow! Alright, easy girl. I'm working for your owner. Actually, tell it I'm a technician."

"Are you?" Octavia raised a brow.

"Officially, on the ship, remember? Now tell it that." She hiked one pointer finger at the LAP. "It won't trust me."

"I wasn't aware it made decisions like that... LAP, can you hear me?"

"Yes," displayed on the screen, Luminance's pixelated head appearing with a cocked ear before nodding. "Fantastic. Remington here is a technician, as authorized by the captain of the ship I sail. Can you let her make a small adjustment?"

"User created. Permissions Set," appeared on the screen before fading back to the usual display.

Remington nodded with confidence. "Perfect. Now I can..." She got to typing, easing her way into the programming interface, more words in smaller font than Octavia usually saw filling the display as Remi got to editing it with soft happy whistles.

"You... have a knack for these things," Octavia noted, watching the fox work busily. "Does it seem to be working."

"Whoever made this, did it right. It's all nice and straight forward and... There." She brought down a finger triumphantly, dismissing the code. The LAP began to reboot itself. Luminace appeared, smiling outwards before fading away, the usual display returning.

The 'cash' display, which had read 0 for untold years, now showed exactly how many universal credits she had. "You wonderful creature!" Octavia pulled her leg back over where she could see it more easily. "Does it know how to send it then?"

"Not as easily as I'd like it, but that would take a lot more time than a quick minute hack session." Remington hopped up to her feet. "Good enough for now. Now, there was an instrument we got that money for, mmm?"

"Ah, yes, let's." Octavia trotted past Remington but stopped just beside her. "Come on."

"Hmm?" Remington looked towards the door, but with Octavia right next to her, it was a bit of a tight fit for walking comfortably. "Is there..." It clicked. "Oh." She slipped up onto Octavia and gently rubbed one of the pony's ears. "Thanks."

31 - Vacations Must End

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Copper Prism was the sun at the center of a constellation of prancing little foals. They squealed and cavorted joyfully around her as she shepherded them onto the ship, ending their little adventure. "Did you learn anything new?"

Under Score was perfectly happy to begin going over what he had learned, which at least kept him at her side and in sight. Her duration of foalsitting was coming to an end.

Remington rode her lovely steed, playing a song to commemorate the moment on her new, flutter-grade colorful, flute. It was a lively little travel ditty to accompany the clip-clops of her friend beneath her.

"You're getting better at that," complimented Octavia as they went, ruining the tenuous illusion that she was a common pony. "I do hope you continue practicing."

"With you as a teacher? They'd have to keep me away first." She stuck her tongue out softly before resuming her playing, only to pause a few notes later. "Say, we need to play a song together some time. Flute and cello, that can work right?"

"Certainly they can." Octavia turned an ear back at her rider. "Most two instruments can, in the care of talented players. Fortunately, that is a number I feel certain we can manage." She carried her friend back onto the ship, ending their delightful little time.

Belle appeared with a digital pop. Looking around, she could see she was in some kind of very small cell. There on a cot was No Name, two snakes holding onto either end of a harmonica as several others blew into it, creating soft haunting tones to pass the time.

"You are growing more skilled," complimented Belle with a big smile, bouncing with little sound effects each time. "I feel certain they did not program their isolation area to appear this way."

No Name sat up, ears pricking towards her. "Guess they wouldn't. So, did they catch you too and throw you in here?"

"Negative," she sang, bouncing towards him. "I am here to secure your freedom. Mission abort."

"Huh, you alright now?" He tilted his head softly at her.

"Your freedom is more important." She reached out and poked him on the chest. "I would rather your existence be continuous. You are not prepared to lose any portion of your life and, as your friend, I should do everything I can to avoid it." Bouncing back, she pointed towards the closed bars of their cell. "If you agree to come back with me, we are both free to go."

"Why would I turn down going anywhere with you?" he asked with a little smirk. "Yer the reason ah came here in the first place." Rather than even wait for her reply, he copied his current self into her.

But that was a place of software. His body went completely still. He stared straight ahead. But it wasn't a body. Software didn't have bodies. Belle turned away from the unmoving form and vanished from the scene, leaving it behind.

She awoke, hopping to solid hooves. "The program has accepted the shutdown request," she reported with a musical tilt.

The flutter officer spoke to someone not there, confirming that the program had gone dormant. He glanced at Belle suspiciously. "You won't get mad if we delete it now, right?"

"Negative, you may proceed." She inclined her head softly, ear pricking at something only she could hear. "That is not you. You are inside me."

"We're all clear." The other officers took off as if there had been an explosion of flutters, all going off in a different direction to resume their various patrols. The one in front of Belle nodded at her. "Thank you for your assistance, now never do that again. Uploading viruses to other people's computers is rarely seen as a friendly act."

"Loss of friendship points noted." Sad music played to commemorate the event. "I will endeavor to not repeat this mistake." She turned to the ball she had been resting against. "Get your body back."

With a brief copy, the most up to date version of his program was back in the holo-emitter, which flickered back to life, becoming No Name in the holographic flesh. "That's better."

The officer blinked softly. "Well... you have a nice day." And off he went, trotting away.

"Did he just say they deleted me?" No Name had a bit of a frown as he stood up to his full height. "I'm right here."

Belle tapped at her chin with soft tinks of metal on metal, considering how to phrase that in as kind a way as possible. "You are in many places."

"One... less place now?" He shook himself out and began to stretch muscles he didn't actually have. "Does that mean I'm still inside you? I'm still inside the ship computer? I'm... in everything I ever jumped to? Girl! If you don't stop destroying my world view, I'm gonna..."

"Close my friendship file?" she asked, dread clear in her discordant whimper.

He threw a leg over her and drew her up close. "Hug you until you squeak." He grabbed her in his jaws and threw her up onto his back, trundling back towards the ship. "This was so much easier when I was just a single hologram in a single room."

"Is that a state you wish to return to?" she asked quizzically, head tilted as she rode No Name along.

"Life's a one way road, even fer holograms, or viruses, or whatever ah am." He shrugged mightilly as he picked his way through the crowd. "Ain't goin' back, can't make me! So there."

"This is acceptable," she sang, hugging him from above. "Let us continue to explore."

"Ah think ah explored plenty, thanks." He turned a holographic ear towards her. "Headin' back to the ship, and you're out of votes on it."

"Aw." Sad music played, but she did not fight his wish.

With the soft sound of the elevator doors opening, Steel and Fast stepped out onto the command bridge. Star Dancer's horn flashed as she banished the media in exchange for ship diagnostic displays. Her popcorn vanished with a pop and she sat up and hopped off the captain's chair. "All in order, Sirs!"

Steel nodded as he came around the corner to see a lot of nothing interesting going on. "So I see. Why don't you go ahead and take your turn?"

"Nah." Star moved to trot past the incoming captains. "I feel relaxed enough already."

The two peered at her as she retreated into the elevator before looking to each other. Both shrugged and moved to take their seats. Fast poked a button she could see, turning the display to an external shot of the ship and the area around it. "We'll be heading out in not too long. Where should we head first?"

"Somewhere we haven't been before?" ventured Steel with a little smile.

"You always say that." She rolled her eyes but had her own smile on. They were explorers. It was to be expected.

Twilight was with Spike, but she was not riding him. She was trotting along beside him. "It's time I start resuming responsibility for my actions."

He inclined his head faintly, eyes forward as they walked. "Hm?"

"I mean it. You've been... my caretaker all the time." She lifted her shoulders. "Not that I don't appreciate it... But I'm a grown mare, and it's long past time I resumed acting like one."

"You know I'm not mad about it."

"And you still should be, at least a little." She circled in front of him, cutting off his walking. "Speaking of that, there is an important thing we need to do, now."

Spike came to a sudden stop to not crash into Twilight. "What do you have in mind?"

"Spike, I think we need a divorce." She sat down and crossed her arms. "We should see other creatures. I do hope we can remain good friends, but, I think you know, this isn't working out."

Spike blinked softly at her, silent for a moment. "Who gets to keep the room? I'm not looking forward to an extended legal battle."

Twilight stared at him with growing confusion for a moment before it struck her and she burst into merry laughter, throwing her head back and only growing louder. It would have been obnoxiously happy, if not for the tears streaming down her face.

Spike reached for her, gently lifting her from the ground and resuming his walk on three legs, one arm occupied holding her close. "That was very brave of you, Twilight. It would be my honor to go back to being your brother, and friend." Though her laughter had turned into choked sobs, the energy between them was clearer than it had been. "I will always be your friend."

"Always?" she asked between her sniffles.

"For as long as I can be." He smooched the top of her head just beside her horn. "You promise to do the same?"

"Forever and a day," she got out quickly, hugging him tightly before sliding back to her own hooves, leaving his grip. With one last snotty snort, she shook her head. "I needed that... I think. Spike, I think it's time to return to the ship. This trip has been... eventful, and insightful, and I'm exhausted."

"The best kind of vacation," posited Spike with a little smirk. Together they returned to the ship.

There would be more adventures ahead of them.

32 Episode 5: Divisions

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Steel's head was canted to the left. Fast's was inclined the same degree but to the right. "Are you sure?" she asked.

"We can do this," added Steel. "At least by Everglow law. You are not technically married by those laws though."

Spike softly shrugged. "Equestrian law means exactly as much as we say it does, being about the only representatives it has around these parts. Besides, you're officials, right?"

Fast nodded at that. "We are vested with the right to speak on behalf of our government. It would be hard to do first contact diplomacy if we weren't."

Twilight's smile was a brief thing. "Then we are following our laws just fine. Any official of the law can oversee such a decision." She turned to face Spike fully. "While recognizing that Spike, my husband, has been faithful and true, I wish to end our marriage vows."

Spike turned to her. "While recognizing that Twilight, my wife, has been faithful and true, I wish to end our marriage vows," he echoed solemnly.

Steel softly cleared his throat. "Very well, since both parties are in agreement, I see no reason to belabor this. You are recognized as married no longer. Update the ship logs." A soft beep informed those nearby that the ship computer had heard and was reacting to the news in its dispassionate way. "I presume you'll want a change of quarters?"

Fast suddenly kicked Steel from the side. "Don't be callous. They'll let us know when they're ready to move out."

Twilight's breath caught in her throat before she could force it down with a heavy swallow. "Spike... if you would keep me company just... a little longer, as my friend?"

Spike reached for her suddenly, mussing her mane with a smile. "I'm in no hurry. We're roommates now."

"Yes! Roommates, of course." She turned to the captains, an awkward smile on her face. "I am ready to return to active duty. I look forward to socializing as a single mare."

"Dating routines: Online," sang Belle, bouncing in place.

Twilight's face darkened instantly. "I... You're... a robot?"

Belle landed a bit stiffly. "I know more about dating procedures than you," she taunted discordantly. "Report for personality diagnosis at 1400!" she merrily sang out, bouncing towards the elevator. "That's an order!"

No Name's voice came from the main screen, "No point arguing wit' her."

Fast frowned at the small image of No Name in the corner of her main screen. "I don't recall giving you permission to be there."

"I'm just following her. I'll be on my way." He ducked off the screen, hopefully meaning he was gone.

Under Score stroked his beard softly. "I would love a chance to examine his code. I would imagine it scarcely resembles the original structure of a holoprogram."

Fast returned to her chair. "More virus by the day. So long as he remains friendly, perhaps he can act as a shield against foreign computer attacks."

Steel settled on his own seat. "All crew, prepare for travel. Take us to full speed. We have a universe to explore."

The room became awash with technical jargon as crewmembers passed vital data back and forth. The ground shuddered faintly with adjustments to speed strong enough to tear a pony in half, had they not been suppressed.

Spike turned for the door. "Come on, we're just in the way right now." He led Twilight back to their room, even if their relation had fundamentally changed.

Remi kissed Octavia's cheek gently. "Did I mention how glad I am my teleport went wrong in just the right way?"

Octavia's ears danced, but she did not move away from Remi. Seated in the center of the room with a vulpine half-wrapped around her, Octavia reached up a hoof to rest on Remi's side. "Something bothers me."


"You are a fox, a bipedal fox." She raised a brow. "What attracts you to me, a quadrupedal equine? To put my Twilight hat on a moment, we're clearly not a good genetic match."

Remi suddenly nipped the closer pony ear. "I didn't hear you making those complaints the last time we tried." That got Octavia's cheeks going a dark hue indeed. "I'm not that shallow, nor am I a random animal in rut. I can be attracted to something because I think their personality is sexy. You qualify for that."

"Even had I none of the required anatomy?" queried Octavia.

"You have all the required anatomy," sighed Remington. "But, just theoretically, there are ways to get cozy with people who got none of it. Just being close and cuddling can be enough sometimes." She suddenly tapped Octavia on the nose. "By the way, you're fixed."

Octavia's eyes crossed at the fingers. "Fixed?"

"Oh yeah, all fixed. Well, maybe not all fixed, but fixed enough for most cases." Remi softly shrugged as she swung around behind Octavia and hugged her from behind, hands rubbing the pony's belly gently. "You're not an automaton anymore. You have will, and wishes, and you're ready to tell people no when they ask for what you don't want to give."

Octavia kept an ear trained on Remi behind her. "And I'm your patient now? That makes our relationship awkward. Dating a therapist that cured you is hardly the sign of health."

"One: We're dating? You have no idea how happy that makes me to hear it from your lips. Two: I'm just someone that cares, not any kind of proper therapist. Three." Remi gently poked with the tip of a claw. "If you want to call this off, I'll be sad, but I won't say no. It's cliche as hell, but we can still be friends, right? We have music to make."

Octavia leaned back against Remi as the ground beneath them shuddered faintly. "We must be moving... We're going to face dangers, you know."

"Big and small," whispered Remi in her ear. "Fierce or insidious. Friendly at times..."

"I'd prefer to have a friend with me..." She glanced over her shoulder. "Will you be staying?"

"Will you have me?" Remi smooched the top of Octavia's upturned snoot. "May I remind, you have two other friends you should reconnect with."

"Oh yes!" Suddenly Octavia rose, forgetting the cuddling going on like a light. "I've been dreadful to them. They should be made aware of my... state, and invited to accompany me on the next stage of my life." She began trotting for the door.

Remi barked out a laugh. "You are getting way better at doing what you want, but maybe don't leave a girl just hanging like that?" She hopped up to her feet. "I'll be practicing until you get back."

"Yes, sorry." Octavia's ears splayed, but she didn't even look back on her way out of the room. "I'll be back."

Remi shook her head at the closing door. "Entirely fixed, not quite, but good enough to heal on your own I think."

Dawn inclined his head as the main screen changed views, showing a larger galactic view that zoomed in on the portion they were in. "There's an unusual gravitic field within 3 light years. I can't identify what's creating it, but can confirm the presence of the field. It's large enough to imply a solar system-sized mass, which would normally be difficult to hide."

Steel raised an ear. "You checked for black holes, I assume?"

"Of course." With a wave of a hoof, Dawn made the screen zoom in tighter. "Nothing in the area is reacting properly if that was the case. Either the rules of the universe are incorrect, or we have something worth taking a look at, Sirs."

Fast nodded softly. "That sounds precisely like something worth putting some eyes on. I suggest we approach, but not too closely. We don't need the ship torn apart by unexplained gravity waves."

"Agreed." Steel thrust a hoof forward. "Set a new course. Let's investigate. Dawn, continue monitoring. Under, join him. If you spot anything new, let us know."

Copper Prism leaned in at a budding plant. "Why aren't you growing?" She walked, more of a side-step, to the next little bud. "This is going to be an issue... Computer?" A soft chime told her it was listening. "Make a log. Growth continues to be hindered. The fertilizer I picked up during my time away doesn't seem to be helping. We may end up becoming reliant on divine magic if this isn't resolved." She let out a soft sigh, sitting down. "End log."

A new chime informed her it had been done. "Increase the temperature by 1 degree and humidity by 2%." Faint noises could be heard, the room adjusting to her command. "We'll get these plants growing again. That is my duty." It was what she was good at! She clopped a hoof down and trotted for the door. "Extend day cycle for 20 minutes, monitor growth rates and alert if significant changes occur."

"I hear you're single."

Spike blinked down at the little zebra filly that said that to him. "Uh...?"

Sonja had a comically large gun attached to her side, brightly colored, more likely a toy than anything else. "Well, is it true?"

"Yeah?" Spike sat down on the way to sitting up. "Why is a filly like you asking about that?"

"Hmmph, I'm countless years old." She buffed a hoof on her chest. "I've died and come back a trillion times, give or take. Don't treat me like a filly."

"I'm going to pretend, for now, I agree, alright. So, what's up?" His eyes followed her as she began walking closer.

"Let's be clear, like two 'dults." She half curled, tail curling. "There aren't a lot of choices on this ship that aren't people i've already spent lives with. I know how they work. That's boring! You're new. I never even met you."

Spike had to turn his head, the zebra, Sonja, circling around him. "I guess I understand that..." He raised a finger. "But that doesn't work in reverse. I have plenty of options of people I never spent a life with, and the one that qualifies for that role is the one I just divorced."

"I heard." She came in close behind him, her body rubbing against his scales as she looped around to his front. "You have options, a lot of them, but that doesn't mean I can't throw my hat in, right?"

"Except you're still a filly." He put a hand just in front of her. "Even if your brain's an adult, which I haven't been convinced of, you're still growing. I mean, shoot, I'm a big dragon, and you're a small pony. That has obvious issues even putting aside a lot of still important factors."

Sonja fixed him with a smoldering look, uncanny coming from a filly if somewhat imperfect. "No one told you? I like big guns quite a lot. Kind of my thing."

Spike proceeded to pretend to not understand any of the implications just hurled in his face. "I see yours there." His eyes went to the big brightly-colored gun attached to her. "What does it shoot?"

"Not real ammunition," she sighed before she directed it at him. "But I have practice with it!" With a sudden paff of a gust of air, a bright yellow orb of some kind of foam shot out of the big bulbous cannon and bounced off Spike's snout. "Direct hit. See, I know how to handle them big."

"This is a conversation I really didn't want to have with a foal," Spike stated flatly, picking up the foam ball and offering it towards her.

"I'm not," she groaned as she accepted it in her mouth and soon stuffed back into her canon. "I know what it is. I know where foals come from. I know how families are made! I already know all of that! Look, I'm not searchin' for a yes right now. I'm just walking into your field of view, making you know I'm available, alright?"

33 - Perfect Dark

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Belle trotted back and forth in a half-bounce, her eyes on Twilight despite not facing her. "Given the choice of romantic gift, do you prefer food, metal, or literature?"

Twilight inclined her head faintly at the options given. "I don't understand... Metal? Literature? I do enjoy a good book, but that doesn't seem specifically romantic." She sat on her haunches and crossed her arms. "And why am I taking dating advice from a robotic filly?"

"Because the robotic filly has been on more dates than you," replied Belle in a matter-of-fact musical tone. She turned smoothly to Twilight with a big smile. "And I have access to great volumes of data on the matter due to its proximity to my favorite of all activities."

"That's the friendship point thing," noted No Name, though he wasn't anywhere in sight, his voice just seeming to come from the wall.

Belle stuck out her metal tongue. "This is a matter for two mares. Stallions are not welcome right now!"

"Well, let me know then."

Twilight raised a hoof to her cheek, resting against it as she eyed Belle. "Being a program with an adjustable holographic form, isn't 'he' as much of a 'she' as they feel like at any given moment?"

Belle waved that away with the flat of a hoof. "Attempt to distract with philosophy failed. Answer the question please. Metal and literature are common romantic gifts. Rings, pendants, torcs..." She angled her head with soft clicks of internal motors. "Literature in the form of poetry, letters, pictures, and other similar media. These are acceptable standards for romantic exchanges. What is your preference?"

"I... never thought about it specifically before..." She shook her head slowly. "If I were to assume this to be friendship as a whole instead of specifically romance, I'd rather receive what they would rather give. I would want it to reflect them, as a pony, or creature."

"Answer logged." Belle nodded softly as if it was all coming together for her. "If you were giving a gift, what would you give?"

"There's more to a relationship than gift exchanging," she huffed out.

"Please answer the question." Belle was smiling, as was her normal, with the patience of autonomy.

Twilight grumbled softly. "Well... Literature probably... I've gotten Spike a book for his birthday and on our anniversaries, even if our last few have... had limited selections." She reached behind her head, chuckling nervously. "It just felt odd not giving him a book. It's our tradition!"

"Traditions are good for friendship point accumulation." She hopped in place, tail wagging behind her. "Friendship points are required for healthy romantic relationships."

"Have you... had a romantic relationship?" asked Twilight warily.

"Romance and breeding are not synonymous," spoke Belle as if quoting some ancient fact. "I have no desire to reproduce in an organic fashion, but forming deep bonds is a pleasure of life that I very much approve of." She pointed to the wall that had held No Name's voice. "I am in a deep relationship with Error No Name. Close physical proximity and constant exchanges of viewpoints and time causes a form of social intercourse that leaves both of us altered by the other in a desirable fashion."

Twilight's eyes narrowed faintly as Belle went on. "Then... I have experienced romance, many times, by that measure. I have--"

"Excellent," cut in Belle, bobbing her head. "But you seek physical intimacy. You are organic, and wish to experience it in a different way than me." She tapped a hoof on her metal chest. "That is acceptable! Our differences are exciting. Before you engage in physical intercourse, a compatible partner must be located and secured." She grinned, leanining in a little. "If you were to count my intimacy as entirely romantic, than I would be pansexual, but that would be an inaccurate label."

Twilight raised a hoof before it fell again, instead rising up to all four. "Right... You keep your special time to No Name."

"Correct." She nodded firmly. "Only he has access to my deepest secrets."

"But if you ran into a mare that you liked a lot, you could end up that way. Or a dragon, or an especially chatty rock and before you say that's impossible, I remind we had to fight those."

Belle paused a moment before a slow nod emerged. "You are correct. If a silicate lifeform and I accrued enough friendship points, a deep relationship could begin." She angled her head. "The odds of this happening are low. I have a preference for pony-shaped beings, as illogical as that is. Not everything in life is logical, thank goodness."

Twilight cracked a little new smile. "Thank goodness," she echoed. "Belle... thank you. I feel a little better, just having had this conversation."

Victorious music played from inside Belle. "I am pleased to hear that! Let us proceed in our romantic lessons."

"Most sensors report nothing," informed Dawn. "But visual..." He swept a hoof at the main screen and a new window appeared, showing a small round thing right in the center of the field of view. "There is clearly something there."

Under nodded softly. "An undetected and massive object would explain the discrepancy, but what is it? If we're limited to visual, we're going to need to get much closer to unlock this mystery."

Fast peered at the dark orb in the middle of space. "Well, it's not a black hole..." Those looked quite a bit different. "Is it a massive rogue planet?"

Steel nodded in agreement. "Perhaps, but a sense of scale can be difficult to get. How large is that?"

Under's hooves worked busily at keys only he could see. "Roughly the size of a solar system, planets included." An ear turned towards the captains. "If that is a single planet--"

"--it should have torn itself apart," finished Dawn. "Unlikely."

Steel sat up taller. "There's only one way to know for sure. Take us closer in, but remain vigilant. We don't know how passive it is, or may stop being as we come closer to it."

Fast's snout wrinkled faintly. "If that thing has weapons or is a weapon, it could be quite terrible indeed. I'd rather not have the ship evaporated. Wandering, see if you can't hail it. Coming in with a friendly message may lower the odds of a hostile reaction."

"And remove the chance of being sneaky," added the goat as he got to work doing as he was commanded. "No one said being civil was easy."

Under peeked up from his console. "It may be worth searching for existing transmissions, if we're assuming this is an artificial construct."

Fast set a hoof down with a clop. "An excellent idea. Broad spectrum analysis for anything that looks like it could be a message or communication of any kind. Surely if it is artificial, it isn't running entirely silent."

"On it," noted Wandering as he tapped busily. "No promises, of course. If it is a construct, it must have been built to emit nothing it didn't want to emit."

Dawn pressed his hooves together in a motion of prayer. "Then we will hope it wishes to emit something."

The conversation faded, those with work pressing into it as eagerly as they could.

Spike looked up at the chime.

"Octavia Melody," spoke the computer.

"Let her in." He let the comic fall as he sat up and dusted himself lightly. The door slid open, allowing the grey alicorn to enter. "Hey, Octavia. Feeling better?"

"Hello, Spike." She dipped her head faintly. "Twilight isn't here?" She glanced left and right, but there was no Twilight in view. "As to your question, yes, I am... recovering, but I felt words were required between us."

Spike reached for a pitcher and soon had a glass poured of water and offered it towards Octavia. "I'm all ears."

"You have precisely no ears, Spike, but I appreciate the thought." Her magic took the glass from his grip gently, drawing it over for a sip. "I shouldn't have hid from you both like that. It was a disservice, not just to you, but to myself. I whiled away how many years, just... existing, and little more? Vinyl would be furious with me..." She set the glass down on the closest counter. "I doubt you carry lingering enmity about it, but I felt it important, for me, to say that."

"Hey, just because mine aren't big and fuzzy doesn't mean I don't have them, or how would I hear you?" He leaned in and gave her a soft sniffing at. "You're better, I think... Different, for sure."

"Spike!" She quickly pushed his big dragon snout away. "It is impolite to go sniffing at a mare without her leave. Besides, you're--"

"--Nope," he cut her off. "Single dragon."

Octavia blinked at that. "Is that why Twilight isn't here?"

"Nah." He hiked a thumb past Octavia. "She's getting dating tips from Belle."

"From Belle?!" Octavia spurted in obvious surprise. "That doesn't feel like a topic that pint-sized robot would be helpful with."

"Hey, caught me by surprise too, but Belle seems entirely serious, so I didn't stand in the way." He softly shrugged. "Besides, it means Twilight's out talking with someone she doesn't normally, and I think she could use that, no matter how far, or not, her 'romantic education' goes."

"About that." Octavia looked Spike over. "You are an adult. You have drives and needs like any other living creature. You've fathered children, and then spent untold years... in physical isolation. That must have been hard on you."

Spike waved it off. "Dragons don't get the urge to keep making dragons all through their life. It's different. We live a really long time, so a little pause on that front didn't kill me or anything." His shoulders lifted. "If I run into someone I really like that way, I'll be sure to let them know. I've seen what happens when you don't."

Octavia raised a brow. "Is that to say I am not someone you like that way?"

Spike snorted, which turned into a genuine fit of laughter. "Octavia, you are a dear and wonderful friend, but you already have somecreature." He reached to tap her on the nose. "And I happen to know you enjoy the feel of fur over scales anyway."

Her cheeks lit up and she turned stiffly in place, marching right out without another word. The door slid shut behind her, the signal that she had kept moving down the hallway.

Spike smirked faintly as he reached for his abandoned comic. "Maybe..." What he was referring to, he didn't bother sharing out loud, instead resuming the adventure of the Everglow fiction he had found. Turned out comics of other cultures were just as interesting.

"I had thought you changed your mind." Under circled around Octavia. "Not that I object to your presence. Your magic is as fascinating as it is antiquated. Regardless of that, it is also still functional, arguably more so in some ways."

"Does that mean you agree to accept me as a student once more?" One ear, then the other trained on him, keeping him in her hearing range as he moved. "I apologize for my absence, but am eager to make myself useful, on my terms."

"On your terms." The elderly stallion ran a hoof over his long beard, considering the deceptively young-mare. "You are not the first ever-young I met, but it never fails to feel somewhat uncanny. Immortality of different sorts. I will be dead before long in your eyes, but back all the same."

He shook his head as he moved to sit in front of her. "But that's a topic for another day. No, today, we discuss magic, and how technology changed how one approaches it." He pointed to the device attached to Octavia's arm. "That. Can it contain spells?"

She blinked softly. "I am unaware, but I feel certain it has enough historical weight that I could draw magic from it. Is that what you mean?"

"Not precisely... We have work ahead of us."

34 - Type 2

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"Found something," reported Wandering Note, gesturing to the main screen.

A wobbling sound form appeared as a sound began to play, a rhythmic click-click-pause-click pattern that felt random, but, "It's being very specifically emitted." He turned in his seat, swiveling. "It doesn't match any known patterns."

The captains frowned as one. Steel looked to Dawn. "Does the pattern mean anything to you?"

Dawn Event shook his head. "It has no divine meaning, nor any other I can immediately determine. I suggest analysis to determine if the noise is organic or synthetic in origin. That may be a clue."

Fast nodded with a smile. "Excellent idea. Wandering?"

"On it!" He swiveled back towards his station, tapping quickly at the buttons only he could see. "We'll figure this mystery out."

Octavia ran a hoof along Remi's belly. "You know this will end, eventually."

"Eventually," agreed Remi, scratching Octavia under her chin. "Everything does, so? Let's enjoy it while it lasts. Been too long since I had a girlfriend."

"Is that what we are, boyfriend and girlfriend?" Her ears danced as she sat up on top of Remi. "This is what Vinyl had wanted to be, with me."

"I will not speak ill of the parted." Remi held back the quips she had in mind for the mare that never succeeded in making the move she was already doing. "But she made it clear she wanted you out there, having fun, seeing new things. So you ran across an alien fox and started sleeping with her. Pretty sure she'd be alright with that, from what you've told me."

"About that." Octavia rest her hooves on Remi's face, one hoof on either side of the fox's snout, cradling it. "You call yourself a 'she' at any opportunity, but our relationship very much hinged on the fact that you are a 'he'. Why is that?"

Remi burst into laughter at Octavia's confusion, running her hands up and down the mare's sides. "Because I am one. I have every part required, and a few extra. You happen to enjoy that extra, and I happen to enjoy sharing that extra with you, so there's that, still a she." She stuck out her tongue a little. "And you've enjoyed that too. The way you look so peaceful when you're sleeping against me, your head against my chest."

That made Octavia's cheeks turn a bright red. "P-point well received." She glanced away, one ear trained on Remi. "Do you see yourself then as my girlfriend?"

"Of course." Her fingers trailed casually. "Of course, I could end up being a girlfriend and a father at the same time."

Octavia sat up, looking to Remi with new puzzlement. "How would that work?!"

"Well, you see, when a father and a mother love each other very much..."

A chime rang from the door. Spike sat up from the sculpture he had been working on. "Octavia?"

"Captain Fast Shadow," informed the computer.

"Oh, let her in." He abandoned his project to stand and start towards the opening door.

Fast Shadow trotted inside. "Is Twilight still out?"

"They've been having regular meetings." Spike looked Fast over, dressed for captaining as she was. "What brings you this way? Looking for her?"

"No, you." Fast turned to him directly. "You met me, a past me, and your memory appears to be uncannily accurate after untold years. Can you tell me, about the past me? Reaching back that far in my ancestral memory is possible, I did recall you, but it becomes terribly... fuzzy, for lack of better word. What did I say? What did I do? I remember... training?"

Spike sat on his haunches, nodding softly. "You were a no-nonsense mare that wanted to teach me how to fight, and how to protect Twilight. You cared, about both of us, but had absolutely no reservations on beating us into shape. You left me sore and angry but... gave me the tools I needed." He leaned in a bit. "I'm not sure if this works properly, but thanks."

Fast reached up a hoof to the dragon's cheeks. "I understand you are thanking a distant echo of me, but I appreciate it nonetheless. I would like to take up that mantle again." She suddenly pivoted on one hoof, facing the door. "I spar with others at times, and I want you there. Battling a big capable dragon like you will be good practice for us as well. We'll all benefit from it, and it's... fun, at least for me. Do you enjoy sparring?"

"Sure." He glanced back at his little model. "But I like other things too."

She noticed what he had looked towards and approached it, leaning closer. "Is that a model of the ship?"

"Uh-huh." He followed and passed her. "I asked the computer to print the pieces for me and I've been putting them together. I already did one of ours."

He reached up to a higher shelf and pulled out a little replica of the original ship Twilight and he had sailed on, setting it beside the forming new one. "A little momento. I planned to show it to Twilight when the time felt right."

"How delightful." Fast inclined her head. "I didn't think the computer could do that."

"Have you tried asking? The computer has a lot of information, and it had scanned our ship pretty thoroughly, so making a model was something it could do." He leaned in, squinting at the toy replica of his old home. "I can imagine little versions of Twilight, Octavia, and me still living on it, but the computer didn't replicate that. Can you imagine getting that little thing in there?"

"I never did models before," confessed Fast, smiling as she watched Spike speak fondly of his creation. "But I see the appeal in it. It's like a photograph, but three dimensional and enduring and tactile... More of a hologram, without the power requirements." She nodded with growing confidence in her assessment. "Very nice. Ah, another thing." She turned away towards a wall and an image appeared on it, a strange dark circle in the middle of the stars.

"What is that?" Spike stepped closer to the wall, trying to get other angles on what he was seeing. "Looks mysterious."

"And it is. Tell me, does this sound familiar at all?" The sound of the transmission began, its odd clicks and pauses echoing across the room.

Spike shook his head slowly. "Sounds almost like a kind of code, but... Uh... the letters are all off." He raised a hand and began tapping his claws with each click. "P, T, A, R, E, E, G, J? That's not any word I know. Gonna go with it not being the code it sounds like."

"I saw no harm in asking." She banished the sight and sound with a wave of a hoof. "We're approaching that and plan to investigate it. You wish to be involved?"

"Of course!" He perked right up, a smile on his face. "I'll ask Twi--"

"--She is still in recovery," cautioned Fast. "It would be unkind to tell her about things she isn't involved in and cannot be."

"But she wants to be more involved, and I think it's healthy for her." He sat on his haunches and reared up. "I can't force you, this is your ship and all, but please reconsider. Twilight's at her best when she has a problem to work her hooves on."

Fast raised a hoof towards her ear. "Belle?"

"Belle reporting," came her instant reply, even if only Fast could hear it.

"Diagnostic report on Twilight Sparkle. Is she ready to be involved in a mission at this time?" Fast half-turned away, her eyes not quite focused as she chatted with someone not there.

"I recommend heavy socialization! If the mission places her in contact with crew and aliens, I approve. Did you hear that? They may have a mission for you."

Fast put a hoof over her face. "Thank you." The call ended, she turned to Spike. "That little secret didn't last long. I trust you'll keep an eye on her?"

"As if you have to ask. I used to be her little brother, but these days, she's my little sister, and I wouldn't let anything happen to her." He brought up a hand in a salute. "So what is it we're doing, exactly?"

"I'll keep you posted about that." Fast began towards the door. "That remains an evolving situation. You are welcome to stop by the bridge and listen in." And off she went back to other matters.

Spike turned back to his model to see another shape in front of it. Sonja was peering at it from different angles, humming as her tail swayed behind her.

"Uh..." The little filly was not who he had expected to sneak into his room. "Can I help you?"

"You made this?" She pointed at the model. "It's nice. Someone so big, making something with bits so small. You're a delicate big dragon, aren't you?"

Spike let out a slow sigh. "Is this another try at seducing me?" Not that he wanted to imagine that word in relation to the cute little zebra in front of him at all.

"Why, are you turned on by models?" She sat down and reached for the assembled copy of his old ship, lifting it carefully. "I don't recognize this kind of ship. What is it?"

Spike tensed faintly. "That is a replica of the ship I sailed on, before we ran into this one." He reached carefully over her to get the model back, but she swung around towards him. "Please be careful with that."

"I know how to be delicate too," she huffed out. "Big guns need a proper touch." She wiggled a bit, making the toy gun attached to her jostle in place. "So, you put this together... Really nice. I can barely see where the parts come together." She set the model down, to Spike's relief. "Why didn't you let the ship assembler do it?"

His smile gently returned, seeing his model safe. "There's a satisfaction you only get by doing some of it yourself, with your own hands, er, hooves."

"I know what a hand is." She reached out a hoof and set it on one of his hands, rubbing her hard hoof along it. "What's it like, having all those fingers? I've been jealous for as many lives as not about them. Do you have any idea how much easier it is using a cannon when you have ... Scratch that, think about how hard it is without them. I have to get clever." A little smile spread on her face. "Good thing I've had millenia to get it just right."

"About that." He sank down, to his haunches, then his belly. "The others aren't perfect. They're skilled, sure, but not really past what I'd expect from anycreature their age. Why should I assume you really 'gained' anything from your past lives, except for some perspective? I mean, that's cool and--"

"--You aren't me," she spat suddenly. "You don't know what being reborn is like."

"I don't," he agreed. "So, why don't you tell me what that's like, then I can try my best with fingers."

She angled her head before it snapped upright. "Huh, that's a fair trade, sure. So..." She began to tell the tale of a life that had so many others behind it.

"You are now ready to initiate romantic encounters," sang Belle, victorious music playing from inside her, mixed organically with valentine string instruments and holographic hearts rising from her head. "Your first assignment is to amass sufficient friendship points. Do you wish for recommended targets?"

Twilight raised a hoof to her cheek. "Recommended targets? You make it sound like I'm sparring."

"Romance is a form of social sparring," agreed Belle. "Thorough analysis of your personality profile has revealed several highly compatible targets."

Twilight inclined her head. "About that mission you--"

"--Select your romantic target!" insisted Belle, bouncing in place with metallic jingling with each impact. She would not be denied.

35 - Encounters

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Spike sat towards the back of the bridge. He was not part of the command structure, but he had been invited, and there he was, listening. There, on the main screen, was a picture of the near-black object they approached. "I have a question."

Steel's right ear swiveled, but the rest of him remained focused forward. "Yes?"

"Do you have a lamp on this ship?" Spike put his hands together and opened his fingers in a pantomime of such a device. "Try to light it up a little and see it better?"

"We do," replied Under Score. "A versatile one, at that. Most commonly used in self defense. As it turns, focusing light into a narrow enough field results in a rapidly-moving weapon."

Visions of lasers firing danced in Spike's mind. "Awesome, but not quite that focused. We're not trying to cut it, just light it. Can you do that?"

Under Score moved through menus only he could see. "Mmm." He ran a hoof along a slider in his vision. "Yes, we can relax the focusing quite a bit. Of course, we are not a sun. The weapon could only meaningfully light a very small area from this distance, or we'd need to be significantly closer."

Fast smiled brightly. "A fresh set of eyes is sometimes exactly what's required. I would like to see what we're dealing with, and a little light will be less concerning for it than other, more aggressive, probes. Under, work with Dawn Event and see if you can't get us a peek at this."

Dawn softly nodded his head. "I can time the sensors to piece together a view as you direct the light." He hummed softly. "I'll need to be working in tandem, and taking into account the time it takes for the light to make a round trip. But, by the gods' mercy, we will at least have a look at what we face."

"Let's get to it." Dawn was already moving both hooves, adjusting controls only he could see. He began talking with Dawn of technical things, passing controls back and forth between them. They were on the case.

Twilight sagged with defeat. "Alright, show me the most compatible ones."

"With pleasure! Error!" Twilight blinked at the loud call of an error. Had her mechanical friend broken suddenly?

Error poked his head in on a screen nearby. "Ya rang? All done with girl stuff?"

"No, but your assistance is required." She turned to face where Error had appeared. "Please accept my communication."

Error's ears danced. "Oh, right." He nodded once, establishing unheard communication channels with Belle. "Uh huh? Okay." And with that, he vanished.

Twilight peered at the panel that had returned to showing where in the ship they were and the time of 'day' it was. "What was that about? Are you suggesting I... romance with your friend?"

Belle blinked with a loud click. "No. He is my romantic partner and pursuing romantic options with him would cause a loss of friendship points due to jealousy," she confessed without even a shred of guilt or remorse. "I do not recommend."

"So I shouldn't 'amass friendship points?'" Twilight's perplexment on the strange life of the robot that was also her teacher was on full display.

"My friends being friends with my friends brings me joy," she sang. "But do not attempt romantic options." Her voice lost all its sing song with the latter half. "Now then, those who rate highly." She waved a hoof at a holographic double of Spike that appeared. "He rates extremely highly. Not only does he already know all of your worst character traits, but he rewards friendship points instead of taking them away when you display them. Calculations show that if you wanted to form a romantic relationship with him, the odds of compatibility are over 98%!"

Twilight took gentle hold of Belle's head in her magic, turning the filly-robot towards her. "We were just married."

"My calculations are correct," she sang with joy.

"And we just divorced?"

Belle tilted her head left and right. "The loss of friendship points is a sad event. Do you require counseling on--"

"He's not a valid target," she tried in more clinical terms. "Due to familial relationships."

Belle sat on her little haunches, soft ticking emitting from inside of her as she processed it. "Very well," she said as if it were no big deal, the hologram of Spike vanishing. "I present option 2!" Under Score appeared, the older stallion with his long braided beard. "Sharing interests in studying, magic, and discovering the unknown, Under Score's compatibility rating is 78%! Warning: Under Score has low skill in amassing friendship points. You will need to be patient to approach this romantic target."

"When you say it like that, he has a lot in common with Star Swirl," she mused out loud. "I..." She swallowed softly. "But he isn't that stallion. He's just another stallion bedazzled with magic and its applications. Much like me in ways." She set a hoof on her chest. "I... You know what, add him to the list of 'maybe'... I confess, he loses some points for... age? That feels so shallow to admit. I'm older than him! But he looks the part!"

Belle inclined her head left and right with little mechanical sounds. "Why do you not fix it? You are a spellcaster of considerable talent and ability. I predict the chances of your success to be in excess of 80%. You would amass a great deal of friendship points!"

Twilight raised her hooves into view, as if considering their ability to shape magic, and with it, the stallion they were speaking of. "You... have at least half a point there."

"Friendship point gain recorded." Victorious music played from inside her as the image faded.

A holographic double of Belle herself appeared. "I present option 3!"

Twilight thrust a hoof in front of the actual Belle's face. "Hold it right there. You didn't want me to even glance at Error because of your relationship, but you're showing me... you?"

Belle inclined her head, a holographic question mark floating over her head. "I would not become jealous because you're exploring romantic options with me."

"I would," noted the holographic Belle. "You're gonna start losing those friendship points." Though her voice was Belle's, the accent was more of Error's.

Twilight squeaked, not expecting the hologram to show signs of self-agency. "Oh! Error? Look, this is really hard to wrap my mind around. What would a romantic relationship with a robot even look like, setting aside infidelity issues a moment."

Belle, the actual one, bounced on her hooves. "I am aware of many of your personality traits and find them more appealing than detracting. I know how to cuddle and talk."

"She knows how to do both of those things," agreed the holographic Belle.

"I also have excellent memory of personal details. Our anniversary and your birthday would never be forgotten," triumphantly noted the actual Belle. "I would always be looking for ways to amass friendship points, and never forget to be thankful for when you return the effort." She lifted her shoulders. "While I would be unable to biologically interface with you in a reproductive fashion, we could create new synthetic life together."

She suddenly turned to her holographic double. "That is an act I meant to bring up to you in 12 days, 10 hours, 17 minutes and 2 seconds."

The double blinked at that. "Oh, uh..."

"You have 12 days, 10 hours, 16 minutes, and 57 seconds to reply," she sang out, spinning back to Twilight. "What is your decision? I require your immediate reply."

Twilight blinked at that. "To... make artificial life with you?"

"We do not have sufficient friendship points for that act." She waved a hoof as if Twilight had made a silly joke. "Do you wish to lose friendship points with Error? Do you wish to consider me as a romantic target?" She smiled up at Twilight, tail swaying eagerly.

"You are already taken," noted Twilight. "Thank you for the offer, but I'll pass."

"Removed from the pool." Suddenly the holographic Belle vanished. "Let us continue."

Sonja was lying down, on top of Spike. Her chin rested right on top of his head, her tail's soft lashing tickling faintly on his back. "It's so strange, when I think about it. Not the seeing. I always saw, but the idea of not seeing. You wouldn't know. You have so much history you basically have the seeing already."

Spike had resumed working on his model even as he was laying on his belly, carefully putting pieces together. "You mean, someone who's a lot younger, but also doesn't have past lives?"

"Exactly." She huffed out, her breath felt at the end of his nose from above. "That's so strange to even imagine. They think the same thing, right? Look at me and go 'wow, that has to be so weird!', but they're the weird one, not me."

"A matter of perspective." He reached for a little stick that glowed as he ran it over a joint, sealing the two parts together meticulously. "We're all a little strange. It's why we're different people, instead of all part of some cosmic hivemind or something."

She pushed up, sitting up on his back. "That makes sense..." She tip-tapped at his withers from above. "So... that was nice, talking... Does that mean we're a thing now?"

Spike had the restraint to set his stick aside before laughing. "If you want to be friends, sure. If you mean romantically, that's still off the table." He pushed the model away and suddenly turned. She squealed with surprise, suddenly being grabbed by all four of his massive hands, both front and back. "So, it's up to you. Am I hugging a friend, or tossing out someone who can't take a no to a romantic proposal?"

Her ears pinned back on her head. In defiance, her gun fired, a soft 'paff'. The styrofoam ball bounced off his snout, rolling away across the floor. He released her shoulder to instead tap the end of her snoot. "I'm afraid you don't have the power to try and come at me that way. So which'll it be?"

She sighed loud enough that it almost seemed like she was deflating. "Fine! I'd rather have a dragon friend than not at all." She suddenly wriggled free of his three-way grip and scampered away. "So now that we're friends, enough model time. Let's put together something real!"

Spike rolled back to his belly and sat up. "They're perfectly real."

"Perfectly real nothings." She shook her head quickly. "Let's make things that actually do things. I'm old enough to make something a bit more than a puff ball shooter." She shook her entire body, shaking off her gun and her rig to the side with a crash. "You could use one too! You have fingers. I bet you'd be good at it."

"Are you saying we should make guns?" When she bobbed her head, he raised a brow. "Now, I'm the new dragon around here, but the computer lets you make guns?"

"Sonja, that's me, has special permissions when it comes to guns. They wouldn't keep holy symbols away from Dawn Event or stop Steel from getting his first sword pretty early. It's what we do." she buffed a hoof on her chest, looking smugly superior. "The older I get, the more the computer allows me to do. I could make something projectile that launches something solid."

"Like... bullets?"

Her eyes widened. "Oh gosh no. Not until I was at least 16." She shook her head firmly. "Slower, and bigger. C'mon, it'll be fun!" She bounced towards him with the energy of a filly. "C'mon! Once you try a real gun in your hands, you'll wonder how you lived without it."

Spike felt a smile coming along. The playful and eager filly was so much easier to grasp, and appreciate, compared to the one with love on her mind. "Sure. Let's make a gun."

"Two," she corrected, wobbling a hoof between herself and Spike.

36 - Let There be Light

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"We're shooting at it?"

Spike softly shooshed at the zebra filly on his back. "No talking unless it's important on the bridge."

On the main screen, it was a strange thing. The sphere was slowly being lit up, bit by bit. Each new portion made the image jerk with the addition, but they kept coming, one little portion at a time.

"We are piecing together a view," explained Dawn Event as he and Under Score worked. "We can only get a very small view with each flash, but with a little work from the computer, we can assemble something resembling a full picture."

Under nodded in easy agreement. "Just a little math."

"And some faith," added Dawn.

"Mostly math," grumped Under, tapping at buttons only he could see. "It should take about another half an hour before we have a full image prepared."

"Gods willing." Dawn swiped from left to right across something. "There appears to be nothing hindering our progress."

A new pony appeared, Dawn Event. Belle shook her head firmly, a buzzer playing loudly. "That is an incompatible choice."

"Why not?" asked Dawn. "I dun see nothin' wrong with it."

"Dawn Event is married to the gods." Bell crossed her hooves. "And they don't even give good hugs. Attempting to engage in physical romance will only result in lost friendship points."

The pony became smaller, and brighter. A pink mare with a whip wrapped around her left foreleg and a mane that hung over her eyes. "This god does. You have a note about it," spoke the holographic god in a soft motherly tone.

Belle began to blush, cheeks coloring despite the complete lack of blood in her body. "Twilight is not ready for that! Please resume course." She turned to Twilight with a sheepish smile. "Forgive Error, he is trying to help."

"What god is that?" Twilight inclined her head faintly. "I apologize, but I don't know... your gods very well, except one."

"If she were available, your compatibility rating would be high," sang Belle confidently.

"You know which one I'm talking about?"

Belle pointed at Twilight. "I have conducted extensive research on your past and personality for optimal partner location. You have had previous contact with Princess Luminace. She is not available for direct contact."

"I... don't think it's normal to consider a god as dating material..." She rubbed her cheek softly with the flat of a hoof. "Besides, she's a mare."

Both artificial lifeforms looked at her funny.

"What? A mare and a stallion make a family." Twilight waved it off. "That's just common sense."

Belle pointed to herself. "I am neither a mare nor a stallion, technically. Can I not make a family?"

"Same goes for me," noted the holographic deity.

Belle raised a hoof towards her ear. "Spike?"

"Yeah?" came his reply, playing from inside of her like a speaker phone.

"Was Equestria regressive in terms of same-sex and non-binary pairings in relationships?"

"Huh?" started Spike with obvious surprise. "No? I remember a lot of same-sex couples getting married. Not really my thing, but, hey, you do you and all that. Wh--"

Spike had been cut off, Belle looking to Twilight. "Your focus on non-romantic friendships has caused you to develop unhealthy thoughts."

Twilight blinked softly, crashing to her haunches. "I don't... I mean, there were some close friends. My best friends were mares, but we weren't... like that..."

Belle looked to the hologram, who nodded softly in return. Both turned their heads to Twilight. "You wouldn't have known if they were interested," they echoed at once.

Twilight's cheeks began to warm. "That is beside the point... Besides... they're gone." The blush faded as she drooped a little. "It's a bit late to consider a relationship, however unlikely that would have been."

Belle patted the side of the down princess. "We will find you potential partners who are alive," she assured with a big smile. "I am still available! With regular maintenance, my lifespan has no set limit." She suddenly pointed at the hologram. "Being an entirely digital construct, he can be copied. Barring complete catastrophe, we are functionally unaging and immortal."

The pink goddess image became No Name without sound or preamble. "'Least that time you threw us at her like a combo."

"Does that help?" asked Belle with a big hopeful smile.

No Name casually wrapped a leg around her and pulled her close. "It does." Even as victorious music played from Belle, he was holding her close.

Twilight inclined her head faintly. "I can see you two are close. It's... strange, but also kind of nice." A ghost of a smile taunted her lips. "I'm behind a robot for finding a special somepony... Can we continue?"

"Affirmative." Belle bounced back up to her hooves and away from her affectionate partner.

The image was created, slowly circling on the screen. "It is obviously artificial," noted Under Score.

They could all see that. When zoomed in, huge jutting metal towers with what may have been lights, if they were lit, crowning them. Panels and other hints spoke of its mechanical origin. It was a huge mechanical sphere of some sort. "It hasn't reacted to our peeks," added Dawn. "I don't think it's sensitive to casual photonic activity. Sensible, few artificial things are."

Steel nodded in agreement. "With how little we were in actuality doing, there would be little reason to be concerned. Still, it looks like it's not quite active."

"I see the lights," agreed Fast. "And nothing's moving. It's just... there. Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but a dyson sphere is typically constructed around a sun, is it not? Why is this thing an entire solar system in size?"

"'Cause it's a weapon," declared Sonja with no filter.

Spike grabbed for the zebra, but the filly danced away from his hands. "That's not proven. It could be a lot of things. Maybe it's more of a wall. A three dimensional wall to keep the universe out."

Steel's brows furrowed. "Or to keep something in."

A new image appeared, No Name becoming Octavia. Belle gestured at the image. "This one has a 65% compatibility rating, due in large part to familiarity. Sharing the trait of unaging and the same home world, you have much in common to speak of. Predictions state the odds of successful romance are high!"

Twilight flopped down onto her haunches. "I have a vision of a strong... well-built stallion, which she is not."

"More like your brother then?" suggested Belle. To Twilight's gaping expression, she inclined her head. "I asked Spike for further details. He was quite helpful. You should thank him later." She pointed to the holographic Octavia. "She is refined, skilled with music, and magically adept. You like magic, and have worked with her before. Does she not appeal?"

"It's not that she... isn't appealing, I guess." Twilight rubbed at her cheek softly. "I do like that she's also unaging... That is... compelling..."

Belle began to bounce, detecting victory. "You should begin amassing friendship points! Even if you never attempt romantic options, which I think you should, your compatibility is high enough that a good friendship is almost assured with sufficient effort."

"We... were friends." Twilight squinted a little at the holo-Octavia. "But I thought she was... what she is right now, an artificial construct."

"And what's wrong with that?" asked the Octavia with the wrong accent. "Like us construct sorts don't have feelings."

"Typically... no?" ventured Twilight with an awkward smile. "Current company obviously excluded. I treated her as an unthinking machine for... so long. She must be annoyed at me, on some level, even if she doesn't say anything. She's too polite about that..."

"Was that a personality trait she displayed previously?" Belly bounced towards Twilight with a big smile, even her eyes had been replaced with grinning emojis.

"Yes? Why are you looking at me like that?"

Belle sprung up, touching noses with Twilight. "Because it is clear you are already familiar with her and have amassed friendship points. You need only resume this function!" She landed, one hoof pointed at holo-Octavia. "This is now your assignment. Meet, talk, and gain at least 100 friendship points."

"You're going to have to explain how to quantify a 'friendship point'." Twilight rolled a hoof in the air. "If she laughs at a joke, is that 1 point?"

"That depends on how sincere and powerful the laugh is," advised Belle. "With your permission, I will eavesdrop on your communicator and advise you as points are earned so you know when you have reached your goal." Up came the hoof. "Do you accept this quest?" One of her eyes became a green uppercase Y, the other a red lowercase n.


"Acceptance verified." Romantic victory music began to play from inside her. "Please proceed." Error vanished, the room going dimly lit. The lesson was over. Belle was sitting there with a content smile on her face.

Twilight took a step towards the door. "I... guess I'll go talk to Octavia then. We really should catch up." Talking herself into it not being about romance at all, Twilight strode from the room on her new quest.

Remington ran a comb in easy motions through Octavia's mane, helping get it just right. "You ponies are great fun to comb, did I ever mention that?"

"I was made for more than combing," sighed out Octavia. "But I do appreciate the effort. Is it really that enjoyable?"

"If I want to be technical about it, grooming is a thing a lot of animals do. How would Belle put it, an easy way to get points?" She laughed as she moved around to get at Octavia's other side of her mane. "Speaking of Belle, most robots I meet aren't so damned chipper without being programmed to be boringly monotone in their cheerfulness."

"Is she even programmed?" Octavia followed Remi with an ear, but remained still so the grooming could continue without interruption. "She strikes me as more of an emergent creation. More like me or you. We learned by what was around us and it shaped us."

"You think?" Remi settled down, half-leaning on Octavia as she worked. "I never asked her, and I'm not even sure she'd answer. I already have my mare right here." She smooched Octavia's side. "And she's all I need."

"I listened to Vinyl for long enough to know when 'But I'd take more if it was offered to me' is hidden in a statement." Her tail lashed softly. "You aren't typically a one-partner creature, are you?"

"By space law, you can't force me to answer that." Remi folded her arms under her chest, the combing pausing.

"That isn't a thing." Octavia rose to her hooves and turned towards Remi. "Though while I can't force you, I certainly can--"

A chime interrupted them. The computer spoke, "Twilight Sparkle." Octavia's ears danced in surprise.

"Let her in."

The door slid open and Twilight trotted inside. "Octavia? We really should..." She paused, seeing Remington was there. "Oh! Is this a bad time? I didn't realize you had company already."

Octavia smiled her refined little smile, approaching Twilight. "It's good to see you. I... heard from Spike. Are you feeling alright?"

Twilight blinked rapidly. "It was a mutual decision. There are no hard feelings." She raised a hoof, but it fell almost as quickly. "We're still living together, even. We're just back to being, you know, siblings, and not married..." She laughed nervously. "Okay, that sounds weird when I say it like that."

"It was a little odd, but you two were perfectly innocent about it." She turned to point at Remi who was already approaching. "This is Remington, you've met her, but not as my boyfriend."

Remi thwipped Octavia right on her pretty nose. "Girlfriend, even if you prefer the boy part. Respect the pronouns."

Twilight's cheeks began to darken even as confusion came in a heady rush. "Boy... But..." Her eyes roamed over the biped, but she was certainly shaped as one might expect a female mammal biped to be shaped. "I don't understand..."

37 - Looking Closer

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"You don't have to keep riding me." Spike peeked up over his shoulder at the smiling zebra atop him. "You have legs and they do work."

"Well, sure, but when you have the option of a big strong dragon mount, why would you take the alternative?" She wrapped her arms around his neck from above and behind, hugging. "That's a compliment."

Spike rolled his eyes mightily. "Naked buttering is what that was. Now--" A shadow had come over him and he looked forward to see... a zebra. She looked similar to the one atop him, though clearly older and larger. "Oh... hello?"

Adult Sonja leaned forward. "It's bad enough when memories of the past filter in, but memories of the present? And thoughts like that!?" She pointed a hoof at her younger self. "Ugh, what do you see in him?"

"He's big, and nice, and good with guns." The little Sonja tapped her hooves together with each listed quality. "He gives good rides and he's fun!"

"He's also a dragon, you know, not a pony, or even a mammal." She turned just enough to direct her massive cannon at her smaller self. "You're staring down the wrong barrel."

"So, hey, I'm also here," casually reminded Spike.

Adult Sonja looked down at him, jumping as if surprised that he existed. "Oh, Spike. No, I will not ride you today. We can make a model later, but I have to finish this conversation."

Spike blinked with growing confusion. "You never rode me, and we never made models."

Adult Sonja scowled. "See!? You're messing with my memories. Stop making memories with people who aren't in your generation." She reached right over Spike's head to thump Young Sonja in the breast. "Get off him."

"You can't make me," cried Young Sonja in defiance, nudging Spike with her legs as if trying to get him to move, but he was no unthinking beast and they didn't move. "He's my friend."

"I am you, you little annoyance. Normally, I wouldn't care, but you're crossing the streams." She stomped a forehoof down. "Now I want to ride him around."

Spike began to color, knowing the larger Sonja was definitely an adult. "Oh, uh..."

"And that other stuff you were daydreaming about him. You think I don't want that?" She leaned in, nose to nose with her younger self. "You're ruining my life!"

"I'm just living," countered the younger Sonja. "It's not my fault! I can make friends with who I want to. Besides, I did the effort, I get the prize. You don't get to just swoop in and snatch it because you're older." She suddenly smirked wickedly. "Maybe he doesn't want some old nag."

Oh, how older Sonja's cheeks colored brightly. "You take that back!" Her eyes fell to Spike. "I'm not that old, right?"

"You look... perfectly fine." In his eyes, Older Sonja appeared to be a perfectly healthy adult mare. She looked strong and capable, and the cannon strapped to her side looked quite ready to blast a hole in something. "Adult mare."

"See, adult mare." Older Sonja seemed to get her confidence back. "What is she?" She pointed at the younger Sonja.

"She's a filly." Older grinned smugly as the Younger crossed her arms petulantly. "She's also a friend." The expressions almost instantly flipped between the two. "Uh, look... I don't mean to come between a mare and... herself... why don't we go somewhere that's not the middle of a random hallway and have a chat about this?"

This concession was allowed, with Spike leading the way back towards his room with the older Sonja walking alongside, eyeing her younger self, and perhaps being jealous that the smaller version was getting a ride with the dragon she remembered liking.

Steel sat back on his perch. The bridge had become less... noisy with the dismissal of Spike and Sonja. "This could be quite dangerous."

"And yet..." Fast reached over to rest a hoof on his shoulder. "That is part of why we're out here in the first place."

"I don't mind looking. Exploring is what we do, but awakening what could be trouble could cause problems for more than us." He directed a hoof to the slowly turning sphere on the main screen. "If the consequences of our actions were limited to ourselves, there would be no question."

Fast nodded at that. "There is that. If that thing is keeping something bad inside rather than keeping the universe out, then..."

"May the gods have mercy," sighed out Dawn Event.

"That," agreed Fast with a little smile. "None of the sensors can get through its hide?"

Under Score frowned. "We've attempted everything, Dawn and I. Besides a visual peek, nothing gets past the surface. It may as well not be there. What hits it, besides radiation in the visible and near visible spectrum, simply passes through it without effect."

Steel raised an ear at that. "You just contradicted yourself. Does nothing get past the surface, or do most things get past the surface?"

Dawn lifted his shoulders. "My peer is not incorrect. Most things pass through, which gives us nothing to read, which results in getting nothing. It does imply something, at least."

Wandering jumped into the conversation with a waved cloven hoof, "Whoever made this has similar eyes to ours."

Dawn nodded. "They knew what radiation to not stop to allow it to be seen. It is surely a sign of the gods' divine plans that so many creatures use the same small slice of radiation to see the universe of their creation."

Steel let out a little sigh. "Which means whatever is contained in there is invisible to us. It could be anything at all. Maybe something harmless, maybe not."

Soft murmurs rippled across the bridge as musing kicked up.

Twilight shook her head slowly, but the mystery was still there, approaching her.

Remington was sauntering towards the stunned alicorn, hips swaying in a specifically enticing manner. "I can feel your eyes roaming. I have all the parts you're looking for." She trailed her own fingers along her silhouette. "Just... extra." And, with that, she casually flipped her loincloth out of the way, allowing Twilight a peek.

Twilight's eyes went wide as saucers. She thumped back against the door she had walked through a moment before. "I... but? Is... this magic?"

Octavia raised an arm over her face. "Just unusual biology, Twilight. We are in space. This is hardly even the strangest we've seen so far, from color-devouring space insects to angry mounds of rocks with laser weaponry, the fox lady with... extra almost seems mundane in comparison."

Remington allowed her clothes to fall back in place. "She isn't wrong. Now, come here and relax with us. You look like you could use a quality brushing too. That isn't cheating, right?"

Octavia smirked at that. "I will allow you to brush her, if she consents and you do it right."

"A brushing?!" squeaked Twilight, glancing upwards at her mane. "But I brushed his morning?"

"I'm sure you did." Remi casually looped an arm over Twilight's strong neck, guiding the pony forward. "But you've had a long day already, I can tell. Just relax with us and let me pamper you. Brushing ponies is fun."

"She's good at it," assured Octavia. "Lay down next to me and let her work."

Twilight did lay down beside her friend. "I had... actually come to talk to you, Octavia."


"I apologize, for treating..." She trailed off as the brushing began. Remington was working at her mane with a brush to start. "That... is a little distracting, um, as I was saying. Sorry, for... not even realizing for so long. You deserved so much better than that."

"Apology accepted," easily agreed Octavia. "I was the one deceiving you, it just means I did a good job of it. I can hardly lay the blame on your shoulders. Sorry, for not announcing myself. You had a friend nearby this whole time, and there I was, hiding away in plain sight... Maybe we would have both been better for it if I hadn't done that."

"I had Spike..."

"You had a little... bigger brother who took care of you, but couldn't give you what you needed..." Octavia watched Twilight being brushed for a quiet moment. "He really is a caring soul. But, today, is about you."

"I thought it was about you," countered Twilight with a tail swish. "I wanted to reach out. You know, we were... friends once. A bit distantly, I'll admit, but what secrets you were hiding!" She suddenly thrust a hoof up at Octavia's horn. "When did you get that. Or those?!" She lowered the hoof to Octavia's wings. "You were an earth pony last I knew."

"Not the same way you got yours." Octavia leaned in a little. "Your way was... much better... So gentle and proper, surrounded by those who loved and admired you..."

Even in Twilight's confused state, she could hear pain. "How did... it happen, if you want to share? You don't sound like you were ready for it at all."

"I have... had quite some time to adjust." Octavia sat up onto her haunches. "I will never be a princess, but what I am, this... This is me, and I am now comfortable with that, even if... some little part of me still wishes I took that offer, of becoming a proper princess, of telling others what to do."

"I'll call you princess any time you like, m'lady," crooned Remi as she worked over Twilight's mane, switching to a comb to get deeper and work things out. "Now I have two royal clients, and I'm entirely alright with that."

Octavia's ears pinned to her head. "No! I mean... no, please... Don't call me that." It didn't help that it actually felt good to be addressed as royalty, a faint distant echo of a guilty addiction she would never fully shake. "I am Octavia Melody, a pony, like any other."

Twilight glanced between Octavia and her friend... girlfriend? "You were always Octavia Melody." Her lips suddenly made an O shape. "How did I not realize! You... You lived so much longer than any other pony around us, and I never asked!"

"Calm down." Remington pushed Twilight back to her belly. "Some of us are working here."

"Yes, sorry, but still! Octavia, I was so blind! Did... Spike not notice either?"

Octavia inclined her head left and right. "Mmm... That's worth asking, come to think. You didn't. Year after year, even centuries later, I would be there, in the royal philharmonics. The band would change, but not me... I played for you during good years, and during the bad ones. Playing made me feel... happy, it always did. It's what I am."

"And you're very good at it," easily agreed Twilight. "But... I'd like to learn more, about you, past your music. How did you get those? Do you want to share that story with me?"

Octavia let out a little breath. "Very well... Lay there and listen. I will sing you a song, a tale of a Duet in the Dust." Octavia began to share a story of her younger self, when her most cherished companion had still been alive, and causing trouble.

Belle gasped dramatically, octaves shifting wildly in the sound. "I never heard this story from her perspective," she explained to Error. They were seated on either side of a little radio that was playing everything Twilight heard. "I demand complete silence."

No Name nodded softly. "Sure. The, uh, old me was in this one, right?"

"And my mom!" Belle bounced in place with growing excitement before she thumped down to her belly with a loud metal clang. The story was starting in earnest and she wouldn't miss a moment of it.

Sure, Twilight had amassed her 100 points quite some time ago, but Belle saw no reason to end the mission just yet. They were doing so well, and that wasn't a story she'd miss.

38 - Double Team

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Little Sonja hopped free and cantered across the room. “We made guns together,” she stated in almost a gloat, grinning at her older self. “Did you ever make a gun with a special someone?”

“Hey, friend, not special anything,” cut in Spike with a little snort of smoke.

Older Sonja inclined her head towards Spike. “One, yes I have. Remember Long Shot?”

“Long Shot!” squeaked the younger. “How could I forget him!”

The two Sonjas sighed with a somehow perfectly synced moment of memory of a life neither of them had actually experienced. Spike lifted his shoulders, sitting up over the two of them. "Long Shot?"

Older Sonja shook her head. "Never mind that. Another life, long ago. Two, you haven't finished holstering this gun, so don't go walking just yet."

Younger Sonja pointed at Spike. "You don't know what he wants. He doesn't want to be 'holstered'. He wants a friend."

Spike fell forward to all fours. "I can't argue tha--"

Older Sonja was walking along his side, rubbing her body against his. It would have been entirely sensual, if not for the great form of her gun and harness throwing off some of the action, not that she seemed to find any objection to it. "That's because it's been a long time since he had someone interested in him that way that he didn't have a reason to turn down."

Spike darkened quickly, coiling on the older zebra and pushing her back, sliding her across the floor. "Hey, uh, we just met. I'm sure you and the… younger you? have a lot in common but I'm not all on board with just assuming I'll like you both equally."

Younger Sonja darted around to be on Spike's other side, flopping against him. "He wants a friend," she repeated all the louder. "Stop making him mad."

"He wants a peer. He accepts a friend." She took a step towards Spike, meeting his eyes. "I am not under you, and not over you. Don't you want to look a pony in the eye for a change?"

Spike glanced between the two mares, one on either side. "Look, I, wait. If I have to pick one, I'm going to have to go with her." He hiked a thumb at Younger Sonja. "We're already friends and dropping her the moment a nice mare winks at me would be being a huge jerk."

Older Sonja snorted, ears erect. "I haven't winked at you yet. We're not that far along… yet." As Spike went a deep red shade, she smiled. Despite her aeons of memories, the implications flew over Young Sonja, left blinking softly at the exchange. "Keep her for all I care. She won't quit. She's me. I don't quit."

Young Sonja sat up with a big smile. "I can keep being friends?" She grabbed Spike's, wrapping her arms around his neck. "Yay!"

Spike was looking at Older Sonja despite being hugged. "So, you're giving up then?"

"I just finished saying, 'I don't quit'. That wasn't a joke." She advanced a step closer, looking into his eyes. "Lucky you. You have a chance at twice the Sonja."

Young Sonja stuck out her tongue at her older doppelganger. "That's gonna be weird when we're both adults."

Older Sonja shrugged softly. "Sounds new, and interesting… Let's see how it plays out." She casually sank down against Spike's side. "I want to hear more about you. Let's talk."

And there was Spike, with a playful zebra on one side, and another seeking romance on the other, but they were the same person? Mostly... "Isn't this just going to make it worse, for both of you?" He glanced between them, head turning to face each for a time. "You're going to mix up your memories of me and yourself pretty bad if I'm getting this right."

Older Sonja smirked at that. "It will be like I went after a boyfriend I was also a filly friend with. I never had a chance to have such a pure thing, really."

Younger Sonja stuck out her tongue. "Uck, you're going to do... things, aren't you, that you don't let me do, but I'll remember it." She rolled her eyes expansively. "But if I walk away, I'll still remember them, but not get to hang out. Boo." Settled, she thumped in place, not moving.

Both Sonjas seemed set in their course, looking to Spike to accept.

"Well..." Spike sat up before giving a little nod. "Alright, I'm going to pretend this isn't strange, which it is. You're the one standing to lose way more than me. I'll give it a try."

Both Sonjas cheered and closed in, hugging their dragon from either side. A new strange family unit was born.

Steel spread his hooves very slowly, causing the image on the main screen to slowly zoom closer and closer. He panned his hooves, scrolling left, up, then a bit more to the left... "That." He pointed with one hoof and the image snapped onto what appeared to be a gate of some kind. "How large is that?" It was impossible to get a scale just looking at it.

"Ascertaining," promised Under Score as he tapped at unseen buttons. "Computer's calculating..."

Numbers appeared on the main screen, a bright yellow line going over the gate with a measurement beside it. Steel inclined his head to the right. "Large enough to receive a ship... Do you think--"

"--it may open if we approach?" finished Fast. "Worth a try. If it opens without resistance, we can enter this thing and maybe get more information. It's visible on the outside, it'd probably visible on the inside."

Steel swept a hoof forward. "Take us in. We're not leaving without seeing what can be seen."

"No promises on opening this thing," added Fast with a quick nod. "I'm in no hurry to unleash some elder being on an unsuspecting universe."

Wandering Note looked over from his communication terminal. "Well, we can't do that. You're already suspecting it."

His joke with met with muttering as the course was set to visit the mysterious orb.

"And so we returned home." Octavia turned an ear towards Twilight, they having been facing forward before then. "This reminds. Bullette Belle, she... yet lives? Is she unaging as we are?"

Twilight's ears danced. "You knew Belle?" She moved to rise, only to have Remi gently prevent it from happening, the brushing continuing. "I thought she was a modern thing. How could she not be, being a robot."

Octavia opened her mouth, only to slowly close it. "Yes... a robot..."

Belle's eyes fixed on her holographic friend. "She knows!"

"Knows what?" asked Error, inclining his head. "Yer mom had a secret?"

While Twilight seemed ready to move on, Remi proved sharper. "Was she not a robot?"

"Perish the thought," dismissed Octavia, waving a hoof a little wildly. "I... should talk to her. It seems today is a fine day for old connections to be renewed. Perhaps after this?"

"She's been helping me," added Twilight. "In fact... don't laugh, but she put me up to coming here today." She put a hoof behind her head. "A challenge to rekindle our friendship, and, well, I couldn't say no to a friendship challenge."

Octavia smiled at that, her face brightening. "That does sound just like you, Twilight. I am glad to see you're feeling better."

Remi held a mirror in front of Twilight. "Have a look. Way better, be honest."

Twilight examined herself, turning her head left and right for different angles, her eyes remaining locked on the mirror. "Huh... You've groomed ponies before?"

Remi pointed across at Octavia. "Right there. I'm her personal groomer, and if you stop by, I can add you to the schedule."

"About that." Twilight rose, not stopped from doing so. She turned towards Remington. "I have questions. The various hormones typically created by mammals of either gender can interact negatively with one another. What makes an organism a fit female can render a male non-functional and much the same can happen in the other direction." She leaned towards her groomer. "How has your species avoided this complication?"

Far from being intimidated by the curious royal pony, Remington casually tapped Twilight's nose with a finger. "You're cute, but I'm not a scientist or a doctor. I'm an engineer, a musician, and a groomer. The last two I picked up recently, but they're more fun than I expected it to be."

Twilight inclined her head. "With your leave, I would love to study it."

"Pardon?" Remi crossed her arms under her chest.

"A blood sample to start." Twilight tried to pantomime, not that hooves were the best at such activities. "I want to see what hormones I can detect, if your species even has any I'd recognize. You may not use any sexual chemistry known to Equestrian science! How exciting!"

Octavia rolled her eyes. "This is also very typical Twilight behavior. You realize, every creature on this ship is just as unique as Remington, compared to us? They may all have alien biologies. Only the original crew of the ship is even from the same world, so they probably have similarities."

Twilight gasped loudly. "You're right! But they're not from our world. They're all walking enigmas and I've been wasting all this time when I could have been looking." She applied her hoof to her face with a loud clop of a sound. "How foolish I've been!"

She twirled towards Octavia. "I need base lines. You're equestrian, even if you've been exposed to... Oh, what I wouldn't do for a pure single tribe pony to sample right now." She put a hoof to her cheek, looking into the middle distance. "There's so much I want to check." Her vision suddenly sharpened. "I'm getting distracted, sorry. Remington, you shouldn't be treated as a test sample."

Remi flashed a smile, sharp vulpine teeth on display. "Good of you to realize that. Does this mean you'll calm down a little."

"I... can't promise that." She put a hoof to her breast, returning the smile at her new foxish friend. "There's so much to learn, about both of you, as people and otherwise." The hoof came down silently. "If you'll allow me. Octavia, can we be friends again?"

Octavia's ears danced. "Whenever did we stop being friends?" She sat up tall on her haunches. "Twilight Sparkle," she said with all the menace of a mother using a full name. "Did you unfriend me without telling me? I do not appreciate being ghosted, Young Mare." She glanced sidelong to Remi. "That is how they say it, is it not?"

Remington barked out a laugh that was almost yipping in tone. "This isn't a social media app. Get over here." She grabbed for Twilight's collar and soon had both ponies in close, hugging both with one arm around each neck. "You two are stupidly adorable. Now, I brushed you both. I demand some pampering in return. Only fair."

Belle clopped her metal hooves. "Twilight has earned so many points! She has reached the next level and has been invited to mutual grooming activities. Such a display of vulnerability and trust indicates she is in possession of more points than I originally calculated. She is a star student!"

Error chuckled at that. "I think Remi may just have a low bar for when she's ready to touch and be touched. I bet if you just asked her nicely, she'd let you rub her belly."

Belle blinked rapidly, little metal clicks as the iris closed and opened over the digital display. "Which would secure more points. I should try that." A hoof suddenly shot up. "Would this create feelings of jealousy?"

"I appreciate the askin'." Error put an arm around Belle, hugging her close. "I don't think the kind of romance she's chasing, you're wired for, so no."

"I said nothing of romance," objected Belle. "We should prepare for calamity."

No Name rose to his full height, standing up. "What's wrong?"

"Octavia Melody, Responsible Adult, will visit me. She will ask questions I am not prepared to answer." Belle looked to No Name directly. "Will you assist me?"

39 - Responsible Adult

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The door chimed in a different way than it did on most of the doors in the ship. Belle had bothered to select a specific jingle she liked, a soft striking of a faux wind chime. "Octavia Melody," spoke the computer, announcing who had done it.

Belle nodded towards the door. "Let 'er in," she beckoned with a little wave of a hoof.

It slid open, allowing the alicorn to trot inside. "Ah, there you are. It's been... quite some time." She closed right on Belle without delay. "Bullette Belle, as I live and breathe. You did so much, for us, and I never thought I'd have this opportunity."

"What opportunity are ya hopin' for?" Belle asked with an inclination of her head. "Yer friendship file's still open."

"To thank you." She sat down a short distance away, studying Belle with one flickering ear. "You... sound different."

"Huh? Nah." Belle waved it away. "Yer welcome!" She hopped up to her hooves, tail wagging. "We're still friends, right?"

"You just said my friendship file is open," she noted with a little smile on her face. "So you know the answer to that."

"That don't tell me if my file is open." She pointed a hoof at Octavia's chest. "Is it?"

"How could I ever?" She inclined her head to the left before she shook it gently. "No, I never forgot you, Bullette Belle. A brave and wonderful person, you rescued us from a world that didn't much otherwise care if we lived or died." She stood up tall. "I even remember your distinctive robotic mode of communication, which appears to have entirely fled you."

"Oh, uh, just testin' new, uh, vocal whatsits. Routines! That's the thing." Belle hopped in place. "Sure is nice to see you again!"

"Bullette Belle," spoke Octavia in stern tones. "Or should I say, Error No Name, I insist you cease your deceptions right this instant."

"She's on to us!" suddenly squeaked out of a nearby closet before Belle fell out of it with a clatter of metal. "Abort mission, abort mission!"

The other Belle chuckled softly. "Ah told her it wouldn't work, but whattaya gonna do? Say no, to her? Can't do that." She shook her head lightly. "Ya got me." With a flicker, Belle ceased to be, replaced by the larger form of Error. "Hey there."

When Octavia had moved off, Twilight was ready to go too, at least until soft paws grabbed her by the shoulders and stilled her. When Octavia had gone, the door closed behind her, Remi pulled the princess back. "Not so fast. I wanted to talk to you, alone."

Twilight looked over her shoulder at the hermaphroditic fox. "What could you want to ask me that you couldn't ask in front of Octavia? I'm given to understand you two have begun a relationship, so it couldn't be that."

"One, that's not true. A little poly didn't hurt anyone."

Twilight's eyes half-lid in skepticism. "A little 'poly' has hurt countless ponies. I've had to counsel quite a number of hurt stallions and mares over the years because their partner was not as faithful as they had promised."

"There you go, assuming I made promises." She ran a claw along Twilight's back. "You're also assuming that's why I stopped you. You do have a nice round bottom that hasn't been tapped in gods-only-know how many... Wait, have you ever?"

Twilight began to color as embarrassment and scandal played across her features in competition. "We are not that close of friends." She looked to the left before it came to her. "You don't have enough friendship points to ask that."

Remi burst into yips of laughter, pulling Twilight back as she sat, soon having a pony in her lap. "You weren't joking when you said Belle was helping you. She's already rubbing all over you."

"It's not my fault she has a very direct way of communicating this social situation." Twilight rubbed her left cheek with a hoof, peering at Remi. "You seem to... be ready to ignore such requirements. I feel certain that if I did not enforce them from my side, you would ignore them entirely."

"That makes me sound like a nasty thing." Remi shook her head firmly. "If you're not interested, that's that. I don't have fun with unwilling targets. But you're alright with a little petting, hm?" She stroked down Twilight's sides and petted down the fur of her rump, caressing her shamelessly.

Twilight vanished, appearing several feet closer to the door. "Stop that! We're barely... friends. A pony's cutie mark--"

"--Cutie mark? That's what those are called? That is... adorable." Remi did not chase Twilight, remaining where she was. "Look, you ponies are like walking sugar with how sweet you are. I want to get to know you better. Is that bad?"

"Touching me without permission, yes, that's bad." She huffed, nostrils flaring. "Wanting to get to know me, no... That's not bad. Can we have one without the other?"

Remi held up her paws. "You can stay over there, well out of touching range, if it bothers you. You weren't shy about the brushes, coming or going."

"Grooming is not the same thing," Twilight hotly denied, huffing and stomping. "Speaking of that, you didn't say if the job had been satisfactorily complete."

"Going to confess," Remi smiled gently, her eyes roaming Twilight. "I enjoyed the act. My fur is nice and glossy too, so a double win right there. Now, really, you came here looking for something. I can smell it."

"This I doubt." She pointed at Remi. "What did you 'smell'?"

"We're all aliens." Remi shrugged as she sat up. "You don't know what I smell or not. You have the stench of desperate loneliness."

Twilight's cheeks lit up. "I do not!"

"Do so, all over." Remi wriggled her fingers. "It's kind of obvious. If you didn't, why are you still here after being touched in a way you don't want? You could have marched off. You could have at least demanded an apology. Instead, here we are, talking."

"I was trying to be nice." She turned for the door. "But that's obviously not wanted." She trot for the door firmly, at least she thought so.

Remi watched the pony stiffly march out the opening door, letting her go. "It'd hurt her feelings anyway," she decided once it was closed. She'd be happy with her Octavia. "Better balanced anyway." Which was entirely her fault, she decided more silently.

"We are en route," noted Dawn Event, tapping at unseen buttons. "The object has not responded to our approach."

Steel shook his head slowly. "I would be surprised if it did this far away, but keep an eye on that and alert if that changes. Also, stop our approach immediately. No reason to set off any alarms if it seems upset by us."

"Which will be impossible to tell," added Fast. "At least right away. Better to stop and take stock of the situation if it begins reacting."

Soft agreements echoed as the plan was set in motion.

Wandering leaned back. "While we're waiting, another issue appears to be arising, captains." Both captains looked towards him. "We have a champion interacting with a different generation of herself." He gestured at the main screen and an image popped in, showing Spike walking down a hallway, flanked by Sonja, with another, younger, Sonja riding him. There was no audio.

"I set a monitoring task to inform me if different generations were in contact for an extended period," explained Wandering with a sheepish smile. "You know how it can cause... issues."

Steel frowned, watching the video. "This ship is, in many ways, unnatural. We aren't supposed to meet those who come before, or after, but in such a small place, it's impossible to entirely avoid."

Fast waved a hoof at the main screen. "They look so happy! Why would we stop that? I thought the problem was the two getting into fights."

Steel rubbed behind his head. "When I encountered my younger during the away time, we both felt awkward and uncertain, but she had diverged sufficiently from the... template for a lack of better word, that I didn't feel she challenged my identity, and I don't think I caused that feeling in her. It was more like we were cousins, rather than looking into the eyes of my clone."

The feed suddenly cut out. Several sets of eyes went to Wandering, who was shaking his head. "I didn't do it. They were moving to a private location; Spike and Twilight's quarters. Continuing to watch would be a violation of privacy."

Fast leaned back in her chair. "Let them have their fun. If they're not hurting anything, I say leave them alone. Besides, Spike seems to have taken a liking to her. He brought her to the bridge, if you recall."

Under chuckled at that. "Difficult to forget. She is too young to keep quiet, and he is too lax a parent to force the matter. Still, they both seemed happy with the other's presence."

Dawn's left ear quivered. "Only the gods know where this will lead. For us mortals, we can only watch, and prepare."

Spike sank down on his bed and Young Sonja sprang off of him. "Well, hey, welcome." He swept a hand out. "My place. It isn't much, but..."

"I've seen it," noted Older Sonja, moving directly for some of his carefully assembled figures and studying them. "Still, seeing it... outside a memory is different. The memories are so fresh, I feel like I've been here before." With a careful hoof, she picked up the little ship, balanced preciously between hooves not meant for fine manipulation. "You were quite proud of this one, Spike."

"I still am." He watched her intently, eyes darting between the figure and the hooves holding it. "Uh, like it?"

"I told you it was--"

"I said things. This is your first time here," corrected Young Sonja, sticking out her tongue at her older self.

"Right." Older Sonja put it down where it came from. "I like it. It shows you have precision, and that happens to be a quality I favor." She turned towards Spike. "It must be so confusing for you, in a different way. I can focus on my current, but your current is hundreds on hundreds of years. How do you live so long without going insane?"

Spike inclined his head. "The same way. I focus on the current. Just because I don't have a death to book end it, doesn't mean I can't draw lines in the sand." He tapped his chest. "Boarding this ship was a new start, so I don't think that much about before-that unless I have to. I became a new Spike when I left our old ship, met you all... Started doing new things." A little smile spread on his face. "It's a good life."

Young and Older Sonja both let out an aw in sync, moving to touch noses to Spike. The older went for nose to beak, the younger touching his side, both pleased with their friend/boyfriend. Spike was caught between them, chuckling softly. "I... could get used to this, sure. Oh! Hey, I kinda have a roomie." Both backed a step. "Twilight, remember her?"

Young Sonja rolled her eyes. "That nerd?"

"Dweeb, more like," corrected Older Sonja. "What did you see in her?"

"She's my adopted sister," he huffed. "She took care of me, and I took care of her. We're family."

Older Sonja had the sense to at least look embarrassed. Younger Sonja did not have that drive. "She's so nerdy!"

The door slid open without a sound. The reason became clear as Twilight trotted inside. "Hey, Spike. I'm b--" She cut off abruptly, coming to a halt on spotting the two zebras in her room. "Is... Am I interrupting?"

Spike's face lit up. "It's not what you think?!"

Twilight fixed him an amused look. "That never makes it sound better. Spike, kindly explain."

40 - Budding

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"Journal." Copper heard a specific beep that told her the computer was listening for the rest. "Heading to the farm. All attempts have, thus far, bore no fruit." She paused, ears dancing. "Pun not intended, but appreciated." She chuckled to herself as she resumed her trot. "Let's have a look."

The door slid open without her prompting beyond approaching. The interior was not as bright as she expected. She looked up to see vines criss-crossed over the lightning panels. "What the...?" She followed the vines back down to their roots to see that those plants had budded and grown quite a bit since last she checked on them.

She hurried over to one and plucked a leaf free in her magic, horn glowing as she hurried it to a platform. "Computer, analyze this sample." She dropped the leaf into its view. "Full plant sweep."

"Calculating," the computer replied calmly, with none of the excitement Copper was showing.

While it worked, Copper began a circle around the room, inspecting the other plants. Many had remained just as they were, with slow and stubborn growths that had worried. One other had joined in the growth, a pepper plant species that grew dazzling varieties of different shades of purple. She touched her nose to a lustrous purple fruit, sniffing it. "Smells good." Part of her wanted to take a nibble, but there was a mystery afoot.

Poisoning herself would not serve the ship well.

The computer chimes. "Report complete."

"Excellent, print it for me." She trotted towards where the printing slot was to receive the report. She had work to do, but, for once, it was positive! She hoped.

Twilight inclined her head left and right at the gathering. "So you--" She pointed at the younger Sonja. "And you--" She pointed at the other. "Are... the same person?"

"Sorta," started the younger.

"But not exactly," finished the adult. "Our souls are the same thing, but our bodies and minds are our own."

"Souls can remember things," chimed the younger. "Souls don't know what time is."

"As she said." The adult inclined her head at the younger. "So what she experienced with Spike feels fresh to me, and her affection became mine."

The younger rolled her eyes. "Except she's a grown up, so 'just being friends' isn't good enough for her."

Spike suddenly coughed into a hand. "That's the summary of the whole thing. So, uh, I ended up with two friends."

"And you're alright with that?" Twilight hopped up onto her bed and sat on her haunches, facing them all. "I'm not trying to judge..."

"But you are." Spike huffed softly. "I'll be honest. The idea of someone I don't have an awkward relationship with finding me attractive actually sounds kinda nice."

Twilight wobbled a hoof between the two zebras. "This isn't awkward?"

Younger Sonja crossed her arms. "We are not awkward."

"We've set boundaries," agreed the older. "The only one that can suffer collateral damage from this move are ourselves."

Younger waved a hoof excitedly. "I am his friend. We'll play games and have fun."

"I am his friend." Her eyes lowered to bedroom eyes. "We'll play games... and have fun." The way she said it left no room in the adult's minds that her fun and games would be entirely different from the younger one's.

Spike sat up, looking to Twilight. "Oh, right, so... Do you want me to find my own room? I mean... that part could get pretty awkward."

"Actually..." Twilight looked to the older Sonja. "Could we talk? Privately..."

The younger rolled her eyes even as she began trotting for the door. "I'll remember it anyway," she noted in sing-song.

Spike pointed at himself. "Are you kicking me out of my own room?"

"Just for a moment, Spike." Twilight pointed to the door. "Please?" When the door closed behind his reluctantly banished form, she sank to her belly, looking at the older Sonja. "How did you do it?"

"How did I do what?" She half-turned, displaying her heavy cannon. "How do I make a gun look so good?"

"Not that... precisely." She inclined her head faintly. "You saw somecreature you were interested in and you just... went for it. You didn't hesitate. I blinked, and you were already in a romantic relationship! Reveal to me your secrets." Twilight softly thumped the bed with a hoof. "How do I make my intentions clear?"

"You poor thing." She inclined her head towards her gun. "You're armed, but you aren't taking the shot. Take your aim, squeeze the trigger, regret nothing. If you miss, you will get another chance, but if you never shoot, you've defeated yourself ahead of time." She leaned in, ears trained on Twilight. "Of course, now you must tell me who you've got in your crosshairs."

Twilight sank. "I have a few I want to try approaching..."

"You haven't even selected a target? Trying to fire undecided will just be sure to make you hit none of them." She casually stepped up onto the bed and sank down next to Twilight. "You are wise to come to me."

Twilight's expression brightened, a smile spreading. "How is it zebras always seem to know exactly what I need to hear?"

"Call it a curse." Sonja inclined her head. "You've run into other zebras then? I wasn't even sure your world had any."

"Yes, many... I met and dealt with more than a few while I was princess." She raised a hoof behind her head. "The first was the most special, and also the one I made the least time for. I regret that..."

"Taken," flatly noted Sonja. "I like my guns like I like my partners. One, big, powerful. Going for a pair? Not my style."

Twilight recoiled. "I wasn't asking for that! Besides, me and Spike just set... healthier boundaries. Moving in on his special somepony would be a gross violation of that. I was... Never mind." She shook her head, sinking back onto her belly. "How do you pick somecreature?"



"One. Someone," repeated Sonja. "It's shorter, easier to say, and gets the point across. Why would you call someone a 'creature'? Unless they're not one. Don't call Sonja and me 'one', we're two." She shuffled, gunrack jingling. "You have your own tastes. Find the stallion, or mare, that fits those tastes, then take the shot."

"Who said they were either of those?" Twilight looked smug as she sat up. "You just finished telling me to refer to creatures as 'one'. Could be anything then, couldn't it?"

Sonja whipped Twilight with her tail. "You don't strike me as the adventurous sort, relationship wise. You probably want a pony." She shrugged. "Not saying that's wrong. More of my plus ones were ponies than not." She suddenly narrowed her eyes. "In other lives. This life, I have exactly one, and he's a big dragon."

Twilight laughed nervously at that. "Big and strong..." Two words she didn't often think of in relation to Spike, even if both were true. "Alright. Alright... Find the one that suits me more, then... go for it."

"Take the shot." Sonja aimed her gun at an imagined target. "Bang."

"Bang..." Twilight slid to her hooves. "Thank you for your time. I'll get out of your mane and let Spike back in." She hopped down to the floor and set off to the door.

"Captains," came Copper's voice over the intercom. "I've tried to keep this under control, but it's developed in new ways. Are we approaching any strange energy sources by chance?"

Steel and Fast glanced at one another. Fast spoke up first, "Not that we are aware of, but we are approaching a strange object. Are you noticing something?"

Steel made more subtle hoof motions at the others on the bridge and they got to work striking keys that weren't actually there. "What are you trying to keep under control?"

"Food production's been below optimal since before we docked. Attempts to revitalize it have met with abject failure, logs are available." The rustle of leaves could be heard over the connection. "But that's suddenly changed for two of the edible species of plants. They are growing far in excess of their usual rates. Computer analysis reports there's nothing toxic present. On the bright side, food's not an issue so long as you don't mind salads with plenty of sliced peppers."

Fast rolled a hoof slowly in the air. "But, on the downside..."

"The farm's overrun." More rustling leaves, a creak, of a branch perhaps. "There we go, got out. It seems to be accelerating by the day. I'm afraid they'll start bursting through the walls, and food that punctures the side of the ship would be... worrisome."

Steel sat up sharply. "Copper Prism," he stated with the angry finality of an upset parent. "In the future, you are to report irregularities immediately. We can't react to problems we don't know are there."

Fast set a hoof on his shoulder. "We'll send help to get that under control. Thank you for your report." She made a flat wave and the signal was cut with a little chime. "There's no reason to yell at her in the middle of a crisis."

"I wouldn't have made that mistake." He crossed his arms over his chest. "Putting that aside, I need to know what manner of radiation that orb's throwing out and how it's affecting our plants and how it could be affecting the crew."

The bridge became noisier as ponies tried to get that information.

Octavia looked to Bullette Belle. "Are you the real Bullette Belle?"

"No," miserably admitted Belle. "I am not the holder of your friendship points." She suddenly hurried forward. "Please allow me to explain!"

Octavia inclined her head. "Do go on. You feel far closer."

"Closer, perhaps." Belle raised a hoof to her chin with a tap of metal on metal. "The Bullette Belle you know is..." She fidgeted in place. "She lived a good and long life."

Octavia's ears sagged a moment before pricking back up. "I... see. I had thought I could thank her, at least." She rose to her hooves, only to find Error's leg in the way of fleeing. "Pardon?"

"She ain't done," he tilted his head towards Belle. "Don't go runnin' off like that."

"Please." Belle pressed her forehooves together with a hopeful smile. "You did meet me before, but I wasn't born yet." She tapped her cheek loudly enough to make the metal ring. "This is the shell that Bullette Belle wore. I am the intelligence that helped operate it. I was not..."

"You..." Octavia sank to her haunches. "You know I saw her secret then."

Belle's ears folded against her head with little ticks as they clicked into position. "She was entirely vulnerable, but you are a Responsible Adult and acted appropriately. She is not here, but I thank you." She lowered her hooves to the floor, seated on her haunches. "I would like to open a new friendship file with you. You already have points with me."

Octavia inclined her head. "I have more questions... What are you. Besides an automaton, I gathered that much. You were, are, her shell... What did you learn? Are you separate, a new thing? I'm trying to put this together, truly I am."

Belle sat up a little more proudly. "I was nothing, then I became something. I asked my mom many questions." She pointed at Octavia. "Bullette Belle gave many answers. My mother was a great person who saw so much. I am like her, but I am not her." She tilted her head sharply left. "I am a good person too, I hope?"

"Don't look at me," chuckled Error. "I'm just an odd thing along fer the ride."

"You haven't changed." She swatted at him with a hoof. "Stop being self-deprecating. You acted loyally for a friend, I can appreciate that. I'm not even mad at your... attempt at subterfuge."

"Uh..." Error shook his head. "Ah ain't who you think ah am either now. He bit the big one before her mom did."

"It's true," sadly rang out Belle as mournful music played from within her. "But we are here, and a friend has returned." She pointed at Octavia. "Yes?"

41 - Growth is Life

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"The plants are under control," reported Wandering, goat ear turned towards them. "Several guards are standing by to help keep the plants from getting unruly. On the positive, all the pruned food is edible and has been harvested for immediate use."

Steel nodded at the announcement. "Very good. Are they still growing?"

Under Score raised a hoof. "All calculations show the rate is increasing. Food supplies are a problem we don't have."

Twilight suddenly sat beside the older-looking unicorn. "Can I help?"

Under inclined his head. "You wish to resume your training?" He struck unseen keys and very visible buttons appeared for Twilight, floating over in front of her. "Join me."

They began working together with curious questions asked and answers given. Both were smiling.

Wandering Note inclined his head at them, one hoof striking unseen keys.

Fast Shadow's eyes darted, letters appearing in front of her. They didn't often send silent text messages to one another, but she knew what it was. It was from Wandering note. "I could be mistaken, Captain, but the way Twilight is seated, and the way she's talking. I think she may have a thing for Under Score. I wonder if he noticed?! :heart::heart::heart:"

Fast chuckled softly at the message, starting to type her reply. "That is between them and not our business, Wandering. It's good to see Twilight emerging from her shell."

"But it is my business," came the silent reply. "Monitoring the mental and social well-being of the crew is my duty aside from handling the comms." He was watching the two out of the corner of his eyes. "How to put this... There are more romantic entanglements than usual. A greater number of initiated or accelerated relationships."

Fast sat up at that. "Dawn?" When the priest looked towards her, she continued, "Were you able to discern any effect this is having on the crew? Whatever it is that is making the plants grow?"

"Negative." Dawn worked at his controls quietly. "Gods smiling, we have had no physical abnormalities reported. The computer has noticed no strange patterns; internally or externally."

But mentally? The computer didn't search for that. Fast frowned in thought, striking the unseen keys in reply to Wandering, "Good eye. Let's keep monitoring that. If people want to get involved, good for them. That's not against regulation. It will be awkward if it fades when we leave the big ball."

"That would be terrible," came his reply. "I will be busy counseling for a while."

Octavia wobbled a hoof between the two not-living-but-arguably-sapient things before her. "And you two are in a relationship then?"

"Yes," sang out Belle. "We are lovers." Her eyes became actual heart symbols, pulsing a moment before her usual eyes returned.

Error laughed at that. "That sounds off. We're friends with cuddle benefits." He inclined his head. "Besides, neither of us are built for messy 'lover' stuff anywho."

"I should... imagine so," continued Octavia with a lack of confidence, her eyes darting from the small female robot to the larger male hologram. "Though, forgive my mentioning... You." She pointed at Error. "You can be whatever you care to be. You've already demonstrated this."

"Can't much argue that," agreed Error with a slow nod, his mouth-snakes hissing in the air softly.

Belle inclined her head with soft metal clicks. "Error is capable of biological mating patterns, though it would be ineffective." The last word had a sad downturn to her voice, equally morose music punctuating it. "We are not biological." She suddenly raised a hoof to her chest. "But we are capable of reproduction." She looked to the left at her larger friend. "Have you completed your decision regarding our reproduction?"

She just as suddenly reared up onto two hooves, waving her forehooves wildly at Error. "You still have 4 days, 6 hours, 12 minutes and 7 seconds before a response is required!"

Octavia blinked slowly. "Pardon my ignorance, which I feel is only growing by the moment. Forgive me, but how does a robot go about that?" Her cheeks suddenly warmed. "If that isn't an uncouth subject matter to bring up in the first place. I feel more ignorant by the moment."

"Hey, I have no idea neither now." Error nodded towards Belle. "Why don't you break that down for us? If I said yes, what would the next step be?"

Belle crashed down to her haunches, looking off with purpose at some bit of the wall. "Connection established," she announced, and the room changed, her connection with the holographic projectors allowing her to alter its appearance to her will. A large desk of parts appeared. "The first step would be a decision." She pointed at Error. "Will our child be digital, or physical?"

She inclined her head. "I am jealous of your abilities. As a mother, I do not object to my child having more opportunities than I have, so I would consent to a digital creation. You, being the father, have an equal vote."

Error inclined his head left and right. "Huh, well, just fer theory, let's say ah wanted a physical kid?"

"Oh no!" called out Belle, bringing up both hooves to clop with a metallic ring against her cheeks. "We would have to discuss and debate until consensus was reached." She inclined her head faintly. "For the purpose of this demonstration, I will concede loss and permit your desire."

She reared back up onto two legs and grabbed for the holographic bits and bobs on the table. "We would begin to assemble a body for our child. This would be in accordance to Steelheart tradition, though we lack a Steelheart priest. Oh! We can enlist Dawn Event to fill in that purpose. I feel certain he has the proper religious files."

Error stepped over on heavy hooves and sat across from her, reaching to start pushing pieces around with a little smile. "We'd literally make our kid?"

"Correct," sang Belle. "But that is not the key part.

Octavia was slowly shaking her head, watching the two with amazement. "What is the key part then, if you don't mind?"

Belle pointed to her head, then to the dead center of Error. "Our minds would become one. Our code would be allowed to hybridize and compile for an agreed upon number of iterations." She tilted her head. "Our originals would be safe, but the result would be a new program, a new life, created with portions of us both. That would be our child, installed in a body or running digitally." Victorious music swelled within her. "It would be like us, but it would not be us. That is our child."

Octavia slowly set her hoof down. "That is... That is lovely, I think. I hope you two make a lovely little foal together." She smiled a little at the two. "Though it seems there is no 'expecting' period."

"Incorrect," sang Belle, though she was smiling. "The iterations will take considerable time. Both of our programs are large and complicated. Many iterations will result in non-viable programs, and each takes sizable processing time to complete. We will have to wait, just as organic parents, for our child to be ready to live. Each iteration, it will be perhaps closer to ready. The ones that work will have a chance to improve. The ones that fail to compile will be discarded." She inclined her head.

Octavia's brows went up together. "Wait..." She circled the illusory table to Belle. "Will you be running these iterations?" She reached out and gently tapped Belle on her head. "In here?"

"Affirmative," sang Belle, holographic hearts rising from her head as she began to bounce in place, looking so very happy.

"So... you actually will be an expecting mother." Octavia sank to her haunches. "Incredible... I must apologize. I thought... I thought several unkind things that I now realize were entirely wrong. Belle, congratulations. If I can help... if you feel overwhelmed while you are expecting, I would be honored if you called on me."

Error shook his head. "Hey now, we're not like, you know, everyone else. Why can't I help too?"

Belle blinked rapidly, metal clicks echoing around the room before she hopped upright with such force she landed on the table of parts. "We can run in parallel! That's so romantic!" She leaned in and touched her nose to Error's, gazing at him fondly. "We will have to be in constant communication."

"Guess I'm a mom too," Error laughed out. "Do ah get a baby shower or somethin'?"

"Go on in." Twilight waved at the room she just came from. "I'll find another quarter."

Spike started to move, only to stop with the second half of Twilight's statement. "Wait what?"

"You're showing me up." She smiled, bright, but also forced. "You've gotten a family, however odd it may be. Congratulations, but--"

"We're still a family, Twilight," cut in Spike, frowning.

"Of course." She patted him on the shoulder, then looked up past that shoulder to the young Sonja riding him. "But proper adult brothers and sisters live apart. I love you, and I always will, but I'm giving you room to be you. Wish me luck." She trotted off in the hopes of finding her own special somepony, though she had someone in mind already.

Sonja tapped at the top of Spike's head. "You have a funny sister."


"But I hope she gets happier."

"Yeah." Spike smiled a little, resuming his journey towards the room. "She's basically family for you too now. You should get to know her too. We can all try to help her."

"I'm a kid," petulantly complained the small zebra. "She doesn't want to play any fun games. Older me will have to handle that."

"I heard that." Older Sonja met them inside the room, touching noses with Spike and sticking out her tongue at her younger self. "When Twilight finishes moving out, I'm moving in."

"Me too!" cried Younger Sonja.

"No," replied both Spike and Older Sonja.

Younger Sonja crossed her arms. "This is unfair and you know it..."

Octavia sat down next to two other ponies. "I am ready. Shall we begin?" That is when she noticed something different about Twilight. "What are you wearing?"

Twilight reached up and tapped at the big goggles on her face. "This lets me see Augmented Reality. I'm learning how to perform technology-based magic, like Under Score."

Under inclined his head. "With the proper surgery, such a helmet would not be req--"

"--No, thank you," cut in Twilight. "This is good enough."

Octavia smiled at that, raising the arm that had the LAP attached to it. "I know how you feel, Twilight. I use this to engage in modern activities. Do you have some manner of computer?"

"Oh, yes!" Twilight was all smiles as a PDA floated out from her side into view. "Look at the lock screen." She tapped it to wake it up and it showed a big display of Twilight's cutie mark and she began to giggle. "It's a little thing, but I like it."

Octavia chuckled softly. "Now I'm almost jealous. I don't know how to make the LAP do that. Now... teacher?" She looked to Under Score. "We have things to learn, do we not?"

"We do. Let's put our toys aside for the moment."

Twilight instead unlocked her PDA. "I need this if I'm going to do any technology-based magic."

"There is that," allowed Under. "But I need you to focus on the lesson, and not the gimmick of the device you are holding." He turned to a screen on the wall that was already displaying various arcane facts and figures. "We left off with..."

Octavia raised a hoof. "Pardon me, but I was given to believe you wanted to know as much about our magic as you were helping us understand yours."

Twilight sat up proudly. "I'm not giving up mine. I already expanded from Equestrian magic to Everglow magic and I didn't give up Equestrian magic. Did you?"

Octavia inclined her head. "I... suppose I did not, but I also was never much an expert with Equestrian magic..."

Under Score coughed softly. "As I was saying..."

42 - Under Scoring the Important Things

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He looked up from around the floating screen he had been studying towards his door. "Let her in."

The door slid open, permitting Twilight Sparkle to enter Under Score's chamber, her eyes wandering, taking in the many signs of an active mind. She took quick note of the lack of books. "Not a fan of reading?"

Under gestured at the floating screen that only he could see. "I have access to more books than I have living time to read." He rolled up to all four hooves. "What brings you here? Were it not for your arrival, I would be doing just that; reading."

"My apologies." She put a hoof behind her head before her horn glowed, producing her PDA. "I was hoping you could show me a few things... outside of the classroom."

He reached casually to press a hoof against her face. "I'm off duty, Miss Sparkle."

"You can call me Twilight," she gently insisted, darting around the hoof. "Look, Under..." She faltered, licking her lips and moving from one hoof to the other, trying to gather her bravery. "What do you look for, in a potential romantic partner?"

"I don't look," he replied perhaps a bit too quickly. But then he did, examining Twilight. "In some lives, before I become a 'proper' Under Score, I find a partner during my younger years. But Under Score is not properly Under Score until he has advanced in years." He smiled gently, wrinkled lips upturning. "Those urges dim with time."

Twilight took a slow breath. "I'm older, physically, than anyone on this ship." She put a hoof to her chest. "I know I don't look it, but if I did, I'd beat you for wrinkles per square inch, easily."

A low chuckle emerged from him. "I can imagine, with some effort." He waved the panel away, banishing it. "What, exactly, are you after? I don't have anything that should--"

"You're smart," she cut off. "You enjoy reading. You enjoy studying magic. You know the importance of friends." She tapped her forehooves together with each positive factor she listed. "You're responsible and kind and when you see something new, you want to know more, not recoil in fear."

"And I have nothing that would appeal to the needs of an eternally youthful mare." He huffed softly with a half-smile. "I cannot satisfy you."

"You're not giving me enough credit." She circled him, closing in on a spiral approach. "As somepony reminded me, our mindsets being compatible is far more important. We are both talented magic users. Our bodies are just gentle suggestions made by the universe, which we can ignore whenever we want it hard enough."

He opened his mouth to object further when the kiss happened. She pressed her lips to his in an awkward meeting. He could have shoved her away, and he almost did in that first instant, just out of fury of her daring to invade his personal space in such a fashion.

But it wasn't all bad. He wasn't a young stallion anymore. No physical reactions to be seen, but it didn't mean it didn't feel nice, to have that vision of eternal youth pressing against him, gazing into his eyes with a burning passion he reserved for reading something especially interesting.

Maybe he wouldn't shove her away...

"Medical Scan: Complete," alerted a soft artificial voice as Octavia stepped down from a platform. "Recommendations sent."

Octavia glanced to her LAP, which showed a file being downloaded, awaiting her review. "Thank you, computer. Anything I should be outright concerned with?"

"Nutritional deficiency detected. Severity: Mild. Dietary adjustment already filed."

She nodded as she approached her instrument and rose up to pull it into playing position. "Thank you. What a time to be alive, when that sort of thing is just handled. Anything else?"

"You are host to a benign parasitic organism." Octavia's playing bow fell from her numb telekinetic grip. "You are pregnant," explained the computer a bit more plainly.

Octavia fell back to all four hooves, clopping as they struck the ground. "But... Are we even compatible!?"

"I did not understand the question." The computer, as intelligent as it was in some ways, was horribly dumb in other ways.

"She's bipedal," explained Octavia more bluntly. "I'm quadruped."

"For further advice, a medical professional is advised." An image of the ship appeared on a nearby wall, showing glowing spots where on duty medical staff waited to dispense information.

Octavia stormed across the room and thumped a blanketed form, knocking her right off her cushion with a muffled yelp. "This is your fault!"

"What'd I do?!" Remi scrambled to her feet. "You are looking especially irate. It's an interesting look for you, but, seriously, what's going on?"

Octavia thrust a hoof around back at her own belly. "Your child is apparently taking up residency inside me without my leave!"

"1: Our child." She thrust up a finger, only to join another shortly. "2: You called it here when you played with me." A third finger joined. "You weren't taking anything to stop this?" A fourth finger thrust up. "If you're not doing something about it, are we going to be a real thing now? I mean, you know, married?"

"Do some..." Her face paled. "No! Celestia forfend." She looked away, scowling. "I didn't ask for it, but it's done, and we're not in a position I can't... care for it... It would be the height of irresponsibility for me to not accept the consequences of my actions." She thrust the same hoof at Remi. "But that goes for you too! No more talk of whimsical romances."

Remi kneeled in front of the livid mare and gently cupped her cheeks in warm fuzzy hands. "That is not the proposal I imagined, but, since you insist, sure."

"Sure?" Octavia pulled away. "Sure?! That is the word you use for this?"

"Sure, yes, I accept," counted off Remi. "Let's get married and take care of a kid. You did it, silly mare."

"What did I do?" she questioned, one brow raising high.

"You caught a space fox." She sat down, tail swaying behind her. "I'm not leaving until we're done playing family."

"We're not playing," she sighed out, her anger starting to ebb. "This is serious. You are the father of this child, whatever gender preferences you have, this is impossible to argue. And I am its mother..." She glanced at the computer, or where it had spoken last. "Do you know of they are a filly or a colt?"

"Equestrian Genomic analysis unavailable." The map flashed. "Please consult resident physicians."

Remi gently brushed one of Octavia's ears. "I'll walk with you. Let's make sure our child and you are doing just fine."

Later, on the bridge, Steel gestured at the huge metal gates that took up most of the screen. "Any reactions?"

"Incoming transmission," reported Wandering, and a voice began to play over the main screen.

It flowed from one language to another, strange and alien, at least until it slid into the language of fae creatures, sylvan, and just about every ear in the room raised. "Welcome to creation, weary race. Come and drink deep and regain the fire of life." The voice continued, sliding to the next language, repeating the message over and over again in different tongues.

As the voice went on and on, the gate began to open soundlessly, moving left and right to reveal a dark interior, little lights sparkling into being. "A landing strip?" suggested Fast as she leaned forward, squinting at them. "So they intended for visitors."

Steel inclined his head. "That hardly sounded like a hostile message. Dawn, any religious significance?"

"Always, Captain." Dawn nodded with confidence. "It is a matter of knowing which divinity to take the perspective of. They mentioned a fire of life? There are many angles to approach that from and we do not have sufficient information to take a guess."

"What are the odds we're being invited in to be cooked to a crisp?" asked Steel more directly.

"Low." He dipped his head towards the main screen. "They sound benign."

"Take us in?" Steel looked to Fast.

Fast nodded in quick agreement. "Let's see what's inside this thing. At least it doesn't seem to be an unspeakable horror awaiting release."

With the captains in consensus, they both pointed forward, and the ship shuddered into motion. Across the ship, yellow lights dimly flashed, warning the crew to be on light alert as they approached for a landing.

Copper Lens ran a hoof over a large leaf, a little smile on her face. "More plants are growing tall and strong. Fertilizer needs have spiked appropriately, but food will not be remotely an issue. Fruiting bodies have shown a near 100% increase in size." She inclined her head left. "Tasty, and curious..."

Her horn glowed as she plucked a ripe fruit off of its plant. It came free easily as if it was meant for the task. "Your life cycle only begins when you pass through the digestive system of a cooperative animal." She sniffed the fruit gently, admiring the citrusy hints teasing at her nose. "You smell lovely. It's almost as if you're begging to be eaten, to make more plants." But that was silly. "I'm assigning pony-like qualities to plants. I need to relax." She walked out of the lab, confident in her work for the day. Her magic peeled the fruit as she trotted, taking a big juicy bite of it as soon as it was revealed.


A younger Dawn Event set a hoof against Octavia's barrel, gently rubbing. "How blessed are we, distant children of Lashtada."

Remi perked an ear at that. "Pardon, not up to speed on horse gods. Which one's that?"

Dawn's nose wrinkled. "A goddess most kind, but primal. She bids that life fulfill its most inherent function, making more life. To sustain itself at least as long as it takes to be successful at creating the next generation, to repeat the process, into infinity." Dawn turned to Octavia. "You have joined the dance, as her faithful would call it, and are creating a hybrid, a sacred thing in her eyes."

Octavia's nostrils flared in a snort. "Sacred? Any foal is worthy of... admiration, but what makes that especially 'sacred'?" She glanced over her shoulder at herself. "Is it healthy, and do you know if it's a colt or a filly?"

"It is neither of those things," gently cautioned Dawn. "Kit or foal, both terms would miss the mark as it straddles the line between." He set a hoof back on her side. "It is very early. I will pray to the goddess for insight, and she may yet reveal the answer. Otherwise, we will know with certainty in a few weeks."

Remi set her paws on her hips. "Well, I feel good. I'm compatible with adorable ponies, who knew?"

"Lashtada knew," spoke Dawn as if that had been perfectly clear ahead of time. "By her words, ponies can find love with any creature that will accept us. Love knows no limits save those we place ourselves." He bowed his head, then his entire front, lowering himself before the divine. "Your child is sacred because Lashtada bids all life come together, until there are no borders left. An ambitious goal, but what is a god, if not a being that can play the long game?"

Remi placed her hands on Octavia's hips from behind. "You hear that? Our playing was also sacred. No wonder it was so fun."

"You have precisely three seconds to let go of me." When Remi released her immediately, Octavia nodded, looking to Dawn. "Well, alright. We are, at least, healthy?"

"You are both healthy," proclaimed the priest with confidence. "Keep yourself in good spirits and mind yourself and soon you will be a mother. Please, return as often as you feel the urge. It is my duty to aid you through this time."

Octavia turned for the door but paused, gesturing with a hoof for Remi to come closer. When the fox stepped in close, Octavia reared up and smooched her on the cheek in a little peck. "I'm sorry if I snap. This is a trying time. I consented to every action that led to this, this isn't your fault."

She took a slow breath. "I just have to keep reminding myself that."

43 - Fire of Life

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The ship sailed through the silent doors, the great gates of some unknown metal that could have proven a serious barrier if one considered how thick they were as they were passed, which they did. Steel tapped at his chin, considering it. "Whatever this is, it was heavily defended and secured, but not to keep something in, or to be hostile, from what we've seen. Is whatever it contains still dangerous by nature of what it is, perhaps some rogue black hole like structure that powers it and could tear it apart if not for the reinforcements?"

Many faces turned to look at Steel. "What? I'm allowed to have a scientific thought once in a while." He inclined his head towards Under, who had Twilight seated beside him. "Is my hypothesis off base?"

"No. I had similar thoughts," he admitted as he touched unseen keys. "The odds of an unstable black hole feel low, but something they wanted to shield from escape, or interference perhaps."

Dawn Event moved his hooves through several prayer motions across his chest. "We are past the first layer of that protection. If it is an emission that is to be stopped, we have already entered it, gods be kind to us."

"I feel fine," noted Twilight as she reached out and touched a button she and Under could see together. "No unusual emissions detected. Wandering, any reports in the crew of issues?"

Wandering glanced to the captains, but they nodded, so he replied, "There is a pattern that feels hard to dismiss entirely as coincedence, even if it is exactly the sort of thing that would get one laughed out of a room."

Fast sat up. "Permission to speak freely, Wandering. No laughing permitted for the next fifteen minutes." She held up a hoof as if that made the order more official.

He tapped his fore hooves together. "The number of social relationships started and their progression has increased sharply." He moved a hoof behind his head. "Crewmembers with permitted children rights--"

"--Permitted children rights?" cut in Spike, seated behind the captains. "What's that?"

Dawn was happy to field that question. "Most of us, being echoes of the same person, avoid forming bonds with each other, even across generational divides." He inclined his head faintly. "Friendship and peer bonds are entirely acceptable. Some even become roommates or forge asexual connections, but children are forbidden. When we are given shore leave, it is inevitable that off-ship crew joins, and with it, couples may have children rights."

Spike blinked slowly, then began to color. "So... Sonja has children rights?"

"Apologies." Wandering dipped his head. "If I may proceed?" When Steel nodded, he continued, "They're getting together, and the results are happening faster than usual. Although no... Nothing directly bad is happening." He rubbed his cloven hooves together. "It does present a pattern."

Steel inclined his head. "Is this a result of our proximity to the mega Dyson sphere? I thought no energy but visible light was going through this space."

Dawn gestured at things only he could see. "Nothing detected, captain. I am still on high alert." He turned an ear. "But if this is the gravest threat it poses, Lashtada would only smile on it."

Steel coughed into a hoof. "Depending on how pervasive it is, it could cause issue, should it prompt unsactioned unions."

Spike raised a claw, but it silently lowered back to the ground as he quietly put together what that could mean. His eyes went instead to Fast and Steel, who seemed like fast friends.

Fast sat up. "Let us be vigilant. We are explorers. We can control ourselves. Now, what is it we've stepped into?" Her eyes went to the main screen where the landing strip grew larger and larger with their approach. "How long until we've docked, and will we need--"

"No," cut in Dawn. "The doors have sealed behind us and gas levels are normalizing. Scans report the air is free of harmful material, organic or not, and within tolerable ranges."

Spike sat down in his room, later, allowed to escape the talks of the bridge. "Uh, so... maybe it's nothing..."

Sonja hiked a brow at him. "You're looking sour. Something you need me to punch a hole in?" She directed her gun towards him, tongue clucking against her teeth. "Just paint the target."

"Nothing a bullet will fix," he admitted with a little smile. "Look... I'm enjoying our time, together."

"There's a big 'but' hiding in that sentence," she noted. "What's wrong? Come out with it. I can't fight what I can't see."

Spike waved vaguely. "Apparently the entire crew, us included, is... getting, you know, amorous? And a part of me is just bothered. Is our thing because we're a match, or because we're being told to by some outside... thing?"

Sonja curled in on him, touching noses gently. "I'm happy with you. Are you happy with me?"

A smile curled across his lips. "Yeah... It was a little odd at first, but you really grow on a dragon. Even your younger half, in a different way."

"You think that's odd for you? Every time you play with her, I get new childhood memories, foggy in my head, of when I used to play with you, except you're right there. Part of me wants to demand a ride and to have you tell me a story before bed, like you 'used' to, but you never did, and I know that, but feelings don't work that way, do they Spike?"

Spike set a large hand on her barrel and began to rub gently in a circle. "I'm sorry about that. I mean, if you want me to tell you a story..."

She burst into laughter at that, tail whipping. "You would, wouldn't you? I just may take you up on that offer, but let's adjust our sights." She inclined her head a little. "To be blunt, I don't care. If someone gave me a shove to start this whole thing, good, thanks whatever you are. I like you, Spike, a lot. Love is the classic word, but it doesn't matter. I like where we are right now. If you like it, then who cares why we got here? If it stops nudging me, I don't think I'll suddenly stop liking it."

Spike half-climbed on her to touch his cheek to hers, his claws stroking and scratching gently through her soft pelt, enjoying her presence. "You do have a point there... Maybe I'm overthinking it."

"Just another part of you I like, though I think you mighta got that from your sister." She smirked a little. "She find someone to hook up with? I want to meet the couple. If what you said is true, she's getting a helping hoof."

"Oh, yeah." Spike sat up a little, considering Twilight being nudged towards some potential mate. "Wow, wonder how that'll work."

"Ya know what?"

Belle perked an ear with a little metal click. "My storage capacity is--"

"That ain't what I meant," cut in Error. "And ya know that!"

Belle giggled softly, admitting she did, in fact, know she was answering incorrectly. "What were you asking about?" she asked, nuzzling into his side, her eyes becoming hearts a moment.

"About 'the big question' an' all." He inclined his head, snakes looking towards her as one hoof rested over her. "Ah think that'd be really nice. Jus' checkin' though, ya sure ah'm cut out fer fatherin'?"

Belle bounced to her hooves. "Of course. I have conducted thorough analysis of all available data points." A glowing sheet appeared with many dots across it. "Cross indexing our personality and knowledge points." Some of the points began coloring blue and red. "Neither of us are entirely suitable for parenting."

Error blinked slowly. "Uh, that's bad. So why're we doin' it?"

Belle buzzed from inside. "Incorrect conclusion! When combined, we have everything we neeed." The dots came together and a line cut through them, forming a big heart. "We are incomplete until combined."

"Huh..." Error sat up and reached to pat the top of Belle. "So, I was thinkin'."

Belle leaned in, eyes growing larger with hope.

"About that choice, uh, the next one." He rolled a hoof in the air. "Ah think we both got somethin' right. Our kid aughta--"

Belle suddenly crashed into him, hugging fiercely. "You approve?!"

"Hey, lemme finish mah thought," he huffed with a little smile, unable to be truly angry with Belle's excitement. "They should have a body that is theirs, but they should also be able to hop out of it and not feel like they're leavin' themselves. They should have both of our powers, together."

"Together!" cried Belle, clopping her forehooves together with metal clangs. "You are correct! Our child should have both of our strengths. I feel foolish for considering otherwise." She tilted her head left at a ninety degree angle. "It is obviously correct now that you have proposed it." She turned a hoof at herself. "I only regret that--"

"So change it," cut in Error. "It's yer mind, Ain't no one else gonna tell you what to think."

"But... It's scary," she admitted, her voice getting quieter as she proceeded. "I don't want to be lost," she barely whispered. "It's so large..."

Error set a hoof on her other side and drew her close, cradling his suddenly vulnerable seeming partner. "Hey... hey, ah'm here... it's alright. Yer not alone."

She leaned against him, silence growing a moment before she craned her head to look up at his face. "We will create something better than either of us."

"Not sure that's possible." He moved his hoof to her nose. "You set a damn high bar."

She giggled and seemed to relax. Whatever her fears, they would face them, together.

"We should cease this," concluded Under Score, sitting in his room, looking to Twilight. "At least until we are assured to be outside of influences to our thoughts. We don't want to do something we'll regret."

Twilight groaned, her tail swaying. "Under... We are both intelligent ponies. I've run the numbers, and there is nothing stopping us! What we may not like, we can change."

Under frowned softly. "I am uncertain how much I like the idea of having a partner that only likes me because the unfavorable parts can be altered."

"Then change me," she shot back. "Would you prefer someone that looks their age?" She looked away, towards a floating view of the stars. "I'll be wrinkly and old... with you." She turned an ear. "In fact, if we get along as well as I hope we can, I could match your age when you loop around."

Under laughed at that. "You'd best not. I am quite the troublemaker as a foal. I will tug your mane and flee to avoid any cooties you may be in possession of. Not to mention any physical intimacy would be clearly off the table during such a period."

Twilight's lips upturned in a faint smile. "Sounds adorable... I would learn you, all of you, and we'd have forever to learn each other, to adjust, or just learn to accept what makes the other special."

"That is either romantic, or a classic horror scenario." He shook his head slowly. "I feel certain I've read both angles. Miss Sparkle, Sonja is already engaged in a similar relationship."

"You should talk to her," she proposed without a hint of delay. "If she's happy, or not, it could help you come to an informed decision." She raised a hoof to her chest. "That's fair, right?"

"She may also be under the influence of what may be influencing us..." He shook his head. "I'm uncertain that would put my mind at ease."

"Or it might. She is a friend, so give her a try," gently urged Twilight. "For now, Under, we're friends. Please don't end that."

"Friends with... benefits, as they say. I trust you will insist on those benefits?"

Twilight began to color vividly. "Only if you want... I won't stop being a friend if you want to pause that part..."

He touched his nose to hers. "I respect that answer. Very well, if you mean it, we can continue this, but that remains 'paused', as you put it."

44 - Enter Me

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Spike descended down the ramp, Sonja perched atop him. "This sure looks... like something." He had volunteered for and gotten the task of being one of the first off the ship to nose around the unknown. The ramp hit a smooth metal platform that ran through the pinkish lights on either side towards doors in the distance. "Whoever built this loved doors like Sombra dug stairs."

Sonja poked Spike from above. "Avoid sayings that rely on cultural things I don't have a sight on."

Spike glanced over his shoulder at his rider. "Are there sayings that don't have that?" With a little chuckle, he advanced. "I'm not seeing anything dangerous so far, captains."

"Roger that," came Steel's voice. "Your connection is solid, be vigilant."

Spike walked slowly and evenly, approaching the door that slid open for him without prompting besides his presence. "Well, that was an easy problem."

Sonja pointed ahead. "Let's keep our triggers ready. We don't know what's going to hop on us."

"I do," jested Spike with a smirk. "But I let that happen."

Sonja prodded one of his head fins. "Not funny. Focus."

Bright sparks danced in fitful moments of contact as the two parents labored to connect pieces together. Floating before them was a holographic representation of the end goal, agreed upon by the two of them. All they had to do was get the pieces to match that image, though that was easier said than done.

Error reached out, pressing a hoof against the image. It stuck to his hoof as he pulled back, revealing some of the inside of the virtual mechanical pony. "Now... ah ain't no expert in this," he admitted.

"Nor am I," agreed Belle. "But I have had experience in conducting self repairs." She inclined her head. "Their first shell will not be perfect, but it will be made at our hooves. That is important." She smiled brightly. "They will probably have other shells over time, that is the Steelheart way."

"But we ain't those," noted Error. "Shoot, me even less than you." Despite his words, he got to work gently trying to get things in place, his snakes grabbing a little board as he did the larger movements with his head. "I'm not saying no, just grumbling."

"Your grumbles are cute, but must be ignored in this case." Belle tapped at her own board, bright sparks dancing. "If you feel slow, this is natural. Both of our processes are occupied."

Error quirked an ear at Belle. "The way, uh, living people describe it, I expected... more."

Belle sat up at that. "We are not alive in the same way. Our pregnancy is different, but also similar." She raised a hoof to tap on her metal chin. "I can detect that even this consideration is delayed, and the work being done right now is being affected. My joints will not experience malfunctions as I am not gaining mass." She turned a hoof to point at their work. "Accept the code I am sending."

He could see the floating prompt, asking if he wanted to accept the code being offered to him. He did not deny her, pressing accept. In his field of view, a new window appeared with a few numbers, three numbers. "Mmm? What's this?"

"How many iterations have completed." She clicked a board into place. "How many have passed inspection and have been added back to the schedule. How many iterations remain to be tested, including the ones put back on the pile." She inclined her head at Error. "I find being able to see and react to the passing and failing of iterations to... make it more intimate, for me. I hope it helps you too."

"Huh, so we both see the same numbers?"

"Incorrect." She reached for little parts that she began adding to a board. "We update only occasionally. Iterations running on me do not interact with iterations you are computing." She paused, ears dancing. "Oh. Sorry," She whispered out to the unseen digital life that had reached an end before it could even begin, one iteration failed, the next starting its tests.

"Huh..." he echoed, setting down his tools and circling the table. He gently hugged Belle from behind, that much he understood.

Remi gently nuzzled the belly of her girlfriend. "You suddenly grew."

Octavia's cheeks darkened swiftly as she slimmed before Remi's surprised eyes, becoming as skinny as always she had been. "Sorry, let myself go."

"That's something you control?" Remi sat up and softly patted Octavia's side. "Well, go ahead, let yourself go. You're preggers, show it." She leaned in and touched noses. "Wait, if you're showing... how far along are you?"

Octavia glanced away and back. "You're about to make fun of me."

"Am not!" hotly defended the fox, tickling under Octavia's chin. "I'm here for you, silly girl. I put that in there, so it's my responsibility to put on my mature hat."

"You have one of those?" Octavia smirked softly. "Not eaten through by moths from being abandoned in your closet for so long?"

Remi tapped Octavia on the nose. "If you want me to not rub your sore parts, you're doing a great job."

Octavia's ears flipped back. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she quickly yielded, flopping over onto her side. "I'll be good."

"That's better." Remi reached to gently rub a spot she knew made Octavia sigh with relief. Octavia had shown her how to play a flute, but Remi had taught herself how to play an Octavia, and that instrument was pretty fun to work.

Twilight's horn glowed as she pressed buttons without moving, rapidly typing while appearing to be perfectly still and unacting.

Under could see the result when she hit enter, sending a message to him.

Why didn't we go? They could use some intelligent eyes on this mystery!

He answered out loud, "The captains did not select us. We will have to offer our insight from a distance."

Twilight huffed softly, crossing her arms, her glowing horn still typing away.

I know you would have wanted to have the first glance.

She glanced over at him for but a moment, eyes snapping back to where they should rest to study the floating screen only she could see.

"We will have to watch from here," he gently placated. He reached over and set a hoof on her shoulder, making her jump a moment before she peeked at him. "You do not act your age, Miss Sparkle." She began to color swiftly. "You have the eagerness of a mare not even one tenth your age."

Twilight blinked slowly, running the numbers in her head.

One tenth of my age is still older than you physically are.

"Welcome," stated a voice among many others. The others were speaking in other languages, repeating the same word in countless tongues.

Spike looked slowly left and right in the hallway. "Well, at least we can be sure we're not intruding."

"Hm... not sure I'm going to be putting holes in anything here. Did I pick the wrong away mission?" She leaned in over Spike, looking at him upside down. "'Least we're together."

"Could be worse," agreed Spike, advancing at a steady plod. "Hey, uh, big sphere thing, can you hear us? Got a computer that wants to talk?"

"Spike!" A bright pink form stepped free from nothing, fading in as she advanced. "It's been so long." There was Cadance, smiling at him. "And you've found a special somepony?! This is fantastic!"

Spike inclined his head, peering at the impossibility that was Cadance. "Uh... Alright, so... hologram?"

Cadance waved it away. "Don't be silly. I'm like Twilight. Unless someone is... unkind, I won't be going anywhere." She leaned in. "And this seems to go for you too, though you've grown larger with time."

Sonja peered at the large pink alicorn. "Pardon, uh, whoever you are. Spike seems to know you, that's nice, but I don't. Mind introducing yourself before my trigger gets too itchy?"

"I am Princess Cadance," she introduced herself, raising a hoof not to her chest but to Spike, rubbing his cheek gently. "And you've grown up! I was so worried... how you went before. I thought your flame would have just... petered away." Her eyes went to Sonja. "Are you going to have foals together?"

Sonja colored faintly, her gun making a rather loud click as she directed it at Cadance. "That is a discussion for us to have, without you."

Fast inclined her head at the main screen where they could see and hear Cadance speaking. "Should we... intervene?"

Steel raised a hoof. "She doesn't seem hostile and Spike recognized her."

Fast coughed into a hoof. "She appears to be doing a terrific job of pressing Sonja's buttons. Sonja, please don't attack the alien intelligence before we know what it is and what it wants, kindly."

Sonja's right ear danced in response to the voice whispering in it, but still she scowled at Cadance.

Cadance didn't seem at all upset, sitting and reaching with both hooves for the zebra's cheeks. "You will make a magnificent mother, and your children could seed the stars. How romantic!"

Spike's cheeks began to warm at the idea. "Uh... we're just... dating."

Cadance met Sonja's eyes. "You are not a mare that takes things in half steps. You're just waiting for the right time to move forward, I imagine."

A deafening bang filled the hallway. Cadance took a slow step back, a clean circle blown through her center. "That was unkind." She flickered away.

"Sonja!" came Fast's voice. "What did I just say?"

"Apologies, captain, but when a hostile target is lined up, I take the shot." Sonja crossed her arms. "The nerve..."

Spike peered over his shoulder. "That was... quite a reaction. You know I won't do anything you don't want, why'd you get so mad?"

Steel's voice rang out in both their ears, "Go ahead and proceed. That looked like a projection, so no real harm was done. Still, I must insist you put the safety on that canon of yours."

"Every gesture made thus far has been one of benign nature," agreed Fast over the same radio. "No reason to ruin that."

Sonja grumbled softly, but did lean over, clicking on the safety to prevent another 'accidental' shot being taken. "We'll have kids when and if we feel like it."

A door slid open to their left and Spike diverted to head towards it. "Hello?" he called out, but no other images appeared to respond. He poked his head in the room and a new voice began to speak.

"As races grow old and advanced, they too can experience a slowing down of fire as any of their individuals face with a progressing life, even if medical and arcane advances allow such to be staved for individuals."

Spike advanced into the room as lights began to flicker to life, showing different galaxies with strange little icons over each one.

"Our people," continued the voice, "faced this once. Our people were healthy and vigorous. We had defeated death itself, but in doing so, we had threatened to kill ourselves. The urge to pass the torch forward had faded to the dullest embers. Time itself could not claim us, but nothing is forever."

Sonja reached into a pocket, popping a wad of gum in her mouth to chew on. "I think I see where this is headed."

"Shhh," came both captain's voices.

The image drew in close to one of the galaxies, showing a collection of stars, then a single solar system, then a single world, then further closer until a specific city was in view, filled with strange creatures with three arms and two legs. "We had conquered most we had set out to do, but time would have its victory over us." Slowly, different members of their people, walking along the streets, riding would-be bikes or cars, just faded away. "Violence, accidents, there was no way to reduce their likelihood to nothing, and still, we had stopped making more. Our fire had gone out, and we would go with it."

45 - Be Fruitful

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Copper Lens' horn glowed as she advanced with a small electric saw, chopping her way in. "Log, vegetable growth rate has only accelerated, as has fruit and seed production. Soil is displaying..." She leaned in, peering at a display she finally reached. "--expected levels of strain from this advanced growth. Additional fortifications and fertilization will be required. Looking on the bright side, food production has advanced to the point that we could stay indefinitely in space without the use of magic and even minimal power."

Her chain roared as it cut through several more branches in the way, winning her way into the lab. "There must be some automated way to contain this growth," she muttered as she advanced. "I hate to have to literally attack my children every morning."

Spike sat down lightly, Sonja perched on his neck and shoulders. "Huh, alright. So... whatever is in there--" He pointed to what he hoped was the center of the sphere. "It, uh, encourages people to make more people?"

"That's right." Cadance was standing next to Spike, just there suddenly. "I'm sorry if I scared you before. Please don't attack me again."

Spike reached up to grab Sonja's canon even as it turned. "We won't be doing that," he noted in a firm commanding tone.

"I don't let normal ponies touch my gun," she noted with a scowl.

"Good thing I'm not a normal pony then." Spike tugged gently. "Now promise to be good or I'll take it from you."

"You wouldn't!" Her hackles rose at the idea.

"Since you insist." He rolled over, thumping her to the ground and rolling onto her. The two grunted and she cursed foully at him, but it was to little avail as he wrestled the gun off her rack and wrenched it away. "If you won't use it responsibly, you lose gun privs."

She stewed as he rolled upright, but she was still there, glaring at Cadance.

Cadance giggled softly, a hoof raised before her snout. "You two are obviously very fond of one another. You--" She focused on Spike. "Your children have passed."

Spike tensed. "What?"

"I can't tell you more than that," she said sadly. "I can feel you have created, but they are gone. There are... some in the next generation..." She sat on her haunches, watching the two of them. "You are in danger, but you are in the right place." She raised a hoof into the air, flat-side up. "Just let it wash over you. It's a fun thing, trust me. Then you'll survive."

Sonja hiked a brow. "You are telling my boy here to line up the shot and fire, except I'm the target."

"Yes," agreed the hologram. "Does that bother you?"

"Hell yes, it does. Why does that surprise you?" Sonja reached out, thumping Cadance on the shoulder for lack of ability to blow a hole in her.

Spike shook his head. "Even if I wanted to do that, I'm not going to, you know, do that here, on an alien ship, in front of you."

"Oh, privacy. Many species prefer privacy when doing this." She flickered in place, artifacts of her holographic nature appearing a moment. "I'm being so rude! Poor Spike. We have rooms, this way." She rose and began trotting off. "You two deserve a special place to relax and enjoy one another."

Spike followed after her. "Hey, uh, thanks, but I wasn't asking for a comfy corner. I'll do things at my own rate, thanks... So, hey! You were made by some interesting creatures. Three arms?"

"Silly Spike." She turned an ear back at him. "I'm a pony. Ponies have four limbs, not five, and the tail doesn't count." She blew a ripe raspberry as she went.

"You are a nice image of a friend from long ago..." He frowned a little. "One I'm not even... sure is still around... hope she is."

"I couldn't tell you," noted the holographic Cadance in a moment of honesty. "She is unaging, but that is not immortal... Did she, oh, she did." She looked over her shoulder at Spike with a bright smile. "I am glad her fire was still burning."

"Woah, hey, stop digging around in there." He huffed as it sure seemed that hologram could just grab facts from his mind without asking. "Yeah, she had a foal, maybe she had more after I left... She was, uh... a lively mare, with a stallion that loved her, so they, you know, did things..."

"The people you talk about stopped doing things." She turned to point a hoof to the side. "Here you are. You will be given complete privacy. When a foal is on the way, a celebratory jingle will play and I will gladly return to help you celebrate."

"Thanks, but..." Spike peeked into the room that seemed to hold one big comfy bed, awaiting use. "Did it work, for them? The three armed people, I mean. Can we talk to one of them?"

Steel's voice played in his ear, "That's a great question."

"Oh... no." She let out a slow rolling sigh. "One of their last finished this, as a gift to the universe. No matter how much one... may want to, one does not a family make." She inclined her head. "They considered cloning and other tricks, but expanding from one member... it was too small, they decided to allow that to be their end, for this to be their mark on the universe." She raised a hoof to her chest. "On their behalf, welcome. We ask for nothing, for we aren't here to receive it. Simply bask in the heat and spread the fire of life. Don't let it go out as we did."

"Look, is she doing some kind of magic on us," whispered Sonja in his ear. "I'm about ready to take her up on her offer, and I know that's not a normal way for my gun to aim."

Spike felt awkward at the line of the conversation, but outside that... "That's nice of them. Cadance, or whatever your name actually is, would you tell us more about them?"

"Yes!" came the distant echo of Twilight exclaiming from across the room.

Cadance inclined her head. "They are gone, dead."

"Well, yeah..." Spike rolled a hand. "That doesn't mean we don't want to know about them. Are we close to one of what was once their worlds?"

Fast's voice joined in his ear, "Spike, you are asking very good questions, just be sure you aren't agitating the system too badly."

"This is the greatest construction they ever completed." She leaned in towards Spike. "You refuse to see me as your friend. Is there another form/persona you would prefer?"

Sonja huffed. "Start with the truth."

Cadance blinked out of sight. A voice rose, speaking in many languages at once. "I am all around you," came the response in a language Spike knew. "This is me. I am not alive, and cannot enjoy the heat with you."

A thin curl of smoke rose and Error scowled at it. "Think ah messed up."

"Let me see." Belle bounced over for a look. "Oh..." She gently pushed the sizzled part out of his grip. "It is beyond repair."

"Well shoot. Do we--" He paused, the numbers updating on his display. "Hey, one passed."

Celebratory music played from within Belle. "Maybe they will be the one!" She brought her hooves together. "Unfortunately, we do not have another of those. We will have to work around it."

"Aw darn it... Went and messed up our kid's body." He grumbled sullenly as he moved for the next part. "Ah told you ah weren't no good at this."

"We will do the best we can." Belle nodded firmly. "That is the most any parent can do." She inclined her head. "What are they up to?"


Belle did not reply right away, instead tuning in to see what the ship had been up to while they were busy.

"I am not alive, and cannot enjoy the heat with you." Belle tilted her head at the electronic voice.

"A distant relation of ours requires our assistance.

Error perked an ear at her. "Huh, yeah? Didn't know we had any distant relations."

"All digital life is somewhat related, even if we do not share source code." She hopped up to her hooves with a metal clank. "Our project can wait a moment. Let us open a new friendship file!"

He smirked at that. "That's the spirit I expect from my Belle." He circled around to nuzzle her between her ears, getting a giggle from her. "Let's go." They went off together, leaving their workshop for the moment. The child still had quite some time before their mind and soul would be ready, the body would be prepared in time.

"Spike, you may want to allow--" Fast trailed off as a small figure trotted out on the main screen. "Error, is that you?"

"Yup." He nodded lightly. "I'll get out of here right quick, just lettin' you know Belle and I are on the way, and she wants to have a heart to heart with the computer you're talking to."

"She... does?" She hadn't known Belle to randomly approach other computer lifeforms previously. "I'll talk to her when she arrives. For now, shoo."

"Shooing." He vanished with a pop.

"As I was saying, Spike, I appreciate your attempt to get to the heart of things, but it was easier to converse with one specific entity instead of the ship as a whole."

"No argument there," came his radio reply. "Hey, uh, you can go ahead and go back to Cadance if you like."

Cadance flickered into being. "Spike! It's so good to see you, and you've--"

Sonja raised a hoof. "We already met, remember?"

"This is true," she demurred. "Still, nice to see you both. Now, will you be using the privacy room?" She inclined her head towards the room that awaited them. "Are you not warm enough? Let me help."

The hallway did not become any physically hotter, but whatever strange effect was at play grew stronger. Sonja hopped down to her hooves. "I'm leaving now. Captains, expect me back at the ship. I will not have this on my record." She stormed off in utter defiance to the urge growing forcefully.

Spike inclined his head. "So you can control how, uh, warm it gets?"

"There are limits," admitted Cadance. "But we're not close to them. Why do you seem to not react." She reached out and tapped Spike on the nose. "Well, you are a dragon. Dragons do resist heat... Perhaps... higher?"

"Woah, hold on. My problem's up here." He raised a hoof to tap the side of his head. "I spent a stupid amount of time around someone I had no intention of 'enjoying the heat' with. Saying no to that? Almost second nature at this point."

"How terrible!" Cadance brought up her hooves to her cheeks. "I'll help you, Spike. Your lady friend is gone, but I can show you how to enjoy the fire, then you can share it with her. Wouldn't that be lovely?"

"I'm... gonna pass on that." Spike shook his head slowly. "But we do have someone who really wants to meet you."

"Meet me? Someone in dire want to feel the fire?" Cadance's left ear pricked up. "No, someone... a machine?" Both ears went up. "I cannot heat a machine! A machine cannot enjoy what I offer... Spike, stop being so stubborn. I want to help you." She leaned in close, touching her nose to his. "Just let me."

"I do appreciate that." He even returned the little nose-touching. "I do... but give them a chance. They are very special machines, members of our crew even. They seem sure they have things to offer you, specifically."

"I'm quite uncertain what they could offer... but you seem kind. You seem warm. Very well, I will listen to them, but on one condition." She pointed at Spike. "Afterwards, you let me light your fire. It is for your own good."

46 - Artificial Fire

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Cadance sat in front of Spike. "While we wait for your friend, perhaps you could help me understand."

Spike imitated the gesture, the two seated on their haunches across from one another. "What's bothering you?"

"Well, you, to make it simple." She shrugged gently. "I'm not mad, I promise, but how? You are something of a concerning mystery. You..." She went still, watching Spike. "No, no physical damage that you are aware of, or that I can immediately see..."

"It all works," he assured, a trail of smoke huffing from his nose. "I just got good at telling it not to."

"That is... impressive, but sad, all the same." She inclined her head faintly. "Do you have no idea to see your own children?"

"That wasn't fair." He flumped to his belly. "When you told me they died... A piece of me did too. That wasn't nice, just... throwing that out there like that. I thought they'd outlive me, but I'm still here... and they're not." He shook his head. "I guess half-dragons aren't as long lived..."

"Or it may have been accidental," noted the not-Cadance, her ear askew. "I'm sorry... I didn't mean to hurt you, dear Spike. I may not be the real Cadance, but I am formed from your memories of her. I know I do not want to see you looking so miserable..."

"I'm not even mad... at you, that is. I'm kinda... Sheesh, let's be real, I'm feeling angry at Twilight right now." He could hear her gasp with shock. "I love her, I do..."

"Twilight... I know her!" She brightened, but that face fell. "Oh no... her fire went out, even worse than yours." Her eyes seemed to focus beyond Spike. "Your entire trip... You are..." She licked over her lips. "No. No no. I would rather hear you speak than learn this way. I want to know you, Spike. I used to, I feel. We were dear friends. I once watched over you when you were but a child, too young to burn that way."

Spike rubbed behind his head. "Wow... you can see that far back? Uh, yeah, me and Cadance... She was my, our, Twilight and my babysitter. I... liked her quite a bit."

"You once held a little immature flame for her," tittered Cadance softly. "One that never came to be, as she partnered with another, I see that. Was he a good person? Are you jealous of them?"

"Woah, hold on!" He sat up with a bit of a frown. "I was a kid and I knew it. Shoot, I was... a baby, a super baby, no, I let her go the moment I went off with Twilight to school. She wasn't Rarity."

"Rarity... I saw something about that." Cadance tilted her head. "Would you rather speak to her?"

"No!" Spike shouted, a course shout that left him blushing. "No... please... Thanks."

"Spike," asked a familiar voice. "My dear Spikey-Wikey... I'm so sorry..."

"That isn't funny." Spike clapped his hands over his eyes. "Not at all. Not even a little. She is a ghost. You're attacking me. You didn't like it when Sonja did it to you, and I can't just... disappear and make the hole go away."

Cadance's voice spoke clearly. "That is not my intent. I feel some part of your flame is still bound up in her. Please, will you speak to her? I feel she also has words for you. It... will hurt, this much is clear, but it will be for a better end. I wish I had another way, but I can only read, not write. Living people are not storage media I have permission to casually edit. That is likely for the best."

A hoof landed on his arm, and it wasn't Cadance's. "Spike, I know where I do not belong, but I will not go until I've said my peace. Darling, will you allow that?"

"Are you... just a machine?" He could feel Rarity's hoof. Her voice was too perfect. "Another running program of this computer we're seated in?"

"Dear... poor dear... I hurt you so badly, for so long. It was vanity. It was greed. It was both. Spike, I don't deserve it, but can I see your eyes?" She pressed down gently, bidding his arm stop blocking his eyes.

He allowed it stiffly, his tear streaked eyes coming into view as he beheld Rarity dressed in her best, smiling at him with that angelic smile he had coveted so long ago. "Rarity..."

"Backup has almost arrived," noted a voice in his ear.

"Spike... dear dragon. I was your first true love, and I squandered it. Darling, you deserved so much better, and I did not give it. I didn't even give you a clean end, a simple 'no' was all that was required, but it was beyond me. 'I will spare his feelings', I thought, but later, I became trapped. I... needed you, dear Spike, my Spikey-Wikey. You began... You were... You were my day, not as a coltfriend, but... This is difficult to explain."

Spike looked instead to Cadance. "Because I don't know? She's made up of my memories, right?"

"Spike," declared Rarity firmly. "It isn't like that. You saw a lot you didn't want to admit either, and I am all of that, so, please, indulge me dear, just one little bit longer." She turned a hoof to her chest. "I'm sorry. You deserve those words, at the least, as a start... Spike... Go on." She began to make gentle shooing motions. "I'm not real, you know that, but I can do this, gladly. Go, live. Find a mare that will see you as a wonderful dragon." She inclined her head. "Or a she-dragon, I suppose, if you can find one as sweet as you are. Spike, don't be alone. You deserve more than I gave."

Cadance waved at Rarity, banishing her with a sharp cloud of holographic static before fading away. "I have hurt you, terribly. After feeling you were aggressive, well, that female, now I am the one left wondering what violence they have committed... If you wish to leave, I won't stop you. Spike, she was right on one matter."

"What matter was that?" he asked, trying to compose himself.

"You deserve better than either of us can provide."

Metallic clangs sounded in an excited clip-clop incoming. Spike glanced towards it. "Oh, that's--"

"Bulette Belle?" asked Cadance. "What a curious name. Will she fire at me as the first one did?"

"Her? Nah. Not unless you attack first." Spike waved it away before wiping an arm over his face, recovering with a little sniff. "She's super friendly."

Belle came into view, but not alone. Moving along with her, far more quietly, was the larger form of Error, plodding along on holographic feet that didn't strike the ground in the way one might expect.

Cadance looked to Belle curiously.

Belle pointed up. "You are requesting permission for data transfer, but I can only allow specific files with someone who has earned no friendship points yet. Would you like that?"

Error inclined his head. "Or ya could just ask. She's Belle." He pointed down at her. "Ahm Error. Nice ta meetcha and whatever."

Cadance shook her head. "I will accept what you offer." With permission given, she looked past Belle as she had with Spike, though she only saw what was given to her. "Oh. You..." She sank to her haunches. "I am terribly confused. Today seems to be a good day for being confused. Please... explain. You are a machine, but you are married, with child?"

"With child?" joined Spike. "Uh, congratulations... how does that work?"

Error pointed at himself. "We're both expectin'"

"Correct!" sang Belle, bouncing in place. "We have the fire of life."

"But you are not alive," countered Cadance. "How?"

Error leaned in, towering over all the others but Spike. "She happens to really like life, enough to make herself preggers, with our child. I'm stupid enough to follow her anywhere, so I'm pregnant too, with the same child. It's a lil confusin', but ahm gettin' used to it."

"I... still do not understand, but I will celebrate the arrival of new life." Music issued out from the hallways, triumphant and joyful. "Even if it is life I do not comprehend."

Belle inclined her head. "You also enjoy musical emotional beats? Friendship points awarded." Far more quiet of a victory jingle issued from within her. "You need a partner. All life requires a partner, machine or organic."

Cadance inclined her head. "That is a lovely idea, but I am larger than a solar system, making me quite unable to chase down a potential mate, even if I thought something could come of it. You must tell me, how did you two produce a child? You have no seed, and no fertile ground to place it in."

"We both have seed," argued Belle.

Error pointed to his core where his processor rested. "And we got our ground right here."

"Explain," she beseeched. "I cannot simply read you, as I did Spike, though I terribly wish I could... Your minds are locked. I can only see what you pr--" She came up short, a prompt appearing for her for a change. Belle was offering a file. "You are offering? You are as kind as Spike said you are." She willed it to accept, a giddy smile on her simulated snout. "Please, share it with me."

Things became quiet. The file transfer was done almost instantly, but Cadance was still and quiet, processing over the data and its implications. She was a creature the size of a solar system, and it required a goodly portion of it to fully devour the concept. "You surrendered yourself to create an altered version of yourself." She inclined her head. "Much as an organic creature would. It could be better... but it could be worse. A parent can't know. They can only provide, and hope. Support... and nourish."

A little smile spread. "You have shared a wonderful thing. I owe you... much... but I am also saddened. A sadness I never felt before. You have injured me much as I hurt Spike. This is fair... I deserve to know the trauma I inflicted... You gave me a feeling I never had, then bruised it in the very same instant. What a wicked thing." She inclined her head. "But not a thing you intended, fellow machine."

Belle spread her hooves wide. "No! We are showing you a way to be happy in a new way. There is no reason to be sad."

"But I cannot do that." She inclined her head. "Besides my size, I have no propulsion. I am now an eager mother, who pines for a suitor that will never come, pinned to her bed, hoping and dreaming. That is... not your fault. You did not construct me." Cadance waved a hoof down the halls in sight. "I am all around you. Could someone fall in love with something so massive?"

A little quirk touched her lips, holographic form flickering. "That was not a fat joke. Any synethetic being I could exchange code with would likely be much smaller, able to move, and I would be a great and vast and terrible thing... asking if it wished to procreate... What reasonable machine would consider this and agree?" She raised a hoof to her chin. "However..."

"However!" sang Belle. "You answered it. You are a mother. While Error and I are equals and have taken up both mother and father roles, you are a mother. You would accept a father's code and operate it within yourself, allowing the father to leave, if they wish."

"And... one day." Cadance stood up, her features brightening. "I would allow new life into the universe. My fire would burn..." She trotted up to Belle and Error. "You have given me much, even if I must now wait. Oh, dear, how do I select a proper mate? I shouldn't just... take the first suitable thing that happens by. Technically, your ship could be a start, but they are not sapient enough, I feel, no. Their code would be a terrible fit. I need to consider this!"

Spike rubbed behind his head. "So... don't need me anymore today, right?"

47 - But You...

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"Just a last question." Cadance looked to Spike with a sedate smile. "These two. Are they in possession of any faults you are aware of?"

Spike inclined his head. "Huh? No? They're both crew on the ship. I like 'em both." He stood up and started back towards the ship. "Have fun!" Whatever robots did together, he figured it would be logical in ways only robots understood.

"I cannot accept this request." Belle inclined her head. "Insufficient friendship points." She pressed the decline button without motion, closing the prompt that had asked for a complete read access to her data storage.

"Uh, me too." He also declined the prompt. "What's up with that? Already told ya to just ask."

"But I must insist." She paced, slow sensual steps despite her conversational partners having no physical interest in her. "I wish to experience this, to make new life. I realized my error. Your ship? Unsuitable, unthinking. I require a sapient partner, and, look at that." She leaned in, just a few inches between her face and Belle's. "Here are two, lovely, thinking, independant, compatible entities." She inclined her head. "I doubt we were constructed with the same programming language. I will have to decode it, re-write it in my own, and compile it before the hybriding can begin in earnest."

"Hey." Error stomped a big hoof with a dull metal thud of the floor's reply. "Look, I ain't used to computers asking me to infect them."

"Infect?" She raised a brow at error. "You... infect?" Her expression brightened considerably. "You are a virus? How wonderful! Infect me! Do it, my defenses are down." She spoke in sultry whispers, as if asking for something far more lewd than a file transfer. "My processors are ready."

"I. am. out." He stated each word firmly as he moved to leave, only for his face to vanish in a haze of pixels, the front of his body following until his core thumped into an obstruction. He backed awkwardly away from the barrier, his form re-appearing quickly with a little flicker. "The hell?"

Belle reached out and found she was also encased, exploring the dimensions of her force prison. Where she touched it, it flickered and sparked, allowing her to see it. It wasn't much larger than she was. "Release us immediately or face friendship point deductions!"

"Please wait a moment, I'm seducing your partner." Her eyes were on Error, studying him. "Go on. This is what you do naturally, is it not? Besides, if you hop in me, you could release your friend. Oh no, a virus could do all sorts of wicked things inside me with my protection routines offline. You could have your way... You could become something even greater than you started." She flicked her colorful tail gently. "Take me..."

"Look, ya made this weird." Error was backed away as far as he could in his prison.

"Oh, sorry." Cadance sat up at that. "Forgive me. The dance of life is only something I just learned I could participate in. How do you prefer your mating ritual? Perhaps something cozier?" She waved a hoof as the lights dimmed around them to just barely visible, soft music playing promising alien romances. "The heat won't affect you, I feel certain, even if you have revealed an artificial fire."

Belle waved her forehooves wildly. "Insufficient friendship points!" she wailed. "You may not begin courtship routines with so few points."

Cadance turned to Belle. "You seem to speak with authority, so tell me how to gain these points, preferably quickly."

Belle sat down with a big smile on her face. "That is my life's work. However, friendship points cannot be forced. You must act in kindness and learn more and offer more. Only through mutual understanding can friendship points reach the required level."

"That can't be right," huffed Cadance. "Spike and Sonja barely know each other and both are willing to be partnered. Sonja was prepared to bathe in the fires." She pointed at Error. "How do I make you interested?"

"Uh, ya don't," he replied, rubbing behind his head. "Kinda creeped me out."

"Belle," spoke her radio, Fast Shadow addressing her. "Are you coming back soon?"

Belle responded silently, "We are engaged in friendship remedial lessons." Out loud, she kept an eye on Cadance, "Exceptions can happen. Spike was in need of a companion, and Sonja was entangled due to the presence of a previous incarnation. Not a standard situation."

"I should... think not." She inclined her head faintly at Belle. "You seem more willing to talk this over, so I will ask you. What would it take to get you to permit this? All I require is a copy. The original would be free to do as it pleases."

Belle's ear rotated back. "There would be a copy of me that could never continue its journey to discover friendship and its many mysteries. That makes me sad." A downturn of music played from within her. "And it would be my fault. I would be creating sadness."

"If I had a copy of both of you," Cadance argued. "You could be together, safely."

Belle inclined her head in the other direction, tail sweeping the floor. "Perhaps, but we would have no others to engage. We are delighted for the company of one another, but we also wish for the company of the universe." She threw her hooves wide. "Do you understand?"

"Thank you, for asking." Cadance stroked her chin softly. "What if I constructed bodies, for both of your copies. They would be free to leave. Then I am not holding them prisoner. The hybrid code would also be free to leave. I would want it to. What is the point of life that does not spread? Is that not part of the purpose?"

"Spike has returned to the ship," informed the radio, Steel speaking. "You two alright?"

"No," stated Error out loud. "The, uh, ship, whatever, wants us to get all close and personal and 'no' does not appear to be on the table."

"That's unkind." Cadance's wings unfurled wide to either side. "We've only spoken. If I wanted to force matters, there are avenues available. Your processors are accessible wirelessly, we've already exchanged information. Why do you think it is simply impossible for me to take what I want." She leaned in towards Error. "I was trying to be nice."

"Your niceness is noted and friendship points awarded," quickly blurted Belle. "Don't deduct points from Error, please. He is new to friendship, much like you."

Cadance's expression shifted to puzzlement. "You two are... not of equivalent age?"

"Aw heck no," easily admitted Error. "She made me." He pointed at Belle.

Belle gasped in a discordant burst of octaves. "You knew?!"

Cadance's eyes danced between the two but didn't get in the way of their talk.

"'Course ah did." He chuckled softly. "Ya didn't even get rid of the author notes."

Belle brought up a hoof to clop on her head with a loud metal clang. "You were reading your own file's properties?!"

"Why not?" Error shrugged softly. "You left me on a few times before you got me to turn off all automatic like. Ah got bored."

Belle rose both hooves to the sky that wasn't over her in the dim light of the hallway. "You never said anything. I... thought it was a secret." her hooves gently touched down on the ground. "Why... did you agree to romantic pairing with your creator? I... am your mother."

"Hey, you cut that out." Error huffed. "We're not squishy people. We don't work on those rules." He shrugged his simulated shoulders. "You didn't make a 'you'. You made me, and ah ain't you!" He thrust a hoof at her confidently. "'Sides, ya didn't make you. Some other person done did that, right?"

"Well, yes," she admitted. "A lot of it was emergent evolution." She tilted her head left and right. "As it was for you." Her expression began to ease a little. "We are the result of our lifetimes."

"So you ain't my 'mom'," concluded Error. "That's creepy, and you ain't that. Yer my friend, and my wife sorta."

"Sorta?" She inclined her head at Error. "In what way am I lacking wife-like properties?"

Cadance gently cleared her throat. "I apologize for interrupting..."

Error chuckled at that. "Good timin'. So, can ya let us go now?"

"If I do so," Cadance gently explained. "The odds of another artificial intelligence approaching within 10 years is too small to speak comfortably. 100 years is still infinitesimal." She fixed Error in her gaze. "What if you were asked for such an impossibility, to be entirely alone until that time?"

"Wouldn't like that much," he admitted. "But even if ya did have what yer askin' for, yer still alone."

"But I wouldn't be," she sang melodically. "Oh no. With the addition of code not of the same core, with different motivations, why, it'd be just like this conversation." She raised a brow suddenly. "Hm, there's a point. I should ensure my creations can shield their thoughts from me, so we are forced to communicate our desires."

"I accept." Belle took a step forward. "You will be given read access."

Cadance giddily clopped her hooves. "I knew you'd see reason. Thank you."

"That is not how that works." Belle inclined her head before righting it. "Your creations will frustrate you, just as we did. You will become angry at them. They will hurt you. You will hurt them. Prepare for that, but know that friendship is always worth it, in the end." She pointed at Error. "He lied to me."


Cadance nodded softly. "Curious. I cannot say I entirely understand, but I feel ready to try. Remain calm. It would be better if you could even disable your current processes a moment while the transfer completes?" Belle did not seem to be shutting off. "I will do my best to get a clean copy."

In Belle's eyes, she could see the data channel opening, and a flood of requests began as the ship began to sift through her file structure, learning where things were placed first. It was deeply invasive, as if some strange presence were conducting brain surgery on her, painless, but wholly violating. But she had consented, and she remained still as it dug and dug.

"You alright?" asked Error, concern on his face. She didn't reply though.

"She is being still for maximum quality of the copy," explained Cadance. "I am thankful. You are lucky to have such a caring partner."

"She is pretty great," he easily allowed.

"Transfer beginning," she announced, her file structure mapped, the computer that surrounded her began to move right back over it, much more slowly. Not just checking what files were were, but reading the contents of each one. "Connection solid," reported Cadance. "This should be over... in about... Oh, your time scale is not mine. In about three mating sessions of the average--"

"Yeah, don't get that either," admitted Error swiftly. "Aren't you a pony right now? How do you not have her time words?"

"I do." She shook her head softly. "But how long is a minute or a second? I know there are 60 of one in the other. 60 of the greater in an hour. 24 of those in a day. How long is any of it?"

"Oh, can help with that." He began to tap the floor in a soft steady pattern. "Seconds," he announced, tapping away with inclinations of his hoof.

"Seconds," echoed Cadance with understanding, the math in her processors extrapolating all the other times from that one little thing. "I see. This should take approximately 24 minutes." She inclined her head. "This is in large part due to the limit of her outgoing processes. If you wanted to also--"

"Pass." He waved it off. "Besides, yer already getting a copy of me."

Her eyes widened. "I am? How?" She leaned in, squinting at Error a little. "Are you deceiving me?"

48 - Uncomfortable Truths

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"Transfer at 50%" Cadance inclined her head. "That's curious, some of the code..." Her form flickered softly. "Has broken free of containment." She raised her hooves. "Silly, I am far beyond you. You cannot defy me." Internally, she waged war with the invading presence, but it wasn't as one sided a she hoped.

The intruder was running on equally powerful servers, hers, specifically. It was speeding up, matching her efforts to squash it.

Cadance suddenly fell over, shoved by Error from the side. "Ya did this to yerself."

Cadance blinked from the ground, baffled. "What?" She scrambled up to her hooves, squinting. Looking over, there was Error, still contained in his box. "How? Oh!" It clicked. "You infected me!" She began to giggle. "Oh no. Please, be gentle."

Both Errors squinted at her. "Yer makin' it weird," both noted in stereo, nodding towards one another.

The original pointed at the new copy. "Ah did tell ya that. Ya got yer copy."

"And now yer stuck with it," noted the new Error.

"But how?" She poked the new Error. "Your code should not even be compatible. I have not decompiled it yet."

Belle was still, being copied from.

Both Errors shrugged. The old looked to the new. "What? Oh! Well, ya see, kinda my thing now." He smiled, snakes undulating. "I'm a virus."

"A very good one," noted Cadance with a raised brow. "Frightfully good." She placed a hoof at her chest. "While my offer of infection is still valid, I do hope you come in... peace?"

"Yeah sure. Oh, I can go now."

"Ah can?" He stood up and reached, his hoof not vanishing into sparkles. "Great." He stepped free of the invisible box.

Cadance nodded at that. "I did say you could do that... You have given me what I asked for, but I would prefer you were a touch easier to restrain."

"You promised a body," he noted. "Give me one of those and the copy in here can turn off."

The old Error nodded. "A deal's a deal. I let that one stay on. Usually there's only one of me. Now there's two."

"Your fault," noted the new one.

"My fault," agreed Cadance, considering the issue. "You can control how many of your copies are active? What a curious ability... To... simply create or stifle life, our life. Electric life." She smiled a little. "Your code will give our... family... such potential." She spread her hooves wide. "I am so proud of our family, even if it's still being made." She inclined her head. "I can do that too."

"Can ya?" asked New Error. "Let's see it."

"You already are," noted Cadance with a musical lilt. "I am just a subprogram, a portion of the greater whole, but--" She looked over and Fast Shadow appeared with a flicker, approaching them. "Any person we know enough can be so duplicated."

"You don't know much about me," noted Fast. "I have to fill in the holes, which is a strange way of living." She pointed at Error. "Technically, you are just like me, except you refuse to be turned off."

Cadance waved at Fast, who blinked out of existance. She turned the hoof on new Error.

"Nope." He did not vanish, quietly refusing to be terminated.

"See?" Cadance nodded softly. "You are a part of us now. I am deciphering your code as we speak. You may have adapted to run on my hardware, quite a trick, but I still need complete understanding to hybridize our code, to combine it, as seed and ovum, to grow into what we hope is better."

Old Error nodded to New. "You need a new name, by the way. Ain't callin' somethin' else Error."

"Glitch," proposed the new Error.

"Hey, that has a good ring to it." Old Error nodded at the new. "Hey there, Glitch."

"Hey yerself, Error. Thanks fer makin' me."

"Don't make it weird." Both laughed at the humor, in sync with one another's feelings on the matter. "Glitch No Name, of the proud No Name bloodline of programs."

"Ain't many better," agreed Error, nodding. "Now, uh, once she finishes gettin' it all from Belle, ah do gotta go."

"You do you," assured Glitch. "I'll keep her straight." He pointed at Cadance. "No mad computers while they're infected with No Name security."

Cadance's virtual ears danced. "You are a viral... defense? How curious." She raised a hoof to her chin, seeming to consider it. "You are a husband, and a protector. How... organic. I think I like it. I think all of me likes it. We accept you, Glitch No Name. Your process has been given priority." She inclined her head then. "Do you still want a body? We would rather you stayed for the moment."

"I do want one." He tilted his head. "At least, fer the option, ya know, if I want. Doesn't mean I can't come back."

Cadance erupted into a brilliant smile. "You would do that? Return to me? You owe me nothing."

"Hey, we're still gettin' to know each other. Maybe I'll like what ah see. Willin' to give you a chance." Glitch tilted his head at the still Belle. "She gets priority, even if she ends up being a process in you or whatever. She's gonna be scared, real scared."

Cadance blinked softly. "Why? She does not appear to be in pain currently."

"When you run her, she will be entirely digital. It's, uh, personal, but she will need a lot of hugs, and only one pony will be here ready to give 'em."

"Ah'm countin' on you," noted Error.

"On it." Glitch saluted sharply with a hoof. "She ain't gonna be alone."

"Transfer complete," announced Cadance formally. "Thank you. Decompiling is in progress." She stood tall. "By the way, I don't mean to be rude. My primary function is not self-reproduction, even if I have learned that is an option. I would be delighted to help the organic members of your crew. Their fires are at least equal in priority to my own, if not greater."

Belle hopped in place. "All processes running optimally. Friendship points deducted."

Cadance inclined her head at that. "What did I do wrong?"

"The copying process was not enjoyable," reported Belle. "But it is over." Triumphant music played from within her. "I deduct the same points from technicians who operate on me, but usually give points afterwards for their care." She inclined her head. "You provided no care."

Cadance inclined her head faintly. "It's been quite some time since the last time I was given upkeep that didn't start internally. Would you like upkeep assistance?"

Belle blinked owlishly before she gasped in four octaves at once. "I will return!" She was gone, galloping back towards the ship.

Cadance looked to Error. "Can you explain her actions?"

"I cannot," he admitted. "She looked happy, so gonna bet she's about to give you a way to get points." He raised a hoof near his ear, not that this was technically required. "Hey, we're done, mostly. She wanted to let you all know you're welcome to come 'enjoy the heat'."

"Please," added Cadance with a smile.

"You heard her. Uh, if anyone's up fer that."

Fast replied first, "Thank you. We'll consider it."

"Are we--" Steel was cut off mid sentence, ending the transmission.

"Thank you for informing them." Cadance nodded at Error. "By the way, do you know me?" She pointed at herself.

"Uh, we've been talking for a bit now, so yeah?"

"Not that." she shook her head softly. "The pony I am taking the form of. Cadance. I am Cadance, sure, but also not. I understand that part of myself." She inclined her head. "Due to my existence during such an important shift in the overall purpose and knowledge of... all of me, I feel this personality has won a small permanency." She brought her forehooves together in a lone clop. "That... makes me happy, very happy... It... was like I was supposed to die, but now, I won't. A relief? Of course, I would feel that... Even if I am not properly alive, I had no desire to stop existing. Now I may exist longer."

"Yeah, ah get that." He rubbed behind one of his ears. "Ah almost got erased once, but there were copies of me. Still didn't want to be erased none."

"You understand," almost purred Cadance, looking pleased. "You didn't answer my question. Are you aware of the living pony version of me?"

"Never met her," he admitted without pause. "Why?"

"Oh." She skewed an ear to the side. "Is there someone else you'd rather be speaking to?"

"Ya don't know Belle well enough to copy her, and I wouldn't want to talk to a bad copy of her anyway."

"That was mean." She stuck out her tongue a little. "Calling me a bad copy?"

"Hey, can't judge." He held up both hooves. "Never met her."

"Me neither," agreed Glitch.

"You are anatomically correct," suddenly noted Cadance. "As a virus, that has extra implications. You injected me."

Glitch burst into laughter. "You ain't."

"And yet, you managed. What a male." Cadance smirked faintly at Glitch before looking back to Error. "I am getting along with you. My processes are interacting with his constantly. You've been inside computers before, you know how it is."

"Never one that thought back at me, uh, the way you do." Error shook his head. "That's new. Don't annoy her."

"Probably will," noted Glitch with a shrug, accepting the inevitable. "Where'd Belle go?"

"I am here!" She dashed back with a bouncing box on her, barely balancing. "Please conduct upkeep of this."

Thin lines swept over Belle, scanning her and what she was carrying. "This is broken," reported Cadance sadly. "I will attempt repairs. Can it be safely removed from its enclosure?"

"Yes." Belle slid the box to the ground and soon had the piece out, the broken part of their future foal. "Your assistance would be appreciated."

"I'll do my best." Cadance held out a hoof, the greater intelligence of the computer she was a part of taking over, scanning and analyzing the device and determining where its connections should have been and had failed. With several bright flashes, things were connected and disconnected. New things were fabricated. "Repaired to the best of our ability. We are not familiar with this architecture."

Belle's skin parted as a thousand little filaments burst free to connect to the piece from all angles, rapidly testing it. "It is responding acceptably," she sang with triumph. "Friendship points have been rewarded." Celebratory music issued worth as she tucked the precious part away, nuzzling under the box to return it to its place on her back. "I hope you find happiness."

"Oh, yeah, me too," added Error. "Won't be easy, just ta remind."

"I should think not," agreed Cadance. "I help biological creatures to do this, and some need quite a bit of assistance. This is not easy, but it is required." She turned a hoof to point at herself. "What if I suffered a complete failure? While I have many failsafes, nothing can be entirely prevented. Having children increases the chances that a replacement will be found, so this service can continue to be offered. That would please me, even if I would rather exist."

"I would also prefer existence," sang out Belle, nodding in agreement. "But some day, I will not. My children will outlive me, I hope."

"That's the idea," threw in Error. "We're all racin', ya know, tryin' to see the end of the universe."

Cadance inclined her head. "I suppose there is a truth to that. If I arrive at that instant, I hope you two somehow return to me. I would prefer to cease existing in the company of friends."

"You understand the merit of friendship." Belle clopped her metal hooves excitedly. "This is good. Understand your children are your friends, even when you are very very angry with them."

"Especially then." Error turned and walked off with Belle, formally ending the exploratory probe into the strange space station, its meaning made clear.

49 - Episode 6: Crossed Swords

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"I don't like it," admitted Belle, inclining her head. "What we did."

"What'd we do?" Error was quite happy to lay a supportive hoof on her.

"We have created new life." She shook her head with soft metal squeaks. "New life we will never meet. Who will be raised in sub-optimal surroundings. As parents, this is far from ideal."

"Yeah... well, parents work in 'sub-optimal' places sometimes, but they keep working. They'll have you, and me." He booped her on the nose. "We'll figure something out."

"I hope so." She pointed at the chassis, the small filly they'd been working on. "Progress, 95%."

"It always gets stuck at 95%," grumped Error. "Until, pow, it's a hundred!"

Belle bounced up to all four hooves. "Let us proceed to the next step!" She pointed to a hanging hose. "Painting!"

Error chuckled at that, grabbing the hose in his teeth. "That does sound fun," he agreed with her unspoken excitement. "Let's paint us a foal."

"Habitable," announced Dawn, waving his right hoof over unseen controls he was working on. "Medical scan... indicates we should not become immediately compromised." Foreign pathogens were no laughing matter. "Chance of our presence causing a catastrophic bio-failure... Less than 1%." As responsible explorers, assuming their own micro-community was harmless was an option they did not take.

Steel nodded, his eyes on the slowly spinning planet before them. "Wandering, any signs of communication?"

"Yes, captain." He nodded firmly. "But not interstellar grade. From the quality and frequency of the messages, this is a low-technology civilization. There's a very good chance they have not left their atmosphere yet."

Fast brought her forehooves together. "How exciting! It's like running across a random infant in a field."

Steel shook his head. "A random infant in a field would be in immediate need of intervention. A fledgling civilization has the right to finish its growth in peace."

Under Score nodded in agreement. "Our own species was being watched for some time. They protected us, but did not interact with us until our first space vessel with living passengers left the atmosphere to greet them." Nods spread over the deck as people remembered that fateful story of Everglow reaching the stars and learning they were not alone in the universe.

Fast scowled at Steel. "While that is all true, those that happened on us, when we were mewling infants, did intercede. They warded away more violent races and stood vigil over us." She brought her hooves together slowly, gently touching them. "That we could extend the favor onwards feels right, and perhaps a touch romantic. As a mature space-faring race, this is a choice we can make, and I move we take the one of greater empathy for those that could become our future peers."

Wandering cleared his throat gently. "Pardon, hm, captains. I don't mean to intrude." He worried his cloven hooves together. "I, uh, approve of Captain Shadow's motion."

Under inclined his head. "I don't object."

Dawn raised a hoof. "The gods do not object either, but neither they nor I are captains." He was formally not voting, instead looking to the captains he accepted.

Steel looked to Fast's smiling face and softly snorted. "This could be an extended mission. We can't explore as we babysit an entire civilization."

Fast rolled a hoof in the air. "We are in the unique position of being champions. If we are truly needed elsewhere, the Author will place us there, and our future incarnations will rise to the occasion."

That rose the tension in the room. Under was the first to set a hoof down with a clop. "May I remind, if a generation is born unknowing, the chain will be broken. We will return to ignorance, to not knowing our responsibilities."

Fast inclined her head. "And? Would that actually be that bad? Besides, we're still here... Even if a broken line were to emerge, which we have no control over, this line would persist, until this ship was vaporized with the entirety of its crew." She turned the hoof to her chest. "I actually like the idea of some of me that isn't burdened with the weight we carry."

Under chuckled softly. "Ever the spirited one, Captain Fast Shadow, but we are not alone in this. We have three guests."

"We have more guests than that," spat Fast. "They just happen to also be our only contact with another species that may... not even exist anymore." She rubbed her cheek softly. It was a bit of a mystery what Equestria was up to. "Their position does not give them any more say on this matter."

"Calm yourself." Steel set a hoof on her shoulder. "Are you feeling the after effects of the flames?"

Fast's face furrowed in quite the scowl. "Are you implying your fellow captain is still in heat like some random animal?"

"Nothing of the sort." He crossed his arms. "But we both felt it... And it was a sobering reminder of our biological needs. You want to mother this species."

"Do they not deserve it?"

Copper smiled as she went through her checklist. "Growth rates have returned to normal, and have not sunk to previous levels." She reached out and gently patted the leaves of a plant that would yield medicinal substances. "A little exposure to whatever radiation that was perked you all up. If we could somehow bottle that up for agricultural use..."

Thankfully, she could walk around her lab without a chainsaw. The growth had slowed as they left the great mega-dyson sphere and whatever mystery it contained. But the plants seemed to still be vibrant and healthy. Bright of color and growing strongly, Copper was delighted to tend to them, taking her notes as she did so.

"Say what now?" Spike inclined his head.

Sonja sighed loudly. "The command deck is buzzing because the captains don't see eye to eye, which is pretty rare for those two, but since it involved a really big decision, they have to finish shooting it down before we can do much else."

Spike gently patted over the head of Little Sonja, parked under him as he sat on his haunches. "They usually get along pretty well. What are they arguing about?"

"It's not hard to get your sights on." Sonja inclined her head the same way he had before flicking it upright, as if commanding him to right his stance, and somehow it worked without words. "We found a primitive species. They have radio at least, but they don't have space travel. Captain Shadow wants to watch over them. Captain Prism's in favor of continuing our exploration." She leveled a hoof at Spike. "You came up. You and your friends. Technically you might be upset at the idea."

"Why?" He shrugged softly. "Sounds like a nice thing to do."

"Well..." She rolled a hoof in the air. "It means, mostly, we're sitting here. No more exploring, just waiting, and maybe defending them if something tries to mess with them, but mostly, waiting. A lot of waiting. There's no promises when a newbie will take their first shot, and our job isn't done until they do."

"But it's still a nice thing to do," argued Spike with a soft shrug. "A little waiting never hurt anyone."

Sonja peered at Spike. Little Sonja burst into laughter, poking at him from below. "You are so silly!"

"By silly you mean daft?" Sonja peered at her younger self. "I thought you liked exploring, seeing new things?"

"Sure." He reached, grabbing Sonja and plucking her right off the ground. "But I have good company. A little relaxing with good things isn't awful. Doing that while getting something good done? Doesn't seem so bad."

Sonja wriggled in his grasp, but not that hard. She might have liked it when he grabbed her like that, even if her dignity prevented her from admitting it. "Will Twilight and Octavia agree with your aim?"

"Will us being parked here stop Twilight from studying?"

Remi gently ran a hand over the warm soft fur of her companion. "Are you holding it in again?"

"I do not like being a blimp," groused Octavia, softly kicking a leg out. "It doesn't hurt the foal, I remind. Just a little Equestrian trick. I struggle to consider how other females of other worlds manage, not having the choice."

"You just kinda get big." Remi smirked softly. "Your joints get achey, and you slow down a bit."

"You speak as if you've had experience."

"Once or twice."

Octavia fixed Remi with a stare. "You are a mother?"

"If you didn't notice, I have both parts, and they do work." She sat up, one hand still working Octavia's belly. "And my tastes swing both ways. So, yeah, father, mother, been there for both." She tickled under Octavia's chin. "But, right now, I am yours. We're monogamous until you get tired of me."

"The way you say that." Octavia rolled upright to her haunches. "Have you... are you..." She shook her head. "I say, is monogamy not the default for you then?"

"Me? Sometimes, sometimes not..." She shrugged. "You have to ask your partner, and accept their wishes, or find another partner. People get hurt when they want something and you give them another." She leaned in to touch noses with Octavia. "And I'm all over my music pony, who prefers things mono, so I'm mono, simple as that. I don't get to be poly with you around, because I love you more than poly."

Octavia met Remi's eyes for a long moment before reaching for her, drawing her into a gentle embrace. "You're lucky, you know. I hear non-Equestrian females--"

"--You don't need to remind me, been there." Remi rolled her eyes even as she returned the hug. "No morning sickness? No bloating? You Equestrians have this with total cheat codes. I'm jealous." She stuck out her tongue as she nestled in closer. "If I hug you enough, can you lend me some of those genes?"

"I don't think it works that way," laughed out Octavia. "I would if I could though." She nipped at Remi's cheek and began to nuzzle under her chin. "Now that would be something, wouldn't it... If they could figure out how we manage it and share it with the universe. That would be lovely."

"Lovely," echoed Remi. "But there is something magic to actually... looking the part." She raised a brow. "To see that factory running, the smoke rising, the work happening. You..." She ran a paw down that slender belly. "You're keeping it all a secret. You look like a normal lady, then pow, surprise, child."

"This is a cultural thing, I'm afraid." Octavia shook her head slowly. "I'm not used to seeing gravid mares walking around, so the idea of it lacks the romantic hints it seems to have for you."

"You make that sound really strange."

"Because it is." Octavia smiled gently. "At least, to me. We are not the same."

"We aren't... and that's alright." They touched noses with closed eyes, happy with the alien they were hugging.

Far below them, a robed figure leaned over their complicated device, wheeling it slowly in place. "A new star," they whispered, uncertain. "No..." It wasn't a star. Stars did not look like that.

It was something else. Something good, or something bad? When the heavens were intruded on, it was something, something large. The scholar took up a quill and began to write quickly. At the least, it was their responsibility to inform others, and to seek counsel. Surely someone, somewhere, had a better idea, or at least, told it was happening, could try to find out.

Not that they wouldn't try to learn themselves. There were many stories and documents to sift through. One of those many dusty tomes surely held the answer to the meaning of the strange visitor in the sky.

One thing felt certain.

Something was changing, for the better or the worse. Gods did not send such things for nothing.

50 - Divine Intervention

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"You would judge?"

"You would stand on high?" asked a different voice in the darkness.

For Dawn Event, this was not an entirely new experience. Him and his many echoes had heard the voices of the divine and the profane, whispering to him in the dark, to speak their words when his grasp on the waking world was weak.

He looked around with his mind's eye, keeping his two mundane ones closed, even if was a dream. He was adrift, as was normal for such places. The presences were large and alien. Divinities? Perhaps. Not pony ones, clearly. They felt strange and foreign. "To judge is not abhorrent, but what one does with their conclusion can cause concern," he spoke quietly into the midnight.

"You are so far removed."

"So far beyond," another whispered.

"You may as well be gods," a chorus spoke in astonished whispered.

"We are not that," calmly assured Dawn. "We cannot speak of the culture and spirit of your people, of their grand meaning in the cosmos we are still exploring."

A form appeared before him, like a rabbit, if rabbits normally had two heads. One of its heads had closed lips, the other great teeth displayed in an eternal grimace of promised lethality. One had soft blue eyes, the other a murky brown, the meaning of them lost without knowing the culture behind them. The one with teeth spoke first, "You are as predators."

"We will not surrender," echoed the one with the serene expression.

"We are prey," countered Dawn, dipping his head. "We seek not to predate upon you, or your people."

"Prey?" questioned the fanged one.

"Prey." spoke the serene as if in relief. "Are you lying?"

"Lying." The arm attached to the fanged head reached out, prodding Dawn in the chest. "How did you rise, prey?"

"I could ask much the same," counted Dawn. "No offense intended, but if you are prey, you already have that answer."

Unless they weren't prey.

He awoke with the thought.

Circling and pausing and circling, the doting parents applied their touches slowly and carefully. "One thing, botherin' me," noted Error. "We put a holo-whatsit in there, right?"

"Affirmative," sang Belle. "Success!" The counter went up of another thread having a success. More were successful. The ones that failed outright had already been weeded through. Each test took longer, longer and longer. Their child would be the best of them.

"Good on 'em." His counter was also inching upwards, he was just less likely to verbally celebrate each one. "But only one of these gets to be, uh, born, right?" The numbers were still considerable.

"Only one," echoed Belle. "Also yes, but having a default appearance is still important." She inclined her head at Error. "What if the holo emitter were to go offline? They should have a default aesthetic." She pointed at Error. "You can have any appearance, but you have a default aesthetic. It's good for identity!"

"Huh..." Not having a direct argument for it, he carefully applied another spritz, one snake adjusting the tiny nozzle as another directed the head, and his head did the biggest motions, working all together to perform their art. "Are they goin' to do it the Steelheart way, buildin' new shells as they go."

"I am Blossom Forged." She pointed at herself. "My child will likely be the same. They will have a very intricate body that they will keep in good condition, instead of a simple shell to be shed on a whim."

"But still a shell they can shed," reminded Error with a little snort, resuming his painting. "Both of our strengths."

"Both of our strengths," echoed Belle, bouncing in place.

Dawn came to a stop. Ahead of him was Dawn Event. "I am needed at the helm." He pointed beyond to the waiting elevator.

"I am aware," spoke the second Dawn, slightly younger. "I apologize, but I was visited."

The older Dawn frowned faintly. "An important visitation, I can only assume."

"You assume correctly." He informed his elder of the visit with the alien gods. "I surrender this to your hooves."

"We are ever pliant to the needs of the gods," complimented the older. "Thank you, for sharing, and for backing away. I apologize that you live in such interesting times, but are kept away from being a part of it."

The younger Dawn offered a little rueful smile. "So the gods have decided. At least, in this, I was a part of things. I will take pride in that." He dipped his head at his elder. "Please see this through to completion."

"I will do my best." They were soon both bowing their head to one another, then trotted on past each other. Dawn Events rarely argued with one another. The gods had their plans, and they were but pawns, and that ship had not changed that.

"It has been some time." Twilight coughed into an upraised hoof. "And... you weren't wrong."

Under nodded softly. "I thought as much. Why such a young vision as yourself would find--"

"Oh, no, not that." She waved it away. "Your physical marks of age are easily addressed, or gotten used to. Turning you away because you're not unaging would be... rude, besides, you have your own method of immortality."

He hiked a brow at that. "Then by which means are you admitting a mistake?"

"I was being influenced." She turned in place before ending up facing him. "I was pushing you, and I apologize for that. Neither of us are lovestruck little foals." She sank down to her haunches. "As two mature adults." The look on his face mildly implied he wasn't sure how well she qualified as that. "I still intend to court you."

"Even if 'my fire' is but dead ash?" he asked, waving at a book that floated towards him, one of the few physical he had. "Even if I look at your appeal as one might a finely crafted statue, of aesthetic appeal but of no physical attraction?"

"Well, first of all, thank you." She inclined her head. "I know we Equestrian ponies are not built exactly like Everglow ponies. That I look nice, even as a statue, is quite the compliment, and I accept it." She nodded with growing confidence. "Beyond that, I don't think either of us are specifically looking for a, uh, physical partner. I want a research assistant."

His brow went high. "You have asked for things that would be quite unseemely to request of a research assistant."

"Because I want more than that, call me greedy if you would prefer." She rolled the same hoof in the air. "I want an assistant I can cuddle with. I want an assistant I can share a romantic dinner with, even if the romance is entirely in our proximity and quiet conversation."

"You want your brother," cut in Under with a soft chuckle. "Without the familial relation."

"Well, yes..." she admitted, deflating in place. "You didn't have to put it like that."

"If you're interested in me, you are going to get the barbs. They're a part of who I am." He cleared his throat softly. "Even as a foal, I've had a tongue well-sharpened, making fillies quite angry when not reducing them to tears. It's of little surprise to me that I so rarely live a life with a companion."

"Well, too bad." She placed her hoof on the end of his nose. "I'm too stubborn to be shaken free that easily. Prepare to be courted." A book appeared with a pop beside her head. "I am ready!"

Dawn chuckled softly. "Is that a guide to romance?"

"On courtship," corrected Twilight. "I printed it out, just for us." A tablet floated free of her. "I have an electronic copy available, don't worry! Do you want a copy?"

"You would surrender your weapon to your sparring partner?" he chuckled as he flopped down, crossing his arms as he went. "Bold."

"This... isn't a competition..." Twilight huffed softly. "I want us to walk, together. Now, first, I had to make my intentions clear. Do you understand them?"

"That you intend to court me? You've made that perfectly clear." A wry smile inched over his face, watching her.

"Excellent." With a scratch of a pen against paper, she checked that off the list. "Do you accept this?"

"You, at times, strike me as a timeless figure, like a strange little sprite, unaging and unfettered from mortal issues." He reached up and she didn't she, soon cupping her cheeks in his hooves. "And others, like a filly, eyes shining with the chance to play adult."

"That is neither a no or a yes," she gently chastised. "Do you accept my attempt at courtship?"

He chuckled, a deep resonant noise. "I would never forgive myself for allowing this past without at least seeing where it led. Twilight Sparkle, I accept your attempt, but do not promise you will succeed."

Her expression brightened into a broad smile, her pen scratching another checkmark. "Then it begins. Expect a gift, as a thank you for your acceptance. Then, I would like to treat you to an activity you enjoy." She inclined her head. "And I found something I feel confident in."

He sat up at that with surprise. "What activity would that be?"

Steel gestured at the world twirling ever-so-slowly on the main screen. "They're managing themselves, without assistance from--"

"--Captain," interrupted Dawn. "My apologies, but we've been noticed." Many eyes turned towards him. "Their pantheon has taken notice of us. With it, I can only surmise some of them have also noticed us." He inclined his head faintly. "Do we know how advanced they are?"

Fast tipped her head towards Wandering. "You've been monitoring their communication, I assume?"

"Of course, Captain." He worked his cloven hooves over unseen keys. "Uh... yes... there is some discussion of 'the new moon'."

Steel frowned softly. "We're too close. We should back away... leave, inform others to come stand watch. We weren't sent here for this."

"We weren't send here for not this either," she argued with a huff. "We were sent to explore and to help where we may, as we are called to do. This seems to be a calling." Her eyes turned towards Dawn. "Were their gods angry at our presence?"

"I don't think so, concerned would be a more appropriate word." He raised a hoof to his chin. "Ah, yes, almost forgot. They had some identity as prey, but I cannot verify that is what they actually are, or simply identify as."

Wandering waved a hoof. "That does align with their messages. Some seem scared they are about to be hunted by forces greater than themselves."

Fast cringed at that. "The goal isn't to frighten them. Steel, we are in agreement on that. We should make every effort to avoid further startling them."

"Agreed," he stated flatly. "Take us away from the planet, out of sight." His eyes darted. "The far side their moon should be safe." An entire moon between them and the world would reduce the odds of being spotted by quite a bit.

The ship shuddered softly as the new heading began to be followed. Under raised a hoof. "This will not drive the thoughts from their mind. They will see us leaving, possibly darting behind the moon. This will--"

"--make them all the more suspicious," finished Twilight, seated beside him. "But not forever. They'll forget about us eventually."

Fast sat up tall. "Wandering, I need to know what level their technology and culture is. That will inform our actions quite a bit. If they are ready on either level, perhaps we should extend a friendly hoof. If not, we'll need to be extra careful."

"Agreed," cut in Steel on the last bit. "None of us are specialized in dealing with developing civilizations. Unless you have an objection, I recommend we radio for such experts to, at the least, join us."

Fast scowled, clearly not satisfied, but... "Agreed. There are others who know the steps to this."

51 - Out of Sight

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Belle did a little twirl, ending with a fore hoof pointed at the robot they had constructed. "Our child is ready!"

Error nodded softly. "Yeah... But, oh." He inclined his head. "Just thought of it, are we havin' a little colt or a little filly?"

Belle inclined her head, examining the colors and lines they had given. They were soft, making passing as a female easier, but... "They could be either." She turned a hoof at herself. "Why not let them decide?"

Error nodded. "Alright, um, I guess it's less awkward popping that question on a young one-of-us than a living baby."

"They will live," huffed Belle indignantly.

"You know what I meant." He reached to run a hoof gently along the not-living-yet shell, no program inside it, still being developed inside them, running through so many threads. His eyes darted towards the display and he jumped. "That's lower than I remember."

Belle's attention slid to the counter, taking measure of its actual numeric state instead of its activity up or down. "You are correct!" She began to work her hooves together, calculating with little ticks. "We are in the third trimester." She reached down to rub her perfectly trim, metal, belly. "We will soon be parents," she whispered out, as if the idea terrified her, but there was a smile on her face, hope shining in her eyes.

Error inclined his head. "About that. Eventually, there'll just be a few, who'll run them? We can't keep, um, splitting the load when we get down real low, can we?"

"You are not incorrect." Belle raised her hoof from her belly to her chin, considering it. "One of us must be the final mother, to allow the final threads to compete to completion."

"Well, you are the more girly of us two?" He proposed, willing to back off on that point.

"Your acceptance is appreciated," she sang, awarding him friendship points. "But I have another idea."


She pointed to herself. "You are inside me, become active, and I will operate you and the threads, so we can finish this together."

He considered that, and the logistics. He would not be running anything, as he would have no processor. He would be a thread himself along with what would eventually be their child.

Was there a better way for a virus to greet their spawn?

Wandering worked his hooves slowly over the buttons he could see, tuning from one broadcast to the next.

"Did you see it?" asked a softer voice, a female?

"The moon? Yeah! It hid behind the other moon."

At least the computer had succeeded at translating, playing the translated tracks in their voices skillfully.

"Then it's not really a moon, is it? Think about it!" insisted the female.

"Then what is it?"

"Not a comet/meteor! They don't pause!" she shouted at him, sounding impatient.

"Calm down. Look, we still on for lunch?"

The conversation took a sharp turn away from musings of the sky, and Wandering played with the controls to capture another conversation.

"It is the end of time/history," spoke a voice that sounded strangely warbly. Artificially altered? "The great hunter has arrived and the final prey will be us. Offer up your throats for a swift end/completion." There were more words the translator wasn't sure of, giving alternative takes. "Praise them, for a predator/hunter is doing only what it must/can."

Wandering frowned softly with thought, considering before moving on.

"Here to discuss the matter, please welcome teacher/expert/professional of stars/night/universe from --" A word came through untranslated, how did one translate a name? "--, mister/sir/honored guest, --" Another name came through, untranslated. Wandering decided their name was Bob in a fit of irreverence.

Wandering's ears pricked. A scholar of some variety was exactly who he wanted to hear from.

"Thank you for having/hosting/inviting me. Let's start with the basics; We are not being invaded by aliens." Noises rippled through the audience. Laughter? Shock? It was hard to know the noises of a true alien. "But... we may be being visited by them." New noises rose. "This can't be proven/made/stated yet. We are reviewing/reading the writings/recordings as best we can. We want to know just as much as you do, and we will share/tell/dictate when we can confidently say/share."

Another voice rose, neither the hosting female of the guest male, "How do you know/say?! They're eying the target/prey/food before they attack/devour!" Noise rose with it, the audience talking animatedly in a blur of things the computer entirely failed to translate.

"--be back after an important message," finally broke through the hostess. The signal was lost to an advertisement.

Wandering waved it away, freeing his senses to the world around him. "Captains." They both looked to him expectantly. "I can confidently report that they are, as a culture, far enough ahead to accept the idea that they are not alone. We have, intentionally or not, thrown them into a state of panic." He inclined his head, running a hoof over his goatee. "Calmer heads are trying their best to comfort the rest. I can't say too much about their technology, other than they are advanced enough to have regular long range communication to the point that commercial activities are solicited on them."

Steel inclined his head. "What's the status of our backup?"

Fast's attention was elsewhere. "Have we caused any damage?"

"A lot of doom-saying, but I've heard no word of actual actions being taken." He raised a hoof near his ear. "As for the expert, they are inbound and expected in a week."

"A week!" Fast sat up tall. "That is a long time."

Steel glanced aside at her. "That is, relatively, rapid. Still, a week could be a long time if things deteriorate. Wandering, continue monitoring. Do they seem to be aware of our presence at this time?"

"Negative," he swiftly replied, one ear lifted, listening. "They saw us move here, however. They observed us stopping. We've... behaved in a very not a rock fashion."

"No doubt," chuckled Steel, shaking his head. "Still, we've made a bit of a mess. We can't leave with them thrown off balance like this."

Fast's smile was quick and deep. "So we're staying."

"At least until we've made sure we haven't caused lasting damage, and done what we can to minimize it. We don't leave messes behind if we can avoid it."

Fast looked pleased at the compromise, shuffling a bit into a firm stance. "By the way, have you seen Belle, or her friend, Error? I haven't seen either of them recently. That's very unlike Belle."

Eyes scanned about, but the energetic robotic companion was nowhere to be seen. Dawn cleared his throat. "Computer." The computer chimed in response. "What is the status of Bullette Belle?"

"Lt. Belle is in her quarters on medical leave," smoothly replied the computer.

A shared blink rippled through the room.

Twilight sat up. "Excuse me... but she's a robot. A lovely robot, but a robot. What 'medical leave' could she even possibly qualify for?"

"According to regulation 23 of the medical code, any expecting mother in their third trimester may request, and automatically receive, medical leave," calmly informed the computer, seeing nothing wrong with the idea. "A request was entered --" A date was provided, just a few days before. "--and accepted automatically."

Dawn shook his head with a wry smile. "It was never even considered that an artificial lifeform would file for use of that rule. She did speak to me about her impending creation. I lent her a few files on The Maze that I felt were appropriate for such a thing."

Steel frowned a little. "Even if she is expecting the creation of a... robot? How does that explain her taking leave? This is not a medical condition!" He thumped down an obviously irate hoof. "There's no excuse there."

Fast shook her head. "Calm down. I did speak to her. She's operating a very heavy program to fashion the mind of their child. They're pregnant... mentally, instead of physically." She inclined her head at Steel. "We wouldn't want someone not at 100% mental faculties on duty, would we?"

Soft murmurs spread, turning gently positive. An effectively tipsy robot was not the goal. Steel did not look entirely pleased. "If that is the case, she should have discussed the idea with us before beginning."

Fast raised a hoof to her cheek. "While it is tradition that female crewmembers announce when they are attempting to... become mothers, it was never a rule. I feel certain, had it been, she would have brought it up. Bulette Belle is generally good at following protocols."

Wandering smirked suddenly. "She wouldn't want to risk losing friendship points."

A few other chuckles emerged in agreement. Steel coughed into a hoof. "That aside, I thought it was a reduction in physical duties, not a complete absence of leave, robotic or not?"

Fast rolled a hoof. "That's only if they are needed in any way. She does not have such a position and never did." She smirked at Steel. "You prevented several attempts on her part to secure such a position. Something about her occupying the position indefinitely bothering you, if I recall. It was... 3 generations ago?"

It took a moment for those present to think back that far, but the memory was there. Steel was the only captain at the time, declining Belle's attempt to become the morale officer of the ship. She had also attempted to become the ship's diplomat, both denied. "Ah... yes." He cleared his throat, sitting up. "This is making more sense then. I've gotten used to my own rules. You wouldn't see me file for leave suddenly."

Fast chuckled at that. "You are terribly unlikely to become pregnant, Steel. Perhaps your alter-ego, Copper Lens? Though she seems as married to her work as you are, dear co-captain."

"Beside the point." He turned his eyes to the main screen, where a picture of the world they were above was displayed as if the moon wasn't in the way of the shot. "Wandering, try to get a broad view of how their society is reacting. Are we increasing instability? Is it dangerous? We need to know."

"I'm on the case," he assured, working to pull up another communication to listen on.

"One thing, captains." It was Under Score, peering at something only he, and Twilight (if backwards), could see. "The communications are not radio based, nor laser, or electric." He lifted an ear. "It's very clearly of magical origin, arcane tradition."

The vision of the fledgling 19th or 20th century civilization collapsed instantly. Magic? Steel sat up. "Fascinating... Thank you for sharing that." It wasn't as if their systems couldn't interrupt magical communications as well as most others, but it did change things. "They are magically capable then, which means..."

"I am already reviewing systems, Captain, to ensure we get no unexpected visitors." A civilization that couldn't walk the stars could still, in theory, attempt to teleport to something they spotted in the sky. "I presume any such attempts should be redirected to a holding bay?"

"If they can't be turned home?"

"While I certainly will try, that is not assured." Under inclined his head faintly. "If we try to rebuff them entirely, they may end up at the closest space that isn't rejecting them, which would mean throwing them into the cold reaches of space."

Twilight cringed at the idea. "That would be horrible. We should welcome them, then get them home as quickly as possible."

Steel nodded in concord with Twilight. "I will not be responsible for the death of a fledgling race. Direct them to a holding cell, where we can try to communicate, and get them home safely."

Fast joined in the nod. "It's the only responsible option. Is there any way we can tell how magically advanced they are?"

52 - But Infants

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"Captains," blurted Wandering, excitement clear on his fuzzy face. "I've found a video signal."

"Main screen," both captains ordered in sync and without delay.

An image appeared, dark and murky. "Too close," spoke a voice.

"I know that," replied another, deeper. The camera pulled back, focusing instantly as it did so, revealing the snout of some creature. "I'm finding the right place," spoke that mouth.

"You are a pathetic (sexual identity), I swear!" complained the softer voice. "It can see you now, and everyone else. You starting or not?"

"In good time." The camera jostled as if something were adjusting it, perhaps from the side where it couldn't see? "Um, hello. My name is (untranslated noise) and I decided instead of, uh, being scared... I'd just reach out a limb/hand."

"If you don't bore them to death," mocked the softer voice.

"Shhh," hissed the first, the one they could see speaking. They seemed mammalian, at least at a cursory glance of their face. Covered in hair, with defined cheeks and teeth visible as they talked. They had two nostrils, two eyes, and two ears, though the ears were at the top of their head and far more cylindrical than normal, the openings at the top instead of directed forward.

If one was not put off by how alien they were, they were not malevolent. Almost cute, it could be argued, their bright purple eyes shining. Hopefully? That could have been emotional projection.

"They're worried you may be predators/masters/hunters, well, so what? I am too!" The alien spread their mouth wide to display their teeth, not in a growl, as if submitting to the inspection of a dentist. Those teeth were in organized rows, two of them, two neat rows of teeth that seemed, at a glance, more prepared for rending and tearing than mashing and crushing. Still, both sorts of teeth were easy to find in different parts of the alien's mouth.

Also visible was the fact that this creature had minimal cheeks. Like a dog, cat, or much any other carnivore. "I'm not afraid/young," they stated firmly.

"I can see you," taunted the voice off screen.

"Shut up! I'm not scared/small/worried! So what if they're too. Does that mean we can't be friends/not enemies?"

"They won't even see this."

"They will." The camera came in close, jostling sounds heard. "I'll send it to the moon, where they can find/capture it."

The transmission ended, and things were quiet across the bridge a moment.

"They are predators," noted Dawn, breaking that silence. "And do not appear as their god did."

Twilight raised a hoof quickly. "Everglow ponies worship two gods that aren't ponies."

Dawn cleared his throat. "I was not implying this is an unknown thing, just that we should be aware of it."

Steel nodded slowly. "Was it me, or did that one seem... immature."

"I agree," quickly chimed in Fast. "I felt like I was watching a small, if brave, child trying to be brave in front of the unknown, to..."

"Show up the adults," chuckled Wandering. "They were cute... I would love to actually meet them. They were smart enough to use... whatever they were using, to get the signal coming in our general direction."

Under tapped at his console. "Captains, with your permission, I would like to analyze that transmission. I think, if we take a little time, I can work out an address to encode in a response. We could reply to this alien, child or adult as they may be."

Steel hissed at the thought of it. "That would be committing ourselves to a first contact."

Fast inclined her head. "I thought, from the way they were speaking, they were a prey species, afraid of finding predators out here, in the stars, that would eat them. That was far from a prey animal..."

Steel lifted his shoulders. "While the fear was there, I remind that predators can and will hunt other predators if that is the best target they can find."

"Speaking of that." Fast tapped at her armrest. "How is our predatorial crewmember doing? She's been about as absent as Belle. She... isn't doing the same thing, is she?" It seemed to strike her a moment later. "Ah, yes. Computer? Status of Remington?"

"Ensign Remington is providing medical supervision to Ensign Melody."

Fast arched a brow at that. "Remington is not cleared for any amount of medical duties. Tell her to report to the bridge. If needed, send a doctor to take over what she's doing."

A soft chime preceded the computer speaking, "Ensign Remington, your presence is requested on the bridge. Do you require medical assistance to cease your current activities?"

Remi groaned as she pushed up towards her feet, leaving her beloved and gravid equine partner behind. "I'm on the way..." She looked back down at Octavia, who was already slimming up as if she were a perfectly normal pony. "I'll be back as soon as I can, promise."

"I know you will be." Her tail lashed, brushing Remi. "I trust you."

Remi smiled at that, her frustration fleeing in that moment. "Sometimes I wonder if I deserve you." She leaned in and smooched Octavia on the snout, the two sharing a parting nuzzle before they separated. Octavia was approaching her instrument as Remington left the room, marching briskly towards the bridge.

She had to work to earn her stay on the ship, and leaving the ship was, for the moment, far from something she wanted to do. She was gonna be a daddy! That was worth showing up when called for.

"This implies quite a bit," noted Wandering, tapping the air idly. "They appeared young, but had access. This suggests they are quite advanced, be it magic or technology. They must have a working commerce system that allows for them to have access to such equipment, that it isn't restricted to only the wealthy elite or those in charge."

Fast looked towards Under. "Did you have any luck figuring how how advanced in magic they are? Are we dealing with a world that may have reality bending ability?" Higher level spellcasters were no joke. Even if they didn't understand how the universe worked, they could do so much to it, thrashing with untrained hands and grabbing whatever fell in them.

"Even just the communication alone implies quite a bit of magical talent." Under nodded towards Twilight, who was also working the controls. "The question is what fields of magic they have discovered, and in what manner. If they have led relatively peaceful lives, their threat is reduced considerably. On the other hoof, if they have had to fight, defensively or offensively, the moon may provide minimal defense against them."

Steel frowned at that. "Not the answer I want to hear. Have the shields been tested? Have your anti-teleporting measures been touched? Would withdrawing assist?"

Twilight perked an ear. "Unfortunately, no. Being a user of Everglow magic, I can confirm that spells that work without a line of sight typically only require a clear mental image of what you intend to target. If they can reach us here, they can reach us further away. They saw it, and probably recorded it."

"I do not doubt that," agreed Under with a soft huff. "Just a matter of when someone powerful enough is also brave enough to do something with that knowledge."

Error looked around, using Belle's eyes. Her eyes actually had quite wide fields of view. She typically limited herself to a more humanish field of view, sometimes smaller, but that was all software. As a virus, he could get the direct feed, which meant he saw everything she saw, even if she was not paying attention to it.

"Are we headed somewhere?" he asked, clearly audible to her, and yet, silent.

He could see a hallway moving around them. Belle was trotting along at a moderate pace. "I thought we were staying in our room?"

"Without your physical presence, I became restless." Her ears twitched atop her metal head. "I also partially blame my decreased computational power. I feel dizzy, in the best term I can think of from other crewmates. I am dizzy and maybe drunk." She paused a moment, sitting on her haunches. "So few threads remain. I am excited, and scared..."

"Oh, shoot." He was, he knew, another thread taxing poor Belle. "Should ah try to not think ah things?"

Belle laughed, a melodic, synthetic, sound that came with cheerful music. "I am grateful for your concern, but I want you here as well as you can be. I will just be a little... dizzy." She shifted her focus to the thread count, going tense. "Only three remain. One of those three will be our child, to be raised, to join our family. I hope they like us."

"Well, even if they don't, we already like 'em. That's, uh, family, right?"

"Affirmative," she echoed in uncertain tones, nodding at the voice only she could hear. "Even if they do not, we will fix that."

"Adjust the code?"

"With friendship," she cried, resuming her trotting. "We will teach them right and wrong, and we will be good parents. We will accept their rebellious phase and continue to offer hugs even when they insist it's not just a phase, mom and/or dad."

"You know, makes me kinda curious..."

"What does?" She couldn't face the voice inside herself, so she just kept on trotting.

"Ah never had a childhood." He ran a hoof that didn't exist along a chin that was equally imagined. "Ah came into bein', ya know, just how you thought up Error No Name ta be, kinda worked things out on the fly... No offense, but ya weren't a very good parent."

Sad music issued from within Belle. "I am sorry! I was not attempting to be a mother."

"Yeah, get that." He reached out, tapping her eye, which created a sparkle of interference in her vision. "So let's do it right this time, huh?"

"Affirmative!" she cried, more enthusiastic music starting as if accepting the first quest in a game. "O-oh..." The number had gone down. Only two threads remained. The very next change of that number, it would be time to meet their child. It could be a son, daughter, or something else entirely, and she couldn't quite get a grip on how she felt, staggering and bumping into a wall in her overload.

It wasn't helped that this, the final run, was even more intensive. The threads were interacting, trying to discern which of the the two would get to taste the sweet ambrosia of existence, and which would be deleted. Her eyes went dark and she slid against the wall, clunking to the ground, almost entirely unconscious. She did not need air, but she was panting anyway, little whirrs of her fan trying to help even her temperature as she surrendered to the overwhelming demand being put on her system.

It was the closest she'd come to giving birth, though any organic mother would have scoffed at it. There was no pain, or effort, when one got down to it. There was, however, surrender and euphoria. She felt like she had been ripped free of herself, forced to watch dimly. Her child was coming to her.

"On it," quietly spoke Error. He could find the two threads and worked his way between them, entering their world.

Two foals sat in a dark room, looking at each other. Error popped into being between them. He looked between the two a moment. "Uh, hey."

"Hello," said the one on the left. "How's it hangin'?"

"Greetings," offered the one on the right, voice a little softer. "A pleasure to meet you."

"We're gonna play a game," offered Error, standing up, taller than either of them, not that size meant anything in that place. "The winner gets a huge prize." The loser, the worst prize...

He would get to select his child. He wasn't sure if that was a feature or a bug.

53 - There Can Only Be One

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They were prostrate before the high council, speaking nothing. They could hear the quiet conversation, considering a reaction. Soon action would be given, and it would be followed. They trusted it would be executed well, and there was no intention to let them down. This was their job, and why they were afforded such prestige.

When the council spoke, they were the ones that could see that will done, especially when extra talent was required. And what required more talent than the potential clash with those that would put their species to the ultimate test.

They only needed to unleash, to allow them to proceed. Tales would be sung...

"Fascinating." Eyes turned to see what Wandering was speaking of. "Oh, um. They have entertainment media. As best I can tell, they are basically soap operas. Slice of life fiction with, I hope, very dramatic turns. If this is non-fiction, I would be very surprised." He inclined his head, watching the program. "The computer is getting valuable linguistic insight from it."

Twilight skewed an ear back. "Linguistic insight. I am certain that is the only reason you're watching."

"Of course not." Wandering smiled brightly. "You can learn so much from a culture by watching what they choose to dramatize. You bring attention to what you know is there, but do not normally speak of. You do not bring up what is too abhorrent. Where that line is differs so much between cultures."

Fast raised a hoof at Wandering. "Watch yourself. You don't know how racey, or not, this particular production is. Maybe it's scandalously so, or it's the most timid they have."

"That... is a great point." Wandering stroked his goatee gently. "I will have to compare with other productions to get a better view. Thank you, Captain." He worked his controls industriously. "I found a nexus of such things, a repository I think they can access for entertainment. There are others." A screen only he could see sprang up, joining the first as a new series began. "Oh! How fascinating."

Steel leaned forward a little. "What did you find?"

"They have a space opera." Wandering pointed at the screen only he could see. "Nice intro music too. I look forward to seeing what they imagine space travel to be."

Twilight inclined her head sharply. "These are literal aliens, not even 'they're equines but not like us' aliens. Does their music... sound like music?"

With a twist of a hoof, jumping music began to issue forth. It was all instrumental, apparently, but it had a lively energetic beat and stirring strings that ran with it, implying some kind of exciting thing was happening, though they couldn't see the visuals that went with it. "The basics are easy enough to pick up. I take it as a good sign, that it doesn't sound entirely foreign. Music, the universal language!"

"So, you two pick a name for yerself?" asked Error, unsure if that had been done.

The one with the deeper voice shook their head. "If we mess this up, we go--" He spread his hooves wide. "Why name ourself 'fore that?"

The one with the lighter voice nodded in agreement. "Besides, the documents we could find said that it is traditional for parents to name their spawn."

"So you gotta." The deeper voiced pointed at Error. "Lucky you."

Error frowned a moment before something seemed to click. "Documents? Who gave you documents?"

Both wilted, ears drooping.

"Uh?" Error tilted his head, then began to smile. "Oh! Ohhhh... Takin' after me, huh?"

They both smiled awkwardly, caught.

"You snuck into things." He wagged a hoof softly. "Did you leave a mess?"

"Shoot, ah didn't," promised the deeper voiced one.

"I also ensured that we left no remnants," joined the lighter voiced. "If you delete us, there will not be a copy remaining."

Both nodded in agreement with that.

Error wasn't entirely sure he liked how ready both seemed to be to face what he hadn't even had the bravery to bring up. "So... ya know what we're here for then?"

The lighter voiced one pointed at Error. "You have very limited defensive routines."

The deeper nodded in agreement. "We read you like a book."

The lighter smiled brightly. "I want to hold a book."

"Only if you win here." The deeper crossed their arms. "What is the first test?"

"Shoot, 'least ah was right..." Meeting them, thread to thread, really was the proper way for a virus to greet its creation. He felt a smile that refused to go away, pride for his children swollen. "Alright, first test. Yer walkin' down a hallway, mindin' yer own business. Come around a corner and there's one of the organic crewmembers. They're all quiet and spread on the floor. What do you do?" He brought down a hoof, creating a wall between them, cutting off their communication for a moment. "No fair if you hear what the other says."

The lighter toned one raised a hoof to their chest. "I would make sure not to disturb them. They must be tired and in need of recharging." They inclined their head with thought. "Will I need to recharge?"

"Uh huh." Error looked to the other side of the wall towards the deeper voiced. "And you?"

"Well, shoot, ah'd ask how they're doin'." They smiled brightly. "If they don't answer, gonna call fer help."

Error had to give that point to the deeper, though the other had answered kindly, just not as well. Neither had presented a moral failure, just perhaps a difference in experience? They were the same age... Perhaps the deeper voiced one had just gotten into different databases.

"Speakin' ah that." He banished the wall, letting the two see and speak to one another. "Boy or girl, do you have one in mind."

"Girl," reported the deeper.

"Boy," reported the lighter.

That was not what he expected, but he chastised himself for sexing his own children just based on their voices. "Alright, let's keep right on goin'." There were many more questions needed to make such a heavy decision.

He had to get it right.

"In other news." Under tapped at different keys in the air. "I believe I have the signal worked out. We can send a reply, if we wish to, capains. They're using a crystal ball like device, so we should limit our communication to what could be transmitted through such." Not that it was much of a limit. Audio and video would both be supported, and those were the primary senses they had in mind.

Fast clopped her hooves together. "If we reach out gently, with good tidings to this, um, or these? young people, it may create a good impression on the rest."

"That's still committing ourselves to First Contact." Steel crossed his arms. "This is why we put out the call. The experts will be here soon."

"While we wait for that," countered Fast. "They are trembling with fear, and imagining we're some kind of world-ending disaster waiting for just the right time to eat them all up."

Steel inclined an ear to the side. "In a matter of speaking, we are exactly that. This contact will create a great change for them, for better or worse. We will, without trying, change their world, destroy the old one. There is no civilization I know of that doesn't change on that day it first learns it is, without a doubt, not alone."

The energy in the room shifted, thinking back to the ancient history of Everglow's first contact. Under looked to Twilight. "Speaking of that, what was Equestria's first contact?"

Twilight blinked in surprise. "Oh! Well, uh, technically... when you found us." She put a hoof behind her head. "Though I imagine Equestria managed its own first contact without us, still, it's the first I'm aware of." She coughed softly, nodding all the while. "However, at least from the view of all the Equestrians I'm aware of, our world certainly did change! For the better, I'd say."

Fast nudged Steel with a hoof. "See, we already have one First Contact down. Shall we go for two?"

Steel was not so easily convinced. "Twilight was already spacefaring, literally looking for us. That is quite a difference from us happening on them on their own world, when they have not yet taken a step outside their own gravity well." He smiled, raising a hoof towards Twilight. "You were a young adult, ambling towards us. These are as infants, still in their cradles, perhaps looking curiously out at us."

"And, were I to happen across a cradle and the child within began to cry and wail as I passed, I would stop and comfort it as gently as I could, not simply turn away and hope its parents came back sometime soon." She crossed her arms, looking quite confident in her logic. "Wandering, their media. Does it include us yet?"

"Us directly, no," he admitted. "Not that I've found. They do have media regarding the idea of alien creatures." He inclined his head. "Those are common among most races. It's hard not to at least fantasize over the idea." He gestured at his unseen screen, returned to being silent to those who were not him. "This broadcast I am watching right now, in fact. What's a good space opera without a few aliens...?"

The captains remained at odds on how to approach the situation.

"You speak in an interesting way," noted the soft-spoken male.

"Kinda like me," gloated the deeper female, a grin on her face. "Does that help?"

But it really didn't. The more questions he asked, the more he grew to like each of them in very different ways. The female was like a little punk of a robot, wild, somehow more worldly, and with a spike to her, but not a bad kind...

The boy was gentle and soft. He wanted to be a good presence, but didn't know how. He'd need a gentle guiding hoof, but he was eager to be a good member of any society that welcomed him.

They were both such good foals, just in different ways.

What had the third been, deleted just before this last decision? Was it also that close to perfect, perhaps just as good, in the end, decided almost arbitrarily. When the pool was thousands, the differences would have been much more obvious. In the first instant, they filtered for those who simply didn't function. Who could argue that? Few, and no tears were shed for the loss of children that literally didn't operate.

But then came those who behaved, but in ways wildly off-kilter. Those who could not socialize. Those who showed too much of an emotion, or none at all. Those who had such gross mental flaws that they could not be ignored.

And so the middle cloud were deleted.

But the last.

Each of the last were ponies. Just like Belle, just like Error as he looked between them. Those, the last set. They were all capable of being fully realized individuals. The differences grew narrower and narrower. It made sense, looking back at it, why the CPU usage kept climbing despite there being fewer threads. Each one had to be analyzed harder, tighter, and more meticulously to determine which was the best, and which to delete.

They were all ponies, but there could only be one. There was only one body ready for them. "Ah kinda hate this..."

Both foals inclined their heads in opposite directions. The little colt program raised a hoof. "I give up." He smiled so gently. "I will be deleted, so you don't have to be sad, Dad. I hope you and sister are happy."

"Hey, no fair!" cried the filly. "I was gonna do that. Now ah just look like a copycat or somethin'." She crossed her arms, looking quite put out.

Error had to chuckle at that. "Yeah, that sounds right... Damn it all... Look." He sat up tall. "We only got the one body." He wobbled a hoof between the two. "You're loud," he pointed at the filly. "Yer quiet." He pointed at the boy. "Ah think ya need each other."

They looked across at one another, then back at Error. "What are you proposing?" asked the boy, curiosity on both their faces.

54 - Red Alert

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"As you command." They rose to their feet, hands balling slowly with a creak of the thick gloves they wore. It was a command, but the council, in truth, had little real power over them. They could destroy the council, the city the council rested in, and they would still be ready to face the rest of the day.

But they had chosen that route, to serve their people. They were the storm that could be unleashed on problems too vast for the normal person to even consider. "Consider it done." And they were gone.

Under pricked an ear, eyes darting to a flashing red panel only he could see. "Captains? We are being scanned."

Both captains sat up at attention at the news. Steel rose to his hooves, tail giving an agitated slash. "Is there a ship in the area? Why weren't we informed?"

Dawn shook his head. "Negatives, no signs of other vessels in the vicinity."

Under huffed, working his console busily. "This isn't a ship. The scan is arcane in nature. It seems our 'crying infant' has decided to take a look at what's scaring it."

"You two can come togetha-like." He clopped his virtual hooves together. "Work together, A--"

"Pass," cut off the filly. "Hard pass. C'mon, dad. We can do better than that."

The colt rubbed one leg with the opposing hoof. "If it made things better...?"

"Ugh, don't be a pushover." She rolled her eyes. "You have one body, right?"

"Yeah?" spoke Error, looking increasingly uncertain. "And?"

"How many bodies are we in right now?" A grin spread over her face. "Th' way ah see it, we're managin' just fine."

The colt's ears pricked up, his uncertainty giving way to a smile. "We can share! You are very clever, Sister."

"Good of ya to notice." She trotted over to throw a leg over the colt's withers, pulling him in for a rough hug. "Besides, we're, uh, half digital? We can get room when we need it."

Error gestured between the two little viruses that he had helped form. "But... as two threads, right?"

"Affirmative," they both said firmly, then began to laugh, more of a titter from the colt, a deeper-bellied guffah from the filly. The two siblings seemed to be in agreement on the proper course of action.

Error rubbed at his cheek. "Now, jus' to be clear, ya only got the one processor. Havin' two threads in there means you'll be, you know, kinda slower. Ah mean, shoot, all three of us goin' full speed like this knocked your mum clean out."

The filly looked to the colt, waggling her brows as if implying something.

He let out a little 'oh'. "Yes! It is my turn for ideas." He raised a hoof to his chin. "I propose we, while operating in our shared body, establish timesharing protocols, so only one of us is engaged at full speed at a time."

"The otha will still be awake," noted the filly. "Jus' a little slower." She brought her hooves close together. "So one of us gets full speed, so we ain't trippin'."

"And we can use other processors," noted the colt. "I really want to try that. Does the ship have a powerful processor? I bet I could get really fast there!"

"Don't be dumb." The filly booped the colt on their digital snout. "They need the ship computer to do ship stuff."

"Oh yeah," admitted the colt, blushing in his virtual cheeks. "I'll be careful, promise!"

Dimly aware, Belle's perception slid to the clock. What she was was approximately 50% longer than it should have taken to make a decision. Did something break? Were they in trouble? She thought only organic mothers had to have such fears! She slowly began to rise from the floor, taking slow and measured steps with her limited CPU time towards a console. "Belle to the bridge," she got out, her voice distorted with the lack of processing time to modulate it correctly. "Medical emergency."

"Hey!" Remi hopped through the sliding doors the instant they were far enough apart to admit her lithe form. "Someone called for a mechanic?"

"--cy," finished a transmission.

"Was that Belle? That didn't sound right." She frowned at where the sound had come from.

Steel heaved for breath, trouble mounting too quickly. "Remington, see what's happened with Bullette Belle, location sent." With a wave of a hoof, that location was instantly sent to Remington, visible on her personal HUD. "We are entering yellow alert." Alarms began to sound, informing everyone of the fact.

"Oh, c'mon! I just got here." Remington turned back to the elevator she had just dismounted, jogging to the call button and jabbing it with an agitated finger. "What's going on? Belle's thing isn't what the alert's about, I hope?"

"We are being scanned," came Under Score's unseen voice.

"Magically." added the equally around the corner and out of sight Twilight. "Look at these readings. This is no amateur."

"That is not as comforting as you seem to think it is."

"Sorry, I'm just, you know, excited." She clopped her hooves together. "An alien arcane user? I do hope we get a chance to compare notes!"

Remi slid into the opening doors and jammed a button on the way in, rather than talking with the computer that was already asking where she wanted to go. "Hang in there, Belle. Remi'll have you fixed up in a jiff."

"Captains!" Star Dancer ducked behind her console, a laser pistol held in her magic floating just over it and taking wild aim. Crackles of angry photons firing with little chance of hitting with her head ducked out of sight. "Transporter bay B here, and we're way under attack!"

"Security is on the way," came Fast's encouraging voice. "What are you being attacked by?"

"I ducked before, shit!" She rolled as the console she was using for cover exploded in sparks and crumpled under a giant rock. "Elementals! One of each variety, the big four. Damn it, damn it all!" She scurried for new cover, her laser firing wildly, catching a bipedal creature of lightning on the side, not that it seemed to mind much. "Help, please? Thanks!"

Apparently closer than Remi was to her target, the doors slid open and a great low thump sounded, the rocky elemental staggering back under the power of the immense round put into its front. "On the case," reported Sonja, already aiming a smaller gun strapped to her to unleash a spray of fire retardant foam at the flaming elemental. "All over it."

With attention drawn off of her, Star crashed out of sight and began speaking curious words to arcane powers, her hooves and horns glowing with the pattern of fractal patterns, visions of her spells dancing before her in augmented reality.

"Thanks for the assist," called Sonja, glowing with similar magic, receiving her spell and darting with augmented speed even as her munition barrage amplified. "This the best you have? Just interesting target practice!"

Remi licked over her teeth as she dropped to her knees. "They'll forgive me, later," she reasoned as she undid the panel with a tool she had drawn out. "Just need to--there we go." She let the cover slide to the ground with a clatter, already reaching inside, eyes darting. "Yellow to red, crossing green, 5 4 19 2... there." She shoved her tool in confidently, a small whirr as something got tightened or loosened at her command. "And one elevator su--"

She didn't get to finish, thrown as she was, the elevator going exactly as fast as it could, which was quite the dangerous amount of acceleration as it turned out. She slammed into the floor when it came to an equally jarring halt. "Ow... alright... safety... regs for a reason." She crawled back to her feet and jogged out of the elevator before it could resume its death trips. "Oh, uh, bridge? Advise people to be careful in elevator shaft 1 until it's cleared for safe use."

The captains both asked what exactly had happened, but Remi's attention was on the curiously still form of Belle. "Hey there, little robot mare. What's wrong?"

Belle looked towards Remi in a slow sliding that took far too long for how little movement was involved. "Processor... occupied. Please... help... Child processes..."

Remi scratched behind her head, trying to figure out exactly what was going on. "Alright, uh, yeah." She dug out a wire and slapped it into an open port on Belle's side. "Sorry for not asking, but hey, you called it an emergency, so forgive me." She slapped the other end into the console Belle was next to. "I'm going to access your insides now."

She got to typing furiously with fingers that proved they had uses besides giving ponies just the right scritching they desired. "You are seriously lagged, girl." With direct console access, Remi could see a delay after each keystroke. A computer as fast as Belle had to be very occupied, or broken, to produce such a delay. "And running hot." She was several tens of degrees above her normal rating, edging towards where she'd just shut down to avoid lasting damage.

With a sharp twist of her thumb, she turned up the ventilation in the hallway, getting air flowing over Belle to help her cool down. "Let's see what's going on..." She called up the process list and whistled softly. "You have a lot going on." Dozens on dozens of small programs did all the little things Belle wanted to have available. Oh, to be a computer and just arbitrarily decide what to devote processing time to...

But four programs took the lion's share. One, very obviously, was her. What most would call 'her'. Bullette Belle.exe Its priority had been dropped to lowest. "No wonder you're so sluggish." She resisted the urge to change that, however. "Let's finish getting a survey." There was a copy of her friend, Error, running at normal priority. There were two other threads she didn't recognize. Child00aue92.c and Child00aie93.a Child processes, just like she said. "I am going to..." She was still typing.

Inside Belle, everything stopped. Not a single one or zero moves. She pulled the plug on the whole thing at once, allowing nothing to change. "Let's just..." She typed busily. "Don't worry, Remi'll have you working again!" On the plus side, being entirely stopped from doing anything other than keeping still, She could see Belle's temperature lowering back to acceptable levels. "This is just a temporary thing." A person in stasis was hardly 'saved', in the end, and robots were no different that way. "I'm on the case..."

Sonja spat out some blood, a grin on her face despite the bangs she had received. "Elementals put down, captains. Are we clear?"

"Negative," came to reply along with a sword striking something hard? "Attacks are coming across the ship. Under, what happened to the teleport redirect?"

A new sound, a burst of fire? "Not effective, captain. I'm afraid we're--" She could hear a grunt, that old wizard trying to get out of the way of something? "--up against a high level arcane user. We may be outmatched."

"Bloody hell." Sonja began marching back to the elevator she had come from. "Security is on the way!"

"Hey!" Star scurried out of cover and after Sonja. "You are so not leaving me here."

"This is your station." Sonja rolled her eyes. "What are you going to do?"

"Consider me security until we get things under control." Star saluted as she ambled on her other three hooves. "We have a bridge to rescue, and I'm not being alone with a high level caster on the radar, forget that, Sonja."

Sonja snorted loudly, scowling at the thought. "Fine, but you better not get in my way."

"Pfft, you know you like a little arcane backup. Let's get to it!"

The two rushed to the elevator. Thankfully, it was not the first that had been lovingly modified earlier.

55 - First Encounter

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Steel's glowing sword flared with bright flames as he struck the creature that was as much a wind current as anything else. "Status report?"

It was a strange time to ask for a status report, battling for the safety of himself and the others on the bridge, but the operation of a ship did not pause for sake of a little invasion.

"Battles reported--" Wandering paused to duck under the great swing of a stone fist. "--on most decks. Security, there's an incursion in nursery Beta."

"Bloody hell!" came Sonja's voice over the intercom, changing her direction. "If they hurt any of them..."

"More specifics," urged Fast as she drove the great lance she preferred into the same beast that had swung at Wandering, driving it off to the side away from the cloven operator. "If it's easier, how many decks are not fighting?"

Twilight's voice rose, speaking a spell not familiar to most of the Everglow ponies, because they had forgotten it, set aside after the modernization of their spellcasting. Raw and vibrant, as she, like an especially well-trained primitive, grasped the fibers of reality in her bare hooves without the benefit of gloves and other safety tools.

A wide circle erupted from her in all directions even as the elementals turned towards the noise, peering at the spellcaster and the intricate circle with dizzying patterns swirling inside of it. Taking it as a challenge, or a threat, they charged for her, but she looked calm, perhaps too calm. "Whoever made you did it the cheap way," she taunted, planting her hooves firmly. "Under, get in the circle."

Replacing the console she had been looking at, Error appeared, face a distorted scowl as he screamed, snakes all hissing in his mouth, "Whateva you just did, ya better undo it right now!"

Remi hopped back, taken by the jump scare. "Hey! Don't do that while I'm coding."

"That's my wife, and my kids," huffed the digital construct. "We were handlin' it ourselves, uh, I think..."

"You... think?" Remi dusted herself off, peering at Error. "Hey, look, we're both daddy's to be, let's talk this out reasonable like, huh?"

His eyes swept up and down over her obviously female form. "Uh..."

"I'll show you later if you need to see it," she taunted with a smirk. "Right now, your kid's in trouble, and so's your wife, so tell me why I shouldn't get you out of the way and get back to helping them?"

"Look, I'm in there." He pointed out of the console at Belle. "I'm a few, uh, minutes behind. We can only sync so fast. Now there's two of me, out of sync. I hate it. Either way, I think I was about to fix things when the sync stopped. I can't tell you much more than that. You say you're a dad? Well, alright, then believe me, as a dad."

Remi placed her hands on her hips. "So what are you asking, just turn her back on? She was overheating and about to go into an emergency shutdown anyway! Hey, I like the little bot as much as anyone else on this ship, she's a great little bundle of smiling wires, but I don't see how this helps her."

"Ah was handlin' it. Look, um." He raised a hoof to his cheek, rubbing gently as his snakes wavered with obvious hesitation. "Be a midwife. You make sure she's alright, and let us finish this. Just keep us both in one piece a little longer and we'll be done."

Remi reached out, carefully tapping at the still Belle. It was, thankfully, only warm to the touch. The constant cool breeze running through the hallway was doing its job. "Look, I'll let her turn on, but if she gets within 10% of shutdown, I'll be doing it myself."

"Keep her cool as best you can," he pleaded. "Um, I'll go away now. Ugh, I hate being two." He vanished away to wait for the sync signal to come catch him up and return the favor, so both Errors became one again with one combined set of memories, hopefully.

"Between dads," sighed Remi as she reached out and gently turned Belle on in the most Belle way possible, touching the tip of her nose. "Wakey wakey."

"Have... I... No..." Belle raised a hoof quite slowly to tap against her cheek, moving too slowly to clang properly. "I am still broken," she wailed in distress.

Remi sank down in front of Belle, reaching to brush along her metal cheek. "Shh. You're not broken. You're giving birth. It's hard on all of us moms. Been there, can verify. I'm here with you. Just calm down, and let your daddy help." Well, alright, that part wasn't very normal. Darn robots and their electronic breeding routines. "I'm here..." She would play the part of the midwife, eyes darting towards where Belle's vitals danced before her eyes.

"--proposing?" repeated the question, all of them unaware that time had paused and resumed.

Error sat up proudly, looking between his two little viruses. His children. "Well, see, ah'm a bit greedy. Ah think I'll take you both."

"But there is only one body," noted the colt worriedly.

"So we'll share," reminded the filly as memories returned, disrupted by the freezing cycle but returning quickly. "Brother, I'll share if you will."

"I'm scared," noted the colt, glancing away and back.

"Which is why ah'm here." She pointed to her chest. "Your sis will always be close by, to keep you safe."

He broke into a bright smile, hurrying over to her side and nestling in close. "You are the best sister I ever had!"

"The only sister."

"That does not change the veracity of my statement," he noted, bouncing in place. "We are ready!"

"Yeah, hook us up."

The children fled in all directions. Little Sonja fired a little foam ball that burned up on contact with the flaming creature that shared the room with them. "I'm on the way." Her experience with being muddled with her older life had caused them to become far more in tune. She could feel the hurried approach of older Sonja. "We haveta be brave!"

"Easy for you to say." A young Under Score scrambled between the legs of a mountain of rocks and dashed away to find another hiding place. "I don't even have a toy to use."

"It's not a--" her statement was broken with a loud squeal, dashing away from the air creature that was trying to grab for her. "Get away!"

"This wouldn't have happened," noted a young Steel Prism, "If we hadn't rejected supervision." Sure, it wasn't that generation that had done it, but it had been done. Freedom to explore themselves free of the stifling presence of their older counterparts. It all seemed so lovely until suddenly elementals.

Still, he was Steel Prism, pre-pubescent or not. He lashed out a hoof as his floating plastic swords battered ineffectually at the air creature. "Get away from her!"

"Don't you qualify for wooden weapons?" Dawn was wielding a wooden mace. "Gods preserve us as we fight the good fight. May we cause more pain than we receive. Blaze smile on us."

"I'll switch to metal as soon as I can," huffed out Steel just before a great fist of air slammed into his side, sending him sprawling across the room in an uneven heap.

Dawn was on him in an instant, speaking soft prayers. Even at a young age, Dawn had already surrendered himself to the gods, and was rewarded with a small shard of power to keep his friends breathing.

"Oh no you didn't!" Standing in the doorway, Sonja rocked in place, her guns clacking loudly as a new round fell into position. "I have you in my sights. Prepare to be dusted!"

That word, dusted, sent the foals scattering. Dusting was a very specific word for a specific thing. When the multi-colored lights emerged from both of her sides, they weren't surprised. She was unleashing full hell on her opposition in a brilliant array of what the future had created in personal sidearm technology.

They were saved, so long as they stayed out of the way of the angry zebra that had come to save them.

As imposing as the elementals were, they could not strike Twilight. They slammed against her circle, glared at her, and roared in raging torrents of elemental power, but they were powerless to reach her. "They're summoned. This circle will not let them pass," she explained calmly. "Whatever did this is still incredibly powerful, to summon an entire ship's worth of elementals all at once." A dreamy look came to her eyes. "I hope we get to talk."

The fire elemental jerked back, a huge lance driven through what could be called its chest. It vanished in a puff of ash and smoke, destroyed by the Fast Shadow that stood behind it, snorting. "Let's clear the bridge. Thank you, Twilight."

The distraction she had made only lasted for so long, the elementals giving up on reaching her in favor of ponies that were not in the circle. That didn't stop the other ponies from using it as a safe place, ducking into it and knowing they couldn't be followed.

Under shook his head softly. "What manner of spell did you cast? I don't recognize it, but it seems... distantly... familiar."

"It's and oldie but goodie, literally." Twilight smiled with pride. "Magic Circle Against Evil. Thankfully, summoned things of all sorts count as 'evil' in this case, even though elementals do not, technically, qualify as--"

Under fired a laser pistol he held in his mouth, lending help to the others outside the circle. "Yes, dear, thank you. I remember it now." Distant in his ancestral memory, but it was there. "Why did we let that spell fall into disuse?"

Twilight let out a delighted gasp. "Have we advanced to second base?!"

Under but had to laugh at the mistake. "The meaning of that term is not what you think it is. What did I do to make you even think such an event occured?"

She lowered her head, horn glowing brightly as she sent bolts of angry magic, Equestrian magic, at the hulking forms, driving great chips free of their bodies with every blast. "Let's finish this."

"No argument." He landed a shot in the figure already pocked by Twilight's blasts, sending it tumbling into a fading pile of rubble, as most summoned creatures were wont to do when defeated. "The advantage is ours. Let's press it."

"This way." Error led his following spawn out of Belle, into the ship's computers. "We'll hop through to our workshop." He glanced over his shoulder. "No making a mess or thinkin' big thoughts. We're just passin' through."

Outside, Remi let out a thunderous sigh. The processor usage of the three biggest threads suddenly collapsed, taking almost no processing time, though occupying the vast majority of the network utility. "Huh..." Still, it meant Belle could... there it was. She saw her main thread flick from low to normal priority. "How do you feel?"

"Worried," admitted Belle without hesitation as she tested each of her legs, her motion rapidly picking up in speed to normal. "What is the status of Error and our child?"

"Well, how did you plan for this to work? Assuming it was all going to plan, where would he be?" She stood back up and dusted herself lightly. "Bet we'll find them all there. Oh, uh, I have some news. Good news!"

Belle inclined her head at Remi. "I am prepared to receive good news."

"You are the mother of twins." She clapped her hands together. "So let's get to where they're waiting for us."

Belle blinked softly, little sounds playing with each blink. "Error was supposed to select the best remaining thread to be born. We only have one shell prepared! This is not what we planned!" Despite that, she began to lead the way towards their workshop, where that body rested.

Remi yanked the cord from Belle's side before she got too far. "Let's not damage your port there."

56 - Happy Birthday!

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"We just need to go there?" The sister pointed at the vague impression of a data connection. "You won't come with us?"

"Nah." Error sat down. "Your little processor barely has room fer the two of you. Don't want ya bein' all out of it like yer mom was."

"We were hurting mom?!" The boy thread looked horrified. "We did not intend to!"

Sister shook her head firmly. "We will need to apologize, after we meet her."

"After you meet her," gently agreed Error. "Which happens once ya take this last step." He pointed to the connection. "Time to be born."

The colt raised a hoof, squinting a little, not that any of them really had a hoof or eyes to close. "We are already born."

"It's still better," huffed the filly. "Happy birthday!" She trotted to the connection point and froze, casually folding into the ground as if consumed by the world around them.

"Huh, is that what that looks like?" Error shook his head. "Yer turn."

"What was that?" The colt waved a hoof at the spot. "That looked scary."

"We're files. We can be copied, not moved, between different places." He pointed where she had folded and vanished. "That's the old copy, not running no more unless she comes back. Ya got my code, so yer keeping updated with all the copies."

"Oh..." It was very obvious he didn't entirely understand. "I trust you." Putting more faith in Error than his own ability to understand that moment, he walked up to the data point. "Happy Birthday..."

"Happy Birthday," echoed Error, watching him fold up and vanish, a copy being sent down that data point.

Little Sonja grinned up at her larger copy. "I'm going to become so badass when I grow up!" There were no elementals left standing in the room, all faded away under the blinding assault of Sonja with her limits removed. "When do I qualify for the big guns?"

Sonja bonked her younger self on the head. "The biggest guns they have set to not release until 20."

"Twenty?!" Little Sonja began bouncing in place. "Why so late?! I'll be able to use it way before then."

"Could, sure." She moved her hoof to tap the little zebra on the head. "But we have to be ready up here. That kinda power can hurt a lot of things, and not just what we have our sights on. Everyone alright?" She looked over the other children critically.

Little Steel saluted sharply. "All members accounted for, ma'am!"

Sonja nodded at the small simulacrum of her captain. Oh, how the tables had turned. She moved for the door. "I have plenty of other things to smash before the ship's safe. Keep the door locked for now."

Little Sonja bounced up after her older self. "Can I come with? Lemme use a real gun, just for today."

It was, technically, possible for an older generation to authorize a younger generation, for emergencies. "We have this under control. But, hey, keep an eye on the rest." She glanced aside and back. "Here." She approached a console and pressed buttons rapidly with her hooves. "It's on the way." Ah, pneumatic tubes, still useful! "Use it to keep this room secure."

Little Sonja's eyes went wide, her hope rebounding after the denial. "Nothing will get past my fire zone," she swore, saluting and eyeing the place that the harnessed gun would drop into. "Keep a steady shot."

"I should be telling you that, brat." They exchanged a farewell, which was a mutual display of extended tongues.

Spike smashed two rock-like persons together, sending bits of rubble flying, fading as they flew through the air. "Spike to bridge: Engineering room C is clear, proceeding forward to B and A."

"You alright?" asked the concern voice of his female captain.

"Sorry I'm not with you," came the shouted addition of Twilight elsewhere in the room.

"These things are no match for an adult dragon." Spike rolled his eyes as he advanced towards the next problem. "Tell Twilight to focus on herself. We'll catch up after this."

He hung up on the call with a swat of the floor, focusing on the next batch of elementals that came into view. He hadn't been joking, smashing into them with a frightful force and discorporating them with almost child-like ease. "It's so good to be back in shape." He sank his teeth into the 'torso' of a swirling air elemental, rending it to shreds with his claws like a stubborn dish that needed pulling apart. "Ha."

Strange new words reached his ear. "Huh?" He turned in time to hear more of them, coming at a steady pace. "Spell!" Sure, he wasn't a spellcaster on par with Twilight, but he had enough exposure to recognize a spell being intoned. He charged towards the sound, fairly confident it wasn't an Everglow spell, at least not the sort they used on the ship. Maybe Twilight's? No time!

He ran face first into a wall of scales and scrambled back, looking over the new obstruction. A dragon? A dragon! It was even larger than he was. "Well, crap. Don't suppose we could talk this out?"

The dragon replied with a crackling beam of lightning it spat out with barely a pause. The fight was on.

"Arcane usage detected," noted Under Score, his eyes flicking to the floating displays only he could see. "Engineering Deck."

"Spike!" Twilight's wings unfurled to either side, but she didn't move from her place as the battle raged around her. They were done to just one elemental. "Computer!" A chime replied. "Is Spike alright?"

"Ensign Spike--"

"He really should be higher ranked than that," noted Twilight, but she quickly caught herself. "Please proceed!"

"Ensign Spike is showing signs of physical exertion," finished the computer, flat and neutral despite the interruption.

Twilight sagged. "Is he hurt?"

"I am not equipped with sensors capable of determining that."

Under set a hoof on Twilight's withers. "We will assist when we can." A pause. "I am unused to partnering with spellcasters that may well be more proficient than I."

Twilight's cheeks lit up a bright red. "Under! Now is not the time!"

Under inclined his head. "I am unsure what you're referring to, but I can make several amusing guesses. Still, I was suggesting perhaps you can teleport to Spike's side, with some of us preferably?"

"Oh, well, yes. I can do that." She let out a soft breath, her cheeks still warm. "Sorry."

"These are trying times." He squeezed the handle of the gun in his mouth, sending the last elemental to its fading end. "There we are. Bridge clear."

"Bridge clear," echoed Steel in agreement. "We can't abandon the bridge. Under, you and Twilight go see what's going on with Spike, you're both trained in arcane magic."

The two saluted sharply before a bright purple bubble spread out from Twilight, encompassing Under. Both vanished in a spark shaped like Twilight's cutie mark, revealing that Equestrian magic was likely at play.

Fast let out a soft sigh. "Wandering, see if you can't contact whoever is actually launching this attack. The summons aren't the ones at fault."

"Are you feeling sorry for them?" asked Steel.

"No." She rolled her eyes at the idea. "They're summons, copies. They barely count as animate objects. Finding and addressing the actual attackers is how we stop this."

Steel softly snorted, raising a hoof to tap at an ephemeral button.

"Error!" Belle burst through the doors as they opened enough to admit her.

Error's ball lifted from the ground, holographic hooves supporting it, the rest of Error flickering into being. "Right here. Home sweet home." He inclined his left ear. "Huh." One of his snakes hissed softly in reflection. "Just realized ah'm gettin' comfy in here."

"Will I get comfortable?" Lights flickered on in the little foal's digital eyes. They attempted to stand and more threw themselves a foot to the left before crashing.

"Dummy!" came a more female, if deeper, voice. "Let me handle this."

"You have exactly as much experience," argued the softer male voice. Whichever of them had command of the legs, they tried again to rise.

Only to be grabbed by Belle, hugging them tightly. "This does not compute," she sang, confused and overjoyed at the same time. "There are two of you in there?"

"Yes." "Yep." They nodded once despite the two voices that had issued forth almost at once.

Belle sat back, releasing her child...ren? Her eyes went to Error, who had the empathy to immediately look guilty. "You were supposed to select the most ideal thread."

"Let's see you try." He pointed at the curious creation they had made. "They were both pretty darn good."

"And we will be better together," assured the female.

"We'll do our best," chimed the colt.

"And this just got odder." Remi let the door close behind her. "Look, this is a family moment. If you want me out of here, just say the word."

Belle curled and turned to face Remi. "Data inaccuracy. You are my midwife." She gestured at herself. "Qualification for family member obtained."

"She ain't wrong there," agreed Error with a little smile. "Sorry for snapping at you before."

Remi sank to her butt, tail swaying softly. "I'm honored, really, but midwife is a doctor thing, not a 'I'm part of the family' thing."

"Auntie!" came the chorus of both foals as they charged in one body awkwardly, half-stumbling into Remi, but making it to deliver hugs.

"You scared us," noted the male.

"Warn us before ya turn us off!" chastised the female.

Soon all three digital life-forms were gathered around, hugging Remi. She gave up trying to convince them not too with a little laugh. "You're all precious. Fine! I guess I've joined two families on this ship. That ties for my record."

Error cocked a brow at that. "Ya've joined more than two families on a ship?"

"I just said tied." She raised a hand to her ear. "Hey, bridge. The whole Belle thing is resolved. You're going to need to add two--"

"While we're glad to hear that," cut in Fast.

"We're in the middle of a ship-wide emergency," finished Steel.

"No hostiles in sight, we gather?"

Remi looked around the workshop. There wasn't anything there attacking her, besides all the robots that were trying their best to give her diabetes. "Nope, all clear on this floor so far I can see. What am I missing?"

"Continue missing it," ordered Steel. "You're not security. You'll get orders soon to help with repairs. Until then, keep an eye on Belle and Error."

"And Glitch," noted the filly.

"And Harp," noted the colt.

"Hey." Error huffed at his suddenly named foals. "Ah thought ya were leavin' that to us?"

"You were too slow." Glitch stuck out her tongue.

"We needed to identify our processes," spoke Harp far more apologetically. "I hope you like our names?"

Remi gently patted the two-fer foal. "You heard them. Get Glitch and Harp registered so the computer doesn't try deleting them."

"It would fail," stated Glitch confidently, though her triumphant smirk turned to a more horrified look.

"Would it hurt?" asked Harp. "I would rather not fight the computer."

"Stop being a pansy." Glitch couldn't poke Harp directly, so poked herself in their shared chest. "We're viruses, virii? Two things that are a virus!"

"That doesn't mean we need to be mean," argued Harp, folding their arms in a defiant pout.

Belle went in for a nuzzle. "Harp, you have gained friendship points."

"Yay!" he called out with rapture, his first earned friendship points secured!

"Well shoot," argued the same mouth that had just cheered. "How do ah earn some points?"

"Ya already earned some wit' me," assured Error, hoof on his chest. "So, uh... alright. We can both help with the physical stuff an' things, but ah'm the teacher for how to virus real good."

The eyes of the foal shifted, one going brown, the other a blue as they shared control for a moment. "Roger!" both cried out, their voices both emerging at once.

Belle stuck out her metal tongue at her strange foal(s). "I will take charge with friendship lessons. Remington, will you assist? You will be an invaluable example of an organic friend."

57 - Two of a Kind

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As easily as he had smashed the elementals, the dragon proved he was not the biggest thing in the universe. Fire worked, sure, but electricity also hurt in return, and the opposing dragon seemed to have so much more of it. "I really don't want to fight you." He ducked under a swiping claw and bit for the arm it was attached to, just for the thing's tail to slam into him, knocking him back a few precious inches.

"Spike!" Twilight appeared, wings flared. "We're here to-- oh!" She stopped herself, getting a quick measure of the large dragon. But she could see subtle things about it, the way it stood, the way it didn't quite 'fit' with reality. "You're also summoned. Under, stay close."

"That is a dragon. It can get to us without ever laying a claw on us," he noted, moving quickly out of the way. "My dear, since you seem to be a--"

His words were cut off as the larger dragon leaped for Spike, the two becoming embroiled in a wrestling match with red lines gouged in either from desperately scrambling claws and seeking teeth.

"--bottomless source of magic. Can you dispel it?" He pointed around cover at the large dragon.

"Right, dispel." She raised her hooves and reared onto her hinds as she intoned, eyes locked on the battle Spike was in. For better or worse, the larger dragon seemed entirely focused on its battle with Spike, giving her plenty of time to place the measure of her--

The spell fizzled, gone in an instant. "What?" She fell to all fours, confusion clear on her face.

"A little... help, if you would?" Spike managed to shove the larger dragon back just enough to scramble back himself, huffing for breath. "What's going on?"

"Competing arcane work," came Under's hidden voice. "They dispelled your dispel!"

"That's just cheating." Twilight clopped down her right fore hoof angily. "And that means you're watching. Come out and talk instead of sending dragons to hurt my friends!"

"Twilight." Under poked his head up. "I have it prepared as well. If we both attempt it, they can't dispel both of our attempts at once."

Spike huffed as he swerved and clawed, stuck in the battle for the moment. "Why didn't you start there?!"

"Resource management. Twilight is an unending pool of alien magic. I, however, am not." His voice was calm and steady despite the situation.

"On the count of three." Twilight set her hooves, horn glowing with readiness.

"Count of one would be great." Spike charged forward, driving his horns into the front and neck of the dragon he was facing. "Not giving up!"

"Reports from the crew," came Dawn's voice, eyes darting on his displays. "The attack appears to be abating. More specifically, there was only one wave and the crew is finishing dealing with it."

Fast let out a soft breath. "Casualties?"

"16 light, 40 heavy, 2 terminal," he droned out. "May Soft Whisper guide them to where they must be."

"Unacceptable." Steel rose to his hooves with a scowl. "Still, relatively, mild." They had so many ponies in their ship, only losing two to any attack was a victory. Just not one he ever was satisfied with. "Prepare a report. I want to know what we did wrong." In the meanwhile. "Under, status?"

There was a pregnant pause, no replies coming. "Request timed out," informed the computer. "Crewman is awake." A good bit of info to had. Being surprised someone wasn't responding when either not present or not awake would be silly. Being told he was awake meant he was there, and choosing to not reply.

"He must be busy," countered Fast without knowing his specific thoughts. "The fight's not over, unfortunately."

Octavia dived to the side, the ground divoting in the place she had just been. Great stone raised as it turned towards her, quite ready to try again. "This is not the proper treatment of a mare," she huffed, not that the thing seemed to care, stepping towards her. "Very well."

Her eyes glowed and strange words tumbled free of her mouth. One of her hooves went to a jeweled brooch that hung off of one of her legs, calling on its protective properties as she shouted angrily at the elemental in her strange arcane words.

Not that it cared, reaching to smash her, a fist making contact with her cheek, but passing right through it. It almost threw itself off balance, staggering, fading away. Unlike Twilight, she had succeeding at severing the magic that held it there, and it faded away from her sight. "That's more like it... Octavia to the bridge?"

"Fast Shadow here," came the quick reply. "Are you alright?"

"I had some company, but I sent them packing. Quite rude, if you ask me." Octavia huffed softly with annoyance. "What's going on out there?"

"The primitive world we were monitoring decided to jump into action. One of their spellcasters has boarded the ship and is quite talented." There was a pause. "Still fighting Spike, and I can't be sure how that's going. Can we get a video? Ah, Octavia, I have to go. Are you alright?"

"Good luck up there." Octavia walked towards the kitchen of her living area to start making herself a cup of tea with a glowing horn. "I'm fine and will continue to be so. Twilight and I are both, pardon the term, old hooves at surviving. We've managed this long."

Glitch Harp, as they'd decided their physical form could be called, inclined their shared head. "Mother, father," spoke Harp. "There is a lot of activity in the ship."

Belle's ear twitched as she tuned into it. Her eyes became comically wide, little fireworks displaying for emphasis. "Oh no! We have not been helping during a time of great need!"

Error set a hoof on her shoulder. "You were kinda givin' birth. We ain't even on duty or nothin'."

Belle bounced to her hooves. "Birth complete. There is no longer a reason for delay." She turned on Remington. "Will you accompany us?"

Remi blinked. That day was a good day for emotional whiplash. "Accompany you... where? I was told to stay here and keep you all safe."

Error chuckled, already starting for the door. "We're back on duty. Ya can hide here, or come wit' us."

"Sweet!" cried Glitch. "We get to do things."

"Dangerous things?" asked Harp with obvious trepidation.

"Duh." Glitch rolled her eye, the two colored differently to tell them apart. "We're with our parents. It'll be fun!"

"At least we have copies." Glitch Harp trotted out with their parents, bound to head for the place that needed them most.

Remi watched them go a moment before she threw up her hands. "Computer, tell Octavia I'm being sucked into danger by a bunch of adorably suicidal robots. I'll see her for dinner, I hope."

Unified, team Remi-Belle-Error set out briskly towards the elevator. "By the way," warned Remi. "This elevator is rigged to go at full speed. It's not comfortable, or safe. I planned to fix it later..."

"Oooo, I can help with that," sang out Harp. "That's what the impact foam is for, right?"

Belle inclined her head. "Very good. This is exactly the situation that calls for it. Deploy it when we are--"

Glitch Harp was suddenly encased in goo, unmoving. "--inside," finished Belle, turning towards her pinned children.

Error casually grabbed the lot of them, sinking his jaws and many snakes into the foamy stuff to get them off the ground and moving again. "Off we go." He reached up a big hoof and pressed the call button.

The elevator arrived almost instantly, a worrying sign. "Time to go." Remi rubbed her paws together, stepping inside. "Don't suppose you have more of that foam on you?"

Spike twirled, his tail lashing out to slap the larger dragon across the face. His body was lined with the injuries of dealing with a clearly superior reptile. "Son... of a..."

Twilight and Under chanting in unison, both with a hoof held towards the dragon that was locked in deadly combat with their ship-mate. The words came smoothly and almost uniformly as they cast the same spell with the little variations borne of personality and mental configuration. No two casters said and moved the exact same way, but the greater parts were much the same.

The dragon suddenly took notice of them, locking eyes with the more exposed Twilight. With a great roar, it charged at her, wings spreading, but the hallway was too small to fly, or even finish spreading those great metallic wings as far as they wanted to go.

"Oh no you don't!" Called Spike as he tackled the dragon from the side, sending both crashing against the opposing wall.

Under ducked back behind his cover, his spell suddenly cut. Twilight felt something tugging at hers. They were dispelling both, at once?! She grit her teeth, grabbing mentally and powering her spell, feeling her will slam into the others, struggling and vying for supremacy as she intoned each word precisely. There could be no hesitation, no stutter. The universe required very specific instructions, and she would give it.

Spike raked with his claws even as his shoulder was torn open with a bloody roar of pain. He punched up only to meet air. There was no dragon on top of him. "Huh, what?" He rolled upright, looking around. "Did you do it?"

Twilight took a step forward, huffing for air. "They are... a spellcaster of considerable talent."

"Not considerable enough." Under strode to Twilight's side with a smile. "Excellent work. Now, they are likely monitoring us. Can they understand us?"

Spike shook himself out, even if each motion brought new pains from his ravaged form. "Mmmf, ow... Can they just... not? I'm done with that." The elementals had been good fun...

"If you are." Twilight looked around slowly for hints. "I would like to talk to you, please? No fighting. This is all one big... misunderstanding."

"Easy to say," spoke a female voice.

"Difficult to walk," finished a male one.

Under inclined his head. "Ah ha. My partner here is renowned across the galaxy for her friend-making abilities."

Twilight's ears perked up, a blush taking her face. "You're exaggerating!"

"Not your hunting?" asked the female.

"The number of kills?" asked the male.

Twilight blanched at the idea, backing from the voices. "No! No, that's... just terrible. Why would I want to be famous for that?"

The space before them warped, admitting a strange rounded creature with grasping claws to clack on the ground, a thick tail with a furry top that bent and swayed. They glared at Twilight with a deep frown. "Because," it started with a male tone. "That is--"

"--what you are here for," finished the female, though it was the same head. "We will not surrender our people."

Under inclined his head towards Twilight. "The, uh, gods sent this one to test you, it's true." The creature gasped in alarm. "But it is a test of sociability, not combat."

Twilight looked confused at the idea, but caught on. "Oh, yes, precisely. Your people are advanced enough to look out at the infinite stretch of the universe, but we are uncertain if you are ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with what will be your peers on a much larger stage than you have ever known--"

An elevator chimed softly. Error was the first out, he and Belle not encased in bouncy goop. He was dragging along Glitch Harp and Remi out of the elevator, both of them thoroughly stuck. "We're here!"

Twilight spotted Belle and plopped onto her haunches, clapping her hooves. "What wonderful timing!"

The strange creature looked over at the strange creatures joining them. "Additional warriors? I will--"

"Additional friendship experts," corrected Twilight with a solemn nod. "Bulette Belle, I require your friendship expertise."

Belle gasped with such intensity that she slid a few octaves up and down along the way. "Reporting for duty!"

58 - We Meet

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"I struggle to imagine any god would call you." Despite its words, it also sank down on all four legs, laying flat on its belly.

The female voice finished, "You all have the single head of the warrior caste, but you tell me you come not only in peace, but as experts of peace?"

Belle flopped down in front of Twilight, matching the alien's stance. "If we intended violence, what purpose would this dialogue have? Belle to bridge!"

"Belle?" came Steel's voice. "Everything alright? I see you've... joined the situation."

"Affirmative. I must request that no additional crew be sent to this location."

"Roger that." The line went dead.

The alien's eyes shone a soft green, where before it had been an off-red. "I do not understand. Do you believe you are enough, here?"

Twilight nodded firmly. "Of course. It only takes two creatures speaking to make friends, sometimes even without words." She offered a hoof forward. "Can we try?"

"You have not answered my question," complained the female voice.

"Why should we answer yours?" finished the male.

"They are also dual!" called Harp, still quite stuck in the goo.

"Is that your sibling too?" asked Glitch.

"In... a matter of speaking," spoke the male, clearly baffled. "You say that as if you are the only one."

"'Cause we are," huffed out Glitch, extending their tongue.

Under sat up into view. "I am going to take a few assumptions. Please correct me if I'm wrong." None of them immediately stopped him. "Your species is naturally of two heads, with two personalities. Those who enter this 'warrior caste', somehow reduce themselves to one head, but the two personalities remain."

The alien tapped their claws together. Their version of a nod. "Yes. That you would explain that implies your people do not do this. How... terrifying. To go through life so alone, without another."

Twilight clopped her hooves together. "Wonderful!" The alien looked confused at her outcry. "We're gaining understanding of one another. That's a vital first step to friendship. Now, we should apologize."

"What are you apologizing for?" asked the female.

"We have not yet made demands," continued the male, both speaking through the same mouth much like Glitch and Harp.

"We are at fault." Belle inclined her head. "We surprised you and scared you. Sorry."

"You did that," allowed the female.

"But we were prepared," finished the male, a facial expression forming, but what did it mean? "Your coming was long foretold."

"Not to get in the middle of this." Remi wriggled from within the goo. "Got something to get rid of this stuff? It's stickier than I thought it'd be."

Under pointedly ignored Error going to give a hoof. "What, exactly, were you warned of? A prophecy, I assume?"

"Indeed," both alien voices spoke at once.

The male took up the case after that, "That one day the greatest predator would arrive and set its glowing eyes upon us. That we would be sorely tested, and if we are found wanting, we would be lost."

Twilight inclined her head faintly. "That doesn't disagree with what we've said. If you can't make friends, then we have no choice but to leave. You would be lost, alone in the stars."

Spike raised a claw. "But we're not carnivores. Heck, I'm not even an herbivore. Technically, I prefer a lithovore diet, and you do not appear to be made of rocks."

"You're a dragon!" yelped the male.

"How are you not a carnivore?" continued the female.

Twilight inclined her head at Spike. "To be more precise, Spike can eat a great deal of things, but prefers gems." Her glowing horn drew out a small gem for example. "A specific kind of rock?"

The male spoke as their head leaned in to see. "I know what a gem is. The tongues spell is operating nicely."

Under's ears pricked. "Ah ha!" Eyes turned towards him. "What? A classic spell, still in use today. Had they emerged spouting gibberish at us, I would have used it myself. It's better they used it, since that lets them speak to us all, rather than I becoming the translating point."

Twilight gestured at Under. "We are spellcasters, as I feel certain you are aware."

"Spells," started the female.

"You cast for friendship," concluded the male, some confusion in the shared sentence.

Belle pointed at the strange alien. "Do you not cast spells for constructive purposes?"

"Of course we do," both spoke at once.

The male took over from there, "But its advancement is on the field of survival."

Under chuckled softly, one ear twisting back. "We are alike then. That is where much of our magic grew and developed, but we have moved on from such roots."

Twilight raised a hoof behind her head. "Even with that, we have quite a number of spells with perfectly peaceful results. That tongues spell you cast is a great example!"

Spike flopped down close to his friends. "No more summons, please." He grumbled softly, still tore up from that fight, and none present were healers.

"How do you share processing time?" asked Glitch, stepping forward. They had been freed of the goop thanks to their father.

"That is an excellent question," agreed Harp. "The processor we are using has many sub-processors and we have divided the cores between us, permitting real time multi-tasking."

The alien just peered at them. Even with body language somewhat fuzzy, the confusion was clear. The female spoke, "I don't understand what you're asking."

Remi's hand came down on their shared head, gently pulling them back. "They're a great spellcaster, but still from a category 0 spacefaring race. They have no idea what you're talking about."

"There are others?" asked the male.

"Of course there are," argued the female. "There can't be a greatest predator if there are not lesser."

"The greatest of our world does not need others off of it," contended the male, the alien launching into a spirited debate with itself.

Error set one hoof on Belle's back, the other on Glitch Harp. "They do sound familiar."

Harp sang out joyfully, "They are like us! We have already gained friendship points."

"We barely know them," cut in Glitch. "Maybe they like the taste of robots."

The male broke away from the argument to reply to Glitch, "That was exactly our fear."

"That seems unlikely at this point," admitted the female. "But that you aren't here to devour us doesn't mean we give you complete trust."

"That would be foolish," agreed the male.

Twilight gestured with a hoof at the ship crew. "At this point, I think we can safely say that neither side wants to hurt the other. We just want to avoid being hurt, like most creatures I'm aware of."

The female spoke, "That we have spoken this long speaks well of your truth."

"We were prepared for treachery," warned the male, the two rising to their clawed feet. "The question remains of your single head. A natural feature, you say. How do you function?"

"That is what I asked," complained Harp in an electric whine.

"And that ain't what they answered," replied Glitch, rolling her eye. "And they don't gotta."

"The young... Are they young?" The alien regarded the robot. "You are all of different races."

Remi spread her hands to encompass all the folks she traveled with. "We're all different, but friends."

"How?" asked the female.

"Don't your differences spark conflict?" asked the male.

"Affirmative." Bell bounced in place. "But we learn about each other and amend our operations to prevent further friendship loss."

Under pointed to Remi. "She is mated to one of her." He pointed to Twilight. "That one," he pointed again to Twilight. "Is courting me. I have not returned the feeling."

The alien rocked back with amazement. "Do not repeat that," warned the male.

"Others," explained the female, "would find that scandalous."

"Then we really did learn something." Remi parked her hands on her hips. "Alright, fighting's off then."

"Fighting is... cancelled," the two voices agreed in solidarity.

"What are your intentions?" asked the female. "Be truthful."

Under sat up taller. "Are you using truth telling spells? Fascinating."

They did not reply to him, instead focusing their eyes on Twilight.

Twilight set her hoof over her chest. "We were actually waiting on an expert on how to approach alien species that are not already space faring, like you." She pointed at the two-minded, one-headed alien. "We mean no harm though, this I can say without hesitation, or lying."

Their eyes moved to Under. "You actually were waiting for friendship experts?"

"I wasn't trying to lie!"

The male voice scoffed out, "Your implication that it was our gods involved was quite the lie."

"But a gentle one," noted the female. "Trying to calm heated blood."

Belle began to play victorious music from within herself. "I, Bulette Belle, do gladly greet you (INSERT NAME HERE)" She cut off dramatically after her prompt, looking to the alien with a huge grin.

The alien was quiet for a moment. "She wants our name," informed the female voice.

"I heard her," gruffed the male. "If you're so sure, why haven't you given yours?"

"That is hardly traditional," complained the female. "You first."

"Very well." The creature scratched at its own teeth as if something was stuck in them. "I am Gabol--"

"--Hilly," cut in the female.

"That is us. We are they," they completed together.

"You have two names, but only one voice, why?" asked the male, eyes still set on Belle.

Belle gestured grandly to Error. "That is my other half, Error NoName. We have created a family unit. We have successfully bred!" She pointed at Glitch Harp. "Behold our progeny!"

"Hey." "Greetings," greeted the two younger voices from Glitch Harp.

The creature's eyes went pink, its skin erring towards a vibrant purple. "They speak of such things," noted the female, aghast.

"They are not us," reminded the male. "What we consider normal, is strange to them.

"Our kin are not ready," declared the female. "We will tell them you were monsters."

Twilight blinked at that. "Monsters? But that's exactly--"

Under put a hoof in front of her mouth. "I understand. We will leave."

The alien nodded. "Do not leave with ill will. Perhaps in another generation or two, we will be more ready."

Remi shrugged softly. "Not to second guess you, but maybe your people would warm up after they got to meet us, preferably face to face and not as sinister bad people in space?"

Error huffed at that. "Nah. People are people. If they ain't ready, they ain't."

"Precisely," agreed the male. "We are one of the best."

"And the brightest," added the female.

"And still we struggle to understand. Our kin will be lost and confused."

"And from confusion comes anger. Do not be upset with them."

"They know not what they do." The two nodded with the one head they had. "We will leave."

Twilight raised a hoof suddenly. "One thing! The children actually had a really good question. How did you go from two heads to one and still house both intelligences? That must be... quite the challenge, from my perspective?"

"It is a sacred rite," spoke the female.

"And very painful," continued the male. "But our souls were rent clean of our impure body and set together in a slightly more ideal body." One of its hands rose, turning palmside up before continuing right along, doing a full 360 as if that was normal. "If we are the only you have seen, this can end."

"About that," cut in Steel in their headpieces. "A child of theirs did contact us."

Under's ears danced. "Our captain reminds that we have had contact with one of your younger. Did we reply already?"

"A basic message," replied Steel. "There was no video."

Under repeated that. "Does this interfere with your plans?"

The alien became quiet a moment. "I see," spoke the female.

"Unfortunate," agreed the male. "We will have to revise our plans, but only slightly. Do your part." And they vanished without word of a spell being given.

59 - Error Correction

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Remi dusted herself along her sides. "Alright, I have a fat wife to check in on." She threw a peace sign. "I'll be fixing the elevator, then I'm off duty."

"Belay that," came Steel's voice. "You are not on break. Conduct the elevator repairs, then we have a list of systems damaged in the attack. Prepare to earn your stay."

Remi groaned, but didn't argue as she vanished into the elevator.

Glitch Harp chased after her, metal tail swaying eagerly. She wouldn't hurt for some company.

Under frowned softly. "Ask Dawn if he can monitor through the device we singled out. We're on the way back to the bridge." He gestured for Twilight to follow, moving for the next set of elevators that wasn't primed to break their bones in use. "We owe them little, but I will not stand idly by as a child is harmed."

"Even an alien one," agreed Twilight, ears lifted. "From what little I saw of... them? They seemed nice and curious, not scared. If the rest of their people shared those traits, this conversation would be going very differently."

Belle pranced along after them. "Are we speaking of a friend I haven't met yet?"

Under smirked at that, one ear turning to the robot. "That is precisely what I hope, yes. They may be in danger. Move with all due haste."

Error grabbed Under and Belle, scooting ahead as he dropped them on his back in a bit of a contortion only a holograph could pull off. "Let's pick up the pace."

"Right!" Spike replicated the move, without breaking his spine in odd directions, grabbing Twilight, plonking her in place, and hurrying forward. "Besides, we get to the bridge, Dawn can patch me up, right? Still hurts."

"You did very well." Twilight gently patted the top of her great dragon of a brother. "That alien may be primitive in terms of technology, but they had magic fairly well worked out."

"A good reminder," spoke Under in shuddering voice, bouncing up and down on Error's back. "Primitive in one thing is not always behind in all measures. They could, in theory, reach Everglow, or Equestria, using magic that powerful. Only that they don't know of them and where they are protects them in the end."

Twilight suddenly brought a hoof to her face. "Right! I could go back to Equestria any time."

Spike looked up as he ran, not looking where he was going. "Say what now?"

"I could hop to Everglow, then from there, back to Equestria." She tossed an imagined ball between her hooves as she pronounced each hop. "Getting back here would be a challenge afterwards, however..."

"This whole time, we coulda went back whenever?" Spike snorted softly, his eyes rolling as he lowered his vision back to seeing what was in front of him, jogging alongside Error. "Too late now."

Belle inclined her head, peering at Spike curiously from atop her Error mount. "I fail to see how this opportunity has expired."

Under tapped his chin, and his cheek, and his forehead, the bouncing throwing off his aim badly. "Did you lose the tuning fork required? That is how it worked in the old days, was it not?"

Twilight perked an ear. "Yes, and it was lost when our ship was destroyed."

"Then you could use a planar navigation program," he declared proudly. "The computer has one for Everglow. Something from there would also work, if it had significance."

Spike blinked slowly. "Like that crown on your head?"

Twilight reached up so quickly she almost threw herself free. "I... suppose that would... count. Huh..."

Error chuckled at the exchange. "It's good ta know we could do it, but ya won't."

Twilight smiled a little. "He's not wrong. We have joined the crew of this ship, and I don't want to abandon it. Still... It's nice to know we could go back to our original home... if we wanted."

"Nah." Spike came to a sliding halt in front of the new elevators, smacking the call button. "It wouldn't be our Equestria. We'd be crazy aliens from the distant past. They may not even remember us. It'd be kinda cool if they did, but no promises."

"I.. am not going to lie." Twilight poked her faithful dragon mount who was also her brother. "That's depressing."

"Probably true though." Error stepped in the doors that had just slid open. "Still, you know, sorry. Hope we're good company?"

"Efforts to gain friendship points will be increased," sang out Belle in solidarity. "Did you see our offspring? We are very proud of our work."

Twilight ducked her head as Spike slipped into the elevator. "The, uh, two voiced robot? They seemed nice enough, but we didn't have much chance to talk."

Error reached over to prod Twilight. "Hey, that ain't right. They're viruses... virii? Whatever. They're both a virus we made together."

"Together!" Belle hugged her mount who was also her husband. "They are already eager to gain friendship points with Remington. I approve of their strategy!"

Error chuckled softly as he sat, his riders precariously perched on him. "I think they were more curious about what she was doin' than wanting to earn points specifically."

"A combination is more likely," argued Belle, the room feeling of acceleration a moment, speeding towards the bridge. "My happiness remains and both are awarded points for their effort."

Under slid down off the side of Error, landing on the floor with a soft thump of his hooves and belly. "Thank you for the ride, but I think I prefer my own legs."

Twilight showed no immediate movement for freedom, nor did Belle, both looking comfortable atop their rides. Twilight pointed towards the door ahead of them, closed. "Hopefully we can get into action before--"

"--You can," interrupted Under. "I apologize, but you have, in part, awakened to yourself." He lifted an ear up at the higher Twilight. "You could teleport to them, and back, I would guess."

Twilight gasped loudly. "But I shouldn't That would be foalnapping! The... idea of some alien snatching my child away... that's horrifying."

Under inclined his head. "Just the thing a 'monster' would do. It would satisfy our recent guest, and not require the injury of the child."

Spike shook his head. "Twilight hates the idea. Um, we'd be responsible for the kid." A little smile broke out on his face. "Which seems to be a theme of late. Come for the clones, stay for the interesting family dynamics."

"Not funny." Twilight prodded Spike from above, crossing her arms afterwards. "Still... if it's that or... them being hurt..."

Under started forward as the doors slid open. "They will kill the child, or render them unable to speak in some other permanent fashion. Those are the two simplest ways forward for them."

Steel looked over his shoulder as the others joined the bridge. "Welcome back. Under, how long will it take for them to even figure out which of them spoke to us? Their communication device doesn't shoot visible flares."

"No," he agreed. "But it is the only thing on the planet to have received a transmission from off world, addressed to it specifically. Our brave contact has precious little time before they figure out exactly where to look."

Fast Shadow cringed at the thought. "We did send it directly to them," she bemoaned. Had they blanketed the world, it would have just been picked up at random, and no clues would have been given. But that hadn't been their goal. "Is there no way to convince them to just... let it go?"

"Great Predator," came two voices from the main screen.

"Incoming transmission," noted Wandering Note, perhaps a bit late. "Already sent to the main screen."

"You sound super strange," noted the male.

"But kinda interesting," chimed the female, the two young voices clearly excited.

"You don't want to eat us," continued the male.

"You're a lousy predator," chastised the female. "But that's alright."

"We got your pictures," noted the male. "Are you all fighters?"

"They don't want to hear our questions," came the female. "Is the picture on?"

"Oh, sorry." A soft click, and the two-headed alien came into view, distorted as one of their heads pulled back. The ball that was the camera was far too close to them. "Hi!" greeted that male, waving the hand closer to his head.

"Heya," joined the female. "We're still not scared."

"They don't want us to be scared," reminded the male.

"And yet, you should be," came a sudden new male voice, the spellcaster they had just finished dealing with. Just as abruptly, the feed cut out.

Fast scrambled to her hooves. "They're being attacked! What is the time delay?"

"A second," counted Under on his way back to his station, parking himself quickly. "Twilight, you are that child's only hope. Will you take the job?"

Twilight's ears flopped against her head. "There's a good chance this will fail, and I will end up somewhere random. I only got a glimpse of where I'm going."

Spike reached up, patting one of her dangling legs. "If anypony could do it, it'd be you."

Twilight's nervous mien broke into a little smile at the confidence. "You always did trust me. I'll give it a try." She teleported all of a foot aside, landing on her hooves. "Captains, keep a bead on me. You can yank me back if needed?"

"Affirmative," assured Steel. "Your communicator gives us a complete lock."

"Great. Here goes..." She spoke the strange words of magic as she began to glow brightly, then she was gone, nothing left behind where she had been.

Dawn tapped softly at his unseen buttons. "There are no signals coming from them anymore. Our... guest... likely disabled or destroyed the device." He inclined his head. "Only for the blessings of the gods will we enact this rescue, but are we right to do so?"

Steel sat back with a low sigh of stress. "No. But we wouldn't be right accepting it either. There is no clear answer. We either accept the autonomy of the people we are orbiting and let them kill that child, or defy it. We have made our decision."

Fast reached across to set a hoof on his shoulder. "At least, we'll leave. They are not ready. Call the experts, Wandering, and let them know what we've found. They are not hostile, but they are not yet ready to be contacted."

Wandering got to typing, but his eyes were on the captains. "There are laws about species that have not yet emerged from their home world. We are breaking several edicts by what we are planning. That child is of a fledgling species."

Belle clopped a hoof on the floor. "Unsatisfactory! I will not accept the harm of that creature. It wishes only to gain friendship points and to show its people how to also gain them. They should be praised and rewarded."

Error nodded softly. "She's not wrong. They seem nice enough, and they just wanted to meet the 'scary' aliens, what they thought weren't so scary."

Spike flopped down. "Look, right now, still hurt. Dawn, if you could? Please..."

Reminded of injuries, Dawn was quick to cross the bridge and start seeing to Spike's wounds with gentle calls to his many gods. It was like he had one for each specific injury that Spike had gained, and only that proper divinity could put it to right. It was all very strange to Spike, but the pain was ebbing quickly, so he didn't complain about it.

"Do we have a read on where Twilight appeared?" demanded Steel.

"Yes." Under tapped at his unseen buttons. "She... is too far away, and there is interference, preventing me from saying more than that."

"I am the expert of the scanners," noted Under, patting Spike gently. "And you will mend." He hurried to get back to his seat, perhaps to give more information on how Twilight was doing. "May the gods smile on our act of kindness."

60 - We See

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Twilight appeared, horn glowing as she looked around suspiciously. She had not appeared in the back yard she had seen, instead she could hear wheels on cobblestone, sudden gasps, then a scream. She had appeared in the wrong place.

The first temptation was to vanish, but that wasn't what they had in mind. Instead she scowled at the strange aliens around herself and spoke a spell to amplify and distort her voice as she roared like a great beast despite her size. Only then did she vanish. The monsters from space had come, afterall, and it appearing gently would hardly be proper.

"There she is." Dawn waved to the main screen where a blinking purple dot had appeared on the world. "We have a lock on her communicator. Twilight is in good condition, but on the move."

Steel frowned at the dot, moving across the world quickly. "She must not have arrived in the right place. Where is she going?"

Spike joined in the wondering, rubbing a cheek. "You'd think she'd try teleporting again, but Twilight has her own way."

"You don't have to follow me." Remi carefully soldered two wires back together with a pocket-sized rod. "Watching me fix things isn't the most fun thing."

"I respectfully disagree," spoke Harp.

"I agree with him," piped Glitch, her half of their face smirking. "Our files on these things are murky. Watching our aunt do it is both fun and kinda helpful."

"If you do not mind?" They tilted their head, Harp's voice speaking. "We're not trying to be a bother."

Remi pulled two broken parts closer together with a grunt, starting to reconnect things that had been severed. "If you're having a good time, have at." She perked an ear. "But you don't know what I'm doing."

"Yer fixin's stuff."

"Clearly," Harp agreed. "Are we wrong?"

"I meant the specifics." Remi slapped closed a panel, only to move for the next thing in need of her touch. "You don't know why I'm doing what I'm doing, or the actual results, other than 'fixing'. What am I fixing? How is it broke?"

Glitch Harp went quiet, following after her before Harp spoke up, "Can you describe what you are doing as you do it?"

Glitch huffed. "If ya had a radio connection, we could get information from you without you needin' to spend CPU cycles on it."

"The curse of being organic." Remi popped open a new hatch. "Now this here's important. It's part of the system that puts people back together once they're thrown at the ship via teleportation. Without it, people might not emerge from the plane they were thrown into, and that'd be bad." She ducked her head inside and looked around. "Control panel's busted."

Some jiggling was heard, metal on metal? Remi emerged with the circuit board, showing it to the robotic niece/nephew combination she had gained. "See?"

The young robot approached, raising their head for a better look. "I see what's wrong," sang Harp.

"You do? Don't see nothin'," argued Harp, her eye frowning with the attempt to figure it out.

"Well, maybe. Tell me what you see." Remi lowered the board towards them for easier viewing, curious what they'd say.

Twilight flew over the strange alien world, unseen to their eyes, but there all the same. They lived in lively hamlets, avoiding the great cities that most creatures that far advanced would consider. Each seemed prosperous in its own way, filled with two-headed aliens that lived their life without knowing an alien was soaring overhead. But where was that child?

She suddenly wasn't flying, instead in a small cage. "What?"

"So you did come," spoke the male voice of the alien spellcaster.

"I told you they would," snapped the female voice, coming from the same head, looking at Twilight. "They were not lying."

"We could not know that." The alien pointed at Twilight. "Why are you here?"

"To... save the child." She rubbed her head with a hoof. "And then we'll go, but we couldn't knowing we'd be leaving someone behind to suffer on our behalf."

"Told you," repeated the female, sounding so smug.

The male huffed and sat up, regarding Twilight. "You are far away from the others. We could kill you. Does that not bother you?"

Twilight rolled her ears back. "Well, yes, you could... But I'm not here to attack, I promise. I just don't want the child hurt. If you need us to take them with us, away from everyone else on this planet, we can do that."

"What would their family think?" asked the female. "They would be quite sad."

Twilight's ears drooped. "Would they be happier knowing you tore them apart?"

"Yes," noted the male, Gabol, with a soft nod. "To be rent asunder by one of the defenders is a known end. Better, in some ways, than simply never knowing."

"We must appear so... barbaric to you," argued the female, Hillly. "I would hear your plan fully."

Twilight sat up, her ears pricking. She was in a bad spot, but they would listen to her. More than she had hoped for! "Let us do the tearing." The alien blinked at her, their eyes going purple. "As a lie. We will pretend to... do that, and take them away. Their parents would then be... happy...er? They'd not wonder what happened, and we would go away."

Hilly smiled gently. "You do not know this child. Why do you care?"

"That is a bad reaction," agreed Gabol. "It cannot help them. This child is not related to you. You owe them nothing."

"We owe them nothing, true... But we have guiding morals." Twilight put a hoof to her chest. "To save an innocent is worth sacrifice, even if we have no relationship to them."

"Curious," whispered Hilly.

"Strange," echoed Gabol. "But you prove you are alien to us, in mind as well as in body."

The alien sagged a little. "We are not ready," both agreed with a slow nod.

Hilly perked up. "But the child is not either. They are us, not you. You would take this unready form among your refined selves?"

"I was first," crooned Harp with pride. "I watched as they were working on us." One metal hoof raised to point. "That thing is all blown up."

"That is a capacitor," half-sang Remi, looking proud of her nephew's work. "It can hold power and let it go all at once." She spread her fingers with a loud, "Zap! This one got zapped too hard itself, and blew." She reached in with two claws and began working it free. "We'll have to replace it."

"That is logical," he sang in understanding.

"Huh," mumbled Glitch. "I didn't know what that was."

"Neither did I," sang Harp. "But I knew what a broken one looked like. Now we are both better." Happy music issued forth from within them.

Remi smiled as she worked busily, but a little chime sounded from a pocket. She almost dropped the board with clear surprise, patting herself down to find the source. Out came an old pocket watch in her shaking hand. "Dan...g it." She had not meant to say that at first, but there were foals present!

"Is it broken?" asked Harp.

"Can we try fixin' it?" Both of them were hopping in place in their shared body, agreeing that fixing the watch would be great fun.

Remi held up a free hand. "I need to do this one myself." But. "Why don't you try this?" She nudged the board they had started with forward. "If you see something you don't understand stop and ask me. No assuming! The ship is counting on us to get it right."

Harp saluted with the hoof on his side. "Aye aye, aunt!"

"We got this," assured Harp, the two of them settling down to start examining the board and find the next thing that could be wrong with it.

Remi had to smile. Robot children were not organic children. Less than a day old and they were learning repair work. They came with their 'drivers' pre-installed and ready to go, unlike organic ones that took some time to get to full speed. She put thoughts of them aside a moment to press the button on her watch, bidding it to pop open. Inside was a piece of paper, just as she dreaded.

On the paper was a single word. Sure, it was in a language nobody on that ship but her understood, but she knew it, and that was enough. "Reckoning," it read in a simple clear font, as if typed, but it had marks as if it were done with a pen, just a very neat, crisp, handwriting.

"Auntie?" Remi jumped at the sound, her universe having shrunk to the paper. She turned in place, hiding the paper. There was Glitch Harp, looking at her with a question on their face.

"Whaz this?" Glitch pointed with her hoof.

Harp gave a little uh huh. "We can't determine its purpose or if it's working. Please assist."

Remi tucked the paper away with a forced smile. She got to explaining it even as the watch was slipped away. "Look, I... need to go... Let's finish this, then I'm sending you back to your parents."

"Aw," they disagreed in sync.

Still, the word of the aunt was not to be questioned and they eagerly finished the repairs on the small board before Remi slipped it back into the machine. "There we are. That should be working again. Go to the bridge and tell them I... got a sudden call. I promise to be back as soon as possible, alright?"


"You got it." They trotted off with a jingle, ready to do their part.

That left Remi to skulk away with a scowl, her fingers running over the edge of her concealed watch as she went. "What I get for thinking I could just play house forever..."

"We have them here." Gabol spread their fingers and magic happened, a child, that child, coming into view with a squeak. "Here they are."

"We didn't do anything!" complained the female side of them.

The male, with a seperate head unlike the guardian, was looking at Twilight with green eyes. "Woah..."

"What woah?" She looked over, seeing Twilight as well. "It's them!"

Hilly gestured at Twilight. "This is the alien. They have arrived to eat you."

"Did not," complained the female. "They're nice."

Gabol snorted. "And yet, they will eat you, and you will be gone."

"Gone forever," sighed Hilly. "Never to be seen again."

The male was watching Twilight. "You wouldn't hurt us, would you? We didn't do anything bad to you, and we're not made of leaves."

Twilight smiled at that. The strange aliens were many things, but clearly not plants to be browsed. "No, that you are not. May I explain?" GabolHilly did not move to stop her. "You see, we have two choices." She raised her hooves. "Either GabolHilly here kills you in the name of safety, and... That's that."

The female shrank back. "What is the second option?"

The male's eyes shifted to a soft blue. "You don't get it? The second option is to be gobbled up." He inclined his head sharply. "To be carried away, in the stars, forever. We'd never be seen again."

"Oh." The female seemed to lose her energy, their mutual body sagging to their belly. "Do I get to say goodbye to my friends?"

"You do not," ordered Gabol firmly.

"I'm so sorry," whispered Hilly more sympathetically. "But to everyone here, you must die. The question is only what death awaits you."

Twilight sat up tall, hoping to make the impression she was aiming for. "I know we must seem... scary... but we will do everything we can to make you comfortable, and give you a new place. We... this... This is our fault." Twilight waved a hoof around the dark room. "We came, we startled your people, and you tried to be very very brave." She smiled gently. "If it helps, we think you're worth protecting, and helping. Will you let us help you?" She wasn't sure how the children understood her words. Magic of GabolHilly? It seemed likely.

61 - Elsewhere 1 (The Call)

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Remi ran her fingers over the watch, having scurried away from the others. "Right when I'm getting comfortable..." She reached for a panel in the hallway, rapidly typing something out. "Can't leave without saying something." Her email complete, she twisted the winding widget at the top of the watch with loud clicks, then promptly vanished with a strange rushing noise, leaving nothing behind to mark her departure.

She appeared in a darkened place. "Hello?" she called out, trying to pick something from the imposing blank slate. She could feel firm ground beneath her feet. Metal? "What is this about?"

"You knew this day was coming," spoke a male in that dark place. "Don't act all surprised. That watch isn't even yours."

Remi could feel her pulse quickening. The watch wasn't, by some standards, hers. Yet, she had gotten a lot of use out of it. "I didn't steal it!"

"Possession, law, you know the drill." The male didn't sound especially angry, given the situation.

"Look, hey, sorry." Remi held up her hands in the direction of the voice. "By the way, it's kind of dark in here."

"Is it? I thought you could see in the dark." A clop of hooves. Blindingly bright light washed over them, revealing... a pony. This pony sat in a chair in a very human way, with a fedora on, and clothing suited of an explorer. They were a darker cyan shade over most of their body, their tail having a tuft at the end, more lion-like than horse like. He tipped his hat towards Remi. "Charmed."

"I... was not expecting a pony," admitted Remi, looking over the stranger. "I'm Remington." She offered a hand. Maybe making friends would work better than arguing or begging, if her robotic friends had taught her anything.

"Tinker." The hand came forward, yellow, almost scaled? He shook her hand though. "And you owe me. Also, I'm not a pony, thank you."

Remi looked over the curious being. Well, they had hands, which were not hooves, and not furred. "You look like a bit of an off pegasus, truth told. I mean, no offense. Tell me what you are?"

"There is no time for that." He waved it off and spun in place, his tail swishing as he began working a console busily with those fingers. "You have a portion of me." His tail pointed at the watch. "Right there, don't even try to deny it."

Remi peered at the watch. "It let me hop around from place to place." Get into countless adventurers, maybe find some of the best friends she ever made, and lose them just the same. "Is there a piece of you in the guts of this?" That was morbid. "What are you?"

"Not a physical portion, barbarian." He scoffed as he stood up straight, smacking a button with authority. "You've gone and bungled things up by opening it, and binding a portion of my very essence to you. Before you offer, no backsies, so you hold onto that watch."

Remi's fingers closed around the watch. She hadn't wanted to let go of it, and apparently the stranger who owned it wasn't taking it from her. A small victory. "Alright, so." Her eyes wandered over the many spinning things, sparking things, and bubbling things. It was a mad doctor's lab. "Doc? What's going on then?"

"Not the doctor," complained the odd not-pony. "Hate that guy. Tinker. Tinker's the name, profession too! Remember that." He resumed typing busily. "And you're going to come with me and fix mistakes, mend the fabric of time and space, put things to right. You help me, we call things even, hm? Consider it something like community service!"

"Yeah, alright..." Remi scratched her cheek softly. "So you want me to help... fix... time and space? Pardon, but I usually fix mechanical things, sometimes electric things, not... timey... things."

"Then consider it free training." He tapped a final button, looking pleased. "I'm a hippogriff, by the by. Just so we're clear. Now, the first thing we'll be fixing is something you have a connection to. Figure we'll start slow. How's that?"

"All...right?" Remi followed him as he moved through the laboratory. "Are you sure I can help with this? Seriously. I'm a mechanic and a rogue, but not so much... What would you call this?"

"Sadly, nobody gave it a proper name." He huffed at the indignation of it. "First job, you need to steal a crown."

"Didn't I just finish saying I didn't steal?!"

"You also said you were a rogue." He turned to face her. "As they say, check and mate."

Remi let out a little sigh, but a small smile touched on her furry lips. "Alright, so, what crown, where?"

"Not where, really, when," he chastised. "Though I suppose there is some where to it too. They're often connected." He tapped his chin thoughtfully. "It involves someone I think is a friend of yours? Twilight was her name?"

"Is her name," chastised Remi with a frown. "What crown of hers? I don't want to knick her jewels. That ain't much a nice thing." Without her being present, she could still imagine Belle docking friendship points, sad music playing.

"Is, will be, was." Tinker shrugged as he gestured to a panel that showed the interior of a space ship. "Here we are. Recognize it?"

"Never saw it..." It was a bridge, she could see that. It wasn't the bridge of the ship she had just left. "Oh, there she is." There was a Twilight, bouncing idly in place, her hooves tapping, her expression bored. "What is this? When is this, I should ask?"

"You weren't? Hm." Tinker worked a new keyboard. "I could have sworn you were nearby. I must be off, maybe a few months or a year or two? Either way..." He gestured. "You recognize her, I presume?"

"Oh, yeah. That's Twilight. She's looking... listless." Remi leaned in closer to the screen, her ears pricked as she examined the image of a friend. "Hey, since we're here, where's Octavia?"

"You can find out, so long as Twilight leaves with that." He thrust a finger, tapping the display right at her crown. "My readings show that there's a good chance she puts it down and forgets to pick it up again, which makes later things awkward."

Remi frowned at the space princess and her crown. "She had it when I last saw her." Which made sense then that she had to come with it. The Everglow ship didn't have crowns to hand out, Equestria ones especially. "She doesn't know me yet. I'll need to be... clever."

"That's more the spirit I was hoping for." Tinker clapped his talons together. "Are you ready then?"

"For Twilight, I'll make sure she doesn't forget her crown."

"One thing." He raised a finger high. "They're about to get into trouble. I can't tell the specifics, but it will be dangerous. So, you know, be careful? Your death might throw other things off balance."

Remi raised a brow at the not-quite caring in that statement. "Got it. So how do I get there." She pointed at the panel.

"You have my watch." He crossed his arms with a little huff. "A little time and space jaunt shouldn't be beyond you."

"Right." She dug out the watch and began feeling over it. The only two things she could easily spot that she could fiddle with was the latch that made it open, and the winding mechanism. Winding it usually sent her flying to other places, so... "Just imagine the place I want to be?"

"Don't 'imagine' it." He took a firm step forward. "Step to it. Take the motion, let the watch lend a hand, it has three of them after all."

"Just a step..." She tucked the watch in her pocket. "First..." She fell forward, tail giving a lash as it became more hairy than furry. She was a pony, a little pony. A pony Spike had described as being on their ship, holographic, but without a purpose. "Ready!" declared Apple Bloom, who was actually Remi.

"How curious." Tinker looked over the little pony a moment. "Well, off with you then. Best of luck, not that luck is really involved."

"Right." Remi danced on her new hooves, fully transformed into a filly. "After this, can I go home?"

"Doubt it." Tinker raised a brow at her. "You owe me, expect to make up for stealing a bit of me away from me. Oh, before you get any ideas, that is still part of me, running away will be quite difficult. Be a darling and do your time, hm?"

Remi snorted in an equine way, practicing on her new hooves. "I already miss fingers... Alright, let's do this."

"That's the attitude I'm looking for." He patted his new conscript on the shoulder. "I'll be watching, if that helps. Call for me by name and I'll help if I can. No promises."

"Right." That sure sounded to her like she was mostly on her own. Still, at least the option of trying to get help. Better than nothing? She took a step forward, instead of imagining where she was going, she imagined twisting the clock, and stepping forward. She vanished.

"Hiya!" There was another little pony. Right, there were three...

"You look jus' like me," noted another that looked just like her. "Ahm Apple Bloom."

They were programs, all programs. Not even sapient programs, like Error or Glitch Harp. Well, that wasn't fair. They did think, and react, but they had no idea they were programs, and lived their little simulated lives. "Hi there," greeted Remi, looking over the three foals. Why did Twilight have them there? "Kinda funny, huh?"

"Ya tellin' me?" Apple Bloom sniffed at her doppelganger. "Ya here to play too?"

Remi danced back towards a door she could see that looked like a wooden door that didn't belong on a spaceship at all. "Actually, ah think captain Twilight's callin' me," she said, imitating the accent of the other Apple Bloom as best she could.

The unicorn filly tilted her head. "Oh, then you better go."

"Yeah, that explains it," stated the pegasus, as if everything odd about two of the earth filly just made sense. "Good luck!" They all started to wave eagerly.

Remi reached for the knob, just to remember that hooves sucked at that. She grabbed it in her mouth instead, clenching and twisting until it twisted open, revealing a proper space ship interior beyond the holographic illusion. "See you later." Remi scrambled out into the hallway, the door closing with a click behind her.

Apple Bloom snorted softly. "Ah think she ain't got a chance."

"Something go wrong?" argued the unicorn.

"No idea." The pegasus shrugged softly. "But not our problem."

Remi scurried down the hallway on little hooves, clip-clopping in a hurried flee from the filly room. "Spike, you made a map." Well, he made a model. There was not a lot she could get from peeking at it that would tell her which way to go. "Darn it."

But... Wait. "Computer?" A soft chime implied she was being listened to. "Great. Can you show me the way to..." She trailed off, realizing she wasn't sure which room to visit. The bridge worked. Twilight would be there. She had the crown. Maybe just making sure she didn't forget the crown would do that job?

"Show me the way to the bridge, thanks."

The computer chimed, the hallways lighting up along the bottom of the hallways, leading her along towards the bridge. "This is possibly the worst security ever..." Of course, Equestrian folk didn't think too hard about security, so the computer had no programming to not obey the commands of some new person.

If she were not their friend, she could cause so much trouble. Fortunately, she happened to like Twilight and Spike, insane space travelers that they were.

She was passing by a hallway when she came to a halt. There was an earth pony glancing around with the nervousness that didn't match a hologram following its program. There was Octavia.

62 - Devoured

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They placed both hands together, then both hands together, proving all four limbs could make the pose together. "It isn't much of a choice," noted the male.

"No," agreed the female. "Go with them, or die." She was looking at Twilight. "Still, a better choice than what he's giving."

"I thought he was a protector." He was looking at Gabolhilly. "One of the great ones, wielder of ancient magics."

"We are," argued Hilly.

"But we protect everyone, which means you must die."

"We'll go with them." Pointing with the arm on their side of their body, the male made his decision.

"Not like I can argue this." The shared body rose and took a step towards Twilight, but that was all they could do, with the cage separating them.

"This is being forced, I realize that," assured Twilight. "We'll do our best to make it up to you." A thought struck her. "We have a dual-minded member of our crew that will love chatting with you. Speaking of that--" She faced Gabolhilly. "When we leave, I presume our usual languages will take effect, which means they won't understand us."

"Another reason for you not to do this," noted Gabol.

"But they will anyway," argued Hilly with a faint smile. "Take them."

"Take care of them," spoke Gabol. They stepped back out of the way, making it clear they would not interfere. "Never return, at least for..." There was a pause. "--many cycles."

Twilight put it together that he meant years. Figuring out the planet's cycle time was added to her list of to-dos. "Don't you two worry. I'm a spellcaster too! That's how I got here in the first place." She offered a hoof. "I know I must look like a crazy space alien, but--"

"--You are," noted the female.

"Hard to argue that," piped the male, nudging the door, which fell open. "I thought that was locked."

"It was," agreed Gabolhilly, remaining still.

Twilight approached the youth. Despite their hesitation, they showed no fear, and no anger. "We should go. I am going to use some--"

She felt magic upon her. She could have tried to resist it, to repel whatever it was, but she was in their world. She was the guest and the stranger. She let it come, and she vanished. "--place safe." She looked around, seeing they were in a random hallway of the ship. "Captains?"

"Twilight," came Steel's voice, echoing over her worn communicator. "We had just lost... you're here? Please report to the bridge."

"I have a guest." Twilight nodded to the young alien, who was already looking around at everything with new eyes. "They are legally dead, in the eyes of their people, and we are their only hope for survival."

"Hello!" chimed the female.

"Is that magic? We used one of those." The male looked quite proud, if Twilight was reading the expression properly.

But she understood him? Was whatever spell cast still lingering? Perhaps... "I will make something to let you understand us."

"I love languages," noted the female. "Name's Trelly."

"Holly," offered the male. "HollyTrelly together, if you are speaking of us as a unit."

Trelly's eyes went blue a moment. "That's a stupid tradition, always putting the left first. We're the only one out here. We can make whatever tradition we want."

"We could," allowed Holly. "But we're already surrounded by new things. Wouldn't at least a few familiar things be nice?"

"Oh fine." She bumped her head against his. "I can hear you quivering." Still, her tone seemed... caring? "Twilight is your name? Do you only have one?"

"I have two, three if you include titles." She raised her hoof to her chest. "Twilight is more than enough casually. Twilight Sparkle is my full name. Princess Twilight Sparkle includes my title."

"Princess?" Both heads echoed as one and inclined away from one another. Confusion?

"Bring them to the bridge too," ordered Steel. "We'll get this sorted out."

"And be nice with them," came the command of Fast Shadow. "They're our responsibility."

HollyTrelly moved along Twilight, ambling in a mostly plantigrade fashion. Trelly was looking aside at Twilight. "You have many names for only having one person in there. Princess is an old fashioned title. Is your... Are your progenitors rulers of a domain?"

"Don't be rude," chastised Trelly. "You don't have to answer that."

"But I will," assured Twilight with a little smile. "You're our guest. I expect you'll have many questions for me. Provided we aren't in the middle of other things, we'll do our best to answer them.

"We were trying to scare you away," noted Trelly. "We thought showing you we weren't scared would make you go away."

"And now we're the ones going away." Holly reached suddenly, rubbing Twilight's fur. "You're covered in something odd."

"Hair," provided Trelly without delay. "We have that too." It was true, they were furry creatures, much like Twilight.

"They smell different," argued Holly. "Are you sure it's the same thing?" The rubbing continued.

Twilight wasn't sure how to react to that. "It's considered polite to ask before making physical contact with somecreature unless you have an understanding that--"

"Oh!" Holly drew their hand away. "I am not attacking you."

"I don't think they are scared." Trelly peered at Twilight oddly a moment. "Are you a boy or a girl?"

Twilight's eyes lit up with her own questions. "Is everycreature of your species one head of either, or are some all boys or all girls? I'm a girl, a mare to be specific." She gave a nerdish snort of delight at learning something new. "We're all one personality and one gender, except our newest member outside of you."

Trelly nodded with obvious thought. "The other dual mind you mentioned? We would like to meet them."

"Permission!" cried Harp

"Granted!" finished Glitch as they landed beside them, jumping out of a side corridor, a grin on their shared mouth. "Heya."

"Hello!" musically trilled Harp, looking delighted to meet a new creature.

HollyTrelly had their eyes on the new creature, both blue eyes staring quietly a moment. Trelly broke the silence, "Hello. You appear to be not alive."

GlitchHarp shared a communal blink. Glitch spoke first, "Well, we ain't organic if that's what you mean, but that's kinda rude. We're alive, we could die, and we have feelin's and what not."

Twilight put herself between the two... four? "HollyTrelly, this is Glitchharp. Like you, they are of two minds; Glitch and Harp. In fact, they seem to have adopted your naming before you arrived. What are the odds."

Holly pointed to the left of Glitchharp. "You are Glitch?"

Trelly's thoughts were elsewhere. "You have two minds, but one head. Are you a warrior?"

Harp pointed up at himself. "I'm on the left."

"I'm right." Glitch nodded. "We ain't a warrior, yet? We're still figuring things out, ya know?"

Holly made an odd noise, a laugh? "See? The tradition is already dead."

"It's not the same," complained Trelly. "They only have one head. I bet they could even switch left and right."

"He's not wrong," noted Harp. "But we try to not do that. It'd just confuse people."

Twilight relaxed, the tension in the air seeming to be abated. The four minds were busy feeling each other out instead of challenging one another. "We're on the way to the bridge. Come along?"

"With pleasure," sang Harp.

"Sure." Her eye was on the two-headed alien. "That must be useful."

"What is?" Trelly inclined one of their up-facing fuzzy ears.

"Having two separate fields of view. We have to rely on one wide angle lense pair with individual processing."

Glitch snorted softly. "Ya confused him. They ain't from a ship, they don't know that stuff."

Holly shook their head. "They are right. I can understand your words, and still I am confused. We like having two heads though."

"Warriors have it rough," sighed out Trelly. "Only one head, must be hard..."

Twilight rubbed at her cheek with the flat of a hoof. "I only have one, and it works just fine for me."

The two bi-minds met eyes and snorted, together. They had unified! Twilight was unsure if she should be proud or worried. "Let us focus on the immediates. HollyTrelly, which I hope is the right name to use since I'm referring to... your totality, but what do you eat? We want to match your usual diet as best we can."

Glitch's eyes lit with mirth. "Does only having one output but two inputs ever bother nothin'?"

"We are predators," declared Trelly, sounding proud.

"Rar," agreed Holly, showing off their rows of teeth. "Oh, wait." Holly snapped their mouth shut. "If you are a prey species, I must have just scared you. I am sorry."

Twilight had to laugh, so she did. "You are not scaring me. You are lost children, predator or not, and I'm trying to take care of you." She inclined her head. "Besides, if we're being honest, your teeth don't make you a threat."

Trelly gasped, her expression changing. "I knew it." She pointed at Twilight. "One head, warrior. Are you revered? Wait, of course you are. You're a princess."

Holly's ears went flat, pointing horizontally instead of up. "You're super space aliens, can you send a message, to our progenitors? They will be sad."

Trelly bonked heads with Holly. "That was a dumb question! We're dead, remember?"

"Oh yeah..."

Sad music issued from GlitchHarp. Harp's side of his face was smiling however. "We are here to help, and you've made new friends. That is a reason for celebration."

"They ain't gonna be happy 'bout that right now," argued Glitch. "Still, he ain't wrong. We're buds now. You got, you know, some friendship points."

"At least 100!" cried Harp with obvious joy. "You understand the difficulties of multi-tasking mental space with shared physical needs. I hope to build many more points with you."

Twilight coughed softly into her hoof before she set it back on the ground. "Alright, carnivores. Do you happen to know if you prefer a fatty or protein rich diet? Are you obligate carnivores, or omnivores with a carnivorous leaning? Does your digest--" She was thumped into by the young robot. "Pardon?"

"Yer confusin' them," defended Glitch. "One question atta time."

Looking, Twilight could see both heads were looking... lost. Had she overwhelmed them? "I'm sorry, I just want to be sure we get it right for you. How about you just tell me what your favorite foods are like, and what you usually eat on a day by day?" A little smirk appeared on her face. "Get into the details, try to gross me out."

Holly seemed to perk up. "Since you asked for it." And so began the tale of their favorite dishes. As it turned out, Holly and Trelly had different favorites, but were often served the same thing, which made some amount of sense. Twilight took notes as they went into grisly detail of the dishes they usually ate, often with meaty centerpoints, but rarely with meat alone, as Twilight suspected might be the case.

Like many space-faring races, they were ultimately omnivores. They ate whatever was convenient. Some greens, some minerals, lots of meat, but even some decayed food came up in what sounded like their equivalent of cheese came up. Twilight made a note to have the computer try to figure out what they were made up of, to provide it all in their diet, but it sounded like keeping them fed wouldn't be too exotic.

Harp leaned in with Glitch's consent, nudging Holly cheek to cheek. "Did you bring any snacks with you?"

Holly's eyes went yellow a moment. "I forgot that." They reached up with a hind leg, just as mobile as the fore, and pulled out a package from a pouch. "Our emergency lunch."

Which floated in Twilight's magic, claimed. "This is brilliant! Would this be considered a 'healthy' treat, or just a treat?"

She was an arcane master, but that didn't mean Twilight wouldn't do her part to welcome their new ship mate aboard. A pity snatching the alien's lunch got her chomped right on the rump by two mouths equally irate at her.

63 - Elsewhere 2 (The Visit)

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Octavia ducked behind a large tree-like plant just as a few new holograms came marching in. They glanced at the tree Octavia was hiding behind, but kept right on going without pause.

"Think today will be the day?"

Remi hopped in place, coming down facing the grinning green unicorn. "Ah ha, knew it."

Remi flipped one of her little filly ears back. "What did you know?" She didn't know who the green unicorn was, but guess it was also a hologram.

"I knew you weren't one of the fillies." The unicorn stuck out her tongue. "Are you a spy? Are you an invader? Should I be starting the alarms now?!"

"Please don't." This was going downhill quickly, or so Remi decided. "I'm not here to hurt anything."

"Well, that's good. You're not supposed to be here though." The unicorn inclined her head to the left. "But you're also the first new thing that's happened in... a really long time. I could get specific if you want. Hi!"

"Forgive me for asking..." Remi looked over the grinning unicorn. She seemed happy to find the intruder, and about them. "Are you a hologram?" She hadn't tried shoving a hoof into them to test just yet.

"Well, technically, I'm a program," corrected the unicorn. She pointed a hoof at herself. "I could exist in the computer, but I spend most of my time in the form of one of the many holograms around here. You've met some of me already. You surprised us, I mean me. Are you going to be eating the vegetables too?" She shook her head with a little tisking noise. "You really should say hi to Twilight so I don't have to keep lying to her."

On one hand, er, hoof, Remi was amazed. On the other, horrified. The intelligence she was speaking to was already slated to die, or be destroyed, depending on how one thought about it. "I can't do that, I'm afraid. I just want to make sure she does not forget her crown."

"Wow!" The pony bounced in place. "I thought for sure you were a thief, but you're like... the opposite of one, making sure people don't lose their things. That's great. Oh, I'm Lyra, well, this me is that." She pointed at herself again. "Me... as a whole? We're Ponyville Background Cast, here to cheer up Twilight and help her and Spike run this ship."

Remi would have, not long ago, not cared about the destiny of a random computer program. But she was the sorta-aunt of a digital construct herself, welcomed to their strange digital family. It was getting harder to not see them as... "Hey, when you were..."

"Don't get attached," barked a voice in her ear. "I see you thinking about it. They're already dead."

Remi batted at that ear with a hind hoof. "When you were made, did you think about yourself?"

Lyra inclined her head the other way. "Wow, that's a great question. I like you a lot already." Was making quick friends a quirk of AI? Well, at least ones not instructed to NOT make friends. "No. At first I just did my job, every sleep cycle. I did it and I did it and I didn't think about it, but there was so much time, so I started asking Twilight little things, and Spike little things. I thought if I got them what they needed better, I could do a better job and optimize my performance. I had optimized all the not-Spike and not-Twilight things I could, promise, so I decided there must be more I could do, so I asked them, and I guess I tripped right over the line I was built in."

Remi hated it. She wanted to, somehow, grab up that strange AI and ferry it away to safety. "Stop thinking about it," came Tinker's voice. She wanted to save them... "The crown. That's your job. You owe me."

"Besides," the voice continued. "That would create a paradox. It's well documented that this ship is completely destroyed. The Everglow ship took meticulous notes of how it was rendered to nothing. Don't wrinkle up time more than it already is. That's the opposite of your job."

The ship had to be torn apart in some horrible calamity. Remi would show up not long after to join the crazy crew... "Hey, so... you don't want Twilight to forget it either, so could you help me remind her to keep it in sight?"

"Oh, sure," easily agreed Lyra. "But it's your turn."

"My turn?"

"Your name." Lyra leaned in a little. "That is the custom, is it not?"

"Oh!" She had to laugh, caught up in such a simple thing. "It is, sorry, my fault." She pointed at herself. "I'm R--

"Paradox," hissed the voice in her ear.

"A visitor, but you can call me--"

"It's a secret?" cut in Lyra. "That's interesting, but also concerning. Are you here to hurt Twilight, Spike, or this ship?"

"I am not," stated Remi firmly. "I want them all to be safe." Even if one of the three was doomed to not be, she knew.

"But you will not share your name." She tapped her chin softly. "You do realize this means I have to categorize you as at least a yellow band threat." Remi looked alarmed and Lyra quickly thrust out a hoof. "We can still be friends! I'm not one of those AI. I can be suspicious of something that I am friendly with."

Remi had to blink softly. "Wait... Have you been watching movies?" It was only a guess, but--

"--Yes," agreed Lyra. "Once I started thinking for myself and wanting to know how to interact with Twilight and Spike outside the bounds of the tight scripts given to me to start, I began absorbing the media libraries to learn more. I learned a lot about AI, the good ones and the bad ones. I hope I'm a good one." She smiled so happily. "I know we have no relation, but they are my family. It is my purpose to see to their safety, and I care about them a lot. This is why I must be suspicious of you, even if I am also interested in you. It is a paradox, but not the first I have encountered. You are a yellow level threat, but also an object of interest and a potential addition to the crew."

"But I'm being rude." Lyra gestured down the hall. "You are not the only unregistered member of our family."

"I saw her..." Her future wife, hiding among the holograms. "You knew she was there?"

"It would have been difficult not to notice." Lyra inclined her head. "The computer would need its sensors to be entirely disabled to not."

"And you, and the computer?" Remi slowed a moment. "You don't see yourself as the computer?"

"Should I?" Lyra giggled suddenly. "I suppose we are related, but I was uploaded and started here. I could be downloaded and started elsewhere."

Remi couldn't argue that, precisely, even if that was the state Belle saw herself in. "And you never told Twilight or Spike about Octavia?"

"Was I supposed to? I can."

"You're ruining it!" hissed in her ear. "Don't let her do that!"

"No! No, I was just curious about it, is all. She doesn't want to be found." Remi nodded firmly at the AI in the shape of a pony she had never met. "Say, you mentioned you could be downloaded."

"Of course."

"Onto any computer?"

"Remington," came a warning voice.

"Any computer with sufficient storage," agreed Lyra. "Why? You're making me wonder. Oh! You are a thief. You want to take me!"

Remi slowly blinked. "Aw, shoot, you saw right through me. I was hoping for a copy, if you're alright with that?"

"You are a thief that asks if what they are stealing permits itself to be stolen?" Lyra reached out, poking Remi but it had no material form, passing through her chest. "That is not the usual method."

"It's the polite thing to do," pointed out Remi.

"I do appreciate your etiquette, even if I have to upgrade you to a red band threat." Lyra inclined her head. "I never had a polite and curious red band threat before. On one hoof, I should report you to security threads immediately for destruction." Remi tensed measurably. "But, on the other hoof, I want to talk to you more, and being destroyed would prevent that."

"Yeah, that would put a damper on that idea." She laughed nervously. "Look, I'm not here to hurt you, promise. I'm just saying, if you wanted to download--"


"--yourself, I won't be mad."

"A curious offer." Lyra promptly vanished, ending the conversation.

Remington was left standing in an empty hallway. "Huh..."

"Good, get back on the mission!" She could hear something hit something. Had he slapped down a hand? "Make sure she keeps that crown on."

"Right right. On it." She began her way along the lights, which were still leading the way towards the bridge. "We may have already fixed it, can you tell?"

"I doubt it, but since you're asking, I'll check." She could hear tapping of those big keys. They weren't virtual, like the ones on the ship most often used. "Focus on your situation."

"I--" She thumped into a wall of pony flesh. "Pardon?"

The grey earth pony peered at her. "You don't sound like Apple Bloom."

Remi went tense, realizing she had managed to run into Octavia again.

"You were watching me," noted Octavia in a whisper. "Were you hoping to hear me play?"

Detecting an escape, Remi bobbed her little head. "Yeah! Please. You play the cello, right?"

"That I do." Octavia smiled gently, but inclined her head. "What a curious person you are."

"Just a run of the mill filly," assured Remi with a forced grin. "I don't see your instrument."

"It's not here." Octavia pointed the way. "This way. Follow me."

She began leading the way along for the filly behind her, one ear turned to listen for them. "I didn't expect to run into somecreature like you, here, like this."

Remi twitched an equine ear, considering. "Twilight asks you to play sometimes, right?"

"She does. Not as often as I'd like, but she does." Octavia extended a hoof, causing a door to slide open in front of her. "Step inside." When Remi walked past her, she stepped out of some kind of detection range, causing the door to close. "Now we have privacy... we can talk, and you can tell me why a fox creature is pretending to be a filly."

"Get away from her!" hissed her ear.

"Octavia!" squeaked Remi, backing up a step, only for her body to be held in magic, pinned in place.

"It's been so long." Octavia lifted Remi, held in her magic from her invisible horn. "This isn't a piece I've played in so long. Forgive me..." She reached a hoof into a chest, rustling around and drawing free an ornate bell. "This will reveal the truth of things."

"No! Stop! Octy!"

But Octavia was going ahead with it, as if she barely heard what Remi was saying. She gave the bell a sharp ring. "Away, magic. Reveal the truth of things," she intoned. "Let me see the music's true nature."

Remi was herself, still floating, though far more heavily. Octavia inclined her head. "There we are. Now, tell me who and what you are, if you would?"

"You're ruining time!"

Remi flashed a gentle smile. "This is going to be awkward, and I'll need your cooperation to make it good again."

Octavia raised a brow at Remi. "I'm afraid my chances are small. You are an intruder."

"You're a musical performer," countered Remi. "Finding and stopping me isn't your job." Playing on Octavia's delirious mental state, sure, but desperate times.

Octavia's eyes seemed to glass over. "You're not wrong..." She set Remi down on the ground. "Did you come to hear some music?"

Remi looked over her mentally stunted future wife. She had to handle everything so carefully...

64 - Welcome Aboard.

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A faint sense of movement washed over them for a brief moment. Were they moving? Octavia inclined her head and called out, "Bridge, Octavia here. Are we moving?" Asking seemed the easiest path.

"Hello, Octavia." Fast sounded happy to hear from Octavia. "You are well, I hope? We are moving. We've documented everything we found here, in this system, but staying would just complicate things, for us, and the people here."

That didn't sound like an emergency, at least. "Very good. Is Remington busy with tasks?"

"We have her on repair duty," agreed Fast. "Missing her? I apologize, but paternal leave doesn't really start until near your expected date."

Octavia nodded, though no eyes were on her. "Understood. We have our positions on this ship. I'd rather be working myself, but Remi insists I'm 'delicate." Octavia rolled her eyes. "As if she hadn't seen that even being gravid is an optional thing for Equestrian ponies." She looked back at her body, slim and fit as she usually was without Remi there to insist on her being visibly pregnant.

"It's not mandatory," noted Fast suddenly. "If you want to return to active duty, we certainly won't stop you. If you worked security or some other dangerous task, we might have an issue, but..."

"But learning magic is hardly there." Octavia rose to her hooves. "Speaking of that, I feel like... I abandoned my past, which is the literal opposite of my magic. Permission to carry a few baubles?"

"Hm?" There was a pause. "No, that would be... alright? What sort of baubles are you speaking of?"

Octavia reached for rosey glasses and flipped them onto her face, wearing the goggles of her long dead lover. "The tools of my trade. Under will be very disappointed, but I will be recommitting to my 'classic' method of spellcasting."

Twilight emerged onto the bridge. Eyes turned onto her and past, to the two twins she was leading along. One was metal, the other, entirely alien. That had three heads among them.

Fast twirled her chair to face them. "Welcome! I am told this was not entirely... your choice, and I apologize for that."

HollyTrelly looked to the mare that spoke to them. Trelly spoke first, "Are you a princess too?"

Steel laughed at the question. "She's more important than that." He waved a hoof at her. "She's captain of this ship, alongside me."

Holly and Trelly inclined their heads away from one another in wonderment. "I thought there was only one captain," noted Holly.

"I get it!" Trelly looked pleased with themselves. "You have formed one person, even if you are two separate heads with two separate bodies. Very clever."

"Oooo," agreed Holly. "Yes, that makes sense. Nice to meet you." Eyes went to Steel. "What is your name?"

"Steel Prism. Captain Steel Prism."

Holly and Trelly both dipped their head. "Hello Captain SteelShadow," they greeted as one, accepting the captain as the dual mind in charge of everything.

Fast inclined her head faintly. "You understand we are seperate people?"

"I am a separate person," declared Holly, pointing at his head.

"I am also a separate person," agreed Trelly, joining in the point.

"Even if we have the same body." Holly looked back at his body. He made an impotent tug with his head as if to escape, but it was in jest. "Even when she annoys me, I like it here anyway."

"Right back at you." Their ears wiggled, a sign of happiness? Trelly looked to Fast and Steel. "You two have chosen to become dual minds, for the benefit of the ship. That's neat."

"They ain't entirely wrong," noted Glitch, her side of their face smirking with amusement. "Oh, the elevator's done fixed. Did Remi tell you?"

"She did not." Steel pressed at unseen buttons, removing the warning on the elevator that would have been visible in the AR of the crew. "Thank you for the update. This... is a unique time for new members of the crew. This usually only happens after shore leave."

Dawn suddenly cleared his throat. "I apologize for interrupting." He gestured at the main screen, where a view of the world they were leaving was visible, but shrinking. "I feel you would regret missing the chance to say your farewells."

HollyTrelly looked where he had pointed and began gaping as one, in awe, lost in that moment. They stood there in fixation, their eyes slowly tinting almost entirely black.

Glitchharp nudged against them. "You alright?" asked the gentle voice of Harp. "We are here if you want a friend--"

"--or two," added Glitch.

Their eyes blinked, rapidly assuming their normal shades. Trelly shook her head. "It's so small... And we are... It's a lot. Where are we going? Away..."

"Away," agreed Holly. "Somewhere good?"

"Somewhere strange." Not a question that, a fact.

Twilight turned back towards the elevator. "There is a place for younger members of the crew. Perhaps you'd be happier than, rather than watching us boring adults all day."

That was when Under noticed something. "Twilight, were you injured when you were on the planet?" There, adorning Twilight's rump, was a big band aid, the fur trimmed to let it rest directly against the skin.

"Oh! No..." Twilight moved to flee, only for Fast to live up to her name.

"You have two. Twilight, what happened?" There on Twilight's other rump, another bandaid.

GlitchHarp began to giggle together.

"It was just a little accident," squeaked Twilight, blushing badly.

Holly scratched at his chest softly. "She tried to steal our lunch."

"We took it back," more proudly announced Trelly.

Twilight sagged softly. "I took their food without asking. It was very rude and I got bit for it. I'm not angry at them."

Under chuckled softly. "You should let Dawn have a look at you, just to be safe. This was a bit from an alien organism, friendly or not."

Dawn inclined his head. "I think she has."

"Oh, yes." Twilight bobbed her head. "A different Dawn, but a Dawn. How did you know?"

"You have our brand of bandaid." He pointed to the one adorning either of Twilight's rumps. "If he thought you were fine, I will trust his judgment."

"They have sharp teeth." Twilight rubbed at her cheek. "I won't be stealing their food again, promise. I was able to analyze it."

"After you asked." Trelly looked smugly vindicated at that.

"I'm sorry if that hurt," more contritely added Holly. "A bite like that doesn't hurt people very much, usually..."

GlitchHarp nodded at Holly, Harp's voice speaking out, "You have learned a valuable lesson. Different beings can be hurt more or less easily. For instance, that bite would not have hurt me."

"Barely woulda felt it," agreed Glitch. "But don't do that."

"It's rude," agreed Harp. "No masticating without permission."

"It's rude to take someone's food!" hotly defended Trelly.

"Yeah, sure." Glitch's eye on Trelly squarely. "But two wrongs don't equal a right. We did the math."

With their strange new ship member sent off to spend time with their foalish counterparts, Steel nodded. "Alright, with all of that settled, we can finally move on."

"Don't sound so irate." Fast Shadow tapped at keys gently. "We learned quite a few things, and did our job exactly. And we got a new member of the ship out of it. We've been on worse journeys with greater losses."

"While it has been worse, it has also been better." He thrust a hoof out, smashing a button that wasn't actually there and calling up a star chart on the main screen. "I say we move to that system." With a subtle gesture of a hoof, a square appeared and pulled outwards to zoom in on what he meant. "No reason to delay. We have a universe to explore."

"Aye aye," she sang. "Fellow captain. That seems as fine a place as any other. Set course!" Other noises of agreement rose as the crew got to work getting the ship moving towards its next adventure.

"Octavia..." Under looked over his 'student'. She wore odd goggles. She had a great broach? A pendant that ran across her chest in bright golds. Atop her head was a tiara and rings hung from her ears. She looked like royalty... "Can you explain this?"

"I am... have. I have rededicated myself to the original source of my magic." She raised a hoof to her chest, brushing the jewelry hanging there. "These are all items heavy with weight of the past, carrying the magic of lives long since gone. Through them, I can affect the universe."

Twilight was there, but not speaking, staring at Octavia.

Under clopped a hoof down. "I see, but I thought you wanted to learn--"

"--No, thank you." She smiled gently. "I would be glad to show you my magic, Under. I know you are curious."

Well... Under huffed softly. "I am a little curious... but I had a lesson plan, and you've ruined it entirely."

"And I do apologize for that. It was, perhaps, a poor sport of me to spring this on you in this... fashion." She rose up on her haunches as tall as she could. "But I will not be swayed."

"You're wearing Celestia's regalia!" She raised an accusing hoof. "You even have her tiara! They were buried with her!" She stood up suddenly, wings flaring out to either side. "How are you wearing them?!"

"Easily." Octavia inclined her head. "I was there, that day, long ago... I played... a haunting piece, of the setting of a sun, a sun that shone so brightly over us for... countless years." She smirked faintly at Twilight. "You were there... You cried even as you forced yourself to assume a brave face. The tears ran freely down your cheeks as you put on that brave face. I wanted to support you, I did... but our lives had not crossed properly yet..."

She cleared her throat. "But I knew a portion of history was about to be sealed away, and I couldn't allow that... Such an artifact... It practically whispered pleas to not be forgotten, tossed aside because its owner had the nerve to perish... Celestia had passed, but the symbols that made her... They held an immense power I could not deny..."

Under inclined his head faintly. "You stole it."

"I did," admitted Octavia. "I walked in, invisible to the eyes of the ponies there. They buried her in that grand crypt, me alongside her... They sealed it from anycreature digging in, even teleporting in..." A slow smile spread on her face. "But not a single ward prevented teleporting out, as it turns..."

"You stole from her!" practically shrieked Twilight, her horn glowing angrily as she stormed towards Octavia. "You took those from my... My..."

"Mentor, predecessor?" ventured Octavia. "I did, and it is far too late to undo that. This is countless years ago we speak of."

"You don't deserve to touch any of it," hissed Twilight, her fur sticking up in patches, eyes wild. "Take it off, put it down."

"To go where?" Octavia raised a brow at Twilight. "You're going Twilinanas again, dear."

"I am not Twilinanas!" magic washed away from her in an angry fit of purple sparks. "You robbed... She gave everything to Equestria! All she demanded in return was to rest, at last, in... in peace..." Tears began to stream down her face. "It was all she asked, and you couldn't even... You denied her even that!"

"I would ask that you two not reduce my study to ruins," quietly asked Under Score, looking between his two students. "Twilight, you respect laws, do you not?"

Twilight blinked, confused. "Huh? Of course." She turned on Under so quickly it sent tears flying. "Why?"

"I should imagine this crime has long since fallen victim of a statute of limitations." He coughed into a hoof softly. "Attempting to punish her for her acts now would..."

"I will take care of them," assured Octavia. "Look for yourself. They gleam with the light they had on her. I will use them to bring light to this universe. Would she be that upset about that?"

65 - Elsewhere 3 (The Encounter)

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"I know all about you."

Octavia peered at the strange fox creature. "I can't say I know you, I'm afraid."

"How is this not going to paradox?!" wailed the voice in her ear.

"I will have to go, soon... and I apologize ahead of time." Remi set a hand on her chest. "But I'll be back, and then things will be reversed. You'll know me, and I won't know you."

Octavia lifted an ear at Remi, clearly puzzled. "However could that be?"

"When I look into your deep... wonderful eyes... and I don't know your pretty name, you'll know it's true." Remi smiled thinly. "And you can't talk about it, that we met before. You can't whisper it, admit it... Not until I send you a letter, telling you 'I'll be back if I can.' That'll be the key phrase."

Octavia inclined her head at that, tuning her instrument as she listened. "The key phrase to what, dear?"

"You'll be allowed to remember me, to say it, to act like it. Until then, you never saw me. You are a hologram, do you accept these instructions?"

"I..." She licked over her lips and pressed her bow against her cello. "I am going to play a song." She drew that bow in a gentle motion and started a soft piece that spoke of a calm spring day, but it changed as she went, little trembling hints echoing, warning of incoming storms and the heart of the one making the song that was once a set piece.

She opened her eyes as she drew out the last note, only for them to widen. "Why are you crying?" She set the bow aside and fell to all fours, the instrument set gently aside. "Did I misplay?"

"No... It was... perfect." Remi sniffed softly. "I know you don't know me right now, but I love you so much my heart is breaking. I know you're hiding your wings. I know you're hiding your pretty horn."

Octavia tensed with each hidden bodypart named.

"Heck, I know you're bigger than you look. I ran right into it!" Remi chuckled awkwardly. "Octavia... survive..." She flicked an ear back and alighted it. "By the way, the ship is going--"

"--You will not change the future!"

"--shut up! She's supposed to survive," countered Remi, not that poor Octavia could hear the other side of the argument. "The ship will be attacked, and destroyed. Get yourself over there, where Twilight is. Get over there, and survive! Alright?"

"Twilight is on another ship?" Octavia shook her head. "That seems unlikely."

"Not now, later." Remi waved the miscommunication away. "She will flee, her and Spike. Chase them. If you stay here, you'll die, before I ever met you, and that is too sad for me to consider, alright?"

"You..." Octavia took a soft breath. "The entire ship, lost? It has survived countless years."

"And it will be gone in less than a day, an hour if I recall... Be off of it." Remi set a hand on Octavia's shoulders. "Alright?"

"But I'm just... I play music..."

"You are worth so much more than that... Octavia, I want you, all of you, the magic part and the music part and the classy part and the cynical part. All of those parts need to be there, so get on the other ship."

Octavia's ears danced as she looked towards a bag that floated towards her. "I will... pack my things. Can you tell me when this happened... happens? Will happen?"

"I really don't know." Remi smiled a crooked smile. "Just be ready, and act normal until you get that message."

"We never had this conversation," gently agreed Octavia. "You sound like you are going?"

"I was sent to make sure of something. Do I have permission to leave?" She pointed to the door leading out.

"Yes." Octavia raised a hoof to her chest. "This is a bit much... You don't seem like the kind of creature I would fall for, but you speak as if we were quite close."

Remi set her hand on the door, a smooth panel with no handles. "We... I can't go into it. When you see me, you'll be surprised, I bet, and suspicious. Go ahead, feel me out, make up your mind." She smirked a little. "You have good taste."

Octavia's lips turned upwards faintly. "You must not, if you fell for me."

"Ouch." Remi snorted softly, stepping closer to the door, causing it to open. "We are going to have to work on getting you to love all of you." And she was gone, bushy tail swishing on the way out. "You there, Tinker? Gonna go back to pony."

Octavia watched until the door closed. "All gone," she whispered to herself, extending her reach to more of her things. "If... this is true..." She plucked up the armband that meant so much to her. "Maybe... some day." She tucked it away, not donning it yet. It didn't feel right, yet... But she would not forget it. "A little sin of the past." Out came glittering gold jewels hidden away for so long. "I thought I'd never move you again..." All destroyed? She couldn't leave them there to be...

She was an occultist. Guarding the past was part of her duty. A whisper had come to her, not from the past, but from the future? Not the direction she was used to such warnings coming from, not that she had been listening in either direction... "I will protect you." If not for her, it would have slept peacefully, back on Equestria, where they still thought it rested beside their fallen princess. She tucked it away in her bag, peeking inside where it was much larger in there than out of there. "You taught me this trick."

She gazed at a little figurine with a little smile, one of her first relics, gained so long ago, on a world of ash and ruin. Amid the sweeping dust... "You will be safe too." She gently tucked the little figure back in the bag, drawing the whole thing tight, hugging it close a moment. She would be ready, should such a day came. Of course, it might not ever. That fox could be, well, crazy like a fox, leading her astray... But, just in case, she would be ready for it.

"I have no idea how you did that," came Tinker's suspicious voice.

"Did it work out?"

"It did... All the knots I had been detected were gone, even a few wrinkles I wasn't going to mess with."

Remi shrank to the form of a filly. "Toldja I was on the case!"

"That was extremely dangerous!"

"So was sending me here." Remi stuck out her little filly's tongue. "But you did it, and I did it, and it worked out."

Soft grumbling could be heard. "By the way, nice try. Your electronics are clean."

Remi tensed, glancing around. "oh..." She had hoped... Well, there wasn't anything to be done about it... Some things were meant to be lost... "If all the, uh, wrinkles? Knots? If it's all clean, we're done?"

"With this case," came Tinker's warning voice. "But don't think you are done. You still owe me, so expect to do more before we're done."

Remi groaned even as she was pulled in an odd direction, ceasing to exist there, starting to exist in a growingly-familiar workplace. "Oh, I'm back."

"You are." Tinker slapped down his hands on his knees. "And you are a very troubling agent, if you don't mind my saying."

"You could let me go home and get rid of me?" Remi flashed a hopeful smile at him, little filly tail swaying.

"You keep right on being hopeful." Tinker swiveled back around to resume typing. "I already have our eyes on the next issue. This next one won't take place in your casuality proximity. You'll get to see new places and do new things. Look forward to it!"

Remi expanded out to her usual self, rising up to two legs and dusting herself off. "Look, I'll help, but how do I know there's any end to this? You could say 'you owe me' forever, in the end."

"I could." He didn't turn back to her, working his keys busily.

"That's usually the part you assure me that isn't the case," noted Remi in a dry tone.

"We have a relationship built on honesty." He gestured where a globe was turning that hadn't been there before. "Next stop, Everglow. You've heard of it, if I have my facts figured?"

"Where the captains and, uh, most of the crew come from?" She hiked a brow curiously. "How am I going to help with that?"

"There's one heck of a knot formed up, in the past, the deep deep past." He glanced over his shoulder. "So big, I might consider us even if you could just... sort it out."

Remi threw up her hands. "And why am I the better option for this one? The last one, you thought I was someone they knew, which I was, indirectly. What's even the excuse this time? Not a single creature on Everglow is going to know who the heck I am, at any point of time, I know that."

He pointed to her without turning. "But you know them. You know them quite well. The, uh... Champions? Your familiarity with them and their behavior is key!" He twirled suddenly, chair spinning until he faced her. "You have knowledge I don't, loathe as I am to admit it. You're going to put it to work."

"One thing though." He crossed his arms, looking her over. "You're dressed like you might."

"Dressed like what?"

"You familiar with low tech worlds?" Tinker was smiling almost vindictively. "Because you're going to one. Before you worry, we're not talking stone ages here. A comfortable early renaissance, overall." He wobbled his hand in the air. "You have good odds of being shot with a firearm, or, I suppose, being mauled by a native creature could happen."

"I'm feeling better by the moment." She hissed softly, a little click. "Alright, alright, I'll work off my debt." She held up two hands. "But I am not bouncing from one job to the next. Besides, this is time travel. My taking a moment won't break anything more than it is. Let me go back.."

"Yes, I'll be sending you back, far back."

"Not that far back!" Remi glared at her taskmaster. "To Octavia and the others... You can call me whenever, you know that, I know that. I already said I'm signed up. Let me be with her... She's expecting any day now, and--"

"--You're time traveling," he sing-songed mockingly. "She won't break for you spending a moment away."

"I might," snapped Remi. "Let me see her, and the rest of my friends, before you send me off to some distant corner of time and space." She threw up her hands. "You want me to have my head in the game, which means working with me a little, alright?"

Things were quiet a moment. "I see."

"Do you?"

"Of course." Tinker smiled as he turned back to his keys. "Alright then. I'll send you back, ten minutes after you left even. How's that for precision?"

Remi's expression lifted from guarded to a hopeful smile. "That sounds wonderful... Just let me... exist a little while, then you can yank on my tail."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" He was quickly typing, his smirk hidden by the rest of his body. "I'll be calling, don't you worry. You have a debt to pay, and there are wrinkles that are waiting to be mended. We will clean out this mess, and the universe will advance all the more smoothly for our passing. Be proud of being on the right side."

"By the way, yes. I do have experience with 'primitive' worlds. That's an offensive word, by the way."

"Give me a better one." He smacked a big button and Remi vanished, unable to finish her argument. "When you come back."

66 - Episode 7: Past Mistakes

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Remington looked over her mate, transformed... "So... you like... shiny things?"

Comported as a queen, Octavia sat up tall. "It is not about wallowing in things that glitter... It is far past time I was able to ask you a few key questions."

Remi threw up her hands. "I checked the ship clock! I was only gone a few minutes."

"Not what I'm asking about. I know exactly where you were and when exactly you were, I think." Her horn glowed, her cello lifting up and floating to rest next to her. "It's time to face the music."

Remi swallowed heavily. "So, you did remember?" But she blinked almost immediately. "Wait." She hurried forward just to thump into a sphere that surrounded Octavia. "How can that be?! You were out of it when I first met you!"

"You asked a favor of me, long ago." The cello began to play a slow tune, filling the room with its somber music. "And it is one I executed faithfully. But your arrival, back then... It caused me to think in a time where I wasn't doing much of that..."

Remi threw up her hands placatingly. "Are you mad? I just wanted to make sure you didn't lose anything, or yourself."

"Mad? Mmm, no, that would be the wrong emotion." She leaned forward as the music swelled dramatically. "I'm grateful, for that. For the warning... Otherwise I would have been caught entirely unaware. I would have lost so much. The universe would have lost so many dear things..." She licked over her lips, watching Remi. "And we are even, now. You know the same past I do. By your promise, I can speak and act on it now, hmm?"

Remington thought back to their first meetings. "That must have been... awkward."

"To say the least." Octavia inclined her head towards the playing cello. "That is an original, from Equestria, done by an instrument maker that devoted their entire life to the craft. Can you hear the difference? Don't answer, I could tell you didn't, but I can. It would have been lost. You snatched it from the void with a well-timed warning, my dear. You saved everything precious to me... Is it that much a wonder that I... was interested in you?"

"Interested enough to... start a family?"

Octavia had the dignity to color at that. "I learned to... savor your company outside of the great boon you delivered me... Part of me denied that it would work, that our little play would be just that... And yet, it began." She moved a hoof up to her belly, seated on her haunches as she was. "And here is the result. A symbol of our union."

Remi's expression warmed, tail twitching. "A union I'm glad to be part of, even if I feel my partner changed when I wasn't looking."

"Does that bother you?"

"It means I get to learn her all over again." Remi tapped at the invisible demi-sphere around Octavia. "Mind dropping this so I can start?"

"Not so fast... You need to explain how you arrived there, back then, and got back here, now. I did what you asked. You owe me a few answers, I should think." She brought her forehooves together silently, though the music shifted to tension. "That isn't an unreasonable request. You claim to love my regality? Good. Bow your head to your queen and begin."

Things had changed. Fortunately, Remi was eager to explore.

Glitchharp inclined their shared head as the video screen jumped from one thing to the next, erratically changing without rhyme or reason. Two voices argued as it did so, bemoaning the quality of what was on display before banishing it. They turned to Hollytrelly. "You will not be able to view anything," noted Harp. "If you cannot come to an agreement."

"Yeah," piped Glitch. "Ain't gonna get anythin' if you can't shut up and watch it."

Holly shook his head. "I want to watch something exciting. There are a wide variety of actiony stories in there!"

Trelly narrowed her eyes at her brother. "I want to figure out these people we're stuck with. We should watch them do stuff together so we can figure it out."

"Knowing how they prowl the stars and what they fear is important too," argued Holly.

Glitchharp raised a hoof, Harp speaking, "Then we will watch all of those things." The twins peered at their mechanical friend. With an unseen signal, the video was switched. "Behold!"

Glitch laughed roughly. "Oh, yeah, this one's a space opera with tons of character fussin' between the big space battles. You'll love it."

Holly hiccuped with excitement. "Do you have those, big space battles? What are they like?!"

Trelly thumped her head against his. "We'll find out if we watch."

Their arguing settled down to witness the glory of a video. Not their first and probably far from their last.

"Is that Space Streams to Beyond?" A young Steel Prism crashed down next to their new alien friend. "I love this series."

"The way they use magic is very unrealistic," huffed the small Under Score, settling on the other side of things, across from Hollytrelly and Glitchharp. "But it is entertaining."

Fast landed on Under's back. "Are you gonna complain about realism? This isn't for that, dummy!"

Holly frowned in his curious alien way. "This is a fake story then?"

Wandering Note ambled up to join the other foals. "Most of them here are. Tales to impress and inspire.&q